Berkeley's student housing co-ops tend to attract a quirkier kind of Cal student than, say, the frats or even the dorms. Their residents come to Berkeley looking for a more, shall we say, alternative college experience. The twenty-site co-op system offers just that, not to mention relatively cheap room and board. There's the vegetarian house (Lothlorien), the gay house (Oscar Wilde), the whorehouse (okay, that one doesn't really exist).
And then there's Le Chateau. The three-house, 85-resident compound at the corner of Hillegass and Parker streets in Berkeley's South Campus area is where Cal's misfits fit right in. Even in a system that attracts odd characters, Chateau -- where being weird is a virtue -- arguably boasts the most unusual members. Maybe that's why it's become the black sheep of the system, Cal's communal-living version of Animal House.
Over the years, there have been reports of wild parties, drug overdoses, and homeless people from nearby Telegraph Avenue crashing at Chateau. One resident recalls what he affectionately refers to as the "botched pig" incident from four years ago, when drunken revelers tore apart a poorly cooked pig (prepared luau-style) and ran around the neighborhood rubbing pork fat on parked cars. Last summer, a paranoid resident threatened to shoot Chateau's president with a stun gun. Good times, good times.
But those good times could be coming to an end. The University Students' Cooperative Association, the nonprofit that manages the co-op system, is under serious pressure from Chateau's neighbors to clean the place up. Earlier this year, the neighbors filed 22 small-claims lawsuits demanding a cumulative $110,000 in damages from the USCA. In an attempt to placate the complainants, George Proper, the association's general manager, even offered to shutter Chateau for seven months, renovate it, and bring in a brand-new crop of students next spring. Proper says the neighbors turned down his offer, leading him to believe their true motive was to close the place. "They just couldn't take yes for an answer," he jokes.
Shutting down Chateau would be tragic, say house managers Erik Christensen and Toby Cantor. Chateau, they note, is a totally unique place. Christensen, a civil engineering major, points at the graffiti that covers the walls in the main house -- one new addition to the living room says something only insiders could get: "Up the mongoloids." According to him, the scrawls added by generations of Chateau dwellers give the place a sense of history. "To some people it's an eyesore, but a lot of people like it," he says.
Cantor, a sixth-year senior who has lived at Chateau his entire time at Cal, adds that living here has allowed him to become friends with people he might not otherwise have met. "Nobody really gives anybody any shit," he says. "If you're friendly, you'll get along with people here." (During a half-hour interview, Cantor sugar-binged sequentially on just-purchased Junior Mints, Trolli candy, and a Rice Krispies Treat. He still had an unopened pack of Reese's Pieces to go when the interview ended.)
The neighborhood revolt, meanwhile, is being led by George Lewinski, who moved in next door in 1989. A longtime foreign editor for the NPR program Marketplace who more recently became a senior producer for KQED's Pacific Time, Lewinski says the co-op has been a nuisance for as long as he's lived there. The police visit frequently. Neighbors are forced to wear earplugs, children can't sleep, and some families have felt compelled to move away. Lewinski says he and other neighbors aren't trying to shut the place down, nor are they targeting students. They're just trying to get the USCA to do what it hasn't done in the past -- be a good landlord. After all the years of wild parties, the drugs, the rodent-friendly messes in the yard and, of course, the noise, people just got fed up. "My goal is to have a quiet life with people living around me who respect their neighbors," he says .
Sure, there have been problems, Chateau's managers concede, but the nitpicky neighbors exaggerate. For instance, Cantor says, one time the woman living immediately to the north called and complained about residents playing drums. It turned out to be water dripping into a bucket, he recalls. Christensen adds that Chateau is located in an edgy part of town just a couple of blocks from People's Park, Telegraph, and the Cal dorms. There are also two other major apartment buildings on the block that house primarily students, and a vacant multi-unit building across the street where "gutter punks" squat. But Chateau gets blamed for anything that goes wrong, he says. What's more, he adds, people like Lewinski should have known what they were getting into when they bought homes right next to Chateau, which opened as a student co-op in 1977. "We're not new here," Christensen says.
Nonsense, Lewinski retorts: He and his wife moved into a residential neighborhood -- not next to a refinery.
Location has a lot to do with the tensions. The co-op stands on the border between town and gown, where the student ghetto transitions into established old neighborhoods. With this mix of contrasts and lifestyles, "conflict is inevitable," Christensen reasons.
The USCA board hasn't shut down a co-op since 1989, when it closed Barrington Hall, a notorious drug den. Proper says Chateau won't be closed, but it is on a very short leash (double-secret probation?). The board has given the house one last chance to clean up its act or face the consequences. What those consequences might be isn't entirely clear, though neighbors have suggested the co-op should rent to older, more respectable grad students.
Chateau's managers say they've done a lot in the past few months to try and fix things. They've amended tenant contracts so that residents can be fined up to $100 for "uncooperative behavior." They've also pulled up all the weeds in the backyard and planted a garden, and are turning the carriage house into a study area, although Christensen promises the "Boob Patrol" painting, which features breasts on wheels, will stay put.
Lewinski, however, says that problems have persisted. He wrote the court recently that on June 18 a Chateau resident screamed from the rooftop, "Where's the heroin?" What Lewinski couldn't see, though, was the message someone had written on the roof: "When will Berkeley learn ... it's just a college town?"
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