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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

How Joe Biden Could Change the Course of a 50-Year-Old Nonprofit that Cares for Black SF Seniors

Bayview Senior Services’ quest for racial justice got a boost when it opened 120 units of housing in 2016. As the government aims to right past wrongs, the next 50 years could look much different.


The Frisc

When Oscar James describes his childhood in Bayview-Hunters Point in the early 1950s, it sounds idyllic. He raised chickens in his backyard, and in a neighbor’s yard, he learned to ride horses. The men who worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad would stop the trains on the way to the shipyard and let the neighborhood kids hitch rides. James spent weekends hunting for snails so he could trade them for books from a neighbor with a knack for escargot. “That’s just how people got along in this community,” he says. “Everybody would be friendly.”

In the 1950s, the new Bayshore Freeway built a barrier between Bayview-Hunters Point and neighborhoods to the west, but the landscape really began to change in the 1960s. The suburbs were booming, and governments, from the feds on down, were eager to accommodate that growth at the expense of urban neighborhoods — especially Black ones.

The nation’s postwar infrastructure boom disproportionately affected African Americans, uprooting them from their homes and partitioning previously cohesive communities. San Francisco was no different: So-called urban renewal changed the face of Bayview-Hunters Point and the Western Addition, the hubs of San Francisco’s Black communities.

James is a holdout. He still lives in the home he bought in the late 1960s for $30,000. His mother-in-law passed away last year, at 103 years old, and he shares his home with his wife, daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All the while, the neighborhood has gone from 72 percent Black in 1980 to 28 percent in 2020.

It’s a legacy of damage that the Biden administration says it wants to remedy with its trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, with investments in transportation, housing, job training for minority communities, and much more — goals that congressional Republicans oppose, saying they don’t count as traditional infrastructure. (At this writing, the White House has cut off talks with Senate Republicans, while bipartisan groups in the House and Senate have proposals percolating.)

If a plan beats the odds and delivers something close to what the White House originally sought, big changes could come to Bayview-Hunters Point — changes for which James and other neighborhood activists have laid the foundation with decades of work.

One major part of the Biden plan, the $400 billion for senior care to help more of America’s elderly age in place — that is, living and receiving care in their homes—would be particularly important to James not only because he’s a senior himself, but also because he’s on the board of directors of Bayview Senior Services, which turns 50 this year.

After decades of providing hot meals, events, and social services to Black San Francisco seniors, the nonprofit entered a new era in 2016, cutting the ribbon on a new campus that includes 120 affordable apartments.

Bayview Senior Services executive director Cathy Davis is already thinking about what comes next. Whether or not the Biden plan passes, the proposal has reframed the national conversation: Elder care is an infrastructure issue, and it’s a racial equity issue. Many Black San Franciscans lost homes, jobs, health, and generational wealth because of discriminatory laws and policies, including postwar redevelopment. Many of them are seniors today.

The Agency

In 1963, James Baldwin traveled around San Francisco for the documentary Take This Hammer. Driving through Bayview-Hunters Point, Baldwin said: “This is the San Francisco Americans pretend does not exist.”

Urban renewal — or in Baldwin’s famous words, “Negro removal” — started in the Western Addition, pushing many Black San Franciscans, who remained shut out of many neighborhoods by racist housing practices, to Bayview-Hunters Point. In 1960, Bayview-Hunters Point was 46 percent Black, according to census data.

It was a critical decade. During Baldwin’s visit in the early months of 1963, the writer spoke to Black residents chafing at discrimination from local businesses. Some talked boycotts; others wanted to take up arms. SF police shot and killed a Black teenager in 1966, leading to protests that were met with 2,000 National Guard troops and 500 SF cops. With the city’s maritime industry and Navy operations on the wane, unemployment was on the rise. (The Navy would decommission the shipyard in 1974 and leave a toxic mess behind that remains a nightmare to this day.)

All the while, the SF Redevelopment Agency turned its attention to the neighborhood. The powerful agency was razing swaths of the Fillmore district, aka the Harlem of the West, in the name of urban renewal, promising those displaced that new housing would be waiting for them. It wasn’t. (It gave this booklet to residents about to be displaced: “Moving into a new home might be just the time to brighten your furnishings, try a new recipe, or review the family budget.”)

Bayview-Hunters Point residents didn’t want a repeat.

Plans for two portions of the neighborhood were supposed to provide a “one-two punch” of housing and jobs, as described by the SF Chronicle in 1969. From “Area A” (in yellow, below) the agency removed 1,900 dilapidated units, built originally as temporary Navy barracks but used after World War II as housing. What remained of the slaughterhouses in Butchertown would be redeveloped into 126 acres (in green, below) dubbed “India Basin Industrial Park.”

Bayview residents, already politically organized, weren’t going to let the project happen without community input. Under pressure, the Redevelopment Agency began hosting community meetings; a Joint Housing Committee of residents formed to provide it. They supported redevelopment, on their own terms, and made a trip to Washington, DC to fight for funding.

Oscar James attended his first meeting in 1968. “We were the watchdogs,” he says. In January 1969, with community leaders like James paying close attention, the Board of Supervisors adopted the redevelopment plans for Bayview-Hunters Point.

Housing to replace the barracks was completed in the 1970s. The city’s redevelopment agency went away in 2012, but its successor still has on file redevelopment plans for much of the neighborhood that were approved in 2006.

James hasn’t let up. Three years ago, he and other residents pushed back hard against the city’s plans to build affordable housing instead of a new community center on Third Street and Evans Avenue, plans they said were crafted without their input. (The city relented, and the community center is now slated to open next year.)

While Bayview-Hunters Point didn’t undergo the same physical “renewal” as the Western Addition, the effect has been similar: waves of Black San Franciscans leaving for more affordable housing, better job opportunities, and less polluted communities. In a generation or two, San Francisco’s Black population has shrunk by nearly two-thirds, to about 5 percent.

Doc’s campus

Bayview Senior Services is the city’s largest senior service program created for Black San Franciscans. When it started in 1971, it was just a small office at the intersection of Yosemite and Third streets where workers served hot meals and hosted events for seniors, like the now-famed “Black Cuisine” fundraiser, four decades in the running, which was cancelled in 2020 but returned in takeout form this year.

The founder, Dr. George Davis, had a much larger goal: a “senior campus” with housing, food programs, music, dance, and art classes, and social events. He was an academic, with a PhD in gerontology, and he was also scrappy enough to raise funds in the early days by hustling pool under the nickname “Oakland Slim.”

But mostly he was known as “Doc,” and would go great lengths for his seniors, traveling door-to-door to drop off groceries and keeping an eye out for any opportunity to celebrate. “There was always a party in him — some need to celebrate this thing or that thing,” says Cathy Davis, who joined the organization as assistant director in 1978. After working together nearly 20 years, she and George married in 1996.

He passed away in 2010, but Cathy Davis saw the senior campus, with 120 housing units, to completion in 2016. “At George’s funeral, it was all about ‘OK, we’re going to make this thing happen,’” she adds.

The architecture is Afrocentric, with curves that symbolize coming together in a circle, colors inspired by mud cloth, and an African fractal pattern in the courtyard floor. (Two birds named George and Cathy lived in the lobby for years. When one died last year, Cathy says she was relieved it wasn’t the one named after George.)

The campus and its programs align with George Davis’s lifelong goals of redressing systemic injustice. All the apartments are for low-income seniors; 20 are reserved for people referred by the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

Bayview Senior Services also runs the nation’s first program, according to Davis, for formerly incarcerated seniors, with two transitional homes off-campus and providing support services on campus. In perhaps the most direct answer to San Francisco’s unjust past, Bayview Senior Services aggressively recruits people who hold a “Certificate of Preference” distributed by the SF Redevelopment Agency to 1,353 Bayview-Hunters Point residents it displaced in the 1960s and ’70s. The certificates still give their bearers priority in city housing lotteries, but many never redeemed them or even knew they qualified.

Ricky Moore, a childhood friend of Oscar James, was one of those people. He lived in Texas for a while, and returning to SF in his early 60s, used his certificate to secure a room at the new Bayview Senior Services campus, where he helps with the lunch service. Moore calls Cathy Davis the “white tornado.”

“She won’t ever let anybody out here go hungry,” he says. “Whatever it takes, she’s always ready to get down and dirty.”

Five years after opening the campus, Davis is also acknowledging a difficult truth: Campuses like hers might not be the ideal setting for everyone. Baby boomers and others who grew up with certain expectations will prefer to age in place in private homes, which in turn will burden their middle-aged children. Many family members who can’t afford to leave the workforce won’t be able to provide adequate care.

Black and Latina women spend more hours taking care of their elders than any other demographic — raising concerns that, given the existing racial and gender wealth gap, aging in place could exacerbate inequality for generations. That brings Davis to the Biden plan, which proposes $400 billion for “care infrastructure,” which includes the home-care workforce.

“I’m excited that somebody thought about elder care as an infrastructure issue,” she says. “It’s a big, huge, behemoth cost factor, and nobody wants to pay for it.”

More than just more of the same

Black seniors are 7 percent of the city’s senior population, but they represent 12 percent of seniors who rely on meals, emergency home care, and other support from the city’s Department of Aging and Adult Services, according to a 2018 assessment. The assessment also suggested that outreach in Bayview-Hunters Point isn’t as strong as in other districts such as Chinatown, North Beach, South of Market, and the Tenderloin. Only a third of eligible adults in District 10, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point, use those services — much lower than more central districts.

In Bayview-Hunters Point, one third of households make $35,000 or less a year. Any increase in senior services would be welcome.

But Davis wants more than just more of the same. Her ultimate vision is to open several homes side by side, each housing 10 seniors and equipped with a commercial kitchen, shared common spaces, and a team of caregivers — allowing the benefits of being in a neighborhood while receiving in-home medical care. These small networks of homes are based upon a model pioneered by the nonprofit Green House Project.

“Nursing homes as they exist now are just warehouses, and they’re all based on how the institution wants to run it,” she notes. “My generation, we want more community-oriented, specialized care.”

If a broader version of the Biden plan passes, we’ll have to wait to see if Davis’s unconventional vision takes root. It’s hard to try new ideas when bureaucrats want to make sure money is used properly, she says.

And while the money would be welcome, to say the least, there’s another concern, rooted in history. Through government action and inaction across U.S. history, Black Americans have lost land, generational wealth, and autonomy. If Biden’s infrastructure billions come to fruition, Oscar James wants locals to have a say in how they’re used.

“People need to be taken care of, but they’re not begging,” he says. “We want to become a part of something, and we’ve never wanted anything free.”

Photos by Alex Lash and Pamela Gentile

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