Friday, March 08, 2013

My Childhood Home: Then & Now

Oh, the places the internet can take you now.  It has been 12 years since I last visited the San Francisco Bay Area and drove by the house where I spent most of my childhood on Carlson Boulevard, in the Panhandle Annex of Richmond, California. I discovered that I need not drive all the way to California to see what's up in the old 'hood, however.  We can fly nearly anywhere via Google Maps and look down upon fields, yards, and rooftops, and engage in innocent voyeurism from afar much like a pedestrian taking an early morning stroll.  If these techniques do not offer enough input, then online real estate listings will provide the rest, including photographs of exteriors, and even interiors whenever properties go up for sale.  But, in these photos our old stomping grounds can often be unrecognizable due to removed walls, added windows and structures, completely updated kitchens, and the like.  One thing I did recognize in a current photograph of the exterior of my childhood home was a black lava boulder that became a fixture at the bottom of our walkway.  It is still there today... but, more about that in a bit.

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The Richmond Panhandle Annex is the neighborhood shaded in blue.

My mother was raised on a Minnesota farm, and as a young adult, she worked seasonally at Richmond canneries.  She knew how to save money on a low income, so she was able to provide the down payment on our bungalow after she married Dad.  Our first house could not have been more than 1,000 square feet, with a living room, two small bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen that looked out onto the backyard, and a dining room.  Off the dining room there was a laundry room that connected to the one-car garage, and hiding underneath the laundry room was a small concrete cellar, intended as a air-raid shelter.  The house was built along the west coast during the threat of U. S. involvement in World War II (1940), and the architect seems to have taken family security quite seriously.  The cellar was accessed by lifting up an angled double-door, which sat against the back of the house much like an old-fashioned tornado shelter.  When Mom later had a family room built along that exterior back wall, a trap door in the laundry room floor became the only access.  A sump pump was installed in the cellar floor to deal with the constant moisture problem, courtesy of San Francisco Bay.  We always did battle mildew in that house.

Our lot was 7,500 square feet, bordered to the north by another single-family bungalow, and to the south by a two-story tri-plex apartment building.  Like most homes, the garage served us well for storage, and Dad's Ford fit nicely in the driveway.  The house was white with red shutters and a painted red porch and walkway, and it remained that way for many years.

Dad (Bill Wheeler) and me, with my favorite doll, Jane,  in front of the original shed at the back of the Carlson Blvd. house in April 1955.  We moved to the house that spring from a duplex apartment shared with Dad's cousin.

Growing up in the house on Carlson Boulevard meant a series of small things to me as a child.  Before my sister was born, and just after, I was regularly encouraged to play by myself in the backyard.  This meant regular visits with our beagle, who lived near the chicken coop and rabbit cage beside the shed.  The original shed that came with the house was later torn down and rebuilt by Dad and my maternal grandfather, Ernest Johnson.  The new shed was painted barn red to match the shutters on the house.  In addition to watching our animals, I spent my leisure time "popping" snapdragon flowers whenever Mom was not looking, climbing the wood fence to study the passion flowers growing over the neighbor's arbor, making cities out of baby powder cans and bottles on the lawn for my toy cars, or just laying on my back studying cloud formations.  When I was a little older and Mom was willing to trust me with the shed key, I sometimes took solitary sojourns to look at Dad's tools, even though I did not get to learn how to use many of them.  Still, I managed to pound more than a few nails into blocks of wood during those years, and came away with greasy enough hands that my shed adventures seemed satisfying enough.

The Wheeler home on Carlson Boulevard in Richmond, California, ca. 1956.

The essence of any family life, of course, is what goes on within four walls during the many hours of togetherness.  On Carlson Boulevard, my routine pretty much centered around a strict bedtime, and usually a breakfast of toast, jam and milk, the standard peanut butter or bologna sandwich for lunch with fruit and cookies, and whatever we had on hand for dinner: meatloaf, lamb or pork chops with potatoes, and (yuck) canned vegetables.  Whenever we had ham, it was the pre-cooked breakfast type that Mom would then fry to smithereens in a cast iron skillet.  Food was just sustenance, and she did what she could with the bargain groceries Dad sought out at the local Safeway.
My K-6 school days involved piano lessons from Mrs. Alva Anderson once a week before school, and walking the long blocks to Alvarado Elementary along a busy four-lane boulevard and under the busy I-80 overpass. More concrete awaited me at school, which was built atop a slope with a small play yard on the same level as the single story school building, and two large play yards cascading below.  Each level was separated by mountainous concrete embankments, with not a tree or a patch of dirt on the grounds, except for the small lawn at the office entrance. 

There are also sensual memories that linger from Carlson Boulevard, like listening to the mournful Alcatraz Island fog horn blaring from the middle of the Bay during periods of dense fog, and the tingling scent of eucalyptus trees in nearby Alvarado Park, part of the East Bay Wildcat Canyon Regional Park system.

As a new homeowner, Mom had visions of self-sufficiency like she experienced back on the farm.  There was at least one occasion when a batch of chicks was kept warm under a heat lamp on the laundry room floor, awaiting placement in the backyard chicken coop... ducklings, too, although they fared much less well than the chickens.  The poultry venture only lasted a few short years, however, until complaints from a neighbor put an end to our attempts at urban farming.  We have not been the only ones who were ever ignorant of zoning rules, however.  I had to laugh out loud in many places when I first read Farm City:  The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter, which details an adventure in backyard self-sufficiency in nearby Oakland, in the midst of a more extreme urban environment than I ever experienced.

After my sister, Becky, was born,  she soon developed into a playmate with distinct preferences.  I do not remember how many hundreds of times I had to play "Mousetrap" on the living room floor or listen to the dreaded recording of "The Rooster With The Purple Head."  All for the love of family!  It was also at the house on Carlson where I watched the Beatles perform their famous stint on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, and hid under the blankets at night after watching the terrifying "Creature From the Black Lagoon" on our black and white television set.  It was not my first sleepless night, however.  I never did understand why Mom made me sleep in her twin bed just after my sister was born, while she stayed with the baby in my bedroon.  Didn't she know that there were alligators living in her and Dad's closet, just waiting to slither across a darkened room and snap at stray little arms and legs?

The dark, sparkling lava boulder I mentioned earlier became a permanent part of our front yard in about 1960, though it was never intended to be. The "boulder incident" occurred during one of our annual vacations in Oregon. Each August, Dad would take his two weeks vacation from the Bell Packing plant in Emeryville and drive our 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon northward, to Salem. My mother had a fair number of relatives in the Salem area: my aunt, grandfather, great aunts and uncles, not to mention cousins. During one visit when I was about 8-10 years old, Dad took a couple of the men in the family to do some rock hounding, probably in eastern Oregon. While he was away from the others (bathroom break, perhaps), my great uncle, Frank Johnson, and a cousin, Harvey Moen, managed to displace a large volcanic rock from a nearby outcropping.  Dad returned to find a big object perched atop the station wagon, looking rather like a lighthouse optic section had sprouted on the roof.  He must have been angry, but Mom does not recall his showing more than a mild annoyance. He probably did not want to admit that he had been taken.  At 5'3" in height, Dad could not even begin to move the boulder on his own without damaging the wagon, and he never would have demanded help from the pranksters themselves.  I do not have any memory of what occurred after that, but Mom says we drove the 800 miles + back to the Bay Area with that lava rock perched atop the car. She was amazed that the Highway Patrol did not pull us over and ask about it. At home, a friend or neighbor helped lift the dense rock off the car.  Where the rock first came off the car is where it stayed, at the edge of the driveway. The boulder was so heavy that it left a crease on the roof of the Ford.

The Wheeler home on Carlson Blvd. in 1965.  Note the lava boulder at the bottom of the walkway steps, left-hand side, in front of the trailer.

Like most urban neighborhoods, Richmond, including the Annex, has had its ups and downs.  The City of Richmond, which borders San Francisco Bay, experienced a population explosion in the 1940s due to the shipyards and other wartime manufacturing.  But, decreasing industrial jobs after the war and the relocation of many businesses to newer areas created an economic depression, and property began losing value.  By the 1970s, the area was decaying rapidly.  As per example, other owners of the house on Carlson Boulevard had bars installed on the front door and windows at some point.  Richmond, sad to say, developed an infamous reputation based increased crime rates and gang activity over the past few decades.

The same house in 2001, some 36 years after my family moved to El Cerrito.  Bars had been installed on the front door and windows--a sign of significant change in the neighborhood. The lava boulder remains, barely visible below the door of the white pickup.

A comment was posted on Yelp:  City of Richmond by a former resident, and I could not have put it more eloquently:

This is not a review of Richmond, but a lament, really... Richmond is the best little city that could have been but never was. It has everything going for it, all the ingredients that could have made a nice town: great old architecture (what hasn't been torn down yet), cheap housing and some beautiful old houses, great location and weather. It used to be a real working man's town... Then they tore down downtown. Richmond has been the victim of poor urban planning, endemic racism (from all sides), and an inert and inept city government. Add crime, drugs and a huge population that has lost its ability to function without public assistance and it is a recipe for dysfunction...  don't get me wrong, I still like Richmond because I'm from there... Overall however, when I am there I just can't wait to get out again... One thing I have to say about growing up in Richmond is that I can definitely tell the difference between backfire and gunshot.

The good news is that the old neighborhood may be on the verge of re-surging values, both socially and economically.  Young business professionals, who are finding a shortage of affordable housing elsewhere in the Bay Area, are snapping up real estate "deals," and buying older, less expensive homes and refurbishing them to the max. The latest owners of my childhood home have not only taken off the iron bars, but the interior has been completely modernized in recent years, with a covered deck added to the backyard.  Things are now looking up again for the Panhandle Annex.  No matter what changes lie ahead for my childhood community, I will always have my memories of growing up as part of a Richmond blue collar family with strong, traditional values--a beginning as rock-solid as that lava boulder that still keeps guard along my old walkway.

1 comment:

  1. That's great! Photo's bring back loads of memories, and it is fun to see what it looks like today.