Berkeley’s Inspector Quirky
Tom Dalzell documents its weirdness with a camera.
Berkeley has a long history of quirkiness. For many Berkeleyans, a house or car isn’t just a place to live or a mode of transport; it can also double as a canvas for artistic expression or just be a repository for some good ol’ fashioned weirdness. Either way, it’s all good. Documenting all aspects of Berkeley’s unique quirky scene is Tom Dalzell. A labor lawyer and expert on slang, the 33-year Berkeley resident vowed in 2011 to walk every street in town—he’s almost done—photographing and documenting its quirkiness: a house made using old highway signs and another fashioned from salvaged car roofs and poplar bark, for instance. All are fodder for his blog “Quirky Berkeley.” Dalzell’s Heyday-published recent book Quirky Berkeley has ridden a wave of positive reviews. But Dalzell hasn’t let all that good publicity swell his head. At the end of the day, he says, he’s “just a guy walking around Berkeley taking pictures.”
Paul Kilduff: As Berkeley, like the rest of the Bay Area, becomes more and more unaffordable, does that endanger the future of the town’s quirkiness?
Tom Dalzell: It does. Patti Smith, in talking about New York City, said that the young and struggling artists can no longer afford New York City and should go to Detroit or New Orleans or St. Louis. And many of the people whose art and yards I celebrate came to Berkeley in the late ’60s, early ’70s, young and struggling. They were able to make a place for themselves there. And with a median home price at over a million dollars, that’s harder and harder. I think it endangers it. On the other hand, the people who are coming in with money buying the homes, they’re still choosing Berkeley. With that money they could go to Orinda; they could go to Marin; they could go to Walnut Creek. But there’s still something about Berkeley that appeals to them, so I’ve not completely written the obituary for quirky Berkeley. It certainly is changing; Berkeley always changes. But then there is a very really possibility of less quirk.
PK: Is it good for property values?
TD: I haven’t really figured out what the correlation is of demographics and quirk. You’ll see quirky mailboxes in The Uplands, which is as fancy a neighborhood as exists in Berkeley. You’ll see a complete absence of quirk in some of the working-class neighborhoods in the flats. And then you’ll see an artist that’s moved in, and look what they did to that house. There also is such thing as high-production value quirkiness, and we may be seeing more of that. I don’t know.
PK: “High-production value quirkiness”? I like that. Did you coin that?
TD: Right now, I did, yeah.
PK: Your favorite quirky Berkeley house is Emeryville architect Eugene Tssui’s Fish House. Were the neighbors gung-ho about the design?
TD: I doubt they were gung-ho about it. I think that there was significant opposition to it with the design review commission when Tssui built it. It brings a lot of traffic to the neighborhood. On that block, there’s an American flag with a peace symbol instead of the stars, but there’s not much quirk on that block or that neighborhood. Although a half-block away, there’s a huge bunny topiary on Ward Street.
PK: Is there any thing that’s been a little too quirky for you, forcing you to decide you can’t include it?
TD: No. Hunter S. Thompson said something like he never found a scene that was too strange for him. I think about it, and I’ll write you if I think of something, but I don’t think so.
PK: What about your own house? Is your den plastered with old license plates?
TD: No. Two bowling balls in the yard that neighbors put there when The New York Times article came out about me and they thought I needed some quirk.
PK: Did you just wake up one morning and there they were?
TD: There they were.
PK: Has quirkiness been used to promote Berkeley in any way? “Get Quirky in Berkeley?”
TD: People are trying to make money off of the People’s Republic of Berkeley and Berzerkeley, tie-dye, those stereotypes. Actually, quirky isn’t my favorite word to describe Berkeley; it just almost rhymes with Berkeley.
PK: You’re the final arbiter of what gets into the blog. In Berkeley, shouldn’t it be by committee?
TD: I do all the work. Maybe I’m just channeling Clark Kerr from 1964: “I’m the boss.” I take your point. I accept that criticism.
PK: Do you think that there should be a statue of you holding a notebook with a plaque describing your work in downtown Berkeley?
TD: Not quite yet. In the late 1940s, Joseph Stalin commissioned a statue of Alexander Pushkin, a great 19th-century Russian writer. He did a design contest, and he himself was going to be the judge of the design. Third place was Pushkin sitting at a desk with a quill pen writing a novel. Second place was Pushkin out walking with peasants hunting—you know, a man of the people. First place was a statue that was made with Stalin sitting reading a Pushkin book. I don’t think we’re quite ready for a statue of Tom Dalzell, but you can mention it.
PK: Do you think that if you were to walk every street of Walnut Creek that you would be able to come up with a similar blog and book?
TD: Nope. I think I’d find some cool Eichler houses. But, Oakland, yes. Richmond you have a different character, but Richmond, yes. Emeryville, maybe. But there’s so much new in Emeryville. Vallejo, probably. Crockett, probably. Port Costa, probably.
PK: I see houses being painted sometimes combinations like pink and yellow. And it’s like, were those colors on sale?
TD: Right. “Paint sale,” that’s the expression I use.
PK: Does stuff like that qualify as quirky, or is it just bad taste?
TD: Well, I would never say bad taste. I would never say kitsch. I’m doing a post at some point on colors that houses have been painted. I’m trying to figure out how to present it. Yes, a paint job certainly can, and what some people might call kitsch certainly could.
PK: What about murals?
TD: I cover every mural. There are murals and there are murals. Commissioned public art is less interesting to me than more spontaneous street murals. Oakland has so many cooler murals than Berkeley. I’ve got a little mural envy with Oakland.
PK: What’s the goal? To inspire other people to express themselves with their houses and surroundings?
TD: There’s no goal. The goal is, “The road is all; the end is nothing.” How’s that? Willa Cather.
Tom Dalzell’s Vital Stats
Age: 65 | Birthplace: Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Astrological sign: Cancer
Book on nightstand: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (in Spanish)
Favorite curse word: All | Motto: “I dare.”
This report appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.