Civic Pride, Sense of Place Matter in Point Richmond

By JOHN GELUARDI Special to the Planet
Friday August 15, 2003

It doesn’t take long to be charmed by Point Richmond. Moments after leaving Interstate 580 and turning south, away from the sprawling unsightliness of the ChevronTexaco oil refinery, you are in a town square that seems to have escaped time. 

The downtown restaurants, stores and offices bustle with activity although there is very little automobile traffic and parking is rarely a problem. Many of the buildings—mostly brick and wood—were built in the early 1900s. And because downtown Point Richmond was the first-ever district to make the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, a good effort has been made to design new buildings that are architecturally consistent with the old. The focal point of the square is a statue of a Native American called “The Sentinel” which stands watch over the small park where residents sit on benches and chat or read the newspaper while sipping coffee. 

Many who visit Point Richmond to attend the popular community theater, enjoy the multiple restaurants or tour the area’s rich historical resources find themselves transported back to a more innocent time in the American consciousness when everybody knew their neighbors by name, the owners of the corner market remembered your kids’ birthday and the town barber has been cutting your hair since you were four years old. Surprisingly, those things still exist in Point Richmond. 

Of course, Point Richmond is not really a town. It’s actually a neighborhood of the City of Richmond. But try not to let that break the spell (an incongruous Starbucks Coffee House that opened last year on the square—to the chagrin of many locals—is startling enough). Perhaps because of its physical isolation, the small locality seems to exist not only apart from greater Richmond but the entire Bay Area. 

To the south and west is the Bay, to the north Interstate 580 and the oil refinery, and to the east the 295-acre Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline Park. 

“It has the feeling of an island here,” says Lora Bartlett, one of the founders of the Point Richmond Association of Mothers (PRAM). “So many people live and work here that many of us call it the last village in the Bay Area.” 

Thanks to lower-than-average home prices, large numbers of young couples were able to buy homes in Point Richmond in the mid and late 1990s (home prices have since caught up to the rest of the Bay Area). The result was something of a baby boom in the small community. Bartlett, along with some other new mothers, began PRAM in 1998. 

With a membership of 75 parents, PRAM fosters friendship, support and instruction for young families. Besides regular meetings and managing a number of pre-school programs, the group also delivers home cooked meals to families with new babies whether they are members of PRAM or not. 

Bartlett says the Point Richmond community inspires that kind of social participation.  

“This is an incredibly close knit community,” she says. “Where else can you live where the owner of the local market remembers your son’s name and his birthday?” 

Town barber John Viers, who has been operating the Park Place Barbers on the square for the last 41 years, agrees. A friendly and soft-spoken man, Viers always has a warm greeting when customers come in for a trim. The two-chair shop is comfortable and the brown metal National cash register that Viers has used since he opened the shop, gives the décor a sense of familiar continuity. “There hasn’t been any reason to get a new one,” he says with a shrug. 

The folksy charm offers its own rewards, and it’s not unusual for former Point Richmond residents to come from as far away as Sacramento and Oakhurst to have Viers cut their hair. “I just had a guy come in who moved to Castro Valley. He said people just aren’t friendly there the way they are here,” Viers says. “He needed a Point Richmond fix.” 

Point Richmond is perhaps best known as a popular lunch destination. When noontime nears, the nine restaurants in the small downtown fill up with refinery workers, City of Richmond employees and lab technicians from the new $18 million state DNA lab. 

However, the town has another life as a secret weekend getaway. The seven rooms in the 92-year-old Hotel Mac are booked a month in advance by Bay Area residents who come to Point Richmond to escape the kids, work stress or just to get away enjoy themselves. 

“We have people come here for a variety of reasons,” says hotel manager Griff Brazil. “They come to have a good meal in the restaurant and attend the Masquers Playhouse, or go to the Ginger Spring Day Spa. We even have people who are visiting San Francisco but want to stay here because it’s close and not as hectic.” 

In keeping with a turn-of-the-century town, Point Richmond is especially rich in history. It was founded as a railroad town in 1897 when the Santa Fe line chose nearby Ferry Point as the terminus of its transcontinental rail line. Passengers and goods were loaded onto boats and ferried across the bay to San Francisco. In the early 1900s, Standard Oil built the refinery which also added to the town. 

Homes began to sprout on the hills that rise up from the town square and soon, like many boon towns in northern California, Point Richmond soon acquired a bawdy reputation. Railroad Avenue, on the east side of the square, once sported as many as 20 bordellos along with a sizeable collection of taverns. One survivor, the Baltic, still operates as a restaurant and bar, but the upstairs bordello has long since vanished, according to owner Chuck Wise. 

While a bordello wasn’t unusual in Point Richmond at the time, it’s telling of the era that it was able to exist in harmony with the police station and jail, which was right next door.  

The Red Light Abatement Act of 1913 signaled the death knell of the bawdy houses, but bars remained a popular pastime in Point Richmond. According to second generation resident David Vincent, the town housed 64 taverns at the height of World War II.  

Richmond’s population exploded during the war as people from the South and Midwest flocked to the area in search of jobs in the four Kaiser shipyards. Those workers cranked out 747 Liberty and Victory ships for the war effort. 

The area is rich with World War II history. Near Point Richmond, military history buffs can tour the SS Red Oak Victory or the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park, which was dedicated in 2000. 

Other points of interest include the Golden State Model Railroad Museum, the Point Richmond Historical Museum, which is housed in a surveyor’s shack built in 1902, or “just walking around the Point Richmond hills and enjoying the town’s sleepy atmosphere and breathtaking bay views,” Vincent says.  

For more information about historical resources in and near Point Richmond or local festivals and arts and crafts shows go to http://www.pointrichmond.com. 


Box Info: 

The second annual 2003 Point Richmond Music Festival will be held in downtown Richmond Friday, Aug. 16th. The music begins at noon and will continue until 7:30 p.m. Nine bands will play including Johnny Dilks & His Visitation Valley Boys, The Rhythm Doctors and the Masquers Stage One. Arts and crafts vendors will also be setting up booths along the sidewalks and streets.