Opinion: Saving the California Theater

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When I say I want to save the California Theater as a theater, that doesn’t mean I’m against housing. I’m much more interested in the quality of life of the people who live here. The things that make Berkeley a great place to live is its density and diversity, which supports a wide range of commercial and cultural ventures.

Berkeley is justifiably proud of its arts district, and movie theaters have long been a key part of its cultural mix. But the number of screens is rapidly declining, especially when the Shattuck Cinemas are being removed for a new housing development.

Frankly, I’m skeptical of predictions about the “death” of movies – something that’s been said since at least the invention of television and has been repeated with every new home theater technology. Exciting films continue to be made, especially recently as the industry becomes more open to diverse voices including our own local talent such as Ryan Coogler, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Julie Rubio and many others.

The Black Panther. The Great Gatsby. Beasts of the Southern Wilds. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Twelve Rings. And (just in the last week!) everything everywhere at once. This is my shortlist of the memorable, amazing cinematic artworks I’ve seen at Berkeley over the past few years. You probably have your own. People are looking for experiences that are emotionally authentic and immersive, and just because we can also show drama on our sofas doesn’t change that.

We were, and still are, in a time of pandemic anomaly. I remember nights in downtown Berkeley three years ago when the sidewalks were crowded and people were lining up to see movies. That is not the case at the moment, but wouldn’t it be short-sighted to permanently change our inner-city infrastructure due to the current situation? Do we want inaccessible, affordable entertainment in Berkeley’s inner-city transportation hub — instead of people buying their tickets, meals, snacks, and drinks in neighboring cities?

I urge our City Council and the owners of the California Theater to seek buyers and partnerships that will keep this theater going as a theater. Yes, the building has a beautiful Art Deco facade, but if only the facade survives, an irreplaceable resource of public exhibition space is lost.

Despite its NIMBY reputation, Berkeley is a densely populated city. Almost every neighborhood has a mix of single-family, two- and four-family homes, apartments, and ADUs. This density allows for more urban features than places of comparable size, and appropriate further housing development should further strengthen this community.

But if we allow too many different building types, including cultural and commercial spaces, to be converted into apartments – if we only build bedrooms – we could end up with a sleeping community instead of a vibrant city.

Alice Jurow is the secretary of the Art Deco Society of California.

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