Greetings From Alcatraz Ave: Meet Bruce Lazarus

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Photo: Tuesday Bassen
Photo: Tuesday Bassen

By Andrea L. Hart

On one end, you're in Oakland. At the other, you’re in Berkeley. If you keep going, you’ll end up back in Oakland. If you trip, you’ll fall into Emeryville. It’s an interesting mash-up of municipalities with a rich history of activism and commerce. When I moved here 10 years ago, there was only one restaurant within a short walk and the newspaper once referred to Alcatraz as a “corridor of violence” between South Berkeley and North Oakland gangs. Now it sports a bicycle collective, a cupcake shop, several cafes, two yoga studios, a weekly farmers' market and about five more spaces with permits to open in the next six months.

With headlines constantly barking about evictions in San Francisco and plans to turn West Oakland into a playground for the rich and techie, I wondered what was happening to my neighborhood. To get a sense of my neighbors' perspectives, I talked to people from 10 blocks of Alcatraz Ave. about their lives, their impressions of the recent change and their ideas about how we might endeavor to “do it better.”

Photo: David Jerrett
Photo: David Jerrett

Bruce Lazarus
Lazarus Studio for Hair
1645 Alcatraz

Years in the neighborhood:
17 years


About Lazarus (the man) and Lazarus (the salon):

I’m Lazarus. It’s a Yiddish name. My grandfather is a Yiddish West Indian, who gave the name to his daughter, and she gave it to me. And I’m stuck with it.

It’s nice to have fun and this [salon] is a place you can have fun. We sometimes laugh all day; sometimes we fuss all day. Our clients come in and they either roll with us or they’ll be quiet. It’s gotta be fun.

We are a spirit-based salon. We have a minister cutting hair. We have a social worker. I’m on an intercessory group and a prayer team. We’re not just hair stylists. We have other things that we enjoy doing too. Normally, we play gospel sometimes all day 'cause we’re used to it. Our clients haven’t objected. Those that do, do it silently or they don’t come back.

[Actually], we just had a very heated conversation over religion with an agnostic. There were three of us against one and it felt kind of bad, so we let him just take the floor and do his thing. Of course, we threw our little wonderful darts out there later, but they were nice darts. They didn’t pierce. They were just hugging and caressing darts, like little soft caresses of joy and love. He didn’t object.

How the business started:

We started off on Adeline between Washing Town and Dominos Pizza, and it was called Lazarus Syndrome One. Then, we moved across the street to a place that was a brand new beautiful building and that was called Lazarus Studio for Hair. Then, the economy forced me to shut down. I didn’t want to quit the business, because I like it and the people that were with me liked staying.

I’d been to other parts of Berkeley, Oakland, Vallejo, Richmond looking for a place to go. And one day, in my own neighborhood, I rode down the street and I saw this place. I said, “I know that place. It used to be a salon.” I came in and there was a hole in the ceiling. The floor was gutted and there was a little bit of work to be done, but I said, “Let’s do this.” I met with the owner -- her husband was the former stylist that was here -- and they made it happen. We have a beautiful relationship.

About having longevity in the neighborhood:

People need their hair done. That’s the basic reason. [We] have catered and serviced the people in the community for a long time. People grow up, they have kids. And the kids come and the kids’ kids come and the kids’ friends come. It kinda keeps going because there’s a stability.

We serve everybody in the community, even the occasional down-on-their-luck-ers. We have what is called Thankful Thursdays, where we volunteer to do some people’s hair that come from the BOSS center, which is for the homeless and other people that are struggling to find their way. They’re looking for a job and need their hair done or they got a job and need their hair done, and we volunteer to do that sometimes, giving back to the community who feeds us.

We’re part of the community and we give. We’re not through giving. We need more to give. But we’re not through.

About how the neighborhood is changing:

Berkeley follows nobody. We set the pace. We’ve kinda marched to our own beat. I’ve been here for 30 plus years, so I guess I’m a Californian now. Here, it’s different [than the East Coast]. It’s called “laid back” and we kinda chill more than we do anything else. Our aggressiveness is kinda tamed. We know when to get aggressive and we know when to mellow out. There’s [all] ethnicities within the area and we all kinda “Hey, hey. How ya doin’.” We don’t probably go have lunch together, but we do know each other.

I’m glad [about the development in the neighborhood]. It attracts more business. It gives us a visual presence. Things aren’t just dead. This is not just where it ended. You can start things in [this] community.

How can we maintain the good while we keep changing?

My statement would be to keep it in its era. Keep it consistent. Keep it clean. Keep it up. Don’t let it dissolve itself. Cause sometimes, due to lack of attention, things go bad. But Berkeley’s not like that. They’ll give you a moment. They didn’t throw us out. They embraced us.

About police presence:

I would probably wanna make sure that we still had our police force in place. In all communities, you can go two blocks over and it gets a little crazy. You can come a block down the street and it’s like, “Ok, don’t go down there.” [But] we’re not in any kinda bind. I’ve never had a complaint from my clients about feeling uncomfortable that I know.

We cut some of the Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany police officers here. One of them, [a] Berkeley officer, pulled up outside one night. He put his lights on. And I looked and I’m like “Oh gosh it’s the police. Why’re their lights on?” He got up and looked at me and [shrugged] like “What’re you doing here?” I’m like, “Nothing. Working.” He’s like, “Oh.” But to me that was a nice presence. He was concerned. That was pretty good.

About the future:

The salon may continue to thrive, but I’m going to step away in about six years and just travel and chill out. That’s what I wanna do. Until I can no longer curl is what my theory was. Friend of mine stayed at it until he was 72. I’m just gonna put a limit on it and say, I’ll stop at 65. Probably a good number. Social security kicks in. I can still do what I want. Skydive and stuff like that. You’re never too old to play.

Only one that stops you is you. We stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing. So I don’t have that problem. I like to keep it going. If I can’t keep it going, I find something else to do.



To meet more Alcatraz Avenue neighbors, check out the rest of the series!