In West Berkeley a cafe 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 complexion* 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.

*Editor’s note: We have replaced the word “complexion” with the word “character” because several Berkeleyside readers were concerned that the word “complexion” had a racial inference. We would like to state for record that the word “complexion” was employed to mean “appearance, character or aspect” as defined in the dictionary.

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  • Mike Farrell

    “she has watched the ‘complexion’ of the neighborhood change, mostly for the better”

    wow. just wow.

  • http://www.510families.com RookieMom Heather

    Mike, I doubt that’s what she meant… dang!

    I love Local 123. I think it’s fan-freaking-tastic to have a great coffeehouse with a groovy atmosphere in walking distance from my house. I like the morning buns, bright orange high chairs, cozy couches, ample plugs, free wifi, evening activities, and the fact that there’s one less vacant building. I’m looking at you, empty building at University and San Pablo!

    [I love Caffe Trieste too.]

  • elmwood neighbor

    No, I don’t think she meant it literally. I think it is an unfortunate choice of words to use as a euphemism for what has been happening in that neighborhood for the past 25 years: Gentrification. It’s awkward.

    com·plex·ion

    1. The natural color, texture, and appearance of the skin, especially of the face.
    2. General character, aspect, or appearance: findings that will alter the complexion of the problem.
    3. A viewpoint, inclination, or attitude: a conservative political complexion.
    4. The combination of the four humors of cold, heat, moistness, and dryness in specific proportions, thought in ancient and medieval physiology to control the temperament and the constitution of the body.

    gen·tri·fi·ca·tion   [jen-truh-fi-key-shuhn]
    –noun
    1.
    the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

  • Mike Farrell

    I think the author of the article meant it exactly that way – as a reflection of education, income, and indeed race.

  • http://www.tktaylor.com Tracey Taylor

    Mike Farrell and all: As the author of this article I want to make it clear that I used the word “complexion” to mean “character, aspect, or appearance” as the word is defined in the dictionary. In other words, the character, aspect and appearance of this neighborhood is improving.

    That is all.

  • EBGuy

    wow. just wow.
    Stuff White People Like:
    #101 Being Offended
    And to go along with the article:
    #1 Coffee
    #73 Gentrification

  • Mike Farrell

    @ Tracy
    I think “complexion” perfectly defines the changes that Berkeleyites appreciate.
    You found the perfect word to encapsulate what is going on. More than you knew.

  • Mike Farrell

    @ EBGuy I didn’t say I was offended – just struck by the unintentional clarity of the statement.

    BTW how do you post in italics?

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Mike: italics by typing in (assuming the site handles entities right and that I don’t have typos): <i>stuff to make italic</i>

    The angle brackets and such don’t show up, normally, only the italic part.

  • EBGuy

    I apologize. Try “less than sign” i “greater than sign” stuff to italicize “less than sign” /i “greater than sign”. (no quote marks, “less than sign” refers to a key on your keyboard). Or if that is totally unclear, see this link.

  • Susan Henderson

    Another great little cafe is Zazou’s on San Pablo Avenue right across from the East Bay Nursery. It’s in the spot that Gallegos vacated when it moved to the corner of Allston and San Pablo. Z had World Cup watching get togethers and has a great $1.00 Latte Tuesday mornings.

    It makes me sad when West Berkeley is depicted as a ‘deteriorating’ neighborhood.

  • TN

    Aside from the other coffee shops already mentioned, there’s Casa Latina Bakery (San Pablo & Delaware), Zazou’s (San Pablo & Allston), Quince (at Bancroft), Flavah Island (at Addison).

    Then there are the many establishments in the area that serve Chaat.

    Some of these are new since Local 123. But some preceeded it.

    My guess is that not all the coffee shops/breakfast-lunch places in West Berkeley will survive. The venerable Westside Bakery has recently stopped being open on Saturdays.

  • http://www.510families.com RookieMom Heather

    Don’t get me started about the “venerable” Westside Bakery.

  • Diane

    Sheesh! Clearly that’s not at all what was meant.

    Love this place. Good coffee, good tunes on Sunday AM’s, and across the street from some great little ethnic markets I love to shop at. Very peaceful place to get a cup of joe. And a nice addition to a diverse neighborhood.

  • Diane

    I’m sure the small businesses I patronize in the area like the increased foot traffic from this place too. It’s way better than a bunch of boarded-up, tagged storefronts as neighbors.

  • Lindsey

    While I was pleased to see a new cafe open in my neighborhood after Cafe Leila turned out to be such a disappointment (cute decor and garden, but terrible coffee and mediocre food) and I am glad they are doing well, I do notice the clientele does not seem to reflect the varied population I see walking down San Pablo Ave. Mostly white people on expensive Mac laptops eating overpriced, small, so-so pastries. I rarely go there b/c of the high prices and I only live a block away (though, who knows, maybe their rent is so high they have to charge the prices they do).

    123, if you served Semifreddies pastries you’d see me there more than once in a blue moon.

  • Diane

    @lindsey: Yeah food is expensive there. I haven’t been able to bring myself to spring for it. Rather get snacks from the markets across the street. Good joe though.

  • Pingback: exhibit: Between Chaos and Grace « pivot blog

  • Mike Farrell

    well Pimp my Blog………

    I do love the trees though ;>)

  • http://suzybarnard.com Suzy Barnard

    Janet Delaney’s tree photographs are absolutely sublime. Delicious food for the soul, in a very nice cafe. I feel differently about trees because of her work.

  • http://www.laptopfriendlycafes.com Gari

    Seems like a nice cafe, If you like the free wifi of Cafe Local123 then please
    submit/review them at http://www.laptopfriendlycafes.com, We also list power
    availability for laptops in the cafes

  • Irisandjules

    The interpretation people place on complexion is theirs…and only theirs. The word has many meanings. Yes, the neighborhood has changed / is changing (I have lived in Berkeley for 10 years and in West Berkeley for 5.5 years). I used to live in Elmwood – in my opinion/experience people who live in Elmwood have no real idea of West Berkeley – about the real detail. When I lived i Elmwood I came to West Berkeley often – Cafe Trieste, the Artist Studios, etc etc and I had no idea of the real neighborhood. The complexion/character of the neighborhood is changing/has changed for the better since I have lived here. People looking in from the outside don’t understand the inside well.