Why Are Black Folks Leaving San Francisco?
The City by the Bay moves to stop the hemorrhaging of a black population that’s been playing out for generations.
“San Francisco is beautiful. You shouldn’t have to be upper-middle class to be a part of that.”
—Micah in Medicine for Melancholy
In April 1858, perhaps as many as 700 black settlers—about 14 percent of the blacks then living in California—began an exodus from San Francisco to Victoria, British Columbia, 750 miles north, in a bid to escape the force of the Fugitive Slave Act and other segregationist policies that presaged the coming Civil War.
For a variety of reasons, those black settlers found the city of San Francisco an inhospitable place. Now, little more than 150 years after that first migration, many black San Franciscans understand how they felt.
Today, city officials and concerned citizens are grappling with a continuing depletion of black residents in San Francisco, as many of them leave, in part, because of a wave of gentrification that’s pricing them out of the market; and partly because of a sense of cultural and social marginalization at odds with the city’s reputation for tolerance and diversity.
The decline in the population of black San Francisco has been the result of a perfect storm of social ills and social transitions. The Bay Area’s long reputation as a nexus for high technology has jacked up home prices for years, often out of the range of black and minority households; there are high crime rates, particularly in the Bayview-Hunters Point district, where many blacks reside; and a decades-long drop in black businesses has had a corrosive effect on minority entrepreneurship in the city.
Chuck Collins, president of the YMCA of San Francisco, put it more bluntly in August 2007: “Black people really don't matter in San Francisco. It's what this generation of political leadership inherited,” he told USA Today. “There's been a very uneasy truce with the black population.”
In June 2007, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and supervisor Sophie Maxwell formally launched the African American Out-Migration Task Force, charged with developing strategies to stem the latest migration of its black residents.
Almost two years later, after consulting with a range of community leaders, activists and educators, the task force’s recommendations have been vetted and forwarded to Newsom, who is reviewing them. Whatever the particulars, they’re sure to address concerns Newsom laid down shortly after the task force was formed.
In an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle Web site, Newsom said he wanted the task force “to focus on asset creation—to come up with strategies that help African Americans, Latinos and others create wealth by owning homes and businesses in San Francisco.”
Newsom outlined several initiatives—closer work with nonprofits, micro-loan programs focused on women and youth; and a city-funded bank program meant to help low-income residents avoid predatory check-cashing outfits—that were already underway, and which will almost certainly be a part of the task force’s proposals.
“San Francisco's strength is the fact that we don't just tolerate our diversity, we celebrate it,” Newsom wrote.
But the issue of the social and cultural cost of gentrification is hardly new in San Francisco, a city with a vivid labor history and a social activism that’s as much a trademark of the city as the Golden Gate Bridge.