Friday, June 13, 2008

Urban Memories of Post-War Richmond

In this blog, I focus a great deal on the midwestern history of my Norwegian immigrant ancestors. Their background has obviously had a major impact on not only on my genetics, but also on my morals and outlook on life. However, my early years in the San Francisco East Bay have had just as much impact, and probably more. The burgeoning Bay Area was where I learned about life and all of it's colorful nuances--where I cut my teeth, both literally and philosophically. It is also a place where, all at once, one could develop an appreciation for beautiful landscape due to the geographic variety of the northern California seacoast, but also a disdain for the raping of the land brought about by progress.

I think of myself as having grown up in an urban environment, not because I lived downtown in a large metropolitan city, but because the same culture (and concrete) extended throughout the bedroom communities of the San Francsico Bay Area. There were no farm animals or crops near my home: Richmond was definitely a city, but on a smaller scale than nearby Oakland or Berkeley.

The town of Richmond sits on the northeastern end of San Francisco Bay, and long before waterfront industries existing there today, there were refineries, wartime shipyards, and numerous other commercial ventures that led to a rapid de-beautification of this once small East Bay town. When I think of my early affiliation with Richmond, I think of cracked cement sidewalks with weeds growing through, yards full of neglect from the working culture necessitated by the post-war economic struggles, endless telephone wires across a hazy but sunny skyline, railroad tracks that led to more interesting places, and constant traffic along busy Macdonald Avenue.

The only reason I am including this photograph of Cutting Blvd. in 1954 is to show just how ugly and unkempt certain parts of Richmond could be during the post World War II years. Though it was a far cry from the rural life my mother and her family knew back in Minnesota, it was still home to me (Richmond Street Scenes;

When I was a baby, my mother and I lived with her aunt Mabel Johnson in her Richmond four-plex apartment. I don't remember quite that far back, but after Mom and I moved from the apartment, I recall weekend visits with Great Aunt Mabel, especially the walks downtown and longer excursions to Nicholl Park.

If we made the walk uptown from the apartment--a mere couple of blocks away, there was plenty of shopping to be done among the endless rows of Woolworth's trinket compartments. I still have many handerchiefs and baubles that came from regular stops at that store. While Mom was a single girl working at local canneries, she often bought herself treats at Woolworth's; among them were purses and shoes, which she claimed to be her particular weakness back then. She also stocked up on items for her own hope chest, like floral-patterned china dishes, purchased one piece at a time, as well as tablecloths and other linens.

Sometimes we would stop by See Candies during our downtown walks. The floor's pristine black and white squares looked so shiny that I expected them to shatter under the weight of our feet. Stepping into the store's cool sweetness from the gritty sidewalk, the large butchershop-style, glass-fronted compartments impressed shoppers with crisp white boxes and regimented rows of appealing chocolates. Gladys Nelson, a family relation by marriage with ties to my mother's home state of Minnesota, worked behind the counter. Each time we stopped in to say hello to Gladys, we were treated to free pieces of peanut brittle. Peanut brittle was never a favorite of mine, but I was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. First, the stuff tried to break your teeth, and if it couldn't break them, it would then stick with ruthless determination. What I really longed for were the small creamy blocks of nut-filled chocolate, or chocolate-covered caramels. Those went down quite easily, but never came free.

Looking west along Macdonald Avenue, near 10th Street. See Candies is on the right, near Macy's department store, 1957. The old buildings were already reaching a state of disrepair at this time. (Richmond Street Scenes;

One of the best parts of any visit with Aunt Mabel was going to Nicholl Park. It was a longish walk from her apartment on Sixth Street to MacDonald Avenue and 33rd Street. The park was a weedy oasis for local children who had no yard at home, or, as in my case, for those who were visiting great aunts and could not play in musty and fascinating shadow-carved stairwells for fear of disturbing day-sleeping neighbors.

At Nicholl Park, a young soul could run wild on a huge expanse of beat-up lawn. Though I was never the type to run and play with abandon, I did enjoy observing and taking in the breadth of humanity, learning many subtle lessons, and others not-so-subtle, through the adventures playing out in that urban jungle.

That's me, with my long ponytail covered from the wind by a scarf, and my great aunt Mable Johnson.  Nicholl Park in Richmond, about 1959.

The park had playground equipment, and the swings were always in high demand. I never seemed to be able to catch one while it was free, since I was not up to shoving past a dozen others kids and the menace of flailing arms and legs. Also of interest on the grounds was an old Southern Pacific steam engine, which looked impressively huge to children. Stairs installed at its side allowed curious youngsters to climb up and pretend to be an engineer.

Even grownups need a little playtime.  Posing on the monkey bars at Nicholl Park are my great aunts, Cora Moen (upper left), and Mabel Johnson (upper right), along with my mother, Doris Johnson (standing).  Richmond, California, November 1946.

The park also had a petting zoo for a number of years, but it was eventually closed because of vandalism and injury to some of the animals. That was quite sad. Perhaps it was the farming genes in me, but my favorite part of any visit to Nicholl Park was when I could stand among the chickens, ducks, and goats and convince any of them to stand still long enough to actually be petted.
From the point of view of a child, Richmond was just another place to find pleasure and meaning (and occasionally, disappointment) doled out one piece at a time, like peanut brittle that was often too sharp to eat. Richmond's special place in history meant little to me at the time, because I was too busy coveting an empty swing.
Though Richmond was rapidly deteriorating during my early years, it is currently seeing some rejuvenation downtown. During World War II, it was the scene of a second Gold Rush, a place where a deluge of humanity descended in search of work in the shipyards and the canneries and factories. The streets were crowded with persons of all ages, from all racial and economic backgrounds-- restaurants, bathrooms, and even beds, were in short supply. These drastic demographic changes created massive overcrowding to being with, but eventually a progressive culture of diversity, open-mindedness and liberalness began to emerge.

One of the best historical documentations of World War II-era Richmond are the photographs by Dorothea Lange, famed for her images of Dust Bowl migrations during the Depression. The Oakland Museum of California has a fine collection of Lange's photographs, viewable in this online guide. Although I knew Richmond personally beginning 10-15 years after these photographs were taken, they are highly representative of what my mother first found when she moved there in 1946.

For better or worse, Richmond's cooling cauldron of upheaval in the post-war years was my childhood home.

For further reading

A City in Transition: Richmond During World War II, by Clifford Metz and Judith K. Dunning.

Photographing the Second Gold Rush, by Dorothea Lange and Charles Wollenberg.

To Place Our Deeds: the African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910-1963, by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore.

An Avalanche Hits Richmond, by J. A. McVittie.

Richmond Community History Project (ROHO, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

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