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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Attended the annual Point Richmond Summer Music Festival last night -- balmy, warm, great music -- and new questions to ponder ... .

My work with the National Park Service is casting me back in time in interesting ways. Many hours of my day are spent in mulling over World War II history in the attempt to discover ways to address those years in relation to the present. The ability to bring these eras together in some semblance of order may be what determines our success or failure in breathing life into this park. I didn't grow up here but nearby in Oakland, and must therefore borrow heavily from the memories of others in order to try to understand all that has happened.

In yesterday's early evening I sat for hours in one of those molded white plastic chairs among many other molded white plastic chairs holding big and little bottoms of the population of this fascinating city. This particular corner of it is the place where the history of Chevron Petroleum Corporation (nee Standard Oil) and the Santa Fe railroad are almost palpable. In this picturesque little town square in the shadow of the old Hotel Mac, lives a number of descendants of those whose roots were firmly embedded in those two pioneering companies. This city was established in the year 1905, and probably from the very spot that tonight hosted the annual music festival. It's now inhabited by numbers of descendants of those pioneer settlers; a fair-sized arts community; and a disproportionate number of those who currently run the city -- either formally or informally by "consent of the governed" (sometimes reluctantly granted).

After decades of languishing as a purely industrial community with minimal ties to the Greater Bay Area, Richmond had its rebirth in 1941 when the needs of the war machine and Henry J Kaiser's response to it boomed it into history in unprecedented ways. With that dramatic chapter came racial segregation -- sudden and almost complete.

What struck me last night was the fact that something unrecorded; unheralded, perhaps even unnoticed has occurred over the past sixty years that has changed forever the way Richmond sees itself. Almost more than any other place I've ever known, there was more unselfconscious race and gender mixing in the street dancing to the sound of reggae and zydeco last night -- from those from the age of four to perhaps 80. One might not find this innocent coming together in quite this way anywhere else on the planet. There was no feeling of "working at it." Equality is/was something taken for granted. Assumed. No longer labored. There surely must be vestiges of it remaining, but to hold such biases openly is no longer tolerated. Few would dare any outward expression of racism.

Found myself wondering as I watched the screen that pops up behind my eyes in those early moments before dropping off to sleep, whether the Bay Area in general and Richmond in particular has simply become a magnet for the enlightened over those years? Could this be what's happened? Maybe we've simply reached critical mass and the voices of the opposition can no longer be heard clearly. Though there are continuing signs of those who simply got trapped here and never were able to move on.

What I do suspect is that this small city with the unenviable reputation of being "the most dangerous city in the state of California" may be seen from the outside as less than desirable for the very reasons that are proof of our having become the most successfully racially integrated city in the Bay Area and the State. I used to be struck by the fact that the same racial demographic to be found at the Office of Human Resources; Kaiser Permanente's waiting room; the Social Security Agency, and the lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, is the same demographic one will find at the Richmond Country Club during any of the numerous golf tournaments and fancy banquets that occur there from time to time.

We've done something right. Discovering just what that is may hold the secret to rebuilding hope and trust in a generation of youngsters who seem to have been left behind in a growing environment of violence. Maybe that's the mission of the park -- to help to retrace the steps that brought us to where we are and to try to reclaim with youngsters and for the young some of the spirit that got left behind during our struggles to survive and overcome. But then that's the mission of us all; those of us who lived long enough to have learned the lessons of our times, across all the lines of separation.

It was all there in the evening sounds last night -- in the Point Richmond Annual Music Festival. It was there in the easy laughter and in the swaying bodies of all sizes, shapes, and colors, to a beautiful Cajun waltz that I'm sure that I only imagined remembering ... and never knew.

Much like world peace ... .


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