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El Portal thrived in the 1960s and early 1970s because it was located right in the city's center. All the important streets -- San Pablo Avenue, 23rd Street, El Portal Drive -- run right past it. But Interstate 80 bypasses the mall altogether, and as the years dragged on, that proved to be the only road that mattered. Someone always built a bigger mall farther down I-80, and the customers and moviegoers slowly trickled away. Richmond's Hilltop mall struck the first blow, and once the Pinole Vista Shopping Center lured Mervyn's away, El Portal was doomed.
Between 1994 and 1996, Safeway, Mervyn's, Home Base, and Longs Drugs all departed, leaving the remaining mom-and-pop stores high and dry. The mall's occupancy rate shrank to 15 percent. San Pablo's cultural and commercial epicenter became a ghost town. "It felt almost like losing your right arm," Gomes recalls. Sims remembers a certain sense of desperation growing in the corridors of City Hall: "It was devastating for their self-identity to see the place where they would shop and go to dinner close and get boarded up. ... It had a huge impact on sales tax to the city, I want to say like a 40 percent decline in sales tax revenue because of the closures of those stores." In San Pablo, the median household income in 1999 was just $37,184, far below the Bay Area's comfortable $62,024. In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city had the highest number of residents living below the poverty line in the Bay Area. Clearly, San Pablo needed every cent it could get its hands on.
In 1997, El Portal got one last chance when developer Frank Jao bought the property and embarked upon a scheme to do what he and so many others had done elsewhere. Throughout the subdivisions of the South Bay and Southern California, Asian businessmen have bought decrepit old shopping centers and transformed them into ethnic specialty stores, full of thriving mercados and noodle houses. But even with a $3.3 million loan from San Pablo's Redevelopment Agency, Jao only managed to prolong El Portal's death throes. The promised multiplex theater never arrived, and the center's distance from I-80 proved lethal once again. Jao was reduced to converting El Portal's indoor mini-mart into a swap meet, and by 2001, the property was back on the market. Bitter tenants told the Contra Costa Times that the developer had sold them a pipe dream.
Now, roughly half the storefronts are in various stages of demolition. The old Safeway is now home to the San Pablo library, a job training center, and a recently shuttered "event center." The city found itself so broke that, despite a blighted civic legacy of gambling and organized crime, in 1994 its electorate overwhelmingly approved construction of the Casino San Pablo card room, located conveniently next to I-80. A majestic, earth-toned fountain greets casino patrons lining up for Pai Gow and Texas Hold-'Em, and on special occasions mariachi bands serenade the Mexican immigrants who pack the joint. City finances were saved with this one deal. The only drawback is that instead of taxing bread or canned chili, San Pablo now paves its roads by fleecing suckers who haven't yet figured out that eventually the house always wins.
Longtime area businessman Leonard Battaglia is pleased as punch about Casino San Pablo. "You have to understand I grew up in Reno, Nevada," he says. "It's part of the American heritage to gamble." Then again, Battaglia seems to have a knack for peering at the horizon.
For the last 28 years, Battaglia has operated his World Travel Agency out of a small storefront in El Portal. With his gold watch, diamond- and ruby-studded rings, and salt-and-pepper hair slicked back over his scalp, he combines the reserved dignity of the Korean War veteran with the can-do boosterism of a small-time businessman. In addition to the travel agency, Battaglia runs a liquor store, a sports bar, and a greasy spoon called Dam Big Burgers on San Pablo Dam Road.
"If I were writing a story about this area, I would have to write with a great deal of enthusiasm," he says. "Look around. Look around a fifteen-mile radius from here. This is where it's at. This is the affordable, weather-wise, comfortable, no-crime, bright future for the town of San Pablo. It really is! Nobody recognizes it, but they will." For the better part of an hour, as he sat outside a cafe a hundred yards from the mall's demolition site, he gushed about the city's sunny prospects. "This city is just beginning," he pledges. "New housing, you got a great golf course out here on the bay, what more could you ask for? ... This is going to be the crowning jewel of Contra Costa County, San Pablo. The future's right here!"
Trouble is, it was a little hard to hear what Battaglia was saying over the bulldozers chipping away at the last of old San Pablo.
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