Richmond's example to the nation.

Author:Helvarg, David
Position:BOOKS - Book review

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City

by Steve Early

Beacon Press, 248 pages, $27.95


I first got to know Richmond, California, in the 1980s, when I was working as a private investigator. Richmond at the time was a corrupt, crime-ridden town dominated by Chevron and its handpicked politicians. The police force was mostly white and brutal, self-identified "cowboys." About half the population was African American, mostly poor and with little access to Reagan-era consumer goods other than guns and crack cocaine. My clients included a teenage shooter who killed someone over a five-dollar pool bet and an abused woman who shot her boyfriend while he sat on the toilet.

Even ten years ago, when I moved back to Richmond after living far away, its only national media recognition was the result of a church shooting and a gang rape at a local high school. Six months after I moved to the Richmond Marina, a Chinese-owned container ship spilled more than 50,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay and I saw my neighborhood wetland and shorebirds covered in oil.

In 2012, retired union organizer, lawyer, and labor reporter Steve Early moved from Boston to Point Richmond only months before the century-old Chevron Refinery just over the hill blew up for the third time in thirteen years. Locals would have been ordered to "shelter in place"--had the emergency response network worked properly that day. Instead, many were exposed as a raging fire from one of the refinery's crude distillation units generated a thick column of oily black smoke that rose above the city of 110,000. Thousands of people flocked to area emergency rooms complaining of burning eyes, nausea, and difficulty breathing. (In the end, the company pled no contest to six criminal misdemeanor charges and paid a $2 million fine.)

This is where Early opens his new book, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Surprisingly, it turns out to be a pretty hopeful narrative about how bottom-up citizen action can restore a city's pride and make a real difference in people's lives around such issues as affordable housing, community policing, sustainable job growth, open space, clean energy, and immigrant rights.

"If urban political insurgencies are going to succeed in more places," Early argues, "they will need models for civic engagement like Richmond provides." This advice may be even more urgent now, as...

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