West Berkeley unites for a party

Chris Nichols
Tuesday September 17, 2002

The late Bill Hicks had a vision for his diverse, west Berkeley neighborhood. The long-time community leader and barbecue fan wanted to showcase the unique cultures of west Berkeley in one big annual blowout. On Sunday, the party began. 

At the First Annual Heritage Day, local residents, artisans, musicians and city leaders joined to celebrate, on University Avenue between Third and Fourth streets. While some residents have said the neighborhood lacks a sense of community, Willie Phillips, president of the West Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation, said Heritage Day might change that. 

“It's an opportunity to bring west Berkeley together,” said Phillips. “You have so many very diverse groups in the neighborhood, this event provides them the chance to share their own heritage with each other.” 

In addition to bringing cultures together, sponsors are hoping the festival will provide economic empowerment for local artisans in the mostly working-class neighborhood. 

Many vendors at Sunday's festival, including Yüksel Dinccag, a photographer and local artist originally from Turkey, sold a few items and shared a bit of their culture. 

“I want people to become familiar with Turkish art,” said Dinccag, who sells traditional Turkish head scarves along with a selection of her own photography. Embroidered with ornate and colorful borders, each scarf tells a different story.  

Pam Jackson, a veteran painter who recently moved to the Bay Area from Detroit, said she is delighted with such opportunity to showcase her paintings in Berkeley.  

“Berkeley is a fabulous place to be an artist,” Jackson said. “I think today was a great idea. [Heritage Day] creates good business opportunities for Berkeley.” 

Though business has boomed on Berkeley's retail-friendly Fourth Street, many area residents were happy to see another part of west Berkeley shine on Sunday.  

“It's small but nice,” said Berkeley resident David Sims of the afternoon celebration. “[West Berkeley] needs it. There's very little of anything here.” 

In an effort to show residents the city cares about west Berkeley, city planners attended Sunday's festival and spoke with the neighbors. 

“We have to go out and meet people and not wait for them to come to us,” said Iris Starr, senior redevelopment planner for the city. 

Displaying sketches of the city's proposed transit hub for the western stretch of University Avenue, Starr emphasized that Berkeley needs to find new ways to involve its residents, many of whom do not speak English. 

Finding such a common language is one of the goals of Heritage Day, according to organizers. Many hope the festival will become an annual event similar to south Berkeley's Juneteenth Day, a cultural celebration marking the end of slavery in the United States. 

At the very least, organizers are confident that residents will learn a bit about the rich history of the area through the festival. 

A fan of history herself, Betsy Morris, secretary for the WBNDC, said the area is not only unique for its ethnic diversity but also for its social and political tradition. 

The Socialist and Communist parties of early 20th century were formed in the area, according to Morris. In addition, the cooperative movement and a strong union affiliation developed in west Berkeley, originally known as the Oceanview district. The beginnings of today's Longshoremen's Union were at one time centered in west Berkeley as well, Morris added. 

Today the neighborhood still shows signs of its port of entry past. While much of the Japanese population has moved out of west Berkeley, a number of Japanese fish markets remain. 

Large concentrations of Latinos and blacks - relegated to the area west of San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley during segregation - still make up most of the population.