Alameda, Post-Punk Paradise

Alameda, Post-Punk Paradise


How did our Mayberry by the Bay become a mecca for so many misfits, outcasts, and rebels?

Hawk Valentine sits down in front of the Peet’s at Nob Hill Foods, setting his soy latte on the table overlooking the estuary. He squints against the sun. His temples are beginning to gray, he’s wearing a Memphis Murder Men T-shirt, and he’s sporting full-sleeve tats. A colorful butterfly graces one side of his neck, while a skull is inked across the back of one hand. He’s cheerful and garrulous, a great coffee companion. He talks about how he ended up leaving the D.C. punk scene of his youth, relocating to California and, eventually, to Alameda.

“I was a straight-edge, vegan, hard-core punk in D.C.,” he said. “I first ended up in the Bay Area while on tour with my band. I had my first artichoke here, my first fresh avocado, first soy latte. I knew I wanted to live here.”

Valentine headed back east after that tour but eventually returned, moving to California in 1993. He landed a gig as the head booker in the early days of the 924 Gilman Street Project, the all-ages collectively owned Berkeley music club and punk-scene icon. Valentine has tales upon tales of his years there—of the bands, his colleagues, and the tussles with city officials and the club’s commercial neighbors. He was there the night Jello Biafra’s leg was injured by an irate former fan and he orchestrated the “South Africa Night” at which suited employees randomly asked patrons for their papers.

But Valentine is a man of many talents who half-jokingly refers to himself as a bon vivant. He also reviewed ’zines in the überzine Maximum Rocknroll. He used his early childhood education certificate to teach preschool. He worked in mental health. And he was a driver for a van service, transporting elders and people with disabilities. It was that job that took him frequently to Alameda.

“I was always amazed when I came here,” Valentine said. “The idyllic homes, the beach, the architecture. I fell in love with it.”

After years spent living in San Francisco and Oakland, including his initial co-op living situation in West Oakland, Valentine eventually ended up here, on the Island. His girlfriend lived here, and a friend had just opened the bar Swell. There was no reason not to make Alameda his home. And he’s glad he did. “It’s like a 1950s small town,” he said. “Crossed with a leftie rest home for punks and weirdos. I love it.”

It turns out he’s not alone—plenty of punks have ended up in Alameda, making the Island their home.

It’s an axiom oft repeated: Alameda is the Mayberry of the Bay Area. It has quaint, tree-dappled streets lined with graceful Victorians and well-preserved Craftsmans. Historic Park Street is redolent with the aroma of waffle-cones drifting from Tucker’s Ice Cream and excited kids dashing from pizza at Tomatina to the reading corner at Books Inc. Alamedans look out for each other’s children. Alamedans drive 25 mph. They flock to Little League and AGSA games. With its good schools, good families, and good neighborhoods, Alameda is the epitome of family-friendly.

Alameda punks like Valentine don’t love the Island despite all these anodyne qualities, but because of them. More than a dozen people who are, or were, involved in the punk rock scene spoke in interviews in glowing terms about their reasons for settling in Alameda. They cited the usual list: the beauty, the architecture, the small-town charm, the community, the safe streets. Most said they ended up here by accident. More than one took a wrong turn through the Webster Tube and never quite left, or had a friend, partner, or a friend’s partner who lived in Alameda. But they all said they’re staying for as long as they can.

They come from varied backgrounds—straight-edge punks, emo punks, hard-core punks—and diverse corners of the country, from Connecticut to Seattle, Los Angeles to Chicago. But they all have this in common: a belief in the heart of the punk ethos—creativity, non-conformity, community, hard work, a suspicion or downright distaste for the rat race, a DIY spirit. And they all love Alameda.