Is Berkeley like its garages: Beautiful, imperfect, rarely boring?

Garage doors on Gilman Street in Berkeley. All photos: Ian Wood

When he’s not working as the in-house attorney for a startup in the Peninsula, Ian Wood can invariably be found walking around Berkeley photographing garages. Principally residential garages. Some are attached to homes, others not. They’re new, old, charming, dilapidated, quirky… but always in some way interesting. Taken together, they make for a beautiful, even mesmerizing collection that tells us something about the city of Berkeley and its people.

Wood, who lives a few blocks up from The Circle in the Berkeley Hills, was born and raised about a block away from his current home, but then left the city for almost 20 years. A few years ago he came back to the same neighborhood.

His visual chronicle of the city’s garages can be found at BerkeleyGarages.com and on Instagram at @berkeleygarages. We reached out to Wood to find out more about him and his hobby, and we asked him to share some of his favorite images, which we’ve published, along with some we loved too.

What prompted you to start Berkeley Garages?  


Commuting to the Peninsula means my dog is home alone all day. So, when I get the chance, I tend to take her out for very long walks for several hours. On these walks I began to notice interesting garages. It has turned into a Pokémon Go-style game, where every day is a hunt for an interesting garage.

I turned this into my own tribute the city. I was very happy to move back to my home neighborhood after a 20-year gap and maybe got too sentimental about it. Of course there have been a lot of changes in Berkeley, but the physical geography remains: uneven sidewalks lined with sour grass, old shingled homes, all the concrete street barriers around town, etc. Oakland and San Francisco get a lot of attention, while Berkeley often has a reputation for just being “weird.” So I wanted to show that weirdness, but also a prettier side of Berkeley though its garages.

What came first — the website or Instagram? Or were they concurrent?

I started the @berkeleygarages Instagram account first, a little over a year ago, and just a few months ago made the website. I now post photos to both Instagram and the website, although the website allows me a little more freedom with organization and presentation. And, of course, friends and family that aren’t on Instagram are able to see what I’ve been up to for the past year.

How and where do you find the garages? How far do your walks take you and has documenting garages expanded geography? (You venture outside Berkeley for example)?

It’s a lot of looking down driveways. I search mostly on foot, sometimes on my bike, and also while driving on the way to and from work — I am always looking out for a garage.

I’ll often walk or drive into an unfamiliar neighborhood, and spend a couple hours walking around. Walking the dog makes me look less suspicious. I do venture outside Berkeley, and have just recently started taking photos of garages in Albany, Kensington, El Cerrito and Oakland. I used to have a “Berkeley only” rule but have softened that up a bit.

What makes for a good “garage” neighborhood? Or do you find them in all types of neighborhoods?

They are in all neighborhoods throughout Berkeley. However, one thing I’ve found to be interesting is that the more upscale the neighborhood, the rarer the “garage.” Almost any neighborhood has plenty of cool garages, but I haven’t found any in the Belrose Ave. area, for example (yet).

Has documenting garages changed the way you interact with your environment?

I certainly enjoy walking a lot more than I used to. And I notice the passage of time. A couple of old garages I liked have been torn down, and some colorful doors have been replaced.

Why do you think there are so many interesting garage door treatments in Berkeley?

Berkeley has a lot of history, with many homes over 100 years old. This means there are a lot of detached garages (the modern attached garage came along much later). Presumably for economic reasons, people will maintain upkeep of their homes while leaving the garage alone. I always like coming upon an old, neglected garage because it shows the aesthetic of what the Japanese call wabi-sabi. Wikipedia defines this as “beauty that is ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’.” I think this is a defining characteristic of Berkeley itself, and its people. We are comfortable not having everything be brand new and perfect.

As for all the art and murals on the garage doors, I think this is because the city is full of people that don’t like to be boring, and value creative expression. Almost every house is different from the one next to it. We like to fly our freak flag high.

On your website you categorize your collection with titles like “art and murals,” “diamonds” and “pretty.” Why do that and how do you decide on categories?

I have over 500 garages on my website, so I figured I should break them into categories or people would never get through them all. Each one seems to fit in one of the categories I’ve made, so for now it works.

Do you use a camera or phone? Any tech tips for getting good images?

I use a phone. I am still figuring out the photography thing but try to take the pictures head-on, fitting the whole garage in the photo. Parked cars and other objects can make that difficult. The challenge is finding them at the right time — it is frustrating when a good one always has a car in the driveway (there are several out there I haven’t photographed yet for this reason), or has the sun behind it affecting the lighting. Garages on the west side of the street are better lit in the morning, and the east side is better in the evening. Old cars tend to add character so there are some with those. Working full-time in the Peninsula means I have limited time and light in Berkeley, so some luck is involved.

How many garages have you documented so far? How many interesting ones do you think there are? (Are you going to reach saturation point?)

On my site I have over 400 in Berkeley and about another 100 in our border-towns. All of them are interesting to me (admittedly, I may have a broad definition of “interesting”). Sadly, there is, of course, a finite amount, but I still have a ways to go. I may have to knock on more doors to get access, but I know there are more out there not visible from the street.

Do you ever talk to the owners — if they see you taking photos for example? Any funny stories?

Once, a shirtless man stormed out of his house shouting at me after I was already down the street. (He said he saw me on his security camera taking a photo of his garage). Another time, I posted a photo of a dazzling blue and red garage on Instagram. It was undergoing a remodel so understandably there were some items in the driveway. The owners saw the post and left a comment to come by and say hello after the remodel. They also noted the red on the garage door is the same color as the Golden Gate Bridge, which I hadn’t realized. So, after nearly 400 posts of garages, only one homeowner has gotten in touch.

You’ve got some attention — from our own Quirky Berkeley but also internationally?

Around 200 garages into the project, I discovered Quirky Berkeley and saw its own page dedicated to garage doors. So I got in touch to share my own gallery, and Tom Dalzell was kind enough to do a write-up. A few times I’ve noticed traffic on my site jump, and in looking at the analytics I see that, coincidentally, each time has been due to short but nice blurbs written by overseas websites. For example, an Italian fashion/design site recently put Berkeley Garages on a list of “10 beautiful things.” It’s a treat to wake up to that.