Ana Garay, 44, lives in a three-bedroom apartment on Connecticut Street in the Potrero Terrace housing complex with her 25-year old daughter, Stephanie, and two grandkids, ages seven and three. Her unit, she said, is in reasonably good shape, kept that way by her son-in-law’s carpentry skills. The family won’t be relocated to a new home until Rebuild Potrero’s last construction phase, expected to begin in 2024.
“It’s going to be worth the wait. No matter how long we wait, we are going to have a better building, a new house, new everything. Hopefully it will come true,” she said. Garay has been told that as long as people pay their rent, there are no police issues, and they’re clean, they’ll be allowed to relocate.
Garay has embraced the community building activities provided by Bridge Housing. She walks around the complex three mornings a week, volunteers at the family garden and takes Zumba classes on Wednesdays at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. She feels more secure being outdoors when other people are around. “It’s not too safe around here. Two weeks after moving in, my daughter got robbed at gunpoint. I hear shootings sometimes,” she said.
Garay is attracted by the incentives Bridge offers for her engagement. The nonprofit allows residents to choose activities from two calendars, orange Healthy Living and green Healthy Eating and Gardening. Participation in six events on either calendar monthly earns a $25 Safeway gift card. While admitting the gift cards are the catalyst for her involvement, Garay recognized the intended benefit. “It motivates people. It’s a way to get people out of the house and exercise,” she said.
During one 10 a.m. walk, Garay pointed out the community mural on Coral Road, with obvious pride noted that her grandchildren were among those that helped paint it.
Garay came to Potrero Hill from her native Nicaragua in 1990. Her older brothers arrived first, in 1979, fleeing the initial stages of the Contra-fueled Civil War. The rest of her family eventually followed. “Being poor in America is better,” she said, noting that basics like clothes and shoes could be scarce in Nicaragua, particularly when war raged.
Garay volunteers to distribute food to about 70 seniors at the Neighborhood House’s weekly pantry. “I like to serve people. They don’t pay, but I don’t care because I really want to do it.”
From Monica Ferrey’s eastside window on a clear day she can see the Berkeley hills and the Mormon Temple in Oakland. On the west side, her front door opens up to the wooded area behind the Potrero Hill Recreation Center. She can park her car on Connecticut Street’s dead end and walk home along a dirt path. It’ll be a prime spot, she pointed out, when the new development comes.
At the moment, however, it’s hard to imagine anyone paying top dollar to live in Annex-Terrace. Over the past three years, gunmen have struck the outside of Ferrey’s building thrice, bullets reigning down from the woods. On another occasion, a gunman fired down on Missouri Street from the shared balcony outside her second floor. She keeps furniture in front of the lower balcony’s door to fend off squatters living in a vacant unit a couple doors down.
Ferrey, a San Francisco native, has lived in the Annex for seven years. She shares a three-bedroom apartment with her two boys, aged 15 and six, and her daughter, age eight. Her oldest daughter, Alexandria, 22, moved off the Hill and attends San Francisco State University, majoring in Kinesiology. An adopted nephew, age 20, moved out two years ago when he went to work with the Treasure Island Job Corps. He now goes to City College of San Francisco.
Besides the trauma looming outside her door, there have been tragedies. Two of Ferrey’s cousins were murdered, one in a drive-by shooting in the Mission; another shot in an attempted robbery on Broadway Street. Her adopted nephew’s mother died of a drug overdose in Las Vegas.
Ferrey is working toward an undergraduate degree herself, attending SF State alongside her daughter. She’s majoring in health education, with a focus on holistic practice, and runs a meditation class for Annex-Terrace residents twice weekly. She started the course four years ago; it’s now on Bridge’s activities calendar. “A lot of people come because it is a safe place. I almost feel bad to have to wake them up and tell them it’s time to go.” Some use the class as an opportunity to socialize; others, several with language barriers, keep to themselves. Ferrey plays a recording that offers a variety of mindfulness exercises. “It teaches you to try to be creative for yourself and things will change for you,” she explained.
Ferrey is president of the Annex Tenant’s Council. The position doesn’t have much pull. Despite several meetings with the Mayor’s Office, it took three years for those first bullet holes to be patched. It was only last fall, when a worker hired to paint the bathroom agreed to spackle them, that it got done; the white patching is still visible against the beige wall. The two security cameras recently installed below her on Missouri Street aren’t pointed at her building, and didn’t capture the upper balcony shooter.
Ferrey hasn’t had much success in her dealings with the San Francisco Police Department either. Calling 911 can be hit or miss, she explained, depending upon which officers respond. She’s hesitant to deal with cops she doesn’t know. The “rookies,” as she referred to them, treat residents with as much suspicion as they do culprits.
She’s thankful for the 2011 closure of the Potrero Power Plant, whose smokestack is visible directly though her window. Her oldest son suffered from a variety of respiratory illnesses. “You’d open the windows for the mold, but then you’d let in toxic air,” she recalled.
When it comes to redevelopment, she worries that the community will end up divided, challenging how well the new factions will blend. “Right now you know who your neighbors are. I know about 60 percent of people in Annex by face and name.” She’s also concerned that public housing units will be lost, aggravated by Bridge’s plan showing 619 existing now and Hope SF’s website listing only 606.
“Magically this is all going to happen like this?” she asked, with a skeptic’s smile.
At 6 a.m. six days a week, 56-year old Donald Green wakes up, walks across the street, makes coffee and puts out pastries in a two-room first floor unit on Dakota Street. The site houses the Community Awareness Resources Entity (C.A.R.E.), a 501c3 founded by Green and lifelong Annex resident Billy Ray Courtney.
Around the same time, Green’s wife, 51-year old Uzuri Pease-Green, gets ready to drive children to One Purpose, a charter school near Candlestick Point that caters to impoverished students. She’d previously gone door to door in what was called a “walking school bus” to collect children and take them to school. The effort was in response to a 2011 study that revealed that 53 percent of five to 12 years olds living in Annex-Terrace were chronically absent. Uzuri’s 22-year old daughter, Urell, is one of six community members who continue the walking school bus effort, working in two teams of three to ensure that up to two dozen children make it to Starr King and Daniel Webster elementary schools.
Students traveling off the Hill sometimes pass by C.A.R.E.; Green or Courtney will pack a lunch for them, and occasionally cook breakfast. Green recalled one girl who’d carried a lunch pail with her every day. “One day, I opened it and nothing was in it,” he said.
The couple’s lives are a far cry from when they met in Bayview 17 years ago. Both were homeless. Each had a place that wouldn’t accommodate the other, so they stayed together on the street. “It was love at first sight,” said Green.
Both struggled with drugs and alcohol; according to Green taking drugs can make a bad life more tolerable. They were offered public housing in 2001; Pease-Green chose Annex-Terrace because, despite being a lifelong San Franciscan, she’d never used in Potrero Hill. Eight years ago she freed herself from intoxicants; Green followed three years later.
Attending redevelopment meetings gave Pease-Green something to focus on. In 2010, Bridge hired her as a community liaison, to help recruit people to participate in healthy living activities, and encourage them to come to planning meetings. She acknowledged that she sometimes has to tell people what hat she’s wearing at a given moment: employee of the landlord, or voice for the community. Pease-Green obtained a degree in human services management from the University of Phoenix in 2014; she’s trying to find a way to pay for a master’s in public administration.
According to Green, C.A.R.E. was started because, “We wanted a safe place for kids and wanted our own resources.” He said that the neighborhood is made up of “predominantly good people. There a just a handful of knuckleheads.” Pease-Green added that the San Francisco Police Department has the same characteristics.
In addition to distributing vegetables grown at The Garden Project, located at the County Jail Complex in San Bruno, C.A.R.E. provides information technology assistance. Hill resident Taga Tavale volunteers to maintain a small computer laboratory, and assists with job searches.
Most of C.A.R.E.’s operating money comes out of Green’s and Courtney’s pockets. Green works part-time at the Neighborhood House and doing grounds maintenance at an apartment building. Courtney labors at the Starr King School and drives for UPS on the side. Their current goal is to obtain a 12-passenger van to use as a school bus, to help seniors get up the hill and take children on trips. “A lot of them are shut-in,” said Green. “This area right here is all they know.”
Although C.A.R.E. was started three years ago – one of its features has been an annual Thanksgiving Dinner – it only secured its Dakota Street space earlier this year. A grand opening was held last spring featuring a barbeque grill-off between the police and fire departments, the latter bringing in two trucks for the kids to play on. Nobody from the media came, Green bemoaned, “but someone gets shot and they are all here.”
Two nights a week, Eddie and Brenda Kittrell gather with families at 5 Watchman Way, which houses the Healthy Generations Project. The unit features a narrow hallway that leads to a large room. On a recent Wednesday, 15 school-aged children – but only three parents – sat around a large table that takes up all but a tiny kitchen area of the room. The children watched a movie and ate a Somali-based pasta dish with vegetables and beef. After dinner, they sang and danced to the Alphabet Song from Sesame Street.
Healthy Generations, a part of the walking school bus initiative, offers activities three nights a week, in service of achieving five goals: good nutrition, positive activities, non-toxic environments, non-violent communication and education. Tuesdays feature a catered dinner with a fully set table sandwiched between a brief meditation and a reading hour. Wednesdays are movie nights, with fresh food provided by Leah’s Pantry, a nonprofit in the Mission. Thursdays, the Kittrells night off, generally feature art and crafts.
“It gives the parents an hour break to not have to prepare dinner and gives quality time with the children,” said Brenda, whose favorite activity is reading to the children. “A lot of kids don’t have fathers in their home, so having nurturing adults other than their parents that care for you and talk to you; I think it makes a difference in a child’s life.”
The Kittrells met 26 years ago, introduced by Brenda’s brother. Both are from the South. Eddie, 66, is a Vietnam veteran from Arkansas; 62-year old Brenda grew up in Mississippi. Soon after meeting, they wound up homeless, the result of what Brenda called bad lifestyle choices. They moved into the Annex 22 years ago, where they raised two daughters – they had five children each before they met – who have since moved out. Two grandchildren, ages eight and six, remain. “We’re helping our kids raise their kids,” Eddie said.
Eddie believes that Annex-Terrace residents aren’t the ones instigating crimes in the area. “We know all the cats around here since birth. We can talk to the young people. It is mostly outsiders,” he said. “If you come looking for trouble, you can find it, like anywhere.”
A former Annex Tenant’s Association president for 16 years, Eddie served on the original redevelopment task force that met with Mayor Gavin Newsom ten years ago, which eventually led to selecting Bridge to lead Rebuild Potrero. “We were under the impression they were just going to rebuild up to standards,” he recalled. He never anticipated the large mixed use plan that’s now underway.
The Kittrells’ engagement with public housing issues runs deep. In 2000, Eddie was named Resident of the Year by the National Organization of African-Americans in Housing; 11 years later he became the first San Franciscan African-American to sit on the organization’s board. He won an appreciation award from the Housing Authority in 2007, and a community service award from the Red Cross in 2014, the latter for his dedication to the walking school bus. Brenda worked with him on all those efforts. Last fall, the couple spent three days in New Orleans attending the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials conference, which serves as a leading resource for subsidized and affordable housing in Washington D.C.
Despite regularly attending Rebuild meetings, Eddie no longer feels fully engaged in the effort. He understands Bridge Housing, being a large company, is going to have high personnel turnover, but “The newer people don’t know us,” he said. “And the staff is who they choose, not representatives from the community. If we are not on the table, we are on the menu. We want crime to go away. We want the drugs to go away. But I don’t see it. We’ll see what happens.”
John W. Smith said that he’s a “Potrero Hill snob.” The 69-year old lives at the same Wisconsin Street address in the Terrace he was raised in. Even through a stint in the army, stationed in Germany in the 1960s, and living in other San Francisco neighborhoods during his working years, he always kept the address on formal documents. “I’m fortunate to be from here,” he said. “Whether rich or poor, it’s like salmon coming back to spawn. If you grew up here, you come back to Potrero Hill.”
Smith’s earliest childhood memories are of living in an Iowa Street bungalow, recollections helped by aging black-and-white photographs. His father died of a heart attack when he was five. When his mother moved him to the Terrace in the mid-1950s, he remembered thinking how lush it was. The projects were “pastoral” then, he said, offering sweeping views and an abundance of square hedges, green grass and even several gardeners working the blocks. Over time, the hedges were replaced by fences, which made one “feel incarcerated.” They eventually were torn down as well, but the greenery never returned. The area is now decorated by soil, weeds and the aging concrete structures themselves. “The dirt for grass depresses people,” he said.
Smith was “a latchkey kid;” his mother labored as a domestic nurse for a wealthy Billboard magnate. He always worked himself, initially with a paper route through the Carolina Street projects, where the Enola Maxwell School is now located. In the military he drove trucks, which led to a long stint with the U.S. Postal Service as a distribution driver. He followed that job by becoming the second African American to work for the City’s water department before additional driving stints for the tree and sewer divisions.
Smith moved back to Wisconsin Street primarily to care for his mother, who has since passed away. His daughter Kaiwa, 40, lives two doors away. For the past three years he’s been Terrace Tenant’s Association president. In that capacity he participates in Rebuild meetings to try to ensure as many residents as possible secure jobs on the coming construction.
“People need to work. If you give a man opportunity to provide for his family, he is not going to jeopardize it,” he said. “This City has so much growth, it’s going straight up, there should be enough work for everybody.” When asked how the process is going, he responded with a sigh that revealed a lack of energy to get into further details; he called it a “catch-22 mess.”
Smith took the Citibuild test last summer to determine his suitability for employment on the construction project. He was impressed by its balance of physical fitness and knowledge. Citibuild is responsible for enforcing the goal that half the workers engaged in the Rebuild effort are Annex-Terrace residents. Smith thought it was a longshot that someone his age would pass, but believed if others saw him get hired it’d inspire them to apply.
Smith remembered when an abled bodied person could walk into a place, apply for a job and get hired the next day. He believes the fact that it takes longer to secure employment now discourages young people from applying. And he wondered why he has to fill out a work order rather than just make a phone call and get immediate attention when pipes need to get fixed.
“I believe in progress, but sometimes a lot of people get trampled on for it. You live in a place that was avoided. It’s now prime real estate, and they want to move you,” he said. “You are going to have to drag me out of there. I grew up here. I’m going to die here.”
When asked where she lives, Shervon Hunter answered simply, “I live on Potrero Hill.” The insinuation is clear. There’s no need to differentiate between public housing and the upper class homes surrounding it.
The 46-year old Hunter lives a stone’s throw away from Annex-Terrace, where she grew up, one of three generations in her family to live there. Her grandmother, Vera Blue, was an early resident, raising five children after a divorce while working as a teacher’s assistant at Daniel Webster Elementary School. In the early 1970s, Blue helped lead the fight to build the Potrero Hill Health Center, and sat on its board.
Hunter’s foray out of public housing came as a result of earning a basketball scholarship to Delaware State College, where she still holds the school record for points scored. The hoop skills came from many hours spent at the Recreation Center, which served as a regular hangout, a safe haven for neighborhood kids. “It was free then,” she said, using both definitions of the word; there were no fees and no reservations.
Hunter works at the Neighborhood House, where she counsels 16 to 24 year olds, helping them transition from probation or juvenile hall, overcome employment barriers, and deal with trauma. “There can be different needs even with one household,” she said.
Stability is one of the biggest challenges, she said. It’s not uncommon for students from Annex-Terrace to attend several schools throughout their childhood, adversely affecting their education. She believes that too few Annex-Terrace children are assigned to nearby Daniel Webster and Starr King elementary schools. In 2015, Annex-Terrace kids attended 73 different schools.
Fear of losing one’s home, she pointed out, is traumatic, something that’s affecting Annex-Terrace residents; the uncertainty of where and how they’ll be transitioned to new housing. “The physical space of creating a new home for residents is wonderful, but if they don’t do anything about the trauma and isms – racism in particular – it won’t work,” she said. “Drugs are not even the biggest problem. It’s an accumulation of community violence.” She added that July 4th fireworks still give her flashbacks “of gunshots going off in Potrero Hill as a child. Trusting the system is not something poor people do.”
Hunter believes the City’s well-meaning attempts at assistance sometimes miss the mark. She cited a recent allocation of $1 million for a Wellness Center to provide counseling to residents. Due to space limitations at the Potrero Hill Health Center, there’s talk of installing a trailer on open space at Dakota and 25th streets. Hunter questioned whether residents are going to want to be seen seeking mental health services not under the cover of the clinic.
She wondered why, with a 10-year construction project at a site with high unemployment, more people aren’t being employed. “Why not figure out a way to get people into career trades,” she said, adding the jobs that need filling are administrative as well as construction.
PHOTOS: Michael Iacuessa