Sunday, June 09, 2019

Black people in the city

This film, now playing, is San Francisco in its foggy vagaries, absurd curiosities, and wrenching beauty. It's true fiction from and about the city's shrinking Black population. See it if you have a chance. I cried and you might too. The movie will run for awhile here I'm sure, but will it play elsewhere?
The story of African American displacement in San Francisco has clear through-lines. Southern Black people migrated to the Bay to work in war industries in the 1940s from the South, Louisiana and Texas prominently. Many more settled in the East Bay than here, but a community scraped out a foothold. Redlining confined Black residents to decaying "inner city" enclaves. In these neighborhoods, vibrant Black churches, businesses, and culture thrived, centered especially in the Fillmore District. This cluster was decimated by "urban renewal" -- aka "Negro removal" in the 1950s and 60s. The Black population as a proportion of all residents peaked at 13 percent in 1970 and is now down to under five percent, as residents have been forced out by rising housing prices and a declining market for a less-educated labor force. The closest thing we have to a Black neighborhood is bits of the Bayview, once home of the shipyards and now poisoned by industry's toxic droppings. These days, expensive condos built where once San Francisco sited its waste dump are raising prices even in this last holdout of African Americans.

It's a crazy, ugly picture -- too much tech cash is chasing too little land and too little living space on a naturally gorgeous peninsula. No wonder people want to live here, but "here" is a rapidly changing, violently discriminatory, reality.

People who read this blog may know that I am also Walking San Francisco's 596 precincts, trudging both sides of every street and posting a smattering of snap shots from each small electoral area. I began in late 2012 and expect to finish by the end of 2021; I've completed 430/596 today. The photos are more focused on homeowner idiosyncrasies and architecture than on people, but I've met and photographed hundreds of San Franciscans.

And recently I've realized I'm experiencing what feels like an anomaly. I know well the historical description of Black displacement I've recited above. Yet in nearly every little electoral area I explore, I seem to see at least one Black person. Then I got a glimmer. Black people "stick out" because none of these places (except by the rock outcroppings under the projects in the movie; I've walked there) are Black communities. The remaining Black people in this city live "mixed in" among other San Franciscans.

The pervasive feeling of loss in this city is not just, or even primarily, an individual agony; it is communal. Feeling safe and at-home as an individual is a demographic privilege that accompanies knowing one has, somewhere, a community home-place. Whites enjoy it in this city most everywhere; some people of some Asian origins have it in some parts of the city; LGBT people of diverse "races" have it in some areas; Latinx people have it in shrinking locales and must live in fear of losing it; Black people can almost no longer claim it at all. Such is San Francisco today.


Vagabonde said...

I am not surprised at so many minorities and others leaving San Francisco. I am pleased that I lived there in the 1960s when the city was vibrant. If I had not come to SF from Paris I don’t think I would have stayed in the US. I lived about 10 years there, from 1961 to 1970, and loved it. I lived first on Larkin, then 17th St two blocks from Castro (before the gay community got there) then on Hermann Street near the Mint, then Guerrero St near Market and Dolores. I never could return to SF until 2013 with my husband then and again in 2015. I was so disappointed. The city was still beautiful but the people …. I did have some coffee on Castro and talked to some old-timer gay guys – they told me how the city had changed. I ate at the Ferry Building and saw mostly younger white people talking about money, young square executive types. What a downer. I prefer to keep San Francisco in my memory – the way it used to be. My furnished apartment on Larkin St in the 1960s was about $150 a month – can you believe it? In a great Victorian building. Never again I am afraid. The spirit, the force, the essence of what was San Francisco is gone, and as they say here …with the wind…

Joared said...

Know of some young to middle-age and older Caucasian’s, even a few working in the tech world, who left because of what was happening with S.F. real estate. Population makeup changes can so alter a city’s personality and not always for the better.