January 2011

Editorial: District 10

By Steven J. Moss

Virtually no one identifies themselves as a District 10 resident. Instead, we live in Potrero Hill or Portola, Bayview or Visitacion Valley.  District 10 is a creation of politics, an artificial line encircling a set of neighborhoods bursting with a diverse array of families, small businesses, derelict infrastructure, and green patches, defined most predominately by two freeways and the bay.  One thing connects these communities though: they are San Francisco’s future.    

A half-century ago the district served as the City’s industrial engine. Pier 70 was one of the country’s most productive World War II shipyards, at its peak employing 10,000 workers in thrice daily shifts. Almost 9,000 civilians worked at the Hunters Point Shipyard during the 1950s. As recently as the early 1990s, Schlage Lock, in Visitacion Valley, provided 1,200 jobs. These workers paid mortgages on modest homes in Dogpatch and Little Hollywood, dined and drank at Dago Mary’s and Sam Jordan’s, and sent their children to neighborhood schools.

We live among the remains of this industrial age.  Our eastern shoreline is dominated by decaying buildings and toxic clean-up sites; the bay is mostly inaccessible. Health hazards and poverty, in part engendered by a half-century retreat of economic prosperity, abound. Even the concentration of freeways, the sewage treatment plant, and public housing are residual of a prior age, planted in District 10 because of a surplus of cheap land, and a deficit in local political power.

After years of neglect, the district is stirring. The old railroad marshalling yard at Mission Bay is half-way to becoming a world class biotechnology, medical, and software center. The Potrero Power Plant is to be shuttered, and financiers are taking a hard look at developing Pier 70. Schlage Lock will soon be transformed into a mixed-used complex, with housing, grocery stores, and retail outlets. Similar to the last great economic revitalization during the 20th Century, recent progress has been principally sparked by government. Mission Bay, Schlage Lock, and the shipyard are being brought back to life by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency; Pier 70 by the San Francisco Port Authority. We’re turning the sword-building shops of our past – military bases and warship factories – into plows, in the form of hospitals, high-tech office buildings, and affordable housing.

In the midst of this emerging change we have a remarkable opportunity to get things right. District 10’s half-century neglect can be seized upon as an opportunity to leap past our mistakes – including avoiding replicating Mission Bay’s soullessness – to create a future that incorporates the best environmental, economic, and social practices.  Among the exciting possibilities are adopting “small is beautiful” energy infrastructure, that includes locally-owned electric distribution “smart-girds” which take full advantage of emerging community-based technology, such as solar, wind, storage, bio-fuels, and dynamic conservation practices.  The shipyard, Pier 70, and the four public housing complexes slated for redevelopment – including Potrero Annex-Terrace – are excellent candidates for this type of innovation. State-of-the art water management strategies, many of which are already being planned by the San Francisco Public Utility Commission, can bring back healthy wetlands, daylight creeks, and create a thriving relationship between the urban environment, our nascent watershed, and the bay, particularly in the face of climate-induced sea-level rises.

Guerilla gardeners and urban farmers are already reclaiming derelict land patches, at the Pennsylvania Street garden, San Bruno Street pedestrian bridge, Quesada Gardens, and elsewhere. We should foster these efforts, by flipping the dynamic between public lands and citizen-activists. The trash-strewn, weed-choked lots that dot the district, whether owned by the California Department of Transportation or San Francisco Department of Public Works, should be offered to community-based groups that can make good use of them. We should decentralize San Francisco’s open space and recreation budgets, shifting control of the funds to citizen councils within a tight City management structure, a kind of community-based franchising. These councils, in turn, should take partial responsibility for meeting ongoing financial requirements, which could include establishing collaborations with neighborhood schools and nonprofits, and cooperative or fee-for-service off-leash dog areas, tennis courts, concessions, and small-scale energy production, while ensuring equitable access and funding for our less well-off citizens and communities.    

We need to rethink parking, bicycle and public transportation in ways that go beyond punitive measures against cars and ad hoc patches to our poorly-financed MUNI system. Single-minded reliance on fixed-rail and accordion buses should be replaced with a diversity of people-movers, including leveraging the Bauer buses and University of California, San Francisco (USCF) shuttles that traverse our district into a web of ways to get people where they want to go.  Bicycles should be licensed, paying a fee that contributes to the creation of bike-friendly byways. The emergence of smaller, differently-fueled, vehicles should be incorporated into restructured parking policies, which could include dedicated street parking permits for shared, micro, or low-environmental impact cars.   

As we reclaim the urban environment, and spark the next generation of economic innovation, we need to be mindful of the district’s changing demographics. The African-American population is steadily declining, while the Asian-American population is exploding. Although Bayview-Hunters Point has emerged as a rich stew of all races, Potrero Hill is highly-concentrated with European-Americans, with Visitacion Valley a center for Asian-Americans.  Income disparities are dramatic. Even on the Hill, with its median household income of $90,000, 13 percent of the community’s population lives in poverty. The district’s income gap is physically manifested by the mansionettes steadily being constructed in Dogpatch and Potrero Hill, while a dozen or often related individuals cram into illegally-modified homes in Little Hollywood and Portola. Simultaneously, the district is home to more children than any other part of San Francisco, many of whom are being bused across town to go to school, while, at the other end, we’re all steadily aging.  

Ways to connect our diverse neighborhoods – whether through the quality of open spaces, fostering excellent neighborhood schools, creating fully-functioning community and recreational centers, or the diversity of restaurant offerings – need to be encouraged. The health care complexes anchoring the district – UCSF, San Francisco General Hospital, and hopefully, at the shipyard – should be leveraged as part of development of thriving affordable housing complexes that include ample space for seniors. Homes need to be reimaged to better accommodate families of all sizes, income levels and ethnicities, a creative process that should be linked with the creation of new transportation policies.

A new city is being built in District 10. Like all modern day municipalities, it’s being constructed on top of the skeletons of what came before.  Some of these bones remain sturdy, providing an essential frame for the future: the can-do, creative spirit of the longshoremen, ship builders, metalworkers, artists, and merchants who built our communities.  It’s time to dance with the past to the music of tomorrow. Let’s follow our ambitious, stubborn, talented ancestors, and turn, full face, to building our future. 

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