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District 10: Outside looking in

By Betsey Culp

The voters who live way out in the wide open spaces of District 10 are providing a clear demonstration of why machine politicians hate district elections. These proud people are angry. And anger spawns independent votes.

This is a district where the candidates for supervisor recite the names of the neighborhoods they would represent — Potrero Hill, Bayview–Hunters Point, Portola–Silver Terrace, Visitacion Valley — on nearly every piece of campaign literature, like an incantation. Political observers like the Chronicle’s Edward Epstein will tell you that District “tells a tale of two cities.” But he underestimates.

One candidate, Jim Rodriguez, recognizes the remarkable diversity of the district when he describes it as “a healthy mix of communities who may identify themselves as African-American, Asian, Progressive Whites, Latinos, and Gay.” Another, J. R. Manuel, sees the similarities binding its residents together and separating them from the rest of San Francisco: “District 10 is one of the larger districts, has the most underdeveloped lands, has the poorest economy, is very ethnically diverse, and has the largest youth population in the city.”

And then there are all those neighborhoods. Potrero, whose ornate victorians overlook downtown San Francisco, boasts a long working-class history. In the late nineteenth century, workers trudged down from their rooming houses on what was then known as Scottish Hill and neighboring Irish Hill (now the flattened Dogpatch) to the drydocks and ropeworks at the edge of the bay. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Celts had given way to immigrants from Eastern Europe — Slovenes, Estonians, and especially Russian religious dissenters.

Now its population is under siege and its working-class traditions are rapidly dissipating in the face of a new migration wave. Says Century 21 representative Ben Coleman, “This affordable area has spectacular views, a number of historic victorians and Queen Anne cottages awaiting restoration. It’s a diverse area of ethnic minorities who have lived in the area for some time, and young professionals who were recently attracted to the tremendous home values. Along with these new ‘emigrants’ has come an interesting collection of shops, galleries, and eateries.” With this kind of progress, is it any wonder that the area is also, as Epstein notes, “fiercely activist”?

Travel south from Potrero along 3rd Street, and you come first to Hunters Point and then to Bayview, lumped together for their joint occupation of the city’s southeasternmost hinterlands. Their population is predominately African-American, augmented in the 1960s by the “redevelopment” of the Fillmore and its resulting black exodus. But once upon a time, they were quite different entities. Early on, the Bayview became known as a place of entertainment. In 1864 Mark Twain joined a crowd of “moral young men and cocktails” making their way to Bay View Park for “the best trotting race of the season.” In the late 1880s, elegant theater goers traveled by horse and buggy to the newly constructed South San Francisco (later, Bayview) Opera House, applauding road companies of well-known actors and actresses and whiling away intermissions at a brewery across the street.

Hunters Point, named for the family that settled there, quickly took on a maritime role. In 1867 it became home to the first drydock on the West Coast. In 1942, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this site became the object of a wartime federal land grab, as the Navy put the 100 civilian families living in the vicinity on 48-hour notice to move out. The San Francisco News of March 10 reported, “It was not revealed what machinery the Navy had set up to pay property owners or to provide them with new living quarters. All Hunters Point residents are citizens, aliens having been removed several weeks ago. ‘We sincerely regret these families must move, but military necessity must come before other considerations,’ declared Rear Adm. John Wills Greenslade.”

Just inland, extending up from San Francisco’s southern border, lie Visitacion Valley and Portola–Silver Terrace. Here’s where the district’s ethnic diversity becomes most obvious: Vis Valley counts 11 percent Latinos and 39 percent African Americans among its likely voters; 17 percent of the voters in the neighborhood to the north are Asian. Named by the Spanish for the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth, the area was once a very small part of José Cornelio Bernal’s mammoth land holdings; in recent years it has been home to a blue-collar population, often employed by the mammoth Schlage Lock Company.

Here too, however, the times they are a-changing. Planet Soma remarks: “A little down at its heels, this area is a collection of working-class suburbs with somewhat interesting commercial districts (particularly the Portola District along San Bruno Avenue). This was the site of the notorious Geneva Towers housing project prior to its demolition several years ago. Big box retailers are moving in and the fragile area may experience dramatic changes.”

Vast, diverse, and young, the district posts an abominably low voter turnout record, between 4 percent and 16 percent of the citywide average, even among the “activists” of Potrero Hill. In past elections, Portola–Silver Terrace has leaned markedly toward the conservative camp, especially in matters of crime and homelessness. About 61 percent of its voters supported “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” for example, compared to 31 percent in Potrero Hill.

But that was in 1994. Many voters in 2000 have begun to sing a new tune with a more rebellious melody. And they are cutting across class and ethnic lines to create a new-found harmony.

Sometimes their melody echoes those of other districts with common concerns about San Francisco’s course of development. In Dogpatch, writes Mark S. Gordon in the Potrero News, “Locals are left to watch 50-foot high live/work lofts faced with corrugated iron or stucco going up next to Victorian-era wooden structures half that height. In short, they feel Dogpatch is a neighborhood in danger of losing its character.” In the same paper Judy Baston adds, “With Potrero Hill ground zero for proliferation of live/work lofts and new dot-com development, neighborhood voters are finding themselves squarely in the middle of the hottest local issue on the November 7 ballot, the choice between rival growth-related propositions K and L.”

Their concern spills over to the southern neighborhoods as well. Supervisor candidate Espanola Jackson worries that “the Third Street Light Rail Project threatens to destroy the few Third Street merchants who have managed to endure, by eliminating on-street parking and two lanes of traffic for the benefit of South Bay commuters who will park at Candlestick and ride the light rail through District 10 to downtown each day.”  And members of the Visitacion Valley Planning Alliance worry about the proposed construction of a 108,000 square foot Home Depot on the site of the old Schlage Lock Factory, which would bring the bane of increased traffic to their neighborhood but little to compensate them for their trouble. On the advice of Oakland-based Urban Ecology, they have countered with a plan for a transit village that would include small stores, high-density housing, a library, and a stop on the in-the-works Third Street light rail.

      Sounds like the same old story, doesn’t it — neighborhoods fearing that the dot.com-powered SUV of city-anointed development will roll right over them. But the southlands, and particularly Bayview–Hunters Point, have added a new twist.

Conditions here brought the environmental justice movement to San Francisco, in response to human waste that spills from drains during storms, toxic waste that lies untreated in the old naval shipyard, and toxic water and air that breed high levels of cancer and asthma. For years, candidates Espanola Jackson and Sophie Maxwell have been familiar figures at meetings all over the city, bringing the message that their neighborhood needs help. On September 20 San Francisco Bay View columnist and candidate Marie Harrison conducted a heavy one-on-one with Navy representative Richard Mach over the long-smoldering fire in the shipyard’s landfill. In a Bay View editorial Willie Ratcliff, long an outspoken critic of Our Mayor, announced, “On one side, the Navy and the City conspire to conceal and ignore the health hazards of one of the nation’s filthiest Superfund sites and to consider the most superficial cleanup sufficient. On our side, people report symptoms they’ve never known before and worry about cancer, birth defects, and early death — and demand that the total shipyard be cleaned up to residential standards.”

Residents feel that City Hall has betrayed them. But they also resent what they regard as slights by other City Hall opponents. Espanola Jackson, for one, refuses to support either mayor-sponsored Proposition K or the grassroots slow-growth Proposition L, “not because I don’t think we need to stop the development frenzy, but because not one respected member of my community was invited to participate in the drafting of either one.”

In the midst of this ferment, eleven men and women are seeking the position of supervisor (two more, Sodonia Wilson and Robert Chan, dropped out of the race). Some, like Hamp Banks, maintain only a shadow presence. Some limit their campaigning to little more than position papers, such as local activist Don Bertone and Hubert Yee, coordinator and director of the Chinatown YMCA Summer School/Recreation Program.

Insurance fraud investigator Dwayne Jusino sees the answer to many of his district’s crises in “strong anchor businesses, that will serve as magnets to draw in a healthy customer traffic flow.” Physical therapist Jim Rodriguez, whose campaign focuses on health concerns and especially inadequate public health facilities, has worked out a universal healthcare program. Attorney Larry Shockey emphasizes access: “to services for young people, to affordable housing, to more jobs and better shopping, to better transportation, to health care.”

Although Potrero Hill has traditionally outvoted the other neighborhoods in this district, it is Bayview–Hunters Point that has fielded most of the candidates. And five are African American. J. R. Manuel, a businessman who ran for mayor last year, thinks positively: “District 10 is a diamond in the rough and has the clear potential of becoming one of the best places to live, work, and raise our families.” He has become a familiar face throughout the city, for his campaign includes coalition building with like-minded activists in other districts.

Four African-American women round out the list. Linda Richardson, endorsed by Our Mayor, has served in a number of appointed city positions, most recently the Planning Commission. Unlike her opponents, she supports Proposition K and speaks highly of her former boss. Marie Harrison, on the other hand, makes clear her opposition to powers in the center that, she feels, have slighted her district. She speaks passionately of redressing environmental and economic wrongs.

So does electrician Sophie Maxwell, who “was moved to community activism when people close to me came down with cancer and asthmas from what I believe are the many toxic pollutants in the southeast corner of San Francisco.” She has, she says, been “fighting for our neighborhoods” against the Board of Supervisors and city commissions. So has Espanola Jackson, a resident of District 10 for 52 years and an activist there for more than 30. “It’s time,” she vows, “we said ‘no’ to City Hall, ‘no’ to downtown interests, and ‘yes’ to neighborhoods’ self-determination,” especially as hungry developers discover the wide open spaces to the south.