There was something about his smile.
At the right moment, it was effusive, light-hearted, the very picture of youthful insouciance. But the real Ervin Coley III was revealed at other moments. At the contemplative moments, the times when the young man considered a question, or glanced around and conducted some kind of fleeting, unconscious reflection on his street, his block, his life, his very existence.
During those moments something different was on Coley’s face, a mask that passed over him in a blink.
It was early February, and Coley burrowed his slender-fingers into the soft soil. The blues and purples and yellows of flowers and shrubs and herbs burst with color. He sifted for worms, his favorite garden critter.
Coley gently grasped the slimy creatures, looking at them, smiling that easy smile.
Of all the details of his 21 years, there was something strangely affecting about the worms. Maybe it was the simple gentleness with which he approached what was delicate, or his curiosity, sprouting from the seeds of his new job as a gardener.
After his violent death a few weeks later, people remembered the worms.
In that vacant lot in a forlorn housing grid in what for 40 years has been arguably the most neglected neighborhood in the Bay Area, Coley had mugged for news cameras.
He had joked and mused about the future, a future that suddenly seemed a little more hopeful for him, and for his neighborhood.
Then, like so many of these streets’ sons and daughters, he was gone, long before any future could be realized.
This is North Richmond, a community forged during World War II and shunted to the margins ever since. In the early days, the rains and surging tides turned the streets to mud and swept away all but the sturdiest fixtures. Even today, not a single traffic light stands here, and the streets take on an inky darkness every night thanks to poor street lighting.
The community comprises about 3,000 people, and carries the dubious distinction of having the lowest per capita income in Contra Costa County, about $9,000, or less than one-third the county average.
The stark contrast is that this one-square mile of craggy streets and aging structures is nestled within one of the world’s most vibrant metropolitan areas. Within miles lies the largely undeveloped shore of San Pablo Bay, bridges, major highways and public transportation lines. How and when the seemingly inevitable rush of investment and development occurs could be one of the biggest stories of the next decade and a driver of area growth.
The potential exists not only for revitalization and an improvement of existing conditions, but for many of those who have lived here for generations to have a legitimate opportunity to be a part of the community’s rebirth.
Or North Richmond could continue to languish, repelling investment with its incomparable concentration of poverty, violence, reputation and political division.
Old cinderblock buildings stand as slumping reminders of the robust facilities they once were and the future that never was, where people used to work in canneries or get their hair and nails done or get a drink and a meal or hear some blues music.
Violence lingers here, malignantly, just beneath the surface. Not in the frantic, breathless way that urban violence is hyped in a music video or a television show. This violence is intermittent and deadly, a burst of terror that breaks long stretches of monotony, then crackling gunfire and tire screeches, followed by screams and wails and sirens, odes to loved ones lost and then funerals where the old mourn the young.
Nearly every block has seen bloodshed at one time or another in the past 30 years. The corner store, the only grocery in the area—although it doesn’t carry fresh fruits or vegetables—is a grim and puzzling testament to the insufficiency in this community.
The north-facing wall is bedecked in a swarm of colorful butterflies, painted in a happy medley. The painting, which the owner said was done by an Oakland youth group, seems the very incarnation of life and hope.
On the west-facing wall another reality exists. Letters are strung together, sometimes inscrutable, wrought by different hands. They are names, but they aren’t on birth certificates or identification cards. They’re names born of the streets.
“Dae.” “Bezzy.” “Top-Dogg.” “Wax.” “Big COOP.”
The names may sound playful, but this is a roll call of the dead. These primitive, spray-painted memorials are somber nods to the toll that street violence has exacted here over the years.
But none of that history seemed to weigh on Ervin Coley when he worked and chatted in the February sunshine on one of those days of faux spring so common in California. Coley had just turned 21, and had lived every one of those years in North Richmond.
“It’s been hard,” Coley said of his life in North Richmond. “There be a lot of negative people around here. There’s a lot of jealousy, a lot of envy, people don’t like to see people doing good, and people like to down talk people sometimes.”
Coley held a serious gaze for a moment. Then he smiled and re-affirmed: “I like to be happy.”
Just a few weeks later, on March 29, Coley’s life was cut short.
His violent death was marked by a maroon stain in the street, and nothing else. Sheriff’s officials said he was killed in a drive-by, and they had no suspects.
The people in the neighborhood knew better. They said the shooters came from central Richmond’s “Deep C” gang, that they had ridden into North Richmond that night looking for a “mark,” that is, someone, anyone, to shoot.
Just when Coley had grown more optimistic and hopeful than ever before, he was gone. His funeral was held outside North Richmond, at Hilltop Community Church, because organizers and family feared further violence.
“There is no sense in it, sooner or later the streets are going to take you,” said one of Coley’s co-workers on the garden project.
He had just viewed Coley’s silver casket.