RICHMOND -- For much of its history, this town of 105,000 has grappled with unemployment, crime and poverty.
But a different reality greets Point Richmond, an upscale waterfront enclave of historic buildings and cafes that looks like a movie set -- and often has served as one. Tucked amid the rolling slopes abutting the Chevron refinery, the more than 3,000 residents here tend to be older, whiter and wealthier than those in the rest of the city.
They also tend to have more political power. As recently as last year, it was the home of four of the seven members of the City Council, an imbalance that some think allows the Point to gain attention and even municipal services out of proportion to its comparatively
"(Point residents) can go down to the coffee shop and get the ear of their elected officials," Councilman Corky Boozé said. "My people in other neighborhoods barely have any voice, but Point Richmond has a megaphone."
While much of Richmond struggles with a dearth of grocery stores and restaurants, the Point is home to so many popular cafes and eateries that it's pushing for the power to bar chain restaurants such as Subway from setting up shop there. At the urging of the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, the city is crafting legislation that would empower Point Richmond and other small neighborhoods to decide whether to permit chain restaurants.
"We'd rather not have any more big corporations," said Margaret Jordan, president of the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council. "We want to keep our historic atmosphere, to be a unique destination. People will not come here for a Subway."
That isn't the only example of the influence Point Richmond wields with city leaders. When residents complained about odors from a nearby sewage-treatment plant, the council cracked down hard on the plant operators. While much of the city is without aquatic facilities, Point Richmond has a world-class pool, featuring a $350,000 divider, thanks in part to city taxpayers.
The economic and ethnic differences between Point Richmond and the rest of the city are stark. Point Richmond is nearly three-quarters white, compared with only 31 percent for the entire city, according to U.S. census data. Median household income in the Point is about $80,000, compared with $54,000 for all of Richmond. Many of its residents are older professionals or retirees; the median age is 51, compared with 35 for the city as a whole.
The result is a district largely separate from the rest of the city culturally and economically, with its own interests and priorities.
While poverty and crime have long gripped much of the city, Point Richmond is home to a flourishing arts community, well-groomed dogs, a renowned yacht club and dazzling bay views.
The Point's rustic charm has attracted directors of major Hollywood movies such as "Patch Adams," and it was once home to Pixar Animation Studios.
"It's a vibrant village where people talk and come together," Jordan said. "The spirit is open and inviting, but we have work to do to bring it more into contact with the larger city."
Councilman Tom Butt has been a force in the city for years, largely thanks to better than 80 percent approval within his high-voting district of Point Richmond, where he owns a business, other properties and his home.
He dismisses the notion that there is a divide between the Point and the rest of the city, or that his constituents have better representation. He says Boozé is just the latest in a long line of politicians pitting other neighborhoods against Point Richmond.
"It's a bunch of bull, old-fashioned race-baiting," Butt said while munching on a sandwich named in his honor at local favorite Little Louie's. "I'm really tired of Point Richmond being used as a foil for their divisive agenda. Richmond is a city of neighborhoods, a city without a center, and Point Richmond is not the only place that's thriving."
There hasn't been a homicide in Point Richmond in a decade, a period in which more than 300 people have been killed in the rest of the city.
"People work hard at it," Butt said of the Point's safety. "Successful neighborhoods should be used as examples, not as punching bags."
Like many cities that do not have a ward or parish system of government, the political leadership in Richmond tends to come from a concentrated area that bears little resemblance to most of the city it represents. With three current council members (Butt, Jim Rogers and Nat Bates) living in the Point, some critics worry that such a political arrangement puts other neighborhoods with more pressing needs at a disadvantage.
Jeff Ritterman, a former councilman who lives in the Point, acknowledges the concern.
"I felt I represented all of Richmond, not Point Richmond," he said. "But it's true that the concentration of elected officials (in Point Richmond) could raise the question of district elections and whether that should be debated in the city."
In the early 1990s, a ballot measure proposing a City Council ward system was rejected by voters.
The Rev. Andre Shumake, a longtime anti-violence advocate, said political representation from Richmond's poorer neighborhoods would change the policy dynamic for the better.
"We've done it this way for so long, and we've seen that it favors affluent neighborhoods," he said. "District elections should at least be part of the dialogue. To ensure representatives have their hands on the pulse of poorer neighborhoods and bring that perspective to our council, wouldn't that be powerful?"
Critics of Point Richmond's influence have been handed cudgels in recent years to pound home their attacks. Perhaps the biggest was the bulkhead -- the high-priced divider for the new world-class pool at Point Richmond's sparkling, restored Richmond Municipal Natatorium, known as "The Plunge" -- that Butt shepherded through a tight council vote in 2009.
Opponents were aghast at the purchase, which they characterized as a luxury borne by taxpayers from poorer areas of the city. Proponents note that another pool facility, the Richmond Swim Center, was financed by the city and that "The Plunge" draws residents from outside the Point.
Jordan, the neighborhood council president, said that last year she began a concerted effort to connect Point Richmond residents with the larger city, prodding members to get involved and volunteer in other Richmond civic programs. When she tried to get a band of Point Richmond residents together to attend home games for the Richmond Rockets, the American Basketball Association team that played in the downtown municipal auditorium, she didn't get much participation.
"Many people here still have some old-fashioned ideas about the safety of going to the Civic Center or other parts of the city," Jordan said. "But I think that's lessening and that those barriers are going away."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.
Point Richmond is a waterfront enclave and designated historic district in Richmond. The neighborhood is affluent and sophisticated, with demographics that stand in stark contrast to the rest of the city.
Population: Point Richmond, 3,435; Richmond, 103,701
Median age: Point Richmond, 51; Richmond, 35
Ethnicity: Point Richmond -- 74 percent white, 8 percent black, 14 percent Latino; Richmond -- 31 percent white, 27 percent black, 40 percent Latino
Median household income: Point Richmond, $80,500; Richmond, $54,554
City Council members-to-constituent ratio: Point Richmond, 1 per 1,145; Richmond, 1 per 34,567