CALIFORNIA ALBUM : The Other Marin : As the trendy county flourished around it, the ‘gilded ghetto’ of Marin City languished in poverty. After three decades of despair, officials have developed a $100-million revitalization plan to give the town back to its residents.
Hot tubs and peacock feathers made it famous, but Marin County is best known today for its wealth. Staggering home prices, thriving BMW dealers, reclusive rock stars--the telltale signs abound.
There is, of course, an exception to every rule, and the exception in this county is a place known as the “gilded ghetto,” a place called Marin City.
Bordered on all sides by affluence, Marin City is a glaring pocket of urban-style poverty. Its unemployment rate is nearly 10 times the Marin average, one-quarter of its 2,000 residents live below the poverty line and drug trafficking--particularly in crack cocaine--is rampant.
In a county that is 90% white, Marin City is mostly black. It has no supermarket, doctor, post office or public school. About all it does have is a hot dog stand and a weekend flea market that plagues the streets with traffic and trash.
For three decades, residents here have watched with bitter envy as the rest of Marin County has blossomed. Now, many sense that their turn has come.
They are placing their faith in an unusual development that would transform the heart of town from a barren lot into a $100-million melange of shops, restaurants and housing. The project would create 600 jobs and pump a hefty portion of its profits back into the town for drug education and other programs.
Marin City’s nonprofit community development corporation is a partner in the venture, and its hopes are summed up in the title of its newsletter, Isoji, the Nigerian word for rebirth. The Rev. Emmanuel Akognon, pastor for 14 years at the Village Baptist Church, shares such optimism.
“There have been many promises made and promises broken, so some people are gun-shy,” Akognon said. “But I pray and I hope and I believe that this will bring good things for Marin City, and that finally, we will be on equal footing with the rest of the county.”
Wedged in a bowl-shaped valley four miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin City boasts tantalizing assets--bay views, mild weather and a short commute to San Francisco. Most Marinites, however, know little about the town, noticing only its peach-colored, high-rise public housing buildings, which are visible from the freeway.
World War II brought Marin City to life. In 1942, neighboring Sausalito was chosen for a massive shipbuilding center, which once employed 75,000 people--many of them African-Americans recruited from southern states.
Government barracks were built in Marin City to house the arrivals, and soon a lineup of businesses sprung up to serve the workers and their families.
“We had a grocery store, barber shop, restaurant, post office--you name it,” said the Rev. Leon Samuels, 79, a Marin City resident who moved from Shreveport, La., to work as a welder on gigantic Liberty ships. “Back then, we were a regular, nice town that had all the necessary services.”
Marin City was also an integrated town in those days, as described by Jack Kerouac in “On the Road.”
“It was, so they say, the only community in America where whites and Negroes lived together voluntarily; and that was so, and so wild and joyous a place I’ve never seen since.”
But as the shipbuilding industry withered, the town’s economic base crumbled. Whites moved out to find new opportunities. Discrimination blocked African-Americans from housing elsewhere in the county, and Marin City’s legacy of unemployment and racial isolation was spawned.
In the late 1950s, the county razed the town’s entire commercial district in anticipation of “urban renewal.” Developers came and went, plans were drawn and redrawn, but nothing ever got built.
“It is not unreasonable to say that this was not the county’s highest priority,” said Denise Pinkston, Marin County’s redevelopment coordinator. “I think people who live in Marin City feel they have been neglected by the government for a very, very long time.”
The recent tinge of hopefulness has much to do with the latest prescription for redevelopment, the project called Marin City USA.
Encompassing 186,000 square feet of retail space, the development would include a discount supermarket, a home improvement center and a host of other stores that will allow residents to shop in town for the first time in more than 30 years.
Developers--who are awaiting a few county approvals before proceeding with groundbreaking--describe their mission as far more than the construction of buildings. “Marin City USA,” reads a brochure, “is first and foremost a social movement to improve the conditions of the community’s citizens.”
Agreements require that 40% of the housing be reserved for low-income people, and that employers give hiring preference to applicants who live in town.
To help residents get a stake in their new downtown, the community development corporation has opened an “enterprise center” to nurture a handful of small businesses whose owners hope to someday lease space in the new project. Michelle Bryant, who runs a bakery in the center, said the assistance has “been wonderful.
“They’ve given us advice on all sorts of things--marketing, banking, telephone systems, how to greet customers,” Bryant said. “And just being here gives my business credibility.”
Half a mile away, free training courses are preparing other residents for jobs associated with Marin City USA. Among the 27 carpentry students hammering feverishly from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily are recovering drug users, young men on probation and recent high school graduates at loose ends.
“I know what these kids are all about because I went through it here myself,” said instructor Wilbert Dedrick. “There are no jobs here, nothing to do, nowhere to go, so their lives are a dead-end. I think this will give them a start.”
Some are wary of the changes in Marin City. Merchants in tony Sausalito argue that the development is too big and will create unbearable traffic. Some Marin City residents fear that it will benefit only outsiders, squeezing low-income residents out of town.
“I don’t see any guarantees that this will bring our whole community up, and that’s what’s got me worried,” said Royce McLemore, a 40-year resident and member of the Marin City public housing board. “Are our people really gonna get these jobs? Will the money really stay in the community? Or are we just gonna get sold down the river?”
Ben Myles has heard all the complaints. He scoffs at them. Myles has been waiting 38 years for his community to “join the rest of Marin County,” and he believes deliverance is finally at hand.
“Our longtime dream is finally coming to be,” said Myles, a retired auto electrician and father of six. “We’re going to beat the odds and win with this thing, and Marin City is going to be a top of the line, special place.”
Times researcher Norma Kaufman contributed to this story.
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