Newcomer, Old-Timer View Local Construction Boom Oh-So-Differently

Monday, November 16, 2015

You may know the opening song "Tradition" from "Fiddler on the Roof" (which the Berkeley Playhouse performed so well this summer).

But with new edifices going up all about those of us on the southern end of Rockridge, I can't help substituting "Construction" to the same three notes.

My neighbors to the rear are putting in a backyard pavilion, a next-door neighbor is adding a second story, and neighbors across the street are building a deck and patio.

Two blocks east, where the tail end of my street intersects with Broadway, hovers the towering red crane topped by an American flag that signals what will be the new Merrill Gardens Rockridge senior citizen facility plus ground floor retail.

Directly across Broadway "Shops at the Ridge" is underway, anchored by a new Safeway store, as the former Rockridge Shopping Center gets a face lift.

And just the other side of 51st, the same company that is building Merrill Gardens has flattened the landscape in preparation for the 130-unit Temescal Apartments plus four two-story townhouses and a string of street level retail.

Waiting in the wings is the Nautilus Group's ginormous mixed-use project - 204 apartments and 34,000 square feet of retail - at Telegraph and 51st with Claremont and residential Clarke Street as its other borders.

Despite the noise, which we are actually getting used to, my husband and I enjoy watching the progress of our neighbors' projects. Frankly, having the workmen around also makes for less worry about daytime break-ins. However, it will be nice when we no longer have to fight for street parking between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

And, as a relative newcomer to the area, I am also happy to have development in place of the empty, graffiti-marked buildings that have scarred the neighborhood over the four-plus years I've lived here. I cheered when two of the hulking billboards were torn down. And an updated Safeway-and-environs is long overdue.

But that's hardly the perspective of 87-year-old Evelyn Clevenger, who remembers when this area was a somewhat pastoral Italian-American community, and who has lived within a block of Broadway and 51st Street since she was three months old.

From the Rockridge bungalow she has called home for the past 63 years, she can look across 51st to what will be the new apartments and fret over the demolition of the last vestige - the door - of the original Colombo Club for Italian immigrants that her grandfather helped found in 1922.

Her childhood home, a few doors from the club, was torn down by the city of Oakland when it widened 51st Street. She, her parents and grandparents lived above the Broadway Grocery built by her grandfather and operated by her grandmother and mother.

"They (the city) stole the house," Evelyn says. "I think that's what killed my grandfather. The widening of 51st divided the neighborhood" into what became Temescal and Rockridge.

Before that, "Life was beautiful. From my bedroom window, I could see nothing but blue lupine and poppies all the way to the Oakland Hills. It was a beautiful block - lots of fruit trees and gardens. We raised chickens and rabbits."

Now, her primary view is of the crane at the ever-rising seniors' complex and the journey of its operator between earth and sky several times a day. She does worry that it might threaten her house during one of its swings. "I marched right over there," Evelyn says, "to tell them not to ever leave it dangling above my house." But on a recent weekend, that's where it was left.

As you can tell, Evelyn is feisty - a trait that marked her childhood, she says. "I wore pants. I had my own horses (at a family farm in Martinez where she spent her summers). I could walk to Berkeley (to take ice skating lessons) and not see a single person or car. I learned to shoot - that was one of my hobbies. I left Catholic school because I didn't like it."

She remembers Claremont Junior High (now Claremont Middle School) as a "lovely" experience. Her days were filled with studying and working at the grocery. "As soon as I could reach the shelves, I was stacking them." She went on to Oakland Tech, graduating in the February class of 1948 and then studied at Heald's Business College on 22nd and Broadway.

She can name the businesses of that era that dotted Broadway all the way to "what we called the foot of Oakland," now Jack London Square. She particularly remembers that Fenton's Creamery, now on Piedmont, was at 41st Street. "You could get everything in the neighborhood, she says. "There was a friendliness we don't have anymore."

But during World War II, Evelyn told of the restrictions placed on her Italian-American community. Although many fewer Italians were placed in internment camps than the Japanese, the government confiscated the guns of anyone who wasn't a United States citizen. And, until the war was over, non-citizens - which included her grandfather, grandmother and mother - weren't allowed to cross the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco.

After two early marriages -"those were the insane ones" - she ran into James Clevenger, whom she had known from childhood, while both were working at Highland Hospital. They were married for 50 years until his death in 2011.

These days Evelyn meets friends for lunch, always choosing from a collection of decorative canes the one that goes best with her colorful outfits. "If you have to use them, you may as well have fun with them," she says. At home with her dog Sparkle - part pug, part dachshund - she loves to listen to music, particularly folk songs from different countries.

When asked for a better solution for at least one of the parcels that are now under or slated for construction, Evelyn says: "I would rather have had a park that would have been for the children."

On that both newcomer and old-timer can agree: A park would have been nice.

Your comments on this column and suggestions for future columns about your Rockridge neighbors and/or neighborhood are welcome: email