Editorial: Social Notes From All Over By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday May 17, 2005

Well, I think we can safely say that the fast-track canonization of John Paul II is a sure thing now. Not only has the new Pope waived the waiting period, but the requisite miracle has occurred. Anna DeLeon, the pride of Immaculate Heart High School, who has arm-wrestled for months or even years with developer Patrick Kennedy, has brought him to his knees. Anna’s Jazz Island bar opened on Saturday night in Kennedy’s Gaia Building. It is the heir to a long line of struggles and failures by wanna-be impresarios who didn’t have the muscle to collect on Kennedy’s promise to devote the first floor of the building to some cultural use in return for an extra story or two of student apartments upstairs. What Anna brought to the party that earlier would-be tenants lacked: (1) a law degree from Boalt, a good match for Kennedy’s Ivy League law degree; (2) extremely good political connections from years of swimming in leftish waters; (3) quick wits; (4) incredible tenacity and general chutzpah.  

The struggle over the Gaia Building and the “cultural bonus” it received dates back to before the turn of this millennium. In the beginning, there was a controversy about whether the City of Berkeley should allow Kennedy to demolish a historic stable building, on the site from the turn of the last century, without doing a CEQA-mandated environmental impact report. I myself, when I was young and foolish, believed that I had Kennedy dead to rights over that one. He must have thought my threatened EIR lawsuit had some merit, because he agreed to donate several thousand dollars to an architectural history organization if I would drop it, which I did. The city planner who approved the city’s deal over the Gaia departed soon thereafter, and current planners have been heard to say that it never should have happened, but it did.  

The subsequent history—how nothing materialized to justify the cultural bonus for years—is a saga in itself. The building’s name, for those of you who are new to town, derives from the earth-mother in Greek mythology, a somewhat obscure reference for a building that looks like a cross between a Las Vegas casino and Turkish baths. The eco-feminist Gaia Bookstore, the putative original cultural tenant, went belly-up before it moved in. Then the Shotgun Players tried to turn the cramped and cave-like first floor space into a theater, but the project faltered when they couldn’t pay for finishing it out to code. 

Anna, a veteran of many rent control struggles, concocted a tight lease which says that she didn’t have to pay rent until 90 days after she moved in. At least, that’s the way she reads it. Evidently there was, shall we say, some difference of opinion about what it means, but her theory has prevailed. She’s in, hasn’t paid a cent of rent, and won’t have to until after the end of the summer slow season. 

The club takes advantage of the low ceilings, with a décor described by a mutual friend as reminiscent of New York’s Hotel Carlyle. Actually, it’s more The Carlyle Goes Hawaiian, thanks to an assortment of almost-real palm trees acquired at the Planet Hollywood auction. Ceiling conduits are disguised by paint; there’s a string of faux-grass-skirt tinsel over the bar. Originally the space lacked bathrooms (a real minus for a watering hole), but after some tough talking they’re in—down the hall and decorated in Early Gymnasium white tile and fluorescent lights, but in. There’s even a mop sink somewhere (I didn’t see it), the last detail required by code before occupancy. It materialized in a hurry when Mayor Bates wanted to schedule an event in the space a few weeks ago. 

The politicos, including Bates and his lovely Assemblymember, were out in force at Saturday’s opening. The Bates-Hancocks came in about 9:30 p.m. with their friends the Wozniaks. (Evie Wozniak, Gordon’s wife, was once Loni Hancock’s appointment secretary. Small world, isn’t it?) From the progressive end of the dais, new councilmember Max Anderson was there. Peralta Community College District Trustee Alona Clifton was front and center.  

And of course, the jazz artists were in attendance, hoping that the club would be a real venue, a source of gigs to come. The Legendary Miss Faye Carol, Berkeley’s blues and jazz queen, was there, as was equally legendary hard bop saxophonist Hal Stein, who sometimes plays at Downtown, the chi-chi restaurant in a restored historic building on Shattuck. 

At the party I chatted with the Planet’s neighbor Fernando A. Torres of La Peña, the cultural center which has survived for 30 years. He’s an original member of the collective which runs La Peña, and the publicity coordinator for its varied menu of events. He said that there had been some effort to persuade La Peña to move downtown, but that they’d decided to stay where they are now. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the concept of relegating the arts to a small designated downtown “arts district,” preferring to stay close to the audience in our lively South Shattuck neighborhood (also home of the Starry Plough and of Anna’s first club.). “Now we’ve got the Ashby Arts district,” he said enthusiastically. The Shotgun Players have bought the Ashby Stage theater, and more is happening there all the time without any “cultural bonuses” for developers.  

Can Anna’s turn sluggish downtown Berkeley into a real late-night music destination? Maybe. We’ll see what happens when she starts paying rent and construction begins on the next door Oxford parking lot, where we parked with some difficulty on Saturday. We wish her well.