Berkeley, California. The bastion of free speech, of Bay Area beauty, of progressive thinking, a socialist enclave wrapped warmly in a blanket of greenery, organic nouvelle cuisine, and a world class university. And while all of these descriptions contain some truth, Berkeley is also much more. A place of intense diversity—ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural—of mass media intoxication, hip hop and urban political consciousness, bookstores and bakeries, and a place of sudden violence.

If you want to know Berkeley, visit Berkeley High School. Commonly known as “Yale or Jail”, with graduates headed to MIT and Harvard, to Folsom and San Quentin prisons, the students come together each day, children of wealthy ex-hippie parents, and those of the working and under classes. Black, white, yellow, brown. Descendants of “free speech” movement radicals, and of domestic migrants who flocked to the Bay Area, lured by wartime job production during the 1940’s, these boys and girls mingle in the courtyards of this great and imposing institution, become friends, sit beside one another in class, have sex together, take drugs, study, and make choices, both smart and stupid.

They dance to corporate rap, to the pulsing misogynistic images of bling and sex. They consume, desire and demand immediate gratification and technological distraction. They believe the world belongs to them, a sense of entitlement fed by advertisements pounding a message of need, pushing desire to its extreme, carrying on a tradition of no limits from parents who shared a belief in endless credit, a subprime world of limitless cash. I want it. I buy it. But this new generation has taken it to another level. Raised in the cyber universe of Myspace and Facebook, the material world has been reduced to bytes, information, matter transformed into digital realities devoid of material substance and so perceived as without actual value. Not only is this generation entitled to all it desires, but it doesn’t even have to pay. Music floats through Limewire and BitTorrent only to be clicked into ownership, free of charge.

If you want to know Berkeley, spend some time at the sidewalk cafes, listening to the conversations of aging hippies explaining the implosion of modern capitalism. Go to the lectures of local Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicists, of world renowned economists and cognitive scientists. Sit beside the Lawrence Hall of Science, mesmerized by spectacular bay views, and then drive down to the west side train tracks and see the spray painted “tags” of skateboarding graffiti artists. Work your way from Solano Avenue and its high end childrens clothing boutiques to the Sacramento Street corners crowded with dealers peddling ecstasy, weed, vicodin and ritalin. If you want to know Berkeley, listen to the teenagers mingling in the hallways of Berkeley High discussing college applications, their upcoming jazz band and dance performances, while riffing on “bitches, ho’s, niggas, jews, chinamen, and a-rabs”.

Berkeley—hip, political, narcissistic, diverse in race and economy, monochromatic in its insatiable need to possess. Really like so many places in America, but with a hip sheen, a veneer reflecting mythological dreams and desires, illusions cultivated over generations. Yet perhaps modern Berkeley is much of what it promised to be. A place of progressive ideas, awareness and tolerance of the “other”. And perhaps the way this appears looks nothing like that which was expected by those who came before, by the “free speechers” and Black Panthers who fought the national guard down Telegraph Avenue to the campus in the 1960’s, who sowed the seeds of their “Great Society”. Perhaps those ideas battled for have been embodied in new ways, where put downs are hurled without regard to race, a rich new language of insult, where lack of respect translates into acceptance, a peculiar melding of “playing the dozens” and social democracy, where utopian visions are powerfully refracted through post-modern lenses, expressed in forms that could not have been predicted.

As one who came of age in those heady Vietnam years, it’s not the way I imagined Berkeley. But my son, a modern native, growing up on the not so gentle streets of this much misunderstood town, gets and is fully of the new Berkeley, a part of the post racial, pan economic melting pot, where “virtually” promoted parties rain chaos onto unsuspecting homes, an uncomfortable and sometimes explosive high energy mix of teenage everything, some kind of twisted dream of the 60’s fulfilled. We cannot know what the ideas we create will generate. And as we observe the images, the unexpected shapes of this new world, we are reminded that the parent can never fully understand the child, that the parents becomes the children, students of difficult, often painful lessons. Berkeley, a place of great intellectual foment, is a boiling cauldron of ideas, blended with forces well beyond its knowing, a cultural mash with a rich history, fed by modern capitalism, an integral part of the consumption society, a fusion of positivity and poison.

And as we move into a new era, one of economic down turn, new forms of knowing and being will emerge. The titanic clash of expectations and experience will cleave Berkeley (and the rest of our nation) wide apart, opening the world to new possibilities. Paradigms never shift easily, but their movement cannot be stopped. The myth of Berkeley is of an idyllic liberal haven, a tree lined jewel of tolerance, peace and love. The truth is that it is a complex mix, a place of social and economic inequity, of racial tolerance and resentment, of intellectual depth and mind numbing materialism. Berkeley is a modern American city, embodying uniquely American potential, challenged by a culture that threatens its ideals.

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