Publisher’s View: Districts

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Sad to say, we’ve drifted into a world in which this editor of a half-century old neighborhood newspaper feels a twinge of fear when contemplating writing about redistricting municipal supervisorial districts. To characterize the debate over how best to right size district lines in the face of population changes as “heated” would be akin to calling Hell a warmish place. As with seemingly everything – the weather, accepting an award at the Oscars, settling disagreements in Europe – today’s political discourse prefers the extreme. In the case of redistricting, that’s included accusations that various proposed maps reflect a violent attempt to spark class and race warfare.

No doubt, political map-making is serious business. So too is free speech, and the need for honest democratic discourse.

For about as long as the View has been published, San Francisco has seesawed back and forth between district and citywide elections. Neighborhood associations and labor unions successfully advocated for districts in 1977, arguing they’d create a more inclusive Board of Supervisors. It worked: San Francisco elected its first female African American supervisor, Ella Hill Hutch, first Asian American supervisor, Gordon Lau, and first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. Dan White was also selected. His assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Milk catalyzed repeal of district elections in 1980. 

Voters reinstated districts in 2000, with District 10 spanning Bayview-Hunters Point, Dogpatch, and Potrero Hill. These geographies had intimately shared characteristics, many of them unpleasant: power plants, freeways, deteriorating public housing, and an abundance of post-industrial un- or underutilized lands.  

Bayview resident Sophie Maxwell, whose mother, Enola, famously ran the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a central community node, won the first district vote in the new cycle. Maxwell’s election coincided with opening of Oracle Park. During her 10-year tenure the Hunters Point and Potrero generating stations were shuttered, creating the conditions for Pier 70 and adjacent properties to rise from the near dead. Shovel hit dirt in Mission Bay, resulting in an economic juggernaut that includes the University of California, San Francisco’s biotech revolution, Chase Center, and the neighboring San Francisco Giants development.  

Almost two dozen hopefuls ran for District 10 Supervisor when Maxell was termed out.  I was one of them. I canvassed every neighborhood in the District; knocked on thousands of doors. People’s identification of the most pressing public problems was strongly influenced by the neighborhood in which they lived.  Bayview residents wanted summer jobs for their teenagers, lest idle hands become the devil’s playground. They pointed to a history of real estate redlining, which pushed them to the fringes of formerly industrial properties, stranded in a stew of left behind toxins. They spoke about the disfunction of the Third Street commercial corridor, whose vibrancy winked on and off like a poorly functioning neon sign.  And they whispered about difficult race relations, between Blacks and Asian-Americans, leavened with the emergence of a nascent gay community, “Gayview.”

Hill residents pointed to the essential need for more green space, better sidewalks, cleaner streets, as well as the City’s failure to firmly and compassionately help those without permanent shelter who lived in tents, vehicles, and under tarps around the community.  In Visitacian Valley people wondered when economic prosperity would come to their neighborhood.  Dogpatch voters wanted the waterfront to be greened and economically rejuvenated, while maintaining their patch’s strong sense of self.

There were common issues throughout the District, revolving around too little parking, poor public transportation, and the neglect of children in the public sphere. Most everyone complained that City Hall ignored their block, their neighborhood, their community.  

Aside from activists, civil society groups like the Rotarians and parents taking their children to school a mile or two from their homes, there wasn’t much cross-pollination between District 10 community members. Hill and Dogpatch residents traversed the same hills and went to the same restaurants, but didn’t much go to Bayview or Hunters Point, particularly after Dago Mary’s closed. There was barely even integration between Annex-Terrace residents and the rest of the community. Neither Bayview residents living in the western hills nor Visitacion Valley families went much to Third Street, instead orienting themselves towards Portola, the Mission, or even Chinatown.  

The District has been a redoubt to elect Black politicians.  Maxwell was followed by Malia Cohen, and now Shammon Walton.  Hill and Dogpatch residents, supportive of civil rights, contributed money and votes to Maxwell, Cohen, Walton and other nearly elected Black candidates. Without this support Black politicians might find races more challenging. 

Still, it’s unclear whether packing the area’s diversity of problems under a single supervisor is entirely beneficial. While District 10 continues to reap what was sowed decades ago, further fundamental changes have been slow to take root. Late in Maxell’s term efforts began to develop residences in Hunters Point and redevelop public housing throughout the District, including Potrero Hill.  Fifteen years later, though, only a couple thousand homes have been built at The Shipyard, progress stalled by continuing concerns over past contamination, with a couple hundred at Annex-Terrace. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into reviving the Third Street commercial corridor, with little discernable impact. Public transportation remains meh, the Enola Maxwell school site on 18th Street underutilized. Individuals in distress still suffer throughout the area, with the City weirdly willing to allow people to deteriorate and die on the street. 

Arguably Dogpatch and Potrero Hill now have more in common with Mission Bay than Bayview. Likewise, the collection of Southside neighborhoods could be better off if they were represented by two different supervisors, essentially doubling political attention. Whether or not the diverse set of communities presently clustered in a single district reflects good politics or governance is a question worthy of dignified debate.  Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.