Bayview Hunters Point is the soul of San Francisco. It’s changing and we who live here and love this place miss many old friends. But its history and heroes can’t be erased and must be celebrated. They are the foundation and inspiration for the thriving community we will rebuild.
In “Picture Bayview Hunters Point,” a labor of love, says director Joanna Haigood, Zaccho Dance Theatre, a BVHP-based cultural treasure, performs that history and presents those heroes unforgettably. Bring everyone, especially the children and young people, to this lavish but free performance – inside and outside the Opera House – Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 18-21, 8 p.m. Dress warmly.
Following are the words of Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, who chairs African-American Studies of City College of San Francisco, and Zaccho director Joanna Haigood that will whet your appetite for this extraordinary show.
A promised land
by Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin
Hidden away from the iconic cable cars and tourist sites of San Francisco lies the Bayview Hunters Point (BVHP) community. BVHP is more than a neighborhood; it’s been described as both a “a point of pride” and what lifelong resident Tony Carpenter referred to as the “promised land.” For African-Americans in the US living under the heel of Jim Crow, a new beginning in the West had the potential to alter and uplift an entire family lineage.
Starting in 1941, with the United States entrance into World War II, tens of thousands of Black migrants journeyed primarily from Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas to plant seeds of hope in the promising soil of West. They brought not only their luggage but also their culture and traditions, creating a close-knit family kinship network that would evolve into a thriving Black working-class community.
BVHP is more than a neighborhood; it’s been described as both a “a point of pride” and what lifelong resident Tony Carpenter referred to as the “promised land.”
They came not only for employment in the newly built Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, which at its height employed over 18,000 people, but to escape the endless cycles of racial violence and poverty that remained in the American South after slavery’s legal defeat. However, Black San Franciscans quickly learned that Jim Crow was not just a Southern phenomenon but one that pervaded every corner of the country.
While San Francisco provided economic opportunity for Black residents, it simultaneously limited their prospects of social upliftment. The Jim Crow North was less visible, but equally as effective. Employment outside of the war industry in skilled labor was denied; police brutality, poor conditions in public housing communities, a lack of educational opportunities, and state sanctioned segregation were openly and widely practiced.
The residents of BVHP organized against these social forces and in some instances were able to make incredible gains. For example, the women who came to be known as the Big Five were successfully granted $40 million in federal funding to improve the conditions of affordable housing [most of it built by Black contractors and workers – ed.].
As the community moved towards the late 1960s, with many of the calls for change unanswered, Black people in BVHP and in cities across the United States demanded power, Black Power. This struggle would reach its peak on Sept. 27, 1966 [two weeks before the founding of the Black Panther Party – ed.], when police would fatally shoot and kill unarmed African-American teen Matthew “Peanut” Johnson in the back, unleashing the anguish of a generation coming of age in the limited prospects of the post-war era.
Three full days of unrest would erupt on the streets of BVHP. Nearly 2,000 national guard, California Highway Patrol, and San Francisco Police took to the streets of BVHP. As tanks rolled down Third Street and smoke from bullet holes fresh in the side of the Opera House and parked cars dissipated, a deep wound was being imprinted on the collective body of BVHP.
Bayview would survive, but many of the same issues remained. Today the residents live, but their stories are largely hidden. The fog of an ongoing war, the trauma of historical violence and the displacing forces of urban renewal has made African-Americans, who were the second largest ethnic group in San Francisco in 1950, only 3 percent of the city’s current population.
What happens to a history, a community and its people when they are disappeared? How do we envision a future? The numbers of Black San Franciscans have significantly dropped, but the community, its spirit and commitments to social change endure.
The resilience of BVHP stems from the deep familial ties that still bind the community to this day and the hope families have for their children and children’s children. You can displace a people, but the cultural and social imprint will always exist even if hidden.
Bayview Hunters Point is a haven and will always be a part of San Francisco. As the artists in Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre move and carve life out of this historic space, we must be inspired to fulfill the promise of its first Black migrants, to “Picture Bayview Hunters Point” in all its glory, for her future is bright and her roots are strong; they merely need to be watered by our dreams.
Bayview Hunters Point is a haven and will always be a part of San Francisco.
FoundSF.Org, “A Days Work: Hunters Point Shipyard Workers, 1940-1945”
DIVA Project, San Francisco State University, “KRON-TV Assignment Four-Hunters Point: A View From the Hill”
by Joanna Haigood
Since 1989, my creative life has been centered in Bayview Hunters Point. My studio space on Yosemite and Third has been a home to my company, a resource to many Bay Area performing artists and a place where over 4,000 neighborhood youth have created extraordinary performances about their experiences, their community and issues that affect their lives. I have been a part of an amazing consortium of community youth organizations where I learned what it really means to raise up a generation. I have witnessed the power and grace of artists like Mary Booker. It has been a blessing to be here.
Bayview Hunters Point is home to the last African American community in San Francisco. In the late 1990s it became apparent that a change was on its way; redevelopment plans were being discussed in focus groups and concerns were growing about the community’s future. It was at this point that I began to wonder how a community like Bayview Hunters Point would develop if it had control and unlimited resources; what would it look like? I began to interview community members about their experiences here and how they imagined their future. I spoke with the legendary Sam Jordan, Marcelee Cashmere and Wayland Fuller, who spoke so eloquently about the spirit of the great migration, of vibrant culture and the early civil rights efforts here in Bayview. They each spoke about their deep love for this place and about how it ultimately shaped their lives.
Not long afterward I received commissions from Dancing in the Streets in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to create site specific works in Red Hook, Brooklyn and Powderhorn, Minnesota, respectively. These communities, although unique in character, shared many of the same challenges as Bayview Hunters Point. And so my research, which started in Bayview, became a study of three urban communities of color at the edge of change. I spent five years, with my artistic collaborators, Mary Ellen Strom and Lauren Weinger, capturing the hopes and dreams of community members. Performances were created and performed on two spectacular grain elevators in Red Hook and Minneapolis in 2000 and 2002. Sixteen years later, I am finally finishing the trilogy.
Over the past year, community members, young and older, shared their dreams for the future of Bayview Hunters Point. The majority of the responses suggested ways of overcoming the social and environmental challenges prevalent here as well as changing negative perceptions of their community created and perpetuated by the media and the outside world.
Bayview Hunters Point is home to the last African American community in San Francisco.
Residents envisioned a community that celebrated unity as a progressive force for change. This unity would have the potential to help transform their community into a place where their dreams and the dreams of their children were encouraged and sustained. They spoke about the importance of raising their children in nurturing and safe surroundings. They imagined growing old in a neighborhood filled with friends. They envisioned their everyday needs met within the borders of their community and that a vibrant culture would continue to be interwoven into all aspects of their lives. Residents acknowledged the need to embrace newcomers, but not at the expense of the those who constitute the history, the heart and the future of the neighborhood.
“Picture Bayview Hunters Point” is a reflection of all the stories I’ve been privileged to hear over the years. It is not a complete overview of the community, but a series of impressions realized through a poetic lens. It is an homage to a place that has shaped my work and character.
“Picture Bayview Hunters Point” is a reflection of all the stories I’ve been privileged to hear over the years.
I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Elise Bernhardt, who planted the initial seed for this three-city project, to Philip Bither and Aviva Davidson for bravely co-producing the first two in the series, to Barbara Ockel and the entire Bayview Opera House staff for taking this project on in San Francisco to the producing team, Tyra Fennell, Halima Marshall, Eric Wallner, for your guidance and enormous effort in taking our many events from ideas to reality, to my brilliant artistic collaborators, Mary Ellen Strom, Walter Kitundu the BAYCAT Team, Wayne Campbell, Jack Carpenter for their exquisite work in shaping the narrative arc of the work, to the extraordinary dancers who contributed so much gorgeous movement, Martin Luther for bringing his beautiful voice, Aliyah Dunn Salahuddin and the Community Council for guiding me through community history, to Kathy Rose and the crew who built it all, to Jo Kreiter, Shakiri and Lizzy Spicuzza for the wonderful journey with 200 youth, to Charline Formenty for creating our spectacular images, to the Rainin Foundation, which made this dream a reality, and to all who followed to support this project. And finally, a very special thanks to all the community members who shared their amazing stories. Thank you.
Bay View arts editor Wanda Sabir interviews Zaccho director Joanna Haigood on Wanda’s Picks Radio about “Picture Bayview Hunters Point.”