The fight to stop development has been a lifelong family affair. In the 1970s, Rev. Richard Daniel Dotson, Whitney’s father, led successful local campaigns with the help of local ministers, residents and the Sierra Club to prevent a small airport from being built on the flanks of Breuner. His father’s coalition also acquired land north of Parchester from the Bethlehem Steel Company that, in 1973, became Point Pinole Regional Shoreline. Building on his dad’s example, Whitney has worked with a local coalition to keep expensive waterfront housing and a light-industrial park out of Breuner. Their efforts culminated in victory last year, when the East Bay Regional Park District used eminent domain to acquire a 218-acre parcel of the marsh, next to Dotson’s neighborhood of Parchester Village.
The decades-long effort to preserve the marsh has been as much about preserving the neighborhood. Unlike the sprawling subdivisions around it, Parchester Village, a community of about 1,000, has retained much of its original flavor. Small wood-frame bungalows shoulder together, their lawns closely cropped. This was one of the first communities in the Bay Area, says Dotson, where blacks were able to own homes.
To understand Parchester’s connection to its local waterways, Dotson says, one must understand the history of the black diaspora. Like Dotson, many Parchester residents trace their roots to the Deep South. Many who arrived here in the ‘50s were not merely looking for work but were fugitives from poverty, racism and the Jim Crow laws that circumscribed the lives of Southern blacks. Able to fish and gather wild greens much as they did in the rural South, residents found a sense of place in these tidal lowlands. “This is basically a spiritual place,” says Dotson. “It’s a landscape of the struggle.”
The present struggle is one of land acquisition. Dotson is pushing for full realization of the East Bay Park District’s Master Plan, which calls for stitching together a sweeping, continuous stretch of publicly accessible shoreline. Today, 16 miles of “gaps” exist in the proposed course of the Richmond section of the Bay Trail, which runs along Richmond’s sinuous waterfront.
Dotson is not merely reconnecting disconnected strips of shore and trails. He’s also building a potent environmental consensus in a community with urgent social concerns: Poverty, drugs, gang violence.
Dotson has found a strong counterweight to North Richmond’s street culture in the local environment. A few years back, Dotson worked with a youngster named Tim who had been heavily involved in Richmond’s street life. He’d been the victim of a shooting and didn’t know the first thing about conservation, says Dotson. Nonetheless, Dotson, who at the time was working for the North Shore Open Space Alliance, saw potential in the young man. He mentored Tim for the next two years in one of the group’s environmental outreach programs. “He was out all the time, working in the marsh. He became our poster child,” says Dotson.
Dotson hopes urban conservation work can help bring an entire generation of wayward youth back from the brink. “As soon as there’s any kind of activity to put (young people) in touch with the environment, they immediately gravitate toward it,” he says. “My contention is that everyone is aware of the environment, and how it should be, even if they don’t think about it.”