by Linda Parker Pennington
“So you’re going to be part of the gentrification,” my friend declared when, in late 2014, I told him that my family and I were moving to the brand new development at the SF Shipyard. I recoiled from his comment: “I’m not a gentrifier!”
Then I thought for a moment … as an African American family, we look like the people who’ve lived in the Bayview since their parents and grandparents came here for jobs in the 1940s. But at the same time, having worked for Apple and Google, invested in the stock market and saved our pennies, we can afford to buy a new home here, unlike the community of people there now. Most folks can’t buy anything, even at the “bargain prices” that Lennar was offering.
In May of 2014, the sign on Innes as my son and I approached the Shipyard for our first visit to the Lennar sales office said, “Welcome, Visionaries.” James was 13 and we lived in Monterey Heights then, a stone’s throw from St. Francis Woods, one of the oldest and most affluent neighborhoods in the City, aka the “fog zone.”
We’d been there for 15 years, and were seeing our neighborly community start to change as elders passed away, promptly replaced, typically by Chinese buyers making all-cash offers. I’d grown weary of having such an old, big house to maintain, cold summers and indifferent new neighbors who didn’t take the time to get to know who was already there. Warm weather and being surrounded by people I could relate to, who had history in the community and a thriving (if struggling) culture, had great appeal.
We caught the vision of the Shipyard, asked our Lennar sales rep. some pointed questions about the safety of this former Superfund site and were told it had been “thoroughly cleaned up, inspected and certified by the EPA as safe to build homes on.” As they often stated, the land that had been transferred for development had previously housed “officers’ quarters,” so none of the radiological testing being done on other parts of the Shipyard had happened there.
I mean, of course they wouldn’t build if it wasn’t clean … right? So, in June of 2015, we moved in. The (mostly African American) construction workers looked shocked to see a friendly Black family of homeowners.
We liked our “compact” new home, with a pocket park next to it. But we saw there was a mysterious multi-story building going up a few feet from us, where raccoons took shelter at night, feeding on the remains of lunches left by the workers.
I called our Lennar sales guy and asked him about the building. It hadn’t been mentioned during our protracted purchasing process, and it looked like it would definitely block our Southern exposure and unobstructed view to Candlestick Point.
Somewhat reluctantly, he showed me plans for the affordable housing rental units now known as Pacific Point and two other planned buildings that were “OCII projects that Lennar was required to build in return for developing the market rate homes.” “Oh,” I said. “Didn’t know that. It might have been nice if you’d disclosed that when we were buying.”
Despite this surprise, we settled into the process of getting to know our new community and neighbors. I relished discovering Radio Africa, Old Skool Café and Auntie April’s.
We went to Armando Luna’s “yoga and beer” classes at Laughing Monk, attended countless events at the Bayview Opera House, Egbert Street and at the Shipyard Artists Open Studios. I went to the rededication of the Linda Burton Library, Kwanzaa at the Bayview Y, food festivals at the George Davis Senior Center, and frequented SCRAP often to donate and buy stuff.
We hung out at the Speakeasy’s, Gratta Wines, the Jazz Room and Sam Jordan’s. I became an active participant in BRITE and even did a workshop for small business owners on using social media to promote their business.
I met Dr. Toye Moses through my buddy Lance Burton and started attending Southeast Commission meetings at the facility on 1800 Oakdale. I learned who Ruth Williams, Willie B. Kennedy and Arelious Walker are.
And gradually I met some of my closest neighbors living at the Cleo Rand townhomes, whose mailbox is across the street from my front door. Thanks to the lasting oral tradition of African Americans, I learned a lot from them, all having lived in the Bayview for decades, if not their entire lives.
I’ll never forget Walter – whose cats my niece had taken to feeding – telling me where and when Mary Booker’s funeral would be. I’d been searching for a notice about it on social media or in the newspaper. Couldn’t find it anywhere, but thankfully Walter knew!
I met Shawn on the campaign trail for Mayor London Breed, as he escorted her to many of her events. Ironically, although he’d watched the Shipyard homes going up for years, he had never once been to the Storehouse, a five-minute walk from his home and the closest place where you could buy some eggs or milk, in this certified “food desert.”
I learned that Ginger, a leader with the SF African American Historical and Cultural Society, was an early Lowell High School graduate – and one of its rare black alumni. Before moving here, I already knew Linda Fadeke Richardson through the SF African American Chamber of Commerce. All were warm and welcoming to me and my family … and, perhaps not surprisingly, much more so than most of the other Shipyard homeowners.
But sadly, in those first months, I also witnessed the impact of gentrification unfolding before my eyes. At a BRITE meeting, several long-term Bayview residents showed up, angry about the “optics,” threatening the leadership, and challenging them for taking over the neighborhood as if they knew what was needed, ignoring its history and the people who’d been there for generations.
It hurt me to see this anger play out in real-time, dividing the community I’d adopted as home. The head of BRITE actually sold her home and left the area as a result of it. She and her husband had lived in the Bayview for 10 years, investing their time, money and love here. Yet they were still considered outsiders. But that’s perhaps another story …
So fast-forward to about eight months ago, when the Tetra Tech supervisors where imprisoned for falsifying Shipyard soil samples, substituting clean soil for testing in place of potentially tainted soil. It was revealed that they’d falsified up to 97 percent of their samples.
Other whistleblowers came forward as well, having worked at the Shipyard and witnessed what was being done to make it look like they were cleaning up the site. Reports came out that showed the Navy was more interested in cutting costs and fast-tracking the project than protecting public health.
Citizen oversight groups were disbanded when they asked too many questions and objected to moving forward with development. People were fired or silenced for raising these issues. As they are known to do, the developer was out there paying anyone and everyone to approve their Shipyard plan.
The health impact on Bayview residents of living near a Superfund site has not been fully assessed. Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai did a study several years ago that showed a highly elevated level of cancer amongst African American women in the Bayview.
More needs to be done by our public health officials to research, understand and address this impact. It is too easy to find Bayview residents who lost family members to early deaths, debilitating asthma and other conditions.
This has led us to the clearest case of environmental racism that’s been seen in a long time. We have to hold accountable the corporations and those individuals who have been hired to protect public health.
The way I am handling this is by voting for Theo Ellington as our District Supervisor on Nov. 6. I’ve known Theo since before moving to the Bayview in 2015.
Theo, as young as he is, and as a native son of the Bayview, is clear-eyed on this issue. I grew up in New York City in the ‘60s and was in high school when Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972.
Theo, like Chisholm, is “un-bought and un-bossed” by corporate money. He is our best choice for challenging the systemic forces of greed, racism and the struggle for work and affordable housing that have led us to this point.
But whatever your positions and your choices are for District 10, please come out and vote in these mid-term elections. Make your own voice heard. We need each other, now more than ever, to be united in change, for the good of our community and our families.
Linda Parker Pennington is a consultant in human resources and talent management, leadership development and executive coaching who formerly served as vice president for Human Resources at SF Goodwill and former director for Global Talent Management and Career Development at Google, among other prominent positions. She can be reached via Twitter: @lindaparkerpen.