Telegraph Ave. scrubbed, cleaned in beautification effort

Ambassadors hired by Block by Block are engaged in a month-long cleanup of Telegraph Avenue. Photo: Ted Friedman

The deployment of neon-clad “ambassadors” to paint over graffiti, power-wash streets, and sweep sidewalks along Telegraph Avenue is the latest in a series of attempts to revitalize a business district which has seen better days.

The “Big Splash” effort by Kentucky-based firm Block by Block began March 14, kicking off a year-long, $240,000 ambassador pilot program on Telegraph. Ambassadors have been engaged in a similar revitalization effort in downtown Berkeley since early 2012.

Telegraph Avenue — cherished by some for its political history and quirky institutions, and avoided by others for its large transient population and public drug use — has faced steep declines in sales tax revenue over the past several years. Rat-infested empty lots and graffiti-covered vacant storefronts have not helped the situation.

An ambassador scrapes a post on Telegraph. Photo: Ted Friedman

“The Big Splash downtown was looked upon very fondly,” said Roland Peterson, director of the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District (TBID), which hired Block by Block. TBID hoped a “similar result could happen here, and have a positive effect on businesses here, by having a major push to beautify this area,” Peterson said.

During the month-long Big Splash, funded by a $7,500 contribution from Mayor Tom Bates’ discretionary account, ambassador work will total 224 hours per week. Following the intensive cleanup effort, ambassadors’ duties will expand but their combined hours will decrease to 158 per week.

“After the first four weeks — and not before then — ambassadors will be addressing problematic behavior and offering businesses a hotline number to get ahold of ambassadors so they can address low-level municipal code violations,” said Lance Gorée, Downtown Berkeley Association operations manager and head of the ambassador program.

Gorée said Telegraph’s needs don’t differ much from the downtown district’s, but the problems are more visible.

“Telegraph is a much more confined area, so it’s easier to see the negative things,” he said. “An overflowing trashcan stands out on Telegraph much more than it would on Shattuck.”

Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books, which has been on the street for 55 years, is optimistic about the impact the cleanup effort will have on her business.

“Sales are down for everybody. I would say it’s the last ten years that it’s gotten markedly less busy,” Moskowitz said. “Bringing in those people to help make it look cleaner, and to help the people who need help, is long overdue.”

Moskowitz said she is hopeful that the ambassadors will be able to assist in addressing unwanted behavior near businesses.

“When there’s somebody intoxicated in front of the store, there’s really very little that a merchant can do,” she said. “I can call the police but I have to get back to work. I think there’s a big need in this neighborhood to bring the services to the people here. Ideally, the ambassadors will have all the numbers at their disposal, so they can call mental health.”

But Aaron Murdock, manager of Lhasa Karnak Herb Company, next door to Moe’s, is skeptical about yet another initiative aimed at significantly altering trends on Telegraph.

“We see the same cycles,” said Murdock, who has worked at Lhasa Karnack for 38 years. “Picking up garbage is good,” but the ambassadors’ effort to address intoxicated people “won’t do a thing,” he said.

Telegraph suffers from myths and misperceptions, said Moskowitz, who took over the bookstore when her father, Moe Moskowitz, died in 1997. She mourns the decline of the vibrant city center.

“It’s the heart of Berkeley,” she said. “This is where the Free Speech Movement happened, the Women’s Movement, the Black Power Movement. It’s the place where the city and the university come together. But as it is, it’s sort of a student ghetto-slash-wasteland.”

For years Moskowitz was angry with the City for what she perceived as neglect of the Telegraph area, but she is grateful for Bates’ recent focus on the district.

Bates has prioritized the Telegraph area in the last year or so, and held a major community “brainstorming” meeting in February 2013.

“Things are underway and it’s going to be great to have more people on the streets, and to have a more active ambassador program,” Bates said.

Sundays on Telegraph 2013. Photo: William Newton

Sundays on Telegraph 2013: Mayor Bates says city will put more funds towards advertising this year’s event . Photo: William Newton

Last summer’s inaugural Sundays on Telegraph program brought vendors, live music, street performers and family-oriented activities to closed sections of the avenue. Bates said this year’s Sundays on Telegraph, which will begin mid-July, will have a larger advertising budget. And, although Telegraph’s Off the Grid food truck market closed this month due to lack of customers, Bates said he has higher hopes for the farmer’s market that will launch this summer on Telegraph and Haste Street.

Bates said several development projects in the area — including the proposed apartment building and retail spaces at the site of the 2011 fire that destroyed Telegraph and Haste’s Sequoia Apartments — have the potential to draw more business.

Also underway is the Lower Sproul Plaza Redevelopment project at the north end of Telegraph, which will replace and renovate several buildings and create a 24-hour student center. Some merchants are hopeful that it will draw more students to their businesses. Others, on the more southern blocks of Telegraph, said they were concerned it would further detract students from leaving campus.

“I think it will still be a major part of student life to go into the business district,” said Jennifer McDougall, UC principal planner. “It’s going to offer options and alternatives.”

Block by Block hosts 67 ambassador programs throughout the country. TBID’s three previous street sweepers were guaranteed interviews with the hiring managers in Berkeley if they were interested in becoming ambassadors, Peterson said. He said one was hired and is now working downtown, and the other two did not apply.

After the year-long pilot has concluded, the City and TBID will decide whether to continue the program on Telegraph, Bates said.

Off The Grid pulls plug on Southside Berkeley market (03.17.14)
Group proposes lighted arch over Telegraph Avenue (11.04.13)
New Sproul, design ideas provide optimism for Telegraph (11.19.12)
Tackling Telegraph Avenue: Is this time different? (03.01.13)
New building proposed for Sequoia site on Telegraph (02.27.13)
New Sproul design ideas provide optimism for Telegraph (11.29.12)
Can Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue get it mojo back? (04.18.12)
Telegraph site owner plans for temporary resurrection (02.06.12)
Imagining a future for Telegraph Avenue without blinders (04.11.12)
Telegraph fire site owner plans for temporary resurrection (02.06.12)
Berkeley’s 95-year-old Sequoia Building is brought down (11.29.11)
Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Telegraph lot (10.03.11)
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot (09.07.11)
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) (01.28.11)

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  • guest

    Hmmm. Eliminate as much parking as possible (since cars are bad), vilify business (because money is bad). Permit sidewalk squatting, drug use and harassment of shoppers (because freedom is good), and, voila! No more customers. Next, accuse those same shoppers of lacking the moral fortitude to brave the ugly reality of homelessness, drug abuse, and mental illness. Finally, blame capitalism. Repeat as needed.

  • David D.

    Hopefully this improvement effort is the first step in a comprehensive plan to revive the area. I applaud the mayor for stepping up, even if it’s mostly ceremonial, to do something. District 7 needs Mr. Worthington or somebody else to guide it towards a positive future. Between the deterioration of Telegraph businesses, death of BRT, and squalor at People’s Park, I am surprised the district’s residents haven’t shown Mr. Worthington the door yet.

  • jjohannson

    Send the bill to Sarachin…

  • Charles_Siegel

    Also under way is planning to consider making Bancroft and Durant two-way, which staff is supposed to complete in June.

    I am hoping this can lead to something like I described in my opinionator piece “Wider Sidewalks Would Revitalize Southside”

    Since I wrote that, I realized that there could be multiple benefits to making these streets two way:
    –Wider sidewalks on Bancroft east of Dana, as described in my op-ed.
    –Diagonal parking on Durant, adding more parking.
    –Bike lanes on Bancroft west of Dana, matching the green bike lanes that are planned for Hearst.
    –Improvements of the intersections of Bancroft/Fulton and Durant/Fulton, benefiting downtown.

    Let’s see what staff comes up with in the study they are now working on.

  • guest

    True, but this seems to be a step in the right direction. The past is the past. I’d prefer we learned from it and moved forward, rather than harping on it and allowing it to define us.

  • guest

    Unfortunately recent events like the shutting down of Starbucks, and now Walgreens, suggest that Berkeley is choosing to repeat its past rather than learn from it.

  • guest

    District 7 needs Mr. Worthington or somebody else to guide it towards a positive future.

    Mr. Worthington has had 14+ years to address the problems in his district and has chosen to ignore it. It’s time for him to go.

  • guest

    Also true, fellow guest. My worry is that Telegraph faces fundamental problems that may not lend themselves to superficial solutions. Still, I didn’t mean to bad-mouth these efforts.

  • Guest

    I know I’ve brought it up before, but it’s always struck me that one of the major things that contributes to the sense of filth that pervades Telegraph is the design of the paving on the sidewalks. Unlike much if the rest of the city, the sidewalks on Telegraph have a markedly rough/pebbled appearance, making them effectively impossible to clean. It’s been that way for over 20 years. Without fixing that idiotic design choice, the rest feels largely like window dressing….

  • Cal Grad

    People’s Park. Unless we address the beehive, this is putting lipstick on a pig.

  • Guest

    What will the scheduling be like for the Ambassadors on Telegraph? If my math is right 158 hours/week works out to something like 2 ambassadors at 12 hours per day (guessing that that might be something like 10AM-10PM??). Is that how they’ll be running things, or will there be more variability than that?

  • guest

    Yeah that’s just old gum and other things of similar ilk.

  • guest

    he was elected in ’96. That’s 18 years of nothingness.

  • Guest

    Actually, it’s not. Yes, there’s tons of old gum, etc. stuck to the sidewalk in that neighborhood, but look at the surface of the concrete the next time you’re there (or even in the pictures in this article). You’ll notice that, unlike the sidewalks in the rest of town, the concrete on the sidewalks on telegraph was finished so that it presents a very rough, pebbled appearance and texture. Throughout the rest of town, it’s finished to a pretty smooth surface. The best way I can describe it is that it’s sort of the difference between something the texture of fine-grit sandpaper (in the rest of town) and the texture of small-size bubble wrap (on Telegraph).

    The reason there’s so much gum and other filth all over Telegraph is that rougher texture makes it effectively impossible to scrape up or power-wash crud like that off the sidewalks.

    I’d just like to know what bonehead thought that installing sidewalks like that in the first place was a good idea…..

  • Chris

    Once again these private businesses have to step in where the city fails them…

  • Super Joel

    People’s Park was cool 40 years ago and so was I !!

  • ZK

    Fixing Telegraph requires a comprehensive effort from both law enforcement and local community services. Scrubbing the streets helps but isn’t the root of the problem. We all know the real problems are the squatters and homeless people that make Telegraph a very unattractive area. A small but destructive minority of these people aggressively harass pedestrians, vandalize businesses and public property, and behave in generally destructive behavior. The city should also consider limiting Telegraph north of Dwight to only pedestrian traffic. Opening up the streets would really help.

  • Charles_Siegel

    (guessing that that might be something like 10AM-10PM??).

    They come out early in downtown. When I get to BART at 7:40 to start my commute, they are already hard at work.

  • guest

    Does anyone actually support People’s Park any more?

    Everyone I talk to in town thinks it’s awful and wants it gotten rid of…

  • Woolsey

    Turning portions of Telegraph into a pedestrian-only area might make it resemble the busy and attractive European city-centers which ban traffic except for delivery vehicles. Still, in Europe they don’t have these menacing social parasites that stand in front of you asking for “help”. Why are they all here in Berkeley and not in Oakland or Emeryville, or Albany. Why do we accommodate them?

  • ZK

    We’re in complete agreement. I think the homeless issue and especially the aggressive panhandlers need to be managed.

  • Guest

    I wonder if the patterns of when there are the most people on Telegraph are different from when there are the most people downtown. (I honestly don’t know, but I’m guessing that it might be.) If so, I hope that’s taken into account when they schedule the ambassadors.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I don’t really have any hard statistics to back this up, but it’s my feeling as well that most Berkeleyans do not care for People’s Park, or are at least ambivalent about it. If you tried to get rid of it, though, it would stir up a very vocal minority, many of whom probably do not even live in Berkeley.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Maybe it was the same person in the 70s who thought that fabric seats and carpeted floors would be a good idea on BART. I dunno if everyone was too coked up in the 70s to think these things through, or what.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I was actually on Telegraph last night to visit Amoeba Music and Moe’s Books (two of the few reasons for any non-student to still visit the area) and didn’t notice a huge difference.

    Still saw lots of graffiti and the sidewalks didn’t seem all that noticeably cleaner, but that’s probably due to the poor texture, as pointed out previously.

    The lampposts were re-painted, but only up to a certain height, so the bottom half has a different finish to it than the top half, which nags at my OCD (they did the same thing with the downtown lights).

    I don’t expect an overnight transformation, but I do think the root cause of a lot of Telegraph’s problems is People’s Park. So long as nothing is done with People’s Park, nothing is going to dramatically change. What’s it going to take for that to happen? Do all of the Baby Boomers have to pass away first? I don’t say that lightly, as my parents are Boomers, but that’s what it seems like sometimes.

    The second roadblock is Ken “Rat-Infested-Lot” Sarachin. He continues to maintain blighted properties on the corners of Telegraph and Haste in some bizarre grudge against Amoeba going back multiple decades now.

  • guest

    Two Words: Osha Neumann.

  • Mbfarrel

    Exposed aggregate pavement is attractive when clean and people used the trashcans in the ’70s. In fact in the ’60s and into the ’70s graffiti in Berkeley, almost entirely political was not painted on brick or stone. This was due to the difficulty of cleaning these lovely surfaces and in recognition of the transitory nature of the graffito.

    Times change and not always for the better.

    The design decisions were made under the unfortunate belief that people would continue to respect public spaces.

  • guest

    People’s Park is like the War of Northern aggression. That won’t change until the last Berkeleite Park supporter passes. Maybe not even then

  • theDeer

    Thanks for the sweet pro Amoeba photo with the bags, nice to see people actually DO still shop there!

  • guest

    I think it’s more like:

    -Take an extremely busy area with a counter-culture/ hippy reputation.

    -Decide that you don’t like counter-culture/ hippies

    -Decide to be the snack food capital of the world

    -Put down your counter-culture/ hippy culture

    -cut funds to that area


    -No profit for anyone(sales go down)

  • Doug F

    They seem to have forgotten to scrub & clean the permanent sidewalk residents.

  • Erich

    On the point of Southside, tele/haste + 1/2 a square mile radiating away from UC/entral my thoughts are mixed and I have let them be known often. I moved back to Berkeley from Richmond whenever it was that the cost of an abandoned house in the Iron Triangle went on the market for a QUARTER MILLION $, so 5-6 Years? During which time I have rented an apt in Mr. Worthington’ district and working on campus (not actually a part of Berkeley). My daily commute is about 1/2 a mile which goes around Peeps Park or along Telegraph north.

    As I understand it, Peeps Park is the property of U.C.- NOT – the city of Berkeley. There are about two peeps left alive who work very hard to keep the old and worn tape of why Peeps Park should remain what it is rather than a useful space to society as a whole. Almost half a Century ago the land was slated to be more dorms (bed spaces) for UCB. During the intervening Years the powers that be have not had the fortitude and or will to disrupt 2 advocates and a dozen truly needy individuals and build the dorms which by now would have housed tens of thousands of young peeps with a desire to add to the neighborhood rather than detract from it.

    Let’s see if Janet Ann Napolitano has the brass that her predecessors sorely lacked and do what the local yokel politicos refuse to do. What did Ronald Raygun famously say once, something like “Gorbi TEAR DOWN THAT WALL!!” President Janet, PLEASE, “TEAR DOWN THAT WALL!!’ & Berkeley political effete please back her up on this!

    In fairness to the physical attributes of this area my commute yesterday and this morning were quite enjoyable with a majority of the majority away on Spring Break and all the bottom feeders either taking their annual vacations in San Francisco to return next week when it will once again be harvest time on Southside. Clean, the smell of fresh rain washed Tarra Firma, the absence of two legged rats . . .

    Almost every day I walk to my private space for lunch and unfortunately the truly needy, homeless, peeps are out and milling about. Today my lunchtime endeavor was interesting in a few respects:

    1) on my way south there was a meter reader watching a pair of tow trucks hooking up abandoned(?) cars alongside Peeps Park on Dwight with plenty of curious and vocal onlookers milling about.

    1a) I find it interesting that Spring Break seems to be the preferred time for the city to take potentially explosive action around Peeps Park. Is it a coincidence that the Thursday before Cesar Chavez Day has the fewest residents of KWs district and the ones who remain do so because they have no choice?

    2) Anyone who has been around Southside longer than a work day knows that the end of the month (any Month) is when Peeps who are receiving funding and or medications from a government agency are about half a step from a total break from a shared reality (also known as society)?

    3) On my second trip North for the day at around 1:30 the simmering pot of divergent interests accidentally boiled over bringing 6 of Berkeley’ finest, 2 meter readers, 2 tow trucks, 1 car almost hooked up for a tow and 1 car released from the evil grasp of the other tow truck along Dwight Way, a dozen bystanders standing around, and a partridge . . . Not a campus cop anywhere to be seen which raises a few questions and comments to mind; like, how much did this action which happens on a regular basis cost those of us who pay taxes et cetera . . .

  • long time south side resident