Undercurrents: Making Changes in ‘God-Forsaken Richmond’

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:44:00 AM

My uncle, Charlie Reid, moved to Richmond in the early 1930s, and my mother often told the story of how my grandmother, Jennie Reid, first went to visit Uncle Charlie out there on the bus. When Grandma Reid got back home, she was sobbing, asking “Why did Charlie move to that God-forsaken place?” 

It is easy to see why my grandmother felt that way. Richmond in the 1930s was still a decade away from the enormous population explosion of the war years, must have appeared as a backwater West Texas town set down on the bleakest and most blustery point of the East Bay shoreline, the damp Pacific winds sweeping over the drainageways and marshlands like the desolation of the English moors, the flat bay plains far from the cool shade-green of the eastern foothills, the smoke from the many refineries sending hellish plumes of smoke out over the constantly overcast skies. For a woman born and raised in the roaring, bustling 19th-century San Francisco, Depression-era Richmond must, indeed, have been a depressing scene to Grandma Reid. 

But nature is nothing if not perpetually in balance. As the old folks say, the same thing make you laugh, make you cry. The same weather patterns that created Richmond’s bleak and windswept flatlands also gave it some of the most spectacular bayfront views of the east or west bay. And these days, the Contra Costa city is seeking to capitalize on its extensive shoreline to lead the city into an economic and social revival. 

First and foremost on that revival agenda has been what is now called the Ford Point Building, the half-a-million-square-foot behemoth that was once the old Richmond Ford Assembly Building, and was later used to build military vehicles during World War II. The enormous building closed for industrial use more than half a century ago, and was severely rocked and damaged by Loma Prieta. Because of that, the City of Richmond came close to either demolishing or gutting the structure, as well as considered proposals that would have turned it—or its property—into a standard office park or—sigh—condominium housing. 

The city did none of those, instead opting to move forward with a historic preservation project that kept the building intact and centered its uses around a convention center and the housing of green businesses. A waterfront-view restaurant has its tables set intertwined with the original boilers and piping that once served the auto assembly plant, but the real gem of the building is the convention space. Called the Craneway, the huge convention hall preserves the auto plant’s old glass-pane west wall that opens up onto the bay, giving convention-goers an unrestricted view of islands and bridges and deep water stretching over to the San Francisco shoreline. In one interesting innovation, the center’s developers use tables irregularly sliced from unfinished trees, the knot-patterns clearly visible on the surface, so that each individual table has its own pattern. 

At night, the old assembly plant smokestack that once belched pollutants into the Richmond air is now a proud monument illuminated by colored lights that can be seen far out on the bay waters, the appropriate symbol of Richmond rising. 

In 2008, the city’s renovation and preservation work on the old Ford Building won it a national award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

But Richmond’s revival has not been limited to its 32 miles of shoreline. Quite the contrary. 

For years Richmond City Hall was relocated to not far from the Ford Building while its old downtown headquarters was being renovated, and for a while there was some talk in city circles about the seat of city government remaining permanently down near the waterfront. Instead, City Hall has moved back to MacDonald Avenue, part of a general rehabilitation effort along the city’s main downtown street. In fact, someone who—like myself—had not driven in downtown Richmond for a couple of years would hardly recognize MacDonald these days. The city has done major work along the street, tearing down many buildings and renovating others, as well as restriping and reconfiguring the street surface itself. The lower end, where the old blues and jazz clubs used to rock during the World War II glory years, catering to thousands of sailors and shipyard workers, is being primed as Richmond’s historic district. 

But that is not surprising, as Richmond has learned that part of the way to ensure its future is by trading on its past. Three years ago, I reported on how members of the Iron Triangle Players—a group of Richmond youth working out of the city’s East Bay Center for the Performing Arts—put together a presentation of a video and live monologue sketches called “Memories of MacDonald.” 

“The monologue sketches and video presentation,” I wrote in a Daily Planet article, “were part of Memories of Macdonald, a six-month project sponsored by several Richmond-based agencies and organizations which are in the midst of a six-month-long project to reclaim the city’s past. The groups have been collecting oral and visual history of the city’s once-bustling main drive, using a corps of local youth volunteers to help do the gathering … The project will culminate with a series of historical markers to be placed along Macdonald. The markers will contain historical photographs and quotes from residents who lived through Macdonald’s glory times, and will be similar to the widely acclaimed markers along the city’s waterfront.” 

The grandmother of Richmond’s development-through-history effort, of course, is the Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront National Historical Park, the Richmond-based national park that centers around preserving the history of the World War II Kaiser shipyards. This is a unique national park, based not upon a specific set-aside land acreage, but upon historical sites of homefront support-the-war activities scattered around Richmond. The old shipyard sites are still there and some major artifacts—like the Ford Building that manufactured tanks, the enormous Whirlycrane that was used to move steel slabs from dock to building ships, and the World War II era ship the Red Oak Victory—are available for visitors and easily identifiable as monuments from the world’s last major war. But other historical sites—housing projects where shipyard workers lived or buildings that housed USO recreation sites for military personnel—are identifiable only by reference in park documents and bus tours or by newly erected park signage. Bus tours of these sites long ago became so popular that the Rosie the Riveter Park stopped advertising them because they could not handle the crowds, and the waiting list to get on the tours still remains long. 

Locally, practically the only media attention Richmond gets is when one of its young residents shoots at another one. Within the Bay Area, the city suffers from a reputation of violence. But in large part because of the publicity generated by the national park site, the city’s national reputation may be slowly changing, with potential visitors seeing it as a convention destination of breathtaking waterfront views, a less-expensive spot within quick-traveling distance of the San Francisco tourist magnets, the Marin County shoreline, and the California wine country. As that national vision grows, Richmond’s nagging violence will become less of a factor in keeping tourist dollars away. After all, there are few countries in the world not involved in actual warfare that are more violent than Jamaica, or cities in the country more violent than New Orleans, yet tourists pack those destinations month after month, year after year. 

That violence must be reduced and the reasons for it solved, of course, but part of that will be helped—to some degree—by bringing more jobs and activities into a city that is somewhat short of both, particularly for its dark-skinned youth population. 

And Richmond’s reputation will only be enhanced once the city decides what to do with the old Winehaven winery property at Point Molate. City officials and residents are still divided over plans to turn the winery into a casino, or to restore the winery and preserve the area as open space. It’s one of those decisions that any city would envy. The old Winehaven building is a castle-like structure that is still intact, and, when restored, will be even more spectacular than the Ford Building. In addition, situated on a wooded bluff just at the side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza, the property’s views are more breathtaking than the waterfront on which the Ford Building sits. Either way the city decides, by continuing to keep so much of its waterfront available for public use and enjoyment, Richmond will prosper.  

Meanwhile, it has to be noted that nearby Oakland had the chance to cash in on the Rosie phenomenon, but has ignored the opportunity. My cousin Betty Reid Soskin—a U.S. Parks Ranger based at the Rosie the Riveter Park—has sought for several years to interest Oakland politicians in expanding the park sites into that city. None of them—and I emphasize none—has taken up the opportunity which seems odd, since Oakland could benefit from a better national reputation as well. But maybe Oakland leaders think that Richmond, being such a God-forsaken place, could not possibly generate ideas from which Oakland could benefit. 

That is clearly a mistake. God—in whatever form you wish to characterize God—did not forsake Richmond. God simply gave Richmond wonderful attributes that Richmond leaders are moving forward to take advantage of, the rest of the world is beginning to rediscover.