Black homes matter: San Francisco’s vanishing Black population

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by Carl Finamore

This story is prompted by a picket sign I saw at a recent anti-police brutality protest sponsored by two San Francisco families, one Latino and one Black, whose sons were shot dead in separate incidents following a barrage of police bullets.

On Jan. 6, in the pouring rain, an extraordinary solidarity march joined supporters and the families of Mario Woods and Alex Nieto, both murdered by San Francisco police. Marchers came from two directions – the mostly Latino Alex Nieto contingent from the Mission and Bernal Heights and the mostly Black Mario Woods contingent from Third and Palou in Hunters Point – joining together for a rally, surrounded by almost as many cops as protesters. – Photo: Carl Finamore
On Jan. 6, in the pouring rain, an extraordinary solidarity march joined supporters and the families of Mario Woods and Alex Nieto, both murdered by San Francisco police. Marchers came from two directions – the mostly Latino Alex Nieto contingent from the Mission and Bernal Heights and the mostly Black Mario Woods contingent from Third and Palou in Hunters Point – joining together for a rally, surrounded by almost as many cops as protesters.

Among the crowd of 150 activists standing in the pouring rain in front of the police-barricaded Bayview police station were four young people holding a sign that simply read, “Last 3 Percent.” I thought their message was both powerful and poignant.

The words refer not directly to police violence but to the broader problem of the mass exodus of African Americans from San Francisco. Thousands have left their city of birth not because of any personal preference but because of political decisions and economic policies, many set into motion several decades ago.

Certainly, being one of the most expensive places to live in the entire world poses a challenge to the budgets of all working-class residents. But Black families are hit in particularly harsh and uniquely racist ways.

In a nutshell, as prominent San Francisco historian and veteran community activist Calvin Welch described to me, the city’s vast construction boom is designed to increase the value of property and to boost the profits of private developers instead of improving the lives of people and communities, especially those living on the sidelines of this great prosperous city.

It does not have to be this way – you can improve and upgrade property without displacing people – but there would not be the same egregious profits of real estate interests and their wealthy, corporate and banking partners.

Thousands have left their city of birth not because of any personal preference but because of political decisions and economic policies, many set into motion several decades ago.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is most responsible for housing policies and, according to Welch, responsible as well for most of the problems, because the city, in short, “invests in buildings instead of in people.”

Karl Kramer agrees. Kramer is from the SF Living Wage Coalition that played a big role in the union-community coalition successfully promoting the city’s $15 an hour living-wage proposition that benefits around 100,000 residents, especially by July 2018 when the incremental wage increases mandated will actually reach the top bracket.

“But,” Kramer says, “the mayor has largely abandoned providing any real job training in welfare-to-work programs and there is no strategy on how to move people into long-term employment. They are dead-end programs.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is most responsible for housing policies and, according to Welch, responsible as well for most of the problems, because the city, in short, “invests in buildings instead of in people.”

Of course, this means chronically underemployed Black families and single mothers, in particular, leave the city because they can neither find work nor be trained for employment. “We are losing a whole generation,” Kramer predicted, “and it profoundly affects the diversity of the city.”

Black removal happened before

Destruction of one of the most vibrant Black communities in the nation began in the early 1960s as the Fillmore neighborhood, the “Harlem of the West,” was demolished as part of that era’s urban renewal.

Several years later when the “new” Fillmore finally opened with its refurbished housing and commercial buildings, several hundred of the traditional Black businesses and most of the previously displaced residents had already gone on with their lives, for better or worse, and they never returned to the neighborhood.

In any case, after their dislocation, there was simply insufficient economic assistance for the former residents and the minority businesses to return. And, without the booming Black business economy that previously included 300-400 jazz clubs, a hotel, bookstores, clothing shops and all kinds of other retail stores, unskilled Black youth found it difficult to find a job in the “new” Fillmore.

Destruction of one of the most vibrant Black communities in the nation began in the early 1960s as the Fillmore neighborhood, the “Harlem of the West,” was demolished as part of that era’s urban renewal.

“In the old Fillmore,” Archbishop Franzo King, from St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, said with great pride during our conversation, “you did not have to go downtown. You could get a job in our community and get paid with a check signed by a Black business owner.”

No more.

“Redevelopment destroyed the Black middle class in the city,” historian Welch decried, representing a tragic example of increasing property values of a neighborhood while decreasing the living conditions and social status of the original residents.

It’s true, even though some African Americans still reside in the area, there are no identifiable cultural symbols reminiscent of its great past when the Fillmore hosted every prominent Black celebrity, politician and entertainer in the country.

“Redevelopment destroyed the Black middle class in the city,” historian Welch decried.

And, about the time the Fillmore was again open for business, renamed the Western Addition, the 1980 census recorded the city’s Black population at 86,000, its first decline since before World War II.

The descent continues unabated, with the Black population in 2006 reported at 51,000, a reduction of 35 percent since the 1990 census. The most recent government census several years ago indicates Black residents represent 6 percent of the city’s population, but fair-housing advocates and some city officials have been recently using the much-lower figure of “4 percent and declining,” while other activists cite 3 percent.

Regardless of the exact number, no question, it all started with redevelopment of the Fillmore adversely impacting the economics of the Black community and, thereby, the demographics of the whole city.

The experience begs the question, who benefits from redevelopment?

Building up, pushing out

After the Fillmore implosion, the working-class neighborhood of Bayview Hunters Point became the area with the largest concentration of Black homeowners, mostly because it was also home to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where around 10,000 Black workers had been employed since World War II, through the Korean War and after.

These workers had money to spend and the area thrived for some years. But, around the same time as the Fillmore was being torn down in the 1960s, a number of factors combined to shake the economic foundations of Bayview Hunters Point.

Most devastating was when offloading of containerized cargo shifted from San Francisco to the Oakland docks across the Bay.

After the Fillmore implosion, the working-class neighborhood of Bayview Hunters Point became the area with the largest concentration of Black homeowners, mostly because it was also home to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

Now, once again, another thriving Black community was jolted, with thousands of good-paying shipyard jobs eventually lost in Bayview Hunters Point – all the result of political and economic decisions made from the top.

As shipping technology began to change in the 1950s, San Francisco port authorities declined to upgrade their docks to accommodate containerized-cargo shipping, preferring instead to treat the land around the Bay docks as prime coastal property investments, initially geared to tourism and, later, to upscale housing development.

Consistent with this vision, city planners and politicians also decided San Francisco would be a leading financial and commercial center. Of course, this also influenced who these planners saw as living in the city, and it was their appointed Redevelopment Agency that carried out their designs.

Years later, as the city currently enhances its standing as a national tech center, there is a new redevelopment plan for how to accommodate the anticipated influx of tens of thousands of highly skilled and highly paid employees.

So, once again, reminiscent of the Fillmore, private property managers and city planners have instituted economic and political programs in Bayview Hunters Point that accelerate the decline of the low-income Black community, leading to the further population hemorrhaging we see today.

Foreclosures, loss of public housing and police violence

San Francisco is geographically quite small, only seven square miles, making its limited vacant land a premium in the extremely inflated real estate market.

The mothers of Mario Woods and Alex Nieto – Gwen Woods and Elvira Nieto – hold hands as they confront the police force that stole their sons. SFPD recruits are trained in Bayview Hunters Point, where racist police brutality is routine. – Photo: Adriana Camerena
The mothers of Mario Woods and Alex Nieto – Gwen Woods and Elvira Nieto – hold hands as they confront the police force that stole their sons. SFPD recruits are trained in Bayview Hunters Point, where racist police brutality is routine. – Photo: Adriana Camerena

So, the race for land is on. This is how unscrupulous property speculators come into the picture, devising any and all ways of acquiring new property for development which can be sold for astronomical profit.

It began anew with the displacement of longtime Black homeowners in Bayview Hunters Point.

In fact, Bayview Hunters Point became ground zero in the last decade for the now discredited and often illegal predatory lending system in place at the time. Salesman actually knocked on doors offering slick and dishonest pitches concealing reviled hidden mortgage balloon payments down the road.

These sleazy agents were better able to lure in Black homeowners who were mostly unable to obtain normal bank loans due to bank redlining.

Again, accumulated economic hardships partially stemming from the closing of the shipyard decades ago. As a result, this vulnerable group, many of them seniors, was targeted for predatory loans more than any other people in any other neighborhood in San Francisco.

It led to an explosion of foreclosures.

Next, with land becoming ever more precious and scarce, private interests turned their attention to public lands, which, amazingly, included public housing, followed by its demolition and conversion by private developers into “mixed-income” development.

The race for land is on. This is how unscrupulous property speculators come into the picture, devising any and all ways of acquiring new property for development which can be sold for astronomical profit.

This is truly highly valued public land, sitting atop hills that offer some of the best views and best climate in the city. The majority of San Francisco’s large inventory of public housing is in Hunters Point.

But, as one city housing official told me, “The government is out of the business of building public housing” and has turned it over to private developers.

In plain language, “mixed-income” means building some portion of extremely profitable market-rate homes on land that was previously reserved exclusively for public, subsidized housing.

“What all this means to me,” SF BayView editor Mary Ratcliff told me, “is that Blacks are being bulldozed from Hunters Point. Simply put, Lennar and other private developers with city contracts believe they can more easily sell pricey upscale units if there are fewer Black folks living next door up here on the hill.”

Ratcliff’s respected national newspaper has published in Bayview Hunters Point since 1976. She has seen a lot and pointed out from her own intimate experiences that it was during this latest phase of redevelopment that “police occupation of the community intensified to a fever pitch with gang injunctions, mass imprisonment of our youth and more targeted acts of police violence, all designed, I believe, to further push us out.”

“What all this means to me,” SF BayView editor Mary Ratcliff told me, “is that Blacks are being bulldozed from Hunters Point. Simply put, Lennar and other private developers with city contracts believe they can more easily sell pricey upscale units if there are fewer Black folks living next door up here on the hill.”

This story does not yet have an ending and it won’t until the emerging voices of the young Black community activists and their organizations who stood in front of the Bayview police station have their say, in alliance with the growing coalition of fair housing advocates and progressive unions taking a stand for a more inclusionary vision of prosperity.

Carl Finamore is Machinist 1781 delegate to the SF Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He lives in Hunters Point and can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com.

3 COMMENTS

  1. There's no question that SF city officials and developers aren't interested in maintaining the Bayview's traditional majority-black status. The city's refusal to maintain or replace public housing is impossible to overlook, and the BMR unit lotteries and so-called "mixed-income" developments undeniably don't come close to providing adequate housing for the low-income residents and minority populations in the city. San Francisco's rush to squeeze poor and black residents out is a disgrace and a betrayal of public trust.
    But that said, are you really going to claim that the Bayview doesn't have gang problems that call for more enforcement? Or that blighted areas such as the old shipyard shouldn't be redeveloped? Bayview has severe problems with drugs, gangs, and violent crime. To claim otherwise is dishonest, and to say the police shouldn't be using all available tools to reduce gang violence is irresponsible. We've had over a dozen shootings on my block in the five years I've lived there. We've had two friends violently attacked on the street without provocation in the last three days. Calling for the police to take a softer approach on crime in District 10 is dangerous, dishonest, and has the effect of enabling violent criminals. Like it or not, the SFPD isn't getting tough on gangs in the Bayview because they just want to drive out black folks. They're cracking down in the neighborhood because it too often isn't safe for regular people – black and non-black – to walk the streets there without fear of being attacked.

  2. For literally DECADES, residents of the Bayview neighborhoods have had plenty of time and handouts that America's middle class has paid for, including Section 8 housing vouchers, foodstamps, Medi-cal, Affordable Housing vouchers, jobs programs… the list goes on, and on.

    There are no guarantees in America. You can pursue happiness, but you aren't guaranteed a seat at the table. You have to earn it, just like everybody else. For decades, Bayview residents have been surpassed by other immigrant populations (Latinos and Asians) who have passed them on the socio-economic ladder of America. Do you know how? Strong families and hard work. Long hours in thankless jobs. Whole careers sacrificed for the next generation.

    To the residents of the Bayview, I say this: welcome to the real world. Change happens. Booms and busts are what make California the place it is. If you haven't planned smartly, you have nobody else to blame but yourselves. Nobody.

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