Bayview-Hunters Point Briefing Book

by Kevin Chen, Research Assistant

Introduction

          Located in the southeast corner of the city, the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood is home to the largest black community in San Francisco. In 2014, Bayview-Hunters Point was home to 37,540 people, 31 percent of whom identified as black or African American. With a poverty rate exceeding 20 percent and an unemployment rate of 14 percent, the neighborhood is home to a significant number of low-income residents.[1]

          Containing most of the land zoned for industrial use in the city, Bayview-Hunters Point is also the location of numerous hazardous material facilities and waste sites, including the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, the only federal Superfund site located in San Francisco. When compared to other neighborhoods in San Francisco, the community suffers from significant health disparities that many residents, advocates, and medical experts attribute to toxic exposure. With the large-scale redevelopment of Bayview-Hunters Point underway, residents, activists, public officials, and developers contend with these legacies of urban inequality and environmental injustice as they negotiate disparate visions of the future of the community.

Figure 1: Map of San Francisco. Source: Rachel Brahinsky, “Race and the Making of Southeast San Francisco: Towards a Theory of Race-Class,” Antipode 46, no. 5 (November 2014): 1256–1278, https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12050. Cartography by Emma Tome.

Early History and Industrialization of Southeast San Francisco, 1850-1940

          In the mid-nineteenth century, the California Gold Rush transformed San Francisco into a boomtown. American settlers, Chinese migrants, and other fortune-seekers from around the world flocked to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in search of quick riches. Linking the hinterlands of northern California to the Pacific, San Francisco became the center of maritime commerce in the American West, transforming minerals, timber, agricultural products, and other natural resources into finished goods for global markets.[2] Hunters Point first entered this story in 1850, when – following the lead of other land speculators – two brothers attempted to sell plots of land on the peninsula to the throngs of settlers streaming into the city.[3] Marshy wetlands, inadequate roads, and an uneven coastline made the area difficult to reach, however, and their economic ambitions failed to materialize.

Figure 2: Hunters Point Dry Dock, 1867. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1013830.

           Despite the failure of residential settlement, San Francisco’s early industrialists began transforming the southeast into an manufacturing zone. In the 1860s, a crescent-shaped band of factories producing foodstuffs, wood products, machinery, and other products began to take form along the city’s waterfront.[4]Industrialization of the southeast accelerated as the need for space and land in the increasingly crowded city pushed industry, especially heavy industry, to suburbanize. In 1867, the California Dry Dock Company constructed the then-largest dry dock in the western United States at Hunters Point. A local maritime economy centered around shipbuilding and repair cropped up around the dry dock. In 1868, a complex of wholesale butchers, packing houses, stockyards, tanneries, and other animal processing facilities established a “Butcher’s Reservation” at Islais Creek. Over time, the area became known as “Butchertown,” employing hundreds of French, Italian, Mexican, and Spanish-descended Californio workers.[5] In the 1870s, other small-scale enterprises operated by working-class immigrants, such as Chinese shrimping camps on Hunters Point and European boat yards on India Basin, also appeared. In the 1890s, Italian, Portuguese, and Maltese migrants began settling the flats, where they took up produce farming.[6]

Figure 3: Butchertown, 1921. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1011662.

           After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco’s industrialists once again turned to the southeast for another round of industrial development.[7] In contrast to earlier, scattered patterns of industrialization, they envisioned the creation of an integrated industrial zone. Visions of large-scale transformation motivated civic and business leaders to reengineer the southeast district’s marshy, hilly landscape, which they regarded as an impediment to economic development.[8] In 1909, the Board of State Harbor Commissioners commenced reclamation of the Islais Creek wetlands.[9] In 1908, Bethlehem Steel Company purchased and expanded Hunters Point Dry Docks at the cost of $1.875 million.[10] The dry docks became the largest ship repair facility on the West Coast whose clients included the U.S. Navy. Meanwhile, smaller enterprises, such as the Chinese shrimping camps and boat yards at India Basin, began to decline in the shadow of heavy industry. In 1921, San Francisco passed its first zoning ordinance, codifying the predominantly industrial land use patterns in the area.[11]

           In 1940, southeast San Francisco was a relatively small community of approximately 8,000, comprised mostly of Europeans, Mexicans, and Californios, with a small Chinese minority.[12] Most of these residents worked in shipbuilding and repair or animal processing. The southeast still lacked significant residential and commercial development, with many parts of the area missing paved streets, water mains, sewer lines, and other basic infrastructure. The advent of World War II would bring large-scale physical and social changes to the area.

World War II and the Transformation of Hunters Point

           World War II fundamentally transformed the physical, social, and economic landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area through the twinned processes of militarization and urbanization.[13] After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a constellation of naval bases and shipyards sprang up throughout the region, encircling the Bay from Oakland to Marin. Building on the region’s history of shipbuilding, the shipyards turned the Bay Area into one of the largest shipbuilding centers in the world.[14] In San Francisco, the Navy purchased the Hunters Point Dry Docks from Bethlehem Steel Company in 1939 for $4 million, converting it to a naval ship construction and repair facility upon the United States’ entry into the war in 1941.[15]

Figure 4: U.S. Naval Drydocks, Hunters Point, 1942. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1013855.

           Militarization fueled the urbanization and development of southeast San Francisco. Throughout the war, the Hunters Point Shipyard serviced over 200 vessels.[16] The unprecedented flood of military contracts created thousands of high-paying industrial jobs that attracted migrants from around the country. Between 1940 and 1943, an estimated 94,000 people migrated to San Francisco.[17] By 1945, Hunters Point’s population increased to 20,000, and the number of workers at the shipyard more than doubled to over 17,000.[18] The local economy of Hunters Point became heavily dependent on the shipyard, with $22.5 million of salaries provided by the Navy. Militarization also changed the physical geography of Hunters Point. To expand the shipyard’s size, the Navy used earth graded from hills on the southern portion of the point as fill, transforming the rocky, jagged outcrop into a 500-acre, square-shaped peninsula.[19] To accommodate the shipyard workers, the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) built over 12,000 units of temporary housing on the hill overlooking the shipyard, as well as basic infrastructure like roads, sewers, and community facilities.[20]  

Figure 5: Federal housing at Hunters Point. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1013839.

           Additionally, World War II reconfigured the racial landscape of San Francisco. The massive war mobilization opened economic opportunities for marginalized groups, especially African Americans and women, that were historically shut out of the industrial labor market. Demand for labor motivated the shipyards to recruit black workers from the South, especially Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Leaving economic dispossession, political disenfranchisement, and racial violence, thousands of black families migrated to the Bay Area as part of the “Second Great Migration.”[21] From 1940 to 1945, the black population of San Francisco grew by over 600%, from under 5,000 to over 32,000. Within Hunters Point, the total population swelled to 20,000, with African Americans comprising an estimated one-third.[22] Out of the over 17,000 workers at Hunters Point Shipyard in 1945, an estimated one-third of were African American.[23]

           Within San Francisco, the rapid increase of the black population sharpened anti-black racism among white residents and white-dominated political and social institutions.[24] Black workers disproportionately occupied lower-level positions than their white counterparts and were shut out from promotional opportunities. The Boilermakers, which represented 70 percent of workers in Bay Area shipyards, relegated black members to segregated auxiliaries, denying them voting rights in union affairs.[25] Racially-restrictive covenants that prohibited African Americans from moving into predominately white neighborhoods proliferated during the war.[26] Most landlords and owners refused to rent or sell to African Americans on the private market, forcing the vast majority to live either in the Western Addition (where they took up homes vacated by Japanese Americans sent to internment camps) or Hunters Point (where the government constructed wartime housing for shipyard workers).

           San Francisco’s burgeoning black community, nevertheless, made important political and social inroads during the war. The relatively high-paying jobs at the shipyard afforded African Americans a degree of socioeconomic mobility. President Franklin D. Roosevelt codified anti-discriminatory policy at the federal level with Executive Order 8802, which prohibited “discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work.”[27] The Bay Area branch of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) was especially active in resolving complaints of discrimination from shipyard workers.[28] In 1944, Joseph James, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), successfully sued Marinship Corporation to end segregated auxiliaries for Black workers.[29] Black communities established during the war developed important cultural institutions, most notably a thriving jazz scene at the Fillmore District, which became known as the “Harlem of the West.”

           At Hunters Point, the wartime housing by the shipyard was open to both black and white families.[30] Tensions, however, simmered between white and black residents, who lived mostly separate lives in segregated barracks. In October 1944, rumors of a “race riot” in Hunters Point spread throughout San Francisco. The riots failed to materialize. Nevertheless, the Mayor’s Committee for Civic Unity, convened to examine race relations in the rapidly changing city, recommended that the city institute policies to combat racism and discrimination against African Americans. Though city officials dismissed the rumors as unsubstantiated gossip, they served as an indicator of the racial divisions that would heighten in the postwar era.[31]

The Postwar Formation of a “Black Ghetto,” 1945-1966

          After World War II, structural shifts in the economy amplified inequalities in Bayview-Hunters Point, reshaping racial and class orders in the process. Economic disinvestment and urban displacement exacerbated poverty and vulnerability among Black San Franciscans. In contrast, unequal access to postwar prosperity underwrote the accumulation of wealth for white residents. In the postwar period, inequality and segregation deepened along three interlinked scales: between Bayview-Hunters Point and the city, and between the Hunters Point Shipyard and the surrounding neighborhood, and between public housing tenants and middle-class homeowners within the community

Figure 5: San Francisco residential security map, 1937. Source: University of Maryland T-RACES Project, http://salt.umd.edu/T-RACES/.

           Racial and class inequalities were inscribed into the geography of San Francisco through uneven patterns of postwar urban development. Although Hunters Point was a relatively integrated community during the war, unequal wealth and socioeconomic mobility transformed it into a predominately black and low-income neighborhood by the late 1950s. Landlords, realtors, and property owners refused to rent or sell to Black residents, limiting their mobility and reinforcing patterns of segregation. In one highly publicized incident in 1957, a white homeowner refused to sell to famed Giants player Willie Mays, citing the concerns of white neighbors.[35] Housing and transportation policy further institutionalized urban inequality and segregation. In 1937, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), established as part of the New Deal to protect homeowners from foreclosure, created a map of San Francisco that designated the Western Addition and Hunters Point as risky investments. This practice of “redlining” systematically excluded people of color from federally-insured mortgages and other sources of financial investment, a legacy that continues to underwrite the racial wealth gap today.[36] In contrast, white residents of Hunters Point, as well as other parts of San Francisco, began fleeing to the suburbs, enticed by advantageous mortgage rates and a middle-class lifestyle that enshrined homeownership, the nuclear family, and racial segregation.[37] The expansion and construction of the Bayshore Freeway and I-280 in the 1950s reinforced segregation by cutting off southeast San Francisco from the rest of the city.

Figure 6: Construction of Bayshore Freeway, 1954. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1040567.

           Within the specific context of postwar San Francisco, discriminatory public housing development and urban renewal were two key processes that exacerbated racial and class inequalities for black residents. During World War II, public housing was envisioned as a solution to the housing shortage caused by the influx of wartime migrant workers. Out of the five public housing projects that the SFHA had completed by 1945, however, only one, located in the Western Addition, accepted black residents. After the end of World War II, the SFHA also began placing black tenants at the wartime units at Hunters Point and Double Rock, which the agency had taken over from the federal government.[38] In this way, the SFHA actively excluded black residents from predominately white neighborhoods as part of its “neighborhood pattern” policy, which remained in place until 1952.  

           Starting in the 1950s, urban renewal projects increasingly displaced Black communities in San Francisco, exacerbating conditions of insecurity and inequality.[39] In the postwar United States, urban renewal gathered force as a national program of revitalizing cities, which suffered decreasing tax bases and population declines as a result of white flight. These projects targeted the perceived proliferation of “blight” as the primary cause of urban decline. Articulated through racialized discourses of public health and safety, the designation of “blight” was often applied to non-white communities. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) undertook its first major urban renewal project in the Western Addition.[40] Lasting from 1956 until the 1980s, the project displaced thousands of black residents with estimates ranging as high as 20,000, many of whom were displaced to the Hunters Point public housing.[41] As a result, the black population of Bayview-Hunters Point increased drastically, with estimates ranging as high as 79 percent of the neighborhood.[42] The Hunters Point public housing, however, had fallen into serious disrepair by this time, owing to a combination of institutional neglect and structural decay. Much of the remaining housing was built in the urgency of wartime and was not expected to last past the war.

           Inequalities also emerged on more local scales within Bayview-Hunters Point. As the neighborhood became home to a growing number of black residents, the shipyard became increasingly disconnected from it. White naval personnel and workers associated the neighborhood with blackness, poverty, and danger and refused to patronize local businesses. One scientist from the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL) at the shipyard described Hunters Point as “a seedy, scary, low-cost housing area,” where he was “warned…by colleagues to spend as little time as possible.”[43] These dynamics turned the shipyard into a “city within a city,” insulated from the surrounding community.[44] Within the neighborhood, class divisions emerged between public housing tenants on the hill and middle-class homeowners on the flats. At the same time that the Western Addition redevelopment project displaced Black residents to Hunters Point, middle-class Black families began moving into the houses vacated by white residents fleeing to the suburbs.[45] Many of these families were able to maintain a degree of socioeconomic mobility through the limited number of jobs remaining at the shipyard.

           Representations of Bayview-Hunters Point during this period tended to reinforce the marginalization of the community on a discursive level. Social scientists and the media began to take an interest in documenting the lives of the black urban poor.[46] In doing so, however, they deployed racist framings of Bayview-Hunters Point as a “black ghetto.”[47] On the one hand, these accounts ignored Bayview-Hunters Point’s heterogeneity through monolithic and sensationalist depictions of a uniformly black and low-income community.[48] News articles described Bayview-Hunters Point in bleak terms, referencing the deteriorating housing, high crime rates, and Black youth idling on street corners. On the other hand, these accounts pathologized the psychology and behavior of neighborhood residents, ignoring changes in the global economy, urban development, and government policies that impoverished black San Franciscans. Arthur Hippler, an anthropologist from UC Berkeley, argued that “social disorganization” among Hunters Point residents – exemplified by hyperaggression, self-hatred, and matriarchy – reinforced their marginalization in a vicious cycle.[49] This and other iterations of the “culture of poverty” thesis stigmatized blackness while sidelining structural processes of dispossession, disinvestment, and displacement.

Figure 7: Take This Hammer, 1963. Source: Bay Area Television Archive, https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/216518.

           Economic and social forces thus played a significant role in marginalizing Bayview-Hunters Point as a racialized place, but these processes did not go unchallenged. In 1963, writer and critic James Baldwin visited Hunters Point to meet with community members, as captured in the documentary film Take This Hammer. In the film, Baldwin lays bare the racial hierarchies in San Francisco, asserting, “There is no moral distance… between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.”[50] As in the South, Black communities in San Francisco sought to contest these “facts of life” through concerted political and social action. By organizing as a black community, the people of Bayview-Hunters Point sought to renegotiate the terms of race, citizenship, and belonging in San Francisco.

Postwar Activism and “Community Action” in Bayview-Hunters Point, 1945-1966

           In the decades after the end of the war, the residents of Bayview-Hunters Point actively organized for improved economic and social conditions in response to economic disinvestment, rising unemployment, and deteriorating housing. Through a range of strategies encompassing resistance, cooperation, refusal, and cooptation, the Bayview-Hunters Point community contested their marginalization. Their struggles for justice left a legacy of political action that continues to inform contemporary social movements.

           In the postwar period, Bayview-Hunters Point residents organized grassroots social movements against social inequality and insecurity. In 1954, community members founded the Hunters Point Project Committee, which petitioned public officials for better housing conditions and community amenities. Later that year, they established the Bayview Community Center, which provided social services and youth programming. In the 1960s, Bayview-Hunters Point community members increasingly undertook direct action in their organizing, reflecting the strategies adopted by Black activists and groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).[51] In the spring of 1966, Hunters Point public housing tenants picketed a meeting of the SFHA to protest punitive eviction policies. Later that year, the Hunters Point Tenants Union (HPTU) wrote to the SFHA to demand much-needed repairs to their homes. When the SFHA failed to secure funding, the union initiated a rent strike, pooling rents to fund the improvements. The strike continued until April of the following year, when the SFHA finally secured funding from the city and agreed to implement a year-long moratorium on evictions.[52]

Figure 8: Bayview Community Center, 1957. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1011616.

          In the second half of the 1960s, the “War on Poverty” opened new opportunities for Bayview-Hunters Point residents to build and exercise political power. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), which allocated funding for community action programs developed with the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor.[53] “Community action” became a large-scale experiment in governing and reducing poverty through the intentional incorporation of the poor in decision-making processes.[54]

          Although policymakers construed “community action” and “maximum feasible participation” in narrow terms, communities like Bayview-Hunters Point redefined these concepts to support more capacious visions of social and political empowerment. The War on Poverty funneled $8.6 million of federal funding into Bayview-Hunters Point. A group of women activists, later immortalized as the “Big Five,” was instrumental in securing local control over these funds and redirecting them toward self-determination.[55] Alongside their counterparts from the Western Addition, the Mission, and Chinatown, Bayview-Hunters Point representatives opposed elite control of community action and secured majority representation for the poor on the Economic Opportunity Council (EOC), the city agency responsible for coordinating antipoverty initiatives.[56] Although disputes and struggles for control between public officials and community members continued, Bayview-Hunters Point residents were able to establish several initiatives that increased employment and political engagement in the community, such as job training programs and neighborhood block clubs.[57]

1966 Hunters Point Uprising

          On the afternoon of September 27, 1966, Alvin Johnson, a white police officer, shot and killed 16-year old Matthew “Peanut” Johnson near the Hunters Point public housing area. The shooting precipitated a three-day uprising that brought to light the stark injustices that pervaded everyday life in the neighborhood.[58] News of the shooting quickly spread throughout the community, prompting groups of residents to gather on the streets to demand accountability and justice from public officials. The lack of resolution, however, led to scattered altercations between the police and groups of youth over the next three days.

Figure 9: Hunters Point uprising, 1966. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1040715.

          Fearing a repeat of the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, the state responded to the unrest with militarized repression and containment. The day after the shooting, Hunters Point was put under lockdown as Governor Pat Brown declared a state of emergency and called 2,000 members of the National Guard into the neighborhood. Mayor John Shelley instituted a curfew and ordered police officers to disperse crowds from gathering in public. In one instance, a group of police officers fired into the Bayview Community Center when they mistakenly thought that one of their own had been hit by a sniper. By the end of the uprising on October 1, over $100,000 of property had been damaged or lost, and 160 people were injured, with ten civilians suffering gunshot wounds.

          In the immediate aftermath, public officials proclaimed that they had successfully restored law and order in Hunters Point. A report commissioned by the city concluded that the lack of equal economic opportunity had fomented frustration and anger among the youth of Hunters Point. In response, a group of business leaders pledged to make thousands of jobs available. Though these interventions acknowledged some of the issues within the community, they failed to address the historical and structural roots of inequality.[59] Importantly, they neglected the legacy of police violence that sparked the uprising in the first place.

          Public commentators at the time expressed surprise that “riots” could occur in supposedly liberal San Francisco. Yet the Hunters Point Uprising was neither singular nor exceptional; it reflected the long-standing grievances of Black residents with regard to police brutality, inadequate housing, and economic dispossession. Black San Franciscans had protested the hostility, paternalism, and outright brutality of the police before, and they would do so again. For them, the state’s spectacular use of force during the uprising was part of a continuum of racialized violence in Bayview-Hunters Point that also included economic disinvestment. In the same manner, the uprising represented a moment within a longer history of political mobilization, one that would continue with renewed struggles for justice.

Bayview-Hunters Point in the 1970s and 1980s

          Throughout the United States, the decades following the 1966 uprising saw the rise of neoliberalism as a dominant political and economic ideology. Enshrining the privatization of public services and deregulation of industry, the expansion of neoliberal policies in the 1970s and 1980s substituted earlier New Deal and Great Society programs with the upward redistribution of wealth. In aggressively instituting market-based reforms to public services, the Nixon and Reagan administrations drastically cut government spending in social welfare to public housing. These policies, coupled with deindustrialization and increased policing, worsened poverty within black communities. At the same time, ideas about individual responsibility placed moral blame for poverty on the poor themselves, emphasizing failures of individual behavior rather than structural configurations of power and capital.

          During this period, jobs and revitalization of the shipyard became a major flashpoint in local struggles against economic disinvestment. After the United States ended its involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973, the Navy decreased the size of the its fleet, reducing the importance of the Hunters Point Shipyard. In 1974, the Navy shut down the shipyard, eliminating over 5,000 jobs. From 1976 to 1986, the Navy leased the shipyard to Triple A Machine Shop, a commercial ship repair company. Despite promises of economic revitalization, Triple A only ever employed a few hundred workers. In 1987, the Navy decided to reactivate and port the USS Missouri at Hunters Point Shipyard. Refitted to be armed with nuclear missiles, the battleship and its reactivation were part of President Ronald Reagan’s national security plan to re-expand the naval fleet. Civic boosters and labor unions supported the plan, which promised to bring jobs. But environmental advocates, anti-nuclear activists, and some Bayview-Hunters Point community members opposed it, arguing that it would degrade the Bay and fail to deliver on overinflated promises of economic benefits. Conflicts between the Navy, local officials, supporters, and activists delayed the initiative, and in 1989 the Navy decided to port the Missouri at Long Beach Naval Shipyard instead.[60] In the interim, the shipyard remained vacant, becoming a potent symbol of abandonment and neglect in Bayview-Hunters Point.

          Concurrent political shifts toward the right reduced opportunities for political mobilization. In the wake of the urban social uprisings of the 1960s, the War on Poverty became a target of conservative backlash. Conservative politicians argued that federal antipoverty programs both wasted taxpayer dollars and fueled political unrest by funding “radical” activism. The resulting changes in antipoverty policy rolled back the limited gains in political power that communities like Bayview-Hunters Point were able to achieve. In 1967, Congress mandated equal representation among elected officials, business leaders, and community members in community action agencies, restoring control to municipalities and ending the majority representation of the poor on San Francisco’s EOC.

          Within this changing terrain of economic and political possibility, Bayview-Hunters Point residents, including the Big Five, nevertheless continued to organize for self-determination and social change, albeit with new constraints. After the 1966 uprising, plans to redevelop the Hunters Point public housing regained momentum. Housing presented a double bind for the Hunters Point. On the one hand, the “temporary” wartime units had long fallen into disrepair and become uninhabitable. On the other, community members worried that redevelopment would displace residents, many of whom had already been displaced once by the redevelopment of the Western Addition. Given these conditions, Bayview-Hunters Point residents began to push the city to redevelop the neighborhood with community involvement and representation. In the process, they reshaped the meanings and methods of urban redevelopment. Most urban renewal projects still relied on a definition of “blight” that conflated blackness with filth, poverty, crime, and vice. In describing Bayview-Hunters Point as a “blighted” neighborhood, community members instead demanded government accountability for the institutional neglect that produced conditions of uninhabitability and impoverishment.

Figure 9: Joint Housing Committee, 1968. Source: San Francisco Public Library, http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/record=b1041635.

          In 1966, community leaders formed the Joint Housing Committee, a coalition of community-based organizations advocating for community interests in redeveloping the neighborhood. In 1969, the SFRA initiated the Hunters Point redevelopment project, slated to replace the “temporary” wartime housing on the hill with 2,000 affordable units. The agency simultaneously undertook the India Basin Industrial Park project, which aimed to provide over 3,900 jobs to the Hunters Point community. By this time, state and federal reforms – prompted in part by organized resistance to the redevelopment of the Western Addition – began to require greater community representation in urban renewal projects.[61] Along with the experience that they gained from previous political mobilization and community action, these reforms opened opportunities for residents and activists to actively participate in remaking their community. Designated as a representative community group, the Joint Housing Committee shaped the direction of the project by emphasizing affordable housing construction and ensuring that replacement housing was constructed prior to demolition.[62] Before the SFRA could start construction, however, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) placed a moratorium on redevelopment funding in 1970. In response, a delegation of Bayview-Hunters Point residents traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand the release of federal funds for the Hunters Point redevelopment project.[63] They ultimately succeeded, but the periodic lack of national housing funds throughout the 1970s consistently delayed the project.

          Bayview-Hunters Point residents also continued to exercise limited control over the remaining antipoverty initiatives in the community. During the redevelopment project, Hunters Point was a site of the Model Cities Program, which aimed to develop social and economic programs in conjunction with redevelopment. By addressing problems of poverty and inequality alongside issues of “blight,” the program intended to effect more comprehensive and equitable urban revitalization, in contrast to the top-down, destructive urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. Community representatives on the Neighborhood Committee channeled federal funds toward vocational training and job creation, with nearly 500 individuals employed directly by the Model Cities Program. In 1974, however, the Nixon administration cut program funding, ending another experiment in grassroots collective action.

          Despite these challenges, Bayview-Hunters Point residents continued to find additional channels for articulating their demands for economic and social equality during this period, particularly through environmental activism.[64] Environmental activism in Bayview-Hunters Point built on earlier civil rights movements and reflected long-standing concerns over legacies of dumping, waste, and contamination in the neighborhood. Starting with early industrialization in the 1860s, southeast San Francisco has long been the site of noxious industries and pollution. At the turn of the twentieth century, slaughterhouses, tanneries, and glue factories at Butchertown regularly dumped animal waste into Islais Creek, causing the area to become infamous for its foul odors. In 1929, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) built a power plant at Hunters Point that underwent multiple expansions before finally being closed in 2006. In 1952, the city constructed its largest wastewater facility in Bayview-Hunters Point. At the Hunters Point Shipyard, the prevalent use and disposal of chemicals, radioluminescent paint, and other industrial toxins resulted in widespread chemical and radiological contamination.

           Environmental activism in Bayview-Hunters Point sought to confront this long history of contamination. In 1975, community members protested the expansion of the Southeast Treatment Plant, arguing that foul odors would further worsen quality of life in the neighborhood. In the 1980s, environmental regulations on hazardous waste disposal and management represented attempts by the federal government to address the toxic legacies of industrialism.[65] In 1989, the EPA declared the shipyard a Superfund site and ordered the Navy to clean up the contamination that had accumulated over decades of industrial use. These changes set the stage for the subsequent remediation and remaking of Bayview-Hunters Point.

Remediating and Remaking Bayview-Hunters Point, 1990-Present

          Starting in the 1990s, the redevelopment of Bayview-Hunters Point produced new spaces of real estate investment and development. For public officials, city planners, and developers in San Francisco, redevelopment of brownfields and other formerly environmentally-contaminated land represented an opportunity to achieve and reconcile multiple economic, environmental, and social goals at once: environmental stewardship, housing creation, and economic development.

Figure 10: Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment rendering, 2010. Source: Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure.

          These elite visions of transformation imagined a clean break with the intertwined legacies of industrial toxicity and social inequality.[66] By removing toxins from nearly 500 acres of land, remediation would open up nearly 500 acres of land for commercial development. In 1991, the Navy began the process of remediating and transferring the Hunters Point Shipyard to civilian use as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program. In 1997, the city officially adopted the Hunters Point Shipyard Redevelopment Plan, which called for a mix of residential, commercial, and light industrial uses on the shipyard, promising both jobs and affordable housing for the local community. As environmental remediation began, however, the Navy encountered much more contamination of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds than expected. The Navy also discovered significant radiological contamination requiring extensive removal. These challenges delayed the transfer of land for redevelopment and caused the cost of remediation to balloon to over $1 billion.

          After multiple delays, the first phase of the redevelopment commenced in 2004 with the transfer of the first parcel of land from the Navy to the city. The first phase includes 1,600 units of housing. Initiated in 2007, the second phase of the redevelopment project, which has been integrated with the redevelopment of Candlestick Point, will create 10,500 additional housing units, one-third of which will be affordable. Continuing difficulties over the shipyard remediation effort, including soil sampling data fraud committed by a Navy contractor, however, have continued to delay the redevelopment project, raising concerns over residents and activists over whether the shipyard will ever truly be safe enough to live on. In 2016, regulatory agencies halted the transfer of land for redevelopment until the Navy completes comprehensive radiological retesting and resampling of the shipyard.

          Drawing on historical portrayals of Bayview-Hunters Point as a socially isolated place, these projects and other community development initiatives seek to “reconnect” the neighborhood to the rest of San Francisco through social and environmental interventions. The shipyard redevelopment project is closely tied to the broader Bayview-Hunters Point Redevelopment Project, which imagines the transformation of 1,300 acres of the neighborhood through brownfield development and housing rehabilitation. Conceptualized as the second phase of the original 1969 Hunters Point redevelopment project, the early stages of the BVHP Redevelopment Project began with the publication of the South Bayshore Area Plan by the Planning Commission in 1995.[67] The project officially began with the adoption of the Bayview-Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan by the SFRA in 2006, which called for the creation of over 3,800 housing units, one quarter of which will be affordable.

          In 2006, the city launched HOPE SF, which aims to redevelop deteriorating public housing projects into mixed-income developments.[68] Modeled on the federal HOPE VI program, HOPE SF includes Hunters View and Alice Griffith Apartments in Bayview-Hunters Point. In addition to leveraging private investment in public housing rehabilitation, mixed-income redevelopment promises to reintegrate low-income residents into the urban fabric by facilitating socioeconomic diversity. That same year, the city launched the Blue Greenway project, a multi-agency initiative to transform contaminated sites in the neighborhood into trails and parks that will reconnect southeast San Francisco to the rest of the waterfront through a 13-mile “green corridor.”[69]

          The large-scale remaking of Bayview-Hunters Point has, however, raised the specter of racialized displacement. Starting in 1970, the black population of San Francisco began to decline significantly as a result of urban renewal, gentrification, and the rising cost of living. From a peak of 13.4% in 1970, the Black population in San Francisco decreased to approximately 5.3% in 2017.[70] The displacement of Black residents in the past four decades, coupled with increasing immigration of Asians and Latinos, has drastically changed the demographic composition of both the neighborhood and the city as a whole. With 28.8% of current residents identifying as Black or African American, Bayview-Hunters Point is the largest remaining Black community in San Francisco. As gentrification continues to force Black people out of the Bay Area, Bayview-Hunters Point residents have questioned whether redevelopment and “reconnection” will deliver on promises of economic benefits and inclusion.[71]

Figure 11: Bayview Hunters Point toxic sites map, 2007. Source: Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice, http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=SAEJ_of_SF
Figure 12: Hunters Point Power Plant protest, 2004. Source: Mike Kepka, San Francisco Chronicle, https://www.sfgate.com/business/article/End-is-near-for-Hunters-Point-plant-Panel-2501998.php.

          Bayview-Hunters Point residents have continued to engage in environmental justice activism to confront the ongoing toxic legacies of militarization and industrialism. In response to community activism, the San Francisco Health Department began to conduct health assessments of Bayview-Hunters Point in the mid-1990s, finding significantly worse health outcomes, including elevated rates of breast cancer, cervical cancer, asthma, and hospitalization from chronic conditions.[72] Using surveys and community mapping, residents and environmental groups connected these health effects to the disproportionate number of toxic sites in the neighborhood, encompassing over a hundred brownfield sites, 180 leaking underground fuel tanks, and 124 hazardous waste facilities.[73] Throughout the 1990s, environmental justice activism coalesced around a successful campaign to shut down the PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant, which was blamed for high rates of respiratory conditions.[74] Residents have also challenged the Navy’s remediation of the Hunters Point Shipyard, demanding a reckoning with unfinished histories of toxicity, racism, and inequality that persist despite proclamations of environmental stewardship.[75] In doing so, they also stake claims on an uncertain future in which the past, materialized through toxic exposures and latent health effects, continues to skew life chances in the present. These contestations over the past, present, and future of Bayview-Hunters Point disrupt dominant narratives of linear progress, subjecting the process of redevelopment to interrogation and contestation.


[1] San Francisco Planning Department, “San Francisco Neighborhoods Socio-Economic Profiles: American Community Survey 2010–2014,” (March 2017), https://default.sfplanning.org/publications_reports/SF_NGBD_SocioEconomic_Profiles/2010-2014_ACS_Profile_Neighborhoods_v3AH.pdf.

[2] Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[3] The Hunter brothers lent their name to Hunters Point. Before Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848, the Ohlone inhabited seasonal camps in what is now southeast San Francisco, and Spanish missions and Mexican ranchers used its pastures as grazing lands.

[4] Richard Walker, “Industry Builds Out the City: The Suburbanization of Manufacturing in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1850–1940,” in Manufacturing Suburbs: Building Work and Home on the Metropolitan Fringe, ed. Robert Lewis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 92–123. The Civil War, the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada, and the construction and completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s also fueled the industrialization and growth of San Francisco.

[5] Conor Casey, “San Francisco’s ‘Butchertown’ in the 1920s and 1930s: A Neighborhood Social History,” The Argonaut 18, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 68-83, https://history.sfsu.edu/sites/default/files/2004_Conor%20Casey.pdf.

[6] Kelley & VerPlanck Historical Resources Consulting, “Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey,” 42–43, 49–55, 59–62, https://sfocii.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=797.

[7] The 1906 earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco, including the industrial waterfront near Rincon Hill, South of Market, and Mission Bay, built atop seismically unstable fill. Butchertown, built on top of marshes and wetlands, also suffered heavy destruction, but most of the southeast was left relatively undamaged thanks to its distance from the fires. Because of this and the ample presence of vacant land, industrialists hoped that large-scale industrialization of the southeast would support the city’s economic recovery.

[8] Kelley & VerPlanck, “Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey,” 74–77.

[9] Because of high costs, however, the actual land reclamation did not begin until the 1920s and was completed in 1936.

[10] Operating under the leadership of steel magnate Charles Schwab, Bethlehem Steel also operated a shipyard at Pier 70 on Potrero Point, constructing battleships for the US Navy during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.

[11] Kelley & VerPlanck, “Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey,” 84. The vast majority of San Francisco’s remaining industrial land remains concentrated here today.

[12] United States Navy, “Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Disposal and Reuse of Hunters Point Shipyard” (2000), D-5, https://www.bracpmo.navy.mil/content/dam/bracpmo/california/former_naval_shipyard_hunters_point/pdfs/all_documents/environmental_documents/nepa/hps_200003_fseisvolume2.pdf.

[13] Roger W. Lotchin, “The City and the Sword: San Francisco and the Rise of the Metropolitan-Military Complex 1919–1941,” Journal of American History 65, no. 4 (March 1979): 996–1020, https://doi.org/10.2307/1894557. Lotchin argues that, starting with the establishment of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in 1854 through World War II, the urbanization of the San Francisco Bay Area was fueled by military funding courted by local civic boosters.

[14] During World War II, the San Francisco Bay Area built more than 1,400 vessels.

[15] Starting at the end of World War I, the US Navy began considering purchasing the dry docks from Bethlehem Steel owing to their strategic location and usefulness for Pacific operations.

[16] United States Navy, “Hunters Point Shipyard Final Historical Radiological Assessment: History of the Use of General Radioactive Materials 1939–2003” (2004), 6-3, https://www.bracpmo.navy.mil/content/dam/bracpmo/california/former_naval_shipyard_hunters_point/pdfs/all_documents/environmental_documents/radiological/hps_200408_hra.pdf.

[17] Albert S. Broussard, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900–1954 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 133.

[18] Ibid., 175.

[19] Kelley & VerPlanck, “Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey,” 93.

[20] John Baranski, Housing the City By The Bay: Tenant Activism, Civil Rights, and Class Politics in San Francisco, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), 64.

[21] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).

[22] Broussard, Black San Francisco, 133.

[23] U.S. Navy, “Final Environmental Impact Statement,” D-6.

[24] Middle-class African-Americans also looked down on the new migrants as unsophisticated. These anxieties indexed broader concerns among the established Black community around their social positioning within sharpening racial hierarchies. Broussard, Black San Francisco, 170–171.

[25] Broussard, Black San Francisco, 143–165.

[26] Ibid., 167.

[27] Exec. Order No. 8802 (June 25, 1941), https://archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/?dod-date=625.

[28] Broussard, Black San Francisco, 148.

[29] Miller, Postwar Struggle for Civil Rights, 21. Prior to the lawsuit, James organized a boycott of paying dues to the Boilermakers among Marinship workers in protest of segregated auxiliaries.

[30] Broussard, Black San Francisco, 175.

[31] Baranski, Housing the City By the Bay, 75.

[32] U.S. Navy, “Final Environmental Impact Statement,” D-13.

[33] Employment rose to over 10,000 in the early 1950s with the Korean War and again in the late 1960s with the Vietnam War. Total employment levels, however, never approached the peak of World War II.

[34] Daniel Crowe, Prophets of Rage: The Black Freedom Struggle in San Francisco, 1945–1969 (New York: Garland, 2000), 54–61. The rise of containerization in the 1960s spelled the demise of the Port of San Francisco, which lacked space for shipping containers and the equipment needed to handle them. As a result, the bulk of maritime trade and jobs in the shipping industry moved to Oakland, which supplanted San Francisco as the Bay Area’s main port.

[35] Miller, Postwar Struggle for Civil Rights, 57–59.

[36] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright 2017). See also Michael K. Brown, Race, Money, and the American Welfare State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[37] In 1963, California outlawed racial discrimination in housing with the Rumford Fair Housing Act. The following year, however, voters nullified the legislation by passing Proposition 14, effectively relegalizing housing discrimination. The California Supreme Court ruled the proposition unconstitutional in 1966, and the US Supreme Court upheld this decision the following year. In 1968, Congress finally institutionalized federal enforcement of anti-discrimination policy with the Fair Housing Act.

[38] Broussard, Black San Francisco, 224.

[39] On urban renewal in San Francisco, see John H. Mollenkopf, The Contested City (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983) and Chester W. Hartman, City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002). California became an early leader in urban renewal in the United States. In 1945, California became the first state to allow the formation of local redevelopment agencies by passing the Community Redevelopment Act. This preceded the Housing Act of 1949, which allocated federal funds for urban renewal projects. In 1952, California became the first state to implement tax increment financing (TIF), which used future gains in property tax value to match federal funding for urban renewal projects.

[40] As one of the few places where Black people could live in San Francisco, the Western Addition was a major hub of Black cultural and social life. But the restricted mobility of Black people, coupled with absentee landlords, produced what the city deemed “blight”: a nebulous set of conditions that included disease, crime, overcrowding, and “vice.”

[41] Baranski, Housing the City by the Bay, 105. The SFRA calculated that there were enough units in the private housing market and public housing projects, including the Hunters Point public housing, to absorb the displaced residents. However, their calculations failed to account for the refusal of landlords and realtors to rent or sell to Black people. Moreover, the slow pace of reconstruction, coupled with the high rents of the replacement housing, worsened the displacement.

[42] Kelley & VerPlanck Historical Resources Consulting, “Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey,” 122.

[43] Rod Buntzen, The Armageddon Experience: A Nuclear Weapons Test Memoir, self-published, 2019, 2.

[44] Kelley & VerPlanck Historical Resources Consulting, “Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey,” D-25.

[45] Kelley & VerPlanck Historical Resources Consulting, “Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey,” 107–109.

[46] On twentieth-century social scientific studies of urban communities, see Benjamin Looker, “A Place Apart: The ‘New Ghetto’ and the ‘Old Neighborhood,’ in A Nation of Neighborhoods: Imagining Cities, Communities, and Democracy in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[47] Arthur E. Hippler, Hunter’s Point: A Black Ghetto (New York: Basic, 1974). These accounts tended to conflate race, poverty, and place in descriptions of the “ghetto.” Moreover, their examinations of the “ghetto” as a place apart undertheorized mainstream white society as an implicit norm against which such places were compared.

[48] Benjamin P. Bowser, “Bayview-Hunter’s Point: San Francisco’s Black Ghetto Revisited,” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 17, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 383–400, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40553136

[49] Hippler, Hunter’s Point.

[50] Richard O. Moore, Take This Hammer (San Francisco; KQED, 1963), https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/216518.

[51] For instance, the destruction and displacement of the Western Addition galvanized residents and activists to form organizations like the Western Addition Community Organization (WACO) that challenged top-down decision-making in urban planning. In 1964, black activists led mass demonstrations at the Palace Hotel and car dealerships to protest discriminatory hiring practices.

[52] Baranski, Housing the City by the Bay, 129–131.

[53] Crowe, Prophets of Rage, 161. The EOA also funded other programs like Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, and Work Study.

[54] On the politics of community action during the War on Poverty, see Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

[55] Rachel Brahinsky, “Race and the Making of Southeast San Francisco: Towards a Theory of Race-Class,” Antipode 46, no. 5 (November 2014): 1256–1278, https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12050. The exact composition of the Big Five has never been defined. Reflecting the prominence of Black women in community organizing, different sources have included within the group Eloise Westbrook, Julia Commer, Rosalie Williams, Osceola Washington, Ruth Williams, Bertha Freeman, Beatrice Dunbar, Essie Webb, Ardith Nichols, and others.

[56] Ralph M. Kramer, Participation of the Poor: Comparative Community Case Studies in the War on Poverty (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 25–36.

[57] Ibid., 49-53. Throughout the War on Poverty, $8.6 million of federal funding poured into the neighborhood to support these and other initiatives.

[58] For a detailed account of the uprising, see Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, “A Forgotten Community, a Forgotten History: San Francisco’s 1966 Urban Uprising,” in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South, ed. by Brian Purnell, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodward (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 210–233.

[59] Crowe, Prophets of Rage, 205. This solution drew upon received notions of race and poverty developed by social scientists. By focusing on the frustration and anger of Hunters Point residents, the public discourse surrounding the uprising located the cause of the “riots” in the pathological psychology, rather than economic and political structures. At the same time, the business leaders’ proposal neglected to account for economic stratification, hiring discrimination, and other factors that led to high unemployment in the neighborhood to begin with.

[60] Rick DelVecchio, “Shipyard workers rally to bring Missouri to SF,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 4, 1988.

[61] During the redevelopment of the Western Addition, WACO launched a successful lawsuit that delayed the project and prompted the passage of the Uniform Relocation Act in 1970, which granted greater compensation and relocation assistance to displaced residents. Their activism led to changes in state redevelopment legislation that increased affordable housing construction and required community representation in urban renewal projects through locally-elected Project Area Committees (PAC).

[62] Brahinsky, “Race and the Making of Southeast San Francisco”; Ruth Williams and M. Justin Herman, “Collaborative Planning at Hunters Point,” (1966).

[63] Brahinsky, “Race and the Making of Southeast San Francisco.”

[64] In the 1970s, an expanding national environmental movement, the passage of environmental legislation, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened another channel of political participation and grassroots social action. See United States Congress, National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/91/s1075/text.

[65] United States Congress, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/9601; United States Congress, Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/99/hr2005.

[66] Lindsey Dillon, “Race, Waste, and Space: Brownfield Redevelopment and Environmental Justice at the Hunters Point Shipyard,” Antipode 46, no. 5 (November 2014): 1205–1221, https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12009.

[67] San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, “South Bayshore Area Plan” (April 1995).

[68] Baranski, Housing the City by the Bay, 201–205. With dwindling federal funding for maintenance and construction of public housing, HOPE SF leverages private investment in mixed-income development to subsidize the rehabilitation of “distressed” public housing units.

[69] Port of San Francisco, “Blue Greenway Planning and Design Guidelines,” (July 2012), https://sfport.com/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=1907.

[70] Task Force on African-American Out-Migration, “Report of the San Francisco Mayor’s Task Force on African-American Out-Migration,” (2009), http://bayviewmagic.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2010/02/AA-OutMigration-TF-1.pdf.

[71] Christina Jackson and Nikki Jones, “Remember the Fillmore: The Lingering History of Urban Renewal in Black San Francisco,” in Black California Dreamin’: The Crises of California’s African-American Communities, ed. by Ingrid Banks, Gaye Johnson, George Lipsitz, Ula Taylor, Daniel Widener, and Clyde Woods (Santa Barbara, CA: UCSB Center for Black Studies, 2012), 57–73; see also Brahinsky, “Race and the Making of Southeast San Francisco.”

[72] Lisa Davis, “Diseaseville,” SF Weekly (August 27, 2003), https://archives.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/diseaseville/Content?oid=2149160.

[73] Bayview-Hunters Point Mothers Environmental Health & Justice Committee, “Pollution, Health, Environmental Racism and Injustice: A Toxic Inventory of Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco,” (2004), http://greenaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/thestateoftheenvironment090204final.pdf.

[74] Clifford Rechtschaffen, “Fighting Back Against a Power Plant: Some Lessons from the Legal and Organizing Efforts of the Bayview-Hunters Point Community,” Hastings West-Northwest Journal of Environmental Law and Policy 3, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 407–426, https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_environmental_law_journal/vol3/iss3/4.

[75] Helen H. Kang “Respect for Community Narratives of Environmental Injustice: The Dignity Right to Be Heard and Believed.” Widener Law Review 25 (2019), 219–267.