Jazzing Up Emeryville

  • San Francisco Examiner
  • April 3, 1991
  • Al Morch

"It's as if someone had taken the best of suburbia and plunked it down in the middle of an industrial zone"

That's how some newcomers have described Emeryville — that tiny East Bay city (pop. 5,025) — just an ebb tide away from The City.

They're right. Emeryville has gone uptown, be it a home-delivered high-gloss buffing from Brown's Magic Shoe Shine to Gung Bo shrimp to go at Crispy Fry.

Everything one would need for "cocooning" is now within a stone's throw of Emeryville's new population center — and you don't even have to toss your own stone. There are concierges.

Middle-income people — desperate for affordable housing and an easy San Francisco commute — have discovered a charming community, the first exit (Powell Street, I-80) at the other end of the Bay Bridge.

What more could you ask for? There are bike and hiking trails, a marina for picnicking or berthing your boat, a sports fishing center, tennis courts, swimming pools, a 10-screen movie house, a micro-brewery, two bookstores and a first-rate jazz club (see Philip Elwood's story on Kimball's East's second anniversary celebration, on Page B-1) — all within walking distance, And the major condo/rental developments all have full-service delis.

Only five years ago Emeryville was gathering rust, its heavy-industry image eroding into vacant warehouses and trash-strewn lots under a sun that's always 10 degrees warmer than San Francisco's.

Then along came visionary David Martin.

A third-generation shopping center developer, Martin saw his future in Emeryville. He built Powell Street Plaza (23 merchants, plus a hotel), and then EmeryBay Public Market (31 restaurants, stores, services in a vintage brick warehouse).

En route, Martin also built the 424-unit EmeryBay Club & Apartments (250 more units set for year's end), and in doing so, bolstered the population center on the I-80 side of Emeryville. The area already had 1,249 units in the 20-year-old Watergate condominium rental complex on the Powell Street marina side and the 583 units in the decade-old, 30-story, Pacific Park Plaza condo high-rise on Christie Avenue.

Although the area surrounding the aforementioned housing is the merchandising focal point, it spreads out from there like ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond.

In and around the bare-bone factory/warehouse structures that still dot the old industrial landscape are a dozen or so fancy/home-cooking restaurants, and many art/craft galleries, small discount ready-to-wear, home furnishings and import outlets. (To find them, follow the signs posted everywhere on weekends.)

There's also a flourishing art colony, encouraged by Emeryville's positive zoning-laws attitude toward live-work space. Two large warehouses at 1420 45th St. (near Hollis) are home to many artists, but the studios in them are closed to the public, except by invitation or during the annual ProArtsOpen Studios, June 8-9. But take a peek anyway; you might be invited in. (Many restaurants — such as Bucci's, Townhouse, Carrara's and Kathleen's — display local art.)

Emeryville is also experiencing a renaissance of tourism. Foreign, out-of-state and even San Francisco residents are paying call, if for no other reason than to catch the spectacular water view of The City from Emeryville's well-manicured marina that juts far out into the Bay.

But this isn't the first time Emeryville has been in the limelight.

A scant 11 years after venture-some stonecutter Joseph Emery bought a 185-acre parcel in 1859 for $8,000 and subdivided, Emeryville blossomed with a mile-long trotting race track (164) acres, 300 horse stalls) that drew thousands daily by train and trolley. (San Pablo Avenue had been the East Bay's north-south corridor since the Spaniards.)

In 1876, the town burst into full flower with Shellmound Amusement Park, featuring two dance pavilions built atop a 30-foot-high (300 feet in diameter) ancient mound of clamshells discarded by the Ohlone Indians.

By the 1920s, fire, prohibition and anti-gambling legislation had shut down the track and the park.

Emeryville even provided the ballpark for the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks in the days when Casey Stengel and Charlie Dressen managed the team.

Typical of Emeryviille's less than stellar past is the Townhouse, 5862 Doyle Street. A speakeasy during Prohibition, its kitchen was stocked with slot machines and a bookie had his phone line at the end of the bar. In the '70s, the Townhouse was the heart of the Bay Area's country-western music scene.

"It's also rumored that it was a trysting place for the Kennedy brothers — Jack, Bob and Ted," says Joseph Alain Le Brun, a charming Frenchman who bought the Townhouse last year, after operating Eglantinein San Francisco for five years.

Although Le Brun hasn't been able to confirm the clandestine Kennedy rumors, he says that ever since he opened last year "people from all over come in and mention it."

Absolutely real are the nine large bullet holes in a dining room rafter. "It would be very romantic to say gangster gunplay occurred here during the roaring '20s, but probably some happy cowboy shot up the place on his birthday in the '70s," says Le Brun, who renovated the place with nostalgia in mind.

(To learn more about Emeryville's checkered past, there's "Emeryville and the '20s," on view at the Oakland Public Library's main branch, 125 14th Street.