San Pablo Sunset 

No longer the home of "pistols and crystals, bikers and trailers," San Pablo completes its secession from the Bay Area to join the rest of the state.

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Between 1990 and 2000, San Pablo's Hispanic population doubled, from 6,737 to 13,490. At the same time, while the smaller black and Asian populations remained fairly steady, the once-dominant white population dropped by a quarter and grew significantly older. The median age for the city's white people is now 46.1 -- almost double the 24.4-year-old pulse of its surging Hispanic population.

This generational change is sweeping through San Pablo. The Brookside Community Health Center cleans teeth and performs Pap smears for illegal immigrants too terrified to enter the adjacent Doctors Medical Center. Trailer parks are being bulldozed to accommodate the growth of Casino San Pablo, now the city's tax-revenue lifeline. And all along 23rd Street, sidewalk vendors hawk velvet prints of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the thick, viscous smell of carnicerías hangs over every block.

Joe Gomes has watched this transformation with a wizened nonchalance. His son lives in a retirement home on the outskirts of Redding and has repeatedly urged him to move there, but Gomes says the heat would be too much for him. Besides, this is his home, and lately the block has gotten a little more interesting. From his porch, Gomes can see the United Farm Workers eagle adorn a window across the street, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe rising from a lawn a few doors down, and Mexican ornamental gatework springing up all around his house. "They buy properties here, they wanna improve them, they put up these ornamental iron fences which I think enhances the area," he says. "They like to play their Latino music, and that's alright, as long as they don't disturb their neighbors. And there's a lot of traffic, too. The Latino population has been a good change, as far as I'm concerned. They're industrious and hardworking people, and they're good family people."

Yes, San Pablo is yet again on the road to Damascus, only this time the signposts are all in Spanish.

Census figures don't tell the whole story, of course. Only tales of the city can offer a glimpse of San Pablo's true essence. Perhaps the best place to start is with the city's most visible casualty: the dead shopping mall.

Nothing bakes under the hot sun quite like a parking lot hungry for cars. Here at the El Portal Shopping Center, three great signs rise forty feet into the air at jaunty, off-kilter angles, welcoming hordes of nonexistent shoppers with an admirably game optimism. Two globes, each radiating an aquamarine halo, stand watch beside a centerpiece that reads "San Pablo International Marketplace." Just behind and to the right of this triptych, a thirty-foot mound of concrete and rubble squats behind a chain-link fence; pubes of rebar bristle and tuft out from the summit. Once upon a time, that pile had a name: Bank of America.

One hundred yards behind this hillock, bulldozers and steam shovels pick at what's left of a Mervyn's department store, clearing the way for a new line of condos. For every new unit of housing built, San Pablo loses a piece of its past. From its groundbreaking in 1960 to the late 1980s, the El Portal Shopping Center was the closest thing to a downtown San Pablo ever had. People bought groceries at Safeway, sheets at Newbury's, and nails at Home Base. They watched Julie Andrews warble on movie screens and swilled Schlitz at the country and Western bars. "El Portal had been the center of town," says Luke Sims, who served as San Pablo's economic director in the 1990s. "San Pablo doesn't have a city center; the town is a wartime development to support the Richmond shipbuilding. So it didn't have a chance to develop a traditional downtown. El Portal became the downtown, where people went for shopping and their community life."


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