Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Maybe a new cure has been found for vertigo ... the works of Alexander Calder.

Have been fully stabilized now for several days. Actually almost from the time that I stood before the great scuptures at the SFMOMA. There were a few traces of disorientation during the long walk from the museum to the financial district -- but for the most part the world settled down into some reasonable semblance of order on Friday and has remained so until now. The tendency to hold eyes to the front and pause before glancing left or right has disappeared and I'm again leaping over tall buildings in a single bound. I've tossed the Meclezine and its full steam ahead.

Another of our community-outreach "tours" is scheduled for the upcoming Friday and all seats are now taken. Word of the success of these bus tours has spread wildly, and the "civic" is now fully "engaged." Not sure what I've written about this phase of our work, but a word or two about now might be worthwhile:

As is true of other cities across the country, Richmond's downtown core was abandoned about 30 years ago as shopping centers were developed on the outer fringes of the most densely populated areas. As the merchant class moved out into the suburbs taking resources with them for the most part, the innercities began to disintegrate and implode as centers of poverty and crime took over. Banks and supermarkets followed those more affluent rooftops and city services declined miserably.

Only in recent times has the Smart Growth concept begun to take hold -- boosted by rising gas prices and (in California) inadequate public transportation systems. Construction of fewer affordable housing over recent year within the city proper -- is now being remedied by the introduction of transit village development; new more densely designed mini-communities within the whole. The redevelopment agency is beginning to have a positive impact on the blighted areas of the historic downtown. Our bus tours may serve to help distinguish blight from historic landmarks by raising the awareness of the city's celebrated wartime history. It appears that we're beginning to succeed in that effort.

As luck (and an act of Congress would dictate), early in the year 2000 Richmond was named as the one place in the nation where there were more World War II structures still standing than in any other state. Albeit they still stood as the result of benign neglect and not from any sense of reverence for its past, but nonetheless there is still much through which to tell that important story of an era. There are many still living who have active memories of those years, and -- if we can save them from the wrecking ball -- sites to be saved for posterity.

It's a complex story; one filled with both triumphant and painful memories. The story is largely of emancipated women (white) whose lives were forever changed by the opportunity presented by their times. These were the Rosies for whom every barrier was lifted to make possible their stepping into the labor force by the conscription of all able-bodied males to active duty in the war. Here were (still standing) the very first 24-hour-a-day childcare center in the nation; the Maritime Child Development Center we recently visited. The beautiful Albert Kahn Ford Assembly plant that switched from the autos to tanks in the early days of the global conflict -- and that has been beautifully restored to its original architectural splendor and will now be used for new peaceful purposes. It will house the new Rosie the Riveter/Home Front reception center along with other commercial enterprises.

Scattered throughout one of the most economically-deprived and neglected parts of the city -- the abandoned historic downtown -- are at least two wartime housing developments (once racially segregated), the Winters Building that once served as an air raid shelter and now houses the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts; the old Kaiser Field Hospital; the International Hotel, a decaying 20-room building that once was the stopping place for black porters who worked for the Pullman Company whose west coast servicing yards were in Richmond; the Oishi-Sakai greenhouses, Japanese flower growers whose owners were sent to internment camps far inland; Kaiser Permanente Shipyard #3, the current home of the last ship built by Kaiser, the SS Red Oak Victory, now under-going restoration by some of those who sailed on her in both WWII and the Korean wars; the Whirley Crane which built her; the old massive storage "bunker," machine shop, and paint shops, and the graving basins in which the 747 Kaiser-built ships were built and launched over a four-year wartime period. So much more than I can cover here (check out the Rosie the Riveter website for more).

The story is that those sites are scattered throughout the Iron Triangle, the long-neglected inner core of the city. Taking the community aboard small buses for a long morning starting with coffee, a short DVD, "Lost conversations ..." (seen in CBreaux Annex), has been our way of reacquainting the city with its own forgotten history. We load the bus with civic leaders combined with a few elders who lived those times and -- with a park narrator at the helm -- we help them to share their stories as we drive around to the various sites. To watch the reawakening of that history through their eyes is a revelation. The elders come alive and the "come-latelys" sharpen their ears. The civic leaders get to witness the community's response to that history. Suddenly the "we" extends from those of us whose business it is to breathe new life into those times, officially, to those who begin to make real connections with their own history. They begin to look at what up to now has been junk structures waiting to be replaced by new condos -- as critical to that history and historic preservation begins to take on new meaning. Just as suddenly, the awareness that their community is literally living in the middle of a brand new national park begins to dawn, and the fact that the National Park Service is here to help them to tell their story. Can you even imagine how exciting this process can be?

We have the opportunity to redefine the city's public image through its identification as a national resource and tourist mecca. This abandoned inner core can now be re-shaped with new opportunities for economic expansion. Most important to me is the possibility that we can include along with the truly important Rosie story, that of the very different African American homefront worker story; the Japanese internment story; the Latino story; that of the Italian and German immigrants who were each effected but who more quickly "overcame." We have an amazing role to play in bringing those stories with their amazing complexity into the national dialogue for a second look.

We have the rare chance to re-examine those factors that led to the rapid social changes that marked the next two decades in the history of the country. This park is that important, but only if we walk through the conflicts that created the times and avoid the temptation to paper over the lessons we should have but have not yet fully learned.

Those now in their later years have the rare opportunity to participate in that process. We're making every effort to include in each 28-passenger bus tour (we're now had 4 with a 5th coming up in July) a few of those who lived and worked in those tumultous war years. You have no idea how wonderful it is to see those workforce veteran voices held in such respect as their stories begin to be expressed as we ride along through the past ... their past ... with newfound reverence.

Photo: This thumbnail shows only those sites that lie along the shoreline. The structures that are less than one mile away are those that were the staging ground and the living spaces of the homefront workers. It is that part of the story that our tours highlight -- and quite successfully.

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