A rare place where races coexist – and connect

Homes fill a development in Vallejo, a Bay Area suburb of 120,000 in which blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics coexist in nearly equal numbers.
Homes fill a development in Vallejo, a Bay Area suburb of 120,000 in which blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics coexist in nearly equal numbers. NYT

Beyond the burgers and fries coming from the kitchen and the oldies blaring from the radio, the scene playing out daily at the Original Red Onion might appear unfamiliar to much of the country.

The restaurant’s married owners – Marissa Johnson, a Filipino-American, and Darryl Johnson, an African-American – work alongside Jahira Fragozo, who is of Miskito and Yaqui Indian descent. Marissa Johnson bonds with a customer, Hillory Robinson, who is black, over the challenges of motivating their children in the winter. “They need something to do,” Robinson says.

Marissa Johnson gushes a short time later when a regular, Dylan Habegger, who is white, decides to tackle the restaurant’s new, spicy creation with a name that describes its effect. “Uh oh,” Johnson tells him, “you’re trying the Burner today.”

The Original Red Onion sits in one of the country’s most racially diverse ZIP codes: 94591, in Vallejo. About 30 miles north of Oakland, it is the rare place in the United States where black, white, Asian and Hispanic people not only coexist in nearly equal numbers, but actually connect.

At a time when race often still defines where people live and attend school, and the battles between alt-right and antifa, nativist and immigrant, continue to rage, this Bay Area suburb of 120,000 can seem like a respite from the divided nation. Pick any two people out of this ZIP code, and there is a 76 percent chance they are a different race or ethnicity – and odds are they’ll be comfortable talking to each other.

“The gift about being in close proximity is that you’re desensitized to seeing a different culture and judging it right away,” said Lena Yee-Ross, a 17-year-old high school senior whose mother is Chinese-American and father is black.

Living next to one another for generations, since a major naval yard drew large numbers to the town with the promise of jobs, has mitigated much of the tension found in more segregated communities. People of all stripes sing arm in arm during Thursday night karaoke at Gentleman Jim’s bar, where on a recent evening a white man with a cowboy hat sat next to a Filipino man in a biker vest, and the songs ranged from Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” to the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly.”

Students of different races study side by side at one local high school, and their shades of skin color span such a spectrum that it is difficult to tell what races or ethnicities they are when they congregate for lunch.

Still, Vallejo is no promised land.

Stubborn racial divisions remain. The typical black family has a household income that is three-fourths of the city’s median. Nearly 3 out of every 4 members of the Police Department are white, and all of the City Council members are either Filipino or white.

Academic performance is improving in schools, but achievement gaps remain: Of the 11th-graders at Jesse Bethel High School, which is in the 94591 ZIP code, 42 percent of black students and 51 percent of Hispanic ones tested proficient in English this year, compared with 63 percent of white students and 77 percent of Filipino ones.

Spencer Lane, a 17-year-old white senior at a high school where whites are in the minority, said classmates had told him that he looked as if he could shoot up a school. Yee-Ross said her mother once heard a news account of a robbery and insisted that the perpetrator had to be black. And the Johnsons have battled racial tension in their family and their business.

A white customer who had been a regular at the restaurant once asked the woman taking his order to make sure that a young black employee did not cook his food, Marissa Johnson said. When she heard commotion at the front of the restaurant, she said, she confronted the customer, who told her: “How can you have people like that working here? His pants are sagging.”

The Johnsons met in Vallejo in 2003, introduced by mutual friends. He liked her toothy smile, she liked his respect, but each harbored racial stereotypes.

Darryl Johnson, 33, assumed that she would be a devoted homemaker who would cook and clean for him. Marissa Johnson, 31, said she was impressed that he did not wear baggy pants and that “he doesn’t talk ghetto.”

As diverse as Vallejo is, Marissa Johnson said she grew up hanging out mostly with Filipinos, a clustering that many local residents of different races said is natural. Immigrants from Mexico or the Philippines may want the company of people who can help them navigate a new country.

Marissa Johnson’s father, Al Remorin, 51, grew up in nearby Richmond, where most of his friends were black. He moved to Vallejo in 1979, when he was 13. That’s when he came to know a lot of other Filipinos. He was surprised, he said, to hear some of their racism. People asked him why he talked as if he were black.

Remorin quickly bonded with Darryl Johnson, often discussing sports. So Marissa Johnson said she was caught off guard by her father’s reaction when she became pregnant.

“How can you?” Marissa Johnson said her father asked. As in: How could she think it was OK to have biracial children?

Remorin said he did not recall saying that. He never had an issue with his daughter having biracial children, he said. Back in his day, he rarely saw “half-Filipinos and half-blacks, or half-this and half-that,” he said. “It’s hard enough as it is being nonwhite, and you imagine when they’re half-this and half-that.”

Things are different today.

In the Vallejo-Fairfield metropolitan area, 22 percent of marriages from 2011-15 were interracial, more than double the national rate in the same period, according to a Pew Research survey.

Even in 2001, The New York Times was reporting that Vallejo was one of the most racially balanced cities in the country. Then, as now, racial and ethnic groups often stuck with their own.

Vallejo is even more racially balanced now, with the white population dropping and other racial and ethnic groups growing. Hispanic and white residents each make up about 25 percent of the population. A little more than 23 percent of the city is Asian and nearly 21 percent black.

Vallejo’s diversity stems from the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, which for nearly a century and a half attracted families with the promise of stable jobs. The yard closed in 1996, and with it went much of this town’s fortunes; the city declared bankruptcy in 2008. It remains a largely working-class bedroom community, though some fear that the relatively affordable housing could lure more affluent Bay Area residents, displacing low-income residents.

Past restrictions that kept people of color confined to certain neighborhoods have largely fallen, but glaring disparities endure. Black households rank lowest in median income, at $42,000. Residents have complained of brutality by the police against black and brown people, and the seven-member City Council does not have a black or Hispanic member.

Then there are the day-to-day interactions that blur conventions of race and culture.

Christopher Morales, 17, said his black friends were not offended when he, a Mexican-American, used an anti-black slur because their relationships transcended race. It is an attitude, he conceded, that puts Vallejo in something of a diversity bubble.

“It doesn’t really offend us,” he said, “until someone from, like, an outside town comes over here.”