Point San Quentin Village

Tell the truth: If house hunting, would you answer a real estate ad like this one?
For sale: three-bedroom, two-bath Victorian, huge level lot, nice lawn, across from private beach, incredible views across San Francisco Bay to Angel Island and the Tiburon Peninsula. Definite sense of community. Low crime, sparse traffic. Priced considerably below Marin’s median real estate values.

Of course you would. But how would you react when you learned the property was located just yards from the front door of a notorious prison—in Point San Quentin Village?

“At first, we were against living near San Quentin prison,” says Michele Barni, a paralegal who works in downtown San Francisco. “However, six months later, after looking at properties all over Marin but mostly north of Fairfax, we came back, hat in hand, bought our home and never regretted it.” Barni and her husband, David, a teacher in the Marin City–Sausalito School District, raised three children in their Point San Quentin home while rebuilding it into a three-bedroom, two-bath property with an income unit.

“Actually, the traffic on Main Street is nominal except for the guards coming and going,” says Barni. “And truthfully, the village is a low-crime neighborhood—if someone escapes, they’re not going to hang around here where the law enforcement is nearby.”

Barni, who’s secretary of the Point San Quentin Village Association, estimates there are 40 homes, plus a 10-unit condominium complex, in this tiny enclave off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard/Highway 280 just before the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge. “So our population is around 100, give or take a few,” she says.“People generally don’t move; they like it here. They stay here.”

Homes in Point San Quentin Village date back 150 years (a window-weight mechanism in Barni’s home is dated 1869), when the prison moved from the Waban, a 262-ton merchant vessel anchored offshore, to its current 452-acre complex. Most homes face the bay, possibly the finest being a red-brick, two-story recently refurbished French Quarter–like property a few doors west of Barni’s Victorian.  
According to its owner, a San Rafael business owner who requested anonymity, “the bay and beach are such attractions, we often forget a state prison is so close; most of the time we don’t see it.”

However, stay on Main Street another block and you can’t miss the massive medium-security San Quentin State Prison, home to more than 5,000 inmates—the road dead-ends (possibly a poor choice of words) at the prison’s main gate. “Most residents come in for their mail at least every other day,” says Minnie Huong, clerk at the San Quentin Post Office, located just steps from the front gate and serving zip codes 94964 and 94974. “’Sixty-four is for residents,” says Huong, “and 94974 mail goes to the prison.” Across from the post office are the visitors’ reception area and the San Quentin Handicraft Shop, which sells belts, key fobs, art and jewelry made by inmates. “The money we take in goes directly to the inmates,” says Scott Keller, a trustee from Contra Costa County who manages the shop (open Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.).

As for the prison itself, village resident Jean Arnold has taught classes “inside the walls” and says it’s important for the prison to be situated near an urban base so inmates have access to legal advice, volunteer workers and other resources—so she opposes San Quentin ever being relocated. Arnold, who has lived in Point San Quentin Village 16 years, says, “I was single when I bought this house and never could have afforded it had the prison not been here first.”

The community is quiet at night, she adds; her village neighbors are mostly middle-class and friendly; and the weather is less foggy than elsewhere in coastal Marin. “I stay here because I have a five-minute commute to work for the San Rafael Sanitation District,” she says. “I have many good friends in the neighborhood and I met the man who’d become my husband one day outside my front door. I can’t imagine being happier anywhere else.”