by Anna Hennessey
Longtime Potrero Terrace and Annex resident John W. Smith Jr. passed away on Sunday, April 24, 2022, at age 75. He is survived by his daughter Kiowa, his four stepchildren, Belinda, Racquel, Enrico and Albert, and his eleven grandchildren. Daisy, John’s lifelong partner and love of his life, predeceased him in 2003.
Known to many in the neighborhood as “The Mayor of Potrero Hill,” John had since 1955 lived in Potrero Hill’s Terrace and Annex Public Housing community, holding immense historical knowledge and experience of San Francisco and especially of life in Potrero Hill. In a 2017 article for The Potrero View newspaper, the director of the Potrero Hill Archives Project, Peter Linenthal, noted that John had likely lived in Potrero Terrace-Annex for longer than any other resident.
Born in 1947 at Stanford Hospital in San Francisco – which moved to Palo Alto in 1959 – John remembered his childhood very well. In different interviews, as well as through stories told to his children and friends, John recollected having moved to Potrero Hill from the Channel Project, a development that at that time existed over the hill towards the bay on Iowa and 25th Streets, currently located beneath the 280 freeway.
In a 2020 unpublished video interview with San Francisco filmmakers Ken Fisher and Mariangela Mistretta, John talked about his move from Channel Project to Potrero Hill when he was a boy:
“To this kid, it was like coming to Shangri La … it had trees … it had grass. And from over the hill, Channel Project was hard rock like this floor here … As far as the grounds, as far as the manicured lawns and everything, at my age then, it was heaven. Heaven.”
John remembered manicured lawns with low, groomed hedges that he and his friends would hop over.
John’s father died when he was 5 years old, but John described his childhood on the hill with his mother Emily M. Smith, a nurse, as idyllic. An only child, he remembered lots of trees and nature and spending time watching red-tailed hawks flying in the sky. John and his friends had bikes and as kids they would ride around the city freely, making excursions to places like North Beach and Chinatown.
In the 1950s, the residents of Potrero Terrace-Annex were predominantly white and John said that his family was one of the first Black families on the hill. Following the Great Depression, the complex primarily housed poor whites. John remembered manicured lawns with low, groomed hedges that he and his friends would hop over. He had friendly relations with the neighbors, many of whom were white, and he also had two good friends who were Brothers – “Ronny and Donny.”
Ronny was Ronald Williams, of whom John spoke in his 2018 interview with Philip DeAndrade for the Potrero Hill Archives Project. They went to Starr King Elementary School in Potrero Hill and also knew O.J. Simpson, who was born in 1947 and grew up in Terrace-Annex.
John said that while he and O.J. would play at each other’s homes as children, John was closer to Truman (Melvin Leon), O.J.’s older brother, than he was to the future football and acting star. John later attended Everett Middle School and then Galileo High School in San Francisco.
As a child, John also became a member of the Columbia Park Boys Club on Guerrero between 16th and 17th Streets, funded and served by the Knights of Columbus and now known as the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco. Membership in the organization gave John even more opportunities to interact with the outdoors, offering him the chance to fish and do summer camp.
These childhood experiences fostered a love of nature in John that followed him throughout his life. In his adult years, he regularly took his daughter Kiowa and his four stepchildren camping, teaching them what he knew about the natural world.
In his 2020 interview with Fisher and Mistretta, John also described how one man in the neighborhood who had a Harley Davidson and belonged to the Sons of Hawaii Motorcycle Club taught him about mechanics. When John was 14 years old, the two of them put together a motor scooter for John so that John could deliver papers for The Bulletin – possibly The San Francisco Call Bulletin. These interactions in John’s early life had a positive impact on the work and hobbies that John would pursue as an adult.
John’s daughter Kiowa remembers her father working on vehicles and says that “he could take a motorcycle down and put it back together.” John passed these skills onto Kiowa, and she learned from a young age how to work on bikes and cars. For years, John worked as a professional truck driver, driving four million miles accident free, and he also rode motorcycles.
He took Kiowa on some of his trips across the country and she remembers him taking her to places like the Nabisco and Pringles factories so that she could see their inner workings. One time, he took her to the Seattle Space Needle when she was about 8 years old. They slept in the truck, looking up at the stars and the Space Needle.
In his 2018 interview for the Potrero Hill Archives Project, John also spoke about his experience as a musician. John started playing the trumpet as a child, taking the bus after school to a music studio in Daly City for lessons. He then played the trombone and the clarinet.
In 1964, John joined the United States Army. Stationed in Germany and Denmark, John remembers meeting many people and seeing beautiful places during his time in the military. The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, for example, left an impression on John, and he thought back to those places after he had returned to the United States and had completed his time with the armed services.
Eddie Kittrell, a fellow longtime resident of Potrero Terrace-Annex who moved from the complex recently, knew John well, serving in the military around the same time that John did. He remembers John, stating: “We were a band of Brothers, both veterans, and that’s what we would say to each other when we would meet each other at the VA TAP (Veterans Administration Transition Assistance Program), my brother Rest in Peace.”
Around the same time that John was in the Army in the mid-60s, however, the demographics of Potrero Hill changed and more Black families moved to the Terrace-Annex community. John noted that along with this demographic shift came a change in the treatment of the land and space of the hill.
Fences between units appeared and the manicured lawns he had enjoyed as a child disappeared. The buildings of the complex became rundown and problems such as mold and rodents began to crop up. The hedges that he and his friends would jump over were torn down.
Thinking back on that time in his interview with Fisher and Mistretta, John stated: “I got the impression we were in a zoo or a jail.” Although the fences came down years later, they have gone back up over the past decade during the city’s current “revitalization” of Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex. In his interview with Fisher and Mistretta, John called these fences “a fence to nowhere” and a waste of money, stating: “Why bring it back, you’re about to tear the place down anyway?”
Though perhaps unrelated, the timing of the demographic shift and treatment of the community on Potrero Hill in the 1960s coincided with San Francisco’s “urban renewal” of the Fillmore District. As is well documented, that movement decimated the Black community in the Fillmore, displacing many families and destroying the architecture and infrastructure of what had been known as the “Harlem of the West.”
In a 2017 interview with KQED, John talked about the displacement of the Black community and how the texture of the Fillmore changed, as well as the impact that the city’s current redevelopment of Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex has been having on the people in the community.
John remarked that Potrero Hill is prime real estate and that those who are wealthy will likely take over the land with views of the bay, while the poor will get pushed into the least desirable areas of the hill or relocated out of the city entirely. At the time of the interview, he hoped that the red-tailed hawks on the hill would not disappear due to the redevelopment.
He believed that the meetings Bridge has been holding over the years with residents have primarily served as a “dog and pony show” with construction that ignores the health of the residents.
John served as President of the Terrace-Annex Tenants Association for about seven years, stepping down only recently in 2021 when he was relocated from his longtime residence on Wisconsin Street to 1101 Connecticut Street, a new high-rise building that represents the first major new build towards redevelopment of the entire complex. John had for years observed firsthand the work of Bridge Housing, the developer selected by the Mayor’s Office in 2008 to redevelop Potrero Terrace and Annex.
He believed that the meetings Bridge has been holding over the years with residents of the complex have primarily served as a “dog and pony show” and that there have been issues with construction that ignore the health of the residents. These include the blowing up of dirt into the air, some of which passed through John’s apartment windows over a 10-month period.
Over the past decade, residents and community members have regularly spoken up at the Bridge meetings about the problems of the air monitoring during construction, and the need to look into how the lack of air quality could be affecting tenants. In his 2017 interview with KQED, John spoke of the developers and construction, stating “they don’t give a damn because it’s all about the profit.”
One of John’s primary goals when he was Tenants Association President was to try and help the residents get jobs, especially construction jobs right in Terrace-Annex since the city’s redevelopment of the complex would entail long-term construction. However, John claimed not to have had a lot of success even though there was ample interest among the residents to work in construction.
John’s daughter Kiowa remembers her father as a man of love and discipline who took time with his children, teaching them about how to nurture both themselves and the broader world in which they lived.
John’s second main goal as President was to try and empower tenants by finding ways for them to have their own appliances, such as washing machines. In the end, he felt that he was powerless in those attempts. “We don’t have enough power, none of us have enough power,” he said in his 2020 interview with Fisher and Mistretta, pointing to continued problems of mold, rodents, paint coming off the ceiling, steam heat out of broken pipes, and especially air quality, which could affect residents’ health 20 years down the line. John always believed that the residents at Terrace-Annex should have more of a say in the upkeep of the units their families lived in.
Edward Hatter, Executive Director of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House (NABE) and longtime advocate of the Terrace-Annex community, knew John for years. Remembering John, he states “we say goodbye to John Smith, a true friend and neighbor. And a true community leader.”
Peter Linenthal, Director of the Potrero Hill Archives Project mentioned above, explains that John was always very generous in sharing his memories of Potrero Hill, also stating, “he was such a nice guy, friendly, a big man with a big heart.”
John’s daughter Kiowa remembers her father as a man of love and discipline who took time with his children, teaching them about how to nurture both themselves and the broader world in which they lived. John was a walking encyclopedia, she says, and had a constant stream of knowledge to share with her. Recalling his love of animals, especially dogs, she also remembers that he never showed fear of anything in the world. Even in his last moments, John was thinking about his daughter and other loved ones, telling them not to worry about him.
We remember John, “The Mayor of Potrero Hill,” for his strength, kindness and laughter, as well as for the powerful way that he stood up for his community.
Anna Hennessey is a San Francisco based writer and author. An advocate of the Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex community, she is co-founder of the San Francisco Birth Circle, a support group for mothers and families in Potrero Hill. Hennessey’s other writings about Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex for the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper include: Starr King Elementary, segregation and wealth and Brenda Kittrell (1955-2020): Advocate for public housing community. Hennessey may be reached at email@example.com or through her website: annahennessey.com.