Point Isabel, A Cosmopolitan Canopy
For many people, life in an urban setting can be extremely isolating. In spite of living in dense and largely diverse communities, city inhabitants are often segregated by race, culture or socioeconomic status. Because these groups are separated, either intentionally or unintentionally, civil interaction that crosses these social barriers can be challenging. In his essay, “The Cosmopolitan Canopy,” Elijah Anderson coins the term, “cosmopolitan canopy” to represent spaces that facilitate communication between different social and cultural groups and to stress the importance of a venue where these boundaries can be broken down. Point Isabel in Richmond, California may be seen as a cosmopolitan canopy because it is an urban community space where people from different ethnicities and backgrounds, who would otherwise likely be segregated, can come together and either observe or interact peacefully with one another.
Before one can fully appreciate the significance of a cosmopolitan canopy, they must first have an understanding of social behaviors outside of these spaces. Anderson explores interactions between social and cultural groups, both within the canopy and outside of it, “… people often divert their gazes, looking up, looking down, or looking away, and feign ignorance of the diverse mix of strangers they encounter.(15)” Anderson is suggesting that people are often guarded, and avoid any interaction with those that are unfamiliar to them. However, there are public spaces within urban areas where this type of interaction is not typical. Anderson describes behavior within these spaces, “…people are encouraged to treat others with a certain level of civility or at least simply to behave themselves.” The idea that there are specific social expectations within these domains is somewhat profound. In the cosmopolitan canopy people feel safe and secure, and often comfortable enough to let their guard down.
When many people hear the term, “cosmopolitan canopy”, this part of the bay area is not likely to be the first place that comes to mind. Located just behind the region’s Costco Wholesale, Point Isabel Regional Shoreline is a 50 acre waterfront park located in Richmond, California that draws over one million visitors annually. (PIDO) Situated west of both the 580 and 80 freeways, the park can be difficult to find without a map or guide. When visitors arrive at the park’s westernmost entrance, they are welcomed with panoramic views of San Francisco, The Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County. Crashing waves, rolling grass hills, and protected wetlands aren’t the only features of this unique park. Perhaps one of Point Isabel’s most special qualities, in addition to its location, is the fact that it is one of the few public spaces in the bay area that not only welcomes dogs, but allows for them to roam untethered to their owners. It is one of the few places in this densely populated urban environment, where people from all parts of the community can come to exercise and relax with their animal companions.
Like much of the waterfront property in the bay area, Point Isabel is vastly different than it was when the first European settlers arrived at the turn of the eighteenth century. Originally granted to Victor Castro in 1834, the point was named for his daughter, Isabella. After changing hands a number of times, the land was used to build a dynamite plant in the early 1900’s, a military shooting range during World War II, and eventually the entire point became a recreational space for a local members-only Sportsman’s Club.(El Cerrito Historical Society) In the late 1940’s, Point Isabel became a municipal dumping ground used primarily for the “disposal” of industrial waste. The Golden Gate Audubon Society describes how small pieces of this history can still be seen today, “Tires, shopping carts, and chunks of concrete remind us that this place — like many shoreline parks — has a checkered history of human use.(Golden Gate Audubon)” Unfortunately, it was not until the 1980’s that this landfill was covered with a clay cap to prevent further pollution so that cleanup could begin. After negotiations with the City of Richmond, the East Bay Regional Parks Department and environmental conservationists, the land was established as an off-leash dog area and nature preserve in 1987. (PIDO) Since it’s creation, it has become a prominent attraction for dog owners, and has made itself an even more prominent gathering space by offering luxury dog grooming and cafe services to its visitors.
When I visit Point Isabel, I am often reminded of a poem written by Mary Oliver in which she writes, “… of all the sights I love in this world — and there are many — — very near the top of the list is this one: dogs without leashes.” Perhaps it is the ever present state of pure bliss impressed upon humans by their dogs, or simply the open space combined with the cool breeze coming off of the water, but Point Isabel is the type of space that puts visitors at instant ease. Visitors roam the trails, pausing regularly to let their dogs play, and will often strike up casual conversations with other dog owners along their journey regardless of not having previously met. Anderson writes about these types of unique interactions, “They have made human contact across the putative barriers of race, ethnicity, and other differences. Here, race and ethnicity appear salient but understated.(18)” This type of behavior is somewhat unique to Point Isabel as a cosmopolitan canopy in that, on any given day the park will see hundreds of visitors from different backgrounds, ethnicities and generations interacting with one another, either directly or indirectly, while enjoying this shared open space with their dogs.
Point Isabel is a hugely important resource in the community, and I am fortunate enough to live within a few minutes drive. We frequent all of the dog friendly parks in the area, but there is something incredibly special about this place in particular, largely because of the positive interactions between visitors. The photo titled, “Portrait of a Dog and Her Lover” is a photograph of my dog, Penny, and I taken by my fiancee, David, in front of Point Isabel’s dog grooming facility, Mudpuppy’s Tub & Scrub. Penny had just spent the better part of two hours splashing in the surf, and trying to coat herself in as much mud as possible — certainly not an atypical occurrence. My fiancee happened to have his Nikon D750 to the park that day, and decided to play with his fish eye lens while waiting for Penny’s bath appointment. Often we sit at this table, commiserating with fellow mud-spattered owners, chuckling and empathizing over our sloppy situation. We are able to use this time as an opportunity to positively connect with those around us, regardless of circumstance.
Throughout our time at the park, we frequently stop to chat with those around us, and have had the opportunity to meet with people that we likely would never have met outside of this cosmopolitan canopy. Because Point Isabel is such a unique resource, it draws visitors from an enormous area within the greater bay area region and creates a perfect setting to break down social barriers that may exist between visitors.“Essentially, cosmopolitan canopies allow people of different backgrounds the chance to slow down and indulge themselves, observing, pondering and in effect doing their own folk ethnography.(Anderson, 25)” Because there is such diversity in this space, Point Isabel provides a perfect opportunity for people of differing backgrounds to interact and observe one another’s behavior. My fiancee and I have been able to cultivate many long lasting friendships with those we have met in the park, including with those that might consider themselves outside of our social and cultural group. It is important for these types of places to exist because ultimately they bring people closer together, and give us all a larger and more inclusive understanding of the world around us.
Anderson, Elijah. The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.
Beebe, Jess. “Point Isabel: Birding Hotspot.”Golden Gate Audubon. 4 Oct. 2016. Web. 13 May. 2017.
El Cerrito Historical Society. “Point Isabel.” The Forge (June 2008). The Official Publication of the El Cerrito Historical Society. Web. 13 May. 2017.
Moscoso, Veronica. Running a Business for Man’s Best Friend. 2010, digital format, Sit and Stay Cafe, Richmond, CA.
Oliver, Mary. Dog Songs. New York, NY: Penguin, 2013.
Point Isabel Dog Owners and Friends. “About Point Isabel.” PIDO. 2015. Web. 13 May. 2017.
Zankowsky, David. Portrait of a Dog and Her Lover. 2015, digital format, Mudpuppy’s Tub and Scrub, Richmond, CA.