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Bringing back 'Memories of Macdonald'


The Macdonald Landmarks Project of the Richmond Redevelopment Agency in concert with the Richmond Main Street Initiative and the National Park Service is one of the best things the Agency has taken on. It has really sparked an interest form the media, and its results will provide an identity for Macdonald Avenue rooted in an exciting history that will contribute greatly to its eventual rebirth. Read on:

Bringing back 'Memories of Macdonald'

- Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

The main drag through Richmond, Macdonald Avenue, isn't much to look at today. Boarded-up shops, graffiti and security bars line the street. Shoppers are scarce.

But in 1949, it was Shangri-la.

"It was a wonderful, booming town," said Joanne King, who's owned a dress shop downtown for nearly 60 years. "There were theaters, restaurants, jazz clubs, every imaginable kind of store. It was packed with people. I loved it then, and I still love it. I would never leave."

As part of a long-running effort to resuscitate Richmond's downtown and infuse the city with a sense of place, the city, the National Park Service and other agencies are collecting residents' memories and memorabilia for a wide-ranging history project.

"Memories of Macdonald" will include an exhibit at the city's museum, videotaped oral histories, tours, a dance and most importantly, trail markers along the town's main artery -- much of which is part of the new Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park.

"It gives some roots to a city that's been without roots for 62 years," said Betty Reid Soskin, a longtime Richmond resident who worked for the black union at the shipyards during World War II. She's now community liaison for the national park project, which will likely take 10 years to be completed.

"There's a hunger for that history," she said. "And it's very exciting because people in Richmond are just beginning to be introduced to it."

Richmond was a mostly rural town of 28,000 when the United States entered World War II in 1941. But the city was transformed into an industrial hub when Henry Kaiser opened three shipyards on the Richmond waterfront to "build ships faster than the enemy could sink them," Soskin said.

The population quickly jumped to 108,000, mostly because of the thousands of African American workers from the South. Richmond was a bustling, thriving city that became one of the most important pieces of the U.S. home front during the war.

The change was not all positive: Along with the thousands of African American workers came a tradition of segregation and that laid the groundwork for future racial tensions.

Those eventually led to the Civil Rights movement, Soskin said.

Many of the grand old clubs and hotels downtown were closed to black people, and many of the housing developments were for whites only. Kaiser's 24-hour child care for the children of female employees, hailed as revolutionary at the time, was only for white children.

"I think a lot of Richmond's history has been forgotten because it's painful for many people," Soskin said. "But it provides a baseline for all the social change that followed."

Richmond's waterfront is already undergoing a historical rejuvenation, with Rosie the Riveter historical markers and sculptures recently installed on the Bay Trail.

Now planners want to do the same thing downtown, illuminating the many facets of Richmond's past and beautifying a downtrodden commercial strip.

"People hear Richmond and they think crime, toxic spills, poverty," said Memories of Macdonald project manager Donna Graves. "But that is such a really wrong and narrow sense of this community. We want people who live and work here to regain a sense of Richmond's history."

Contrary to popular conception -- that Richmond slid into decline after Kaiser shut the shipyards -- Richmond continued to thrive for the next two decades. It wasn't the war ending that killed downtown, it was Hilltop Mall.

Like cities across the country, Richmond allowed a mall to be built miles away from its commercial hub in the late 1960s. Dozens of businesses downtown sank after Hilltop opened, and ill-conceived redevelopment efforts in the 1970s nearly finished off Macdonald Avenue entirely.

But King and her dress shop persevered. She's succeeded by stocking high-quality dresses, glamorous handmade hats, ornate purses and jewelry for her mostly African American clientele to wear to church.

"There were times when business was so bad I was going to throw in the towel, but my customers didn't want me to leave," she said. "I didn't want to leave, either -- I've had wonderful relationships with my customers my whole life."

King immigrated from the Netherlands in 1948 when she was 18 after surviving the Holocaust. Her family chose Richmond because she had numerous aunts and uncles already settled here, including a pair that owned a dress shop downtown.

She started working there part time, until eventually she bought the store herself. Even though the neighborhood has been besieged with robberies, muggings and other crime, she is undaunted.

"I love Richmond because most of the people here are so very, very caring," she said. "I've been an underdog. I know what it's like. In other towns people live for themselves, but not here."

Doris Singleton started going to Joanne's Boutique when she was a baby in her mother's arms. Now she works there and is a longtime friend of King's.

"People in Richmond are deeply touched by the violence and sadness here," she said. "But I think that with a better outlook, by remembering the good old days, we might cause some of the sadness to end."

Public events

Richmond's "Memories of Macdonald" project includes several upcoming events for the public to share their stories and learn about the city's past:

-- Walking tours throughout September.

-- Exhibit of students' art and video projects inspired by Macdonald's history, Oct. 26 at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, 339 11th St., Richmond.

-- "Talking About Macdonald" forum, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 26 at East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.

-- Dance Swap Party, featuring popular dances from six decades of Richmond's history, 3 p.m., Nov. 11, East Bay Center for the Performing Arts.

For more information, go to www.ci.richmond.ca.us.

E-mail Carolyn Jones at carolynjones@sfchronicle.com.

Richmond Residents to Share Memories of Macdonald


By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor (08-04-06)

“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.