Politics & Government

Quirky Berkeley fan documents city's creative core

Not everyone appreciates a well-placed garden gnome, a dachshund-themed yard or a concrete orange the size of a trailer.

“I totally love it,” said Tom Dalzell, a union business manager and expert on slang who is now onto his latest project – inventorying the ways that Berkeley residents, as he puts it, “quirk out.”

“I’m always walking around and finding things,” he said, “and behind every one of them, there is a story.”

His work in progress, the website Quirky Berkeley, is part anthropology and part wonderment at the unusual sculptures, mailboxes, architectural embellishments and signage most of us miss. The idea for it, he said, grew out of a driving tour he did a few years ago as a fundraiser for his daughter’s school.

It was a hit, but he realized he would see more on foot. So Dalzell, a self-described “guy who likes projects,” doesn’t watch TV and finds it easy to get up at 4 a.m. and work, set out to explore every Berkeley block.

To date, he has examined 70 out of 100 miles of streets and paths. Along the way, he has taken more than 9,000 pictures and led groups from the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, countless friends and his initially reluctant children.

He doesn’t claim to have invented the notion that Berkeley, the town he moved to after leaving Pennsylvania 30 years ago, is unique. He pays homage on his website to others before him who wrote books and stories about walking the city and understanding it more deeply.

But he aims to go beyond the city’s reputation as People’s Republic of Berkeley or Bezerkeley, a term he equates with “infantile politics and tie dye.”

Instead, he says, he wants to illustrate what can happen when people express their inner creativity with outward manifestations.

Most of his walks are on weekends, when he’s not at his job as business manager and financial secretary of a local unit of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He also holds one of two labor seats on the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which sets pay for state elected officials. He devotes other spare time to editing and compiling books on slang. (He has what’s believed to be the world’s second-largest collection of them – many of which he’s authored, including a recently released one on Vietnam War slang).

He continues to make discoveries, even in his own neighborhood. One summer day, as he led a reporter on a tour, he met a neighbor whose yard contained a large pair of clasped hands, only partly visible from the street.

With her dog barking furiously in the background, the neighbor beckoned him inside to show off what had been carved from a dying redwood tree.

“I was so devastated by the tree,” said Mimi Abers, an artist who commissioned a chainsaw sculptor from Lake County to create art from the stump.

Dalzell snapped pictures, which he planned to edit and add to his website. He has few rules for what qualifies. The objects must be material, non-seasonal (no Christmas or other holiday decor allowed), and accessible from public streets or paths. He divides what he finds into 13 categories, ranging from animals to signs. There are spots for things that involve food, that are “major quirky” or have peace signs.

“Berkeley is the peace-symbol capital of the world,” he said. “Madison has nothing on us.”

He invites entries from the public, and many of those end up online. But, he announces on the site, he decides what makes the cut: “No appeals,” he says. “I am the final and exalted judge.”

“This is so relaxing,” he said, striding off down the street after visiting Abers, wearing khakis, a button-down shirt and comfortable shoes. “I’ve been here all these years and you think you know the city, but there is always something else.”

He stopped to point out living moss in brilliant colors on a roof and a metal gate full of small fish crafted from tops of metal cans. He urged a closer look to notice a sea of rebar dolphins in the yard.

“Oh, and there’s a gnome,” he said. “They’re kitschy, which makes them quirky.”

Then it was into his car for a look at farther-flung quirk, first a bench on which a local artist had painted an old couple, the woman with real shoelaces strung through the wood.

Next there was a yard of sculptures made from caps and wiffle balls and another whose owner had trucked in a defunct concrete orange stand from the Central Valley. Then he pulled over to park.

“This,” he said, pointing to a large metal face, “is the ultimate dachshund gate.”

There were dachshunds made from fuel canisters on either side of it and a Doggie Diner head beyond the house.

Back at his home, where he lives with the two youngest of four children and his wife, Cathy MacNeal, an actress, the only peculiarity is a few bowling balls a neighbor dropped in his yard as a gesture of solidarity. Inside, there is not much quirk, besides shelves of slang books, a subject he plunged into after starting to write a novel years ago.

His daughter Rosalie, 18, said it took her awhile to appreciate her father’s quest, but now she sometimes accompanies him and takes her own pictures.

“It has definitely opened my eyes,” she said. “It’s weird, so of course my dad likes it.”

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.