Home & Garden Columns
When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go—downtown.
In the 1960s Petula Clark sang of the attractions of a downtown neighborhood—neon signs, traffic music, the rhythm of the bossa nova. Times have changed but Berkeley’s Downtown has on offer an eclectic selection of venues to draw your interest.
Combining the seat of city government with a commercial center, Berkeley has imprinted its distinctive personality on the area surrounding Shattuck Avenue. A vibrant arts and entertainment industry intermixed with over one hundred eateries representing the cuisine of fifteen countries mirrors this ethnically mixed community. Almost 50 percent of Berkeley’s population resides within a one-mile radius of downtown. This population swells with the daily influx of workers and the students at Berkeley High and the university, resulting in high density with divergent needs.
The downtown area developed with thanks to Francis Shattuck and the railroad. In 1876 Shattuck convinced Central Pacific Railroad to run a spur line through his property and build a station at the intersection of University and Shattuck. Businesses grew, booming in 1903 when Key System electric trains offered additional transport and again, after the 1906 earthquake.
Today’s skyline reflects the push for additional housing units and modern commercial space, but Berkeley’s past remains. An architectural walk highlights several historic buildings. The Berkeley Historical Society, housed in the Veteran’s Memorial Building, is a good starting point. Their goal is preserving Berkeley’s past and making it available to the public. A museum, library and organized walks don’t let us forget the events and people who forged this city. My recent visit coincided with the exhibit Fermenting Berkeley, using photographs and newspapers articles to contrast Wets vs. Drys, when early liquor laws divided the city.
Berkeley’s former City Hall, a handsome Beaux-Arts building in columned gray with teal cupola, the Main Post Office, fronted with columns and classic arches, and the Shattuck Plaza Hotel, in multi-colored Mediterranean Renaissance Revival, reflect the styles of the early 1900s. The public library’s Art Deco architecture of the 1930s fronts recent innovations inside. Electric classrooms, the children’s library with crayon carpet and giant stuffed frog and gorilla, the huge windows, high ceilings and well-lit tables explain why lines form outside everyday eagerly awaiting open doors. Art Deco is seen again at the Berkeley Community Theatre, within Berkeley High’s campus. Here and on school buildings white wall-size figured reliefs herald the arts.
Quieter today than during the turbulent 1960s is downtown’s central MLK Memorial Park, site of many anti-war protests. Expansive lawn, small playground and Peace Wall of over one hundred hand-painted tiles seem strangely empty except during Berkeley High’s open campus lunch break. Twice weekly the park forms the boundary of Berkeley’s Farmers’ Market, a peaceful carnival-like event. Performers here are food artisans offering organic produce, grass-fed meat, cheese, baked goods, and flowers; musicians serenading; and shoppers with wicker baskets and child-laden wagons to carry home their purchases.
Artisans in entertainment and the arts have carved their own niche in Berkeley’s downtown. Along the length of Addison Street thrive theater, music and poetry. Take your time and keep your eyes on the sidewalk at the curb’s edge. One hundred twenty-eight iron and ceramic panels are engraved with poems selected by Robert Hass to reflect Berkeley’s history. From the Ohlone song, “Hey, fog, go home,” Ishmael Reed’s “Going East,” Margaret Schevill’s Desert Center, to Alfred Arteaga’s “Corrido Blanco”—each echo Berkeley’s voices.
Theater lovers have two choices merely steps apart. The Berkeley Repertory Theater has metastasized since its origin in a tiny theater on College Avenue. Today patrons from throughout Northern California enjoy productions like the upcoming The Glass Menagerie featuring Rita Moreno. Next door, the Aurora Theater offers a more intimate experience in its theater in the round.
Jazz in all its forms is performed and taught at the Jazzschool, housed in the historic Kress building since 1997. Heralded as one of the best, this innovative school broadly targets all levels and ages. Downstairs practice rooms share space with the Jazzcafe, a book and record shop and art gallery. You can enjoy the syncopated beat of practice drums along with fresh sandwiches, a golden beet salad with goat cheese or a cappuccino. Seating on warm-colored wood chairs amid walls of rich terra cotta listening to cool jazz among music lovers easily sets the mood for the wealth of classes and concerts on offer.
From the cool of jazz to the heat of tropical Brazil. Bright, richly painted walls festooned with plants, murals of city and beach scenes, tile roofs, adults and children playing and working beach-side—all set the scene at the Capoeira Arts Cafe. With café in front and classroom at the rear, listening to the rhythmic beat of the berimbau, Afro-Brazilian martial arts is taught and practiced. Involving chanting, kicks, sweeps and handstands, these deceptive dance-like movements tell the story of survival in an unfamiliar land.
Providing city services amid varied commercial enterprises leaves little room for charm. Those in the know select spaces away from the bustle to relax. Trumpetvine Court with walls formed of brick and covered with—Trumpet vine—is a perfect escape. Cooled by umbrellas in summer, warmed by heaters in winter, yellow picnic tables provide ample seating. For a European flavor, one can enjoy freshly assembled ingredients from The Panini Café. Sandwiches of fresh salmon or vegetarian mushroom, mixed baby greens or pasta salad, hearty homemade soup, all make you want to linger past your lunch hour.
At La Note Restaurant you’ll feel you’ve finally made it to France. Cool green walls atop darker green wainscoting, Provencal accoutrements like straw hats and ceramic bowls, travel posters and huge white hydrangeas in French metal flower buckets provide ambience. Partake of sandwiches, (baguette a la merquez or thon grille) salades (nicoise or paysanne) and plats de jour (ratatouille). A busy outdoor patio, a lively dining space inside and weekend lines signal this is no well-kept secret.
On Center Street’s Restaurant Row any group of hungry diners can make individual selections. Good all-American fare shares outdoor tables amid potted greenery with international cuisine. Top Dog, Bongo Burger and Pie In The Sky fill traditional stomachs while Laregal, Raphael, Ajiya and Alborz bring the flavors of Vietnam, Italy, Japan and Persia to adventurous palettes.
Downtown Berkeley forges the pressures of government services for a diverse community with artistic release and the comfort of good food.
So maybe I’ll see you there. We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares. Downtown –everything’s waiting for you.
Berkeley Historical Society: 1931 Center St., 848-0181, www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/histsoc.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre: 2025 Addison St., 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org.
Aurora Theatre: 2081 Addison St., 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org.
Jazzschool: 2087 Addison St., 845-5373, www.jazzschool.com.
Capoeira Arts Café: 2026 Addison St., 666-1255, www.capoeiraarts.com.
Café Panini: 2115 Allston Way, 849-0405.
La Note Restaurant: 2377 Shattuck Ave., 843-1535.›