Berkeley students present findings at North Richmond community meeting

malo hutson uc berkeley

Malo Andre Hutson, standing on left, lead a class of more than a dozen UC Berkeley graduate students in a study exploring how best to enhance North Richmond in the coming years. (photo by Robert Rogers)

North Richmond is a unique Bay Area community poised for growth and investment in the coming years. But it’s also saddled with a history of decades of poverty and violence, and a jaded outlook toward political leaders and outside forces. How well the tiny community of about 4,000 residents can reconcile those clashing realities could determine the future, according to a report produced by UC Berkeley graduate students.

“This is part of a process of building institutional linkages between this university and this community,” said city and regional planning professor Malo Andre Hutson, who lead about a dozen masters and doctoral students in a four month study and assessment of North Richmond. “We are using research and data analysis in a way that can constructively inform public policy in North Richmond.”

More than 40 people, including longtime local leaders like Henry Clark and Annie King-Meredith, attended the two-hour plus presentation and dialogue Wednesday night at the Community Housing Development Corporation on Fred Jackson Way.

Hutson and a procession of student presenters narrated a slideshow that touched on longtime local concerns like economic development, small business development, political engagement, resources for young people and housing. The presentation also delved into the imminent opening of a new Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) research campus, which is scheduled to begin construction on Richmond’s southern shoreline next year.

It’s crucial, the students said, that North Richmond establish relationships with lab leaders early to ensure employment and educational opportunities for North Richmond residents, and that North Richmond is recognized as a place for future development of state facilities or technology spin-off companies.

“Services and other industry is going to be popping up all along the water front, working its way north from LBNL,” Hutson said. “One of North Richmond’s best assets is that it has a whole lot of land – and people are already eyeing this land.”

North Richmond has a rich social history, but one marked by physical and political isolation and neglect. During World War II, the marshy area north of the city became a haven for African American families who migrated west for shipyard jobs, but found themselves segregated from much of the predominately white stock in the city. In the decades since, the one-square-mile neighborhood has been divided between the city and unincorporated county lands, which contributed to a history of poor public services and persistent poverty.

While there have been improvements – notably new housing developments and an influx of new residents in the last decade – North Richmond remains the poorest enclaves in Contra Costa County, and one of the communities most deeply affected by crime.

Ryan Petteway, a graduate student who headed a subgroup that examined housing, environment and community, said that community surveys suggested that residents are dissatisfied with elected officials, housing policy and the paucity of other basic services. “Residents here don’t have amenities as basic as rain shelters at bus stops or fresh produce,” said Petteway, who is pursuing a doctorate in public health. “But they have wanted them for years.”

According to reports delivered by Petteway and other students, more than three quarters of residents do their food shopping outside of North Richmond, and more than 90 percent want a grocer in the community. Four out of five residents struggle to purchase basic necessities, and more than half believe that elected officials are not responsive to community needs.

At least 114 vacant lots dot the tiny neighborhood, the students’ report said, and have been persistent magnets for dumping trash and criminal activity, as well as a source of visual blight. The students launched a blog that includes maps of all the lots, as well as opportunities for residents to provide input and concerns. The blog is in its initial phase, and will grow in terms of data and design in the coming months.

There are about 1,650 jobs in North Richmond, mostly in the industries that operate in the rural areas around the housing stock, the report stated, but just 30 of those jobs, or less than 2 percent, are held by residents of North Richmond.

“We can all agree that our children are not being invested in enough,” Hutson said. “Businesses will be created moving forward, and there will be more high-end jobs in the area, the issue is whether we will be in a position to get those jobs.”

Local leaders and residents said they appreciated Hutson’s class’ report, but noted the inherent difficulties and shortcomings that any four-month class would have in trying to understand a community with such a long and complex history. Several residents also said future classes should do a better job of working with community members to produce data and conclusions.

“Racism wasn’t mentioned in your research,” Clark said. “But there has been a lot of that involved here as a key element. It’s not just a lack of community readiness or preparedness that has been plaguing us.”

Clark, who has been a local leader for decades, said that coming housing developments and open spaces nearby make him optimistic that more businesses and commercial services will come to the community.

Clark said Hutson’s class was right in the sense that community improvements must be driven by the residents themselves. “No elected officials have ever been concerned with our community. Nobody will care until we start caring for ourselves,” he said. “This is the land that politics forgot.”

Hutson presented his class and its findings as a beginning rather than a conclusion. Diana Aranda, program manager for The California Endowment’s Richmond investments, urged Hutson last year to focus his course on North Richmond. The endowment is investing millions in 14 underserved communities across the state, including Richmond.

Aranda said that the students’ findings are an important step toward finding the best ways to invest in North Richmond, and Hutson assured the crowd that future research will build on findings reached by his current students.

“I can promise you I will be back,” Hutson said.

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