You can read all the reports about the shocking deaths of six young Irish students in the Berkeley, California balcony collapse last summer, but until you stand on Kittredge Street in that upscale college town and look at Library Gardens, the place where it actually happened, you can't really grasp the full tragedy of it.
It's an entirely unremarkable building, only noticeable for its unusual height in a town of mostly one or two story buildings. Its departure from the usual scale makes it relatively easy to find. It's exactly the sort of no frills functional building that houses young people for college semesters or for the summer months in many college towns.
Situated across the Oakland Bay Bridge, Berkeley itself is not part of the foggy cove that comprises most of San Francisco, which means that it's warmer and sunnier most days. A genteel college town, some call it the Brooklyn of the Bay Area.
When I first visited Berkeley myself as a teenager in the 1980s I felt -- correctly I now realize -- as if I'd traveled from a land of black and white into a world of vivid Technicolor. Driving through California I often actually felt as if I was seeing color for the first time.
That's because Ireland in the 1980s was mostly a place for the young to escape from, not a place to escape to. I was just lucky to get some practice runs at my own take off.
Those trips abroad changed my life for the better. They showed me there was a world of sunlight and possibility somewhere beyond the inherited heaviness of my life at home.
California is still doing that for each new generation of adventurous Irish students who make it their home base for the summer, so although I didn't know those six Berkeley students personally, I know something of the emotional journey they were making and a bit of what it might have meant to them.
Looking up at the building on Kittredge Street last weekend during a visit, the first thing I noticed was that all the balconies have now been removed. It looks now as though they might never have existed.
A sign on a side street advertises that the building is currently leasing. It's about two blocks from the handy BART station that took these hard working students to their jobs in the city.
But many Yelp reviews of the building going back over six years complain of the poor management, the paper thin walls, the loud parties that are often held in the courtyard, the homeless who sleep in or around the stairwells (I counted six encamped near the building on my visit), the mold on the walls, the flooding, the urine in the elevators, and the length of time it took for property managers to actually fix things.
Segue Construction, the company that built Library Gardens, has reportedly received at least 12 Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations over a 10-year period and has been involved in at least three lawsuits involving incidences of improper waterproofing and other structural failings. These are alarming findings.
Meanwhile, rents at Library Gardens are reportedly between $2,150 to $4,000 for one to two bedroom units that are just 614 to 797 square feet of space. With the high demand for rental space in one of the tightest markets in America (San Francisco is a booming tech industry corridor where every housing option is fought for), people are willing to pay high prices for conditions they may readily admit are not the best.
In such volatile situations the skills and crafts of the builders can easily fall foul of the greed of developers, and in the push and pull between them bad -- if wholly unintended -- things can happen.
So it's hard not to stand on that street and feel that those six young Irish students had their dreams betrayed by considerations that they had little knowledge of. They were here for one magical summer, one that should have opened their hearts and minds, not tragically ended their young lives.
Justice will only come now with the full realization of what that unspeakable loss really meant, and an acknowledgment of -- and clear accountability for -- the structural failings that led to it.