Our Man in San Fran

Hunters Point Is San Francisco’s Radioactive Basement

By Jules Suzdaltsev

As a San Francisco resident, I’ve always been somewhat aware of the dirty, dangerous shipyards of Bayview-Hunters Point to the east, but with the exception of visiting the awkwardly debonair Speakeasy Bar on the edge of the district, I’d never ventured too far out into the industrial wasteland that’s settled up against bleak quasi-suburban decay. It's reputation as a dumping ground for toxic waste, and repository for San Francisco's "undesirables" is well-known in the city, but for non-residents, it might as well not even exist.

In the 1860s, the Bayview-Hunters Point District became the de facto meatpacking district after a ban on slaughterhouses in “San Francisco proper." That same decade, shipbuilders sought out Bayview’s drydock and brought with them a flood of African-Americans in the Great Migration. Those blue-collar communities flourished into over 50,000 residents by the late 60s, when the US Navy saw the bustling community as a good spot to decommission radioactive ships

Coupled with a PG&E power plant that from 1929 to 2006 pumped out 550 tons of harmful particles each year, the widespread contamination got so bad that the area was deemed a Superfund site in the 80s, and since then, Bayview-Hunters Point has become the worst district in San Francisco, plagued by generational poverty, turf violence, land-hungry developers, poisonous air and water, and most frustratingly, marginalization by the rest of the city.

Filmmaker Kevin Epps grew up in West Hunters Point, and shot two documentaries about his marginalized community; Straight Out Of Hunters Point (2003) and Straight Out Of Hunters Point 2 (2011). He agreed to show me around his neighborhood and its myriad of problems on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and picked me up just outside of the district, where most of the transit lines terminate. We drove alongside the only active Muni line, boxed in by the edge of the bay, and the industrial, meatpacking, and sewer treatment plants which line a series of blocks leading up to the 101 and the 280 freeways, which wrap around the district like a massive grey concrete fence. Getting in or out of the Bayview is a geographical struggle.

We stopped at a crowd that had gathered to watch the police arrest a few black teenagers and tear apart their car. An old man, Emile, told me outside the crowd, “They’re so scared of these young brothers that they’ll pull the trigger before they find out what’s going on, and a lot of it is swept up under the rug.” I asked him if the police were a problem or solution in the area. Emile shook his head angrily, “The police chief, Greg Suhr, you know what he portrays to young black men? That he’s a skinhead. And that he is technically their enemy. He’s a Nazi, man.”

Greg Suhr was the police captain of the Bayview before his promotion to the chief of San Francisco police, around the same time as the police shooting death of 19-year-old Kenneth Harding in the Bayview, who officers say fired first during a foot chase stemming from Kenneth not paying his train fare. During the subsequent town hall meeting at the Bayview Opera House, Suhr was booed out of the building. “Because people were voicing their opinions, that punk left. He was like ‘I don’t have to listen to you niggers,'" Emile recounted. We were running late, and I asked to take his photo, but he smiled nervously at the request, and asked that I not. I would've hesitated too if I’d just called the Chief of Police a Nazi.

Over breakfast at Auntie April's, Kevin explained the brunt of the problem. The Bayview is home to more than a fifth of San Francisco’s black population, who make up a third of the district’s residents, and have historically been seen as easy targets for police and developers to profit alike.

Case in point: political pressure led to a major reconstruction campaign enacted to clean up the city in the 90s, but when apartment tenants in the Western Addition were bought out with housing coupons that couldn’t be used in San Francisco, poor families were forced to move to Oakland, Antioch, Richmond, and the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, old units were razed and replaced with half the number at twice the size and three times the price. Today, the same pattern spreads like some real estate virus—bringing dirty construction and displacement to an already chewed up area.

Kevin drove me up to the edge of West Point to show me his old elementary school, Malcolm X Academy, and the massive construction project in its backyard. As we stood there, toxic dust swirled from the Phase Two lot onto the deserted playground. Kevin stared through the chain link fence, “When I was growing up here there was kids, man. A lot of kids. You didn’t think about being poor. You didn’t think about a lot of the ills, you was just a kid growing up with other kids."

At the far end of the construction site stood Kevin’s childhood home: Phase Three. Here, what was once a series of vibrant apartments is now row after row of boarded up public housing; steel security storm doors cover most of the openings, a few rooms still inhabited by the families who’ve managed to avoid eviction.

Looming over these old relics are the newly built John Stewart Company low-income housing units, which are currently being priced out to match the up-and-coming Phase Two developments. Although 10,000 units are planned, 1,000 are guaranteed to be priced below market value at a paltry half-a-million per apartment, ostensibly in order to avoid driving out the locals. Although it doesn’t matter either way, construction is years behind schedule, massively over-budget, and of the aforementioned 10,000 units, only 88 will be completed this year. Once Phase Two is up and Phase Three is deserted, the entirety of West Hunters Point will belong only to real estate giants and first-wave gentrifiers.

Kevin took me over next door to his old home to meet Mama Tessie, a neighborhood mother and activist still living in Phase Three public housing. She is a member of the groups Mothers Against Violence, and The Mothers and Fathers Community For Helping Environmental Justice. She was excited to see Kevin, and over the din of a daytime soap playing in the background, offered us some candy from a small inventory she had of snacks, beers, and Swishers. Her small apartment was crowded with newspaper clippings and tchotchkes, a few empty cans of Steel Reserve served as makeshift ashtrays. Tessie sat at the doorway rubbing her eyes, thousand-yard-staring at the billowing dust from the construction across the street.

The inside of my mouth and nose felt gritty, and I asked if that was normal. “That’s John Stewart’s Phase Two, all that toxic dust, they don’t use enough water, there’s no sprinkler system, and people right there gotta go to school.” Tessie explained, “Then there are the shipyards and the old PG&E plant on the other side. That power plant gave everybody asthma, and killed some five people. No compensation.” Kevin poked his head in from the kitchen, “And now they’re building houses down there in the shipyards, on top of toxic land”.

“They” are the Lennar Group, a real estate giant whose most recent attempts at securing the rights to build housing and commercial property on the still-radioactive Hunters Point Shipyard (contaminated with fuels, pesticides, heavy metals, PCBs, Volatile Organic Compounds, radioactive materials and asbestos) has been opposed by residents like Mama Tessie who are dissatisfied with the developer’s plan to simply cap the area with a rainproof seal and build on top of it.

Digging into their history provides a glimpse of their business model: buying up cheap land in poor, marginalized neighborhoods, and pricing out the existing communities because they’re too fractured to mount a strong defense. They’re also shitty at cleaning up the sites they build on. Florida residents discovered 126 rockets and bombs over the course of a year buried in their new backyards after Lennar built homes on top of an old military base.

While Lennar is busy at one end of West Point, the John Stewart Company is in charge of all the toxic construction in the neighborhood, as well as the property management and evictions intended to free up valuable units. “They just want us out of here," Tessie told me. “How are they justifying the evictions?” I asked. “Well, each little thing you do they want to give you notice to evict. If you’re a dollar short, you get a 14-day notice. We can’t have a little community store, can’t have company after 10 PM. Anybody stay in your house after 14 days they gotta pay rent. Gated in, cameras everywhere. I don’t want to see [my neighbors] evicted with their kids, so I help them out here and there. They’re messing up their money but they gotta take responsibility.”

Tessie shook her head. They intimidate a lot of the residents, and they’re scared to speak up because they’re not in public housing no more, now they up under John Stewart. You got all these other people coming up here walking their dogs and running through the neighborhood, they don’t care, but if you’re a resident it’s a problem.”

“Who is John Stewart?” I asked. “A slumlord”, said Tessie, “Everybody thought he was dead because nobody seen him, but he’s real tall, white hair. He went to city big time, and they got a lot of people, they got a lot of property, he’s in Sacramento, San Jose, LA, he’s everywhere.”

“So then who represents your interests?” I asked. Kevin jumped in again, “Our district supervisor represent us, but not really, you know? Cuz when someone talks in politics, that’s not the community speaking, that’s different.  And that’s important, we need to fight the way things is going.”

We finished our snacks and Mama Tessie gave me a big hug. “We gotta get people to know, we need the media on our side." It was late in the day by now, so Kevin offered to drop me near the Mission. As we passed a row of slaughterhouses, a single gunshot rang out somewhere ahead. I ducked down and Kevin laughed, unphased. “I think that was a balloon" he said with a smile, “but that’s rarer than what you thought."

The Bayview doesn’t see a lot of traditional gang violence, though only because Kevin stressed the distinction between "gangs" and "turfs," as most of the shootings and skirmishes are the result of turf disputes between neighborhoods.

“But it wasn’t always like that” he said, “When I came of age, it was just Hunters Point. It wasn’t West Mob, or Big Block, or Oakdale Mob, or Kirkwood, or Q-Street, all these little militias. Now it’s drugs, it’s turfs, it’s retaliation and payback. It’s complex, it’s poverty, it’s mental health shit, it’s the breakdown of the family, it’s society, you know what I’m saying with all these walls, it’s racism, sexism.”

Kevin gestured at a run down, brick apartment building at the end of the block, “I got some dudes over there who are mad they lost their brother to that shit, so they vow to fucking ride to the end. Then you talk about the education and opportunities, and just the location, this is some isolation, and honestly…” He lowered his voice even though we were alone, “It’s… it’s a genocide, man.” 

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