Elmwood Scene: Neighborhood’s past is not its future

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ROCK Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who appears in How They Got Over, now playing at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, was a major influence on quartets.

A swirl of brightly-hued leaves against an overcast sky and the hustle and bustle of humanity all around. 

This was how I was introduced to the local alchemy of faces and places that comprise the enchanting Berkeley neighborhood known as Elmwood. To my eyes, it was cinematic. But if the view from my car tooling down College Avenue at Ashby on this autumn day had a taste, it would be warm apple cider. If I was parked in front of La Méditerranée as I was recently, it would be their perfect house-made hummus but somehow autumnal all the same.

That was 11 years ago, right when the great real estate squeeze was becoming real but the rents were still catching up. I found a live-work space above the block bisected by the Oakland-Berkeley border. My living room was in Oakland but my bedroom was in Berkeley. Somehow that made sense at the time. The place did, however, boast an Elmwood address and Danny Glover’s film production office as a neighbor, as well as a pair of psychotherapists and enough private parking below to make the building the envy of Elmwood. 

The true envy of Elmwood, at least in this cinephile’s opinion, is the Rialto Cinemas. One of the few independent cinemas in the nation, the Rialto is part of a small chain owned by Ky Boyd, which is complemented by screens in nearby El Cerrito and further northwest in Sebastopol. A true gem of a theater, it offers everything from arthouse fare to the latest Bond movie and much in between. Now playing (between the Dune redux and No Time to Die) is Robert Clem’s new musical documentary How They Got Over, which tells “the story of how Black gospel quartet music became a primary source of what would be known as rock and roll, and in the process helped to break down racial walls in mid-20th century America.”

(Note: The Rialto Cinemas Elmwood requires proof of vaccination and matching photo ID for all who enter the theater including customers, guests, vendors and employees ages 12 and above. rialtocinemas.com)

Of course, Elmwood is not without its own problematic history when it comes to breaking down racial walls. In the 1950s, according to scholar Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Elmwood was essentially envisioned as a segregated neighborhood. 

Developers, aided by Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed mortgages, were able to effectively ban African Americans from becoming homeowners in the district because FHA-guaranteed mortgages were not issued to them. The long-term result of this segregation is the fact that as recently as the 2010 census, the area had the highest percentage of white residents of any Alameda County census tract, hovering at 63 percent and 77 percent, as reported by the Census Reporter, ​​an independent project that interprets data from the American Community Survey as provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The legacy of this racism still occasionally bubbles to the surface in the neighborhood. In February of 2015, nationally-known comedian and media personality W. Kamau Bell, host of CNN’s series United Shades of America, who is also Black, was asked to leave the now defunct Elmwood Café. An employee tapped on the window and made a “remark that was construed as racist” to Bell who was outside the cafe speaking with his wife, who is white, and her friends, Berkeleyside reported at the time. The employee was allegedly responding to a customer’s complaint that a man was harassing customers. The employee was fired and the public outcry and Bell’s own online recounting of the event became a national news story.   

In the immediate aftermath of Bell’s unfortunate experience, organizations like Race Forward, which works to advance racial justice, and the Berkeley Unified School District, stepped in to provide interventions and forums to address the issue. Six years on, the world has changed dramatically and positive awareness of race-related issues has grown considerably. 

Likewise, Elmwood has changed with the times. The fraught Elmwood Café has long since been replaced with Baker & Commons, a neighborhood fave which endeavors to make everything they can in-house. From the alliterative list of soups, salads, sandwiches and sauces to (courtesy of savory chef Miles) the baked goods, jams and granola, “the show,” as they call it on their website (bakerandcommons.com) does indeed go on.