West Berkeley in Review

No, I am not really done talking about West Berkeley (WB), but last week I completed the two remaining blocks I had not yet walked west of San Pablo Avenue. It was really quite by accident; I knew I had to get to those streets eventually and happened to be nearby running an errand. Then over the weekend, I walked a number of streets all the way across town at the northeastern edges of Berkeley. More on that walk later and contrasts between two vastly different areas of this city…

Although I have been enjoying walking everywhere in Berkeley, I found myself picking WB for many of my early walks. Why was that? As I thought about my overall experience in this part of town, I believe it was because it was very different than many other places I have walked in Berkeley and elsewhere. I have done lots of walking in urban, rural, and suburban areas, but not so much in industrial places like WB. And I think what I most appreciated about WB was its accessibility to walkers. Industrial activity in the San Francisco Bay Area is mostly found surrounding the edges of the bay itself. This makes sense when you think about early activity in the area — cargo came in by ship through the Golden Gate from elsewhere in the world and to the ports, then was transported by rail around the bay and outward. Today, the bay shoreline area is a mix of industrial activity, landfill (with parks or housing complexes), and wildlife restoration areas. The industrial areas are still accessible by car, but not as easy to get to on foot. They are often far away from public transportation, require navigation of hazardous freeway on-ramps, and in some cases (such as a bit of the Port of Oakland area) are fenced off or otherwise not as accessible due to national security concerns. With WB this is not the case; it is short walk from BART or one of the many buses that run along San Pablo, and I explored the entire area without any problems accessing streets on foot and without any questioning glances or questions about what I was doing walking around there.

Third Floor, Looking Out [Flint/Cal Ink] by Joe Reifer

I was surprised to find just how much manufacturing had happened (or was still happening) in Berkeley. Thanks to a great pamphlet from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association called Discovering West Berkeley: A Self-Guided Tour, I learned more about the history of some of the factories, warehouses, and industrial buildings in the area. Some of the manufacturing and industrial activities included iron and steel foundries, tanneries, printing inks, fruit packing, and manufacture of vegetable oils, condiments (H.J. Heinz), carbonated beverages (Canada Dry), soap and glycerin (Colgate-Palmolive-Peet), adhesives, paper bags and boxes, knitting (bathing suits and sweaters), clocks, and drinking fountains.

I could not really conclude from my walk what the future of West Berkeley might be. Right now it seems like it could go in many directions. There is a mix of industrial, retail (Fourth Street) and wholesale outlets, apartment buildings, regular houses, newly built “live-work” and loft buildings, and restaurants. West Berkeley has been at the center of many debates since I moved here, from how its spaces will be used (light industrial, housing, etc.) to concerns with odors from Pacific Steel Casting to the building of a new Berkeley Bowl store. West Berkeley will definitely be an area that I will continue to go back to in order to observe that changes, at whatever speed they happen.

In addition to Discovering West Berkeley (which is available at Berkeley Public Library) I recommend the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Back to the Bay: Exploring the Margin of the San Francisco Bay Region, for further research about industrial activity around the San Francisco Bay, and the San Francisco Bay Shoreline Guide for learning about both the wildlife and the character of bay shoreline areas.



  1. I really like Joe’s photograph of that wall of broken windows. The coloring!!

  2. neath said

    yea, fantastic shot!


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