Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Slice of Life Story


 Reporter: Michael Robertson

Section: PEOPLE Page: 16 Last Printed: 2/5/1985 Last On Web:

 It is late afternoon in Rainbow Village, the Bay Area's newest unplanned community, with a fine view of San Francisco Bay and an even finer view of the old Berkeley city dump on whose property it sits.

These are real starter homes, in the literal sense, assuming there is air in the tires and gas in the tank. Facing east, in spaces neatly marked off with white paint, is the row of campers and buses and trailers in which the encampment's more prosperous members reside. At one end of Gentry Row live David and Chenoa Wheeler, whose redwood-paneled bus is as snug and sweet as the cabin of a schooner in the spice trade. Next to them is holographic artist Jeffrey Murray, whose long silver bus, with its curtained bed and collection of antique lunch boxes, sets the community standard for gracious living.

Not every bus or trailer is as nice as these two, but most are comfortable and decent. Thirty feet away, the standard of living drops. In the row opposite are parked the battered cars and trucks inhabited by the encampment's winos. The social stratification cuts through Rainbow Village like a knife.

The five "spokespeople" who have emerged to represent the community before the media and before Berkeley city officials are from its "old families, " from the line of trailers and buses. Now, while the subject of their discussion kicks the dirt in embarrassment, two of these spokespeople are arguing hotly about the fate of Joel, his wife and kids, who have just driven up to the gate of this might-be proletarian paradise.

Joel is new in town, and he is broke. He heard about Rainbow Village on the news. He heard how last week the city of Berkeley, in a fit of efficient liberal compassion, descended upon its little community of people living in their vehicles on the city streets. It swept them up and, towing those vehicles that wouldn't run, put them into a little enclave all their own with toilets (in place), water (promised), a telephone (promised), nominal rent (promised) and police protection (driving through like clockwork).

Now Joel has shown up with his family, to see if there is room for them at the inn.

Spokesperson Victor Metcalf insists the wanderers can stay. Humanity demands it. Spokesperson Bobby Hamilton says they cannot. Practicality forbids it. The city has said this many vehicles for right now, and no more. The community has got to take care of itself.

The community has got to play ball.

There is plenty of paranoia loose in Rainbow Village. It is located in a storage yard surrounded by a metal fence, an instant ghetto. Maybe the city will just lock them in and then cover them up, that's what some of the winos are saying. The more practical fear is that, with Rainbow Village attracting national media attention, bus people will come swarming in from all over the country, giving the "conservative" element in Berkeley politics the opportunity to shut down the village.

So here is Joel, an in-the-flesh moral dilemma with bad teeth and two golden-haired babies. Suddenly it's not like the streets anymore. It's Them vs. Us, and it's breaking Victor Metcalf's heart.

"They've got kids, " he says.

Spokesperson David Wheeler tries to mediate. Wheeler is a musician and mathematician, a slight, graceful man with long hair braided at the temples. He has a dream for the village. It's not just 23 vehicles and 35 or 40 people. It is a "revolutionary step, " setting a national precedent for helping everyone who lives in a vehicle. It is the public recognition that he and his friends are not a pitiful collection of winos and mental defectives (though some of each are in evidence) but a cross-section of America, including people ready to work, if only the jobs were offered.

Wheeler recognizes that with opportunity comes responsibility. For instance, what if a resident tosses garbage out the back door of a bus and lets it lie? Should someone else pick it up? Should a delegation of neighbors approach the offender? Should they take steps to get the city to expel him? Wheeler sees the possibility of a fine, orderly future for Rainbow Village - by-laws, one principle spokesman elected by his fellows, a sergeant-at-arms, a treasurer, a secretary, a liaison between the Village and Berkeley.

Joel and his family do not exactly fit into this vision.

Wheeler offers to talk with them in private. Hamilton strides away in a fury. Metcalf goes into his trailer, back to his "Cokes and his cats, " certain that the issue is settled, and the family will stay. But somehow it is not settled.

A quarter of an hour passes. Where are Joel and his wife and kids?

They left in tears a minute ago, somebody says. Wheeler insists he didn't tell them to leave, only explained the situation. He simply made it clear that there wasn't room in the long term, not unless Berkeley opens up more land. He told them about other places to stay.

According to Bill Castellanos, assistant to the Berkeley city manager, Wheeler did the right thing, the "legal" thing, but not everybody approves. "Who appointed him God?" someone asks.

You can smell it, and it's not the dump. It's the yeast of political ferment down at the grassroots, if there were any grass. Scarcely has Joel made his supposedly tearful exit, when Eldridge Cleaver shows up, wearing a black derby and a down vest. With Cleaver is Clare Morrison, in Cleaver's phrase, "Berkeley's most famous homeless person."

Morrison owns a house in Berkeley she wants to reclaim from the people renting it, but she can't because of Berkeley rent control law. She is frequently in the news as a victim of Berkeley liberalism.

According to Cleaver, Morrison is thinking of buying a red, white and blue bus and moving into Rainbow Village, even though her arthritis is so severe it is obvious she moves around with great difficulty. Cleaver takes a picture of Morrison with the buses in the background. "This will go all around the world, " he tells her.

Meanwhile, Victor Metcalf, who has done drugs and who has gone to jail and who has emerged from both experiences with a great and gentle serenity, hopes only for the best. (No one had yet told him that Joel and his wife and kids aren't going to stay.)

"Because of what they are doing for us, God will be good to Berkeley" he says - "as, of course, he already has."

Postscript from Daily Cal, 2007

Matters at Rainbow Village took a turn for the worse when two Grateful Dead fans staying at the site in August 1985 were murdered. Ralph International Thomas, who was also staying at the village, was sentenced to death for the crime.
“It seemed rather wonderful until the killing,” said attorney Don Jelinek, who served as a City Council member at the time. “After the killing, it became virtually impossible to continue supporting it.”
In light of the violence, city officials decided not to defend the encampment in the face of complaints from the state that it was an inappropriate use of coastal land.

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