Vallejo’s Story: Roshanda’s Hometown

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January 23, 2014, Washington, DC: “The stigma hangs.”

That’s how Roshanda Cummings described her hometown of Vallejo, California when she first wrote me about contributing to Neighborhood Nomads. She described a city that struggles to project a positive image despite having a lot going for it, despite triumphantly exiting bankruptcy in 2011. She shared links to a project she’s been working on called thisisvallejo.com. It was beautiful — the landscape, her photos, her words, all of it.

When Roshanda and I talked a few days later, the story of the hometown that she grew up in and later returned to quite by accident took on a more meaningful shape. Roshanda never intended to go back, but since her return, she envisions greatness for Vallejo’s future.

“When you live in city known for its bankruptcy, it’s hard for people to take you seriously when you tell them you love where you live,” Roshanda said.

But love it she does– from the historic buildings of Old Town Vallejo where art installations now fill vacant properties, to the alleyways lined with little homes tucked away off busier streets. The North Bay city may take a backseat to the region’s more popular hubs, but as Roshanda travels to and from work in the East Bay, she appreciates living in Vallejo, a city infused with diversity and the ocean culture of Northern California, as well as a thriving artists’ community comprised of San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin refugees (“they refer to themselves this way, I swear”) who sought out Vallejo for more affordable housing. She finds Mare Island Naval Shipyard a bit mysterious and the city’s residents inspiring. But not everyone in the Bay Area sees it this way.

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Photo Credit: Roshanda Cummings

“I knew something was different when I was commuting to work one time,” Roshanda said. “I was on the BART and some guy sat next to me, and he asked, Where you stay? I told him Vallejo, and he reeled back at me and said, ‘Damn, ain’t it dangerous out there?’ I said, ‘Not that I know of, where are you from?’ He said Richmond. Him saying that really threw me — up until that point, Richmond had had 60 homicides that year, just from January to June. For him to be saying that to me, I thought, something is wrong. People are making interpretations that are not true.”

Since Vallejo filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in 2008, it has struggled to find its identity. According to Forbes.com, Vallejo was not only bankrupt, but it’s miserable, too. In 2013, Forbes.com published ‘America’s Most Miserable Cities’ and ranked Vallejo #6 based solely on migration statistics.

“The truth is, it’s not miserable to live here at all,” Roshanda said.

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Photo Credit: Roshanda Cummings

Among the factors that make it quite pleasant, she explains, is a population with a smaller income disparity than other cities in the Bay Area, making it “less of a leap to make meaningful connections and relationships.” An incredible apartment in a neighborhood of the city previously unknown to her didn’t hurt either. But none of it was part of Roshanda’s plan for life after college.

“I had just come back from Thailand and I was moving back to the Bay Area, but I was looking for places to live in Berkeley and Oakland,” Roshanda said. “Then I saw an ad on Craigslist that was listed East Bay, but it was Vallejo; it shouldn’t have been there. It was this listing for a beautiful home with a fireplace and French doors in the Heritage Distract. The Heritage District? I had never heard of it before. I clicked on the listing and I said, I have to see it. But Vallejo?”

She was sold the minute she walked through the front door.

“I have an entire view of the whole city. At night the lights actually twinkle,” she said. “I started thinking, How can this be such a fantastic experience in the city I grew up in and that no one knows is here? There are parts of the city that I never knew existed. That was the beginning of this experience. There’s actually more here than I ever knew and my hunch was that other people didn’t know about it either.”

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Photo Credit: Roshanda Cummings

Roshanda grew up in Vallejo unaware of the Heritage District and the west side of the city. In 1994, her parents bought a house on the east side, in an up-and-coming, new suburban development at the beginning of Vallejo’s boom before the bust. She lived on a close-knit block that was home to several families with an elementary school right down the street.

“We were part of the waves and movements of suburban developments and communities popping up all over the city,” she said. “The school was an archetype of the diversity of the city, frequented by kids from the neighborhood and other parts of the city, the newest generations of ethnic diasporas. As a young black woman, I grew up knowing more about Filipino culture than I did my own.”

Around the time she left for college, Roshanda began to detect a shift in Vallejo’s pulse.

“We didn’t know what was happening, but we knew that something was off and something wasn’t going to continue to go well,” she explained. “I wanna say 2004, there were new housing developments that were opening up all around town. Every grown-up I knew was talking about it; down the hill from where we lived, small little condos were erected in months and going for a million dollars. Neighbors put their homes on the market and they sold in a week. All of the adults were just really, really confused. My parents wondered, Maybe we should move to another state and buy a home that’s bigger than this one in cash.”

In Roshanda’s third year of college, Vallejo declared bankruptcy.

“All of a sudden, I got the news,” she said. “We didn’t know that we were a part of the subprime mortgage activity going on in the state of California, and that actually the state was on the verge of insolvency. But no one in the country knew how bad it was. It was, after all, the beginning of the Great Recession. That was when the bottom fell out, when the bubble burst.”

Some blamed the city’s demise on early commitments to pension plans that couldn’t be paid, others attributed it to Vallejo’s inability to replace the jobs that disappeared with the closure of Mare Island Naval Shipyard in 1996. Whatever the reasons, it was a confusing time with lasting ramifications that Roshanda is now committed to helping overcome.

“When the city went bankrupt, it was more like a car crash than a slow death. So it felt like a bit of a social trauma. And a response that often happens in trauma is anger first. I feel like we’re still in the anger portion. What comes up is the anger that things aren’t as great as they were at the height of the market. It’s hard to even have conversations about how beautiful the city is, for us to talk about the vistas and the diversity, when some natives are still upset that we aren’t building homes and that the naval base isn’t there anymore. You can’t even get there to the beauty because there’s anger first.”

Still, Roshanda vows attitudes will change. For her part, she is committed to helping move past the anger by crafting grand plans focused on “how to give the city permission to tell its own story.” She is creating a sort of guerrilla marketing campaign throughout the city this winter and spring. To connect with all residents equitably, Roshanda plans to design pop-up stands around the city from which to pass out cameras and allow citizens to become their own photojournalists. She hopes to guide them with questions like, Where are you when you’re with the ones you love? She’d then like to collect the cameras, create a moving art exhibit, and host conversations about the diversity and interconnectedness the images reveal about the city and the people who call it home.

“We are so incredibly diverse, more diverse than I have noticed in my life,” Roshanda said. “Most people don’t know this about us. Often where a city has diversity, it has populations of particular ethnicities, but they don’t live together. It’s not this way here… I don’t think I have experienced anything like it anywhere else. The closest thing would be maybe London, but even London has its parts that are ethnically segregated.”

“I think what’s important about this city is, of course, this question about identity — where are we going to go in the future. There was the naval base stage and the immigration boom that my parents and I were part of, and then there’s the next breath…”

“What makes me stay is a deep connection to place, and appreciation of the above things that really do make us unique as a city, and the pregnant opportunity of this town I feel more and more every day.”

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Photo Credit: Roshanda Cummings

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