When Peter Van Kleef was 12 years old, his sisters recalled, he hitched a ride on a moving train traveling through Oakland just to see where it would stop. When it didn’t, he opted to enjoy the California scenery rolling past him, rather than stress over what he could not control. Van Kleef’s sisters remember him as someone who found the positive potential in every situation he encountered.
“He visualized things and he didn’t take no for an answer; nothing ever stopped him. He was a visionary, an optimist,” said his older sister Gerda Cardenas-Mena.
Van Kleef, owner of the bar Café Van Kleef, passed away on September 8, leaving behind his legacy as the “godfather of Uptown Oakland.” At his memorial service on Saturday evening, family and friends gathered in front of his bar to share anecdotes about the man that they believe helped foster a new era of art and music in Oakland. The area in front of the bar between 16th and 17th Streets on Telegraph Avenue was closed to traffic all day for the celebration. Café Van Kleef regulars gazed at Van Kleef’s original paintings displayed around the stage as they sipped greyhounds, the signature drink at the famous watering hole, listened to live jazz and blues tunes, and recalled Van Kleef’s affinity for bad jokes and the music of Eddie Money. Even as the overcast weather threatened the possibility of rain, the music and the laughter did not cease until late that night.
Gil Duran, a friend of Van Kleef’s and the spokesperson for former Oakland mayor and Café Van Kleef regular Jerry Brown, said that before Van Kleef opened his bar in 2004, the social scene in Uptown was lacking. Scanning the horizon of the bustling downtown from a memorial stage where Van Kleef’s closest friends and family members offered speeches in his memory, Duran said that Van Kleef was nicknamed the godfather of Uptown not only for fostering the “Uptown renaissance,” in which the opening of his bar inspired many other businesses to open in the once-struggling area, but also for his contagious, uplifting spirit.
“A lot of people considered him the godfather of Uptown because he was such a booster and generous person,” Duran said. “He had faith in Oakland and he always believed he was at the front end of a gold rush in this city that nobody else knew about.”
Florence Van Kleef, Peter Van Kleef’s younger sister, beamed at the crowd of loved ones who had gathered to honor her brother as she fondly remembered how he would collect warm clothes in the wintertime and leave them where he knew homeless people gathered, so that they would not have to suffer through chilly evenings. “Peter embraced life and enjoyed it. He was an artist and a wanderer and he just loved life and lived it to its fullest and he shared that with everyone,” she said.
Steve Snider, a friend of Van Kleef’s and the organizer of Saturday’s memorial, watched as teary-eyed attendees grooved to the music of Blue Bone Express, one of the bar owner’s favorite Oakland blues bands. Snider reminisced about the time he held his first fundraiser for his nonprofit, the Black Box Theater. The bar hadn’t yet become successful, Snider said, but that hadn’t stopped Van Kleef from making a donation of $711. “I knew they were struggling. It meant more to me than folks that gave thousands of dollars to know that Peter actually dug as deep as he could to support me. It’s kind of a classic Peter moment,” Snider said.
The memorial ended with an appearance by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who proclaimed that Saturday, September 12, 2015 would forever be known as “Peter Van Kleef Day” in Oakland. “Peter was one-of-a-kind; he was an Oaklander. Oakland’s secret sauce will be a little less zesty with him gone,” Schaaf said as she gave a plaque recognizing Van Kleef’s contributions to the city to his wife, Cindy Reeves.
Van Kleef is survived by his wife and four siblings.