In October 2003, the Berkeley Poetry Walk was installed along the curbside edge of the sidewalk on Addison Street between Shattuck and Milvia. The walk is made up of 128 cast-iron poetry panels, each weighing fifty-five pounds and containing a poem selected by former poet laureate Robert Hass.
The Poetry Walk, sponsored by the City of Berkeley Civic Arts, was part of a larger project to revitalize the downtown area. Landscape architect John N. Roberts, who worked on the Poetry Walk, recalled "there was a time not so long ago when a walk in downtown Berkeley was a frightening experience." However, the Downtown Berkeley Arts District emerged as a collaborative effort between the city government and the public, with the Berkeley Poetry Walk one of the signature projects that has helped reinvigorate the area.
The two-foot-square poetry panels are each coated with a porcelain enamel and designed to form an aged patina over time. As Roberts described, "the poetry wraps around the entire street in a regular rhythm just behind the curb and slightly out of the main flow of traffic to frame the sidewalk and allow people to encounter a new poem each few steps."
Each poem along the Poetry Walk has a connection—some more intuitive than others—to the city, honoring its great literary tradition and the great poets whose lives or writing have intersected with it. Included are works by Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Thorton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Jack London, Gary Snyder, Alice Walker, Sappho, classical Chinese poet Li Po, and the Ohlone Indians, who lived on the grounds where Berkeley now stands.
In addressing the sheer volume of poetry to choose from, Hass said, "urban spaces are full of language. There is, if anything, too much of it…. Because there was so much poetry [related to Berkeley], people could walk the street every day and still keep discovering something new. It was one of those cases where the problem was the solution."
Berkeley’s HeyDay Books published an anthology that documents the poetry selected for this project. Edited by Robert Hass and Jessica Fisher, Addison Street: The Berkeley Poetry Walk was published in November 2004.
Photo courtesy of City of Berkeley, Civic Arts Program.