BERKELEY Times are tough on Telegraph Avenue, the notoriously countercultural and once-thriving street leading to the heart of the University of California campus here.
"We have an enormous store here, and we'd like it to be full," said Doris Moscowitz, owner of Moe's Books, a Telegraph Avenue institution founded by her parents in 1959. "It's kind of heart-breaking, to tell the truth."
Until recently, Moscowitz said, she had little reason to hope that conditions would improve. But this spring the university offered a grant to improve lighting. Business leaders, architects and city officials have also held workshops to come up with a streetscape design that would make the avenue safer and more appealing to students, residents and tourists.
"We need to give people a reason to come to Telegraph," said Craig Becker, head of the local business association and owner of Caffe Mediterraneum, a longtime popular spot with activists and students. "We feel like Telegraph can still be a prime regional attraction, different from what it used to be, but still a prime attraction."
On a recent day, there was only one street vendor on the block near Moe's, and he was complaining.
"Right now I'm pleasantly surprised to make a little every day," he said, as he sat behind his stand of patches emblazoned with government symbols, smiley faces and band names. "But the whole economy is sucking. Business is way down."
The vendor, who would identify himself only as Patch Man, said his sales this past season have slipped by more than 50 percent. He and nearby business owners are all suffering from the same combination of bad luck and changing times.
The five-block stretch of Telegraph that ends at the southern edge of campus gained its legacy from the protests and social upheaval of the Sixties. It was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and a hub of protest during the Vietnam War. Activists claimed People's Park on a university-owned lot off the avenue in a long fight that drew national attention.
The next few decades brought an influx of tourists and transients. The avenue was full of eccentric street denizens, performers and vendors selling jewelry, trinkets and tie-dyed clothing. Book and music stores with large, eclectic collections thrived. But the new century ushered in a new economic reality the Internet followed by a nationwide financial decline.
Businesses on Telegraph struggled to survive. One lot at the corner of Haste Street stood empty behind a chain link fence for so long that rats cavorted openly until an online news site featured a rat Web cam, prompting the owner to take action. Then last November a fire destroyed a nearby building housing 39 apartments and two businesses. Now that same hard-hit block has four empty storefronts in addition to two empty lots.
"I've talked to other merchants, and they say the same thing as me," said Manny Lopez, the owner of Remy's, just off the corner of Haste Street, who bought his restaurant more than a year ago and is trying to make it profitable. "We don't know what is going to happen."
About 40 percent of students polled by a campus group last year said they get food on Telegraph and half said they visit less than once a month for any reason. Most said they would go more often if there were fewer panhandlers and the street felt safer and cleaner.
The City Council is expected to consider recommendations in September from a volunteer group of architects, planners and engineers called Berkeley Design Advocates. Suggestions include making Telegraph Avenue more pedestrian-friendly, planting distinctive landscaping at each intersection and creating nighttime venues.
New university housing overlooking People's Park opens in the fall, and plans to overhaul the student center at the campus entrance may increase student presence on Telegraph as well. Business owners say police patrols already have increased morale.
And in what is certain to spur heated debate, Berkeley voters will decide in November whether they want an ordinance that would ban sitting on a sidewalk in a commercial area from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (lying down is already prohibited). The ballot measure is similar to those adopted in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Portland, Ore.
While the ban would be applied citywide, Telegraph Avenue is a prime concern for both the business owners, who say that transients drinking and hanging out on the sidewalk deter other visitors, and the young people sitting on the street, who say they're increasingly hassled by police.
In the meantime, merchants are hoping that travelers and locals will show up, dine and shop.
"Hopefully business will come back," said Patch Man, wearing glasses with peace signs for lens. Nearby there was only a trickle of foot traffic. Three young drifters sat across the street, one leaning against a street sign, her arms around a dog.
"It's pretty quiet," he said. "People expect to come and see weirdness here, and that's not happening."