Whither Martinez? Five stages of the little city by the Bay

Special to the Tribune

The best way to look forward is to start by looking back. If your interest is a half-century hence, focusing on last week isn’t helpful. Here’s my long-term prognostication about Martinez. I’ll be wrong about the details, but I bet I’ve got the big picture right.

There are five stages: Pre-Anglo (before 1849); Gold Rush (1849-1900); Industrial Age (1900-1960); Isolation (1960-2010); and Refugio (2010-?).

Martinez went from a leader in Gold Rush days to a fishing/industrial/county center, followed by lengthy decline. This history has prepared the city to be “born again” as a refuge or refugio from “big city” life. Martinez is slowly but surely building on its history to mesh with needs of the 21st century. Looking forward, the City is fortunate to be located in a “backwater” of the San Francisco Bay area.

I’ll start by reviewing history, then relate it to the “refugio” looking-forward case.

Gold Rush
When the gold-rush arrived, Martinez was well situated along California’s “Main Street” – the Sacramento River. The town made its living from agriculture: feeding the miners.

In the late 1800s, Italian and Portuguese fisherman arrived. Agriculture remained strong, as exemplified by the Strenzel’s and John Muir. The waterfront was dominated by fishing and grain shipments.

Industrial Age
In 1915 the oil industry arrived. Main Street was paved in 1918. By 1931, paved roads connected Martinez to adjacent cities. The automobile was supplanting the train. Martinez became an upscale summer vacation spot for San Franciscans, leading to summer home construction. Many of these houses have been lovingly restored. They’ve become the basis for the Historical Society’s home tours. With any luck they’ll be on home tours a century hence.

By the 1950s, over-fishing on the Sacramento River had so diminished the fish population that net-fishing was abolished. This led to closure of the town’s fish processing plants. Local fishermen continued fishing in Alaska. Eventually, commercial fishing died out. Today the town has but a single Alaska commercial fisherman.

World War II was disruptive here, as everywhere. Joe DiMaggio’s parents had never become citizens and were seen by the government as foreign nationals. They were banished from the town for the duration. The few Japanese residents fared far worse. Today there’s talk of using Joe DiMaggio’s fame as a drawing card.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, cars replaced trains; freeways bypassed the town. Oil tankers arrived and their crews came to town for booze and women. Dozens of bars thrived, along with houses of prostitution. Tankers grew larger but needed smaller crews, who were no longer permitted to go ashore. Today there are only a few old-school type bars. Brothels have disappeared (with help from the Internet).

For its first century, Main Street was home to small shops providing essentials: groceries, pharmaceuticals, clothing, dresses suits, shoes. With the advent of “box stores” and the construction of high-speed roads (I-680 and Highway 4) downtown could no longer compete. The classic stores went out of business.
Downtown suffered an excess of commercial property, a problem experienced by virtually every small town throughout the county and beyond.

Four decades ago (1974), Martinez City government, led by Kathy Radke together with the East Bay Regional Park District, established Waterfront Park. The marina was built to high standards, but allowed to decay.

Large areas of downtown were condemned in the 1960s and ‘70s to allow construction of a high-rise County building, a new jail, and new courthouses.

City government attempted redevelopment, which had as a primary goal the “modernization” of downtown. Much of downtown, including many homes, were designated “blighted.” Redevelopment didn’t happen, though it did occur in similar towns along the Sacramento River, with mixed results.

In the 1970s, attempts were made to zone the Western Hills for development.
Under Barbara Woodburn’s leadership, Franklin Ridge became parkland.

What lesson does this condensed history hold? Looked at on a year-to-year basis, change was almost always slow. Exceptions were the Gold Rush, the Depression, and WWII. Over decades and centuries, Martinez has changed enormously. It’s history sets the stage for a bright future.

The next stage I call “refugio.” The straightforward meaning is “refuge.” In ecology, a refugio is a place where endangered species survive. For example, if the snow line rises due to changing climate, animals and trees migrate upward to maintain conditions they like. If the rise is too great or too fast, or reaches the mountain top, they’ll be wiped out. Martinez is becoming a refugio – a place of respite from the hustle and bustle of urbanization. It’s following the examples of wine-country towns in Sonoma and Napa counties. Quaint businesses are working. Martinez is growing into a “get-away-from-it-all” destination. It’s a great place to live, an easy place for commuting, and a great place to spend a day visiting.

Like ecological refugios, Martinez will be dominated by the larger environment. It might become a bedroom community like so many of its neighbors. It might continue to stagnate. Fortunately, the tradition of the town makes these outcomes unlikely.

Going forward, Martinez will continue as the County seat. There’s a lot of County real estate here: the jail, court houses, the Finance building and County Administration. At some point, the obsolete and ugly Administrative building will be replaced by lower buildings located where the old jail is now.

Martinez’ public buildings are a mixed bag. The new train station is a success.

The Public Defender’s building not so much. The Spinetta Family Court needs large-scale public art in its courtyard. The Kinney Building at Waterfront Park is an eyesore. The old Train Station has a lovely exterior but remains a storage shed 15 years after being replaced. Perhaps in another 15 years it will be put to better use.

Main Street maintains substantial historic character. Old buildings are being earthquake retrofitted. The County Finance building is getting a full-scale face lift and a new roof. Excepting County buildings and the Post Office, downtown is mostly in private hands. Private citizens are reinforcing buildings and modernizing them. Noteworthy success stories, completed or underway, may be seen at the Old Post Office (721-733 Castro St.), the Smoke House at 605 Main St.; the old theater (Cassells Building) at 714-718 Main St.; and the Streamline Moderne buildings at 610 and 630 Court St.

The stage is set for an influx of small businesses filling multiple niches attractive to visitors and residents alike. As this occurs, rents will rise. Antique shops along Main Street will disappear. Coffee shops are among the first new businesses heralding a new era. They’ll soon be followed by niche businesses appealing to an increasingly affluent demographic.

Martinez has kept its small-town personality even as successful neighboring cities – think Walnut Creek – have become “Edge Cities” (see Wikipedia) imitating the glow of San Francisco.

As Bay Area folk increasingly seek out places with character for their leisure time, Martinez will benefit. In a few decades, look for a first-rate marina (again), specialty stores, and many restaurants. This won’t happen fast – Martinez has a long tradition of slow change – but it’s happening, and will continue to happen for a long while. It’s long been a great place to live, and will become even better.

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  1. The stages of Martinez development have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Citizens also paid $50,000 for a professional historian to describe the same.

  2. plunking 1900-1960 together leaves out the developmental influence of the New Deal (Great Depression) which provided many of our Court Street buildings, infill in the Marina to make it solid, gobs of wages to keep people in their homes or demanding homes, goods and service–our sidewalks and other aspects that are repeated in other towns throughout the country including large infrastructure projects.

    630 Court IS NOT a streamline moderne building. It is a 2 story brick commercial Italian renaisance building. Stream line Moderne is a very late Art Deco style. 630 court St. was built 1926 very close to the very first time Art Deco was introduce ever, and that was in Paris. And, 610 Court is reallyt the compilation of 3 buildings sewn toether from the 1930s to the 1970s..

  3. Ping Pong – Kristin Henderson, is that you?

  4. No. Never heard of her.

  5. Stephanie buchanan

    What happened to Francis Restaurant ? State Theater and Old Swanson house?

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