Up above, that’s Dave Gardner — I’m not sure I’ve got his last name right — sitting on his amplifier and playing guitar as commuters emerged from the North Berkley BART station last night. I asked him how things were going. “Cold,” he said. Were people responding to his playing, “Some,” he said. Mostly, he let his playing speak for him, and I got out of the way so I wouldn’t deter any passers-by from dropping a buck in his guitar case. I liked the music. I think the two numbers he plays here are takes on “All of Me” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
When you tell Bay Area acquaintances that you live in Berkeley, usually they’ll ask, “Where?” I sometimes feel it’s a way of trying to get an idea of where you’re standing on the socioeconomic ladder. If you say “the Hills,” that conjures pictures of secluded streets, sweeping views, and steep home prices. If you say “West Berkeley” or “South Berkeley,” that may convey a picture of a flatlands neighborhood that’s less white than the rest of the city, maybe more affected by street crime, maybe a place you can find what passes in these parts for affordable housing. “Elmwood” to me says genteel, tree-lined streets studded with big, beautiful old houses.
Our area is North Berkeley, a comfortable part of the city, if not a rich one. An area known for its proximity to the Gourmet Ghetto, a good-food neighborhood that’s actually been institutionalized. We’ve got one of the best produce markets in the country here, and every block sports at least one Prius or electric car at the curb. We’ve got decent schools and parks nearby. We’re close to public transportation, and this is one of the places where the unique and wonderful casual carpool started.
But those generalities don’t do much to show you the particulars of life in the neighborhood. You don’t pick up on the block parties, the parents cajoling kids to get into, or out of, the car, the neighborhood feuds, the badly parked cars, the influx and outflow of commuters every day, the hired gardeners and dog walkers, the clipboard-toting solicitors for political and social causes, the dogs barking at the postal carriers, the local dogs and cats and their tendencies, the FedEx and the UPS drivers, the new neighbors up the block, the discarded TVs or settees on the curb with signs that say “free,” or the lost cat posters and announcements for yoga classes on the telephone poles.
You also don’t encounter the occasional house that seems, apart from neighboring structures, to be sinking into ruin. Maybe we notice that more now that The Dog has us on regular rounds on nearby streets, but there’s one block in particular that stands out for having a couple of spectacular wrecks. One of the buildings appears to be a duplex–there are side-by-side entrances. A couple of the window panes have been replaced by plywood. There’s no sign of anyone going in and out, and the curtains appear to be permanently drawn. Right next door is a sprawling two-story house that also looks like it’s in a losing battle with weather and gravity. There’s a collection of junk and old boxes on the porch and a big liquidambar tree in the front yard; right now, weedy spring growth is emerging from an autumnal carpet of dead leaves. I’ve seen someone at this place–a woman who on occasion suns herself on a green plastic chair in a clear patch of driveway. She barked at me once two or three years ago for walking the dog off-leash. Occasionally, there’s a battered early-’70s Chevy Impala parked on the curb. Evidently it’s a live-in vehicle, and you’lI see it cruising the area (top speed about 20 mph).
The overall effect: a sort of Berkeley-ized version of Miss Havisham’s place in “Great Expectations.” You wonder whether there’s someone just barely hanging on to these places.
Not all is ruin, though. Outside that first house, a couple of shrubs are flowering right now (the pictures up above). The one on the left is a kind of magnola. The one on the right I’m not sure about. Below is the second house mentioned above.
Welcome to live coverage of the 19th Annual Holly Street Luminaria and Festival of Wonders.
No, I won’t keep that up for long. But it is the 19th year we’ve done the luminaria here. And unlike that first year (1992, for the historically minded), dozens of blocks surrounding us and many in other neighborhoods are having their own light celebrations tonight.
So, here’s a running account (below the slideshow):
[Christmas night: So much for the live blog. What happened was we set up our table in the driveway, as usual, to serve hot cider (and treats from many neighbors), and that was that. I spent the next three hours or so out there. Dozens of people came by, and we ladled up about three gallons of cider.
After that, I came inside and posted some pictures. And after that, we drove around North Berkeley with the Martinuccis, our long-ago co-conspirators in the luminaria game, to see where we might find them. We saw some as far north as Solano Avenue and Tulare Street, as far south as Ohlone Park at McGee and Grant streets, as far east as Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Vine Street, and as far west as Stannage Street between Hopkins and Page. The extreme northern and western points were not connected to our neighborhood, but someone out there has ideas about this.
When we were finished with the drive, a couple people in the van were nodding out. Kate and I came home, wrapped some presents while a Season Five episode of “Lost” played, then went to bed. This morning, there was nothing to do but pick up bags from the street, then go on with our holiday.]
6: 20 p.m. The first sign of the luminaria was reported this morning by Kate, who saw a block on California Street, around the corner from us, marked at 7 a.m. That was somebody getting a very early start. And tonight, bags are out and lit already on Cedar and California streets. Our street? Well, across the way, the Martinuccis and other neighbors are folding bags. We’re getting our cider ready, and have the table set up in the driveway. The sidewalks are marked.
It will be hours before the luminaria are out on the street, but for the first time in a long, long time, I don’t think I’ll be around for the set-up; I’m working in the KQED newsroom this afternoon, and working in the newsroom means you get out when you get out (though one hopes it will be earlier than the 9 p.m. formal end of the shift). Here’s a bundle of my luminaria posts from previous years:
Via YouTube, a 3-minute video of a trolley ride in North Berkeley, circa 1906. The route is northbound on Oxford Street, eastbound on Hearst, then north on Euclid). The split-level portion of Hearst looks much the same today in terms of the road configuration. Virtually all of the buildings shown in the picture — some big, gorgeous Victorian homes, mostly — burned down during a wildfire in 1923 (and JB, midway through the clip, look for what looks like a Norfolk pine on a hillside to the left; its presence interests me just because that area of Berkeley was settled probably no more than 40 years before the date of the image — 50 tops — and the size of the tree suggests it might have been one of the first Norfolk pines transplanted to the Bay Area).