History Reveals A Difficult Road For Richmond's Middle Class

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An advertisement from the Nov. 16, 1959, edition of the Richmond Independent advises readers to "rest assured" with Greyhound buses. In the 55 years since then, Richmond's middle class has lost buying power amid drastic changes in the city.

As Richmond prepared to enter the 1960s, the city was about to encounter an era of rapid change. In November of 1959, readers opened the pages of the city’s daily newspaper, the Richmond Independent, to be confronted with Thanksgiving sales and headlines about next fall’s presidential race (“State GOP Supports Nixon”).

The advertisements reflected an idyllic version of late 1950s America: A well-dressed businessman, hands clasped in his lap, dozes with a smile as a cherubic young boy gazes up in admiration from the next seat above the headline, “rest assured,” with Greyhound.

It was a time of expansion. The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge had been finished three years earlier, and the post-World War II shipbuilding boom was still driving Richmond’s economy. The city was solidly middle class. The city’s median household income exceeded both the state and national medians. New developments were popping up, spreading out into areas like El Sobrante, where new three-bedroom, two-bath houses were advertised in the newspaper for as little as $16,950, a little less than $140,000 in today’s dollars.

Most of the city’s commercial life took place in the central part of town, around Macdonald Avenue. Auto showrooms were commonplace. A new sedan at Plymouth Motors on Macdonald Avenue, where a 7-Eleven convenience store now stands next to Casper’s Famous Hot Dogs, cost $1,995, or about $16,400 today.

Several grocery stores dotted Richmond’s main thoroughfare, such as Nelson’s Shopping Center at 23rd and Macdonald Avenue, where Alta Coffee cost 47 cents a pound ($3.84 in today’s dollars) and three pounds of hamburger meat sold for a dollar ($8.22 today). A little further down the road, the downtown area boasted shopping at Macy’s and other boutiques, as well as movie theaters.

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But over the next 20 years, a combination of poor planning decisions, tragic events, and broader economic and social trends would push Richmond into a radical transformation.

In the 1970s many of the better-paying manufacturing and industrial jobs disappeared, and were replaced by lower-paying service sector jobs.

By 1980, the city’s demographics had virtually flipped. Whites abandoned the city in large numbers for the suburbs, dropping from 77 percent of the population in 1960 to 37 percent in 1980. Richmond became a majority-minority city, as the percentage of African-American residents (47) and Hispanic residents (11) grew rapidly.

By this time, Richmond’s median household income had dropped almost 15 percent below the California median income, a stunning change from just 20 years before when it exceeded the state level.

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The reasons for this shift are complex and not given to simple explanation, but one event that still resonates with longtime residents is a riot on Macdonald Avenue in 1968 that occurred after police shot a 15-year-old African-American youth. Coming shortly after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the conflict has traditionally been characterized as a race riot, although the exact origins are somewhat unclear. The riot affected businesses between Second and 15th streets on Macdonald Avenue, and caused police to temporarily implement a curfew.

Whatever lingering impact the riot had for downtown, the opening of Hilltop Mall in 1976 presented new and ultimately long-lasting problems. It drew the city’s business district out of central Richmond 5 miles north to the freeway, taking with it easy access to many basic goods and services for lower- and middle-class residents in the area.

The effects of those planning decisions continue to be felt today. At the same time middle-class wages stagnated, meaning buying power for middle-class households began to weaken.

By 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, the median Richmond household took in 19 percent less than the typical household in California, reaching its lowest ebb. Richmond households also trailed the typical national household income, despite the high cost of living in the Bay Area.

While the cost of basic goods such as groceries has remained relatively even or dropped over the decades, other metrics indicate the average Richmond resident faces more challenges than he or she did 55 years ago.

In 1959, a typical household could put a student through a year of college at UC Berkeley on 2 percent of its annual income. By 2010, the same academic year at Berkeley would cost 23 percent of the median Richmond household’s income.

Ultimately, Richmond is its own story. But it also tells a story not only of California, but of how the buying power for the middle class nationwide has steadily eroded, leaving people working just as hard for less. Middle-class status is harder to come by than it used to be.