Berkeley Iceland - Multicultural Staff

Seventy Six years ago yesterday, a European-style ice palace opened in the Southwest corner of central Berkeley. Over the decades it hosted grand events, including three US National Figure Skating Championships, was training ground to Olympians, including Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi, and much of the 1960 US Olympic team. More importantly, it became an informal community center for an increasingly diverse city. This was Berkeley Iceland.

Even as the rink aged, Berkeley Iceland played an important role in both the skating world and the Berkeley community. For less than the price of a night at the movies, people could, and did, spend hours with others enjoying the challenge of not embarrassing yourself (too much) on the ice. There were very few places in Berkeley where folks from totally different segments of our siloed city could run into each other and maybe learn a bit about each other, without the stigma of having to seek some special “safe” meeting or organization. Outside of the school system, which also has it’s limitations, this serendipitous cross mingling was, and is, almost non-existent.

Even this small bit of the commons was lost almost a decade ago. Between an ownership group that didn’t want to spend the money or civic hassle to put the rink in good working order and a core of elected officials, including Tom Bates and Laurie Capitelli who voted to let a favored developer level the building, the rink and the community trying to save it didn’t have much of a chance. This was compounded by a financial environment which made a funding challenge that was difficult in normal times that much harder. While the building became a protected landmark, against the express views of Laurie, Tom, and East Bay Iceland, time ran out on efforts to save the rink when Sports Basement was awarded the building.

Since Berkeley Iceland closed there has been no space opened to replace it or become the type of community commons Berkeley needs. The tremendous focus of development has been on new housing - which, of course, is needed at all levels - but little on what resources are available to the new residents. In a city which becomes more siloed with folks focused on their own neighborhoods, there is an increasing need for a public commons where everyone can and, almost as importantly, wants to go. Where are the spaces parents are comfortable leaving their kids to play and meet new people on their own? What has happened to the 300-400 teenagers from all over who used to hang out at Iceland on Friday and Saturday nights? Where can you go to just enjoy yourself and run into your new best friend you had no clue about?

I miss Berkeley Iceland...