As you drive north on the Arlington (past my house!) you will come around a curve and suddenly you're in a different village. In fact, you've also crossed into a different county, from Alameda in Contra Costa. And you've also crossed from a City with a very bureaucratic city government, to a town run by a community council. A strong sense of community pride blends here with great views and an abundance of trees to create a tranquil place to call home.
This is Kensington, CA, named after the London borough of South Kensington, the home of one of the original surveyors of the area. Here one immediately gets a sense of this being an "old fashion" small town, and it is indeed small, with a population of roughly 5,000. You're welcomed by a town sign, installed several years ago by the Kensington Improvement Club (KIC).
This rather idyllic village was founded 99 years ago, but did not really start to develop until the mid-1920's. The North Berkeley fire of 1923 inspired the pace of development to quicken, in order to accommodate displaced Berkeley residents. By 1930 the population had increased to 1500, from 225 the previous decade. Kensington remains unincorporated, choosing to be organized by a number of community committees.
Median property values during the first months of 2010 have in the mid- to high $700K range, with few properties available for sale at any one time. Turnover tends to be low, and during December '09 and January '10 there were no homes sold! Normally the number of homes sold per month would be in the single digits.
The hub of the Kensington Village is at the intersection of the Arlington and Amherst Avenue, one of several streets named for Eastern universities. Princeton and Purdue, Cambridge and Columbia are streets in the "University Heights" section of Kensington. For decades Kensington has been home to many professionals and academics, with close ties to the University of California. Indeed, the first time I was invited to a faculty member's home as an undergraduate, it was to visit my history professor, a former Harvard historian, at his home on Princeton Avenue.
A tour of the Village starts at the dual purpose Arlington Pharmacy and Post Office. This is a great shop with friendly staff. They stock an eclectic collection of cards, books on local history, hand-made jewelry by local artists plus the normal drug store stock from its Rexall days. Except for lunch hour, it's also the local post office.
Along this one block you'll find all of your basic needs, plus some indulgences. Next to the pharmacy is the wine shop, well stocked with European wines, with a very knowledgeable staff. On weekends you'll need to make your way around the queue of folks waiting to get into Inn Kensington. It's a favorite spot for brunch, with a good variety of omelettes, and their famous house-made fluffy biscuits. For groceries there is Young's Market, where you can still put things on "your tab," if you're a local. There's a separate meat, poultry and fresh fish case. While it may seem a little sleepy, checking the aisles you'll find an impressive array of gourmet items, and imported labels, as well as local and organic products.
If you're looking for something already prepared for you, stop into The Arlington deli for a variety of salads and freshly-made sandwiches. On a warm day sitting out front is a pleasant spot for people watching. You'll also find a reasonable number of services along this stretch, including a dentist, yoga classes, a flower shop, a video store and a couple real estate offices. The Arlington Ace Hardware back at the intersection carries just enough to get you through most weekend handy projects, but it's still small enough that they're likely to remember you from your last visit. A couple of dogs can usually be found asleep near the front door.
Just a block or so up from these shops you'll find the Public Safety Building. Kensington has its own Police officers, under the aegis of the Kensington Police Protection and Community Services District. Greg Harman serves as Chief of Police and also Kensington General Manager. It also has a Fire Protection District, sharing resources with El Cerrito. The Public Safety Building is owned by the Fire District and leases out part of it to the Police District.
Continuing out the Arlington you come to two crucial resources of the community: the Kensington Library and the Community Center, at 61 and 59 Arlington Avenue. Numerous classes, both for youths and adults, are held at each location.
In the next post, we'll visit the other commercial section of Kensington, the Colusa Circle.