COLUSA CIRCLE HISTORY
An unincorporated community of approximately 1.2 square miles, Kensington was inhabited by the Huchiun, a tribe of Ohlone Indians, 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. The Ohlone people thrived for thousands of years, living on a wide variety of fish, fowl, small game, and plants.
Spanish missionaries arrived in 1769, and with colonization came epidemics of newly introduced diseases. By 1795, the entire population of Huchiun people had either died or been forcibly removed from their villages to the Mission San Francisco. The area around Kensington was subsequently used by the padres at Mission Dolores for grazing cattle and horses.
In 1823, Kensington was part of a land grant from Spain to Francisco Maria Castro, who developed the land raising grain, fruits, vegetables and livestock. His son, who had inherited the land, lost much of it to new settlers and lawyers.
Residential development of the area grew in the early 1900s, sparked by the 1906 earthquake that brought many people to the East Bay. In 1911, the Berkeley Park subdivision near what is now Colusa Circle was started by Eugene L. Brock of the Berkeley Investment Company.
When the city of El Cerrito was incorporated in 1917, its boundaries were set to exclude Kensington, following opposition from the Kensington dairy farmers who didn’t want to pay city taxes and feared development would hurt their operations. In 1920, Kensington’s population was 226.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, a shopping district was coalescing at the intersection of Colusa Avenue, Oak View, and Berkeley Park Boulevard, where early Mediterranean and Craftsman-style homes were being built. By 1930, there were at least a dozen businesses operating in the vicinity and then by the 1940s, as Kensington’s population grew to more than 3,000 residents, Colusa Circle became a thriving business center. Before El Cerrito Plaza was built, Colusa Circle was where you shopped. It hosted two grocery stores, two gas stations, a pharmacy, a hardware store, and more.
During the 1950s, larger shopping areas emerged in Berkeley along Solano Avenue and in El Cerrito on San Pablo and Fairmont Avenues. This development contributed to a decline in business for Colusa Circle, leaving many stores to close.
The 1970s brought a renaissance to Colusa Circle with the opening of Kensington’s first restaurant, culinary mecca Narsai’s Restaurant. Owner David Narsai was known on the Bay Area food scene from catering large-scale outdoor events for rock legend Bill Graham, including for major bands like the Rolling Stones. Narsai’s dining room was fashioned from a giant redwood tank, and the wine list was described as "one of the ten finest in the world" by the New York Times. Narsai’s Restaurant closed in 1986 and increased vacancies within the circle led landowner Ed Hammonds to sell four of his parcels.
That same year, the Kensington Improvement Club convinced PG&E to underground utilities around Colusa Circle and installed a temporary circular island. In 1988, the permanent traffic island at Colusa Circle was constructed and, in 1989, the island was landscaped by the Kensington Improvement Club under the pro bono direction of landscape architect Ted Osmundson.
In 2007, Narsai David and Ed Hammonds received approval from the KMAC and the county for revised development plans to add offices and retail space on Colusa Circle. By the time Nan Phelps moved her business here in 2008, “the circle was called the ‘Colusa Triangle’, a place where, like the Bermuda Triangle, businesses appeared and then disappeared. Sure, there were always the hard-core, cherished businesses over the years that persevered and even thrived. They kept the lights on for the circle.”
All that changed for the better when the Kensington Farmers’ Market moved down from upper Kensington to Oak View Ave in 2008. The market brings a fresh wash of cheerful neighbors, farmers and vendors every Sunday. According to the Market’s manager, Chris Hall, “I feel like I’m giving a party every weekend.”
Presently most of the storefronts are filled with dynamic shopkeepers and annual community events including the Halloween Celebration, the Holiday Tree Lighting, and the Colusa Circle 5K are drawing residents and visitors to the Circle.
Kensington Past and Present, Kensington Improvement Club, Berkeley: Woodford Press, 2000.
Kensington Business and Professional Association, Kensington Business and Service Directory, 1992.