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What happened to black San Francisco?
Jaimal Yogis | January 18, 2008
Once home to the famous Fillmore and a thriving black middle class, San Francisco has suffered the steepest drop in African American population of any major U.S. city-and no longer has enough black residents to fill the seats in Monster Park. As their progeny disperses, the matriarchs and patriarchs of prominent families fight on in a traumatized Bayview, the last black community in what's supposed to be one of the greatest cities on earth.
It was a dice game among friends. No one thought it would end in gunshots, much less murder. But few were really surprised, either. This was Bayview–Hunters Point, a neighborhood where just about every resident had lost a loved one at some point to bullets or drugs. This was San Francisco’s ghetto, and still is, a place many San Franciscans have never come and never will.
No one was willing to testify against the dice-game killer. Just as in ghettos across the country, a code of silence had developed in the neighborhood. It works like this: you don’t snitch unless you want to die or relocate to another state. So this murder, too, went unsolved and unpunished. When the screaming died down, it was just another funeral to attend.
The murdered man was Charles Oliver’s father. Charles, now 21, was 3 at the time, too young to understand, but he says he knew his dad was in a special place. Life in Bayview–Hunters Point remained tough for this family. When Charles was 9, he was beaten up by some kids from a rival block. This was just as the 1990s gang wars in the area were getting started. Stacked on top of his father’s murder, the beating was too much for his mother, Tonette Lane. She grew up here, too. But enough was enough. If her children were going to beat the statistics, she decided she had only one option: get out.
So she did. Like so many black families from San Francisco’s last remnant of an African American community, Lane moved her family to the suburbs. Their house is nothing fancy, but it’s a big improvement over those moldy, boarded-up projects in San Francisco. “I just remember it smelled bad over there,” says Lovetia, Tonette’s 15-year-old daughter. She was 5 when they left San Francisco. “It always smelled like pee,” she says, laughing. Everyone else laughs, too, because apparently it’s true. It did smell like pee.
Census figures show that from 1990 to 2000, while San Francisco’s overall population increased more than 7 percent, the number of people who listed their race as African American fell from 76,343 to 58,791, a decline of 23 percent, more than any major city in the country has experienced. The black population has been decreasing steadily since its peak of 96,078 in 1970; since then, the percentage of San Franciscans who are African American has dropped from 13 percent to 8 percent. Local residents swear that Bayview–Hunters Point was about 80 percent African American in 1970. Now, the percentage has dropped to 45, which means there is no majority African American neighborhood in San Francisco at all.
Partly it’s the city’s extraordinary real estate market, which is pushing nonwealthy families of all races out of San Francisco. In a city with little room to expand, median home prices hovering around $800,000, and an affordable housing quota that lags 5,000 units behind official state and local targets, it is only natural that residents who can never expect to afford a home—or those for whom the only way to make any real money is to sell a home they bought cheaply years ago—are leaving. San Francisco has also become a city where manufacturing jobs have steadily been replaced by professional jobs requiring high levels of education, which low-income African Americans are less likely to have. The resulting stats are disturbing. The median household income for blacks in San Francisco is about $30,000; for whites, it’s $63,000.
But the streets of Bayview–Hunters Point teem with alternative theories. This is ethnic cleansing, some people say. It’s the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency trying to kick the African Americans out once again. It’s the result of the crack the CIA spreads so blacks will kill each other off. Or it’s an experiment the Navy has been conducting on toxicity: how long can these Negroes last near two Superfund sites? It’s the large-scale industries out here that won’t hire enough black youth. Or maybe it’s the white-owned media—MTV, VH1, and even BET—glorifying gangster rap, brainwashing young men into quitting school and selling drugs.
Or maybe it’s just history, others say. Residents speak of a dark cloud hanging over this part of the city, a cloud that will not disappear.
But this is not a story about theories. This is a story about three prominent families from Bayview–Hunters Point. The elders are leaders of the community who have fought hard, and are still fighting, to make the neighborhood a good place to live. They came here in the 1940s from the South with high hopes for a better life. They settled in, bought homes, raised children, and made the best of being relegated to the dirty industrial part of town. And they plan to live out their days here. Flawed as it may be, the Bayview is home.
But not so for their children and grandchildren. It’s their turn to search for a better life, and rather than running from Confederate flags, Jim Crow laws, and the ghosts of slavery, they’re running from the self-proclaimed most progressive city in the country. They feel they have no choice. The neighborhood is barely hanging on as it is, they say, and whatever the city has planned in the way of redevelopment is too little, too late—and in any event, not to be trusted. Some of their elders feel sad, even betrayed, by their flight. But others understand the deep resignation that is making the next generation feel their future is anywhere but here.
Weaving through suburban streets on the way to the Lanes’ house in Suisun City, near Fairfield, one sees powerboats everywhere. Trees cast wide shadows on manicured lawns and bushes clipped into ovals and squares.
The house is quaint: clean beige siding popping out of trim green grass. The air is thick with the scent of barbecue. Tonette is cooking. Charles and his best friend are watching basketball in the living room on a big-screen TV. Little Tonette, 7, is practicing her twirls on the wooden deck out back. Her braids, fastened by clear plastic beads, are slapping back and forth against her forehead. “This is my stage,” she announces.
Wooden cabinets line the kitchen, a computer sits in the dining room, and the backyard is nicely landscaped. Sometimes, Tonette says, she even feels a bit snobby about having moved out of the hood. But it’s not like she ran. She needs to be clear about that. “I ain’t scared of nobody,” she says. She came to give her family a chance. That’s all.
Tonette rents the four-bedroom house in Suisun City for $1,450 per month, and soon she’ll be able to buy her own home—though probably not in California. Still, as a single mother working as a mental health counselor, that will be good. That will be very good because she will have surpassed all the expectations for a single African American mother from San Francisco. “I was going to get out by any means necessary, and I tell all my friends they should do the same,” Tonette tells me, basting more chicken wings.
The move has yielded nothing but good news. Charles graduated from Armijo High School with honors and is now studying criminal law at the local community college. Tonette’s daughter Tamranisha, 19, graduated too, and is planning on starting college soon. She wants to be a mental health counselor like her mom.
In Bayview–Hunters Point, their chances of going on to college were slim. Almost 37 percent of Bayview residents over 25 don’t even have high school diplomas. Only 11.6 percent hold college degrees.
Charles shrugs off the statistics. He’s convinced he would have done just as well had he grown up around the gangs and drugs in Bayview. He wouldn’t have run with that crowd, he says. His mother thinks so, too. Her son was different. “But you never know when some freak accident is going to happen there,” she says. “Like some stray bullet.” Two of Tonette’s cousins were the victims of random shootings. “Every time we go back, I pray,” she says. “The kids can go see family or attend funerals. But that’s it.”
When the Lanes do go to San Francisco, it’s often to see Tonette’s grandmother, Espanola Jackson. Jackson is a round marshmallow of a woman who can usually be seen in what she calls her trademark church hat. She calls everyone baby, honey, or sweetie. She is 73, but moves more like she’s 60, stomping around as she rants about this or that. She is very stubborn.
Many have dubbed her the mother of Bayview, but her actual family is dispersed. She is a mother of 6, grandmother of 21, and great-grandmother of 43. Two of Jackson’s children have left Bayview for the Central Valley and other surrounding areas, and she guesses about half of her 43 great-grandchildren now live outside the city. Some of her clan moved after retiring, some to escape violence, others for relationships, job opportunities, or to afford a home.
Jackson’s house stands bright yellow on a steep hill. She lives in a residential neighborhood on the west side of Bayview. Most people think of Bayview–Hunters Point as one big ghetto full of public housing. But that’s mainly Hunters Point. Except for the Alice Griffith project, which is five blocks from Jackson’s house, Bayview consists of acres of charming homes like Jackson’s that used to be owned by Italian, Irish, German, and French families. The vast majority of Bayview residents are hardworking churchgoers like Jackson and her family. Most of the crime comes from the projects on Hunters Point Hill, but notoriety washes over the entire neighborhood, making people think it’s all crack houses and gangsters.
Jackson came to San Francisco from Texas with her mother when she was 10 years old. The year was 1943, and Jackson’s family was arriving along with thousands of African Americans from the South, mostly farmers. Many blacks came here to work in the shipyards and steel industry associated with World War II, but they also worked in restaurants, hotels, hospitals, construction—anything that was available. Between 1940 and 1945, San Francisco’s African American population grew more than 600 percent. Many moved to Bayview–Hunters Point, where temporary housing had been built for shipyard workers. Others moved to the Fillmore, where they took over the homes of Japanese families forced into internment camps.
Jackson’s mother got a job as a dishwasher. She didn’t come here for work, though. She came here because she had heard it was the Golden Gate to heaven, says Jackson, laughing at her mother’s naïveté.
African Americans were deeply discriminated against—kept out of most unions and barred from white neighborhoods—but in many ways it was better than in the South. Jackson and her family remember the early years as fairly prosperous for Bayview–Hunters Point. “I didn’t have no problem getting a job,” says Gwendolyn Jackson Fagan, Jackson’s daughter, who now lives in Clearlake. “Anyone who wanted a job was able to get a job.” Residents say everything they wanted was on Third Street. Old black-and-white photos of that street reveal a clean commercial drag that looks nothing like it does today, with run-down liquor stores on almost every corner. “There were two movie theaters, shoe stores, barber shops,” Jackson recalls. “We had a grocery store on top of the hill. It was also a safe neighborhood. If a neighbor saw you doing something wrong, they could spank you and put you in your place,” she says. “We could leave our doors open.”
All of that started to change as the shipyard operations began to decline in the mid-’60s. At the same time, the GI Bill, new mortgage lending programs, and integration were luring whites and professional African Americans to the suburbs, which meant more unemployment—and frustration—for the blacks left behind.
The neighborhood was also suffering a spillover effect from what had been happening in the Fillmore. Even though the area had hosted a thriving black community and had been a national center for jazz and the blues, it was labeled a slum as part of the urban renewal trend that was sweeping the country. That’s when the policy of eminent domain was enforced under the Fillmore redevelopment plan. Renters, business owners, and homeowners could be forced to sell or vacate their property if it was deemed to be for “the public good” and were told they would get dibs on the redeveloped units. But many could not afford the new prices, and thousands were displaced in the process. Those who wanted to stay in San Francisco migrated to Bayview–Hunters Point, precisely at a time when most of the jobs were leaking out.
All of this fueled racial tensions and a burgeoning civil rights movement, which played a significant role in the history of Bayview–Hunters Point. A galvanizing event occurred in 1966, when the police shot an African American youth who was apparently fleeing a stolen car, and Bayview residents rioted.
The protests ushered in some federal funding for the neighborhood, and more African Americans bought homes or moved into public housing there. Jackson bought her home in 1968 for $26,000. It is now worth more than $500,000. (She won’t tell me the exact amount. “My taxes’ll go up, sweetie,” she says. “I’m not that dumb.”) To this day, a lot of African American families here own several homes that they bought in the ’50s and ’60s, for around $15,000. At 55 percent, Bayview has the highest rate of home ownership in the entire city, and 61 percent of those homes are owned by African Americans.
In 1974 the shipyard closed altogether, leaving about 8,000 people out of work. The Navy did not retrain those workers for other jobs, and an increasing number of families went on welfare. Then, in the ’80s, came the crack epidemic. “It seemed like everyone’s parents was on that shit,” says Hectic, a rapper from the Bayview who grew up in the projects and has since moved to Oakland.
You would think Espanola Jackson would be ready to leave. A lot of her friends have sold their houses and moved back to the South and to Sacramento, where $500,000 can go a long way. But she adores her home. “Honey, look at my view,” she tells me, grabbing my arm and pulling me to her front window. We can see the San Francisco skyline, Twin Peaks, and the whole East Bay.Plus, she has a lot more work to do.
Jackson is running for supervisor of District 10 in the November election, so she keeps up with political issues. Right now, a board of supervisors meeting is running on the TV in her living room, and the supes are discussing gun violence in Bayview–Hunters Point, a topic that’s been hot for 15 years. Jackson chimes in occasionally with an “Oh no” or a “That’s right.” When San Franciscans voted to outlaw handguns last year, she went and chanted on the steps of City Hall: “We won’t give up our guns.” She says it’s an issue of self-defense. Don’t these people know where she lives?
This is Jackson’s second run for public office, but she’s been active in the neighborhood for the last 40 years or so from her perch on a long list of community boards and nonprofits. A street on Hunters Point Hill is named Espanola Street in her honor. She was one of the main activists who got federal dollars into the community to open the Southeast Health Center—one of two medical facilities in Bayview–Hunters Point. She also helped broker a deal that allowed a sewage treatment plant to be built in Bayview in exchange for a new community college in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the treatment plant stinks up the neighborhood while few African American kids end up attending the college.
The issue of the day is the Bayview–Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan. The plan is complex, but it amounts to the city’s attempt to revitalize the area by investing the neighborhood’s future tax dollars—which will come from increasing property values—in the community now. Much of that money, an estimated $188 million, would be used for things like new affordable housing (to rent and to own), low-interest business loans, and programs that train residents for new jobs or teach them how to start businesses and buy homes. Another goal is to turn the Third Street corridor into a thriving shopping district and attract a grocery store to Bayview, which currently has none. No funds have been allocated for any of the neighborhood’s troubled projects, since they fall under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Housing Authority. But talks are underway to see if there’s some way they could benefit from the plan.
But Jackson doesn’t buy all that. She has turned off the supervisor meeting and is glaring at me. She explains how the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency is trying to kick out African Americans, how they’ve been doing that for 40 years. She tells me not to listen to any lies about affordable housing and new jobs. “Affordable for who?” she asks in her usual confrontational tone. “That’s what we always say.”
She’s referring to one of the most common critiques of the city’s plan. While it will require either 15 or 20 percent of units in a new housing development to be “affordable,” with subsidized mortgages for qualified applicants, the lottery for scarce slots will pit genuinely poor residents against, for example, families of four making up to $91,200 a year. Officials counter that by saying preference will be given to those at the lower
end of the scale.
Even if residents and business owners will benefit from the plan, many fear it will translate directly to gentrification, which will probably result in an even smaller black community. “These improvements were never for us,” is a common sentiment I heard around the neighborhood.
But the sparks really fly when you mention the words “eminent domain.” Jackson lived in the Fillmore as a child and remembers the scores of homes that were bulldozed to widen Geary Boulevard, and the thousands of African American families that left the Fillmore, and even San Francisco, forever. It was an event the black community never quite recovered from, both economically and emotionally. She says it’s happening all over again, and she is not the only one. The local newspaper, the San Francisco Bay View, owned and run by Willie
Ratcliff, runs stories about this every week. “You saw George Bush lie about WMDs,” Ratcliff, 73, tells me one day in his deep Southern accent. “And that’s all they’re doing now, just lying, plain lying about what they’re going to do. It’s a big land grab here.”
On paper, this is not the Fillmore all over again. This time, no residential property can be taken by eminent domain, period. Plus, a community-elected board called the Project Area Committee, or PAC, must sign off on any eminent domain decisions. PAC chair Angelo King, who is from the Fillmore and now lives in the Bayview, says that he will not let any residents’ thriving businesses be taken by eminent domain. Only blighted industrial buildings, wrecking yards, and abandoned commercial properties will be fair game.
It’s hard to tell how much of the community supports the redevelopment. By some estimates it’s half, but others will tell you no one supports it, and still others say everyone does. The opposition is currently conducting a signature campaign to put the plan on the November citywide ballot, and if it succeeds, we may finally know the community’s true feelings. At the moment, those who oppose it, like Jackson and Ratcliff, who both wield considerable clout, are often the most vocal. And their allies can be found on just about every street corner. “They’re trying to kick us off this hill,” says Tessie Ester, president of the Tenant’s Union in Hunters Point, who says she has seen a lot of recent evictions from the projects and fears they’re related to the redevelopment. “They’re getting ready to redevelop, and the more people they can evict, the less money they’ll have to give out.”
Even for those who support the redevelopment, it often seems like too little, too late. The fact that the city is investing in the community now that many African American families have skipped town makes some residents suspicious that the city planned it this way. There is history here, a history that has not always been kind.
According to surveys by San Francisco Educational Services, young people in Bayview–Hunters Point tend to “maintain unrealistic expectations of stardom in sports or entertainment as the only alternative to low-end jobs.” But Kev Kelley is one of the lucky ones: he just might do the impossible.
Kev’s got talent and good looks. He’s friends with all the biggies. “Mistah F.A.B., Dead Prez, Shock-G. I fuck with all them,” he tells me the first time we talk on the phone. Shock-G from Digital Underground produces some of Kev’s songs, and Kevin Epps, a documentary filmmaker from Bayview–Hunters Point, made Kev one of three stars in a documentary called Rap Dreams. And Anthony Marshall, cofounder of the popular MTV show Lyricist Lounge, recently agreed to manage Kev’s music and modeling career. “Sometimes you just see something special in someone and you know he has what it takes,” says Marshall. Marshall is talking about taking Kev to Los Angeles soon. Kev likes the idea. His girlfriend, Kenisha Hughes, wants to study psychology at UCLA, so the plan seems to work all around.
Kenisha, who is 19, is cooking fried chicken and lasagna in their tiny kitchen in North Oakland. She and Kev live in a small one-bedroom apartment that Kev’s grandfather owns. They pay $500 per month, but the apartment has almost no furniture or adornments because they consider it only temporary digs. The two photos on the wall are of Kev modeling expensive suits.
No glamour today, though. Kev, unshaven, is wearing baggy blue jeans, black Exoticas, a Bob Marley shirt, and a brown San Francisco Giants hat that hovers over his cornrows and the tops of his ears. He’s performing one of his raps for us. Kev is always performing something. He’s a true artist, says Marshall, by which he means someone who can’t contain his creative energy. The chorus of Kev’s rap goes like this: “Step into my soul / See what I’ve seen / I felt pain / I was born to get the money and the fame.” It’s an expression of his all-out drive, he says. Kev has theories about everything, including why African American youth seem so obsessed with fame.
“See, even in Africa,” he says when he finishes rapping, “black culture was always about shining. I think, being in a culture that has been so deprived, our ancestors, the youth, the coming generations, they thrive off being able to say, ‘Look, this is me. Like, I came straight from Newcomb, and this is me.’ ” Newcomb is an infamous street in Bayview where Kev lived for almost his whole childhood.
Kev loves Bayview–Hunters Point both for its tightly knit community and its air of danger. But right now, Oakland is better. “Being young and black, it’s kind of just a statistical thing,” he says. “A lot of times shit happens. It’s not like they’re coming for you; just shit happens.” Kev got shot at when he was 14, and that scared him badly. And Kev and Kenisha both have friends who have been killed.
But the neighborhood’s violence is not the only reason they moved. Kev didn’t qualify for the projects in Bayview–Hunters Point because he had a criminal record. Nothing too serious, he says: possession of some weed and, at the time, a pending case of crack possession, which he says was later dropped. But it was enough to disqualify him under the One-Strike law that was introduced in 1996. When he got laid off from his job installing the Third Street light rail, Oakland started looking better.
Kev says he will always represent San Francisco in his music. He is proud to be from Bayview–Hunters Point, the place that earned him the ghetto credentials often necessary in the rap business. But San Francisco does not produce rap stars. The last rap group to hit it big from Bayview–Hunters Point, and San Francisco in general, was RBL (Ruthless by Law) Posse. And shortly after the group hit it big, one of the founding members, Mr. Cee, was murdered. It seems appropriate in a certain way. “When you live that life, you don’t live long,” Kev says. Even in the gangster rap world, the Bayview, particularly Hunters Point, has gained a reputation for ruthless thuggery. “This neighborhood has psychological problems,” says Marshall, who is from New York. “Thirteen-year-olds don’t shoot each other just for money.”
“People in Hunters Point are so desperate now,” Kev says. “That’s why as a rapper, I feel so compelled to make sure I make it. ’Cause L.A. got Snoop, Compton got Eazy E, Florida got Trick Daddy, Brooklyn got B.I.G., Queens has Nas.”
In Oakland, the chances of making it are slightly better. Perhaps as a result, Oakland has produced some legendary stars: Too Short, M.C. Hammer, and Digital Underground, to name a few. The city continues to spawn big names. Mistah F.A.B., the Oakland rapper who starred with Kev in Rap Dreams, is now, as they say, blowing up. Kev wants badly to be next.
We’re driving to Bayview–Hunters Point in my van. It’s sort of a field trip back home. Kev wants to introduce me to all his friends, show me how much everyone back in the hood is cheering him toward stardom. Kev swears that he is going to save the neighborhood through rap.
We arrive in front of Kev’s favorite restaurant on Third Street, called Rudy’s BBQ Pit. Kev is whirling around on the sidewalk, shaking hands, giving hugs, introducing me to everyone in sight. “Tell this reporter how I’m doing this rap thing,” he suggests to some young guys standing on the corner. They nod and smile. “Yeah, you doin’ that.”
A black Suburban with shiny silver rims pulls up on the corner in front of the BBQ shop. The driver is a middle-aged man with dreadlocks, the son of the owner of a nearby gym. Kev wants me to interview him. I’m leaning into the Suburban asking questions, recording. Then, two silver Crown Victorias pull up behind the Suburban and a voice shouts, “Green sweatshirt, get your hands out of your pockets!” Again. “Get your hands out of your pockets! In the green, get your hands out of your pockets now!”
I look up. Seven plain-clothes cops have surrounded us. One of them, the only African American, is pointing a gun at me, the guy in the green sweatshirt, the only white guy. I begin to take my hands out of my pockets, but my right hand is still gripping a digital voice recorder, which is gray. I realize this could look like a gun. I drop it and put my hands up.
I try to act calm. Everyone else is acting calm. The cops search our pockets and check Kev’s ID. (They don’t check mine.) The officer who pulled a gun on me is named Officer Scott.
Kev tells him I’m a reporter, but he’s not interested. That just riles Kev even more. “This is why I brought him here, just so he can experience firsthand what we go through every day. ’Cause it shows what it means to be in the neighborhood, that’s all. With this face!”
Scott looks pissed. “I don’t discriminate,” he says, and tells Kev he’s going to give him a ticket. We debate whether Kev and I were loitering or not. Eventually, after calling in to see if Kev had any warrants—he didn’t—they let us go.
Now, safely inside the restaurant, Kev tells his friends that I just had my first gun pulled on me. He thinks this is hysterical. “I told you,” Kev shouts, “the police is the fuckin’ hugest faggots over here. I hate ’em. They are totally racist, they are hating on anyone from the community with any success. They will ride by you 20 times in two hours. It just makes no sense. I mean, go investigate a murder. Do something with your time instead of harassing.”
But Officer Scott, who would not give his first name when contacted later, reports that this corner has been notorious for shootings and drug arrests for many years. It’s part of his job, he says, to case the area and check out anything he finds suspicious.
If Espanola Jackson is the mother of Bayview, Charlie Walker, Kev’s grandfather, is its father. Walker is a longtime activist and businessman in the community, as well as a good friend of former mayor Willie Brown who organized Brown’s lavish inaugural balls. He says that little in this neighborhood goes on without his consent. And he, like Jackson, is determined never to leave. “My grandfather don’t care if they build a million Starbucks here,” says Kev, as we drive to Walker’s house. “Fuck that. He’s staying.” But as Walker gets older, Kev believes he has to take up the reins, use his rap talents to inspire a generation left with nothing.
Walker’s new silver Mercedes is parked out front. Kev’s grandmother takes us upstairs to their cozy home, where little crystals and glassware are interspersed among photos of Walker posing with Willie Brown. Walker has cooked us yams, Cornish game hens and gravy, shrimp, and wild rice. He is already eating with his other grandsons when we arrive. I try to shake his hand, but Walker just stares at me. “I don’t get up or shake hands while I’m eating,” he says. Walker has a reputation for being a tough guy.
Kev leads me to Walker’s office after dinner, where we interrupt a nature show on cobras. Walker is a big bald man, who can look intimidating or warm depending on the moment. He is 73. He usually has a broad smile, but right now he is staring me down. The media has mostly covered Walker in a negative light. He has been accused of involvement in several political scandals, and he did some time in the ’80s for extortion, but he claims it was a politically motivated setup. I am, no doubt, the enemy—the press.
“I’ve gotten you the Charlie Walker exclusive,” boasts Kev when we enter the room. “These are tough to get.”
Walker frequently complains in his grandiloquent speeches to the board of supervisors that “there will be no black people left in San Francisco soon.” This seems to be one of his many high-rhetoric themes. He is running for supervisor, too, and in that capacity, he says he wants to stop the “hemorrhaging of blacks” from this neighborhood.
I have heard him say all this before, so it seems like a safe question to start with: why are all the black people leaving? But I’m stepping right into Walker’s trap. Everything has a tinge of racism in Charlie Walker’s world. “You know,” he says, turning off the cobra show, “just hearing you talk, it’s amazing to me that nobody has done a study on all the Germans who are going to be gone, or all the Mexicans who are invading, but they are interested in what is causing the blacks to leave the area. It’s like, why do the wildebeest go from a certain place to a certain place at a certain time of year.”
Walker is a bit of a radical, and he knows this. He says exactly what he is thinking. And he can talk like no one else I’ve met. For these reasons, a lot of people in Bayview—even those who disagree with him or think he’s corrupt—wonder if he might make a good supervisor. “He’s a bulldog,” says Muhammad Al-Kareem, a longtime Bayview resident. “We need a bulldog. We don’t need somebody to be nice.”
There are reasons why Walker doesn’t go for sugarcoating. Living in Bayview–Hunters Point, Walker has learned this rule: kill or be killed. His book, America Is Still the Place, ends with a photo of a lion eating a zebra. It is captioned with a simple motto: Law of the Jungle.�” That’s the moral. You do whatever is necessary to protect your family and feed yourself, Walker says. Anything else is extracurricular. Furthermore, you can’t trust anyone, especially the law. When Kev tells Walker the story about the cops pulling a gun on me on Third Street, Walker smiles as if to say: you naive kids. He uses the story to explain just what’s going on in this neighborhood. “You got the nigga treatment,” Walker says with a laugh.
Walker has reasons to be angry at the police. His nephew, Rick Walker, was arrested in Bayview for a rape and murder he did not commit. The tragedy drove his father, Walker’s brother, into the grave. Thanks to DNA testing and a miraculous appeal, Rick was declared innocent after 12 years in prison and released. “I’ve seen that kind of shit happen all my life,” says Walker. “It doesn’t surprise me anymore.”
Walker’s grandmother was a slave in Mississippi even after slavery was abolished. When Walker was a boy, she told him stories that affected him deeply—about whites having picnics, for instance, while watching blacks get lynched. Walker came from a working-class family; his father was a painter and his mother worked in a hospital. They always worked hard. “I didn’t even know what welfare was until I was 21,” says Walker.
As a young man, he went into the Air Force, where he learned about the trucking business. When he got out of the service, his father took him to sign up for the truckers’ union in San Francisco, a moment that defined his career. There were four or five white men standing at the union office, and they let Walker know what his chances were right away: “We don’t let niggers in this union,” Walker recalls them saying. Many white-controlled unions at the time either didn’t let African Americans in or kept them from progressing into highly skilled jobs. Walker’s father gave him some sage advice: “If you want to be a trucker, buy your own damn truck.”
Walker did buy a truck. Then more trucks. He now owns a very successful trucking company based in Bayview called Walker Trucking. And this is basically his message to black America: buy your own damn truck.
This is also his message to Kev. But Kev wants to be a rap star, a choice he and Walker regularly debate. It’s part friendly disagreement between family, part heated argument. Walker thinks rappers promote slavery by calling African American women bitches. Kev disagrees. He insists that when he says “bitches” in a song, it could be any woman, not just a black woman.
Walker, leaning back in his chair, responds with his usual diatribe about how young African Americans have forgotten the past. Blacks should be more like the Jews, he says, constantly teaching their progeny about slavery. Kev’s generation, Walker contends, are conspiring with white racists by embarrassing themselves on television saying idiotic things about their own women. Plus they’re so caught in their rap fantasies that they won’t even go get the available jobs out there, let alone buy their own damn truck.
“Now me,” Walker tells Kev, “if I wanted a job, I’d go to McDonald’s, and in a year, I’d be the manager. In three years, I’d be managing three. Why? Because I would follow the instructions. But the young blacks today, you say go work at McDonald’s and they look at you like you’re crazy.”
Kev is silent.
“Is that true?” I ask.
“Man, I would work at McDonald’s,” says Kev, clearly frustrated that they’re having this conversation again. “I agree with you, gramps.”
“Hold on, I’m not trying to embarrass you,” says Walker.
“Look,” Kev interrupts. “American culture is based on the dollar. If I was making millions of dollars, I don’t think you’d have nothing to say about it.”
Here, Walker throws up his hands and returns to his overarching thesis: how black America and Bayview–Hunters Point got truly screwed. He begins his speech with slavery. But then, slavery goes without saying, he adds. After that, blame Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s right, integration. Recently, Walker even called for segregating San Francisco’s schools again, a pretty unpopular suggestion.
The theory goes like this: just before integration, African Americans had started to get more education and make more money, says Walker. They were spending their money amongst each other, much like Walker’s favorite tribe, the Jews. This was happening in the Fillmore and Bayview–Hunters Point and all over America. But integration weeded out the elite African Americans: lawyers, dentists, and doctors left the ghetto. “None of them thought when they were riding that bus,” says Walker, “that the answer was, buy our own bus. None of them thought, fuck the lunch counter, we’ll buy our own lunch counter.” So uneducated African Americans were left to fester in ugly environmental wastelands like Bayview–Hunters Point, Compton, and the South Bronx. “And what did you think was going to happen?” he asks me in a high-pitched tone. “They would start to eat each other, just the way they’re doing now.”
The remedy, Walker says, is to promote black-owned businesses within black neighborhoods, especially banks that would loan money fairly. Many Bayview–Hunters Point residents say they have been redlined. Little research has been done on this, but a 2002 study by the Center for Community Change found that blacks in general, as well as Latinos, have significantly higher interest rates than whites in similar income brackets. Another study showed that around $113 million leaks out of the Bayview annually—money that could be spent in the neighborhood if there were more businesses close by, like a grocery store. Just to get weekly groceries, residents have to take two buses to the nearest Safeway on 16th Street and Potrero Avenue. “The dollar changes hands 18 times before it leaves the Jewish community,” says Walker. “It changes hands 2 times before it leaves the black community.” Jewish people would not stand for that, he says.
Walker has tried hard to instill his radical values of self-determination in his children and grandchildren. They’ve clearly been influenced, but they don’t seem to share his quest to keep Bayview black. “When I get up in the morning,” says Walker, “I want to see some black faces.”
But two of Walker’s daughters have already left the area. Charlette, Kev’s mother, is still living here, but she says she wouldn’t be in Bayview if she didn’t have her grandmother’s house to live in. “I think everyone should leave,” she says, bluntly. “If they can. They can get more for their money in other places.”
Kev thinks he might come back to the neighborhood some day, continue Walker’s legacy. But for the time being, he’s busy chasing success. “Bayview is a dwindling area,” says Kev. “Even though I love it, I didn’t want to die with it. This shit is going downhill, and I got to jump off the boat. A lot of people are thinking the same thing.”
Stockton, California, is a city of almost 250,000 located just 83 miles inland from San Francisco. Situated along the San Joaquin Delta Waterway, it’s not exactly a hot tourist destination. One of the city’s few claims to fame is its annual Asparagus Festival. But unlike San Francisco, Stockton has room to grow, and demographically it seems to be undergoing an inverse trend. While San Francisco’s African American population dropped by about 30,000 between 1980 and 2000, Stockton’s increased by 7,000.
One of the many new developments in Stockton is Spanos Park, just across the street from Borders, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Ross, all of which are conveniently just off Highway 5. Despite the highway noise, it’s pretty quiet along the streets here, which have names like Hennessey, Spaulding, and Beardsley. The houses are enormous, most with their own three-car garage.
For Thomas Harrison, a real estate agent who lives in Spanos Park, Stockton is a little slow. His house is nice, and it’s safe here. But Harrison is a city boy. “I’m from Bayview,” he tells me. “We like to go to the club every now and then.”
So to cheer himself up, he runs through a little real estate exercise from time to time. He reminds himself what he can get in Stockton compared with San Francisco. “Down here,” he says, “for $500,000, you can get a four-bedroom with an office, a family room, and a two-car garage—a 2,700-square-foot home on a 7,200-square-foot lot. Back home, you pay $500,000 for a two-bedroom, and you don’t even get a parking space.”
And at least Harrison isn’t alone out here in the asparagus city. He is always selling homes to friends from Bayview–Hunters Point and encouraging others to make the move. “A lot of people that you talk to glamorize San Francisco,” he says. “But if you’re there in the Bayview and see the everyday struggles, you realize, there ain’t nothing in San Francisco for a brother like me. You can barely afford it. The odds are so much against you. The people you’re supposed to trust, you can’t.”
As it was for the Lanes, the move has been a success story for Harrison and his family. The kids are doing well in school, and he now owns several properties in Stockton. He still owns a home in San Francisco with his mother, Marie Harrison, only he rarely visits anymore: the stray bullets and police interrogations keep him away. He really hates the police interrogations. “I don’t even like to go to clubs there anymore,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to be randomly pulled over and forced to lay down on the street for no reason.”
Harrison is trying to get his mother to move out of Bayview–Hunters Point. He reminds her all the time that bullets don’t have a name. “But she believes in that community,” he says. “She thinks she can do something to change it.”
Just go down the list of community boards that Marie Harrison advises or serves on: the Bayview–Hunters Point Mothers Environmental Health and Justice Committee, the Senior Action Network, the Hunters View Tenant’s Association, Housing for Human Rights. It goes on. And that’s not counting her full-time job as local community organizer for Green Action, an environmental justice nonprofit.
When I meet Marie Harrison she is getting ready to speak at City Hall against the new Bayview–Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan. It has been difficult to track this woman down. She is always running around making speeches, organizing marches, driving her grandkids here and there. She is dressed in a gray pinstriped suit and silky white scarf. Her short, styled hair and double-pierced ears make her look pretty hip for a 56-year-old running for supervisor.
Now that I’ve cornered her, I’m prodding Marie for information about her family background, but she keeps bringing our conversation back to evictions, gentrification, and poor policing. She discourages me from writing about her family. They are upwardly mobile, the chosen few. I should be writing about the poor families getting pushed out, she says, the ones who have no choice. “You cannot be a progressive city,” she says, “and eliminate the basic necessities for the poorest of the poor.”
But she eventually discusses her personal history when the issue of affordable housing comes up. As a girl in the 1950s, Marie’s family lived on Steiner Street in the Fillmore. The building they were renting in was taken by eminent domain during the redevelopment. Her family moved out, hoping to return when it had been redeveloped. But, like many residents, when they tried to return, they could no longer afford the rent and eventually had to move to Bayview–Hunters Point.
Marie did not like it at first. She remembers the Fillmore as a magical neighborhood. When she went to the cleaners on the corner, she could always pay later. At the Fillmore movie theater, the owner would let her and her friends catch a film if they agreed to sweep up popcorn afterward. “There was a community feeling that has been lost forever,” she says.
Bayview, however, was already going downhill. Unemployment was rising, and her father had to keep switching jobs. He worked as a cement layer, a longshoreman, a carpenter, a cook, anything to feed his nine kids. Her mother worked in restaurants. At 16, Marie got a job at the naval shipyard and put herself through college at San Francisco State University. She has worked all kinds of jobs since then, but she gradually developed a passion for environmental issues—or you might say, the issues chose her.
In 1987, a United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice report revealed that race was the most significant factor in determining where hazardous waste facility sites were located in the United States. It was one of the founding studies of the environmental justice movement, which has grown in strength, especially in neighborhoods like Bayview–Hunters Point.
Of course, most residents realized long before all this that they were living in an unhealthy area. They saw the fumes from the PG&E power plant billowing on the horizon. They smelled the waste at the sewage treatment plant. In time, studies began to reveal just how unlucky Bayview residents were. A 2000 study by the San Francisco Department of Public Health found that both adults and children in the Bayview were hospitalized as a result of asthma at a rate four times the state average. In 2001, reporter Lisa Davis dug up thousands of government records and wrote an award-winning story in the SF Weekly revealing that the shipyard was one of the most toxic sites in the world. She showed how for 23 years after World War II, it was the military’s largest site for nuclear research, handling enough plutonium at one point to kill 15 million people.
“At first, we thought the high cancer and asthma rates were a genetic flaw,” says Marie. “But when the facts came out, people said it’s not worth it to sit around and watch someone I love suffer and die. For a lot of them, it was a relief because they said, well, all this time I thought there was something wrong with us. Now we can actually move to Antioch or Pittsburg.”
As more studies came out, Marie began to connect some dots in her history. She herself had always been healthy, but one of her grandsons has been sick almost from the day he was born.
Despite his big, lively brown eyes, Roman is thin, frail, and a bit short for a 9-year-old. As I talk with Marie at her sister’s house in Bayview, Roman is running around in a white button-down shirt and backpack, putting up bunny ears behind Marie’s head. He thinks this is quite funny. “Oh, no, you don’t,” scolds Marie, jokingly. “Don’t think I don’t see you.”
For the first four years of his life, Roman’s bedroom in the Hunters View projects faced the smokestack of the 77-year-old PG&E power plant. Roman and his brother Giovanni, now 17, got bloody noses nearly once a week, and Roman suffered just as often from serious asthma attacks. “It was real scary going to the hospital all the time,” says Roman. “But after a while I realized that the doctors weren’t going to hurt me.” Roman ended up in the emergency room once a month, says Marie. “We didn’t know what to do.”
The attack that turned Marie’s activism into a crusade came when Roman was 4. His nose was bleeding uncontrollably, and he could hardly breathe. His mother, Arieann, rushed him to San Francisco General. By the time Marie got there, doctors had strapped his head, chest, arms, and legs down onto a bed in order to give him a shot that would open up his pores and lungs. But Roman was so terrified that his veins collapsed and they couldn’t administer the shot. “Roman was screaming, ‘Don’t let them kill me,’” Marie recalls.
Roman survived after being put into an oxygen tent, but the experience scared the family profoundly. The attacks were going to kill Roman someday, Marie told the doctors. What could she do? The doctor who helped Roman that day told Marie something she hadn’t heard before: if Roman was going to get better, the doctor said, he would have to leave the community.
Soon after, Marie went to work for Green Action, where she did some investigative work. She and other environmentalists gathered data showing just how many people in the Hunters View projects were suffering from chronic nosebleeds and congestion. “I always wondered if that’s why I got those terrible nosebleeds,” Kevin Epps told me. He, too, lived next to the power plant growing up.
Marie and her husband decided that to save Roman’s health, they would pool money with their daughters and buy a house in Vallejo, where three of Marie’s eight siblings had already moved. They bought a house for about $300,000 and began driving the kids back and forth from Vallejo to San Francisco for school. It helped. Both Roman and Giovanni’s nosebleeds subsided significantly.
But there is also pollution in Vallejo, from the power plant and refinery in Benicia, and Marie realized that the boys’ problems could follow them there. So she vowed to do everything she could to shut the Bayview power plant down for good so they could eventually move back. In 1998, an agreement was signed to do just that, but the plant kept running. Marie soon became the loudest advocate for shutting it down, joining teams of activist mothers with sick children. In June 2003, community organizations led by Green Action filed federal civil rights complaints, arguing that PG&E discriminated against the Bayview community by keeping the Hunters Point Power Plant open. Finally, this past May, following decades of protests, the power plant finally closed.
“It’s a start,” says Marie. “There’s so much more to do. But it’s a start.”
The problems in Bayview–Hunters Point seem endless. But to be fair, things may be looking up. There are plenty of do-gooder institutions working hard to help. Mayor Gavin Newsom has made the Bayview a forefront issue, paying frequent visits to the neighborhood and trying to fight the Bush administration’s cuts in public housing by finding private sources of money. Newsom has overseen the installation of new surveillance cameras in drug hot spots and a new community center. The first parcel of the naval shipyard is clean and ready for new housing developments. A new clean-water plan is being implemented to alleviate the effects of the sewage treatment plant. Plans are also in the works to upgrade and expand the Southeast Health Center. And the Third Street railway line, along with the new redevelopment plan, should encourage other new investment, perhaps even a grocery store.
Some African American residents are excited about the prospects. “I’m encouraging everyone to stay,” says Ed Donaldson, a longtime resident and real estate investor who lives on one of the “model blocks” where residents can receive low-interest loans. “If people become more financially literate, they can learn to take advantage of all the economic development that’s going to be going on down here,” he says. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell is trying to attract African Americans back to San Francisco for the numerous construction and law enforcement jobs that she says will be coming to the area. “African Americans have always left,” says Maxwell. “We need to give them reasons to come.”
Some residents say their relatives who left are considering returning. Now that the power plant has shut down, both Giovanni and Roman are living back in Bayview with Marie. Their mother, too, is trying to move back from Vallejo into affordable housing on Treasure Island. “A lot of them want to come back,” says Willie Ratcliff. “They realize that these problems are everywhere, that they can’t run, that we have to make this community livable.”
Tonette and Tamranisha Lane are standing outside on the back deck at dusk, talking about Harley Davidsons, their new passion. Tonette is wearing a baseball jersey that says The Classy Ladies, which is the name of the new motorcycle social club she cofounded in Suisun City with friends. Their description of the club makes it sound rowdy, but The Classy Ladies are feeding the homeless and raising money for youth programs: “Trying to stay positive,” says Tonette.
Tamranisha thinks The Classy Ladies are pretty cool, but except for the club, she complains, Suisun City is boring. She wants to move to Georgia soon with a friend. “Not back to San Francisco?” I ask. “No, I don’t like it there,” she says. “I don’t like that lifestyle.”
Lovetia doesn’t like Suisun City anymore either, but not because it’s boring. Suisun City is starting to remind her of Bayview. Friends at her high school are using and selling drugs. Some, she says, are bringing guns to school and forming little gangs, depending on which part of the Bay Area they came from: Richmond, Oakland, Bayview.
Other urban problems seem to be flowing her way. Lovetia says her classes are overcrowded, with about 40 kids in each class. The parties Tonette was letting the kids have at the house are getting too rowdy.
Tonette says her nightmare is coming true: the ghetto is following her. She got rid of her guns when she left Bayview, but now she is reluctantly going to buy another one. “ ’Cause these kids are starting to get serious out here,” she says. Two girls she knows in Suisun recently got shot but weren’t killed. Tonette makes a joke about this, trying to keep the topic light, reassuring herself that it’s still not as bad as before. “In San Francisco, they shoot in the head,” she says. “They shoot to kill. Out here, they’re a little slower. They wound you or skim-bullet you.” Everyone laughs about this—ha-ha, the wannabe ghetto kids here can’t shoot worth a damn. When they get a little better at aiming, Tonette says with a laugh, she’ll leave.
But she’s not entirely joking. Her sister, a younger Espanola who lives in the Bayview projects, is trying to get out of the city, too. And she and Tonette are planning on buying a house together someplace quieter, outside of California.
“It is getting worse,” says Tonette, shaking her head. “To the point where, when I move, I’m going further. And if they follow me again, I’m going to end up going out of state. And once that happens I’m going to just change my identity."