Thursday, July 13, 2006

The work goes well -- so well, in fact -- that it's head-scratching time, I think... .

Last night we (Donna Graves, historian; Lew Watts, photographer-historian; and I) met at Nevin Center with the community that lives within what is now designated as the "Rosie the Riveter/Home Front National Historical Park" for a presentation by the firm that is doing the design for a complete new streetscape for the abandoned historic downtown district of the city of Richmond. For the past several years -- as a field rep for Assemblywomen Aroner and later, Hancock -- I participated as a member of a number of advisory groups that contributed to where we are today. We're engaged in the process of restoring the abandoned central core of the city. When completed, the full length of this main street will have been reconfigured, reconstructed, and restored to its former glory as the primary artery through the city. It runs from the Santa Fe-Baltimore & Ohio railroad yards in the west to San Pablo Avenue (main street through the entire east bay area that transects several cities) on the east. This is a major undertaking.

Having served on the advisory committee to the design team that redesigned the entire district (Old Town, Civic Center, and beyond), my relationship to the project has been almost constant from the beginning; but there's a difference now. My role has changed -- maybe deepened -- in that the relationship to the project now involves the City of Richmond's new role as a host city to a brand new national park, and I'm now employed by the National Park Service as the community outreach staffer to bring the city and the federal agency together in the creation of the park.

Since joining the staff a year or so ago, I've concentrated on raising the public awareness of the fact that the previously abandoned inner core of this beleaguered city is now the central piece in the Park that is slated to become a world destination. "The Park" consists not only of the shoreline shipyard, the SS Red Oak Victory, the beautiful Albert Kahn-designed Ford Assembly Plant, but in addition, about 20 war-related structures scattered throughout the historic old downtown area. In this respect, it is a unique park that requires new sensibilities. In most places, properties are owned by the Parks Service through the Dept. of Interior. Here in Richnond, the structures are privately-owned. For instance, the old 23rd Street Greyhound Bus station is now a Mexican-Peruvian restaurant which we hope can be marked by a plaque that describes the role it played during the war years in bringing so many strangers here. Sidewalks might have landmarking plaques embedded where many relevant places (now gone) once stood.

Deliberating with the community just how and what to designate, and encouraging individual artists to conceive ways of doing that should feed the creative juices of the young and the gifted for years to come. Under the guidance of historian, Donna Graves, we've involved Iron Triangle teens from two programs -- one from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and another called City Studios -- of the San Francisco Arts Institute -- in a project of photography and videography under the direction of University of California at Santa Cruz faculty member, Lew Watts and his team. They will document the process of restoration, community involvement, and education as we go along.

As an aside, over the year I became aware of a relatively new concept that's been adopted by the National Park Service; that of "civic engagement." This means that there is a mandate from the top that new ways be found through which to build a stronger relationship between communities and places that we hold as worthy of reverence and/or through which we share history in common as a nation. Richmond, by an act of Congress five years ago, was designated as such a place. We have only to grow the awareness of that fact with a community that has suffered slow degradation over the past 60 or more years. Many of the structures now marked for reverence exist only through benign neglect, and have been awaiting the wrecking ball for decades. The only factor that saved them was undoubtedly the lack of funds with which to do the work. In more affluent cities, war-related sites have been slowly disappearing; being replaced by sports stadia, industrial parks, etc. Richmond was on a slower time schedule, I suppose, and not particularly reverent about its past.

Kaiser Permanente walked away at war's end, leaving behind a city that had grown from 28,000 to 108,000 almost overnight. It had been a bustling wartime city with 8 movie theaters and major department stores -- but became an economic ghost town within weeks of war's end -- leaving behind jobless, homeless, deserted people who'd been brought west a short time before to fill the ranks of homefront workers who built the ships and helped to defeat the enemy in a time of national need.

Richmond held together for some years, but about 30 years ago the central core fell victim to the national move toward suburbanization. The central core was abandoned to the forces which created shopping malls. Richmond's was established about five miles away at the northern edge of the city, leaving the old downtown with its historic structures to deteriorate into poverty, high street crimes, despair, and a general climate of hopelessness and neglect.

During World War II, African American homefront workers were shunned in the central parts of the city (this was a time of rampant racial segregation), and those who stayed on after the war foraged and salvaged what they could from the deconstruction of the temporary war housing that HUD had provided and built living spaces for themselves in North Richmond on the only land open to them. Over the years, as the downtown was abandoned by whites who fled to the suburbs and elsewhere in the Bay Area, homes in the historic downtown became available to non-whites. According to the last census, 40% of the Iron Triangle population (downtown) is African-American. It is in this section of the city that most of the low low-income HUD housing has been built. Currently, there's a fast-growing Latino population competing for low-income housing and related agencies and businesses to support them in the same areas.

The changing demographics have altered social patterns, but racial integration is a reality here. There is a quiet acceptance of differences though one still finds the more subtle patterns of discrimination as can be found almost anywhere in the nation if we look closely enough. But for the most part, Richmond is a fine example of positive co-existence.

There is much to be learned from the people of this city -- and the park may help to reveal that to the nation and the world. Only problem is that I don't think the city is aware of its uniqueness yet. My work involves finding ways to reveal this reality to those who are living it today, as well as to those who come to revere these heroic workers and sites and structures that served as background for the women and minorities who came here to serve in the homefront mobilization that helped to save the world.

A daunting challenge -- but one that excites me into sleeplessness many nights. Find myself looking around for some Faustian bargain that will grant me at least another five years -- at least.

But then I think of Sage, and Maybelle, and Dorothy, and Flossie, and Linda, and all the other women whom we've known and lost over the past year, and ... .

How dare I plead for more!

Photo: Postcard advertising upcoming event to be held August 5th at the Richmond Museum of History. We will collect stories and artifacts, oral histories, and begin the process of gathering the material that will be used to produce interpretive markers to stand along the sidewalks in the historic downtown. Click on to expand to read content.

No comments: