September 26, 2006 > A place of memories
A place of memories
by Steve Warga
They've gathered every year now, since 1978, the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. They're an eclectic group in every way imaginable, descended from various countries around the globe. Skin tones range from the pale complexions of Northern Europe to the rich ebony gleam of deepest Africa. They are a mixed bag of personalities too, but nearly all are friendly to a fault. And there is a touch of bittersweet in every annual event, for they all hail from a place that exists now only in their memories; and they are no longer young.
Given the realities of progress and the power of the vote, perhaps it was inevitable that Russell City would pass from a rural enclave--literally "the other side of the tracks"-to a thriving industrial sector of Hayward. Even so, when county bulldozers moved in to level the town, hearts were torn along with the streets and buildings. The wounds linger yet.
It comes as no surprise that memories differ substantially, sometimes stubbornly so. For all their differences though, one common theme persists: there was a time not so long ago, there was a place not too far away, where "everybody got along," as everyone agreed at the 28th Russell City Reunion, held at Kennedy Park in Hayward, September 3. Their home town wasn't perfect, not even close, but it was a place where adults could work and kids could play in relative peace and safety. The first of their numbers settled there in the early 1940's, working hard and raising families. A little more than two decades later, the place called Russell City, California was gone.
Sam and Juanita Nava couldn't stand by and watch while the memories died. As interest in the reunions waned, they stepped in about 16 years ago and revived the annual gathering to celebrate the place where both were raised. They began keeping a ledger recording every guest, year by year. They also built large easels where former residents post photos and other memorabilia to share. And they crafted a sort of living map of the town, drawn and modified by anyone who remembers a home, or a street or other landmarks long since buried.
A special point of pride for Sam is that the son of legendary Mexican revolutionary general, Pancho Villa, chose Russell City as home for his family of nine children. That son, Ernesto Villa Nava is now Villa's only living off-spring. He's also father of Sam and eight other siblings. Ernesto's mother changed his name in honor of Pedro Nava who raised the boy after Villa was assassinated in 1923. Sam says they receive a hero's welcome every time they visit Mexico.
Sam will not sugarcoat his memories of Russell City's rural nature, nor does he tolerate the attempts by some to do the same. "We didn't have city water or sewers. I still remember how I couldn't tolerate chlorinated city water after leaving Russell City. We drank well water that probably wouldn't be allowed today. I didn't take a shower until I was in high school because we didn't have showers!" He doesn't see any of this negatively. He grew up in an agrarian culture amongst peoples of all races who worked hard and got along. To Sam, Juanita and most others, Russell City living was mighty fine and they hope to dispel the myths while preserving the memories.
After a front page story about July's Russell City Blues Festival in Hayward ("A city built on the blues" TCV July 5, 2006), TCV heard from some irate readers suggesting we were publishing lies. Based on information from various sources, we wrote of folks who patronized "dirt-floor nightclubs powered by bootleg electricity and created their unique brand of Delta blues." Other than some scoffing at the notion of running illegal wires from nearby power lines, it was our reference to dirt floors that generated the ire. One reader, Leslie Johnni, challenges anyone to produce proof of dirt floors. He also invited TCV to visit the "real Russell City" residents.
In defense of our story, we limited the "dirt floor" description to the nightclubs. We never implied, or intended to imply, that Russell City residents lived in filthy shacks, barely better than street living.
Absent any solid evidence, like photographs, the notion of dirt-floored nightclubs cannot be proven, but it seems to be more accurate than not. There's little dispute from former residents on the matter of Russell City's place in the hierarchy of a West Coast style of blues music. The blues were popular and common to the three or four clubs established after the early 1940's migration of residents to the area. Headliners like Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton performed in Russell City, but Oakland was where the big action went down. Even the grandly named Russell City Country Club was little more than a "juke joint," where aspiring stars learned and practiced their music. It's where they "made their bones" before taking on the more upscale venues in Oakland.
Billy Garron, introduced as a "Russell City original" supports this take on his town's blues influence. His memories are based on the authority of the teen years he spent working in Joe Layton's club. Alert, dapper and dignified in his eighth decade, Garron remembers clubs of decent decor, decent crowds and occasional big-name blues performers. He recalls that Miss Alve's Club usually brought in the headliners. As to dirt floors, Garron thinks he recalls such a floor at Layton's, but they had a "good wood floor" by the time he left to join the Army.
So, bootlegged power and dirt floors? Maybe so, maybe not. However, that "birthplace of the blues" idea most likely sprung from the imagination of concert promoters and, to a lesser extent, the city of Hayward.
Only a memory
The 200 or so acres of land once known as Russell City were all that remained of a large tract purchased by a New England school teacher, Joel Russell. He had come west with a bad case of "gold fever" and failed like so many others. Still determined to earn a living out west, he eventually found his way to Rancho de Coto near an area that would become Hayward. He negotiated the land purchase around 1850 and began co-op farming and ranching.
After he died, his heirs sold the land, piece-by-piece, with much of it becoming today's downtown Hayward. Eventually they were left with that 200 acres across the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, bordered by the city dump to the south and by the marshlands of San Francisco Bay's eastern shores. Around 1940, they conceived the idea of a neat, orderly city that would appeal to the growing numbers of blue collar workers filling Oakland's shipyards and factories during the buildup to America's full participation in World War II. The first residents moved in sometime in 1942. To this day, those families and their off-spring recognize 1942 as the beginning of "Russell City."
They worked hard, they played outdoors, and they lived peacefully. But they never got around to incorporating. It was too late to try by the early '60's, when ambitious politicians were eyeing the land for redevelopment. So it all ended in 1964 after Alameda County Supervisors voted to condemn the remaining 200 acres of Russell's land. The area was described as "blighted" by a local newspaper reporting on the county's plans.
This sort of terminology grates on raw nerves for some former residents. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are right to be offended. Russell City never was an upscale community. Yes, there were some rundown shacks and most did not have indoor plumbing, but it was no different than countless communities throughout the rural West prior to World War II. Unincorporated Russell City boasted an elementary school, a train depot, six churches and a number of stores in addition to the clubs. Not all the streets were paved, and nice lawns were rare, but "blighted" was hardly a fair description. It was politicians, bent on land acquisition, who employed derogatory language.
Still, most voters wanted "progress" and that's what they got. With $1.8 million of redevelopment funds, Alameda County condemned the land, relocated about 258 families, then bulldozed the existing structures and laid out an industrial park. After standing by and letting this happen, the city of Hayward eagerly annexed that land--and its substantial business tax revenues.
The structures are long gone, but Russell City did not die. It lives today as a place of memories, proudly, fiercely preserved by an aging band of former residents. West coast Blues may have been born somewhere else and that's just fine with those who remain. For them, Russell City was all it needed to be. It was their home.