|Easter Hill, The Forgotten
August 28, 2003
Easter Hill Village, administered by the Richmond Housing Authority, is about to become history. Over the last few decades, "Easter Hill" has become a metaphor for crime and poverty. It will shortly be torn down, to be replaced by a $100 million enlarged project funded by a Federal Hope VI grant.
When it was new, Easter Hill was cutting edge design for public housing and was touted nationwide for its livability. Over the years, it unfortunately became a warehouse for the poorest of the poor, and mismanagement by a succession of Richmond Housing Authority bureaucrats turned it into a drug and crime infected ghetto. In the 1970's, my small goat herd was rescued minutes away from the barbecue when a Richmond Police officer found them in an Easter Hill backyard after they had been goat-rustled from my backyard a couple of days earlier. I have to say I never had a good feeling about Easter Hill after that.
The Hope VI project will do something the Richmond Housing Authority never tried on its own - mixing subsidized housing with market rate housing to break up the ghetto of poverty. While we are optimistic and hopeful about the prospects for the new Easter Hill, we have regrets that the once touted architecture of the old Easter Hill has been blamed for its failure as a successful neighborhood.
Last Friday's Chronicle featured Easter Hill Village and related some of the history of its design and early success. As noted at the end of the article, the Richmond Museum of History is seeking the stories of its early residents. See http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/08/22/EBGVO1CP3J1.DTL, or see below. Early residents are invited to share their experiences. Contact Jan Brown, Chair, Easter Hill Village Exhibit Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To really see Easter Hill Village, you have to close one eye and open the other.
Close the eye that sees Easter Hill today -- yards filled with trash, a warren of chain-link fences and boarded-up windows. Open the eye that sees into the past, when the public-housing project with its winding roadways, boulder-strewn landscaping and gabled apartments won nationwide acclaim.
In the mid-1950s, "Easter Hill Village" meant the latest in socially conscious public housing. Not a soulless high-rise, it was a planned community of one- and two-story townhouses built around gardens and cul-de-sacs, with varied colors and detailing.
In 1957, the American Institute of Architects called the project, designed by Don Hardison, Vernon DeMars and Lawrence Halprin, one of "10 Buildings in America's Future."
"American architecture at its best," the organization said. In a picture spread, Life magazine called Easter Hill, "ideal low-cost housing."
Since then, architects and historians have continued to visit, and Easter Hill Village, finished in 1954, is widely considered an admirable forerunner of modern high-end condominiums.
But Richmond is about to lose both Easter Hill, the crime-ridden project and the architectural masterpiece. Most residents have already left, and demolition should begin in February.
The result, city officials say, will be larger rooms in larger, up-to- date homes, new recreational and child care facilities, and safer streets and walkways.
"It's alleviating one of the major blighting influences and allows the city another opportunity to revitalize its south side," says LaTanna Jones, the Richmond Housing Authority's manager of the project.
The goal is to provide more and better low-cost housing, he says, and to bring in a wider income mix -- including homeowners and some people who will pay market rates for their homes.
The project, located between Cutting Boulevard and Interstate 580, will be the largest housing project in flatland Richmond in years, he notes. Referring to the Easter Hill street pattern, few entrances and high crime, Jones says: "Easter Hill sat like an island. You were locked in there. It was an island of doom."
Hardison, Easter Hill Village's original lead architect, believes the city can accomplish all of its goals -- and without destroying his project.
"It isn't the design of the housing that created the problem," he says. "It is the way the property has been administered.
"They have failed to thoroughly explore the advantages of restoration and additional construction over demolition and reconstruction."
He has proposed an alternate plan that would preserve and upgrade current buildings, provide additional units and recreational facilities on nearby lots,
and new entries and exits.
But Hardison's plan may be too late.
The environmental report for the project, dubbed "Easter Hill Hope VI" after the federal Hope VI program that is contributing $35 million, is rolling through its approvals. The plan calls for demolishing the original buildings - - even though the report's historic study says they seem eligible for state historic recognition.
The development has a for-profit partner, the Los Angeles firm of McCormack Baron Salazar, a leading builder nationwide of Hope VI housing. Architect Michael Willis of San Francisco plans two- and three-story buildings that city senior planner Dennis Carrington calls "a very nice design. They look like a big suburban house."
Many people in Easter Hill and surrounding neighborhoods applaud the change, says Michael Seals, president of the Cortez-Stege Neighborhood Council.
"It will be a tremendous improvement," he says.
Seals, who grew up near Easter Hill and lives a few blocks away, remembers when neighborhood kids would go there to play.
"You just didn't have that fear of going up there and not coming out again," he says. He also remembers when Easter Hill was well maintained.
"You're much more conscious of taking care of a place when it's brand new, " he says. "We're looking for change, and this is change. Hopefully it will be change for the better."
The 24-acre project will tear down 237 rental units; 36 units that were rehabilitated several years ago will remain.
The project will build 217 rental units and 44 for-sale homes on Easter Hill. Forty more for-sale homes will be built on the adjacent site of the old Cortez school.
Easter Hill, which housed about 300 families, roughly half of them African American, half Hispanic, was all rentals. Although designed for mixed- income residents, over the years it filled with the poorest of the poor.
"We have a warehouse of poor people in one area," Jones says.
One goal of Hope VI is to create neighborhoods with a mix of incomes. Most Easter Hill residents will receive Section 8 vouchers, meaning they will pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent.
McCormack Baron, working with the city and various nonprofits, will provide social services to make residents self-sufficient -- child care, transportation, education, job training, after-school programs and home- ownership counseling.
The city considered preserving the existing village, says Carrington, the city planner.
"The problem is, the units are falling apart, and nothing in them works," he says. And the units are too small. "What people have come to expect in homes has changed since they were built."
"Hope VI is a very good project and good for the city," says Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt. Butt, the council's leading proponent of historic preservation, is an architect and a friend of Hardison's, and he wishes more effort had been taken to incorporate the historic Easter Hill Village into the new project. "I don't know if it's too late," he says.
Hardison is starting to think that it is. He has been warned that any delay could jeopardize the project's funding.
Hardison, 87, led a reporter through the village's mini-parks, walkways, hillsides and an abandoned baseball field, stopping to talk to residents and pointing out changes -- none for the better.
"That is a play yard, believe it or not," he says of a fenced-in area filled with rotting foam.
"This was a lovely park site," he says, standing by a group of pines and a scattering of 5-foot-high boulders. What was once an open picnic area is now sliced up by fences and dotted with beer bottles and clothing abandoned by departing tenants.
The architect, who lives in a home of his own design in the El Cerrito Hills, is well known in the community. He and his firm have designed many public buildings (Richmond High, Fairmount School in El Cerrito, Mira Vista Congregational Church) and much housing.
He is widely admired for his focus on housing for poor and middle-class people, says Roger Montgomery, a historian and retired professor from UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design.
Hardison says he's upset not because Easter Hill is his project, but because it served its residents well. He's sorry that people will be displaced by construction.
And, while he doesn't say it, he's also upset because Easter Hill was a dream of a better future for people who live in public housing.
It was a dream shared by socially conscious post-World War II architects -- that good design could produce livable neighborhoods, even for poor people.
Influenced by the idealism of European modernists, and by a softer, more human-scaled version of modernism that developed in the Bay Area, architects like Hardison worked to alleviate the post-war housing shortage.
Hardison, a young architect who designed hulls in Richmond's Kaiser shipyard during the war, won a Richmond Housing Authority contract. He brought in a partner, Vernon DeMars, slightly older and highly experienced with housing. For years DeMars built housing for farm workers for the federal Farm Security Administration, and designed war housing.
Then Hardison discovered Easter Hill. Once a 150-foot hill known for Easter morning services, the hill was pulverized during the war to create fill for the nearby Kaiser shipyards. "It was just a great big quarry on the hill," Hardison says. "There were piles of boulders. A wonderful landscape.
"I thought we'd get rid of the rocks, or just push them around the edge," he says. Then DeMars took a look. "He said 'Oh my gosh, we've got to get Larry Halprin in on this.'"
DeMars and Halprin, who has since become a leading landscape architect, drew up the plans, with Hardison overseeing the project.
Winning government approval proved difficult because what they wanted to build broke the mold for public housing. "We started out from the beginning to plan a village," Hardison says. They wanted units to feel like individual homes.
"What we were trying to design violated some standards of the time," he says. It was low-rise, not high, curved roads, not straight, and with varied textures and colors to avoid a barracks look.
And Halprin created a "boulder placement plan" -- another first for public housing.
Hardison fought for amenities ignored in other projects -- front yards, fenced backyards. Federal authorities were reluctant to approve clotheslines for individual families.
What was extraordinary about Easter Hill, Montgomery says, is: "They took it very, very seriously. They put as much time in it as their market-rate houses."
Easter Hill opened with a mix of tenants, from very low income to low income. Minorities made up two-fifths of the residents.
In the mid-'60s the project remained a pleasant place to live, residents told a researcher. But by 1974, crime was flourishing, maintenance was poor and Easter Hill was considered housing of last resort.
Hardison, who worked with the Richmond Housing Authority until the mid- 1980s to rehabilitate Easter Hill, blames federal policies that required the authority to house only the very poorest people.
Fewer residents cared for their yards or their apartments. He objected to some of the renovations. Fences destroyed the welcoming atmosphere, he says. By the mid-'80s, when he was asked to install bars on windows, Hardison did it
-- then told the Housing Authority it would be his last job at Easter Hill.
"I cannot believe you are going to add bars," he told them. "Here are these people living in a village that is supposed to be neighborly, and it is almost like an institution."
Over the years Easter Hill gained a reputation for drug dealing and drive- by shootings, but for its residents it remained a neighborhood.
Lawrence Davis, 31, who works in a group home for children, is moving to San Pablo to make way for the demolition.
"The block here, it was pretty sociable," he says. "We all knew each other. You got some parts in here where's its kind of rough."
Davis says he had no complaints about his home -- though maintenance was spotty. About Hope VI he says, "It's always good to upgrade."
The Lopez family, who lives across from the pine-and-boulder picnic area, agree -- but they say demolishing Easter Hill is going too far.
"Everybody was thinking, 'Why don't they just remodel the place?' " Rocio Lopez, 24, asks. "My auntie was saying, 'Why not give us paint, and we'd paint it ourselves?' "
Lopez, who spent her teen years in Easter Hill, was back to help her parents and aunt move. They hope to return.
"Every afternoon, we'd sit under the pine trees and talk to each other," she says. "Almost every afternoon, we'd be down there. That pine tree is going to miss us."
When told that Easter Hill's architect wanted to save it, Lopez said she wished they had known sooner. "We would have helped protest."
Montgomery would also like to see Easter Hill preserved. "But how the hell do you preserve something that has no public support?
"It's common people's architecture. The things that working-class people live in are not generally considered landmark material. We celebrate the palace of the king -- and not the common folk."
Tom Butt faults the city for not focusing on Easter Hill's history until late in the game.
"Nobody ever thought to ask the question, 'Hey, is there a significant history in this?' "
"It's one of the ironies of life," Montgomery says, "that things
that are landmarks become disposable in their own time."
The Richmond Museum of History plans an exhibition on Easter Hill Village and hopes to contact early residents. The museum is looking for photos, stories and memories. Call (510) 235-7387.
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