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Oakland renames street to honor Van Kleef

Before there was a thriving Uptown, before the bustling First Fridays, there was Peter Van Kleef, with a vision and his sole bar on a virtually vacant stretch of Telegraph Avenue.
Van Kleef worked tirelessly to transform the area to what it is today, filled with restaurants, bars and art galleries. Van Kleef, who died in 2015, will be honored with a block of Telegraph commemoratively bearing his name.
The City Council on Tuesday approved the commemorative renaming of the block of Telegraph between 16th and 17th streets Peter Van Kleef Way.
The renaming does not actually change legal or formal addresses but adds a commemorative street sign underneath the existing street sign, explained Alex Marqusee of Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s staff at last week’s council Life Enrichment Committee.
“Peter Van Kleef was known as the Godfather of Uptown for his work bringing greater economic development to the Uptown area as well as for the joy and passion he brought to the community both through his life and his passions and his establishment, Cafe Van Kleef, which is located on this block on Telegraph,” Marqusee said at the earlier meeting.
A world traveler, artist and venue operator, Van Kleef was best known in Oakland for his bar. Its customers ranged from City Hall types including former Mayor Jerry Brown, to Sean Penn, musicians, artists and street people.
“Seventeen years ago, Peter was offered this spot on Telegraph,” his wife, Cindy Reeves Van Kleef, told the Life Enrichment Committee. “At the time, it was desolate. No one was there, no one. After about a year, he decided to open it up as an art gallery and perhaps sell coffee. That’s what we did for the first couple of years, and we didn’t make very much money.
“I remember walking out of the cafe and I’d look down this street and I’d look down that way, and there was nothing there. You’d see Peter sweeping or hosing off a storefront, and he never stopped,” she said.
The couple then got a liquor license, and people started coming in, Cindy Van Kleef said.
“And then there was the Art Murmur, and that turned into First Friday. And then suddenly you looked and there was nothing but bars and restaurants bustling, and it was like day and night. But it took a long time. It was hard work, very hard work. He never stopped,” she said.
Ena Dallas, who worked as a bartender at Cafe Van Kleef for more than 15 years, told the committee how she had seen the Telegraph neighborhood change over those years.
“I had countless conversations with Peter about it being his plan from the very beginning, not wanting to just have a cafe, not just wanting to have an art gallery but wanting to see the entire community around and downtown lifted up, becoming a blossoming, burgeoning center of the arts and to rise Oakland up as a cultural and artistic place with thriving businesses,” she said.
When people would ask Van Kleef if he was concerned about the competition as more businesses opened around his bar, he would tell them no, she said.
“The more people who are here, the more people are going to be for everybody,” he would tell them, Dallas said.
“This was an oasis at a time when there wasn’t much else going on down there. It was for many years, a fabulous place to hang out, the only place to hang out,” Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said of Cafe Van Kleef at the committee meeting.
Van Kleef joins baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and Bethel Missionary Baptist Church founder Herbert Guice as Oakland residents with commemorative streets named in their honor.

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