polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

The Rodeo Connection

by Alex Schafran

Driving south on San Pablo Avenue from Crockett, you start to see the beginnings of the oil-refining complex come right around the intersection with Cummings Skyway. Out of the bucolic greenery and the blue of the San Pablo bay, a tank farm appears alongside horse pastures, a gleaming white precursor to the industrial phantasmagoria to come. The road, one of the Bay Area’s oldest and longest, crawling through a dozen cities and towns and hamlets on its path from Oakland’s City Hall to the Carquinez Strait, meanders around a series of curves past old schools and petroleum wharves, taking a dramatic dip into an intimidating complex of reservoirs, ducts and valves raised portentously on the horizon. This is the back entrance to Rodeo.

The front entrance, the one the signs point to from the freeway and the internet maps give you coming from San Francisco or Oakland, is more nondescript: suburban tract housing merging into a Safeway, more empty storefronts than traffic lights, a newly landscaped median slowly giving way to a historic downtown that is neither totally abandoned nor truly vibrant. The old movie theatre is now a Pentecostal church, the boarded up Windmill Club is matched by the excellent salsa at El Sol and the cold Budweisers at Lakemans, and the mold creeping up the side of one housing project is matched by the dazzling purple bougainvillea creeping up the side of a well-kept Victorian.

Both in literal and figurative decibels, the front door to Rodeo is as quiet as the back door is loud. Yet this is not a post about juxtapositions, but about connections. If you scratch beneath the surface of the oil refinery and the newly landscaped median, you will find two of our more pressing urban issues – resource extraction and environmental contamination on one hand, and fiscal crisis and regional inequality on the other. The contemporary crises in how we extract, process and use the oil that runs our economy and the money that runs our government come together in Rodeo, an unincorporated hamlet on the northwestern edge of California's Contra Costa County, a mere 25 miles from downtown San Francisco.

These are issues fresh in our minds. Over the past few months, the ongoing impact of industrialized living has garnered worldwide attention through colorful and horrifying spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Hungary, while the fiscal crisis of local government has come center stage across the US and particularly in California, where the bankruptcy of nearby Vallejo, the payment scandals in Bell and the ongoing battles over pensions and taxes have left many questioning the long term viability of local government in California.

One might not think that these two issues would collide in Rodeo, a fairly hidden industrial suburb of roughly 10,000 residents. But following a century long history as a company town, Rodeo is struggling with both continued environmental damage and the challenge of paying the bills in 21st century California. Whereas companies may have once willingly ponied up to help pay for basic municipal services, now they resist - Conoco Phillips, the giant oil refinery in town, had to be forced to pay $300,000 per year, a drop in the bucket for a billion dollar oil company, and would only do so after a massive chemical leak in 1994 sickened thousands and led to an $80 million settlement. That deal is now done, and the County - which is the local government in Rodeo - is now asking citizens to pay more for basic services like police, street maintenance and a community center.

The big question is why they are not going after Conoco Phillips. Despite two recent spills - one into the air and one into the water - not only is the company allowed to continue being a poor environmental citizen, but they don't even try to mitigate the fact by helping to maintain let alone revitalize Rodeo. While they may maintain the presidency of the Chamber of Commerce, they stall on renewing the 300k financial contribution from the Good Neighbor Agreement negotiated in the wake of the spill. Meanwhile, redevelopment and revitalization plans for the waterfront and the main street sit on the shelves largely unfunded, with the exception of the median strip.

As oil fouls our shores along the Gulf, and budget cuts impact basic education, health and welfare across the US (and Europe), we must realize the connection evident in places like Rodeo - that our solution to both problem lies not just in fiscal austerity or innovative green energy, but in the old fashioned ideas of citizenship and fairness - for corporations as well as residents.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.