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.
To some degree, regardless of what action the city ultimately takes, the matter of reversing the black depopulation of San Francisco will likely remain hostage to several factors: the sometimes fractious relations between business and the city’s underserved communities, a battered state and national economy, and history. (Newsom’s own role in stemming the city’s black exodus is likely to change, however slightly, given the mayor’s recent announcement that he will run for California governor.)
Rev. Amos Brown put the problem and the potential solution in historical perspective. “We need a Marshall Plan,” he said, referring to the U.S. plan to aid Europe in its recovery after World War II.
In the years after that war, the Fillmore District was the hub of black commerce and culture in the city. Hailed as “Harlem of the West,” the Fillmore was home to a range of black-owned restaurants, night clubs, barbershops and beauty supply houses, markets and light industries. But displacement started in the 1960s as the city assumed tracts of district land by eminent domain.
In 1966, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a citizens and business-community action committee, wrote a manifesto, "Prologue for Action":
“If San Francisco decides to compete effectively with other cities for new ‘clean' industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to standard white Anglo-Saxon Protestant characteristics. Selection of a population's composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable for the health of a city.”
According to Census Bureau estimates, the number of black people in San Francisco declined from 13.4 percent of the population in 1970 to just 6.5 percent in 2005—a drop said to be the worst percentage decline in any major American city. The actual number of black San Franciscans has dwindled to about 40,000 out of a population of roughly 809,000 people.
The task force charged with devising possible solutions got off to a slow start. A draft report of the task force findings was finished in 2008, but not in time to have an impact on that June’s election, in which voters approved the Florida-based Lennar Corporation’s plan for a $1.2 billion luxury condo development—in Bayview-Hunters Point.
Lennar spent about $5 million to rally public support last June for Proposition G, the vote on the condo development. Prop G passed with the public’s endorsement, but Lennar was forced to compromise with city labor and community organizations. The company agreed to increase the number of affordable units from the 25 percent it proposed up to 32 percent of the total, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
But there’s affordable and there’s affordable. For the residents of Bayview-Hunters Point—with more than 50 percent unemployed and a median income of about $42,600, compared to the citywide median income of $65,500—the prospect of owning the luxury condos destined for the land they live on will be out of the question. Most Bayview-Hunters Point residents earn less than $15,900 a year.
But black San Franciscans’ sense of being outsiders has already been noted or reinforced more than once. The city’s gentrification issue reached pop culture’s radar recently with the release of the Barry Jenkins film Medicine for Melancholy, in which the black protagonists—San Francisco residents—wrestle with their city as an alien place.
Maybe nothing, though, reinforces that sense of alienation quite like what awaits users of the realestate.com online resource for buyers and sellers of homes in California. There, on the People Summary page, under the category “Race Distribution,” among the words on a list of racial descriptors, you’ll find the neutering word that substitutes for “African Americans,” the word that, for many, reveals San Francisco’s true feelings about its black identity.
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.