San Francisco is a city known for its iconic neighborhoods which have been strongly shaped by their residents—the Chinese in Chinatown, Italians in North Beach, Latinos in the Mission, gays in the Castro, and hippies in Haight-Ashbury. These neighborhoods enjoy thriving business districts built around both strong internal consumer bases and considerable external investment and tourism. Their success, therefore, has rested upon their ability to forge their own destinies while at the same time integrate themselves into San Francisco’s prosperous and growing economy. On the other hand, the story of Bayview-Hunters Point is very different from that of these successful neighborhoods, marred by its inability to control the erratic growth and changes of the area.
While Bayview-Hunters Point originally had a diverse, self-sufficient economy of shrimping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing like others districts in San Francisco, its history since 1941 has been driven by the presence of the Naval Shipyard. The Navy effectively coopted Bayview-Hunters Point to support the wartime demand for battleships, pushing out other industries and creating a economic dependence which still haunts Bayview-Hunters Point today. As many as 18,000 people worked at the bustling shipyard during the war, and the district’s population swelled from 14,011 in 1940 to 51,406 in 1950 (which included a substantial increase in the areas Black population, from just 7 in 1940 to 11,080 in 1950). Nevertheless, the wartime economic boom was not sustainable, leading to a slow decline as the Shipyard deindustrialized and ultimately was decomissioned in 1974.
As jobs left Bayview-Hunters Point, the Black population increased dramatically. While Blacks made up just 21.6% of the area’s population in 1950 (11,080), in 1970 the proportion increased to 69.1% (20,554). Meanwhile, as Whites moved to more-attractive suburbs, the White population dropped dramatically from 38,822 (75.5%) in 1950 to 7,312 (24.6%) in 1970, to just 3,453 (9.9%) in 2000. Much of this increase is due to displacement by the urban renewal of the Fillmore District, which essentially bulldozed a thriving Black neighborhood labeled the “Harlem of the West.” Because of discriminatory housing policies–in which discrimination by banks and realtors (backed by FHA policies) severly limited Black housing choices–Blacks from the Fillmore went to one of the few places that was deemed acceptable: Bayview-Hunters Point (for more on the history of institutional segregation and discrimination, Massey and Denton’s American Aparteid is a great read). Yet, even after Civil Rights and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (a considerable failure), much of the same systems of segregation remained in place in the 70s and 80s, concentrating Blacks within the district.
At the same time, Bayview-Hunters Point became increasingly isolated from the rest of San Francisco. Apart from the aforementioned housing discrimination, deindustrialization, and ‘White Flight’, Bayview-Hunters Point was cut off by freeway construction (both 101 and 280), poor public transportation, and urban renewal, leading most San Franciscans to never visit the district. While Bayview-Hunters Point was sustained by the Naval Shipyard and managed to cope with these challenges into the 1960s, the joblessness which resulted from the shipyard’s closure posed an insurmountable challenge to the district. Like other segregated, jobless Black districts across the nation, Bayview-Hunters Point would become a ghetto.
Coming up, Part 2: Crime, Contamination, and Crisis