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Chronicle Profiles Richmond

Steeped in history, Richmond looks forward

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Peter Le, 9, of Oakland tries to pick up a fish caught by...The Ferry Point Tunnel leading to Brickyard Cove was cons...Composed largely of residential, inner suburbs, Richmond ...A construction project on Macdonald Avenue near Harbour W...More...

When Terence Krista and Bang Nguyen set out to buy a home in the Bay Area five years ago, the real estate market was a little like a Wild West hanging judge: There was no mercy shown - with record prices and bidding wars on every sale - for home buyers trying to crack the market.

Everywhere they looked - San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Albany and El Cerrito - they came up empty. One day, they found themselves in a Bay Area city that neither of them had been in before.

"I'd lived here 30 years," says Krista. "For me, Richmond was always sort of this place you just drove by on the freeway. I thought it was a dangerous place - gangs, drugs, drive-by shootings."

They decided to check it out anyway. When they found a house they liked in what appeared to be a quiet, established neighborhood in the northeastern section of the city, they decided to buy it.

Richmond by the numbers

Home to some 103,000 people in western Contra Costa County, Richmond is the 56th most populous city in the state, just behind Berkeley and ahead of Santa Clara. Composed largely of residential, inner suburbs and heavy industry, it is a major seaport, with millions of tons of goods - mainly oil and petroleum products - flowing through Port Richmond annually.

Richmond has long been considered a Democratic stronghold. Its mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, was elected in 2006 as a member of the Green Party.

Richmond has four marinas, two country clubs, four high schools, three middle schools, 16 elementary schools and seven elementary/middle schools. It has dozens of parks, beaches, a performing arts center (The Masquers Playhouse) and a national historical park (Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Historical Park).

The city also has some of the most diverse real estate offerings in the Bay Area, says Carla Della Zoppa, an agent/broker with Security Pacific Real Estate. On the high end, there's the multimillion-dollar homes perched over the water at Brickyard Cove with boat docks and views of the San Francisco skyline across the bay.

Point Richmond, with its older homes and village atmosphere, is also an attractive location. The Marina has a variety of homes and condos in the $300,000 to $400,000 price range. Homes in Carriage Hills range from $400,000 to $600,000.

Entry-level homes in north and east Richmond, where there have been a number of recent foreclosures, are priced at between $200,000 and the low $300,000s. In Richmond View, an older, established neighborhood adjacent to northern El Cerrito, a 3,500-square-foot, three-level home is priced at $699,000.

Some homes in the downtown area are currently listed below $200,000.

"There's just so much to choose from," says Zoppa. "There's a lot of opportunity if people are open to the idea of coming to Richmond."

Getting past the stereotype

A fourth-generation Richmond resident, Maria Viramontes is well aware of the stereotype that many have of her city. And while there may be an element of truth in it, Viramontes believes that element has been distorted so much that it obscures the reality that is Richmond.

"That's what I tell people when they come out here," says Viramontes, who has served on the City Council for the past six years. "We've got 36 distinct neighborhoods in this city. It's a micro-economic model of the state. There's densely urban neighborhoods, suburban neighborhoods, gated waterfront communities where people don't even lock their windows at night, boat dwellers at the marina, rural areas where the biggest issue is the deer come down and eat the landscaping - and, yes, there's a relatively small area of Richmond that has some very serious issues."

Viramontes is referring to the Iron Triangle - an area of the city defined by three railroad tracks that contain the old downtown and part of southern Richmond. It consists of five census tracts, in which about 18,000 of the city's residents live. It is where the majority of the headline-grabbing violence occurs.

A city with a past

When Viramontes' grandfather settled in the city in 1910, Richmond was a small marina town surrounded by farms and fields that had been carved out of Rancho San Pablo.

Incorporated in 1905, the fledgling city grew slowly. In 1901, Standard Oil located its refinery in Richmond. In 1930, the Ford Motor Co. opened an assembly plant.

Bustling shipyards

The city's growth exploded at the outset of World War II, with the construction of four shipyards. A massive recruitment effort brought tens of thousands of whites and blacks into the city.

Almost overnight, Richmond was transformed from a sleepy country town into a bustling, 24-hour city. The population ballooned from 20,000 to nearly 90,000.

At the end of the war, the workers lost their jobs. Fifty-five war-related businesses left by 1957. The poverty rate skyrocketed, says Viramontes, to nearly 50 percent and stayed that way through the '60s. After several race riots during the late '60s, many whites fled the downtown for new housing developments in El Sobrante Valley and elsewhere. That flight - along with the new Hilltop Mall at Interstate 80 - spelled economic disaster for Richmond's downtown.

"Suddenly," recalls Viramontes, who was living downtown at the time, "we were thrust into racial conflict that we hadn't experienced before. And it has taken a long time for the city to heal."

A political activist who works in the mayor's office, Marilyn Langlois says the city has had to contend with a legacy of institutional racism, toxic pollution, poverty and economic inequality.

"I think progress is being made," says Langlois. "I think it is a constant struggle."

Despite the struggle, Langlois loves her city.

"It's such an incredible community," she says. "The diversity and richness of the people are amazing. My neighbors are of different races, different income levels and different ages - it's really broadened my outlook on things."

McLaughlin, who moved to Richmond from Chicago in 2000, says she has been impressed by the level of social and political activism in the city. She also believes that, although there is much work to be done, progress has been made.

Looking toward the future

A year ago, the City Council voted unanimously to end Chevron's reign of self-permitting. The community also insisted that the refinery, which is currently undergoing major retooling to process heavier crude oil, put into place certain health and safety safeguards.

The mayor is intent on saving the shoreline from development by updating the city's General Plan, preserving the Bruenner Marsh and resisting the move to build a casino at Point Molate.

McLaughlin says the key to reducing the city's crime rate is to address the roots of violence - despair and a lack of hope - by empowering youth. The city recently partnered with the nonprofit Solar Richmond to create a program that trains young residents to work in the burgeoning solar industry. It has also instituted a number of programs for the city's youth.

The relatively new police chief, Chris Magnus, is a believer in the effectiveness of neighborhood policing - which dramatically reduced the city's homicide rate from a record 62 in 1993 to 17 in 1998, but was abandoned by his predecessor.

The first phase of the city's downtown revitalization project, which includes a complete makeover of Macdonald Avenue, is nearly complete. A new shopping center, anchored by Target, is scheduled to open in July. A mixed-use transit village, adjacent to the BART Amtrak station, has been completed. And the $110 million, first-phase remake of the Civic Center is nearing completion as well.

"I have really seen, over the past year-and-a-half, the community coming together," says McLaughlin. "I just think there's no turning back for Richmond."

On a sunny Saturday afternoon at Macdonald Avenue and 42nd Street, a steamroller smooths out a stretch of fresh asphalt in front of Al's Electric Shaver Center.

Inside the store, owner Al Herskovich offers his opinion on the project.

"Do I like it? Yes and no," he says. "On the one hand they took all our parking out front. But on the other hand all this redevelopment is beautiful."

A 92-year-old Holocaust survivor from Yugoslavia who, in his younger days, was a world-class table tennis champion, Herskovich opened his store in 1957. Both he and his son, Emmanuel, who is testing for the Richmond Police Department, believe the city is improving.

Paul Similton, co-owner of the Headlinerz Full Service Barber Shop next door, agrees.

"Much of the barber shop talk is community-based," says Similton, a former Marine who has lived in Richmond for 22 years. "Just about everybody feels like the city is making some progress. The redevelopment is bringing some jobs to the community, but there needs to be more activities for kids."

As if they could hear Similton's words, Frank Hancock and Warren Spencer watch a Little League baseball game in progress at Nicholl Park, at 33rd and Macdonald.

Hancock, who has lived in Richmond for 58 years, recently became a member of the Richmond Youth Baseball Advisory Commission to help return Little League Baseball to Richmond, which has been without it for the past three years. Spencer is doing the same.

"Right now," says Hancock, "I think things are getting better. It's kind of like we're an orchestra - we just have to find that person with the baton to make some music."

10 little-known facts about Richmond

1. Richmond was home to the world's largest winery, called Winehaven, until the federal government enacted Prohibition in 1919.

2. The nation's last active whaling station, closed in 1971, was located at Richmond's Point Molate.

3. The Richmond Art Center, founded by Hazel Salmi in 1936, is the oldest continuously operating nonprofit art center on the West Coast.

4. Constructed in 1899, the Ferry Point Tunnel leading to Brickyard Cove is one of the oldest in the state.

5. Richmond is the largest city in the country with a Green Party mayor.

6. During World War II, workers at the Richmond shipyards built 747 Victory and Liberty ships, more than any other site in the country. On average, it took 30 days to build a ship; workers set a record by completing one in five days.

7. The in-house medical system for shipyard workers eventually became Kaiser Permanente.

8. Richmond has more miles of coastline (32) than any other Bay Area city.

9. The Olympia Oyster, one of the rarest along the California Coast, can be found along the Richmond coast.

10. The House Rabbit Society has its national headquarters in Richmond.

Richmond at a glance

Motto: The City of Pride and Purpose

County: Contra Costa

Mayor: Gayle McLaughlin (G)

State Senate: Tom Torlakson (D), Don Perata (D)

Assembly: Loni Hancock (D)

U.S. Congress: George Miller (D)

Elevation: 187 feet

Population: 103,818

Blacks, 36 percent; whites, 21 percent; Latinos, 27 percent; Asian, 12 percent; other, 4 percent

Median household income: $52,794

Home ownership rate: 53 percent

Median value of owner-occupied housing units: $449,600

Web: www.ci.richmond.ca.us

Dana Perrigan is a San Francisco freelance writer. Next month he will be writing about Pacifica. Comment at realestate@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page K - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle