Center Theatre, Centerville, Ca.
- Theater deal ignites town identity crisis
LINKS TO INFLUX OF AFGHAN EXILES STIRS UP NOSTALGIA FOR DISTRICT'S
By Matthai Chakko Kuruvila
By buying the only single-screen theater in Fremont, Jawid Siddiq
ignited a cultural controversy.
Siddiq says his only goal is to transform a virtually abandoned
cinema in the heart of town into a venue for dinner theater, movies,
plays and social events.
But as the most influential Afghan-American businessman in the most
famous Afghan business district in the Western world, Siddiq's plan
is being viewed with suspicion because of two words, later crossed
out, that he wrote on a business license application:
In this historic district on Fremont Boulevard that for 150 years was
called Centerville, many residents resent the fact that across the
globe their neighborhood came to be known in post-Sept. 11 vernacular
as ``Little Kabul.'' So the idea that an Afghan businessman would buy
the neighborhood's most prominent landmark -- and its only marquee --
has revived rumblings of discontent about the changing of a
neighborhood's traditional identity.
``We're in Centerville,'' said Bruce Young, president of the
Centerville Business Association. ``We're not in Kabul.''
``If they're coming here to be Americans, they need to mix with us
just like we mix with them. To draw a line and say this is our town,
`Little Kabul,' . . . it sends mixed messages to everybody.''
But Siddiq says his business will be called ``the Palace,'' the name
he wrote beside the crossed-out ``Kabul Cinema'' on the business
Siddiq, whom some call ``David,'' says his theater will cater to all
groups and will help revitalize this somewhat beleaguered
neighborhood just as his nearby Mercedes dealership and banquet halls
``Show me one person who has improved this area more than me,''
Siddiq demands, alluding to how he renovated his banquet halls, the
Flamingo Palace and Mirage. ``None.
``The people of Fremont should be very excited.''
Scattered throughout Southern Alameda County are an estimated 10,000
Afghans, the largest concentration in the country. But it is here, on
Fremont Boulevard next to an Altamont Commuter Express train stop,
where a score of Afghan businesses cluster.
With bombs raining on the Taliban after Sept. 11, 2001, this enclave
of exiles was besieged by television crews and reporters from around
But this is Centerville, one of five historic towns that in 1956 came
together to form Fremont. And the heart of this town used to be the
Center Theater, the building Siddiq now owns.
As multiplexes rose, single-screen cinemas like the Center Theater
saw a slow demise. Once a first-run theater, the building has in
recent years been used by various churches as well as the first
incarnation of the Naz, a ``Bollywood'' cinema house that has gone on
to become its own multiplex. It paralleled the economic decline of
Centerville, which once had a thriving auto row but is now a
redevelopment area dotted by vacant lots and abandoned buildings.
In recent years, the city has plunked down money to build a plaza,
put up new street signs and lights and rehabilitate the former train
The next step, thought Dirk Lorenz, was to reopen the theater to make
it the center of Centerville once again.
Leasing it for two months two years ago0, Lorenz showed movies
including ``Casablanca,'' ``Hoosiers'' and ``The Music Man.'' When a
local mechanic broke his leg, the business association threw a
fundraiser at the theater, showing ``American Graffiti.''
Lorenz, who owns Fremont Flowers, said he was trying to create ``a
sense of nostalgia, a kind of `the way it was.' These single-screen
theaters, it brought the community together in one room as opposed to
how they do it now, with the multiplexes.''
But Lorenz's group never had the money to buy the theater.
Now the hopes for the theater lie in the hands of Siddiq, whose
application to start up the business is wending its way through city