Richmond improvement projects stalled
on November 27, 2020
Richmond’s busy 23rd Street commercial corridor is home to several small businesses that are just off I-80, making them a convenient pitstop for travelers. By day, restaurants like Portumex serve up fresh fare, while the nighttime entrepreneurs traffic in humans.
Neighborhood clean-up projects have galvanized the Richmond community with a strong resurgence of effort to make improvements, but has it been enough to rid 23rd Street of the pimps and sex workers that plague the district at night?
That’s the question that some residents and merchants are asking.
Community groups held meetings about the problem – mainly prostitution – and they put on workshops so they could understand just exactly what human trafficking is. If they could get the Johns behind bars for 10 or 20 years, they would fight crime on multiple levels.
They joined forces with neighborhood councils and the Richmond Chamber of Commerce to do something about the crime happening just steps away from the storefronts.
Sergio Rios owns Bob’s Cleaners on the 23rd Street strip. He boasts that his dry cleaning business was the first in Northern California to be certified 100% green and takes a progressive stance on how to invigorate business in the area. He says that making improvements to the area will trickle down to the problems with prostitution and crime.
“We need to change,” Rios said. “The sidewalks and traffic are really bad. We need to upgrade. I have been in business for 15 years and there has been no change. The Merchants Business Association doesn’t have vision.”
Community activist groups Urban Transformation, Richmond Latinos Unidos and Calle 23 took the fight to the streets beginning in 2016.
“The prostitution was all around different parts of 23rd Street,” says Cesar Zepeda, founder of Calle 23, an organization formed to help residents improve their community. “And, Project Xochitl, which it came to be known as, was an alleyway that was dark, full of trash, a perfect place for anyone to do what they wanted to do without being seen.”
In response to complaints about crime, Calle 23 and other community groups created Project Xochitl, a neighborhood clean-up event. Before the clean-up, residents in homes with entrances that abutted the alley were greeted by graffiti, trash and the occasional old mattress as they navigated used condoms and needles strewn on the ground.
While the police tackled human trafficking, Zepeda worked with members of the community to clean up the alley. They picked up trash, installed street lights and painted a mural on the wall. They even figured out a way to pave the alley without the assistance of the city, transforming a dirt road into a proper street.
“Now they [23rd Street Merchant’s Association] say they want to fight prostitution,” said Darlene Drapkin of Urban Transformation, a grassroots organization dedicated to community revitalization. “But they wanted to fight prostitution as one incremental issue. When you really need to enter it comprehensively, holistically. If you improve the physical appearance of places, then people also start respecting it more.”
Drapkin thought up a way to invigorate the area with the presence of local area residents and their pets.
“We were doing these monthly get-togethers of having people come out with their dogs to support local restaurants – pup crawls,” Drapkin said. “And in fact, you know, one of the times we were even able to take a picture of a license plate of one of the vehicles where we could see a woman going into the car. And I was trying to start a program whereby we could catch the Johns because the Johns are the real issue.”
Despite the collective efforts of the grassroots organizations, the beautification projects started to slow down.
Reflecting on the last few years, Rios would like to see more cooperation between the business owners in the corridor, especially the 23rd Street Merchants Association, who seemed to be at odds with the other community groups on how to tackle prostitution and other crimes that affect their community.
Zepeda turned his attention to politics. He made a second run for the Richmond City Council in 2018 and lost. Now, he is president of the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council and currently serves as a director on the West County Wastewater District board.
Drapkin has moved on as well. She works with the 2020 Census.
“But, you know, the problem is some of these things require bigger changes, or departments willing to tackle these things,” Drapkin said. “And I found just a lot of resistance and it’s been very demoralizing for me because I really tried hard to create a comprehensive program.”
Drapkin’s voice grew weary as she recounted the many obstacles she faced in Richmond.
“It’s very disappointing to me,” she said. “It makes me sad because I wanted to stay with that project long term. Richmond is a very complicated city. I’m learning.”
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