Cancer Leads To Ocean View Exploration

By SUSAN PARKER Special to the Planet Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 12, 2003

Many of us know the Ocean View section of Berkeley primarily for its high-end shops, Spenger’s Fish Grotto, Bette’s Ocean View Diner, Peet’s Coffee, and the Crate & Barrel Outlet Store. But for West Berkeley writer/resident Barbara Gates, confrontation with one of life’s greatest terrors provided the springboard for an intensely personal search for understanding of place. The result is her gift to us, her readers, of an unexpected and compelling insider’s view of a multi-layered, multi-ethnic neighborhood. 

Though the pages of her sweetly revealing memoir, “Already Home: A Topography of Spirit and Place,” Gates offers a social, historic exploration of her ‘hood, beautifully written in a journalistic style that explains the migration of communities (flora and fauna, people, businesses and social movements) and celebrates the fundamental nature of extended family and home. Liberally intertwining Eastern philosophy with a dose of Buddhist-Jewish chutzpah, Barbara inspires us to stop, look, seize the moment, live more fully and honor the life that is all around.  

An East Coast escapee, Barbara and her husband, a lawyer, bought their 1894 Victorian in Ocean View back in 1988, before the last few vestiges of dirt paths, creekbeds and lots were paved over and before many of the upscale shops had moved in. Not long after they set up housekeeping, Barbara, at age 42, gave birth to their first and only child, a daughter. 

And then came the unexpected news, a diagnosis of breast cancer, and suddenly the very definitions of home, family, and community morphed, becoming important parts of her treatment, therapy and eventual recovery. 

Advised by a local acupuncturist to take more risks, Barbara, a self-proclaimed klutz when it comes to directions and maps, decided to venture out of her family nest and build a relationship with her Ocean View neighborhood by learning all that she could about its history, topography, biology, industry and people. 

While contemplating her mortality, she puts West Berkeley under a microscope, waking up early to study its wildlife, walking along its cracked sidewalks, talking with permanent and transient residents, visiting libraries, cemeteries, historical societies, and the Alameda County Recorder’s Office. She interviews government officials, tracks down death certificates, collects maps and old photographs and finally, coming home exhausted, she is lulled to sleep by the sound of trains chugging along the nearby Southern Pacific tracks. Barbara writes that “in my explorations of this home terrain, what I found outside led me to examine myself. What I experienced inside seemed to ripple out. I couldn’t go out without going in at the same time, go in without going out.” 

Barbara’s explorations take her back in time to 3,700 B.C. when Ohlone Indians lived alongside Strawberry Creek in a village built on the shellmound where today stands Truitt and White Lumber. She gives us the early Spanish explorers and later European settlers, the fishermen, farmers, tanners, coopers, and boat builders, along with their wives and children, churches and taverns. She takes us to the sand treatment plant, the East Bay Vivarium, the garbage transfer station, the homeless encampments, and the SPCA. We get to know the destitute person who sometimes sleeps in the back seat of Barbara’s car, the mailman who loves Barbara’s roses, next door neighbor Grandma Darlene, the twelve cats who sun themselves in an adjacent driveway, the people from the past who once lived in her house and within the surrounding block.  

After reading her story I could hardly wait to meet Barbara and take one of her walks with her. Although I was familiar with the area in which she lives, having worked in a small adventure travel firm on one of its side streets, I’d never taken the time to really look beyond the surface of this eclectic, diverse neighborhood. Heading toward Fourth Street, Barbara pointed out Finnish Hall (built in 1908), the Good Shepherd Church (built in 1878) and the First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley (1879), later to become the St. Procopius Latin Rite Church, and now the new Coptic church of the Ethiopian community. 

She introduced me to an unnamed alley that wanders between residences and businesses, parts of which have only recently been paved. As we walked and talked Barbara zigzagged across the blacktop, sneaking peeks through fence slats into overgrown, manicured, sculpted and abandoned yards. 

We gathered plump blackberries hanging from chain link fences and scooted between cars and trucks, abandoned mattresses and couches. 

After heading north in the alley for as far as we could, we turned west across the train tracks to find ourselves in an industrial area full of clanging machinery, roaring furnaces, noisy lunch trucks, and burly men dressed in overalls and hard hats. Hollering above the din, Barbara explained that she has not fully come to terms with the spewing smokestacks and unpleasant odors that often permeate her neighborhood, but she is teaching herself to “…see them, to deal with their potential dangers, to stop paving over these unwelcome reminders of toxicity, of mortality.” 

Walking south along the pot-holed road that borders Interstate 80 and the railroad tracks, we came across an old station wagon with suitcases strapped onto the roof. 

“Look,” I shouted to Barbara, “there’s a chicken in the front seat!”  

It was the perfect metaphor for our walk: A wayward chicken that had found a home in a vehicle that looked as if it had traveled from somewhere faraway to the edge of the continent, parked on an industrial side street, behind the chic, expensive shops of Fourth Street. When Barbara scurried over for a closer look, a human form in the backseat made an effort to sit up. Two different species were co-habitating in the shell of something that was originally manufactured for another use; car, chicken and man epitomizing the multi-layered, interdependent community that is Ocean View. Glancing westward I could see exactly what the man and the chicken could also see just beyond the rushing traffic of Interstate 80: a wide blue expanse of the San Francisco Bay, and beyond that the Golden Gate, framing the vast expanse of ocean, fading distantly into the horizon.  

In sync, Barbara and I both took a deep, collective breath and headed for home.  

Ocean View will celebrate its 150th anniversary in October and November with a series of lectures and readings. For more information or to volunteer, contact Barbara Gates at bgates@gtcinternet.com or Stephanie Manning at bahaworks@yahoo.com. 


Barbara Gates will read from her work Wednesday Aug. 13, 7:00 p.m. at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; Sunday, Aug. 17, 7:00 p.m. at Point Reyes Books, 11315 State Route 1, Point Reyes; Tuesday, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m. at Writers’ Group Evening at Barnes & Noble, 2352 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.