Downtown Shattuck Avenue has undergone several generations of mass transit, the relics and pieces of which are integrated into the restaurants there today. In the pioneering days, the mile-long pier that once docked ferries to and from San Francisco dropped off passengers at Center and Shattuck. Now Center Street is packed with grab-and-go places like Starbucks, Sliver, Top Dog and Bongo Burger, all of which are bustling at lunch time. The tall, leafy London Plane trees helped facilitate this change of pace and purpose of Center Street: It morphed from a dusty train station area to a college neighborhood of bars, banks, bookstores, gyms, theaters, museums and food! The reason Shattuck narrows, splits, turns and widens at University Avenue is that the long-gone light-rail train network, called the Key Car system, came together at Shattuck Square. Shattuck itself operates as a vehicular transportation artery for Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda.
Driving up and down its three cities blur together such that some poets think of the three as one city. On the west side of Center, beginning at Half Price Books, are slabs of poetry tucked into the sidewalk ranging from songs about tangerines to staying on Angel Island. Casa Bernal Taqueria, the restaurant beside the Wells Fargo building, has a deep, wide porch underneath an archway that had a perfect view of the platform before the train went underground.
The Key Car system — believe it or not — extended into the Berkeley Hills, which is why there are so many well built footpaths grazing the yards of so many homes. Now the BART system spans the Bay.
The sidewalks in Downtown Shattuck used to accommodate loads of passengers boarding the train. Today they accommodate crowds of us college kids coming from and going to (or not going to) class. The sidewalks are also wide enough to function simultaneously as a patio for cafe-goers and pop-up sites for street musicians, chess players, beat-nick travelers and Tibetan demonstrators. It is uncommon for sidewalks to be so wide in American downtowns, especially for a mid-size city. Berkeley’s past makes it special and lively.
Given the BART station and the number of AC Transit stops, Downtown Shattuck continues as a mass transit hub. It is somewhere to catch a bus, a bite to eat or even a bar to hop. Lots of stylish high-rise apartments were built recently to drive down the cost of rent and accommodate new waves of students. The city plans to make Center more pleasant for pedestrians by making it more of a parkway. The University of California has been clawing away at the old University Press Building, and soon it will be home to the new Berkeley Art Museum. Perhaps Strawberry Creek will see the daylight someday instead of mysteriously disappearing at the north end of campus. Whatever may happen, it is exciting to see Shattuck change from one kind of Downtown into another.
Contact Josh Escobar at [email protected]