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Rebuilt Bayview Opera House opens to community concerns

August 1, 2016

by Lee Hubbard

The hub of Hunters Point at Third and Oakdale was buzzing with traffic and throngs of people as they assembled outside of the Bayview Opera House. The Moon Candy soul band was on the stage as people began to sit in the new seats in the outside auditorium.

The fence surrounding the remodeled Opera House makes it look more like a prison than a welcoming community center. The Joe Lee Gym is at the right. This sidewalk is the place where Kenneth Harding, 19, bled to death after being shot by SFPD for not paying his T-train fare. – Photo: Lee Hubbard

The fence surrounding the remodeled Opera House makes it look more like a prison than a welcoming community center. The Joe Lee Gym is at the right. This sidewalk is the place where Kenneth Harding, 19, bled to death after being shot by SFPD for not paying his T-train fare. – Photo: Lee Hubbard

The Opera House had been closed for remodeling for four years. Finally, on July 20, the new Opera House was unveiled to the public. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Director of Public Works Mohammed Nuru and project architect Walter Hood came out to officially signal the reopening.

“This is a soft opening,” said Mayor Ed Lee. “But this is a restored gem in the community. Five million dollars was spent on this center, which is a historic place.”

Built in 1888, the remodel to the Opera House consists of a newly constructed outdoor stage and amphitheater which faces Oakdale, a handicap accessible ramp that faces Third Street, a community garden and improvements to the structure that include the rebuilding of the wall behind the stage.

All of that is now surrounded by heavy fencing and locked gates that cut off the traditional easy access between the Opera House and the Joe Lee Gym and between Newcomb and Oakdale, raising the question whether the community is still welcome.

Jameel Patterson, a community resident and neighborhood activist, was “unsure of how I feel right now.”

“I am glad that they improved the Opera House, but I don’t like the fencing and gates, as it sends the wrong message,” said Patterson. “Like the Opera House is separate from the community.”

“I am glad that they improved the Opera House, but I don’t like the fencing and gates, as it sends the wrong message,” said Patterson. “Like the Opera House is separate from the community.”

Dorris Vincent, a long time Bayview community activist and supporter of the Opera House, also has mixed emotions about the center. She said the project to remodel the Opera House was proposed in 2004 and in 2009 a model was presented to the community on how it would look.

“Today’s version is vastly different from the model,” said Vincent. “It was nicely done, but Mendell Street was never supposed to be cut off.” Mendell runs between the gym and the Opera House and is now cut off by the fencing that encloses the Opera House.

Designer Walter Hood surveys the Bayview Opera House grounds, his plan having become reality. This is the seating area of the redesigned open-air theater on the south side of the building. – Photo: Michael Macor, SF Chronicle

Designer Walter Hood surveys the Bayview Opera House grounds, his plan having become reality. This is the seating area of the redesigned open-air theater on the south side of the building. – Photo: Michael Macor, SF Chronicle

She also said that the garden limits the outside space that used to be used for community events and informational tents. But her biggest gripe with the new design is the fence around the building.

“I would like the fences between the Opera House and Joseph Lee Gym to be removed so that people can have direct access between the two facilities,” continued Vincent.

While the ribbon cutting was a soft opening to the facility, the Opera House will be fully functional in late August.

“I am pleased that the city and the non-profit organization that is running the Opera House is there and improving the building,” said Ed Donaldson, a community activist and former Opera House board member. “It is long overdue and I am glad to see it opening back up. Black people like nice facilities also.”

He said that in the past, the city and the powers that be were “reluctant to invest in the building because there seemed not to be any clear direction.” He is interested in which direction the center will go.

“Do we want the Opera House to simply be a community center or does the community desire something much grander. We need to have an honest assessment on how we want this place to reflect the community.”

“I am pleased that the city and the non-profit organization that is running the Opera House is there and improving the building,” said Ed Donaldson.

In the past, the Opera House has hosted various community plays, poetry readings, dance ensembles, comedy shows and artists from various art disciplines over the years. Actors and entertainers such as Danny Glover, Shabaka Henley, Nancy Davis, Farah Dews and Cindy Herron from the R&B group En Vogue got their start toward stardom at the Opera House.

“I grew up in the Opera House,” said Dews, who is now an independent filmmaker. “I started dancing in the Opera House and then started doing plays. From there, I was able to get a scholarship from the American Conservatory Theater, as a result of my work from the Bayview Opera House. Those are the types of things that helped people from the neighborhood grow in the arts.”

The Opera House has also been a Bayview community gathering place for youth and seniors for decades. It was also a community refuge during the Hunters Point Uprising of 1966.

On Sept. 27, 1966, Matthew “Peanut” Johnson was shot in the back by a white police officer. His death at the hands of SFPD set off calls for justice for the Black community; in response, police came out in droves. This set off a neighborhood uprising that lasted for six days.

This is the north face of the Opera House, still displaying its original name, which became obsolete when South San Francisco formed itself as a separate city. – Photo: Lee Hubbard

This is the north face of the Opera House, still displaying its original name, which became obsolete when South San Francisco formed itself as a separate city. – Photo: Lee Hubbard

The National Guard was called into San Francisco by Gov. Pat Brown and a curfew locked down Bayview Hunters Point. During the conflict, police officers shot up the Opera House, thinking there was a sniper in the building, only to find that no one was there except children hiding in the corner.

The Opera House would have been left to die after it was shot up, if not for the efforts of Ruth Williams, who helped galvanize support to rebuild the center. The theater was named in her honor years later.

“My mother stepped in a year later and she, along with four other women, the Big Five, basically stopped the wrecking ball from demolishing the place,” said Kevin Williams, a community activist who was at the reopening with his entire family. “My mother helped raise the money to renovate the place, hired the first Black architect in San Francisco, Harry Overstreet, to redesign it, and she helped put the building back together.”

“Not only is this a cultural center, but the Opera House was a safe after-school space for kids and for seniors to come and congregate and it will remain that way,” said Supervisor Cohen.

“Not only is this a cultural center, but the Opera House was a safe after-school space for kids and for seniors to come and congregate and it will remain that way,” said Supervisor Cohen.

The current executive director of the Opera House is Barbara Ockel, and Donaldson calls her a stabilizing force that resolved some turmoil in the leadership. But he along with other activists and artists, such as Bayview Hunters Point born and raised artist Malik Seneferu, a world renowned painter and sculptor, want to know the vision.

“I want to see what this place looks like in a week, a month, two years from now,” said Seneferu. “The key to making this place vibrant in the community is the leadership. There needs to be a strong cultural director overseeing the activities going on and making sure they are engaged within the Black community locally and culturally.”

Longtime Bay View writer Lee Hubbard can be reached by email at superlehubbard@yahoo.com for any questions or feedback.

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