Photo: Kathleen Costanza
Community members attend the first public meeting of the South Berkeley Mural Project. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

Sitting in a circle on a recent Saturday afternoon, there were lots of things South Berkeley residents agreed they loved about their neighborhood: crop swaps, the farmers market, and Wat Mongkolratanaram, Berkeley’s Thai Buddhist Temple. Streets and storefronts packed with a rich history. A diversity of people and ideas.

But they also discussed a host of issues they believe are threatening the neighborhood they love, including gentrification, displacement and a lack of affordable housing.

A new mural, residents hope, will encompass the past, present and future of South Berkeley, and educate newcomers and long-timers on its history.

“We all admit we love this place,” said muralist Edythe Boone, 78, a South Berkeley resident and arts educator since 1976. “Now, what can we do to make it better?”

With residents’ help, Boone and a team of artists plan to paint a mural on a 9-foot-tall fence at Ashby Avenue and Ellis Avenue. The meeting on Aug. 20, held at South Berkeley Community Church, was the first of several the mural team is hosting to gather neighborhood history, stories, artifacts and other inspiration to weave across the mural.

Community members plan to paint a mural on the 9-foot-tall fence that surrounds Eric Green’s four-unit building on the intersection of Ashby and Ellis avenues. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

Boone said that, while it’s too early to know the content of the mural, the decision to base it around history came from feedback she received from community members. As part of the mural team, Omi Jones, ethnographer and professor at the University of Texas-Austin, will be attending the meetings and writing a history of the neighborhood to give to the visual artists.

“I felt like [the mural] was something that needed to be done for the community for healing,” said Boone. “I think it’s the process — it gives growth and power to the community and brings people together who maybe would not have come together otherwise.”

“We have a lot of history here, and I’ve seen a lot of it,” said Richie Smith, a South Berkeley resident since 1949.

Nelly Quiñonez Coplan, left, and Mary Elzy look at photos during a recent meeting aimed at collecting stories, history and artifacts relating to South Berkeley’s past, present, and future. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

Smith recalled Hooper’s Shoes, a shoe store and repair shop owned by Virgil Hooper who passed away in 2006. She also discussed South Berkeley’s African-American historic business community that included Rumford’s Pharmacy (owned William Byron Rumford, a pharmacist, politician and author of the Rumford Fair Housing Act), a fish market, a dressmaker, a dental surgeon, doctor’s offices, and more.

The neighborhood has seen a lot of changes in recent decades. Before World War II, South Berkeley was home to largely African-American residents and Japanese immigrants and their families. (That is, until the Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps). In recent years, the area has seen a sharp decline in African-American residents. In 1990, African-Americans made up little under half of the population around the Adeline Corridor in South Berkeley. Today, the number of African Americans around the Adeline Corridor has declined to about 25%, while White residents now make up just under half and Latino residents make up about 15%, according to 2010 census data analyzed by the city for an Adeline Corridor Community Forum. These demographic changes have prompted a debate about whether the area is being gentrified.

In addition to discussing its history, residents also shared what they appreciate about the neighborhood today, including the neighborhood school’s music program, local non-profits and even a “free bench” where neighbors leave odds and ends they no longer need.

Eric Green, who owns the fence the mural will be painted on (as well as the four-unit building surrounded by the fence), said he wanted to give the wall to the muralists because “hopefully it will bring some joy.” Green, who now lives in Vallejo, inherited the property from his grandparents, William and Margery Jamison, who built it 1989 along with several others in Berkeley and around the Bay Area.

“I just thought it was a great wall to inspire people and put out a positive message,” he said. “A zillion people will see it, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. I thought it was in an awesome location.”

Mary Elzy holds up photos of people who used to live in the neighborhood. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

Priscilla Hine, an artist on the mural team, said the team hopes the mural will be underway in about a year and a half.

“It was great to see some people I’ve never seen before, and people who have lived in the community for a long time,” said Hine, who has lived in South Berkeley for 26 years. “Public art can bring us together and it can teach, too.”

To do so, though, the group needs more money. So far, the city’s Civic Arts Commission has awarded Boone a $3,000 grant through the Berkeley Civic Arts Grant Program. The team plans to apply for more grants and continue to fundraise throughout the year.

The next meeting will take place in November.

Anyone with a story to share about the neighborhood or a desire to learn more can call Priscilla Hine at 510-387-4037.

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Kathleen Costanza

Kathleen Costanza is a writer, photographer, and Bay Area transplant by way of Chicago. In the last year, she has interviewed affordable housing developers, professional potters, urban farmers and middle...