Whether you’re a newcomer or a lifelong resident, Berkeley tends to make a deep impression. For our tenth birthday, Berkeleyside invited six Berkeley writers to reflect on the city’s enduring appeal, as well as its flaws, and consider how it is changing — not always for the better. We published their essays — including the one below by bestselling author Michael Lewis — in Berkeleyside’s printed 10th anniversary commemorative magazine, which was published in late 2019. We still have some magazines available. If you would like to receive a copy, see how below.
Why I live here
For a start, college towns are the best places to live. If the government put me in the strange predicament of picking either the state in which I lived, or the city inside that state, I’d pick the city. If they packed me off to Oklahoma or Kansas the pain would be dulled by knowing that I could settle in Norman or Lawrence. College towns have the virtues of small town life (the easy familiarity, the ability to know a large percentage of the other people in it) without the vices (the monotony, the provincialism). The constant churn inside any university, of students and faculty and ideas, can make a small town feel like the most thrilling place in the world.
But Berkeley is more than just another college town. I grew up in New Orleans. For that reason alone I spent the first part of my life being found more interesting by other people than I actually was. Where New Orleans left off, Berkeley has picked up: the mere fact that I live here makes me more interesting to strangers than if I was from, say, Palo Alto. Tell people who aren’t from both New Orleans and Berkeley that you are and they sense that you aren’t quite like other Americans — and they’re right.
For instance both places tolerate on their streets a surprisingly wide range of behavior. If I had to walk naked down an American city street I think I’d rather do it in New Orleans than any other place — and not merely because it’s hot. In New Orleans it is possible, when naked, to be met with a kind of amused understanding. Berkeley’s a bit like that — though people here would assume that you’d taken off your clothes to make some kind of political point. But more than in most other places they’d tolerate your nudity.
It’s easy to make fun of Berkeley, just as it’s easy to make fun of New Orleans. I’ve never really done it, but I’ve been tempted. In the pile of ideas in my office that I’ve never followed through on there’s a folder with this title on it: Why Does My City Council Have A Foreign Policy? But the truth is, I’m sort of happy that my city council has a foreign policy. Someone has to. And it’s this impulse — the willingness to be thought weird, to start something new, to question things as they are-that keep the place feeling so alive.
Back in 1998, my wife, Tabitha, and I asked a question: where in the world could we live where I would be likely to find things in driving distance worth writing books about? Where, to find stories that I really wanted to tell, I wouldn’t need to get on an airplane. The answer to that question is one of the reasons we wound up here. And this place has handed me most of the best material I’ve had to work with. Small wonder that it’s also given us this rich and interesting journalistic enterprise, Berkeleyside.
Happy Birthday, Berkeleyside. You are free anytime you want to walk around in your birthday suit.