Friday, December 28, 2012

A petulant landlord's agitprop: politics, art, or irony?

Ken Sarachan owns a number of properties and businesses on Berkeley's iconic (and much-decayed) Telegraph Avenue, which is not to be confused with a stretch of Telegraph Avenue a couple miles south, in Oakland, where Michael Chabon set his eponymous novel, published in September of this year.

Since the 1980s Blondie's has been the go-to spot for thick, greasy pizza slices; the store is sited a single block south of Sproul Plaza, epicenter of UC Berkeley's Free Speech Movement in 1964, and many more since. Rasputin Records (now called Rasputin Music, since "records" is something of an anachronism in the current century) is one of The Avenue's remaining well-stocked, independent music chains (Amoeba Music, founded by former employees of Sarachan's Rasputin Records, is another).

One of Sarachan's undeveloped properties is a lot on the northeast corner of Haste and Telegraph, where the Berkeley Inn used to stand before it burned to a crisp more than twenty years ago. Sarachan assumed more than six hundred thousand dollars in liens against the property when he bought it in 1994: costs associated with cleaning up the site after the Berkeley Inn fire. The city offered to waive those liens if Sarachan builds stores and affordable housing on the corner lot; the first deadline for development that would trigger forgiveness of the liens was in 2004, according to a Berkeleyside article last year, City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot. That deadline was not met.

It's hard to get a straight story about who's to blame for the fact that the lot stands empty 18 years after Sarachan bought it, but here's an excerpt from what the NY Times reported in a February 4, 2012 article titled Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, Hit by Hard Times, Needs a Makeover:
Once the home of the Berkeley Inn, the lot has been vacant for 25 years, despite city incentives to its current owner, Ken Sarachan, to waive $640,000 in liens and interest if he builds stores and affordable housing.

Mr. Sarachan, who also owns Rasputin Records and Blondie’s Pizza nearby, and the vacant Cody’s bookstore building, has offered a number of ideas for the property over the years. But he has never submitted completed plans, city officials said.
So those of us who walk down Telegraph Avenue to get to work, school, or CafĂ© Milano were bemused last month to see that someone had erected a sign on the fenced-off property. A big sign. Was it Sarachan himself? Someone else? (The original message was signed "Ken and Kirk," as can be seen in an image published alongside a Daily Californian article of 20 November, but Kirk -- Kirk Peterson, the architect Sarachan hired to develop plans for the lot -- claimed he knew nothing about the sign before it went up; it is now 'credited' only to Ken Sarachan.) In any case, here's what the sign looked like a couple days ago when I walked by:

Yep, it says "Free Speech Board" across the top, as you can see. 'Merican flag motif, peace sign, it's ... well, it's Berkeleyesque, isn't it?

But something smells funny about this little construction, I thought to myself when I first caught sight of it.

Sarachan's "Free Speech Board" is erected on private property, apparently by its owner, and serves a single purpose: to advance the owner's economic interests. The rest of the text goads recently re-elected Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates to push Sarachan's latest plans for his property through the city bureaucracy.


Ken Sarachan is as entitled to put signs up on his property as anybody else, and to goad -- nay, even skewer -- all the public officials he chooses to goad or skewer. But ... assuming the mantle of "free speech" when he does so?

A little over the top, I'd say. The notice is on his own property after all, and no one is trying to tear it down.

Take a step back and the "Free Speech Board" on the corner of Haste and Telegraph smells even stranger.

See, unless you're holding a camera between the bars -- as I was when I snapped the image above -- you can't help noticing that the only vantage points available to the public from which to view the "Free Speech Board are ... wait for it ... outside a heavy, pointy-tipped iron fence designed to keep out the riffraff. The property has been fenced off for years.


That doesn't look like a free speech board to me. Does it to you? To me, it looks downright incarcerated.

(It's Berkeley, you have to wonder whether someone will start a movement to Free the Free Speech Board. That's People's Park in the background, if you're curious.)

I've got a feeling that Ken Sarachan didn't get the memo explaining the free speech concept, particularly with respect to its local historical context.

The irony would be amusing if it weren't for the fact that his property has remained a blight and eyesore in a commercial district that has gotten shabbier and shabbier as Sarachan diddled around, playing chicken with the City Council, instead of doing something with his corner lot and paying off its debts.

According to the NY Times article,
After years of frustrating and unsuccessful negotiations, the City of Berkeley finally sued Mr. Sarachan on Jan. 28, 2012. The city wants to seize the lot to pay off the liens and interest that have accumulated since it cleared the land after the Berkeley Inn burned down in 1990.
I'm not a big fan of cities seizing property from citizens ... but I guess a court will decide if Sarachan has been playing too fast and too loose with the 'bank of Berkeley' as far as those liens -- which he freely assumed -- are concerned. I guess we'll see where that goes.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
A lost midwestern pizza opportunity
The blurry line between Landlord and Supreme Power


  1. I'm a fan of the city taking this blight away from Sarachan, that's for sure. The ugly boarded up buildings on Shattuck across from the Honda dealership? Yeah. Those, too. Whoever owns 'em.

    If these properties are going to sit ugly and decaying, let's grab 'em and build more parks.

    By the way, have you read Aaron Cometbus' history of the bookstores of Telegraph Ave? He paints a portrait of Ken Sarachan in there that doesn't really explain the man but at least shines a light on him. The loneliness of the electric menorah is in the Berkeley Public Library collection.

    1. Glenn, those "ugly boarded up buildings on Shattuck" are owned by Reza Valiyee. I wrote about those very buildings and Reza's delusions that have kept them empty for decades, in Berkeley's master of bad marketing plans.

      Thanks for the heads-up about The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah. I don't know it, but for all the time I've spent in bookstores on Telegraph Avenue I probably should...