Lessons from the School of Hard Knox

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“Hi neighbors. I’m John…I have lived in Dogpatch since 1959. I attended the Elementary School which is now closed at 1060 Tennessee Street. You may see me walking every day with a cane.”

Several months ago, this post greeted Dogpatch and Potrero Hill residents on the social networking app Nextdoor. Neighbors chimed in: “John is the best!”; “Hi John, It’s always nice to run into you on your walks.”; “Hope to see you at Mass sometime.”

John Knox lives on Tennessee Street, a stone’s throw from St. Stephen Baptist Church. He’s called Dogpatch home for 62 years. From the Summer of Love to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Dot-com bubble to today; Knox has lived along the Central Waterfront through it all. Born in Bayview-Hunters Point, Knox moved to Dogpatch – which he prefers to call by its historic name, “Lower Potrero Hill” – when he was six years-old. His family relocated a few times but always in the neighborhood. 

Knox’s deep community commitment began early, rooted in his involvement with his church. In the early-1970s, when Knox was in his 20s, two police officers killed a man in the neighborhood.  Knox attended a meeting with area residents and the San Francisco Police Department, at which the Dogpatch Youth Council was established. He was selected to lead the group. 

He regularly discussed community issues with City Hall officials, advocating to pave Dogpatch streets, and get more trees planted. 

“People looked at me as a community activist,” Knox said. “In reality, I was just trying to finish school and figure out what to do with my life.” 

“In the 1960s, workers at Bethlehem Shipyard [went on strike] when the new owners, Todd Shipyards, threatened to fire long-time employees,” said Peter Linenthal, Potrero Hill Archives Project director. “The successful strike included occupying the two large cranes whose bases can be seen at the beautiful new Crane Cove Park…In the late-1970s, [then mayor] Dianne Feinstein proposed the creation of a Pornography Zone in Dogpatch where adult theaters and bookstores would be located, an idea which raised local opposition and was defeated.”

In 1973, Knox was enrolled at City College of San Francisco, running track, and managing the Youth Council. He started working part-time for Youth for Service, which strives to foster social responsibility by providing community-focused work. During his summers, he engaged in youth-focused efforts at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, colloquially referred to as “The Nabe”, where he toiled with Enola Maxwell, executive director from 1972 to 2004.  He married and fathered two children.

Knox worked at Youth for Service for about ten years, simultaneously nurturing the Dogpatch Youth Council. In 1983, he transitioned from laboring in the community to juvenile probation, where he works to this day. Throughout this time he launched a nationally awarded General Educational Development and life skills program with a 97 percent passing rate, organized regular holiday parties for neighborhood kids, and started a City Youth Council in 1999. 

Today Knox serves as the youth director for his church choir. “I get to know kids. We joke about stuff that we might have in common; we talk about things to relax and ease tension. We break down the barrier that I’m not better than [them], I’m just an old man.”

“Something I learned from communicating with young people was that you can have a lot of fun, because you can grow from them,” Knox said. “I started working with elementary school kids. Then, I moved up to the middle school kids because they’re going through a lot of change. And then I got to the high school kids, who were unique in their own way. I ran a lot of programs at The Nabe and had some of the best times.” 

“I start learning about what people go through that I didn’t have to go through,” he said. “I started recognizing and getting experience with the world being bigger than what I thought it was in my little Dogpatch area. You start seeing things differently.” 

Dogpatch has changed significantly over Knox’s lifetime. 

“The changes have been drastic,” said Knox. “Back in the day, it was quiet, peaceful…a laid-back community.” 

While Knox misses the wide-open spaces of yesteryear, he speaks fondly of new developments in Mission Bay and elsewhere.

“I tell people that I believe in change…My concern is how committed are you to the community. Are you willing to [help make] the community a better place?” he said.  “I think the community needs to come together…We could all meet, have a block party, anything. And I think that will open things up, if people can start communicating with and understanding each other better.”