Ella Hill Hutch holds community up during the COVID pandemic

James Spingola, executive director of the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, and our on-the-spot reporter Malik Washington both came through 111 Taylor Street in the Tenderloin after serving their time behind bars. Now they both are FREE and serving their community in diverse and magnificent ways, getting together in May 2021 for the interview and to discuss ways to collaborate in uplifting Black San Franciscans. All Power to the People! – Photo: Tiffany Hall

by Malik Washington

“When the pandemic hit, many places locked their doors. I kept the doors of the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center open because I knew our neighbors needed help and I was determined that this would be the place of help and refuge.” – Ella Hill Hutch Community Center Director James Spingola

Her name was Ella Hill Hutch. She was born on June 9, 1923. Ms. Hutch was the first Black woman to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Harvey Milk was a colleague and friend. 

Supervisor Hutch was known as a passionate fighter for her people, and that legacy is upheld by the director of the community center which bears her name.

James Spingola is the director of the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, located at 1050 McCallister in the Fillmore District. James, affectionately known as “Uncle Stank” to everyone in the neighborhood, comes from humble beginnings. 

He was raised in the rough and tumble Turk Street Projects and in his journey to find himself and his purpose had a brush or two with law enforcement. James did some time in prison and eventually was released. For some people, that would be the end of the story. However, for James it was just the start of an incredible new chapter to his life.

I sat down recently with Mr. Spingola and he described how the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center teamed up with a local doctor named Catherine James and how together they were able to provide health care and hope to the community during the COVID pandemic.

James Spingola poses with Ms. Angel, one of the team members who works in the Maxine Hall Clinic in the rear of the Ella Hill Hutch property. – Photo: Malik Washington

James recalled that when COVID hit, the Maxine Hall Clinic on Ellis was under renovation and was closed for business. The community around the Ella Hill Hutch Center has numerous senior living centers and nursing home-like facilities. As many of us know, the most vulnerable human beings when it comes to COVID-19 are the elderly and infirm. 

The timing of the Maxine Hall Clinic being shuttered for renovations created an opportunity that Uncle Stank took hold of. James said: “We needed a health clinic for our people, and I had some space here at the center. I teamed up with Dr. Catherine James and we began putting together a plan to use our tennis court area and other pieces of the property to build a hospital where people could get tested for COVID and receive other medical services that were desperately needed.” 

As I interviewed James, he took me on a tour of the property and showed me how they had moved in trailers on the back part near the tennis courts. This was the new Maxine Hall Clinic.

Sister Betty and Sister Gloria show their appreciation and solidarity in front of a beautiful mural which is right in the front of the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center at 1050 McAllister street in the Fillmore District. – Photo: Malik Washington 

I asked James how he informed the community of what he was doing, and he said: “We recruited and trained some young people to act as community ambassadors. They knocked on people’s doors and distributed flyers. Word of mouth also was an effective way we used in order to spread the word that the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center was a place where you could get help in the midst of the COVID pandemic.”

I asked James, other than health care, what other services did he provide to the community? He responded by saying: “We provided PPE, hot meals, books and clothing. Anything I had, I gave, and we continue to embrace that line of thinking.”

James and his team continue to serve the people of the Fillmore District. His selfless spirit reminded me of another servant of the people here in Bayview Hunters Point, Ms. Gwendolyn Westbrook, CEO of the United Council of Human Services, better known as Mother Brown’s.

Both James and I are well aware that the COVID pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color – however, there are not many Black people who are skilled in putting together the analytical data and empirical evidence that lawmakers look for when allocating funds in order to respond to that disproportionate impact. 

Would the data and analysis look different if the people doing the data collecting looked like the people who were suffering? 

With this in mind, James informed me that he and his team are applying for a research grant that will teach Black people to do the analytical research which focuses on OUR communities. This would be something profound and unique. 

I must ask all of you reading this piece to think about something. Wouldn’t the data and analysis look different if the people doing the data collecting looked like the people who were suffering? 

Remember when those billions of dollars were being handed out to small businesses that were hit hard by the COVID pandemic? Look around and see how many Black businesses and communities were saved by Donald Trump and his sycophants after the pandemic hit.

I asked James about what he hoped the future would bring to the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center and he said this: “Ella Hill has been an anchor institution in this community since 1981. There are developers who would love to have this real estate that we are on. 

“My thing is this: First and foremost, we ain’t getting put out. I say to the developers, build us a state-of-the-art facility right here on this property, and if you want to put a couple hundred housing units with that, then so be it; but give this community what it deserves, and that is a state-of-the-art facility so that we can continue to do the work we do.”

James made it crystal clear that he could not have done this without the support and genius of Dr. Catherine James. Together they helped build community and relationships that thrived and flourished amidst a crisis not ever seen before. 

Dr. Catherine James with James Spingola stand outside the Maxine Hall Health Clinic in May. The gifted SF Health Network doctor teamed up with our fearless community to transform the inactive clinic into a heavily relied upon emergency COVID and care facility for the largely elder, low-income, Black and Brown neighborhood. 

It was truly a pleasure and honor to interview Mr. James Spingola and I predict that we will be collaborating much more in the near future in order to develop programs and initiatives that promote health, wellness, safety and love throughout the City and County of San Francisco. 

I met a few elders on my way back to my car after the interview and they had nothing but praise for the work that Uncle Stank continues to do in the Fillmore. I think it is important to support our sisters and brothers who continue to unselfishly serve when times are hard.

As I always say: “If we don’t take care of and love one another, who will?”

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win, All Power to the People.

Bay View reporter Malik Washington can be reached at Malik@sfbayview.com. Contact him whenever you see news happening. Please visit our website, sfbayview.com, read and share the knowledge, wisdom, understanding and Black culture contained in our one-of-a-kind national Black newspaper and follow @sfbayview on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.