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Gilman District Plans to Strut Its Stuff at Second Annual Gilman Street Fair 

By Jim Corr 

Ten years ago, Bay Area muralists, the Bristle Brothers, produced a large mural overlooking the parking lot of Philz Coffee. Painted on the back wall of the Office Depot, it declared simply “Gilman District.” Back then, the announcement may have drawn a few “huhs?” or perhaps even a snicker or two. “There is a Gilman District?” long-time Berkeley residents may have asked themselves. 

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No more. In the decade since, the mixed-use zone west of San Pablo and either side of Gilman Street itself has emerged as a go-to neighborhood for Berkeleyites and fans further afield. Last year’s Gilman Street Fair was the first public materialization of the concept, drawing an estimated 5,000 plus people to a day of festivities and interaction with the diverse businesses that make up the gradually coalescing community. 

This year, the Fair’s planning committee is looking to almost double the number of booths and vendors when the second Gilman Street Fair takes place on Sunday April 28. Committee member, Julie McCray, owner of the SHOH Gallery in the historic Tannery Building, is super stoked. “I love the idea of the community coming together–businesses, artists, residents—just to have fun!” McCray enthuses. “I remember the BPD officers assigned here last year telling us this was the friendliest, welcoming fair they’d ever covered. That’s the vibe we aim for.” 

“I think people are more and more realizing the richness of opportunities for shopping, dining, and culture in the area,” says Jules Kobelin, an artist and web designer with a live/work studio on Fourth Street. “We have the feel of what Berkeley is best known for: cool, creative, eclectic.” 

Eating and Dining 

The area does not lack for enough dining establishments to attract foodies from across the East Bay. Recently arrived Boichik Bagels’ factory kitchen and eating space stands out on Sixth with a huge 

intricate mural by Nigel Sussman, while down the street the spiffily refurbished and family-friendly Picante is now drawing back is near cult-following. Lama Beans and the Gilman Grille are longstanding popular brunch spots, and the Michelin-recognized Funky Elephant offers excellent Thai fare in a tiny space next to Philz Coffee. In the same stretch. Homeroom, which has just celebrated its first Berkeley anniversary, features a wide variety of its signature Mac & Cheese dishes along with local brews on tap and by the bottle. 

Popular Berkeley Muralist, Nigel Sussman, at Work on his Design for Boichik Bagels 

Indeed, the Gilman neighborhood has become the place for beer and wine tasting in Berkeley, from established names like Trumer Pils to emerging craft beers such as Fieldworks and Gilman Brewing Company. And nowhere else in town—or in the East Bay for that matter—do you have a block dedicated almost exclusively to local wineries, one that SFGate recently described as a “micro-neighborhood that punches above its weight.” Wine Block First Fridays, with Donkey & Goat, Hammerling Wines, and Broc Cellars leading the way, and recently joined by newcomer Tessier Wines, create a lively monthly scene that includes not just wine, but also food and live music offerings with an international flair. 

A Wine Block First Friday at Hammerling Wines 

Arts and Culture 

Tucked away among the area’s streets and aging industrial sites are a whole array of small artisan studios and outlets. The Makers Workspace north of Harrison on Sixth Street embraces over 40 artists and craftspeople. Meanwhile, a few blocks south on Camelia, Carl Cosmos recently opened a new “art-tech incubator,” Filma Collective, for those with more industrial or tech-oriented interests. And for more than 50 years, The Potter’s Studio on Eighth has served Berkeley’s ceramists and aficionados of clay with working and display space for beginners to life-long crafters in a collaborative environment. Like these, the Firehouse Art Collective on Ninth emphasizes not only its benefits to the individual artist, but also its goal of building community within and beyond the studio. 

With so much creativity around, it is not surprising that the gallery scene is also emerging as a feature within the district. There are long-time favorites like McCray’s SHOH, whose focus on Bay Area artists is reflected in its slogan: “The freshest art is locally grown!” A newish addition is 120710, which opened in July 2023. Its founder, Jonathan Bachrach has said that he wants to encourage risk-taking and exploration by artists “in a space as experimental as the art we show.” 

On the musical side, for more than half a century the iconic Ashkenaz on San Pablo has been catering to Berkeley fans of world “roots” music and dance. On the other hand, many of their children and grandchildren have flocked to 924 Gilman, home of punk and every variation since. If that isn’t your thing, the Berkeley Ballet Theater delivers classical ballet training to students of all ages and skill levels at the Sally Streets Center for Dance on Tenth. You’d rather make music rather than just watch or listen? The Lark In The Morning retails almost every imaginable stringed and percussion instrument from around the world at the corner of Camelia and Ninth. 

A Patron Checks the Liquor Selection at the “New” Picante 

Shopping 

Shopping for that camping trip and then some? The district has all your needs, with outdoor clothing favorites North Face Outlet and Royal Robbins right off the highway on Gilman and, abutting the latter, California Ski Company. Round the corner, you can get your tent and other outdoor essentials at the REI Cooperative on San Pablo. Nearby North & East Leather, run by Filipino immigrant Jomar Enciso, carries high-quality leather goods, many of them cut and stitched by his own hands. At Stella Carakasi’s Designer Outlet on 9th Street women’s clothing “from Size 2 to 22” is showcased in a former industrial warehouse where the Greek-born entrepreneur oversees the production of each piece from thread to final display. Another woman-owned boutique is Laurel Burch Studios on Eighth. Five years after her mother’s passing in 2012, daughter Aarin Burch established the store to share the exuberant spirit of her famous mother’s vision and make Laurel’s vivid, vibrant prints available to the community once again, while adding her own design touches. 

Architecture 

The flats may not always be the most highly sung parts of Berkeley’s architectural heritage, but a stroll around the neighborhood offers surprising gems. Architectural diversity ranges from the wabi-sabi of the still-operational Cemex concrete plant to an ivy clad Maybeck-inspired glass block building on Camelia that accommodates yet another leading edge winery, Lusu Cellars. Residences vary from imposing Victorians to unassuming working class bungalows built in the early 20th century to the sleekest modern townhouses and everything in between. 

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Entranceway to A Modernist Residence at Fifth and Page 

And it wouldn’t be a “real” Berkeley neighborhood without a bit of whimsical Berkeley quirk, like the home/studio on Camelia that has half of an airplane sticking out of its roof. A couple of blocks away, two 

colorful totemic pillars provide support for a very modern industrial live/work space that used to house Shibumi Gallery (now moved to Fourth Street). 

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Eye-catching Aspects of Gilman District Architecture: the Cemex Plant, the “Airplane House,” Ceramic Support Columns 

Movin’ on Up 

Although still far from being an “official” Berkeley District (technically a Business Improvement District (BID), such as the Elmwood and Downtown Berkeley), an effort by locals to attain that status is underway. This endeavor has the support of the area’s Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani. “I love the eclectic mix of businesses and organizations based in the Gilman District,” said Councilmember Kesarwani. “My office is working closely with Gilman District stakeholders to establish a parking benefits district, a type of business improvement district, that will enable us to invest parking revenue into improvements that further enhance the vitality of our beloved Gilman District.” 

All to say that there’s more to the Gilman District than meets the eye as you exit the freeway and head into the heart of town. If you want to get a smattering of what is on offer, take a moment and head over to the Street Fair on April 28. 

The Second Annual Gilman District Street Fair will be held on Sunday, April 28 from 11am to 4pm, centered at Gilman and Fifth. Parking in the immediate vicinity may be restricted. 

Jim Corr is a freelance writer and photographer who has lived in Berkeley since 2007. He is an avid lawn bowler and a fanatical supporter of Glasgow Celtic FC.

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