Home & Garden Columns

Exploring Berkeley’s Southside By MARTA YAMAMOTO Special to the Planet

Friday February 24, 2006

Symbiotically, the University of California and the city of Berkeley are partners, not always in harmony. Since 1873 when students, professors and their educational accouterments moved from downtown Oakland to the new site above Oceanview, both have prospered. 

University trustees wanted a solid community of homesteaders to exist outside campus boundaries, subdividing non-campus land on streets laid out in grids, those running north-south named after men of science, east-west after men of letters. Carried by horse-drawn trolley down Telegraph Avenue, students disembarked at the site of today’s Sproul Hall. Slowly, businesses catering to their needs blossomed: rooming house and hotel, café and restaurant, butcher and grocery, Chinese laundry. Southside was born. 

Today Southside Berkeley is home to diverse communities. Telegraph’s magnetic forces draw across the board but as you travel south, homes, businesses and needs quiet and mature.  

Named after the first telegraph line in the East Bay, today’s Avenue is a student’s dream. For those around longer than a university stint, it represents much more. Combining the fight for individual rights with history and a strong independent streak, Telegraph pulses with change while hanging on to the ‘60s voices of Free Speech and Power To The People.  

Strolling the six-block length carries you past historic landmarks, book and music shops, clothing both vintage and contemporary, a cornucopia of street vendors and over fifty eateries and cafes. A hive of free spirit and creative expression by artists, poets, musicians and the disenfranchised. Something for everyone. 

Many Telegraph merchants reflect new trends: Addidas and Shiekh, Hot Topic and Wicked, crepes and curry, shawarma and falafel. Others, like Bill’s Men’s Shop and Rexall Drugs, have endured through turmoil and peace. 

Moe’s Books occupies five floors, signaling both new and quality used offerings with a striking red and white striped awning, almost next door to Cody’s Books, able to satisfy every esoteric need. Across the street, Shakespeare Books retains the old style, used-book atmosphere. Multiple cases cram every dark space, the old book smell perfuming the air. 

Vintage is in, as evidenced at Mars Mercantile, where white tennis shorts share space with beaded evening gowns, netted petticoats and an entire rack of Brokeback Mountain denim jackets. Model your latest find by descending the black iron spiral staircase.  

Amoeba Music will buy, sell or trade, new and old. The whimsical metal assemblage band of musicians occupying front stage elicits instant smiles. Composed of washboards, hubcaps, rakes, hoses, molds and spoons, their music is faint but distinct. Rasputin’s draws you in with posters for the music of your choice, whether indies, punk, goth, soul, reggae or international. For music in person, Blake’s is renowned. Move your body and satisfy your soul. 

When hunger strikes, choices are vast. Café Intermezzo is packed, and for good reason, with huge portions at reasonable prices. Blondie’s and Fat Slice allow you to carry away lunch for $2 plus change. Mario’s La Fiesta has been serving authentic flautas, menudo and grilled burritos since 1959. 

Coffee cravings are easily met in a myriad of styles. The Mediterraneum seems quiet now, faded blue and white awning and black and white tiled floor unchanged. At The Musical Offering, classical CDs occupy the back of this long, narrow space while an airy convivial café fills the front. At Cafe Strada every outdoor table is always occupied. Espresso drinks crowd the tabletops while students crowd the benches. 

The heart of Telegraph’s history is People’s Park. A small stage sits before an expanse of lawn, verdant trees and shrubs. Room for vegetables, basketball and quiet repose barely echo the effort required to secure this sacred ground. Here the symbolism equals the land. For a graphic depiction of this struggle, the “People’s History of Telegraph” mural tells the story, required viewing for all Telegraph strollers.  

Southside Berkeley extends all the way to the Oakland border, serving multiple communities. Here Berkeley’s working classes have their physical and cultural needs met by a rich variety of venues. Among brown shingles, stick-Eastlake cottages, Victorians and recent constructions, residents’ work, play and thrive. 

Want to know what Berkeley’s all about? Show up at Berkeley Bowl Saturday morning when the parking lot is filling up and a peaceful crowd of almost 100 waits for the doors to open. These are Berkeley’s faces—all ages, all ethnicities, pure and mixed, as varied at the choices within.  

Inside, produce rules. More than 30 varieties of apples, same for citrus. Organic, heirloom, fancy, extra fancy, pesticide-free—take your pick. Want something esoteric? Try abalone, wood ear, black trumpet and yellow foot mushrooms. Carts converge, merge and intersect, not unlike an L.A. freeway. Patience is recommended. 

Beyond produce are hundreds of bins offering bulk grains, nuts, beans and exotic combinations. Marinated olives, fresh salmon, free range chicken, triple cream brie, dark chocolate brownie, pugliese, deep blue irises, all the way to laundry soap and toilet paper. A full service grocery plus atmosphere. 

When sated with the smells and tastes of food, activity is required. Within a 2,000-square-foot, Art Deco rink, Berkeley’s Iceland has been issuing skates since 1939. Forever a kitschy winter wonderland, with snow-capped trees and holiday lights, this gymnasium with floor of ice has a monthly calendar crowded with choices from morning till night. 

My recent visit seemed a step back in time, zamboni gliding over the ice, young girls laughing and skating. Classes, youth hockey, synchronized skate, birthday parties and school fundraisers are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Ready to remodel, prune or just repair the fence? A Berkeley Public Library card will get you in the door of the Tool Lending Library where the variety of possible rentals is vast. Coping saw, circuit tester, lopping shear and drain snake could be in your hands next weekend. Well-packed, peg-boarded, and binned, this library distributes banter as well as tools, both equally valuable. 

When food for the soul beckons three choices lead to different cultures. The Thai Buddhist Temple offers services and cultural events, another full calendar. To be transported to a Thai bazaar head to the back. Under blue and white awnings, corrugated metal and green plastic, tables fill every square inch, including alleyways. They’re necessary for the famous Sunday brunch where tokens are traded for a delicious array of Thai delicacies and hearty fare. 

The fare at the Black Repertory Group stirs the soul. Inside the distinctively painted theater, aglow in purple, orange and mustard, Mainstage Productions presents the work of black writers. Mentoring, apprentice and internship programs reach out to young adults; summer camp and acting classes help instill the “theater bug” in the young, providing instruction and a creative venue for expression. 

La Peña Cultural Center is at the heart of Berkeley’s life philosophy. A place where all cultures are welcomed, somewhere newcomers feel acceptance. Opened in 1975, La Peña offered refuge to thousands of South American exiles, many from Chile. With them came the tradition of La Peña, a gathering place for art, culture and discussion. 

From the vibrant front wall mural and the art filled Café Valparaiso to the halls where performances and discussions take place; La Peña is fulfilling its goals. Seeing the children of yesterday become today’s volunteers is proof the message has been absorbed.  

From the Gateway to the University to Oakland’s borders, neighborhood quietly hum. A stroll through bohemia, a latte and Bach, grocery bags brimming with goodies, public skate under disco lights, theater for the mind, Cuban music for the soul. Just a sample of life in Berkeley’s Southside. 



Berkeley Bowl: 2020 Oregon St., 843- 6929, www.berkeleybowl.com.  

Iceland: 2727 Milvia St., 647-1606, www.berkeleyiceland.com. 

Tool Lending Library: 1901 Russell St., 981 6101, www.berkeleypubliclibrary.org/tool. 

Thai Buddhist Temple: 1911 Russell St., 849 3419.  

Black Repertory Group Theater: 3201 Adeline St., 652 8030, www.blackrepertorygroup.com. 

La Peña Cultural Center: 3105 Shattuck Ave., 849 2568, www.lapena.org.