Richmond's Atchison Village was a dream come true for Elizabeth Claman. The retired teacher was able to buy a one-bedroom unit in the cooperative development for less than a conventional home would have cost. She liked the frontyard gardens, the community park, the palpable neighborhood feel.
In 2007, five years after she moved in, the Chevron refinery on the other side of Richmond Parkway experienced a fire that spewed toxins into the air and forced nearby residents to shelter in place.
"All of a sudden," Claman said, "I'm living in the shadow of the monster."
Claman, 67, was aware of the refinery when she moved in. Everyone who moves to Richmond is aware of the refinery, as is everyone who grows up there. Ultimately, it seems, everyone who puts down roots in Richmond makes their peace with the uneasy coexistence.
In Claman's case, she had friends who lived there. They told her that with the exception of a few days of foul winds each year, you'd never know a refinery was across the street.
"So I bought this place and I've just loved living here," she said, "except for every three to five years there's a disaster."
Monday's incident at Chevron, a fire that sent a black chemical cloud billowing into the evening sky, may not qualify as a disaster. No one was killed, though approximately 1,700 people sought medical treatment for eye irritation and respiratory ailments. Chevron contained the damage to its No. 4 crude unit. But the event served as a stark reminder of the price Richmond residents pay to share their air with a combustible corporate giant.
It did not move Karen Skowronek, who has lived in Atchison Village since she was 16 months old, to reconsider her pragmatic overview. A member of the Atchison Village Mutual Homes Corporation board of directors, Skowronek, 68, stressed she was speaking for herself and not on behalf of board.
"We're all quite willing to take anything (Chevron) wants to donate to us," she said. "But the next day, we're ready to slap them in the face. It's like people who live next to an airport. They moved there and now they're complaining about the noise. They didn't have to buy the house. The same thing goes for here. You don't ask a great big plant to move because you're unhappy with it when it was here first."
The 2,900-acre refinery predates most development in Richmond. Built by Standard Oil, construction was completed before Richmond incorporated in 1905. The city built around the refinery like a dog snuggling against its master for warmth.
If you had a tall enough ladder, you could practically look the refinery in the eye from the corner of York and Duboce streets in North Richmond. It was there Thursday that Jessie Hutson passed out fliers for a free hot dog and hot links feed at the New Hope Baptist Church, where he is a deacon. Huston, 51, wore a hat bearing a patch that reads: "God's army." From all appearances, both the man and the neighborhood have lived a lot of life.
"I was raised in the church," Hutson said. "I strayed away. I did my thing. But then the realization came: There ain't no life better than the life I'm living today. I'm saved and I'm holy and I thank God for that."
But Hutson also is suffering the aftereffects of Monday's fire.
"Me personally?" he said when asked about his health. He coughed. "I'm always going through something. I definitely got a headache. I had irritation to the eyes and throat. I didn't cough up anything, so that's why I didn't go to the hospital."
Hutson, a lifelong Richmond resident, did seek treatment after an earlier incident. He thinks it might have been in 1999. He received compensation, which he dryly noted doesn't compensate you for much.
"You get paid," he said. "But then after that one little payment, you still have complications for the rest of your life. Once you go to the hospital, today or tomorrow, that bill will always be more than what (money) you got."
In tony Point Richmond, at what seems like the top of the world, Jim Greer offered perspective as sweeping as the view from his Crest Drive home. From his back deck, Greer can look down on most of the Chevron property. From his front deck he can see the Chevron dock, Tiburon, the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island.
Greer and his wife, Susan, have lived there for 20 years. As for the consideration they gave the refinery before buying the house:
"That wasn't in the equation," said Greer, 75, who works at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. "I've had no problem with Chevron whatsoever. It's a necessary thing."
Greer recalls more communal consternation over the noise made by the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe trains that run adjacent to the Chevron property than over the refinery itself.
"By a lot," he said. "But that (noise problem) got fixed."
History suggests there is no fix that can keep the Chevron plant incident-free for more than a handful of years. So why continue to live under a black cloud?
"This is my community," said Claman, who is grateful for the neighborly assistance she received after her left side was paralyzed by a stroke in 2005. "There are enough benefits to living here in Atchison Village that I'm willing to tolerate Chevron. If there had been a serious incident in the first year, I might have left. So perhaps in some way I've settled for something that's less than ideal."
"It's as safe as anyplace in the world," said Skowronek, who raised three daughters in Atchison Village and now has great-grandchildren. "You tell me where it's safer."
Greer chuckled when asked if he would ever consider relocating.
"My wife's never going to move from here," he said.
Back in North Richmond, Deacon Hutson raved about "the really good people here. For being so small, there's so many churches in North Richmond. That helps a lot of people.
"I look at it this way," he said. "This is not the only place where there's a refinery. So moving someplace else, it's no different. If you move to Rodeo, you're going to be in a place where there's a refinery. If you move to Martinez, there's going to be a refinery. So why move when your family is here?"
But pressed, Hutson concedes that pragmatism may have a price. For example: What if he won the lottery?
"If I had a couple million," he said, "I'd be out of here."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.