Part 8: North Richmond, where the city’s boundaries end

map of north richmond

This map shows the curious political borders that isolate North Richmond.

Civic leaders who seriously grapple with the question of how North Richmond can break its ruinous cycle of crime, poverty and decline often come to the conclusion that the current political arrangement is untenable – and that the community would fare better if it was annexed to Richmond.

Today, North Richmond is unincorporated, putting it under the county’s jurisdiction. It borders the city of Richmond, separated by a line — pencil-thin on a map, invisible on the street — that runs between two railroad tracks. That eastern boundary connects the central city to the Hilltop Mall area, bypassing North Richmond and thus satisfying state law that city lands must be contiguous.

“Any way you look at it, it makes no sense that North Richmond is not part of the city,” said Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt.

Although Butt is a successful businessman in affluent Point Richmond, he had his own blunt encounter with the wall of opposition that has met many Richmond leaders over the decades as they’ve floated the idea of annexing North Richmond.

tom butt in point richmond

Tom Butt, pictured here in Point Richmond, broached the idea of annexing North Richmond as a relatively new councilman in 1996 (photo by Robert Rogers)

A councilman since the mid-1990s and arguably the elected official with the safest seat, Butt called on the city to study the feasibility of annexing North Richmond and El Sobrante in 1996, the city’s last serious move towards annexation. “I introduced a resolution for city staff to study the feasibility annexing North Richmond and El Sobrante,” Butt said. “The council was very pro-development at the time, and it seemed like there might be opportunities.”

As a white politician with a secure political base of affluent voters, Butt had little motivation to court future votes in the mostly African American enclave of North Richmond. But he had a gnawing feeling that having a pocket of unincorporated land inside his city was bad public policy, and he wanted to know whether annexation would help or harm both areas. “I wanted to know what it would mean,” Butt said.

From the beginning, Butt said, he dealt with plenty of preconceived notions about the issue. “The population out there was very poor and everybody thought it would be a problem, a drain, at least at first on the city,” Butt said.

Additionally, Butt said, although the council may have gone along with the idea, and developers may have seen some opportunity, there was a powerful interest group in unincorporated North Richmond working against any movement toward annexation. “It was the big property owners, the industrial types, that wanted to avoid being in the city,” Butt said. “They’d start spreading money around, making contributions to influential organizations in the neighborhood, the same thing they have always done.”

As an example of a company that wanted to avoid annexation, Butt cited Color Spot Grower, a nursery company that ceased operations in North Richmond in 2007. “You had a lot of the greenhouse operators who used a lot of energy — they’re all gone now — and they didn’t want to pay the utility tax in the city so they worked hard against annexation,” Butt said.

The city of Richmond has a 10 percent utility user tax on energy usage, while the county, which governs unincorporated North Richmond, has no such tax.

north richmond

North Richmond has been unincorporated land for more than 100 years. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Butt shook his head. “I saw that [annexation] wasn’t going to go anywhere,” he said. “There was too much political power on the other side.”

That has been a recurring theme for decades, along with a strain of rugged isolationism that traces back to North Richmond’s pre-WWII rural outpost days. During the postwar period the topic of annexation came up often, said Shirley Moore, a Cal State Sacramento history professor and author of numerous books about Richmond.

“There were people who very much pushed for annexation, because they would be brought under purview of law enforcement, sanitation, and other services provided by the city. Residents were dissatisfied in the level of service provided by the county,” Moore said during a telephone interview.

Moore said North Richmond’s residents have always been generally unsatisfied with the services they receive from the county – law enforcement, code enforcement, public works – but the question of how to improve was always murky.

Additionally, Moore said, “There has always been a faction that preferred to live outside of the jurisdiction. It’s a tale of two cities in many respects.”

Near misses with annexation occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, as two major movements were growing in Richmond. First, African Americans had emerged as a new political power, thanks to the demographic shift brought on by WWII and the enlargement of their civic participation thanks to the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Second, the city of Richmond looked to expand, mostly northward, as the old downtown withered and retailers and other businesses hoped to set up in the outskirts, closer to the consumers who had fled to the newer suburbs.

The trends seemed poised to lead to the annexation of this poor, isolated and solidly African American community. Enter George Livingston, an African American councilman in the 1960s and 1970s who later became the city’s first elected black mayor. Now 77 and suffering from kidney failure, Livingston spends most of his days relaxing and thumbing through books and papers in his south Richmond home. But in the mid-1970s, Livingston played a leading role in seizing the land for Hilltop Mall, which had been unincorporated county land.

george livingston and jim mcmillan

George Livingston, left, and Jim McMillan, two former city leaders who were thwarted in their efforts to annex North Richmond. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Livingston said the land for the mall was owned by Chevron Corp., and other area cities were looking to annex it in order to get the tax benefits that would spring from opening a vibrant new retail center. “We had to jockey against Pinole, and San Pablo was trying to get it,” Livingston remembered during a lengthy conversation at his central Richmond home.

But while securing Hilltop Mall for Richmond was a great coup, it did not solve the quandary of North Richmond, the dull side of the city’s shiny new coin.

The rural patch of North Richmond sat northwest of the Iron Triangle and southwest of Hilltop, just as it does now. Then, it comprised about 2,500 poor people. While Latinos have steadily moved in over the past decade, drawn by cheap land prices, in the 1970s the neighborhood was still virtually all African Americans.

As mayor, Livingston wanted to bring North Richmond into the city. “I said we need to bring those individuals in that were not getting what they deserve,” Livingston said.

But as the local government addressed the idea in the 1970s and 1980s, the divisions were consistently sharp. “There was some feeling on the council to annex North Richmond, but there was a split group on the council,” Livingston said. “At the time we had nine members and there were some industrial interests out there who didn’t want to be annexed to Richmond because they thought they would have a better political system to be just the county.”

fred jackson

Fred Jackson is a community icon and has largely steered away from the question of annexation. (photo by Robert Rogers)

“They saw themselves as paying more taxes and having more scrutiny as far as regulations if they became part of the city, and they didn’t want that,” Livingston continued. “So they worked hard to lobby the council and to build support at the community level.”

Councilman Nat Bates, who like Livingston had ascended to power in the 1960s and 1970s, was a part of the process and remembers it similarly. “The big property owners didn’t live out there, and they didn’t want to pay the city property taxes, so they got together and did what they could to make sure the residents didn’t vote for annexation,” Bates said.

At the same time, North Richmond wasn’t all that attractive, even to a city council that was well-represented by minorities. “From a financial point of view, obviously annexation didn’t resonate with council members,” Bates said. Annexing North Richmond, initially, would have meant taking responsibility for an impoverished, high crime area with a badly disinvested infrastructure, Bates said. Major industry would have provided a solid tax base, but not enough to outweigh the initial investment in services that the community needed, Bates said.

Still, Bates felt that the pro-annexation members could have had a majority on the council, a point on which Livingston and he differ. “We could have had the majority of the council, but we couldn’t get the vote of the people, and the property owners were behind that,” Bates said.

john gioia

County Supervisor John Gioia says the county is committed to serving North Richmond. (photo by Robert Rogers)

It was a familiar refrain: The people of North Richmond—poor and unaccustomed to participating in their local government because proceedings for their governing authority, the county, are conducted 20 miles away in Martinez—were easily dissuaded from supporting annexation.

Former Councilman Jim McMillan has his own recollection. Sitting on the council in the 1970s and 1980s, McMillan took a keen interest in annexing North Richmond. “I tried to push annexation twice in the early 1980s,” McMillan said. “It was all about taxes. The business interests didn’t want to pay the tax, and they propagandized the poor residents out there to fear the taxes. The county supervisor at the time, Tom Powers, didn’t want to lose the tax revenue he was getting.”

McMillan still has a city staff report on annexation that he ordered drawn up in 1980. “It had initial costs to the city of about $3.2 million,” McMillan said, reading from the report. “But we thought that it would pay dividends in the future, and [then-Police Chief] Ernie Clements felt strongly that the community would be better served if part of local police jurisdiction than if it remained [Contra Costa County] Sheriff territory.”

About 15 years later, Butt ventured into the same territory, only to be rebuffed. Now, another 15 years after Butt’s ill-fated exploration, many people are openly asking whether it’s time for yet another effort at annexation, and debating whether such a proposal will fare any better this time.

kenneth davis

Kenneth Davis led a small protest at John Gioia's offices in April, demanding more money for local programs in North Richmond. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Livingston, for one, says he’s optimistic. On the current council, he sees a group of eclectic but solidly progressive leaders who seem as likely as any of their predecessors to take on the task of annexing North Richmond.

Bates, the longtime political power player, isn’t so sure. “North Richmond would be a subsidized community, a net loss to the city,” Bates said. “Got to put in streets, sidewalks, lights, who knows how much in repairs and upgrades. It’s a tough sell to the voters in the rest of the city.”

Butt offered a more mixed view, and said there would be a higher tax burden for North Richmond residents and businesses in the event of annexation, but that “the trade off is you’d get more services if you were in the city. Some problems would likely be ameliorated … A county is set up to govern unincorporated areas that are sparse, not to provide municipal government to urban areas that require a range of services, and the fact is that with the borders the way they are the city is providing a lot of services out there to county residents, services that we aren’t collecting taxes for.”

Whether annexing North Richmond would be a net fiscal loss or gain to the city, especially in the long term, is not clear. City Manager Bill Lindsay is skeptical about whether North Richmond would ultimately profit the city, especially given its latent development potential. “There would have to be some work done in terms of assessing the situation,” Lindsay said. “It’s not a no-brainer one way or the other.”

Lindsay said any future analysis should include three key areas: A fiscal analysis of initial costs and tax benefits, an analysis of redevelopment project areas and a look at land use policies to see whether they would mesh with Richmond’s own development policies. “The county has recently done a specific plan, and the question is whether that is consistent with the city’s view of land use in that area,” Lindsay said.

henry clark, saleem bey, kenneth davis

Clark, left, Bey, center, and Davis represent three of the most influential voices in the North Richmond community. (photo by Robert Rogers)

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, North Richmond’s elected representative, has said that the northern lands above North Richmond’s current housing area, long marked for industrial development that has not happened, could be rezoned for housing and commercial and retail as early as this year.

The political aspects of annexation are also bound to be tricky. “The key is, we can’t be seen as doing a hostile takeover,” Lindsay said. “There has to be grassroots support in the community.”

But there is little doubt that such the spirit for annexation is swirling among activists and some elected leaders. Last year’s city election, for the first time in years, featured a open talk about annexing North Richmond. Councilman Corky Booze said repeatedly during his 2010 campaign that North Richmond should be annexed. “These are my people, our people, and we should be fighting for them in our local government,” Booze said while campaiging in the neighborhood.

While Mayor Gayle McLaughlin has not come out publicly for annexation, she routinely attends events in the county area of North Richmond; in 2010, she said it made no sense to not treat the community as “Richmond” just because of an arbitrary political boundary.

Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles sits on the North Richmond mitigation committee and also made numerous forays into North Richmond during her campaign in 2010.

Several local leaders say they recognize the challenges created by having an unincorporated pocket within Richmond. Lindsay said splitting the neighborhood politically has policy consequences and inefficiencies. “There is a little bit of an extra burden in terms of coordinating the services, out there,” Lindsay said. “Especially the police department, which has a very complicated task in the sense that it is policing around the unincorporated island of North Richmond and they have to coordinate a lot with the sheriff.”

corky booze, kenneth davis, mike parker

Corky Booze, left, Mike Parker, center, and Kenneth Davis exchanged some thoughts about annexation during Richmond's annual Silly Parade earlier this year (photo by Robert Rogers)

Richmond Police Lt. Arnold Threets agrees with Lindsay’s assessment. “One of the challenges we have in addressing the violence is that one-half of the problem is jurisdictionally under the control of the sheriff’s office and the other half of the problem is ours,” Threets said. “Our bad guys go over into their jurisdiction and commit murders, commit crimes in retaliation, and their subjects do the same.”

Basically, both sides make the best of an imperfect arrangement, Threets said.

“We don’t work together as much as we can, quite frankly,” Threets said. “It’s just a resource issue on the part of the county—they just don’t have the resources that they should to address the problem.”

Lindsay said ancillary issues of public safety and aesthetics were complicated by the abutting jurisdictions. “Code enforcement and blight abatement is also a challenge,” Lindsay said. “We try to coordinate that with North Richmond mitigation fund, a lot of coordinating with a lot of different departments. It does create some complexity.”

But there are still plenty of people who oppose annexation, including leaders outside the industrial business community. One of the most powerful voices against annexation has been Henry Clark, founder and director of the West County Toxics Coalition. For years, Clark has opposed annexation on the grounds that the city would be no better than the county in providing for North Richmond.

“We worked a long time to get the county to pay attention to us and provide resources,” Clark said during a community festival in July. “If we were annexed, we’d be back to square one.”

Clark is one of the community’s most respected members. Tall and bespectacled, with a gentle manner and choppy eloquence, Clark sits on several community boards, as well as on the committee that oversees spending of the mitigation fund, which Gioia established several years ago by levying fees on the nearby waste-transfer station. Clark played a lead role in rallying the community for redress after General Chemical Corps.’ toxic spill in 1993.

But other activists, including Saleem Bey, an Oakland native who has become a force in North Richmond, along with Rev. Kenneth Davis and others, are already using community meetings and other forums to preach the benefits of annexation. While they concede that Clark may have had a point during the darker days of Richmond, the days of corruption in the police department and fiscal mismanagement, they say that now not only is the city more efficient and better managed, but that the distant county government has never been worse.

“I respect Dr. Clark, but I disagree with him on this issue,” Bey said. “He has worked closely with the county over the years, and I don’t know if that has affected his perception on the issue.”

Clark has, of late, distanced himself from the county. When activists staged a protest outside John Gioia’s El Cerrito offices in April, demanding more funding for social and educational programs, Clark was there, alongside Bey, Davis and members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a group that backs the coalition government in the city and favors annexation.

At that protest, Clark shifted position slightly, but still opposed annexation to the city. “Now I have come to the conclusion that we would be better off as our own township,” Clark said. “But in the short term, we need to take advantage of the resources we get from the county.”

Fellow activist Fred Jackson, a Korean War veteran who moved with his family to North Richmond in the early 1950s, is arguably the most widely-respected man the community has ever produced, and has also warmed somewhat to the idea of annexation. “A great man, an icon,” Gioia said in February, just before the city and county agreed to rename Filbert Street “Fred Jackson Way” in honor of his decades of nonviolent activism.

Once noncommital on annexation, the now 74-year-old Jackson said that with the passing years he has come to see a hazy issue more clearly. While recuperating earlier this year from a session of chemotherapy at a family member’s home near Hilltop Mall, Jackson, who is battling liver cancer, discussed his evolving feelings on annexation.

“I’m going to take a walk, not a real walk but a walk in my mind,” Jackson said, reclining low in a sofa, his feet elevated. “Every step I take, I am crossing some new line, South Richmond, Central Richmond, North Richmond, the county area. I have come to wish that we could tear all these lines of demarcation asunder.”

Jackson, like many other longtime residents, ruefully recalls the pride that North Richmond residents once felt. But as their community suffered disproportionally from economic malaise and racial and political isolation, that pride turned into a bitter badge of shame, Jackson said.

“Now I am of a mind that what North Richmond connotes has become such a liability that being incorporated into a greater Richmond, or a one Richmond, must be part of our future,” Jackson said. “The stigma has become oppressive all by itself.”

As respected local leaders have become more amenable to the prospects of annexation, the mood has taken hold within advocacy groups and political elites. Mike Parker of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) said that during a March 28, 2011, meeting, the group discusssed the idea of supporting an annexation movement in North Richmond. “North Richmond, as a community, is getting organized now,” Parker said. “I see the movement as something that emerges from the community and RPA acts as body that assists, as an asset to their cause.”

But it was not certain that the full RPA leadership was behind annexation, Parker cautioned. “The assumption is we’re all for it at the RPA. I can’t say exactly when, but we’ll be considering a formal motion to approve this at some point. We want to help the leaders in the neighborhood,” he said. But the group also wants to be cautious about overreaching and being seen as foisting on the community something that a majority of them don’t want, Parker said.

So, the idea lingers, just as it has for decades, as this tiny enclave of the city is not really in the city at all, removed by a political boundary that is clear on maps, but invisible on the street. Some contend that the city would provide better, more ample resources than the county, but others are concerned that taxes will be higher under city rule. No matter what government represents the community, North Richmond will always have a shade of its own identity that sets it apart in some ways from the rest of Richmond.

The line of demarcation means little to most average residents, and is completely unknown to many. They know the tan uniforms of the sheriff’s deputies who patrol north of Chesley Avenue, and the dark blues of the city police who patrol to the south, but the reasons seem nebulous and unimportant.

“I don’t know anything about that stuff.  To me police is police,” said Mariecelle Lowery, the mother of Ervin Coley III, the community gardener whose shooting death in North Richmond in March shocked the neighborhood. Lowery was speaking near the steps of Gioia’s office in El Cerrito during the April protest. Bey and Davis had urged her to come, saying her son’s death was part of a policy of neglect and disinvestment the county has had toward North Richmond. Lowery had never been to the county offices before.

“I lived in North Richmond my whole life, and I never thought about who the government was out here,” Lowery said.

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