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Bay Trail Markers Relate Richmond’s History By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday October 21, 2005

You come upon them almost as a pleasant surprise from out of the past, like an explorer finding a shining obelisk poking out of a sea of Egyptian sand. 

The eight San Francisco Bay Historical Markers stand along the Richmond shoreline—the east bay’s most accessible waterfront—where you can find some of the most spectacular views in the area. 

Along the curving shoreline to the north are sweeping views first of Emeryville’s shimmering towers, then of Oakland’s downtown skyline, and then the slow rise of the foothills leading up to the horizon. To the right are the working Richmond docks where containers the size of boxcars—they actually are boxcars—are dropped by cranes like Star Wars creatures into the holds of carrier ships the size of enormous buildings. Straight ahead are the bay waters themselves, cool and gray, spanned by great bridges, the hunting island once owned by Bing Crosby, and far across, the golden domes and spires of the city of San Francisco. 

Sixty-five years ago, a small city population of workers—90,000 at its height—looked out upon this same magnificent Richmond shoreline view as they built the ships that helped win World War II for America and the allies. 

Part of the untold story of how that happened—and how Richmond went overnight from a Southern-like, mostly-white backwater town of 23,000 to a multicolor, multicultural city of 100,000—is now told in Richmond’s Bay Trail Markers. 

They are unlike the old roadside historical markers which simply remark, a little dryly and dolefully, that “200 Yards From Here, In 1864, A Command Of Confederates Was Ambushed By Union Soldiers,” and nothing more. 

Instead, Richmond’s Bay Trail Markers are living testimonials set on 18-foot-tall metal stanchions (“suggesting,” the marker brochure explains, “the prow of a massive wartime ship”). Permanently embossed on graffiti-proof surfaces, the markers themselves contain old photos and quotations from the people who worked in the wartime shipyards, many of whom are alive today and continue to play a role in Richmond’s political, social, and economic life. 

One marker shows the clubs and theaters and cowboy bars that sprung up to entertain the massive numbers of off-duty workers; another depicts the stories of the Italian-American and Japanese-American Richmond citizens suddenly finding themselves ostracized, interned, and enemies in their home towns (“When my family returned to the nursery, all the glass panes in the greenhouses were broken. I didn’t see it because I was overseas with the 442nd in Italy.” reads the poignant quote); another shows Richmond’s segregated union halls. 

Dedicated last fall, the markers are designed so that each can be viewed alone and separately by people walking along the waterfront or as an entire story outlining Richmond in the war years. 

The marker design was a collaboration of the design firm Mayer/Reed, visual artists James Harrison and Lewis Watts, and writer Chiori Santiago, but they were the brainchild of Berkeley historian Donna Graves. 

“Credit for the markers needs to go to Donna,” says Betty Reid Soskin, a Richmond resident who works for the Rosie The Riveter Park project of the National Park Service and who worked in the segregated union hall during World War II and whose quotation appears on one of the markers. 

“She was determined that they reflected the reality of those times, and that they included authentic voices,” she said. “She insisted on that.” 

Soskin was also one of several local persons who sat on the marker’s advisory panel while what Graves calls “some difficult topics of race and segregation and patriotism” were being hammered out. 

Graves, who will only admit that she “kind of put the project together,” said the idea for the markers came while she was working on the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, which honored the women who worked the wartime shipyards while men did the fighting overseas. 

“We came across so many rich stories about wartime Richmond during that time,” Graves says. “I was interested. I thought others would be. It adds a layer of history and memory to an area of the city whose past has pretty much been wiped away. It’s not intended to be just a Richmond story told to other people in Richmond. It’s telling the Richmond story to the world.” 

She was hired to develop the project by the Richmond Redevelopment Agency, which has jurisdiction over construction on Richmond’s waterfront. A third of the project money came from the Redevelopment Agency, with the rest coming from the California Coastal Conservancy and the Association of Bay Area Governments. 

“We wanted the markers to be living memorials, rather than simply the sort of plaques on a stick you usually see,” she explained. “Everywhere during the second World War, Americans were being bombarded with the rhetoric that everyone was welcome on the home front. But the reality of minorities on the Richmond shipyards was a difficult period of tension where discrimination continued. While all that was going on, these were everyday people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times.”