The College Ave. area straddling North Oakland and South Berkeley didn’t always look like it does today, and it didn’t pop up out of nowhere, either.
The area that’s now Rockridge was first owned by Luis María Peralta who was granted the entire East Bay area by the Spanish government in 1820, and later passed down to his son Vicente Peralta.
In 1869, a man named Horatio Livermore purchased six hundred acres of that land from Peralta, and eventually turned a portion into the Rockridge neighborhood. Apparently, Livermore’s wife liked to sit atop a large rock in the neighborhood and picnic, so she chose that as inspiration for the name. By 1906, the Laymanse Real Estate Company began divvying up the land for sale, and the area began to be populated by homes.
In those early days, Laymanse realtors would secure new Rockridge residents by picking up prospective homeowners on College Ave. and driving them into the hills in dazzling motorcars. As of 1903, College Ave. bustled with electric trolley lines connecting Berkeley to the rest of the Bay Area and it began to be developed into a commercial district. The street cars went up and down College until 1947.
Come the Twenties, College Ave. boasted women’s and men’s clubs, a bank, a theater, a pharmacy, a school, a rehouse, and a library. One of the most popular community hubs was Elmwood Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, which opened in 1921. Later, it was bought by a World War II fighter pilot named Charles “Ozzie” Osbourne and became Ozzie’s Soda Fountain.
The theater, opened in 1917 as The Chimes, was another gathering spot. It later became known as the Uptown throughout the Thirties and was reincarnated as a skating rink in the Fifties. The building eventually came down in the Eighties and now Market Hall stands in its place.
Although the neighborhood saw steady development overall, there were points Rockridge BART station was built a decade later that the area began to once again bustle with activity and commercial potential started looking up.
Throughout the history of College Ave., Ozzie’s Soda Fountain remains a key character. In 1981, Osbourne almost had to shutter the business because the building owners doubled the rent. But instead of giving in, he helped form the Elmwood Preservation Alliance and rallied support for better protective regulations in the district. They achieved commercial rent control in 1982, and although that protection was later undone, it created a window for local business owners to buy the buildings
they were renting in, creating the eclectic community we see on College Ave. today.
Ozzie’s Soda Fountain stayed open up until 2007. The space was then taken over by Ozzie regular Michael Pearce, who opened Elmwood Café in its place. Still today, Elmwood Café — which features much of the original woodwork and aesthetic of Ozzie’s — is one of the most beloved businesses on the street.