The rich history and current challenges of a historic African-American enclave.
MOST VISITORS TO Marin County, and indeed many of the county’s residents, have little or no knowledge of the historic African-American community called Marin City, just west of tony Sausalito. Marin City is listed on the same sign as Sausalito as you exit south off highway 101, although few notice the collection of high-rise public housing units about half a mile west of the off-ramp as they turn toward Sausalito to shop or dine. Yet this unique working-class enclave, in the heart of one of America’s wealthiest counties, has a rich and storied past.
Marin City is not like so many other public housing developments built in the 1950s and ’60s, where low-income families were warehoused in grim, soulless, mass-produced concrete buildings that resemble military bunkers. The design of the units at Marin City was site-sensitive and included grassy areas and attractive landscaping. In 1964, the U.S. Public Housing Administration (later known as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD) gave the planners of Marin City an award for excellence of design, praising the “highly original” concept that “meets the challenge of the site’s topography and dramatic situation.” Lately, plans for renovation in Marin City have brought controversy, as residents present the Marin County Housing Authority with concerns about sense of place or even possibly being displaced from their homes.
The origins of Marin City date to the early days of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government decided to use the waterfront shipyards at Sausalito to build Liberty supply ships and tankers for the war effort. The yards produced a total of 93 ships between 1942 and 1945. To house some 6,000 of the shipyard workers who migrated to the Bay Area from all over the nation, the government financed the construction of single-story housing units, called Marinship. Many workers were African-Americans who came here from the South for well-paying jobs they couldn’t find back home. After the war ended, most of the white workers left Marin City to find homes elsewhere, while the black families stayed, some by choice, most because they weren’t welcome in the rest of Marin County at the time.
Within 10 years the Marinship buildings were deteriorating from deferred maintenance, so in the late 1950s the county persuaded the Marin Housing Authority to demolish them and fund a new development on the site. Designed in 1958, the buildings went up between 1959 and 1962: one- and two-story townhouses on mostly level sections and five-story high-rises on upslope portions of the site. These building groups currently comprise Golden Gate Village, the historic core of the community now known as Marin City.
By 1970, African-Americans made up nearly 80 percent of Marin City’s population; in the 1980s and ’90s, working-class whites slowly began to move back in. The 2010 U.S. census showed whites comprising 37 percent and blacks 45 percent of the populace, the rest including other ethnic groups. Nonetheless, Marin City remains the only sizable African-American community in Marin.
Two highly respected Bay Area architectural firms, Aaron Green and Associates and John Carl Warnecke and Associates, designed Marin City’s housing, while famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin helped conceive much of the original outdoor common areas and grounds. A former Frank Lloyd Wright associate, Green opened his San Francisco practice after Wright’s death in 1959; Warnecke, in prolific practice since 1955, went on to design the main campus buildings at UC Santa Cruz as well as buildings at Asilomar conference center and the JFK memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Halprin would later serve as principal designer of Ghirardelli Square and the United Nations Plaza at San Francisco’s Civic Center.
In all, Golden Gate Village has 300 units on a 32-acre site. The five-story units at the base of the hillsides were Green’s work; Warnecke designed the two-story town houses along Drake Road; Halprin, in addition to the grounds, was consulted on play and picnic areas and parking spots. Today’s Marin City population, including more recent developments north of Drake Road, is currently about 2,700, while the original Golden Gate Village section has about 800 residents. The overall visual effect of Marin City is that of a well-planned suburban community integrated into its natural tree-shaded, upslope environment.
The one- and two-story town house units have concrete walls on the ground level, wood siding on the upper levels, banded aluminum-frame windows, and low-pitched roofs with overhanging eaves. Many of these units include patios and gardens enclosed by low walls, which allow these buildings to “breathe.” The high-rises have three or four units on each floor, plus laundry and storage areas. Exterior stairwells are at the corners of each building, and the buildings are topped by hipped roofs sheathed in red clay tiles. Partially recessed balconies for the upper-floor units have cutaways in the walls to allow more sunlight inside. The ground floor units open onto grass, and a community garden is planted between two of the high-rises, as well as mature trees. Upper floors have views of the Marin hills, and a hiking trail begins right out back.
“Aaron Green had a vision for that project, which I shared,” says Daniel Liebermann, a retired architect and environmental planner who worked with Green’s office on the original concept. “To create a democratically oriented housing development for the workers at Marinship. We wanted to be sure those buildings connected to the natural landscape, to the hillsides — Aaron was actually, deep down, equalitarian: very American. He wanted to really dedicate a serious Wright/Green–type project — to do his best for the workers who would be living there.”
The connection between Marin City’s design and Frank Lloyd Wright is not tangential. Green worked closely with Wright on the hotly contested design and master plan of Marin Civic Center. He brought the nature-based, site-sensitive philosophy he had learned working with Wright to his plan for Marin City. Anyone who has seen the drawings of Wright’s un-built concept for an ideal, equalitarian community called Broadacre City can see the similarities with Golden Gate Village: low-density housing units with direct access to the land, interspersed with lots of open green space. Green discussed his concept for Golden Gate Village in his book An Architecture for Democracy.
Another key Marin City/Civic Center connection was Vera Schultz, the county’s first female supervisor, who was instrumental in getting both projects started. The main proponent of Wright’s Civic Center design, she also helped create the development agency that arranged the funding to build Marin City.
These days, some Marin City residents worry about how new changes in store might affect the development’s overall character, their quality of life, or even their ability to remain. Royce Mclemore, vice president of the Golden Gate Village Resident Council, grew up in Marin City; her family moved there in 1945. The site needs about $14 million to $17 million of rehabilitation, she notes: seismic upgrading, green-based infrastructure improvements, basic repairs to the buildings. In her view, the housing authority may have let deferred maintenance accumulate to justify a complete overhaul of the entire site. And if the agency brings in outside developers to add housing and do large-scale remodeling of buildings and grounds, the current low-income residents might be gentrified right out of Marin, through increased rents. “We’re trying to prevent that,” she says; instead, residents want to create “a 21st-century manufacturing center on the site” where they can apprentice to learn skills to make materials for the seismic upgrades and repairs themselves. “We are completing a study to help create a historic district designation for Golden Gate Village,” Mclemore adds, “so the county can’t make significant changes to the buildings and grounds.”
In that study, being conducted by San Franci sco’s Ga ravagl ia A rchitecture Incorporated with architectural historian Alison Garcia-Kellar writing the report, research does suggest Marin City qualifies to be a site on the National Register of Historic Places, with the protections from major alterations that designation entails. “While it is clear these buildings as a public housing project are unique to Marin County,” Garcia-Kellar states, “the project is further distinctive, from a design perspective, as part of a nationwide, post–World War II public housing program. This is largely because of its relationship to the existing hillside site and the way in which the buildings interact with each other. A mini ecosystem was created for this specific community, most of which is essentially intact.”
Lewis Jordan, executive director of Marin Housing Authority, says, “no final plans have been made by our agency regarding any future renovations to be done on Marin City. On the contrary,” he notes, “we’re having a working group conversation with members of the community to develop plans for sustainable housing that will meet the needs of the residents.” An agency physical needs assessment of the site reveals that it requires $16 million in immediate repairs and $31 million in repairs over the next 15 years; the authority’s current funding, all federal, through HUD, provides only $500,000 a year, to be spread over six sites in Marin. “So we’ll need to form a public-private partnership with a nonprofit housing builder to meet the costs of these upgrades.”
The housing authority is weighing three alternatives for the future of Marin City, Jordan says. “One is to restore and preserve it as is — which may not be a viable option. Second is to have a mixed level of housing there: low income, below market rate and market rate. A third option is to have mixed-use development on the site, so there would be commercial establishments combined with mixed-level housing. In any case,” he adds, “our contract with HUD requires that we keep the current number of 300 subsidized low-income units on the site, whatever the final plan will be.” Right now there’s no set timetable for making a decision, he stresses, and the agency will continue to listen to residents’ concerns as it puts together a master plan. “What we want is for the end result to cause a minimal movement of current residents out of the development,” he says.
But in an opinion piece in the Marin Independent Journal earlier this year, Mclemore disputed those ideas, describing a residents group’s alternative plan for financing “green development” of the Golden Gate Village site. It includes designation as a Federal Manufacturing Community Partnership Program so they can attract newly created funding to create a manufacturing site in the shopping mall area across Drake Road, as well as additional federal restoration funding that would come from being declared a National Historic Site.
Whatever the future of Marin City may be, it is clear this unique community has a rich and important history that residents want preserved.