Richmond Residents to Share Memories of Macdonald

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 04, 2006

“Since its heyday during World War II, when workers from Richmond’s Kaiser shipyards filled the streets and sidewalks,” we learn from Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt’s e-mail forum, “Macdonald Avenue has reflected the common patterns of American downtowns. Many businesses have struggled to maintain economic viability in a climate of shifting commercial development and shopping patterns.” 

The street’s name reflects how important the city of Richmond once was to the Bay Area, even before the heady days of the ’40s when the city’s Kaiser shipyards were turning out the country’s wartime armada. According to the National Park Service, Augustin Macdonald, who moved to what later became Richmond from his native San Francisco, was the founder and director of the Chambers of Commerce in Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco, and was the president of the Alameda County Historical Society and the California State Historical Association. He conceived the idea of a transcontinental rail terminal at Point Richmond and a direct ferry service to San Francisco, which led directly to the oil refinery industry moving to the Richmond area. Macdonald had interests in land, water, mining, oil and timber enterprises throughout California. 

But it is the wartime era for which Macdonald’s avenue is best known. Photographs of that period show a bustling thoroughfare, full of cars and shoppers and an active nightlife that ranged from big bands to country and western reviews. While those days are long gone, Councilmember Butt’s e-mail entry concludes that “the vital [Macdonald Avenue] corridor that hosted scores of shops, restaurants, public services and entertainment venues during World War II is still alive in the memories of many residents.” 

Several Richmond-based organizations, including the city itself, want to make sure those memories don’t die. 

This Saturday, August 5, begins the first of a five-part effort to preserve Richmond’s downtown history when longtime city residents are asked to bring their recollections to a “Memories of Macdonald” meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Richmond Museum of History, 400 Nevin Ave., in Richmond. Along with the museum, the event is being co-hosted by the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency, the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, and the Richmond Main Street Initiative. 

The six-month “Memories of Macdonald” project is part of the Macdonald Landmarks Project of the Richmond Redevelopment Agency. The landmarks project director is Berkeley resident Donna Graves, who coordinated the highly acclaimed Richmond Bay Trails Marker project and has been working on the Frances Albrier permanent interpretive historical plaque at Berkeley’s San Pablo Park. 

“Residents and business owners, both oldtimers and newcomers, [are] invited to bring their photos, memories and memorabilia associated with Macdonald Avenue” to Saturday’s Richmond Museum of History event, Graves said in a prepared release. “To fully document the evolutions that have affected the neighborhood, we will encourage stories of recent history as well as those of the past. Volunteers will collect photos and artifacts from participants and will either scan the objects for inclusion in a digital database, or catalog them as donations to the museum. Participants will be invited to record a brief ‘Macdonald memory’ at one of several digital video stations staffed by high-school-age youth from East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.” Because many of the performing arts youth are bilingual themselves, Graves said, “participants will be able to share their stories in their own languages, including Spanish and Southeast Asian dialects.”  

Graves held a similar event last January at the Frances Albrier Community Center at San Pablo Park to gather oral and artifact community history of the park. 

“The audience for ‘Memories of Macdonald’ includes residents, organizations and businesses most involved with the downtown community today,” Graves added. “This audience is wonderfully diverse in age, race, ethnicity, class, language, and, most importantly, in perspective. Our goal is to attract as wide a spectrum of storytelling as possible by inviting a broad range of participants. However ‘Macdonald memories’ are not limited to the present population of the neighborhood, so another important audience consists of people with connections to Macdonald living in Richmond and the greater Bay Area.” 

Many of the stories, pictures, or other memorabilia collected at Saturday’s event could end up as part of permanent historical markers that will eventually be placed in Richmond’s downtown area. 

The Macdonald Landmarks team is directed by Graves and made up by lead designer Michael Reed of Mayer-Reed Design, sculptor James Harrison, writer Chiori Santiago, and photographer Lewis Watts, the same team that developed the acclaimed Richmond Bay Trail Markers. 

Following Saturday’s event, youth from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts will work with the Landmarks project team and performing arts center faculty to produce a 10-minute “Macdonald memories” video and to create artwork for the Macdonald street markers. 

In September, the project will organize four historical walking tours of Macdonald Avenue similar to the Richmond historical bus tours currently operated by the Rosie the Riveter National Park. The culmination of the project will be an intergenerational community dance at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, with the performance coordinated by nationally recognized San Francisco-based aerial dancer and choreographer Joanna Haigood. The dance will be housed at the East Bay Center’s Winters building, which served as a popular dance hall during Richmond’s wartime years.