North Richmond is poised for a better future with upcoming redevelopment plans.

Part 10: A hopeful vision for the future
By Robert Rogers-Richmond Confidential, August 24, 2011

North Richmond’s wartime rebirth and post-war decline is not unique in the Bay Area.

Perhaps the most apt comparison – and indication of the perils and potential of future development – sits just across the bay in Marin City. And it’s a comparison that yields clues about the looming challenges.

Marin City’s modern history, like North Richmond’s, essentially begins with the start of World War II, when cheap housing was erected to shelter the African Americans who had streamed in to work the shipyards.

Like North Richmond, Marin City is not a city at all, but is an unincorporated area isolated in part by transportation corridors, in this case demarcated from the affluent city of Sausalito by Highway 101.

And like North Richmond, the separation isn’t just physical or geographic. Marin City was for decades the only community in its county that was primarily poor and African American. While North Richmond is not as starkly different racially or economically from its neighbors as is Marin City, the stigma of living in the tiny, tightly-connected projects of North Richmond has evolved into its own kind of identifier. Both communities comprise just over 2,000 residents.

Marin City dealt with political isolation as well, sharing some services with Sausalito but finding politicians there reluctant to campaign in Marin City or reach out to its constituents.

But by the mid-1990s, Marin City was on the verge of a major transformation.

Enter “Marin City U.S.A.,” a consortium of developers who came together to launch a more than $100 million plus project, which included retail space, townhouses and apartments. Flea markets were out, and new construction was in.

More than a decade later, the results are mixed, and could portend what the future holds for North Richmond.

Marin City has become more ethnically diverse, particularly with white residents moving back in to take advantage of new condominium and housing developments at much lower prices than surrounding communities.

The African American share of the population is down from more than 80 percent to less than 40 percent, much of which is still concentrated in Golden Gate Village, the 300-unit public housing complex that is comparable to North Richmond’s Las Deltas.

The Gateway Shopping Center, a centerpiece of the new development, has been a moderate success. There are several major retailers and chain restaurants, but no grocery store.

According to a a study produced by the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, the project was a net success for Marin City, helping to reduce crime, boost tax revenues, diversify the community and dilute the poverty that had become so concentrated. It also provided much needed employment opportunities in the community.

But there were also areas where the development left something to be desired. Fewer than two dozen public housing tenants were able to make a move into the new affordable housing developments, the report found. Also, the retail center’s revenues fell far short of projections.

Still, the report concluded: “The experiences and accomplishments of Marin City U.S.A. provide an excellent case study for how to create a successful mixed-income, multi-use development. The lessons from Marin City U.S.A. are that a strong local partner, effective leadership, an efficient partnership structure and the availability of funding sources are essential to success.”

Enter North Richmond, which may become the site of its own major redevelopment plan, but may have steeper challenges than Marin City in terms of industrial pollutants, a substandard infrastructure and a physical isolation. The community has long had the feel of a territory of exile for a few thousand residents.

Levees prevent the area from flooding as it did regularly through the 1940s and 1950s. The streets are paved, and no longer melt into muddy rivers during storms. Regulations and advances in technology mean that Chevron’s refinery emits far lower emissions than it did just 10 years ago.

But as of 2011, North Richmond has not a single restaurant or grocery store. There is a liquor store and a small general market. But neither provides fresh fruits or vegetables, and the prices run high, thanks to neither store being able to benefit from economies of scale.

There is no post office or high school. One bus line runs through the area, and as recently as January 2011 AC Transit drivers threatened to refuse to drive the North Richmond route after several shootings left buses riddled with holes.

There has never been a streetlight in unincorporated North Richmond.

Fred Jackson, the longtime local civil rights activist after whom a local street was named this year described the bleakness during an interview in April: “What happened to North Richmond didn’t just happen yesterday when the rooster crowed. It has been evolutionary. To say it’s the county’s fault, without looking at the city, the city’s fault, without looking at the state, the state’s fault without looking at Congress, Congress’ fault without looking at ourselves, all of that fails to understand how we got here, and how we can rectify this.”

While Jackson stares at his own mortality – he vows to survive his battle with cancer – and ponders the tragic history of his own community, he remains hopeful.

He is not alone.

Even during the darkest moments, like the deaths on consecutive nights of Ervin Coley III and Jerry Owens, hope remains, and for good reason.

Situated in one of the most vibrant metropolitan areas in the world, the Bay Area, and near an untapped waterfront, major highways, and the San Rafael Bridge, North Richmond’s eventual turn for the better seems inevitable.