|Richmond Beyond Hope?
October 9, 2006
This is one of the strangest things I have come across recently. I can’t decide whether it is art, sociology, anthropology or just BS. I don’t know if it puts Richmond down, praises it or simply pokes fun at it, or all of the above. I guess if you want to know more, you’ll have to go to the symposium and take the $10 Richmond tour. If a truck driving school in an abandoned parking lot is a symbol of hope for Richmond, we’re all in trouble. I don’t know how he missed my goat herd.
Talk about a left-handed compliment, “Richmond,” Vergara said, “is the least hard-put of the distressed U.S. cities he's familiar with.”
Despite the description of Richmond as “colorful and lively,” this definitely probably won’t make the next Visitor and Convention Bureau brochure or garner a marketing and promotional contract with the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency.
The city of Richmond is the subject of an evolving online documentary by New York-based photographer Camilo José Vergara, whose intimate glimpses of diverse life in a city glibly categorized as almost beyond hope are giving municipal planners a chance to see it in a more complex, personal way.
Vergara's street-level camera captures a flea market on the site of an old junkyard, a truck-driving school in a former department store parking lot and other signs of life forcing its way up among the decayed industrial relics of a World War II boomtown.
Vergara finds hidden charm in the bright blue of freshly painted porch steps, the canopy of a pine grove, a bird wheeling over a shipyard crane, a child's tricycle, a man on a ladder painting the eaves of his house yellow.
Vergara's artistic viewpoint will be the centerpiece of a symposium at UC Berkeley's Center for Community Innovation on Saturday called "Re-Viewing Richmond in Time and Place: Issues of Equity and Inequity in a Regional Context."
The event is open to the public and will be followed by a $10 bus tour of Richmond with Vergara as guide.
"We're dealing with a city that's been ravaged, first of all, by structural economic forces but also planning policies in the past," said Karen Chapple, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cal and a symposium participant.
Vergara's work, Chapple said, "was helping us to open our eyes to what community actually exists there, to the strengths of a community that we as planners often don't see because we use formulations such as blight."
The Chilean-born Vergara has published more than 250 images of Richmond on an interactive Web site called Invincible Cities (invinciblecities.camden.rutgers.edu/intro.html), which also includes the results of his 26-year study of Camden, N.J.
Most of his pictures are done in full daylight, which is partly because he's trying to pick up storytelling detail and partly because it isn't safe going around some parts of the city at night.
He said an older man approached him in a drug-dealing area of North Richmond and asked if he knew what he was doing standing on the roof of a car taking pictures. "I think the second question was, 'Do you like being alive?' " said Vergara, 62, who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2002.
Richmond's variety is one of the revelations of Vergara's study -- from industrial wastelands to a weekend vibrancy that he likens to Mexico City's central square, from immigrant communities to the well-kept pocket mansions he calls "modest masterpieces."
"I operate a little bit like an archaeologist," Vergara said. "As you go around, patterns will emerge in the form of images. You often take the picture not knowing what you're photographing.
"Slowly," he said, "this Pompeii or this Troy or whatever the name of the city is, begins to take shape, which is the opposite of the normal way to go about it -- which is to say, 'There's a community development department, these guys really know the city.' "
Richmond's shipyards had a monumental role in World War II, and in its decline the city has been typecast as a monumental wreck in need of monumental repairs. Vergara doesn't see it that way.
He is impressed with examples of everyday resiliency, such as the truck-driving school.
"It's the whole process of how do you roll with the punches," said Vergara.
"You don't just take one punch and fall down dead. You find things in between. There are ways you deal with vestiges, with the traces, with the things that are left behind."
Richmond, Vergara said, is the least hard-put of the distressed U.S. cities he's familiar with. It's recycling itself with a certain quirky style characteristic of California and differently from the more brutal changes he finds in places like Detroit or Chicago.
He's taken with the spirit represented by something as trivial as someone's decision to choose a streamlined font for the lettering on a senior center sign. And in the ruins of Henry Kaiser's shipyards he sees just artifacts. "Compared to that, what is it to get 10 people a month to learn to drive a truck in the Montgomery Ward's parking lot?" he asked. "But that's the life of the city."
If you go
The Richmond symposium will be held Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m at 575 McCone Hall, the Clarence Glacken Seminar Room, on the UC Berkeley campus. The bus tour will begin at 3 p.m.. The symposium is free, although participants must reserve a place by filling in the online form at www.iurd.ced.berkeley.edu/cci/rsvp3.html. The fee for the tour is $10, plus the cost of dinner.
E-mail Rick DelVecchio at email@example.com.