Archive for Neighborhoods: South Berkeley

Hidden Gems of Berkeley

Instead of walking every street Berkeley, I could have just as easily decided to cycle every street. Several factors make walking a better choice for this project in Berkeley: its small size, the steep streets of the Berkeley hills (fine if you are just riding, but stopping and starting several times on a hill is not much fun), the many paths and stairways that need to be navigated on foot, etc. In the flatlands of Berkeley, though, going by bicycle is a great way to see points of interest around town. This Sunday, May 20 (10 am to 2 pm) is a good chance to do just this. Environmental planner John Steere is leading the fifth Hidden Gems of Berkeley [note: PDF file] bike ride exploring “quirky architecture, lovely gardens, excellence in urban design, and an eclectic collection of historical, natural, and unusual features.”

Small section of the Hidden Gems map, designed by John Coveney

This year’s ride starts at Halcyon Commons, and explores “hidden gems” in South Berkeley and Elmwood. You’ll get to hear from guest guides/historians and see the fish house, the TV house, front yard sculptures, vegetable gardens, and many other interesting sights. The ride is free, and the lovely Hidden Gems map can be purchased for a small fee that day.

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Dog-gone

It had been awhile since I was at the very southern Berkeley border on San Pablo, so I was surprised to find that the Twin Castle Express that resides there had closed and was soon to be demolished. Having not eaten a hot dog or any other meat in a number of years, I was not particularly saddened about not being able to order the burgers, fries, soft-serve cones and other items this stand offered, but I did enjoy the (It think) 1950s signage at the restaurant. Where will the signs go, I wonder? I’m not ready to jump the fence and grab these signs for myself (although if it was anthropomorphic carrot instead of a hot dog on the sign pictured below, I might have had to consider it.

Most interesting was the fact that I could find no talk in the local papers and elsewhere online about anyone wanting to save this building. Is there no contingent in Berkeley interested in classic roadside architecture or old-fashioned burger and hot dog stands? Is it the location (San Pablo Avenue, which doesn’t seem to get as much attention as other places in terms of development concerns)? Are there just too many places to get an inexpensive old-fashioned hot dog or hamburger, in Berkeley? There is Top Dog on Durant, Oscar’s on Shattuck, and the Doggie High across from Berkeley High School, Foster’s Freeze further north on San Pablo from where Twin Castle used to be, plus others I probably haven’t noticed yet. Who knows. But one thing I do know for sure — you can’t know everything about the place you live by reading the newspapers. You have to get out there and keep your eyes open for changes.

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TV House


Photo by Joe Reifer

I don’t really keep up with shopping trends or media hype surrounding holiday shopping, but while I was doing some unrelated research I found that flat-screen TVs are supposedly one of the “hottest” gift items this holidays season. It made me remember that I had wanted to point out the “TV house” in south Berkeley, which I have passed a couple of times on my walks. I wonder how many knocks on the door the residents of the house have received. Somehow it reminds me of being in a museum looking at modern art; there will be the people who stand quietly and contemplate the piece of art, others who confidently announce what they are certain the piece means to their companions or other museum-goers, and even others who just have to know the answer and will inquire about the piece of art. Strangely, despite my strong feelings about television, consumerism, and waste, I don’t actually need to know what the meaning is behind this display or the intentions of the person who placed the TVs there; I just enjoy running across something interesting and out-of-the-ordinary once in awhile. If the holiday shopping predictions are correct, perhaps there will be many more TVs sitting by the side of the road waiting to be added to this display.

I will be walking but likely not posting over the Thanksgiving weekend, so expect a new post early next week. I will definitely walk in Berkeley, but I may also go for a walk in downtown San Francisco as Joe and I have done in the past on the day after Thanksgiving. It is a great chance to see the interaction between everyone who has come out for the “biggest shopping day” — the shoppers, the fur protesters at the department stores, the Buy Nothing Day groups (which in the past have included people dressing up as sheep and running through the stores and shouting “bahhhhhh nothing”), the Critical Mass cyclists, and whoever else decides to show up that day.

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Front-Yard Gardens Revisited

One of the Walking Berkeley posts that has generated the most interest and e-mail messages was my post awhile ago about Front-Yard and Parking Strip Gardens. I was surprised that so many people were interested in the topic, but even more intrigued to find that I regularly get visitors to my blog from people searching for terms such as “front yard vegetable gardens” and “growing vegetables in the front yard.” In the time since this previous post, I have also spotted more front-yard vegetable gardens in Berkeley. Perhaps more people are interested in converting their lawns to food than I previously thought.

Back when the E. coli spinach outbreak occurred, spinach was still available at the farmer’s markets here. Many of the farmers had posted large signs next to their spinach explaining that their spinach was grown on a small farm completely unconnected and much different than the industrial spinach that was identified with the outbreak. I wondered at the time if some people also made the decision to finally start growing some of their own vegetables. Interestingly, I spotted this front-yard garden not far from the location of the South Berkeley Farmer’s Market. The greens were young enough where I could not tell for sure what they were, but likely either spinach or chard. In the background are the beginnings of either leeks or onions. This garden is different than most I have seen in the front of houses; usually there are raised beds or some sort of container, but in this yard they have used most of the available space for food. The garden is located on a very busy street, but the fence protects it somewhat from trampling or picking.

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Front Yard and Parking Strip Gardens


parking strip garden

Much has been written about the lawn in American society, from books such as American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn and The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession to dissertations and theses such as Suburban Dynamics of Lawn Care. From my observations, the perfect lawn does not appear to be a priority of most Berkeley homeowners. Except for a section of homes surrounding the Claremont Hotel, I have seen few cases of perfectly manicured lawns with sprinkler systems. There are a number of likely reasons for this pattern. For one, many Berkeley homes have either tiny front yards or no yard at all. Due to the high number of bungalows in Berkeley, gardens influenced by the Arts and Crafts period are also popular.

A small number of people have chosen to use their front yard to grow food. There are edible landscapes that contain a mixture of fruits, vegetables, and herbs mixed with traditional landscape plants. There are permaculture gardens and traditional raised beds. And then there are a few that have moved beyond the front yard to the parking strip area between the sidewalk and the street. I spotted the vegetable garden pictured here on a quiet street near the Berkeley-Oakland border. While I spent some time at this garden admiring the range of vegetables and the natural fencing around the plot, several people walked by but no one seemed to notice all of the vegetables growing right out in public view.

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Walking a Grid in South Berkeley

One could approach walking every street in a city in any number of ways, from freeform to methodical. My methodology lies somewhere in the middle. I generally map out a route beforehand and adjust as necessary along the way. Usually my routes will take me back to the same part of town a few times before I finish that section of the map, and I will walk some streets a number of times (especially because most of my walks begin directly from my home).

On Sunday morning I was looking over my map to plan out a route for the day and noticed a grid of east-west streets in South Berkeley that I had not walked. Unlike my previous walks, I decided to walk all of the streets, one by one, winding my way through the section from San Pablo Avenue to Acton St. and back again. I found that with this process, I really got a feel for this neighborhood surrounding San Pablo Park.

Berkeley values its architectural heritage. Stories about disputes involving the destruction of historic houses regularly appear in the local press. I have heard plenty of comments from building contractors and homeowners about particularly time-consuming building permit process in Berkeley. But walking around this neighborhood, it was hard to believe any of this. "Anything goes" seemed to apply to this area, from strange little boxes added on to the top of a house to formerly tiny bungalows now engulfed by huge add-ons to houses resulting from tear-downs that one might expect to see in a new housing development. And then there is the fish house. Here's an aerial view of the house, which was designed by local architect Eugene Tsui for his parents.

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