Down the Port Chicago Highway in Bay Point — past the half-empty Shore Acres shopping center, across the railroad tracks — sits the McAvoy Marina, a decaying boat dock where a giant restaurant is shuttered and crumbling on the southern edge of Suisun Bay.
To the east is a polluted marsh that for decades served as a dumping ground for toxins released by the adjoining Shell Oil chemical plant; to the west is the sprawling plant operated by General Chemical, which has laid off two-thirds of its union employees since the recession began.
“I’m struggling to stay positive,” said Vince Diaz, a representative at the International Chemical Workers Union. “But I’ve told them all, don’t hold onto hope of coming back here. Try to get yourself out there and find other work.”
But in Bay Point, finding work has been difficult. Unemployment stands at nearly 20 percent. A century ago, the town’s proximity to the Carquinez Strait and two rail lines made it an ideal place for a factory. During World War II, the Navy built warships here.
Today, this unincorporated section of Contra Costa County seems a world away from the economic engine of Silicon Valley. Other cities in the Bay Area are trying to revitalize troubled neighborhoods. In San Francisco, fast-growing Twitter is opening offices in the Mid-Market section. Menlo Park looks to Facebook to stabilize the impoverished Belle Haven area.
But planners say Bay Point, the former industrial heartland of the Bay Area, faces a bleak and uncertain future.
“In some ways, Bay Point has more in common with declining industrial suburbs in the Midwest than it does with the rest of the Bay Area,” said Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is researching suburban poverty.
This was not the plan. Fifteen years ago, when BART extended its Concord line eastward, the transit agency put the terminus in Bay Point, a move intended to help revitalize the area. But while the BART expansion helped spark a housing boom and population explosion in neighboring Antioch and Brentwood, Bay Point’s population declined slightly over the past decade to 21,349, according to Census Bureau reports. The median household income is less than $45,000, making the area poorer than East Palo Alto or Richmond.
“There are no jobs,” said Eva Garcia, who runs a local career center. “All we have are a McDonald’s, Taco Bell, a few auto shops and mom-and-pop stores that don’t really have employees.”
A Walgreen’s pharmacy is Bay Point’s largest retail business. Residents and business owners complain that prostitutes troll Willow Pass Road.
“The people here aren’t here because of a choice, but because they can’t afford anything else,” said Ana Sanchez, 30, the owner of Hermosa Beauty Salon. On a Monday afternoon, all seven chairs in her salon were vacant.
Over the years, Bay Point has repeatedly tried to turn the page on its fading industrial history. In 1993, citizens voted to change the name of their town from West Pittsburg, in an effort at rebranding. Three years later, the BART station was completed, and in 2002 the Contra Costa County Redevelopment Agency began buying 28 homes a block from the station, which it then demolished for a new transit-oriented development to spur a revitalization of the wider area.
The development, called Orbisonia Heights, was to include 325 apartment units and 40,000 square feet of commercial space. But although the 28 homes have been razed, construction has stalled and the area is now a six-acre vacant lot.
“There are a lot of vacancies and foreclosures, and our studies show there’s just not a market there for dense residential development,” said Maureen Toms, a program manager with the redevelopment agency.