In West Berkeley a café opens, a community blossoms

Opened a year ago on San Pablo Avenue, Local 123 has met a need. Photo: Janet Delaney.

Photographer Janet Delaney has lived in West Berkeley for 22 years and she has watched the character of the neighborhood change, mostly for the better. Recently, she says, it took a great leap forward when Cafe Local 123 opened its doors at 2049 San Pablo Avenue and created community where before there had been little more than passing acquaintances.

“It’s transformed the area,” says Delaney of the cafe. “Every neighborhood needs somewhere public like this where people can run into each other. Artists, teachers, independent workers come here to work or just to say hi.” Delaney herself spends a lot of time at the cafe which was opened a year ago by Katy Wafle and Frieda Hoffman.

Wafle says they researched the area thoroughly before choosing the location — Hoffman would stand at various points on San Pablo with a clicker measuring foot traffic — and they quizzed local residents. “We found that people were hungry for community,” Wafle says.

Alder Thicket, Jewel Lake, Tilden Park, Berkeley, 2004, by Janet Delaney.

Local 123 has drawn customers in by offering more than a good cappuccino. Wafle and Hoffman organize events — such as a grow-your-own edibles workshop held on its back patio last month — and art shows, and serve weekend brunch as well as a tapas menu in the evenings. The cafe recently extended its hours so that it is open until 10.30pm most days.


Wafle says there’s a rotating clientele of regulars: employees from nearby Clif Bar tend to come in on Thursdays for reasons she can’t quite explain; others come for coffee and the newspapers; there’s the laptop contingent of course — although wi-fi is deliberately switched off at the weekends to encourage sociability; and one group of friends has set up a regular games of Mah-Jong there.

Local 123 owners Frieda Hoffman (left) and Katy Wafle. Photo: Janet Delaney.

San Pablo is not devoid of good cafes, of course. Caffe Trieste further up the street at number 2500 is part of a Bay Area institution and has been a go-to place for years, and there’s Cafe Leila at number 1724. Wafle says a new cafe is opening closer to them, nearer the University-San Pablo junction, perhaps spurred on by the success of Local.

An exhibition of Janet Delaney’s work — penetrating close-ups of trees and landscapes, taken on travels to Napa and Rhode Island, as well as nearer to home in Tilden Park — is currently hanging on the cafe’s expanse of white walls. Delaney, who is working on a book of photographs documenting San Francisco’s SoMa district, some of which have been bought by SFMOMA — is delighted her images are on view here. “I want to feel my work is close to home, seen by my neighbors.”

Manzanita Chaparral, Napa Valley 2007, by Janet Delaney.

Of her work, she says it always reflects her state of mind. An early series of photographs, Housebound, shows lovingly shot details taken when, as she put it, she was “trapped in domestic bliss” caring for a young daughter and a frail father.

Delaney now walks over to  Local 123 often — a home away from home. On a morning in early July she greets three separate friends who drop in — one has driven from another part of Berkeley to frequent the cafe because she likes it more than her local spot.


Janet Delaney’s exhibition, “Between Chaos and Grace”, runs to July 31. Photo: Janet Delaney.

But perhaps Jessen Kelly best expresses Local 123’s gravitational pull. Kelly, an art history graduate student at UC Berkeley, lives in Oakland but bikes to the cafe regularly — with her boyfriend Martijn Van Exel when he’s over from the Netherlands where he lives.

Recently the couple decided they loved the place so much they would hold their wedding there. “We spent so much time there drinking coffee and studying and we like the atmosphere,” says Kelly. “When we were looking for places, we were overwhelmed by the wedding industry. This is more personal and a local business — and is itself deeply supportive of local businesses.”

In October the couple, who have known each other two years, will be married in Tilden Park and then repair with friends and family to Local 123 for a party, which will include, Kelly hopes, a little dancing on the back patio.