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Plagued by the past: Does Richmond deserve its reputation as a hard-knock town?

on March 27, 2024

Richmond has an image problem. And its residents are well aware of it. They see it in outsiders’ faces, hear it in their derogatory comments and sense it when they tell others where they are from.

The image of Richmond as a rough-and-tumble town was solidified in the movie “Coach Carter,” about a Richmond basketball coach who inspires his scrappy but talented players to succeed athletically and academically, against all odds. That descriptor, apt as it may have been, also applies to many California cities. But unlike many other cities, Richmond hasn’t been able to shed its image, despite a dramatic drop in crime, a significant amount of investment and a wealth of recreational activities.

Closeup of head and shoulders of an older black man with a trim beard and mustache and short gray hair. He is not smiling and is wearing an olive green long-sleeved T-shirt and standing under a tree outside a home.
Melbia Craft (Yichong Qiu)

“The reputation of Richmond goes up and down like any other city,” said Melbia Craft, a landscaper who has lived in the city for half a century.

“For instance, in the ‘60s, there was very little bit of crime. In the ‘70s, it picked up a little bit more crime. Then the ‘80s, it calmed down. In the ‘90s, it was pretty high. In 2000, it was in between.” 

From his own observation, Craft said, crime and drug traffic appear to be down, making Richmond, “a nice suburb to live in.”

Craft is right. Crime incidents have dropped by nearly half since 2016, with a sharp decrease in property crime and a slight drop in violent crime. In 2023, the city recorded eight homicides — the lowest number since 1971, according to Mayor Eduardo Martinez’s office.

Despite the trend, many residents say they don’t feel safe in the city. While most people feel comfortable in their own neighborhoods, fewer than half said in a 2021 community survey that they feel safe downtown and only 1 in 5 said they generally feel safe.

Malik Williams, who was born and raised in Richmond, understands those responses.

“Richmond has been pretty rough in this area,” he said, standing near the city’s only BART station. “I know it has had a facelift and looks a lot nicer. But I doubt there are too many people who would still be out here after dark. Businesses close early and open late. But I think Richmond has great potential.”

A red corner building with a white door, black-framed windows and a sign painted on the side that says "Lydia's Restaurant.
Lydia’s Restaurant in Richmond (Fernando Andrade)

For Jorge Zuno, owner of Lidia’s Restaurant in the Iron Triangle, perception is reality. He said fights and drug deals occur regularly and gunshots aren’t unusual in the neighborhood. Once, he said, thieves made off with the restaurant’s cash register.

“There are times when it lasts up to five-six months without any incidents,” he said in Spanish. “But then something happens, and everything falls apart again.”

In terms of violent crime, Richmond, with a population of around 115,000, recorded more than 900 aggravated assaults last year, more than twice as many as Concord, which has nearly 10,000 more residents.

Cab driver Saleh Alharazi, who has lived in Richmond for more than a decade, believes the city has more than its share of crime. “A week or two will not go by without us seeing paramedics come to the Richmond BART,” he said. “On and off gun shootings and a lot of drugs all over the city.”

Rich in diversity

Richmond is like any other city, said Damon Hedgspeth, an IT consultant and 13-year Richmond resident. “The bad areas aren’t any worse than the bad areas in any other city,” he said, adding that people tend to hear more about the rowdy neighborhoods than they do about the quiet ones.

Aaliyah Hanvey, a Kennedy High School student, blames the city’s image problem on social media, which she says inflates bad news and downplays good news. “I walk out here at 8, 9 o’clock, walk around, no one bugs you, no one tries to rob you, everyone knows everyone,” she said. “It’s just what you see on social media makes the city look bad.” 

Richmond is not only the largest city in west Contra Costa County, it also is poorer than most of its neighbors. Its median income of $86,000 is at least $20,000 less than that of neighboring El Cerrito, Albany and San Raphael. Demographically, it closely resembles California in general, with 44% of residents identifying as Latino, about a quarter of the population being children and 15% senior citizens.

“When you live and go around Richmond, you see the amazing diversity we have, and how it’s one of the few places where so many cultures are in contact and interacting with each other,” said John Gioia, who represents the city on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.

While it may be more of a bedroom community than a destination, the city is rich with trails, parks, activities and an enviable waterfront that stretches for 32 miles.

But it’s also gritty, with an industrial legacy that occupies a good portion of its coast, most notably, in the Chevron Richmond Refinery. The plant predates the city and remains its largest employer and benefactor.

Like many, Jessica Salgado, a contractor who lives in Richmond, sees the refinery as a blemish. She embraces the city’s vibrancy and multiculturalism and appreciates that caters to kids. “Chevron is a huge risk to families, though,” she said.

Perennial pollution problem

Residents have a love-hate relationship with Chevron, which employs 3,000 workers and contributes significantly in taxes and in contributions to area nonprofits and youth activities. But it also has a history of polluting the area’s air, water and soil.

Fire blankets the sky on a sunny day in 2012.
Richmond skyline after the 2012 Chevron refinery fire (File photo)

Recently, the company agreed to pay $20 million to settle fines with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for 678 outstanding violations.

In 2020, the refinery agreed to pay $147,000 to settle 27 air quality violations between 2016 and 2018. The following year, one of its pipelines ruptured, spilling nearly 800 gallons of diesel into San Francisco Bay, costing the company $130,543 in cleanup costs and $70,000 in civil penalties. And last year, BAAQMD slapped the refinery with four notices of violations, after a 12-hour flaring event in November blanketed parts of Richmond and wafted across the bay into Marin County.

The refinery, however, is among many sources of pollution in the city. Chemtrade, for example, recently was fined $1.2 million for eight years of air quality violations at its Richmond sulfuric acid manufacturing plant. The city also is dealing with legacy chemicals buried at Point Molate and at the former Zeneca site, as well as ongoing pollution from passing cargo trains and the millions of vehicles that cut through the city on Interstates 80 and 580.

In 2009, researchers from various organizations, including UC Berkeley, found a correlation between asthma and the length of time a person lived in Richmond, with long-time residents having higher rates for the condition. They also found a higher prevalence of asthma among Richmond children than was found in the state. When compared to the nation, childhood asthma rates in Richmond were twice as high. Researchers are still trying to determine why so many Richmond residents suffer from asthma.

Asthma is not something Contra Costa County keeps statistics on, because it’s not a reportable disease like flu or tuberculosis. While county health officials have data on asthma hospitalizations, that information isn’t enough to pinpoint a cause, said Dr.  Lisa Diemoz, an epidemiologist with Contra Costa Health Services. Hospitalizations are a measure of uncontrolled asthma, she noted, which could be due to a host of reasons, including outdoor air pollution as well as indoor triggers or lack of medication.

Still, Richmond industries are producing measurable pollution. And Gioia said addressing air pollution is one of the city’s biggest and perennial challenges.

More people without homes

Another of those challenges is homelessness. Contra Costa County’s annual point-in-time survey showed a 4% increase from 2020 to 2023 in the number of people observed to be living in encampments or on the street. But in Richmond, the increase was an astounding 75%, with close to 500 people counted.

The count doesn’t adequately reflect the numbers, said Daniel Barth, executive director of Safe Organized Spaces, whose outreach among unhoused residents found that about 1% of the city’s 115,000 residents do not have a permanent residence.

“Homelessness is a generalized condition of being unsafe,” Barth said.

As the number of people living on the street is increasing, Richmond is less and less safe, he said.

The key to making the city safer is to get more people to care about it, said John Monks, president of the Atchison Village Neighborhood Council. 

“You have to let them know that they are in charge of their own community. If they see something going wrong, speak up about it, for heaven’s sake,” he said.

It’s about developing a mindset of everyone looking out for each other and watching out for the city, he said. “If every neighborhood council area did that, crime would just almost disappear in Richmond,” he said. “I’m quite convinced.”

Four people walk down a Richmond street, past a deli on the right and a row of townhouses on the left. We see them from the back, in bright sunshine.
School children in Richmond (Choekyi Lhamo)

Setting the bar at school

Residents often point to the state of the city’s schools as a good place to start to improve quality of life.

Like many California school districts, West Contra Costa Unified is wrangling with budget problems, teacher vacancies and a growing population of students who need more mental health, special education or English language resources.

A snapshot of the district shows a bleak picture: More than half of the 25,700 students enrolled in 2023 were socioeconomically disadvantaged; a third were chronically absent; more than 3 in 10 were English learners and only 34% were prepared for college or careers, according to the state Education Department. Academically, language arts scores are 54 points below the state standard and math scores are 87 points below. The district’s graduation rate stands at 84%.

“If I had to pick job one for Richmond, it’s to improve the schools,” Gioia said.

It’s essential, he believes, for the district to train students for green energy jobs and for other careers that will be in high demand.

John Zabala, president of United Teachers of Richmond, acknowledged that the district has lower test scores and that it has been plagued with turnover among teachers as well as administrators. But the perception that the schools are bad or that the teachers aren’t responsive to students is not true, he said. While many of the teachers are novices, Zabala said many also are “phenomenal” and committed to their students.

“What I think is challenging is when you hear something like that — that test scores are lower, there’s a higher rate of turnover — is that we automatically assume that children are not learning. And that is not what education is about,” he said. “It’s not one final test score. It’s also about how children learn to problem solve, how children learn to self-advocate, emotional regulation, those types of things.”

Hidden gems

Despite its image problem, Richmond has seen a population explosion. Between 2010 and 2020, about 12,000 new residents made the city their home.

A man with salt and pepper hair, dark sunglasses and a ratty plaid hoodie that is open in front to reveal a black T-shirt with yellow lettering stands in front of a concrete wall and a blue door.
Daniel Woodell, glass artist (Wayne Gray)

One of them was Daniel Woodell, a glass artist who moved to Richmond in 2011.

“I didn’t know much about it,” he said. “It always was some place I came to get supplies or whatever. I really like Richmond. I think it’s like a smaller town; it’s somewhat removed from other places.”

Lower rents in comparison to the rest of the Bay Area may have drawn people, Woodell said. But it’s grown more expensive in the past decade. Still, he said, Richmond has a thriving art community.

The Richmond Art Center is a hub for that community, which is made more vibrant by the various classes, studios and galleries that promote visual and performing arts as well as crafts. The Richmond Art Center along with the city, through its Arts & Culture Commission, have made art more accessible to diverse communities and the general public, said artist Stephen Bruce.

“I believe the fruits of their labor will create more accessibility for art programs, art education and art commerce,” he said.

But perhaps nowhere is Richmond’s reputation stronger than in its recreational offerings. Its expansive shoreline draws hikers, cyclists, birders, boaters and sunbathers. Alyssia Brown said raising a family in Richmond opened her eyes to its many recreational and other activities.

“I’m from Oakland originally. Being from the Bay Area, Richmond used to be something else,” she said. “I definitely have a different perception of it now than a decade ago.”

Keller Beach with four people in the ocean, seaweed in the sand.
Keller Beach (File photo)

The Ferry Point Loop and Marina Bay Trail offer sweeping bay views. Point Isabel, with the Golden Gate Bridge as its backdrop, lures dog owners from across the East Bay, and Keller Beach is packed with swimmers and picnickers on summer weekends.

“I think it’s an undiscovered gem,” said Anne Bailey, pointing out scenic spots such as Wildcat Canyon and Point Pinole that tend to be sparse with visitors. “I don’t think people know about them.”

Gioia, who grew up in Richmond and has represented it on the county board for more than a quarter of a century, is among the city’s biggest cheerleaders. The son of a Kennedy High School teacher, Gioia stayed in the area for college and law school, getting both degrees at UC Berkeley. He has seen his hometown struggle, and he has seen it rebound. But he has never seen it as that gritty, polluted, crime-ridden place of lore.

“I think the reality is, Richmond is a much more dynamic and thriving city than the perception,” he said. “Residents generally know that.”

Amaray Alvarez, Fernando Andrade, Marion Apio, Alicia Chiang, Wayne Gray, Daniel Hennessy, Choekyi Lhamo, Andrea Madison, Panashe Matemba-Mutasa, Yichong Qiu, Ruchi Shahagadkar, Ana Tellez-Witrago and Erika Zaro contributed to this story.

2 Comments

  1. Rayne Palmer on March 27, 2024 at 7:33 am

    This article focused on downtown and the iron triangle with no mention of East Richmond Heights -close to Wildcat Canyon. The prices for homes there can go up to 1.2m. It serves as an overflow for the more expensive neighboring El Cerrito. Much of it is unincorporated and is in the El Cerrito school district making it even more attractive., as does the developing Perfusion Winery which hosted several get togethers last year. We have a burgeoning cool little retail area on San Pablo ave near Solano Ave. To help promote it we recently had a crafts fair along that strip. Your article was a bit misleading in not including this area

  2. gk on April 13, 2024 at 2:42 am

    Plagued by the past offers a thought-provoking examination of Richmond’s reputation as a tough city. With insightful commentary and immersive storytelling, the article challenges readers to see beyond surface-level stereotypes and confront the complexities of this community. Truly a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of culture and perception.

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