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Gagan said redevelopment projects in central Richmond have restructured the environment. The upgrading of Nevin Park was critical, and the senior housing across the street was designed with windows that face out on the park, which has discouraged loitering, Gagan said. The neighborhood improvements have instilled a new pride in neighborhood residents. When police officers go to community safety meetings in central Richmond, there are regularly fifty people instead of fifteen, Gagan said.
"I remember what the streets used to be like," Gagan continued. "We would drive through 4th and Nevin and there were 35 people loitering and drinking, there was a dice game, there was a fistfight, and that would result in a shooting. Just a few years ago, I was standing in the 300 block of 4th Street and within 120 feet there were six memorials for murder victims who had been killed within three months. It's simply not that way anymore."
Lindsay also subscribes to the notion of continually looking for formulas that make Richmond a better place to live and work. Every two years, for example, he commissions a survey of residents to find out what they think the city is doing right and what could be done better. Typically, wealthy suburban enclaves conduct such surveys as a way for local officials to give themselves a public pat on the back. But officials in cities with entrenched problems, like Richmond, actively avoid asking residents how they feel about local government because the answers can be damning.
For Lindsay, the survey is an effective way to gauge the city's job performance. After each survey is completed, the city manager holds mandatory meetings with the entire city staff to thank them for their successes and examine areas where they need improvement. "What's important to me is not how we compare to [another city]," Lindsay explained, "but whether we are improving every two years."
Councilman Butt, who is in his sixteenth year on the city council, has been a major promoter of the city's rich World War II history, its 4,300 acres of parks and open space, and its 32 miles of shoreline. He has also been the council's most consistent voice for the good-government practices that have now taken hold on the council. He said Richmond's recent progress has been rewarding, though there are still many challenges. But he admits he doesn't have as much angst over the city's problems as he used to and he finally sees the possibility of a better future.
"My dream for Richmond has always been to transform it from a place people avoid to a place where they say, 'Oh yeah, that's where all that shoreline is, Rosie the Riveter National Park, and restaurants. We're going to ride the Bay Trail through Miller/Knox Park and have lunch in Point Richmond,'" Butt said. "I think that's our destiny ... if we can ever get there."
Yet despite Richmond's remarkable progress, its traditionally bad reputation has been difficult to overcome. Developers selling expensive new condos along the city's southern waterfront promote a host of amenities — easy commuting, restaurants, parks, sailing, biking, jogging, but they fail to mention that this prime location is in Richmond, calling the area instead "Marina Bay."
Recently, the Richmond Art Center celebrated its 75th anniversary. The center has some of the best art classes in the Bay Area and has exhibited some of the best-known contemporary artists of the 20th century, including Jasper Johns, Roy De Forest, and Richard Diebenkorn. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz once had an exhibition there. But the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who wrote about the celebration described the center as being surrounded by bail bonds businesses, fast-food joints, and a center for homeless youth. He also thought it was relevant to mention "live chickens are sometimes sold in the parking lot across the street." It was somehow lost on the reporter (who no doubt wore a pith helmet for the assignment) that the art center is located in the Memorial Civic Center, which has won numerous national architectural awards and had recently undergone a $100 million renovation.
Lindsay is disappointed by such cliché news coverage, but he is convinced that in time, Richmond will get its due. "There's no reason Richmond can't be one of the premiere cities in the Bay Area," he said. "We have all the bones to make that happen."