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Richmond, A City of Neighborhoods
February 12, 2006

Where do you live?


Before World War II, Richmond was a small town of about 23,000, It had an “old town,” Point Richmond, where the city began at the turn of the Twentieth Century, and a “main street,” Macdonald Avenue, where the city expanded in the 1920s and 1930s when Point Richmond proved too small to anchor the eastward growth of the city.


Richmond’s historic “downtown” along Macdonald Avenue thrived as never before in the 1940’s as shipyard employment drove population past 100,000. At the end of the war, the bubble burst, and a 50-year recession sapped the city of much of its economic vitality.


In the “urban renewal” fervor of the 1960’s and the construction of Hilltop Mall in the 1970’s, the City of Richmond lost its geographic focus. Main Street became skid row, and population declined until 1975 when it started a slow climb back to a level no higher today than it was 60 years ago.


Without a viable civic focus, Richmond residents began identifying with the only thing they had left, their neighborhoods. The neighborhood council system was born shortly after World War II, but it didn’t become institutionalized until the 1960s and 1970s when federal programs that sent millions of dollars flowing into Richmond required neighborhood-based resident involvement. During this era, the Community Development Commission (CDC), consisting of elected representatives of various neighborhoods, was formed in response to federal funding program mandates.


Some of the CDC representatives were presidents or elected representatives of fledging but already operating neighborhood councils. The loosely organized but remarkably active Point Richmond Civic Group, for example, became the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, and as its president in the mid 1970s, I also became the neighborhood’s representative to the CDC.


Today, Richmond nominally has 38 neighborhood councils, which range from highly active to moribund. Some neighborhood council meetings typically draw 50-60 people or more. Others attract a handful, if that. Some have web sites and regular newsletters. A map of these areas can be found at http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/GIS/Graphics/neighborhood.pdf , and a list of presidents, contact information and meeting dates at http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/~planning/information/rncc/rncc_contacts.pdf. There is also a Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, consisting of representatives of each neighborhood council that meet once a month.


Richmond’s neighborhoods are as diverse as the city itself, but each is unique. I won’t try to describe them all, but following is a slightly irreverent sample. For those I missed, I apologize and urge residents to write their own descriptions and send them in for a sequel.


Point Richmond, where I have lived for 33 years, includes a large historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it also has some of the city’s newest homes. It has a small town feeling with a delightful neighborhood commercial center, its own community center, branch library and indoor swimming pool – the Plunge (all currently closed due to lack of money) a waterfront regional park, views to kill for, and residents who can agree on little. See www.pointrichmond.com.


Richmond’s southern flank is anchored by the Richmond Annex, a hotbed of political activity. It is bordered on the east by San Pablo Avenue, which serves as its commercial focus. It dates largely from pre-World War II development and is typified by small bungalows and cottages, some of which have great views of San Francisco Bay and the setting sun. See http://www.ranc.org/who.html.


The Santa Fe neighborhood in southwest Richmond takes its name from the railroad that used to run along its northern border, the former right-of-way of which will soon become the Richmond Greenway. It’s one of Richmond’s oldest neighborhoods with many Queen Anne cottages every bit as attractive as those that are found in Point Richmond. Like Richmond’s other older “flatland” neighborhoods, Santa Fe has struggled with crime, blight and low-level city services for years, but an influx of new residents seeking to buy affordable housing has driven up real estate values, and with them, the expectations for a better future.


Leaping across Richmond is the El Sobrante Valley where, to many, Richmond is some other city somewhere to the west of I-80. May Valley is the largest and perhaps the most active neighborhood council. Typical of the half dozen distinct El Sobrante neighborhoods, May Valley homes were built post World War II in typical suburban fashion dominated by winding streets, cul-de-sacs, wide driveways and two-car garages. El Sobrante is hilly with great views of parklands and watersheds and is intertwined with older unincorporated and semi-rural areas. El Sobrante has its own neighborhood shopping area in a strip along San Pablo Dam Road, which is pretty much the only way in and out of the valley. Although there is no website, you can email Jeannette Mahoney at perfectpage@compuserve.com and subscribe to a superb email newsletter, Valley Connections.


Wrapped around a basin that was once used to launch Liberty ships is Marina Bay, Richmond’s newest neighborhood. This is waterfront living at its best with views, a yacht harbor and the Bay Trail. Much of Marina Bay developed during the 1980s and 1990s during real estate busts, and it was thought the only way people would move to Richmond was to provide gated communities to protect them from the uncivilized hordes to the north. That fear may or may not have been well placed, but the neighborhood today consists still largely of gated communities and apartment projects that are now going condo. Despite its attractions, no one ever bothered to plan a village center for several thousand residents who are served only by one very good white tablecloth restaurant and a deli. See http://www.marinabaycouncil.com.


Most Richmonders, if asked where they live, will more often as not name their neighborhoods rather than their city. This has been a topic of heated discussion for years, with some accusing those who choose neighborhood over city as being motivated by racism. I’m just glad that people have some pride and identity in the place they live, regardless of its geographic boundaries. Perhaps one day, Richmond will be able to create a new civic focus that will make everyone say “Richmond” first and gather together in one place to celebrate the history of this 100-year old city we call home.