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A view of 1950 San Pablo Avenue with bulky old cars heading north, Bank of America, Jay-Yee hobby shop and Barber's Auto Part prominent in the photo in a strip of businesses on the right. Telephone or electric poles line the street with wires criss-crossing overhead.

What did El Cerrito look like 50 or more years ago? Residents answer the question with photos

on November 19, 2023

In 1897, Isaburu Adachi left Gifu, Japan, for California at the age of 25. Eight years later, Isaburo managed to buy five acres of land in El Cerrito. That land turned into 12 greenhouses before the first world war broke out. The Adachi Florist and Nursery survived into the 21st century, closing its last nursery five years ago. 

Isaburo’s granddaughter Wendy Adachi wanted to honor her family’s legacy — and that of the other Japanese Americans who opened nurseries in the area — by sharing photos including an aerial shot of the land bought in the 1900s, and a rare portrait of her aunt Elsie Fujiko Adachi Ogata.

“I did not want to lose the history, as you realize how hard your parents worked and how difficult it was for them,” she said. 

Adachi is among 23 participants in the El Cerrito Historical Society’s first photo contest. Contestants were invited earlier this fall to submit up to five archival photos depicting the city from before 1973. The Historical Society received more than 70 submissions, capturing much-changed streetscapes and landscapes, as well as business life, family life and high school sports. One contestant will win a lifetime membership to the society. Other prizes include history books, El Cerrito tote bags and matchbook covers from old businesses that were donated by local artist Nick Brooks.

“We definitely got some photos from a different era. You could just tell that it kind of almost looked like a frontier town way back then,” said Historical Society board secretary Dianne Brenner.

The winner will be announced in early December, followed by an exhibition of the pictures.

Brenner said the idea was to have longtime residents document and collect photos that “might soon be lost forever.”

The Ohlone people were indigenous to the area that would become El Cerrito. It was incorporated in 1917, a decade after people fled earthquake-damaged San Francisco for nearby Contra Costa County. The city was once a hub of bars and gambling, eventually becoming more suburban.

For the contest, Matthew Flynn contributed five never-before-displayed photos of Contra Costa Civic Theatre plays. His parents, Louis and Bettianne Flynn, founded the theater in 1959 at the corner of San Pablo and Blake — now the location of Atlas Liquor Store. The theater moved to its present location on Pomona Avenue in 1970.

Flynn, the theater’s resident set designer, said nostalgia was a big part of why he and other family members contributed photos to the subsequent exhibition. “It’s El Cerrito’s history,” he said, “and we wanted to be a part of it.”

(Top photo: Looking north from San Pablo and Stockton avenues, 1950, courtesy of El Cerrito Historical Society)

(This story was updated to correct the name of the woman in the portrait Wendy Adachi submitted.)

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