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‘A dead zone’: What happened to Downtown Berkeley?

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The Berkeley community reflects on Downtown Berkeley — the block between Allston St. and Kittredge St. — and how it is an area devoid of businesses and one of 'bygone abundance.'


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JUNE 07, 2023

Stare into the storefront of any business in Berkeley and you might see the kind of eclectic offerings Berkeley is known for.

But in Downtown Berkeley, on the block between Allston St. and Kittredge St., where the only open business is a Starbucks, a glance to the storefronts will yield only your reflection. Unless you walk past the now-closed Regal UA 7 Theater — you’ll instead be met with a god.

The theater’s former doors are now a mural of the Egyptian goddess of healing and magic, Isis, painted by Doran Dada, a Berkeley resident and artist.

“I just painted the UA Regal Theater a mural,” Dada said. “That was really bittersweet because I used to go there as a kid a lot. And luckily, I took my kids there too. To be able to represent Berkeley as an artist and do a mural for a theater, that meant a lot to me — that was a wonderful feeling to do that.”

Combining his portrayal of Egyptian gods with European Art Deco, he matched the building — infusing the theater’s 1930s Art Deco style, defined by its geometric shapes, decorated glass, ornamentation and floral and animal patterns, according to historic context, with a mural that pops with color, mythology and wonder.

Dada has painted something new on something that, while old, will be greatly, greatly missed.

For those who grew up frequenting Downtown Berkeley, a common memory is of bygone abundance.

“Shattuck cinema was great,” said Jason Novak, who grew up visiting, and now works in Downtown Berkeley. “(It) had, at any given moment, a dozen different movies — from mainstream, to art house, to movies from Japan … I was never disappointed, I could walk blind into that place. What a loss that was.”

In 2021, 15.7% of Downtown Berkeley was vacant according to the city of Berkeley’s 2022 Snapshot. In 2018, it was just 3.1%.

Running a business in Berkeley means coming to terms with the rent, something that the co-owner of Victory Point Cafe, Derek DeSantis, says is “always on (his) mind.”

“It’s the number one deterrence to doing business in Berkeley,” DeSantis said. “In conjunction with the astronomical minimum wage, it’s a double whammy. We haven’t thought about moving — we’re too entrenched and well-loved by the community to consider that.”

Marcella Casetta, who grew up in Berkeley, has watched some of her favorite businesses leave the area.

But it’s not just businesses that are struggling to stay; people are too. Casetta said that half the people she grew up with moved to neighboring cities where housing is more affordable.

She and DeSantis noted that the high costs aren’t specific to Berkeley — California struggles with a housing crisis causing people to leave for more affordable states.

“What strikes me the most are the contrasts,” Novak said. “As new families come in, they tend to be making more than the families leaving as the cost of living increases. But because Berkeley has all these resources for the unhoused, you get two extremes: people who are functionally millionaires and people who have nothing. And they’re coexisting.”

Novak noted that many people involved in the Free Speech Movement and radicalism in the 1960s started to “go dormant” in the 2000s as the population aged. But he feels that the spirit of radicalism may be like a pendulum, swinging back into the present.

However, Novak acknowledged that the “quirky, wild, interesting” personality of Downtown Berkeley was partially colored by the nostalgia of being a teen exploring Shattuck. It might be “darker” today because instead of playing, he’s clocking in at work.

As for Dada, he hopes that the building of more housing, like the development planned on top of the location of the UA 7 theater, will bring a resurgence in business downtown.

“There’s all these new high-rises,” Dada said. “I have a feeling it’s gonna come back because all these people are living there. It’s gonna be good; Retail will go up. It’ll be a good spot again. It’s in a dead zone. It’s void.”

Contact Chrissa Olson at 


JUNE 07, 2023