The Joys of Piedmont Avenue

By Joe Kempkes, Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 15, 2008

After spending the 1970s in North Beach and the 1980s in Berkeley, I moved into a house overlooking Mountain View Cemetery at the east end of Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland.  

The cemetery was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Manhattan’s Central Park and the Capitol Grounds in Washington, D.C. Piedmont Avenue was laid out in the 19th Century paralleling a series of creeks.  

Across from the Chapel of the Chimes (Julia Morgan was the architect) is Pleasant Valley Creek, which is mostly underground these days. The creek surfaces again beyond MacArthur Blvd. and is then referred to as Glen Echo Creek. Each Earth Day a dozen of us neighbors pick up trash from the bushes bordering the creek.  

Piedmont Avenue has the scale of an early 20th century village. Today’s sidewalks are far too narrow for the current foot traffic. Lining the avenue are a series of shops, bars and restaurants that are heavily patronized. When Peet’s Coffee decided to expand from it s flagship in North Berkeley, it was Piedmont Avenue that got the nod. Then Old Uncle Gaylord started pushing Java down the block. And, to bring the coffee wars into full bore, that other place, the one that distributes CDs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, opened between the other two.  

When I bring out-of-town guests to Piedmont Avenue, they usually comment on the charm of the area. I’ll take them to Tropix for Caribbean food and we’ll languish in the back patio watching the sunlight stream through the beach-hut decor. Sometimes my guests won’t want to leave and they’ll drink one too many of those colorful drinks with the tiny umbrellas.  

If Piedmont Avenue could be said to have a heart, it would beat at the off-kilter intersection at 41st Street. Located there is the Piedmont Branch of the Oakland Public Library, two large murals depicting local characters and history and a small plaza where the Key Route train stopped once upon a time.  

Dozens of people sit at tables outside the aforementioned coffee shops and a new restaurant, Cesar, down the block. Across the street is Ninna’s Thai Restaurnat, where a gorgeous long-haired male waiter is frequently mistaken for a woman.  

Further down is Piedmont Avenue School which has a predominately Afro-American student body with a predominately Euro-American neighboring populace. There are three large assisted-living facilities nearby and you often see elderly people with walkers on the avenue.  

Recently I watched the Cal-Arizona football game at the Kerry House, the local bar. I struck up a conversation with a guy who I took to be Afghani. He told me he was a direct descendant of an Afghan king. It could be true or maybe it’s like the Irish: everyone is a descendant of Irish kings. He was drinking a Guinness I noticed. We talked about how great it was to be in Kabul in the mid-1970s, which was when we were both there. That was, of course, a few years before the Soviet invasion that nearly demolished Kabul.  

Piedmont Avenue comes alive whenever there’s a holiday. On Halloween the streets are overflowing with ghosts and goblins. At Easter time there are 10,000 tulips blooming at Mountain View Cemetery. The past few years the Chapel of the Chimes has hosted musical concerts. The first ones were attended mostly by neighbors. When the word spread, they turned into Woodstock-like affairs with cars over the horizon and people from Richmond, Walnut Creek and San Francisco gawking at the gothic madness.  

After 15 years on Pleasant Valley Court, the house I lived in was sold. The owner, who lived there for 80 years, went into a rest home. I moved to Rockridge but still bicycle down Piedmont Avenue daily enroute to the Oakland YMCA.