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  Richmond Wins Smart Cities Award
September 12, 2015

In the excitement about rent control in July, I neglected to comment on Richmond being recognized by San Francisco Magazine with a Smart City Award and a long article, copied below:

From the 'Arm Pit of the Bay Area' to a Progressive Utopia on Earth
Joe Eskenazi | Photo: Brian Flaherty | May 23, 2015

Richmond, once known for the three c’s—crime, corruption, and Chevron—reinvents itself.

You can see a lot in Richmond. Including potential.

DeVone Boggan, founding director of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety

Chris Magnus, chief of the Richmond Police Department
Read more Smart City coverage here.

High atop the hill known as Nicholls Knob, you can see everything in Richmond. Within your gaze are pockets of deep poverty and clusters of dot-com era homes so big they resemble fire stations. To the north lie the terra-cotta–hued tanks of the vast Chevron refinery, and to the west sits the antiquated pier that once marked the terminus of the Santa Fe Railroad. Blocks of cookie-cutter suburban-style palaces sprout from a formerly contaminated World War II shipyard, while the white roofs of countless Subarus off-boarded at the Port of Richmond speckle the sprawling waterfront. Looking out on this polyglot panorama, you can understand why aspirational city planners envision a new era for this once destitute town—an East Bay Emerald City, just waiting to be born.

Richmond’s proximity via road, rail, or water to everywhere else in the Bay Area is no secret—as evidence of its prime location, a million square feet of new warehouse space is in the pipeline here. But lately the city has been attracting a new breed of enthusiast: those who see the former murder capital of the Bay Area as the perfect—and perfectly affordable—melting pot for eager would-be homeowners. A ferry line to San Francisco is described as “a done deal” by Mayor Tom Butt, who points out that Richmond’s three-year-old General Plan up-zoned vast swaths of land, adding a potential 50,000 new units in a city whose population is currently only 107,000. Future Richmondites, Butt believes, may be able to enjoy the car-free lifestyle generally afforded the young and affluent, floating to and from their hypothetical waterfront condos and their real San Francisco jobs.
If you will it, it is no dream. And Richmond is in the midst of a turnaround that only a few years ago would have seemed fanciful. For decades Richmond was known for its “three Cs”—crime, corruption, and Chevron. Of the three, crime was by far the most pernicious. In 2006, there were 42 murders recorded here—more than seven times the national rate (similarly populated Berkeley tallied 4 killings that year). To protest the spiraling homicide count, desperate activists pitched tents in the city’s blighted downtown amid the ubiquitous shrines to the dead. Also in 2006, a funeral for a shooting victim descended into chaos when a pallbearer shot a mourner. In the years that followed, funereal gunplay erupted frequently enough to inspire a 2010 New York Times trend story.
That was then. These days, Richmond’s dark past seems more and more like a half-century-long bad dream. Innovative programs aimed at the city’s most vulnerable—and violent—residents, along with a revamped police force, have led to dramatic reductions in crime. Eleven homicides were recorded in Richmond last year, compared to 47 in 2009 and 62 in 1991. Homicide tallies undulate in national cycles—but in Richmond, nearly every statistically recordable crime is down: Over the last decade, violent crime has dropped by 23 percent and overall crime by 37 percent.

Vastly reduced crime is not the only marker of progress in Richmond. Unemployment has fallen from 18.5 percent in 2010 to 5.8 percent in March. Optimism is up. Blight is down. Bonds are no longer junky. Municipal buildings and parks have been retrofitted and rebuilt. Crumbling prewar edifices have been repurposed into gleaming new homes for forward-thinking businesses that don’t belch out acrid black smoke—the sort that civic leaders hope will define Richmond’s “postindustrial economy.” Commercial and residential developers are once again eyeing Richmond’s possibilities. City politicos hope to lure scads of new residents, creating a place both materially and culturally richer. A glut of new companies have set up shop: Richmond, once the home of Rosie the Riveter, now bills itself as the place where entrepreneurs can take their ideas to scale.

Local government, long a byword for cronyism and incompetence, is not only functioning—it’s breaking new ground. Richmond may this month begin issuing millions of dollars’ worth of “social impact bonds” in a novel effort to rehabilitate abandoned homes and aid first-time buyers. Its General Plan, uniquely, requires virtually every municipal decision to factor in the mental and physical health of its citizens.

Richmond, a city whose population quintupled during World War II, is transforming itself again. But a burning question remains: Will all of the city’s residents benefit equally?

Less than a decade ago, Richmond was the scene not of tech incubators and rising property values but of murderous gangs locked in a futile stalemate with police. “Guys would be hanging out—the lookouts were on the corners,” recalls a veteran cop. “And the police, every once in a while, we’d take a vehicle they didn’t know and jump out on them.” He smiles. “They referred to us as the Jump-Out Boys.”

In a 15-year-old publicity photo topped with the (even then) outdated slogan “The Heat Is On,” a platoon of scowling Richmond cops brandish high-powered rifles at the camera. Decked out in full tactical gear and toting MP5 submachine guns, the Jump-Out Boys resemble a militia—and they felt like one. “I remember hopping over fences and chasing people and loving it—walking around the department like I was the baddest guy,” says the officer. His smile fades a tad: “But I don’t feel like we bettered the city at all, looking back.” He sums up his halcyon days as “a protracted war of attrition on crime.”

Change came in the unlikely form of a white, openly gay Midwestern cop who drinks coffee from a cup emblazoned with a picture of Harvey Milk. Even in a suit and tie, mustachioed, square-shouldered Richmond police chief Chris Magnus looks like he arrived via Viking longship. Actually, he came to Richmond from Fargo, North Dakota, hired in 2006 by Richmond city manager Bill Lindsay to dislodge the macho, dysfunctional police culture in this majority minority town. “I tell this story all the time,” says Lindsay, relating that when he was flirting with the notion of hiring Magnus in 2005, he floated the idea to a member of a community panel. “I mentioned that my first choice was somebody who was…” He pauses. “A little different from the mold you’d expect coming into Richmond. Am I setting him up for failure?” The response was unambiguous: “This community will embrace anyone who does something about the crime problem.”

Turning around a crony-infested police force clinging to aggressive, ineffective strategies is no small task. But Lindsay—one of the primary architects of Richmond’s revival—shared with Magnus a luxury unavailable to leaders of larger entities: the ability to reboot. Of his department’s 139 patrol officers, Magnus himself hired 92; of his 43 current supervisors, the chief appointed all but 4 to their current position. “It’s easier to get new people in a department,” he says, “than it is to get a new culture in a department.”

Richmond needed both. In 1983, the brutal behavior of a thuggish clique of white cops calling themselves the Cowboys made 60 Minutes. Richmond community organizer Tamisha Walker recalls that as recently as the ’90s, she feared being robbed by the police. “They’d say, ‘If you don’t shut up, we’ll put you in the back of this car, take you somewhere, beat your ass, and no one will do anything about it.’”

Magnus dismantled the Jump-Out Boys and implemented community policing: stationing cops in specific zones, assigning beats within those zones, and integrating officers into the fabric of the community. Cops in Richmond, quite literally, practice broken-window policing: The officers themselves spearhead building code enforcement (that detail has grown from 6 officers in 2006 to 28 today). But rather than moving toward confrontational stop-and-frisk policies, Richmond went the other way—to something more along the lines of stop-and-give-out-your-cell-number.

The chief made national news last year when he hoisted a placard in a Black Lives Matter protest. His anointment as “the #BlackLivesMatter cop” overshadowed the more salient fact that between 2007 and the September shooting of 24-year-old Richard Perez, Richmond police officers did not kill a single civilian—even as other law enforcement agencies operating in Richmond killed multiple suspects. Police in nearby Vallejo killed six citizens in 2012 alone.

But the keys to Richmond’s policing successes aren’t just managerial; they’re also fiscal. Belying its reputation as the Bay Area’s poor cousin, Richmond has remained solvent over the tumultuous past decade—enough to grow its police force by around one-fifth and fund training at a level that other municipalities would deem luxurious. Rather than once-yearly firearm certifications, the Richmond training is broken into 10 to 12 courses that entail far more than blasting holes in targets. His officers, Magnus says, are subjected to “scenario-based training” in which “they have to talk their way out of situations.” A recent session instructed cops on “policing the teenage brain.” That sounds like a groaner line from a Zits comic strip, but it’s not: “There’s so much research out there on how young people respond differently to authority and force,” Magnus says. “How we communicate with young people has become more nuanced.”

Richmond’s cops are fully equipped with Tasers, body cameras, and other law enforcement gadgetry. And any officer who uses force of any sort is subjected to another deterrent: reams of onerous paperwork. In short, the city’s police are trained to keep their guns in their holsters and, in the chief’s words, to “focus on hot people” rather than flood hotspots and make everyone on the street into a potential adversary. “There is a real small group of folks in Richmond,” says Magnus, “who commit a disproportionate amount of crime.” And, in a remarkable bit of duality, those folks are being trained to keep their guns holstered too.

DeVone Boggan won’t lie: Most of the young men with whom he works ought to be incarcerated. They’ve done things that warrant time in jail—or prison. “They didn’t get caught, right?” Boggan says with a mercurial smile. “But we shouldn’t be leaving them alone to their own devices.”

Boggan is the founding director of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), launched in 2007 specifically to stem the city’s epidemic of gun violence. His team of six paid staffers—all but one of whom have served time—identify individuals likely to engage in and/or fall victim to gun violence (two highly concurrent sets). Joe McCoy, 45, one of the six agents who spend their days keeping tabs on ONS participants, explains the approach: “We know you didn’t turn violent overnight. We’re not going to turn our backs on you. You may curse me out: ‘Fuck you, Joe! We don’t want no part of you!’” McCoy smiles serenely—in a past life he wouldn’t have tolerated that shit, but Richmond has changed, and so has he. “You are used to people backing away from you. But tomorrow I will call you.”

The “fellows” in McCoy’s program are introduced to employers, taken on grant-funded trips around the world to broaden their horizons, and, most controversially, given a monthly stipend of up to $1,000. The program has been derided as “paying people not to shoot other people.” But Lindsay, a strong backer, refutes this implication as “a complete mischaracterization.” Interestingly, though, Boggan doesn’t shy away from it. Reducing gun violence is his sole mandate—period. While complaints about “hugs for thugs” may rankle, Boggan knows that providing incentives and opportunities works. Not much else does.
McCoy’s story is illustrative. “When I was in 12th grade,” recalls the former dope dealer, “I poured $90,000 on a bed and told my girlfriend, ‘Whatever sticks to you, you can keep.’” Asked how much money he parted with that day, McCoy shakes his head. “Nothing. She wasn’t sweaty yet.” Eventually, “the money dried up” (no pun intended)—his Latino suppliers became so successful that they “didn’t need blacks” to move product. So life changed for McCoy. He didn’t want his sons pointing to a corner and saying “That’s where Daddy works.” He felt guilty about inundating Richmond with coke and heroin and wanted to help. But he needed an opportunity. Boggan provided it.

All of this has been possible despite the fact that the ONS—a bona fide branch of civic government that draws $1.1 million from Richmond’s general fund—flatly refuses to work with the police department. To explain why, Boggan points to Operation Ceasefire, a partnership between law enforcement, faith leaders, and social service providers that purports to lift up the men most likely to commit violence. But it doesn’t always work out that way: In 2013, Richmond police made 23 arrests after wiretapping a number of Ceasefire participants—a bust that embarrassed the faith leaders and nonprofit workers who march through Richmond’s rougher neighborhoods on Friday nights promoting peace and shouting “Ceasefire! Alive and free!”

“The bigger premise of Ceasefire is not as flattering as a kumbaya story,” says one police source. “It’s about focusing on 75 of the most violent people in the city—who lose their anonymity, become paranoid, and leave.” But even a murder far from Richmond can reverberate back, which is why Boggan wants no part of the cops’ approach. “If we were associated with that,” he says, “it could be a bad look.”

Boggan tracks how many young men who’ve gone through his program remain alive (as of May, 64 of 68) and how many have acquired diplomas and jobs. But even those who’ve turn their lives around remain in danger: Neighborhood-based feuds still fester in Richmond, and diplomas and jobs, Boggan acknowledges, “are not gonna stop a bullet.” Economic development without safety “ain’t nothing,” growls Kevin Yarbrough, an ONS staffer who spent 18 years in federal prisons. There’s work to be had in Richmond, he says, but that’s little solace to people afraid to leave their neighborhood, afraid to even take a bus through a rival neighborhood. “You got people in North Richmond,” Yarbrough says. “If they said they was giving out free cars in Crescent Park,” to the south, “they wouldn’t go to get them. Ain’t worth it. Unless it’s a hearse.”

Richmond’s streets, despite this, are safer than they’ve been in years. Asked who or what is responsible for the improvement, Magnus and Boggan—two men who otherwise have little in common—give the same answer: the community. The credit, they say, goes to the kid who keeps his gun holstered at a party, to the community member who tells cops where a shotgun is stashed in his neighborhood. It’s a powerful notion: Richmond has become a better city in large part because Richmond wants to become a better city.

On the weekend of Cinco de Mayo 2002, Andrés Soto noticed that Richmond police had shut down 23rd Street. When he wandered over to check out the situation, he was cudgeled, pepper-sprayed along with his two sons, and hauled to jail by cops who, he claims, were “itching for a fight.” This unplanned family outing led to a federal lawsuit (a $175,000 settlement was split a dozen ways) and prompted Soto, who was itching for a different sort of fight, to cofound the Richmond Progressive Alliance. Starting in 2003—a year in which misgovernment almost bankrupted the city—the RPA offered voters an organized, progressive alternative to Richmond’s other two Cs: corruption and Chevron.  

Ever since the former Standard Oil refinery opened in 1902, Richmond has been an oil town. The relationship was so cozy, in fact, that a Chevron executive worked out of the city manager’s office as recently as the ’90s. “The city was pretty much run by the business interests Chevron cultivated,” says Mayor Butt. “That was the reality of it.” But then came the RPA, which promoted new leaders like cofounder Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party stalwart who was voted onto the city council in 2004, elected mayor two years later, and last year won a spot back on the council. In that decade, the composition of Richmond’s elected leadership shifted from a majority of Chevron-backed (and Chevron-backing) politicians to the diametric opposite. Chevron-friendly fiscal concessions that had been larded into Richmond’s DNA were dismantled; the city sued the refinery following an explosion there in 2012 and squeezed it for long-overdue back taxes. Last year—despite the $3 million that Chevron pumped into the municipal election—all three RPA-affiliated candidates won city council seats; in the mayor’s race, Butt, with a war chest of only around $50,000, trounced Chevron’s candidate, Nat Bates.

Richmond progressives say that the era when a Chevron-led cabal could advance its business interests by keeping Richmond a dump is over. And in turn, a laundry list of progressive legislation has flowed out of city hall. Over the past decade, Richmond has approved a $12.30 minimum wage and a municipal ID card program for undocumented residents; supported both Magnus’s cops and Boggan’s ONS; brought public access to Richmond’s 32 miles of formerly putrid, fenced-off shoreline; enshrined the health of residents as the crux of its General Plan; and green-lit those pioneering social impact bonds. A plan to tax sugary drinks was undermined by millions from Big Soda, and a scheme to aid distressed homeowners by seizing their mortgages via eminent domain was shot down by Wall Street and the federal government. But those were as much lofty statements of principle as they were street-level fights. And there are still plenty of the latter left to win.

 As the epicenter of Richmond’s much-reported crime and blight, the Iron Triangle lives up to its grim moniker. It’s the sort of place where you can buy a house for $49,000 with a credit card, which is exactly what Doug Johnson did. The hulking, 66-year-old former Berkeley High all-state tackle had lived for years in the Richmond warehouse of his ceramic supply company. In 2009, weary of warehouse living, he bought a three-bedroom home in the Triangle. Lest you wonder, it is not common for a white senior citizen to relocate to these parts (or, for that matter, to put a hot tub in the living room, which Johnson also did). But like other cash buyers who have scooped up distressed homes in the neighborhood, Johnson saw Richmond’s most notorious ghetto as a good business opportunity. So good, in fact, that in addition to his own home, he bought another three-bedroom house, a two-bedroom house, a nearby triplex, and a neighboring duplex. All told, he spent $400,000 in cash for properties that, according to Zillow, are now worth $1.2 million—and net him a 17 percent yearly return as a landlord.

Johnson rents out the place next door, which cost him $45,000, to a middle-aged black woman and her grown daughter. In this Latino stronghold, the two tenants are nearly as anomalous as their white landlord. Between 2000 and 2013, Richmond lost 35 percent of its black population, while its Latino population surged 62 percent. (Mexican-American Andrés Soto, 55, notes that when he was growing up, “we were certainly the only Sotos in the phone book.” There are now 32.) African Americans have dropped to only 26 percent of the city’s population, down from 44 percent in the 1990s and nearly 50 percent in the 1980s.

These changes in the makeup of Richmond’s poorer neighborhoods have been accentuated by the recent spate of cash purchases of homes for investment. Johnson reports that his next-door tenants pay him $1,000 a month but that he “could get $1,250 easy.” He could probably do even better: On Craigslist, nearby Richmond homes are renting for upwards of $2,000 a month. Nothing is stopping him from testing the market—Richmond has no rent control—but Johnson seems content with the status quo and figures that his tenants couldn’t pay that much anyway. “All of my people are struggling to make it,” he says. “Richmond was the last place you could live cheap in the Bay Area with a BART station. I don’t know where they’d go.”

Tamisha Walker knows the answer. The 33-year-old former prisoner grew up not far from Johnson, in what she still calls “Deep-C Richmond” after the area’s ubiquitous gang. For the past five years she has thrown herself into community organizing, most notably the Safe Return Project—an advocacy program run by and for the formerly incarcerated. She has, by all accounts, turned the corner, and she was hoping to help others in her hometown do the same—but, irony of ironies, she can no longer afford to live in the city she has helped make livable.

The Richmond real estate market is exploding: Realtor Luther Martin calls it a “frenzy.” Some of this frenzy is speculation: Hyperlocal blog Richmond Confidential reported that in 2012, absentee owners made up 40 percent of city home buyers, up from 10 percent in 2006 and 2007. But today many buyers are snapping up personal homes. A house in northeast Richmond that even two years ago would have cost $225,000 might sell today for $375,000. “You cannot underprice your home,” Martin says. “You will get multiple offers. The market dictates price.”

But that price has become one that Walker, and many others, cannot pay. The descendants of wartime black shipyard workers who surged to Richmond are surging out—to Vallejo, to Antioch, to Fairfield, to Pittsburg, to the Bay Area’s outermost outer suburbs, where a dollar stretches further. Walker home-searched for three futile years before finally capitulating: “I called my realtor and said, ‘OK, I’m ready to go over to the dark side.’” In February, she bought a place in Antioch for $215,000. She commutes to her hometown by car.

Planning director Richard Mitchell grins as he paws through watercolor after tasteful watercolor of what he calls “big-box residential”: housing that may yet sprout along Richmond’s neglected transit corridors. The buildings, junior versions of the Stalinist Lego structures in Mission Bay, won’t win any architectural awards, but they’re prettier than a hole in the ground—and Richmond still has plenty of those. By the 1980s, the city’s major downtown thoroughfare, Macdonald Avenue, had deteriorated from a thriving postwar commercial hub to something that resembled the aftermath of a hurricane. Visitors today still find a realm of discount grocery stores, vacant lots, and desultory urban farms.

But that promises to change. In 2012, the University of California announced plans to locate a new “global campus” along the waterfront, prompting the proposed redevelopment of an abutting former waste site. This news led to much rejoicing—but also to hand-wringing of the sort common to other growing Bay Area cities. Some progressives fear that tomorrow’s Richmond will resemble today’s West Oakland or Emeryville. Mission district–style gentrification, however, isn’t happening in Richmond yet: A recent study by UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society found that, except in a few isolated enclaves, its poor minorities are not being replaced by educated white people. Even so, a goodly portion of the city’s underclass is “vulnerable,” spending upwards of 30 percent of their meager incomes on housing.

RPA progressives argue that the study findings mean that Richmond needs rent control. The city council votes to enact it are in place, but others, including Mitchell and the mayor, don’t agree. Mitchell, for his part, doesn’t foresee flocks of gentrifiers descending upon Richmond to claim its aging, modest housing stock. “They want the stuff you see in Emeryville,” he says, “cool apartments with a fitness center downstairs, an Internet hookup, and a cappuccino thing! We don’t have anything like that.” He questions why Richmond, the sieve in the Bay Area’s economic drain, must be the one city that addresses the region’s spectacular wealth disparities by staying poor. “I don’t see people in Lafayette saying, ‘We need to try to be a more inclusive community,’” he says. “Their solution seems to be, ‘Hell, send ’em to Richmond!’”

As for Butt, he accuses his more progressive colleagues of premature gentrification anxiety. In the mayor’s view, they’re attempting to stave off a hypothetical—possibly imaginary—wave of displacement by preserving the city’s unsatisfactory present in amber. Fiscal responsibility and enlightened social programs have enabled the city to claw back from the brink, but if potential developers are squeezed too hard, the mayor worries, they will flee. In Richmond, brief interludes of good times are interspersed among long stretches of bad times. While the current uptick could, in fact, be the city’s new normal, Richmond’s hard-won success may prove ephemeral once more. Time will tell.

An easy bike ride from Catahoula Coffee on San Pablo Avenue—a self-described “artisan coffee roaster” that hosts “farmers’ markets, car shows, art fairs, and musical performances”—you’ll find a Mayberry-like spread of low-slung single-family homes in the neighborhood known as North and East. The city’s annual Spring Fling is centered here. It’s getting bigger every year—they close down the street, and everyone converges on the Solano Playlot.

As recently as 2010, the Playlot was a dirty, underutilized, and neglected repository of forlorn Eisenhower-era structures. Tired of the festering eyesore in their midst, neighbors organized the community—and secured plenty of city funding—to spruce it up. This took years and several hundred thousand dollars, but the Playlot has been a gem since 2012, its pristine new equipment painted in happy Day-Glo colors that draw new families to the park.

Just after 11 a.m. on a Monday, gaggles of children swarm over the play structures or sit with their families eating snacks at the picnic tables. On a shaded bench in the park’s far corner, a man in a black hoodie sips from a tall boy of malt liquor as he watches his son on the swings. Setting the can of beer under a table, he wanders over to give his little boy a push. The child laughs, and, eventually, his father laughs too. It is a moment of beauty and promise, but not without an ambiguous edge. The man turns toward the sun, and the silver text on his chest all but gleams: “I AM THE EAST BAY DREAM.”

 Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco
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