It's easy to overlook San Pablo. It's a landlocked, hard-luck suburb of about thirty thousand people just north of Richmond, its noisy older sibling. At less than three square miles of flatlands, potholes, and modest bungalows, it has no industry, no downtown, and no Jack London. All it has are two shopping malls, one of which is dead, and a card room that vaingloriously calls itself a casino. But San Pablo is changing -- changing in a way the rest of California would instantly recognize, but we in the Bay Area may not.
Because we're not really part of California. San Pablo is.
When Father Ramon Abella mapped the rivers that feed the northern half of the Bay Area, he christened a small promontory Point San Pablo, from which this city of gamblers, immigrants, and old white people gets its name. When sailors saw it and its twin, Point San Pedro in what is now Marin County, they could take comfort in the promise that both Saints Peter and Paul were watching over them.
Saint Paul, of course, had about the most famous midlife crisis in recorded history. But cities also can find themselves on the road to Damascus, and San Pablo has had its share of such moments. The most significant of these was precipitated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, after which thousands of white Midwesterners swarmed into the Bay Area to build Liberty ships in the Richmond shipyards. Building contractors worked day and night to construct temporary wartime housing and, within months, they transformed San Pablo from a sleepy Portuguese dairy community with about 2,000 residents into a federal housing project with a population of 21,000.
At age 87, Joe Gomes still remembers a time when people rode horse-drawn buggies to work. He graduated from Richmond High, watched the city struggle through the Depression, and settled into a life working for the American Standard bathroom fixtures plant, San Pablo's only factory. In 1941, Gomes bought a modest adobe bungalow right in the middle of what's now called "Old Town" -- then just a bunch of grassy fields. "Forty-two was when people started moving out here, and they just put up any kind of building; they didn't meet any standards," he recalls. "But San Pablo was unincorporated, and no one was looking at it."
In 1948, Gomes' new neighbors voted to incorporate, partly to fend off annexation by the city of Richmond -- industrial Richmond, expansionist Richmond, black Richmond. With that one vote, San Pablo forged its identity, even as the rest of the Bay Area began charting a different path. Since those days, the people who have forged the Bay Area's identity have been educated, liberal professionals with a taste for civil engineering, cultural fusion, and social transformation: Henry Kaiser and David Packard; Allen Ginsberg and Alice Waters; Harvey Milk and Ishmael Reed. But San Pablo was a little outpost of the rest of California, a hardscrabble bedroom community for white, blue-collar joes who worked the Oakland docks or Chevron refinery and regarded with unease the social revolutions of Berkeley and San Francisco and urban grit of Oakland and Richmond.
In the late '70s, San Pablo underwent a second road to Damascus moment, as thousands of Laotian refugees arrived in the city, fleeing the communists and Thai refugee camps. But because so many of them were well into middle age by the time they came here, few of them learned English, assimilated into the larger civic culture, or participated meaningfully in public life. San Pablo was suddenly home to an isolated pocket of traumatized refugees, a community too preoccupied with events taking place thousands of miles across the Pacific to focus on West Contra Costa County. And so the city absorbed them and moved on.
Now, San Pablo is changing once again. The "Greatest Generation" is decamping for retirement or the grave, and a young, immigrant, Hispanic generation is replacing it. San Pablo is still suburban and poor, but now it's multilingual, racially stratified, and grounded in the service sector. This experience is being replicated all across the state, in Fresno, Bakersfield, the Inland Empire. In many ways, San Pablo is the real face of California.
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