Just walking down the street in North Richmond gives you a glimpse of this community’s story. It’s a place of faded history and echoing vibrancy, suffused in poverty, pollution and sporadic violence. The people are strong. The pulse is still there.
The corner market draws mothers, children, roughnecks and raconteurs inside its walls, which are riddled with bullet holes and adorned with memorials to those killed in the streets.
The sagging yellow building on the west side of Kelsey Street clings to iron bars driven into its sloughing stucco exterior. A sign above advertises a boutique long since gone.
The largely vacant government housing projects are a few blocks away, many units gutted of their pipes and wiring and bearing the rot of water damage.
The scarred buildings stand impassive among sinews of overgrown vegetation.
There’s concrete and rebar molded into a building on Filbert Street.
If you listen closely, maybe you can hear the echoes of the sonorous saxophones or lively conversations that once flowed from Minnie Lou’s. For decades, it was the hottest spot in the neighborhood for food and entertainment.
But like almost every other business, Minnie Lou’s ceased to exist in North Richmond long ago, stripping another parcel of land of its soul.
Some of North Richmond’s history is intangible, but no less real. A cloud of sulfuric acid was released by the nearby chemical plant in 1993, a toxic drift that descended on this tiny community and sickened thousands.
The cloud is gone, but the scars are indelible, as are the decades of emissions from nearby dumps and oil refining operations, which combine with the natural sea breezes to ensure constant delivery of chemical vapors to the respiratory systems of the roughly 2,500 people who reside here.
This is a community at once within and apart from the city of Richmond and the surrounding Bay Area.
A square mile of unincorporated county land that has been bypassed during several annexations through the years, North Richmond is an island of pride, poverty and pollution with an identity all its own.
The photos in this essay attempt to capture the tragic beauty, fierce independence and irrepressible hope on display here every day.