There Goes the Neighborhood 

Ashby Avenue gets artsy.

Among the many things that make an arts district different than a Wal-Mart or a Starbucks is that when an arts district moves in, people don't lament the loss of their neighborhood. Even in Berkeley, where you'd have to be delusional or a recluse to think there's a shortage of local culture, a little more is always welcome.

Or a lot more. That's the thinking behind the formation of the Ashby Arts District, which officially opens this weekend with a benefit concert at the Transparent Theatre. People from Epic Arts, La Peña Cultural Center, the Jazz House, and other nearby expression outlets will congregate to get their collective culture on. Each evening will feature performances by Rosin Coven, a local Edward Gorey-esque cabaret and chamber ensemble; and two musicians from Moscow, Alexander Tsygankov and Inna Shevchenko, who've played Carnegie Hall and the White House, among other venues, and are now finally ready for Ashby.

"It's always been such a magnet for gatherings," says Justin Katz, who is program director for Epic Arts, bassist for Rosin Coven, and the Ashby Arts District impresario all in one -- and who could therefore be described without hyperbole as a tireless crusader for creativity. "The location is so ideal for people finding it and finding each other," he says. "One of the purposes of an arts district is to tell the rest of the city, the greater surrounding area, "Hey, look at this happening place -- it's worth a trip over for music, art, poetry, performances, classes, workshops, and who knows what?'"

That Ashby should have to work so hard for attention seems to imply a robust array of cultural opportunities everywhere else. Downtown and West Berkeley have their districts, too, of course. But availability doesn't always equal access; Katz and company hope to create a destination "with a lower-priced, more cutting-edge, Off-Broadway feel." That means plenty of pay-what-you-can nights and not, he avows, just a bunch of fancy new restaurants. "I've lived in that area for many years," Katz says, "and I know that at times it's been disparaged. A lot of people have said this is the kind of experience they've been wanting or missing."

The announcement of a self-labeled arts district is always a bit risky -- it requires an active compact between a community's creative types and its consumers. The best such places tend to evolve organically, and cannot be manufactured or conjured by marketing alone. But the extra push helps. "I think there's a grassroots mentality that says you do it independently, you do it yourself, and you don't want to have the government, the city, involved," Katz says. But city support, including a recent Civic Arts Commission grant, has been a welcome surprise and an education. "We're working on the mayor's declaration of the district," he adds, "but not waiting for it."

This weekend's benefit, designed to offer a kind of Ashby Arts buffet, is intended to raise enough money for a community calendar, regularly highlighting the noteworthy activities of the district's artists and performers. If all goes well, perhaps every BART station along the Richmond line will eventually become a fountain of public creativity. Saturday and Sunday, August 2 and 3, 8 p.m., Transparent Theater, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. $20. For more information or reservations, call 510-644-2204 or visit Epicarts.org or Transparenttheater.org

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