|Chronicle Lauds Richmond's
October 19, 2002
A multi-page article in Fridayís San Francisco Chronicle extolled the affordability and sense of community offered by Richmondís Atchison Village. The community is part of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, is listed on the Richmond Historical Register and has been conditionally approved by the State Historical Resources Commission for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The Commission found he property eligible for the National Register but requested additional information on the social and cultural history of the project. Carey & Co., the architecture preservation consulting firm that prepared the nomination under a grant from Rosie the Riveter Trust is currently completing the additional research.
The Richmond Housing Authority was the first authority in the country to manage a defense housing project built under the Lanham Act of 1940, and Atchison Village was the first project of the fledgling Richmond Housing Authority. Atchison Village was actually started in 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor, as the Richmond Kaiser shipyards cranked up to build ships for Great Britain via the Lend-Lease Program. Eventually, Richmond developed the largest federally funded housing program in the nation, totaling some 21,000 units. Most were torn down after the war, but Atchison Village, built to higher standards than most of the later projects, survived.
Listing on the National Register of Historic places not only will bring prestige to Atchison Village but will open up a number of benefits connected to preservation incentives, including the opportunity to receive grant funding and assistance for a variety of uses, tax credits and more flexible building codes ( see http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=1074 for more information).
For a link to the Chronicle article, see http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/10/18/EB129724.DTL
A friend of a friend of a friend told Amy Kolman about a "strange little village in Richmond."
It was 1999, and Kolman had returned to the Bay Area from three years of self-imposed exile to find that the real estate situation had shifted from grim to grimmer. For an artist and dog owner on a budget finding a suitable space to rent was hard enough -- buying seemed hopeless.
Then she heard about Atchison Village, a quiet community of curved streets and trim lawns that was originally built as housing for defense workers and has been cooperatively owned by the residents since 1956.
Kolman visited the village, which sits in the western corner of the economically depressed Iron Triangle district and found it "ridiculously bucolic." Living across from the Chevron refinery worried her, but she figured that the stress of dealing with Bay Area real estate was just as much of a health risk.
In short order, she purchased a three-bedroom, attached unit with a compact backyard and a shared front lawn for $65,000 -- unbelievably, that was a record-high price at the time.
"Whenever friends come here for the first time, they're so happy for me," said Kolman, 55. "Their happiness is written all over their faces."
So it has happened for decades. Drawn by the affordability, people find their way to this sunny patch of Richmond, buy one-four-hundred-fiftieth of the Atchison Village Mutual Homes Corp. and become part of a historic community.
The village has weathered the precipitous decline of the once-bustling downtown, along with numerous internal fights about issues such as roofing and taxation. It has also seen a dramatic population shift -- from an exclusively white enclave during the war to a polyglot community.
But philosophically and aesthetically, little has changed, prompting the Village's inclusion as a satellite site of the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park. In addition, villagers applied to the National Register of Historic Places in March and are hoping to find out the results of their bid by the end of the year.
"Police call this a little oasis," said Nancy Fuller, 30, a lifelong resident and the president of the volunteer Board of Directors. "They cannot believe this little place exists."
Managing the conflicts that inevitably arise can be enervating, she said -- sometimes it seems a lot like running a college dorm. But residents truly look after each other in the end, and, Fuller added, "How many places do you have like that?"
Designed by architects Carl Warnecke and Andrew Hass, Atchison Village is indebted to the "garden city" and "city beautiful" movements, popular in America in the early part of the 20th century. Clumps of modest one- and two- story buildings surround common grassy courtyards, which in turn are organized around a large park at the main entrance. One hundred sixty-two buildings with 450 units (ranging in size from 540 square feet to 857 square feet) are scattered over the village's 30 acres.
"It's different than traditional neighborhood design," said Thomas Butt, vice mayor of Richmond and an energetic supporter of the village's application for historic status. "The shared space promotes community. There's no question about it."
Orien Fitch, who at 80 gets around the neighborhood with the aid of two walkers, is one of a handful of remaining charter members. She and her husband had been living in the village for several years when the U.S. government, which was unloading wartime housing, offered to sell the development to the tenants for about $1.5 million in 1957. The renters jumped at the opportunity, establishing a temporary board, knocking on doors and holding late-night meetings, Fitch said. Within 30 days, as required, they had raised the initial $50,000 payment.
"There's always doubting Thomases, but we were determined we were going to do it," said Fitch, who ultimately paid $3,348.55 for her two-bedroom. "We'd lived through the Depression. We knew what it was like to be without -- we wanted homes."
The corporation, organized solely for the purpose of providing affordable housing, has functioned according to its founding bylaws ever since: Unlike condominium-owners, residents -- who must be approved by the board -- have no deed, trust or title to their property. Instead, they own a single membership in the corporation and the concomitant vote that permits them to elect the 11- person board and participate in other village decisions. The corporation is legally responsible for maintaining the buildings.
Bound by a common interest in maintaining their sliver of community, members formed a women's club and a crime watch. They held regular community meetings and potlucks. They looked out for their neighbor's children and brought over food when someone was sick. Twenty years after incorporating, the village paid off its mortgage..
This sense of community was crucial to the village's survival as the surrounding neighborhood began to decline. Downtown Richmond, just blocks away,
was once a buzzing commercial district anchored by stores such as Macy's and JC Penney.
But when racial tensions flared in the late '60s, downtown businesses began to flee. The final blow arrived in 1976 when the Hilltop Mall opened, and the remaining department stores moved into the hills. Downtown Richmond has never recovered.
"Once you got outside of the village, you're talking about straight 'hood, the ghetto. Drugs and everything," said James Singleton, 39, who moved in at age 8 and still lives there with his mother and young son. "But as long as you were here in Atchison Village it was safe, it was quiet."
Crime in the Iron Triangle -- long plagued by gang warfare, drugs and poverty -- has dropped in the last few years, but the neighborhood still has the highest crime level in the city, said Richmond Police Sgt. Anthony Williams. Much of that activity, particularly the most violent crime, has stayed outside the village, Williams said.
In 1998, in an effort to further reduce crime, the corporation voted to erect gates to block cars but not pedestrians at all but one entrance to the village. As expected, crime dipped, although it was a bitterly disputed decision that some villagers still grumble about.
But with 450 members and constant decision-making, such controversy is par for the course in Atchison Village. Those who keep track of such matters can tick off the lowlights: The debate about whether to install new roofs. The fight with the Carpenters Union over the maintenance workers' wages. The eviction in the early '70s of the Mohr brothers who charged that their ouster by a board vote was racially motivated. (Jon and Rick Mohr claimed visits from their black and Latino friends inspired the eviction; the board said the Mohrs were too noisy.)
More recently, in 1994, David DeForrest sued the corporation, arguing that property taxes should be equally shared among tenants. (At that point, newer members with more expensive units were shouldering a greater share of the taxes.) His suit also alleged that the corporation had failed to set aside adequate funds for repairs.
DeForrest eventually won the case, but insisting that the village wasn't enforcing the judgment, he filed a contempt-of-court complaint. That suit didn't go his way, and in 2000, he was ordered to pay the corporation's $40, 000 of legal fees and, subsequently he declared bankruptcy. DeForrest was elected to the board in May. He's in charge of the finance committee.
Some members point to that messy situation as evidence that the community is deteriorating. They worry that bickering will eventually lead to the village's demise.
"Atchison Village isn't the Atchison Village it used to be, and I grew up here," Karen Skowronek said, standing at the podium at a recent community luncheon.
"It doesn't feel like family anymore," said James Singleton's mother, Bennie Singleton, 68. "Before, you knew the people, you knew the children. Now everyone wants to be separatist. A lot of people don't come to the meetings or don't follow rules."
Others shrug it off as the price of living in a mini-democracy. Most days, they point out, life in the village carries on, as peacefully as ever. On a recent afternoon, sprinklers were sprinkling, parents were strolling with baby strollers, children were riding bikes and neighbors had gathered on stoops to gossip. Birds chirped, and every so often the comforting wail of a passing train swirled over the treetops and then evaporated.
"It's quiet. We don't have a lot of crime. It's friendly," said Guadelupe Hernandez, 32, as she watered her rose bushes, and her children scampered around the front yard.
Hernandez, who bought her home eight years ago, is part of a new wave of Latino residents living in the development. For many years, the village was full of original members and consequently mostly white.
But as the number of old-timers dwindled -- some died and others left for senior housing -- a younger and more racially diverse population moved in. The village does not offically keep racial data, but, according to Fuller, there are now more Latino than white residents.
The village is also home to a small number of African Americans and Asians.
When the Village was built, African Americans were not allowed to move in, said Shelby Sampson, curator at Richmond Museum of History and a village resident. "It's very out in the open and agreed on that African Americans were segregated to certain wartime housing projects," she said. Atchiston Village --
built to be permanent and therefore more upscale -- was among them.
It's unclear exactly when that unofficial ban was lifted, but blacks were living in the village by the time it incorporated in 1956, Sampson said. The African American population inside the village has never matched the population outside, however. Residents estimate that less than 10 percent of the village population is black, while the Iron Triangle is about 40 percent black, according to the 2000 census.
Though prices have inched up since Kolman struck her deal in 1999, affordability is still the major draw. Because villagers technically own only a membership -- not property -- village homes rank among the cheapest in the Bay Area: one-bedroom units cost as little as $50,000 and three-bedrooms rarely sell for more than $125,000, Fuller said. Residents pay a monthly, all- inclusive maintenance fee of $200 -- give or take a smidgen depending on the unit size.
And despite the complaints from longtime residents about the eroding community spirit, newcomers tend to be pleased with the level of civic engagement: the crime watch, the barbecues, the neighborly concern.
Victoria Sawicki, a San Francisco mail carrier, bought a two-bedroom home a year ago, after she was evicted from her San Francisco apartment because the owner wanted to move into the unit.
"I was looking for a community, and there's like a built-in community here, " said Sawicki, 54, who didn't imagine she would ever be able to even afford a studio. "This place is like a gift from heaven. I'm still pinching myself."
E-mail Rona Marech at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle. Page 1