In the Iron Triangle, a potluck and a melting pot
on September 19, 2011
The Sixth Street block party was set, tentatively, for noon Saturday. But by 12:15, the foldaway tables and chairs were still empty.
The organizers had said there would be a potluck, but by about 1 p.m., there still wasn’t much food on the tables. A few bags of chips, a bowl of fresh pears, some plastic cups. A set of speakers pumped music up and down the road, and children played some basketball, but there weren’t many potluck-goers.
And then — came nachos. And a fruit salad, a grill, charcoal, hot dogs, hamburgers, watermelon, banana pudding. And people came out, Iron Triangle residents — families with parents from Mexico and South and Central America and African-American families with decades-long histories in the neighborhood.
By 3 p.m., there was a crowd, and the noise in the street was loud.
For two of the organizers, Cheryl Vaughn — whose parents moved to Richmond from Arkansas in the 1940s — and Guadalupe Corral, who moved from Mexico to California with her mother 20 years ago — this was a success, the African-Americans and the Latinos of the neighborhood out in the street together, talking to one another, having fun.
“A long time ago, there was a wall between Latinos and African-Americans, because our parents used to say, ‘Don’t play with blacks.’ … And they said the same thing — ‘Don’t play with Latinos,” Corral said. “But now our kids are teaching us that everybody’s the same and that we should be together. So that’s what I’m learning from my kids — I’m working for that. And that is a great thing — we are the same.”
Corral, 37, moved to the Iron Triangle with her husband and three children a little more than two years ago. And despite the area’s reputation for violence, Corral says she’s happy and comfortable here.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed — the people here are very nice, they’re very helpful,” she said. “Everyday, if you ask for help, they help you here. And it’s very peaceful. The kids can play out here very freely.”
Corral was talking about the 800 block of Sixth Street, where she and other residents have been holding meetings in each others’ houses during the past year to get to know one another better. Three months ago, they held a tree-planting along the road, and now they’re planning a community garden and an event for Halloween, which, for Vaughn, is a big deal.
Vaughn, concerned about safety, has usually taken her grandchildren trick-or-treating in Point Richmond. But, Vaughn said, “It’s going to be here [on Sixth Street] this year. That’s the goal.”
Vaughn met Corral at a community function at the Nevin Center about a year and a half ago. “I saw her there, and then I saw her here,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh — you’re my neighbor! And we’ve been buddies ever since.”
Now the two are trying to get other residents of Sixth Street to meet each other on Sixth Street.
The scene Saturday — neighbors outside talking to one another — was similar to how Vaughn remembers the Sixth Street of the 1960s, when she was a child, playing in front of her grandmother’s house, which she inherited.
In the 1960s, Vaughn said, “We played. And it was nothing for us to go to the store. It was nothing to just go down with our change, or our pop bottles to trade them in for cash, and then … play and then come back home. It was all a part of the process. We’d walk everywhere.
“My great-grandfather lived in North Richmond — we used to walk there. We used to just walk everywhere. And it doesn’t quite happen like that anymore.”
Vaughn, whose son was killed in 2005 — in Richmond but not on Sixth Street — said the violence in the city has isolated residents. And she said that although keeping to one’s self “is a natural reaction to such things … it’s healthier to be with people.”
“We need to come out and be out amongst each other, and that brings about a spirit of well-being and safety,” she said.
So Vaughn, Corral and other neighbors — with the help of some funding from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, which is compiling a series of oral histories from the Iron Triangle — organized the neighborhood meetings, the tree planting and the block party.
“It is working, because we’re getting to know each other – we really are,” Vaughn said. “We’re starting to talk to each other.”
Lisa Hopson, a 44-year-old mother of two, lives on Seventh Street. But she praised the neighbors’ work on Sixth Street.
“We need it to be where our kids can be safe and be outside. … Your block [Sixth Street] is a good block because everyone knows each other, and kids can feel safe,” Hopson said. “I live around the corner on Seventh, and it’s like night and day. And where I live, it’s not safe.”
Hopson asked Vaughn to continue holding block parties “so we get to know one another. So we get to know our neighbors. So we know if something’s not right.”
Dr. Patricia Nunley, who grew up on Sixth Street and still takes care of her mother here, stopped by Corral’s house to give a brief oral history. Nunley’s parents moved to Richmond from Louisiana in the 1940s — her mother was a “Rosie the Riveter” at the Kaiser shipyard, and her father worked at the Ford factory. She acknowledged that the faces on Sixth Street have changed.
“When we first moved here, it was black-white families,” she said. “Now it’s black-Hispanic families.” Although, Nunley said with a smile, “We used to have some hippies that lived across the street.”
Nunley agreed that there have been racial divisions but said, “If you talk [to someone], then you’ll understand the person, and you’ll get to understand how you can help them and how they can help you.”
Meanwhile, outside on Sixth Street, Corral had served up bowls of peppers and nacho cheese enough to feed the block.
Vaughn said she hopes to spread the neighborhood gatherings from the 800 block of Sixth Street to the 700 block and then to the 600 block. But, like the flow of the afternoon’s potluck, it might take some time.
Corral said she wakes up at 5:30 every morning to cook for her family and then works two jobs —a housekeeping position and an internship for her bilingual medical assistant certificate. But Corral said she loves her work in the community.
“I want a better Richmond for my kids, because I really like Richmond, and I want my kids to grow up here,” she said. “So I’m trying to do something good for it.”
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