Longtime Resident Revisits 'The College Avenue of My Childhood'

Monday, April 13, 2015

My guess is that it's rare when 100-year-old houses in Rockridge have belonged to only to one family. But that's the case for Claire Lomax's home.

Her grandfather, Richard Clifford Porter, a ship salvager, and his wife Jennie, a nurse, were the first occupants of the 1913 Craftsman bungalow on Harwood where Claire lives today.

Her mom, Mariam Porter Lomax, a Cal-Berkeley-educated hospital dietitian, grew up there, and moved back in after the death of Richard's second wife, Beatrice. Since Beatrice lived to be 104, Claire's mom was 75 before she took up residence again in her childhood home.

Meantime, Claire, now 69, was not far away, living at one point in the Lake Merritt area and at another in Walnut Creek. In 1989 she moved in with her mother, "mainly because we knew we'd be good housemates - and I knew that later on she'd probably need some help."

When that time came, Claire adjusted her work hours in payroll at Cal to care for her mother and later to visit her in a nursing home. When Mariam died four years ago "in her 100th year," the house became Claire's - including a chest and two pieces of glass that her grandfather had salvaged.

What she saw in the nursing home when she visited Mariam is why she now volunteers for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

Still, "I spent life as an underachiever," this articulate, well-read woman with a wry sense of humor told me as we sat in her living room in view of a number of her own works of art and crafts.

"I went to four different universities and graduated in my 40s. I had a very interesting life - with all kinds of jobs," including being one of North Oakland's first female letter carriers.

Claire, who grew up on nearby Oak Grove, recalls walking to school: Chabot, Claremont Junior High (which her mother also attended), then Oakland Tech from which she graduated in 1962.

"When I grew up this was Oakland," she says. "No one referred to it as Rockridge. It was a lovely neighborhood but no one would have bragged about living down here in the flatlands. Montclair and Piedmont were ÔThe Places.'"

"Life as a kid here was great. We had hours of unsupervised play. We went through open homes (up for sale). We played in the street. I remember taking the train to San Francisco."

She recalls dinners and sleepovers at her grandparents' house. "We didn't come as often as Aunt Bea and Granddaddy would have liked because she was a dreadful cook - burned peas and carrots and mac and cheese."

Traffic noise obscures them now, but Claire says that as kids, "We stayed in bed awhile after waking to listen to the fog horns on the Bay. They made this wonderful deep, two-toned sound. We didn't think it at all remarkable that we could hear it so well so far away."

Claire compiled a detailed list of the places she frequented along "the College Avenue of my childhood." The list includes the Chimes Theater ("we ate Jujubes while we watched"); Woolworth's (right next door); Mount's Pharmacy (with a lunch counter); Paul's Grill (the after-school Tech hangout); Chimes Grocery (the Chinese owners kept it open on holidays like Christmas).

The Avenue and adjacent streets also hosted a couple of other groceries, a toy store, camera shop, florist, laundry, television repair shop, barbershop, bank, antique store, ice cream store, gas station and Safeway.

She also remembers, from more recent times, when The Pasta Shop first opened on the corner where Barclay's Restaurant and Pub is now, before moving to its current digs at Market Hall.

"It was our introduction to a whole new world of food, a new way of eating," she says. "And on occasion they served up the most amazing French apple pie, infused with just a touch of Calvados. The earth shifted on its axis when I ate that pie. Thank God it's no longer available."

All of this is what colors her thinking as she contemplates what Rockridge is today and might become.

No, she isn't fond of the new Safeway although she didn't shop at the old one. "I'm pretty sure how you feel about the remodeling process and the size depends a lot on how long you have lived here and how close you live to that area," Claire says.

"It's not that the older people don't want change," she assures me. "But the Safeway looks to me like an aircraft carrier run aground on a miniature golf course - appropriate for suburban space and sensibilities, but not for this area.

"Rockridge seems to have morphed from a neighborhood into a destination," Claire says. "And really, how many fab restaurants does any area need? And, how many large groceries?" She thinks attracting more small businesses is in the area's best interests. "We lost out when the luggage store was forced to move."

Addressing some long-standing vacancies, she says, "It seems as if many commercial space owners would prefer to leave buildings empty and claim a loss on taxes than rent for more reasonable amounts to long-term tenants. That's their prerogative, but it seems wrong."

Meantime, Claire is delighted by the opening of Cole Hardware. A great reader, she is particularly fond of the Avenue's two bookstores. "When I spend money, it's for used books - mysteries. I like my plots to be real simple because life is so complicated."

But her fantasy for College Avenue is a small movie theater that shows great foreign films. "It would never fly, but I'd sure like it!" A framed drawing on her wall conveys another fantasy.

"I was taking the training for docents at Camron-Stanford House in the late '70s, as they prepared to open (that historic residence) to the public," she says. "We were asked to draw our perfect house - and this image came to me: A sweet little apartment over a bookstore on a corner, with lots of windows and light. I wanted to be able to look out on the street scene and be close to the shops."

At the time, "the idea of a Rockridge shopping district was but a gleam in a few eyes," Claire says. "BART had opened but the neighborhood was still recovering from the hard years of BART and freeway construction."

Yet, it's surely an image that can be seen along College Avenue in Rockridge - at least for today.

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