Home & Garden Columns

The Berkeley-Oakland Neighborhood Name Game

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Friday September 28, 2007

Would a neighborhood by any other name still sell as sweet? An entertaining aspect of reading real estate listings in Berkeley has to do with the identification of neighborhoods. 

Realtors have a fine-tuned sense of what will attract the interest of prospective buyers. Revering “location, location, location” they attach favored neighborhood names to their listings, often stretching geographical and historical credibility in the process. 

Here’s an example. I live in Berkeley’s Le Conte neighborhood. It’s roughly west of Telegraph, south of Dwight, east of Shattuck. No one who lives here, so far as I know, calls it the “Elmwood.” That’s a separate and distinct district centered at Ashby and College blocks to the east. Everyone knows that. 

Everyone but realtors and some buyers, that is. For years I’ve picked up house-for-sale flyers to find I live in the “Greater Elmwood,” “Outer Elmwood,” or “Lower Elmwood.” This designation sometimes seemed to extend to homes within honking distance of south Shattuck. 

More recently, however, the Le Conte district has acquired its own East Berkeley cachet. We’re sometimes described now as the “Berkeley Bowl Neighborhood.” 

But who knows what confusion will ensue when Berkeley Bowl opens their second branch miles west, off Seventh Street, and realtors down there want a piece of the name identification? Will that become “West Berkeley Bowl Neighborhood"? Perhaps “WeBo” for short? 

Still, “Elmwood” lingers in places it really hasn’t put down roots. New condominiums on the west side of Telegraph, at the edge of Le Conte, and just a few blocks south of Dwight, were recently marketed as “in the tree-lined Elmwood District.” 

Rockridge is the Oakland version of Berkeley’s Elmwood, a district of immensely expandable, and often imaginary, proportions sprawling, in the peculiar geography of realtors, for scores of blocks in all directions. I’ve been told over the years that many Oaklanders have been amused to find that they were living in “The Rockridge” when they actually resided a zip code or two away. 

But recently, as gentrification creeps, other North Oakland neighborhoods are reasserting their identity apart from Rockridge. “Temescal” has come into its own and carved out its old zone around the nexus of Telegraph, Claremont, and 51st Street. 

Nearby along Telegraph just north of Highway 24 there’s “Idora Park,” the name of a 19th-century beer garden and amusement resort, later subdivided for homes. And a bit further north Berkeley’s “Halcyon Neighborhood” has self-identified in recent years around a new pocket park. 

I love the possibility that these names may come to everyday usage, just as the long-lost, pre-annexation name of “Lorin” is increasingly used for the area around the Ashby BART Station. “Lorin District” gives renewed and much needed distinction to a great part of town that, for generations, was regarded as just part of “South Berkeley,” as was “Le Conte” for that matter. 

South Berkeley, as you may know, is another name for Where Redevelopment Schemes Go to Revive. Sort of like “North Oakland,” at least the tiny part that’s not “Rockridge.” 

Sometimes a great name can undesirably change a neighborhood. Journalist Hunter Thompson once proposed to roll back gentrification in the Rockies by officially changing the name of Aspen, Colorado. The ski and jet set would abandon the town, he argued, if forced to list “Fat City” as an address. 

Berkeley neighborhoods are not necessarily exactly defined although some are demarcated with stone entrance pillars, tinted sidewalks, and the like. There are areas where names naturally collide and a certain fluidity of identity is appropriate. Both the Willard neighborhood and the Bateman (around Alta Bates Hospital) district overlap what’s also called Elmwood. 

And neighborhood names often evolve. When I moved to Berkeley, many old-timers still called the Telegraph business district and surroundings “Telly.” You rarely hear that now. 

That neighborhood then went through a period as the “South Campus” which didn’t sit well with those fretful about university expansion. For the past two decades or so “Southside” seems to have become respectable, although spinning off a few illegitimate offspring along the way. 

For example, a condo development on Telegraph several blocks south of Ashby and properly near the edge of the Bateman neighborhood was named “Southside Lofts” a few years back, a geographical misplacement of nearly a mile. 

Some neighborhoods never seem to have prominent names. Consider that part of Berkeley north of University Avenue and east of Sacramento Street. It doesn’t seem to have a clear name, as far as I know, although in Realtorese any home there would probably be described as “a few minutes walk from the Gourmet Ghetto.” 

Perhaps it will soon be the “Trader Joe’s” neighborhood; move over, Berkeley Bowl. 

That same area falls into the “Central Berkeley” classification, an uncomfortable appellation since developers, city staff and councilmembers often translate it to “Central City: Build Big Here.” 

Nearby, long-time residents may have found an antidote to upward expansionism by calling their Central Berkeley district, west of old City Hall, “McGee’s Farm” after the homesteader who once owned it. That’s a nomenclatural cow’s kick in the solar plexus to urban density advocates. Build condos in our farm fields, heh? 

On the other hand, maybe the McGee Farmers have doomed themselves, since real estate development traditionally destroys the very things it ostensibly honors. Think of all the “Shady Acres” and the like that designate forests of condo towers or fields of sun-struck tract homes. 

Evocative names like “Elmwood” and “Rockridge” presumably add panache and attract potential buyers, although their origins may be humble. For example, that’s Rockridge as in the ridge of rock that early Oaklanders revered so much they took away quite a lot of it in quarry operations. And isn’t adjacent “Temescal” something like “Sweat Lodge” in the Olde Tongue? 

At least homely East Bay names are still a notch up from San Francisco’s “Cow Hollow” or “Dog Patch.” And we have few, if any, of those colorful East Coast names like “Hell’s Kitchen.” We have to make do with “Gourmet Ghetto” instead, or perhaps “Nut Hill.” 

An old Oakland native once told me that the now very chic cleft valley along Highway 13 south of Lake Temescal was colloquially called “Pneumonia Gulch” because the sun entered late and left early, and the fog and chill lingered. 

I’m not sure anyone ever used that officially, though. “Pneumonia Gulch Liquors,” for instance, would be a bad business naming decision, although those shopping there would have the assurance that if something went wrong, the ambulance trip wouldn’t be too far to what has long been known as Oakland’s “Pill Hill” neighborhood with its phalanx of hospitals and pharmacists. 

No, “Montclair Village” is just fine, especially since residents probably wouldn’t feel comfortable living in “Hayward Fault Heights.” 

Some may remember that after the 1991 hill fire there was a short-lived movement for parts of the Oakland Hills to separate from the city and become a new town named “Tuscany", evoking visions of sun-drenched grapevines rather than rows of charred telephone poles. 

And “Oakland Hills"—there’s a term. Where exactly do the “Oakland Hills” end and the “Berkeley Hills” begin? Similarly, can anyone name an undeniably precise line where “Hills” change to “Flatlands”? 

It’s all enough to make you want to give up and go home to your own neighborhood. Whatever the realtors are calling it now.