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What Makes a Great Neighborhood?

Lined with its California Sycamores, Central Avenue is a beautiful way to crosscut through the Island. And aside from a few blocks where it intersects the commercial cores of Park and Webster, it was just that: a beautiful crosscut. Recently, a swirl of additions turned a pocket neighborhood on the street into an alluring concoction – one that has Alamedans not merely passing through, but slowing down to linger.

Alameda Post - Caroline Station
Caroline Station, a pocket neighborhood on Central Avenue in the West End has recently gelled into a hip spot. Photo Jenn Heflin.

The neighborhood, historically called Caroline Station, could serve as a good template for what makes cohesive and lively mini-commercial neighborhoods that dot the island.

“The puzzle pieces came together,” is how Jaryd Manibusan, owner of Frank Logan’s Barber Shop, puts it.

In just a handful of years, starting before the pandemic and accelerating through it, the neighborhood added a high-end tea room, a hip barber, a vintage shop, a record store and a coffee shop. With the bike store already there, it’s a veritable hip place.

“The puzzle pieces came together.”
– Jaryd Manibusan

We spent some time exploring the elements that made this neighborhood tick and bloom:

  • A gathering spot.
  • Old bones meant for human scale.
  • Unreplicateable in-person experiences.
  • A neighborhood character.
  • Curation and taste.

The arrival of a gathering spot

Alameda Post - two baristas holding drinks behind a coffee counter at Lazy Bird coffee, which is at Caroline Station
Lazy Bird Baristas, Zaire Alford & Christine Lee. Photo Jenn Heflin.

“It wasn’t on people’s radar unless you had a very specific reason to be here,” Jean Chen, a West End resident, said of Caroline Station’s not so far off past. While a gym and the salons once gave reasons for some to come, they didn’t have any reason to stay, she said.

Jean dived into the neighborhood in 2014, running her beeswax soap company and the art gallery, Inkblot. That ground floor spot now houses her friend’s vintage store, Gruber’s Bazaar.

Alameda Post -a smiling woman
Jean Chen saw Caroline Station evolve over the years. Photo Jenn Heflin.

“If only a coffee shop opened up,” she would say to neighbors. “I know that sounds super bougie, but you gotta eat,” she observed. When Lazy Bird Coffee opened last year, it “anchored it and got people coming out,” she said.

“They know me by name, they know my puppies, they know how I like my coffee, they know my chocolate chip cookie affliction.”
– Michael Masters

Michael Masters lives down the block from this corridor. Prior to the pandemic, he described the community along his commute—the same people on the bus, the coffee shop he would go to in Oakland before hopping on BART to the Peninsula. The regular faces gave him a grounded daily pattern to his life.

He lost that in the shift to work from home.

“The stress went away, but loneliness often took its place… and then along comes Lazy Bird.” he said. The coffee shop “replaced my commute community. They know me by name, they know my puppies, they know how I like my coffee, they know my chocolate chip cookie affliction.”

It’s created a space to meet people. “I’ve connected with so many neighbors I never knew as the Lazy Bird community has grown,” he said.

Alameda Post - the front sign on Lazybird Coffee shop
Neighbors say that the coffee shop Lazy Bird anchored the neighborhood. Photo Jenn Heflin.

Neither home, nor work, but a neutral ground where interactions of all walks can happen. They call these “third spaces.” Parks and cafes often play this role. Not only are they open to anyone, but both open up possibilities for regular, repeat visits. When an addition to a neighborhood hits that note, it sets the groundwork for it to gel.

Old bones meant for human scale

Alameda Post - an old train stop photo in black and white, harkening back to the former days of Caroline Station
A 1940’s era photo captures a different scene, when trains used to run down Central Avenue Bay Area Electric Railroad Association archive photo.

Caroline Station is a vestige of Alameda’s past. The name harkens back to its life as a train stop (its namesake Caroline Street is a block away). Cherry red electrified Southern Pacific train lines rolled through the Island, stopping at intersections like these. At each stop commercial space bloomed. Ground floor levels of homes converted into store fronts.

An archival 1940s photo captures Caroline Station nicely: a group of people getting on board the No. 4 Encinal Avenue. Eighty-plus years later, the scene isn’t that much different. All the buildings are still there, with little modifications.

Looking at photos like these often spur nostalgic waxing of different, slower times. Ten people are visible, greatly outnumbering the two cars. Neighborhoods like these aren’t planned, but evolve into this form with a purpose—people were meant to gather here.

Today, the four-lane street still belies its past of a rail line running down the middle. Its girth invites speed. Observe this block and you’ll see cars whiz by, ignoring the 25 miles per hour speed limit, and sometimes pedestrians in the crosswalk. According to City analysis the measured average is actually over 30 MPH.

Alameda Post - a modern view of Caroline Station with parked cars and shops
The same viewpoint today. Photo Jenn Heflin.

The City of Alameda and CalTrans (this section of Central Avenue is State Highway 61) aim to temper this issue. A large-scale revisioning of Central Avenue in the West End reduces the street down by one thinner lane in each direction, a center turning lane, and bike lanes on each side, similar to the rework completed this year on Encinal Avenue. Four roundabouts will eventually dot Central Avenue at key intersections.

The city transportation department, according to their analysis, expects collisions on that corridor to drop by up to 47% and observed speeds to drop by up to five miles per hour, while also reducing travel time by four minutes due to improvements such as the roundabouts. The $15 million project is largely funded by state and federal dollars with the city adding $1.4 million (2021 numbers). It was supposed to start in 2022, but is now expected to break ground in mid-2024.

These changes would theoretically return Central Avenue closer to its original pedestrian pace.

The changes are clearly desired. In an entrepreneurial move, a neighbor created a self-appointed traffic solution for the time being.  At a crossing on this block, bright orange flags for pedestrians are provided. One mother, walking with a stroller, used it with theatrical aplomb, alerting her presence to cars.

It worked: the cars paused well in advance.

Unreplicable in-person experiences

Alameda Post - Vivee Young smiles at the camera in West Side Joe's bike shop
“Now the West End is happening,” said Vivee Young, owner of West Side Joe’s bike shop. Photo Jenn Heflin.

A signal that things are continuing to look up for Caroline Station is that Vivee Young, owner of West Side Joe’s bike shop, has been able to expand her business. “The past few years it’s been thriving,” she said. “Now the West End is happening,” she added, referring to the increased arts and vibrancy of Webster Street and nearby Alameda Point.

“That’s my goal. To get as many riders as we can. Be like Holland, more bicycles than people.”
– Vivee Young

The business Young owns is an Alameda classic, started in 1939 in a different part of town. Interest in bikes on the Island is enabling her to double down—she’s expanding her store to include the space next door. The business was so busy during the pandemic that there were hours-long lines around her store, she said, and the pace hasn’t relented since.

Born and raised a couple blocks away, Young is enthused by Alameda’s transformations over the decades.  When growing up, East Enders would say “I never go to the West End,” she recounted. Today, her customers come from all around Alameda.

Alameda Post - Vivee Young in the driver's seat of a truck smiles out the window. The old red and white truck says "Westside Joe's Bike Shop"
Vivee Young and her truck. Photo Jenn Heflin.

She wants to make it easy to ride around town, calling herself the biker’s equivalent of AAA, readily doing emergency bike breakdown pickups in her classic red Ford truck.

“That’s my goal. To get as many riders as we can. Be like Holland,” she said.  “More bicycles than people.”

Alameda Post - a barber and customer inside a barber shop
Lavelle Simpson receives a haircut at Frank Logan Barbershop by owner Jaryd Manibusan. Photo Jenn Heflin.

Down the block, Jaryd Manibusan, owner of Frank Logan’s Barber Shop, is another Alamedan raised on this side of town, now building a business. “I’m a West End kid,” he said. “I grew up on this side my whole life.”

The walls of his cozy and hip barber shop showcase a long lineage of family figures he lives up to, and from which the name of his shop is derived.

“Alameda was totally different when I was growing up. Military. Church. Conservative. Quiet.” he said. “Now it’s a hybrid. People raising kids and young professionals. Half my clients moved during the pandemic. Tons of people from the city who wanted a front and backyard. When I reopened, they were the ones kicking the door.”

Manibusan then described the allure of Caroline Station. “Alameda is filled with these tiny little neighborhoods,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in the big streets. Be a bit off center.”

This block reflects the reality of retail business today. Services and uniquely in-person ones are the types that can make it. Barber shops and salons, cafes, bike repair, chiropractors, and experiential shops make up all but two of the thirteen businesses along Caroline Station. Try getting your haircut or bike repaired online, and you’ll encounter a 404 error.

A neighborhood character

Alameda Post - Jem Gruber in front of Gruber's Bazaar
Jem Gruber, in front of his eclectic store, Gruber’s Bazaar, which sells “Music, Art, and Neat Stuff.” Photo Jenn Heflin.

Jem Gruber is a neighborhood character. It’s a concept that the writer Jane Jacobs details in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her book about what fuels vibrant neighborhoods and cities. These characters are integral—they’re open, colorful and talkative people who see, hear, and most importantly connect. Start talking to Gruber, and you feel that instantly.

Alameda Post - Jem Gruber in Gruber's Bazaar
Jem Gruber. Photo Jenn Heflin.

“This neighborhood is a pearl,” he said, surveying it out of the windows of his store, Gruber’s Bazaar. He’s been on the West End for more than 20 years and decided to open up a curiosity shop. Previously he helped start, and now serves on the board of, Pacific Pinball Museum.

“What do I sell? I sell magic,” he said, pointing to a sign at the door, “Music, art, and neat stuff.” It’s a line he repeats to another new customer who asks about the place.

The tiny store features a wild variety of goods and decor. One wall is filled with fanciful paintings by local artists. Another wall display is full of guitars, ukuleles, tiny pianos, and Gruber’s self-made suitcase guitar amps. “Old mechanical things that have enduring style and appeal and form and function,” he offered as a description of what connects it all. Another section has glow-in-the-dark frisbees that have surprisingly resonated with Islanders.

“Over the years I’ve collected tons of stuff. Things find me. First you have to look for it. Then you have to hide,” he said.  Now, he’s trying to lighten his collection: “I have too much stuff. That’s why I have a store.”

“I sell magic.”
– Jem Gruber

But there’s another thing that unites all these items. Aside from being oddities, curiosities and frivolities, they’re all the kind of things you have to see in person. It wouldn’t be a leap to say that most people who come to the store arrive without a specific item in mind. Instead, more come in search of a specific feeling. Alamedans who flow into his self-described bazaar “like things that are unique, not necessarily mass produced and oversubscribed,” he said.

A new shopper enters and Gruber gently pinged around the room, showing off different gadgets to him. It’s not a sales pitch, it’s an enthusiast sharing his bounty.

“If you’re having fun with it. You’re winning,” he says.

Curation and taste

Alameda Post - Gordon Elgart behind the counter at Beaker's records
The art of curation is vital for small retail according to Beaker’s Records owner, Gordon Elgart. Photo Jenn Heflin.

The art of small retail is in the curation. It’s a word that Gordon Elgart comes back to repeatedly.

The Oaklander was on a search for a spot to open a record store and stumbled upon this block in Alameda. Beaker’s Records, which he opened in November, is named after his dog. He said Alameda definitely needed a record store, so he figured he may as well do it before anyone else.

“I wanted something fairly small that I could curate,” he said. “A bigger place you’d fill with garbage.”

Spurred by friends who own Moodswing—a store on Encinal Avenue, in another pocket neighborhood—he came across Caroline Station and a storefront just the right size.

“I went and sat at the coffee shop and watched people walking by,” he recalled.  Summing up the crowd, he said to himself, “That looks like a record shop.”

The pandemic had a positive impact on record sales, he said. “People started spending their money on things that they can do at home.” That means there is a range of the types of people that come in—so-called “record people,” and people who are just getting into records.

Curation is key to addressing that gamut. “I’m all about curation,” he said. “I can’t just carry stuff I like, but it leans towards stuff I like.”

The record store owner is part concierge and part tastemaker. And there’s a wide range of tastes he sees, from classic late ’70s and ’80s R&B to sea shanties.

“If I sell records online, once it’s gone it’s gone. If I sell them to the community, they might come back.”
– Gordon Elgart

Even the types of mediums the music comes on varies for his clients. Teens trend towards now-vintage CDs and cassettes he said. If there’s any overriding thesis he has, it’s that curation is all about making the in-person experience great. “In person is just a better experience,” he said. But it also has longer repercussions for a one-man shop.

Alameda Post - Gordon Elgart
Gordon Elgart. Photos Jenn Heflin.

“If I sell records online, once it’s gone it’s gone,” far off in the wild, he said. “If I sell them to the community, they might come back.” He seemed to be referring to the record and the customer in the same phrase. It sounded similar to the common refrain from the small business groups in a study—for each dollar spent, two-thirds of it will continue to recirculate in that community, beyond the initial sale.

There’s another element here as well. Alameda may be, as its official motto goes, “The City of Homes and Beaches,” but it is the people that inhabit those homes and walk those beaches that truly tie the Island together. The act of opening a business, when you talk to these store owners, is very much an act of giving to the community and placemaking.

Neighborhoods like these aren’t master-planned. Individual store owners and landlords are relatively maximizing their own interests. This in turn can lead to monotone districts with too many stores of the same type. Curation of stores is not feasible, outside of shopping malls. But when a tastemaker opens something, you can sense the buzz when people talk about it.

Because taste is tasty.

Thushan Amarasiriwardena is walking all the streets of the Island and documenting it along the way at His writing is collected at

Jenn Heflin is a freelance portrait and business photographer in Alameda. To view her portfolio, visit All photos ©2023 Jenn Heflin.

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