Shopping centers today are commonplace, particularly in suburban areas. So it may be hard to appreciate what a sensation the center known as El Cerrito Plaza was when it opened in 1958.

The center, which was given the name Fairmount Regional Shopping Center when it was in the planning stages, was built on the grounds of the historic former Victor Castro rancho, at the city's southern border next to Albany and within easy driving distance of Berkeley.

The new center, championed by developer Bob Fraser, was the era's answer to aging downtown commercial areas in cities, offering a variety of shops large and small grouped together and surrounded by free and ample parking.

The center's early days will be revisited at "El Cerrito Plaza: Birth of a 'Shopper's Paradise," a free program presented by the El Cerrito Historical Society at 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Open House Senior Center, 6500 Stockton Ave.

The Plaza seems small by the standards of modern centers, but at the time it opened in 1958 it covered 30 acres and was the largest center in the East Bay and boasted the fourth and largest location in the H.C. Capwell department store chain (the El Cerrito location opened in July 1958 and attracted more than 5,000 people to the ribbon-cutting).

The historical society program will feature a talk on the Plaza's early days by local historian Paul Grunland, who worked at the Capwell store from the time it opened and was its longtime manager.


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Residents who grew up with the original center still fondly recall Capwell, and stores such as Woolworth, Swensen's Ice Cream, Hartfields, Kirby's and Kirby's Station, and lament the center's 2002 redevelopment after many of the original tenants had closed or moved.

Those attending the presentation are invited to share their own pictures, mementos and memories of the original center.

For more details contact Dave Weinstein at 510-524-1737 or davidsweinstein@yahoo.com.

WHEELER AWARD: Wavy Gravy has been named this year's recipient of the Benjamin Ide Wheeler Award, an honor established in 1929 in memory of UC Berkeley's longtime president and presented to the individual named "Berkeley's most useful citizen."

Wheeler was president of the University of California from 1899 to 1919, credited with guiding the Berkeley campus to its status as one of the world's leading educational institutions.

The Wheeler Medal was created 84 years ago by the Service Club of Berkeley and has been administered since 1994 by the Berkeley Community Fund.

Gravy, perhaps best known as a counterculture figure and emcee at the Woodstock concert in 1969, has devoted decades to philanthropic causes helping those in need.

He founded Camp Winnarainbow, a summer camp for disadvantaged young people in the Bay Area, and is a co-founder of the nonprofit SEVA Foundation, which has provided critical health care needs to impoverished areas overseas and in the United States.

"Wavy Gravy has devoted his life to positive social change," said community fund President Jessica Pers. "He truly reflects the uniqueness of Berkeley and the focus shared by so many of us to find positive and creative ways to help others."

Gravy will be given the Wheeler Medal at the foundation's awards dinner on Oct. 10 at H's Lordship's restaurant at the Berkeley Marina.

The foundation will also highlight its scholarship program that provides assistance for Berkeley High graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds who plan to attend four-year institutions.

Recent medal winners include former UC Berkeley Chancellor and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Ira Michael Heyman; Neuroscientist and former Director of the Lawrence Hall of Science Marian Cleeves Diamond; environmentalist David Brower; Save the Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin; UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics and California energy Commissioner Arthur H. Rosenfeld.; acoustic pioneers and philanthropists Helen and John Meyer; chef and Edible Schoolyard founder Alice Waters; radio personality and philanthropist Narsai David; and Berkeley Rep managing director and civic activist Susie Medak.

For tickets to the banquet visit 2013bcfannualawardsdinner.eventbrite.com or call 510-542-2126.

WEST COUNTY NOTES: Learn the ins and outs of local government at a class taught by Rich Bartke, who knows the territory well as a former El Cerrito councilman and mayor in addition to serving on city and regional boards and commissions. Bartke, a longtime attorney in West Contra Costa, has served with the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Local Agency Formation Commission and the Contra Costa grand jury.

Local Government is a four-session class that will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesdays from Oct. 2 to 23 at the El Cerrito Community Center, 7007 Moeser Lane. The series will be offered again from Nov. 6 to Dec. 4.

"This class is a description of California's system of local governance, including cities, countries, special districts and regional agencies, emphasizing those that serve El Cerrito residents. An explanation of who does what, by what authority and how funded."

The cost is $10 per class for residents, $12.50 nonresidents. To register visit www.el-cerrito.org/recreation or call 510-559-7000 for more details.

  • As part of Albany Local Week, a free outdoor showing of the 1987 comedy adventure "The Princess Bride" will be held at 7:15 p.m. Sept. 28 at the corner of Cornell and Solano avenues, courtesy of As You Wish Frozen Yogurt. Bring a chair and they will supply the popcorn.

  • The fourth annual carnival on the playground at Harding Elementary School at Fairmount and Ashbury avenues in El Cerrito is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 6, presented by the school's Dads Club and PTA. Organizers promise "the traditional carnival lineup" plus "a few new twists on the old carnival favorites" and entertainment for all ages.

    Admission is $5 per person (under 4 free) or bring a cake, cookies, or pie for one free admission per family.

  • "This Ain't No Mouse Music! The Story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records," a new 92-documentary by Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling, will be screening twice next month as part of the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival.

    Strachwitz founded Arhoolie Records just over 50 years ago and for more than 30 years it has been headquartered with his retail Down Home Music store on San Pablo in El Cerrito (the official street address, even though the building is actually within the Richmond city limits).

    Screenings are scheduled for Oct. 8 at the Sequoia 2 and Oct. 11 at the Rafael 1. There will also be a concert in conjunction with the Oct. 8 screening at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. Details: www.mvff.com.

    Contact Chris Treadway at 510-262-2784 or ctreadway@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/christreadway. Stay up-to-date on West Contra Costa news at IBABuzz.com/westcounty.