Equal Opportunity: Housing in Marin

Timeline / History

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Marin City and the Canal: Two Brief Histories

Marin City and San Rafael's Canal neighborhood stand out as demographic islands in a mostly white, mostly affluent county. African Americans make up the largest group in Marin City and Latinos are an overwhelming majority in the Canal. The concentration of minority populations caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during a 2009 fair-housing audit of Marin County. But while the neighborhoods are alike in differing so much from the rest of the county, they have very different histories.

Marin City

Despite the name, the community is an unincorporated area a mile and a half north of downtown Sausalito.

Marin City was developed in 1942 to house some of the 20,000 workers who came to work at a Sausalito shipyard during World War II. Marin City's official website says it was the country's first integrated federal housing project:

"Marin City at its peak had a population of 6,500 people, including over 1,000 school aged children. Marin City was home to midwestern whites (85 percent), southern blacks (10 percent), and Chinese immigrants (5 percent) who worked around the clock in the Bechtel-owned Marinship Shipyards. After the war, many African American shipyard workers who had migrated from the South became permanent residents of Marin City. Some stayed by choice, others because laws blocked them from moving to other parts of Marin County.

"Black people were not welcome anywhere else in the county at the time," the Rev. Fred Small, pastor of Marin City's Peoples Inter-Cities Fellowship, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009.

The development's population plummeted and by the early 1960s had gone from being mostly white to nearly all black. The face of Marin City has changed once again. New development has brought an influx of more affluent white and Asian homeowners, and the area has changed from about 60 percent African American in 1990 to about 43 percent in 2010.

Marin City has had a couple of important cameo appearances in popular culture. Jack Kerouac crashed with friends there in the late 1940s, and described the town this way in "On the Road":

Marin City ... was a collection shacks in a valley, housing project shacks built for Navy yard workers during the war; it was really a canyon, and a deep one, treed profusedly on all slopes. There were special stores and barbershops and tailorshops for the people of the Project. It was, so they say, the only community in America where whites and Negroes lived together voluntarily; and that was so, and a wild joyous place I've never seen since.

Decades later, the teen-age rapper Tupac Shakur moved into Marin City with his family and in a 1991 interview described the town's impact on his "straightforward" rhyming style:

In Marin City it seemed like things were real country. Everything was straightforward. Poverty was straightforward. There was no way to say I'm poor, but to say 'I'm poor.'

To learn more about Marin City's Marinship, the Bay Model Visitor Center will have a talk about the history of the shipyards on December 14. They also offer occasional walking tours of the shipyard. A few years ago, a Sausalito filmmaker made a documentary about the shipyard workers called, Marinship Memories."

San Rafael's Canal District

The Canal District is a half-residential, half-industrial neighborhood that gets its name from the canal dredged about a century ago along San Rafael Creek, which borders the area to the north. It's also framed by freeways and San Francisco Bay.

Tom Wilson, the executive director of the Canal Alliance, says the area was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s as apartments for young couples and new college graduates on their way to the American dream. "The housing stock was largely studios and small apartments not really intended for families," says Wilson.

After the Vietnam War, many refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia arrived in California. Wilson says many wound up in the Canal District as lower-end service jobs drew them to Marin. In the 1980s, civil war in El Salvador and Guatemala triggered a new flow of refugees to the district.

"It really formed the way a lot of ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods form," Wilson says. Every wave has come to a neighborhood and then sent for family. In 25 years [the Canal neighborhood] went from almost no immigrants at all to being in the high 90 percent of those here are either immigrants or their parents were.

Today, almost half of all Latinos in Marin County live in the Canal area, according to a 2009 U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development investigative report.

The Canal is a desirable neighborhood for some low-income residents because of the public transportation. It has the most used transit service in the county.

Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold says during hearings on fair-housing issues in response to HUD's findings, some Canal residents said that better transit throughout the county would allow them to move. "They say they'd like to live in Ross Valley, they'd like to get an apartment in Kentfield, but bus service isn't so convenient," says Arnold.

She says she also heard from residents that landlords "charge higher rents because they know they can get it." The Canal Alliance's Wilson confirms the rents here are as high, if not higher than in other parts of the county. To make it more affordable multiple families are crowding into the small apartments.