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Focus on West Berkeley Getting the Job Done By MARTA YAMAMOTO Special to the Planet

Friday January 27, 2006

There’s no denying that Berkeley has a worldwide reputation, not always positive. From humble beginnings in the 1850s, through the turbulent 1960s and up to today, Berkeley’s citizens are seldom shy about voicing their passions. 

Berkeley was first home to squatters along the bay’s shoreline attracted by accessible water and farmland. Later, the establishment of the University of California acted like a magnet for students and staff. The 1906 earthquake further increased the population, causing many San Franciscans to cross the bay and change their city of residence.  

This magnetism has been a constant pull from all directions. Today over 120 different languages and dialects are spoken within Berkeley’s eighteen square miles. Diversity, except perhaps politically, is what gives Berkeley its unique character and occasional discord, often resulting in a cacophony of ideologies, each marching to its own drummer. 

A postcard setting from the waters of the bay to the verdant hills, intellectual pursuit, appreciation of the arts and fine food, an abundance of coffee houses and bookstores, a commitment to the outdoors on the one hand, countered with a population of many dispossessed on the other, all combine to create a city beloved by many but identified as “Berzerkeley” by some. 

Berkeley as a whole breathes because of its parts, the individual neighborhoods of which it is comprised. As multiple systems function together to create a living organism, so too multiple neighborhoods function together as the city of Berkeley.  

Over the next several months I’ll place Berkeley’s neighborhoods under my own microscope, highlighting their history, architecture, culture, parks, and businesses, some of the essence of what makes them unique.  


West Berkeley—Getting the job done 

West Berkeley, once known as Ocean View, was the first neighborhood established, around 1853, and soon became a vibrant community of farmers, dockworkers, innkeepers and saloon owners, attracting many minority settlers. From the German, Irish, Finnish, Italian, Chinese and French settlers of the early 1900s to African American immigration during World War II and the recent influx of Latin-American, Asian-American and Southeast Indians—cultural diversity rules in West Berkeley and is its greatest strength. 

Occupying the area from Sacramento Avenue to the bay and from the Albany border to Ashby Avenue, Berkeley’s economic engine is an eclectic mixture of working class neighborhood, light industry and thriving business. Warehouses, auto repair and body shops, nurseries and artists coexist among restored Victorians, small bungalows and dilapidated cottages as well as Berkeley’s most effective retail district. 

A wander around Ocean View yields pieces of Berkeley’s past. The lovingly restored home at 1723 Sixth St. was one of 20 saloons serving residents and university students in the late 1800s. On Tenth Street the barn-like Finnish Hall gives testimony to the thriving Finnish community who built the hall in the early 1900s. The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd and the First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley, built in 1879, on Hearst Avenue, served the pioneer community.  

Ocean View’s architectural showpiece is the Delaware Street Historic District, a collection of 13 relocated Victorian buildings. With plank sidewalks, picket fences, period lampposts and signs and complementary colors, this street is a step back in time. Period detailing continues onto Fourth Street, where shops and eateries in attractive settings draw people from all directions. 

Much of West Berkeley’s charm lies in its juxtapositions. Twin Italianate houses on Fifth Street face a handbag outlet factory and a car repair shop. Throughout these streets, renovation alternates with dilapidation, residence with business, high technology with art—all thriving side by side. 

A natural resource for renovators and deconstructors alike is Ohmega Salvage and Ohmega Too on San Pablo Avenue. Here salvaged antiques and well made reproductions line the ground and fill the storage sheds. Multiple-pane wood windows and doors of all sizes are neatly stacked and labeled; pedestal porcelain sinks and claw foot bathtubs appear as art sculptures, with framed wood fireplace mantles and bannisters—proving that one person’s cast-off is another’s treasure. 

One area of West Berkeley’s cultural diversity can be found on lower University Avenue, where the smells and colors of Little India will send your heart east. From Bombay Spice House, redolent with exotic smells of curry and cardamom, the uplifting beat at Bombay Music to the fabrics at Roopam Saris, dazzling colors of a tropical paradise, all are a feast for your senses.  

Resembling the United Nations is Vik’s Distributors, where the market and the Chaat Café should be on everyone’s lunchtime list. Full plate curries, single entrees like Masala Dosa and Lamb Baida Roti, nan, puri and cholle, delightful confections and mango lassi—at incredibly low prices, explain why the line is long and tables full. Insubstantial paper plates and plastic sporks aren’t an issue when music fills the air and flavors burst in your mouth. 

West Berkeley’s tatterdemalion warehouses and buildings have reincarnated as homes and studios for artists in various mediums. The Berkeley Potters Guild, on Jones Street, in existence for 36 years, provides work and exhibit space for 19 ceramicists in a former auto repair shop. Styles range from whimsical to dramatic. A recent tour found duck candelabras, cuerda seca tiles, porcelain dinnerware in vibrant blue and rust, stark raku vases with copper-flamed designs, paper-clay pig statues—a small sample of the diverse work created here. 

Another culture awaits at Takara Sake on Addison Street. The architectural design of the Tasting Room, the crisp coolness of the various sakes, background music and a sense of calm serve as a stand in for another eastern trip. Douglas fir woodwork, granite floor tiles, shoji screens, large boulders and gently rotating ceiling mobiles each add to the unique ambiance. 

In the adjacent museum the story of 19th century sake production in Japan unfolds. Well laid out displays of rare tools and artifacts along with printed information give life to this period. Exquisitely rustic and simple and exquisitely beautiful are the wood implements and raffia containers. A wall-hung exhibit resembles the tools of present-day gardeners—broom, paddle, and rake. The museum’s showpiece is a giant wood and iron press adorned with thick ropes tied around large boulders.  

An area’s parklands are often indicative of its strengths. Strawberry Creek Park on Allston Way is easily missed, tucked between residential streets. On the former site of the Santa Fe Railroad, Strawberry Creek has been freed from its culverts and surrounded by green lawns and native plantings. Playground equipment and facilities for basketball, volleyball and tennis draw the more active. Expansive lawns, benches and an outdoors café in a stately brick building attract residents and visitors to this lovely urban park. 

Eclectic, diverse, economically vital, West Berkeley combines past and future. Restored Victorian homes, no frills food at Brennan’s and Juan’s Place, upscale shopping and dining on Fourth Street, small factory outlets and handmade craft, without pretense Berkeley’s first neighborhood gets the job done. 


Photograph by Marta Yamamoto. 

Day laborers wait for jobs outside the old First Presbyterian Church of West Berkeley.