Richmond is changing. Once best known for its Ford plant and huge World War II shipbuilding facilities, the city later became associated more with its large Chevron refinery, as well as with its crime statistics. However, in recent years plummeting crime rates, new businesses, new housing, civic improvements and burgeoning public transit have helped transform the East Bay city on the bay.
While these developments are largely positive, they can have a downside. As new residents flock to up-and-coming areas locally and nationally, housing prices and rents typically rise. Longstanding residents, often people of color, find themselves forced out through gentrification, no longer able to afford to live in the neighborhoods they have long called home.
To better understand how life in Richmond is changing, Berkeleyside spoke with seven Richmond residents, and one former resident, about their perspectives on the city’s evolution.
They include Ivan Berry, an African-American man who has rented in Richmond for 31 years; 19-year resident Marc Feliciano, who is Filipino; African-American artist Daud Abdullah, who has rented in the city for five years; Catherine Montalbo, a two-year resident who is Mexican-American; Jay Kirkland, a lifelong resident whose Lebanese grandparents settled in Richmond in the 1930s; Maria Aviles, a 17-year Hispanic North Richmond resident; Todd Warner, an African-American man with 26 years’ residence; and Holly Hayes, a white woman who left Richmond with her husband and daughter after renting for two years when their landlord put the house up for sale.
Ivan Berry — Richmond resident: 31 years
“I think Richmond is gentrifying somewhat, but not to the degree people are saying,” said Ivan Berry, one of the 11,547 residents of the city’s North and East neighborhood. “I think everybody is starting to do a little bit better.”
“When crime is down a bit, everything starts to look a little bit better. Businesses are more likely to come here. There are a lot of up-and-coming businesses. People are willing to give it a try now,” he said.
Even with prices starting to go up, Berry said, “try starting a business in San Francisco or Oakland. The jump to get yourself started is probably a third more, at least. If you want to open up a little store or whatever in Richmond, people are saying, ‘Why, this is not bad at all.’”
In a theme mentioned by other residents, Berry said both Richmond and Oakland have gotten a bad rap, and the reality is different from the image.
“People say these negative things about Oakland. But then you walk around Lake Merritt, and it’s beautiful,” he said.
Speaking about Richmond, he said: “You go to Catahoula and you see how diverse and crazy the crowd gets,” he said. (Catahoula is a locally owned and operated coffeehouse that opened a few years on San Pablo Avenue in Berry’s neighborhood, to acclaim from neighbors.)
Berry said there was displacement during the foreclosure crisis that began in 2007. Two different couples were foreclosed on in two separate incidents in the same house across the street from him, he said.
“One of the couples was Filipino and the other was Hispanic. A Hispanic couple is living there now,” Berry said.
He said in recent years he has not seen the same level of displacement of people of color in his neighborhood.
The numbers — and the timing — would seem to reinforce Berry’s observation. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of African-American residents in Richmond fell 23%, from 35,777 to 27,542, with African Americans making up 26.6% of the city’s population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
In that same time period, the number of Hispanic residents jumped from 26,319 to 40,921, making Hispanics 39.5% of the population.
The number of white people and the percentage of white people in the population remained the same. White people made up 31.4% of the population in 2000 and 2010.
In contrast, 59.5% of Berkeley’s population was white in 2010, according to the U.S. Census, and 10% was African-American, with 10.8% of the population was comprised of Hispanic people.
Despite the effect of the foreclosure crisis, Berry said his neighborhood, Richmond’s North and East, which has 11,547 residents, is “still diverse.”
Berry said, “There is a huge contingent (of African Americans) from the redlining way back when it was split up during the war.”
Redlining is the practice of refusing a mortgage loan to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk. The practice is generally thought to have begun with the National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration.
“African Americans were only allowed to buy in certain neighborhoods. The banks would say, ‘OK, you can afford that home, but you can’t buy here, you can buy over here,’” Berry said.
Marc Feliciano, environmental engineer — Richmond resident: 19 years
Feliciano echoed Berry’s assessment of the city as up-and-coming.
“If you’re a resident, you know things are on the upswing and it’s an exciting time,” the 19-year resident said.
When he started at Questa Engineering in Richmond in 2006, Feliciano was an inspector, a technician on streetscape projects on Richmond’s Macdonald Avenue. The street went from having a burned-out unoccupied Montgomery Ward to sleek medians with greenery and a Target. Feliciano sees this as progress.
Feliciano extolled the city’s general plan, which has been used as a template for other cities. One of its outstanding components is its attention to mental health and happiness, he said.
For example, the plan has a specific number of park improvements that must be made per thousand residents, Feliciano said.
Feliciano agrees with Ivan Berry’s point about Richmond’s reputation.
“The funny thing about Richmond is it’s all hearsay. All the hearsay that goes on about Richmond is completely inaccurate,” said Feliciano.
“I live and work in Richmond. I’m on the sidewalks and drive up and down the streets,” he said. “I get mad when people say they are scared to live here. Actually, the crime rate is down.”
Asked about gentrification, he said, “All the things that have happened in Richmond have not been corporate. On 23rd Street, there are almost all local businesses. There are probably 30 restaurants on 23rd Street,” referring to the city’s major commercial corridor.
La Flor De Jalisco, Cocina Mexicana Imports, Rigo’s Auto Sales, El Arte de Mexico, Rios Computer Repair, La Gran Chiquita Restaurant, El Tapatio, El Chaparro and La Raza Market are just a few examples of the establishments up and down 23rd Street.
“The city is progressive,” Feliciano said. In 2014, Richmond residents defeated a multimillion-dollar campaign by Chevron supporting four City Council candidates, electing Mayor Tom Butt and a progressive slate, despite the fact that Chevron outspent its opponents by a 20-to-1 margin.
“(The city) has really invested in artists to beautify the place. There are city initiatives calling for more public art. There’s a mural just getting finished in North Richmond. There’s an artist, Daud Abdullah, he is funded by the city,” Feliciano said.
Daud Abdullah, artist — Richmond resident: 5 years
Artist Daud Abdullah moved to Richmond’s Santa Fe neighborhood in 2013. He has been awarded a $3,000 grant to create mosaics on trash cans throughout the city.
Celebrating the beauty in the quotidian, if not the despised, is the central theme of Abdullah’s work. His mosaics depict some of Richmond’s most beloved themes: diversity; peace and love; Rosie the Riveter, memorialized at the city’s Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park.
The mosaics appear on about 300 trash cans in every corner of the city, from the Richmond Greenway to the Civic Center to bustling 23rd Street to the Nicholl Knob home of Mayor Tom Butt in Point Richmond.
On one can two red hearts sway on slender green stalks under the word “LOVE.” A flower bursts forth on another one, its bright yellow, pink and crimson petals glowing in the sun.
Part of Abdullah’s grant is for teaching young people how to make the trash can mosaics. He said, “It melts my heart when I’m riding down the street and hear, ‘Hey, art teacher!’”
When young people create the trash cans, it gives them a stake in their community, and they’re more likely to maintain it, he said.
“I want every trash can to be that proverbial street corner gallery,” Abdullah said.
“With what I do and how the city has embraced the trash cans, it’s a double-edged sword,” the artist said. “Now you’ve beautified a whole area and that leads to gentrification. Prices escalate. People move in and they don’t understand what the place is all about.”
Abdullah said he is concerned that newcomers may not choose to become involved in the community.
“Will it water down Richmond?” he asked. “I like to call it a city with a small town flavor. Will people who move here become part of the community and engage?”
“The first step is the neighborhood councils. When I was living in Oakland I was on my neighborhood council,” Abdullah said. He moved to Richmond five years ago.
Abdullah is worried that young people won’t be able to afford to live in Richmond.
“Rent control doesn’t work on people renting single-family houses,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen. They raise the rent so high. This is how it starts.”
Richmond has a stringent rent control law that became effective in December 2016. About 9,558 units in the city are fully covered by the law, and 10,460 are partially covered. Single-family homes are partially covered, meaning the rent isn’t controlled, but there are eviction controls.
Single-family homes have just cause for eviction protections, which means that they are subject to permanent relocation assistance in the cases of owner move-in evictions and Ellis Act evictions.
The rent control law didn’t kick in until December 2016, so Holly Hayes, a white two-year Richmond renter, wasn’t covered when the owner of the single-family home she rented decided to sell.
Holly Hayes, nonprofit consultant — Left after renting in Richmond for 2 years
Holly Hayes, her husband and daughter, then three years old, were displaced from San Francisco by high rents, moving to Richmond in 2014. Two years later, the owner of the single-family home they rented put the house on the market. The family couldn’t afford to buy the house; “rents were too high, and so was buying,” Hayes said, and the family moved to Austin, Texas in 2016.
“We really had hoped to buy because we didn’t feel secure renting out there, we would’ve had to move further out to the suburbs and thought we were likely to just face the same issues again in a couple of years,” Hayes said. “Couldn’t afford Richmond rents or real estate.”
Hayes is a nonprofit consultant specializing in grant writing, particularly for government funding. Her husband Neil is a waiter.
“We have family here (Austin) that helped us move and buy a home. They couldn’t have afforded to help us there,” Hayes said.
It’s hard to gauge how many people have left Richmond because of higher rents and home values; a recent inquiry on a Nextdoor list with about 7,000 members in Richmond and El Cerrito drew only three responses, one of which led to the interview with Hayes.
Meanwhile, efforts to enhance the city, including new bicycle lanes, continue. As with Abdullah’s mosaics in the city, art is making inroads in North Richmond as well.
Todd Warner — Richmond resident: 26 years
“This is what we need more of in our community,” said Todd Warner as he chatted with volunteers on the sidewalk outside Rancho Market one day recently as they put the final touches on the market’s new mural (see box). Warner, a 26-year resident of Richmond, lives next door to Rancho Market and is a block ambassador there.
For over a year, eight people have served as block ambassadors for their community as part of The Watershed Project’s program in North Richmond.
The North Richmond Community-Based Cleanup and Outreach Program‘s mission is to keep the streets clean and safe for the children who walk from Verde Elementary School to the Shields-Reid Center’s after-school program.
“It’s changing rapidly,” Warner said of his neighborhood, which has seen a demographic shift in recent years.
“I’ve lived in San Rafael and other upscale places where there isn’t paper on the ground. I want my neighborhood to look like that.”
Maria Aviles — Richmond resident: 17 years
On the day Rancho Market mural was unveiled in North Richmond (see box), Maria Aviles chatted with friends on the sidewalk outside the market. She said her neighborhood is changing for the better.
“I love this neighborhood,” said Aviles, who has lived there 17 years.
Asked if she was concerned that the improvements might bring higher rents, resulting in displacement, Aviles said, “We are building this neighborhood as Hispanics. We are not going to be kicked out of here.”
Aviles said the key is bringing commercial activity to North Richmond.
“If we had businesses here, we would work here and spend our money here,” Aviles said.
Catherine Montalbo, software developer — Richmond resident: 2 years
In contrast to Warner and Aviles, Catherine Montalbo is a recent arrival. She moved to Richmond two years ago and has become involved in her new community. Among other things, she is a moderator of Everybody’s Richmond, a Facebook page for residents.
Montalbo, who is a software developer, said she hasn’t heard of any displacement in her Point Richmond neighborhood, perhaps because “we don’t have a lot of rentals here.” She doesn’t know anyone who has had to move, though she said she has heard stories.
“I don’t think anyone has had to leave Richmond. They relocate to less expensive neighborhoods,” Montalbo said.
She and her husband sold their Oakland home and moved to Richmond by choice, to take advantage of the equity they had accumulated. She said she’s excited at how Richmond is doing.
“As one of the few affordable cities in the Bay Area, Richmond has nowhere to go but up,” Montalbo said.
Jay Kirkland, musician — Lifetime Richmond resident
Jay Kirkland was born and raised in Richmond. He lives in the house his grandparents bought in the 1930s when they came to Richmond from Beirut. His parents lived in the house, located in the North and East neighborhood, as well.
Kirkland has been playing guitar since he was a child. With his partner, Barbara Gorin, he performs as the duo The Breedloves at venues from Antioch to Monterey.
At a recent neighborhood gathering, he jammed with a group of fellow residents in the backyard of the house across the street.
“People in this neighborhood have known each other for decades. It’s a strong community, still diverse – always has been. That’s the beauty of it,” he said.
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