moves to stem tide of African Americans leaving the city By Leslie Fulbright
San Francisco Chronicle (April 10, 2007)
Joseph Blue has lived in San Francisco for 20 years and toughed out the
drastic decline in its black population, a phenomenon that persists
despite being recognized for decades as a problem.
Neighborhoods that once thrived with African American culture and
black-owned businesses have all but disappeared.
"San Francisco no longer has a viable black community," said Blue,
an African American who lives in the Western Addition. "The middle class
is gone, and what we have left is underprivileged, uneducated, poor black
San Francisco officials are now calling the thousands of black people who
have moved away "the African American diaspora," and the mayor's office is
putting together a task force to figure out what can be done to preserve
the remaining black population and cultivate new residents.
San Francisco's black population has dropped from 96,000 -- or 13.4
percent of the city -- in 1970 to an estimated 47,000 in 2005, about 6.5
percent of city residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. African
Americans make up about 12.1 percent of the nation's population overall.
"The decline is phenomenal," said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the
Public Policy Institute of California.
San Francisco is not alone. From 1995 to 2000, Oakland and neighborhoods
of Los Angeles lost tens of thousands of black residents. Not one West
Coast city made a list of the nation's top cities for African Americans
compiled last year by Black Enterprise magazine based on income potential,
the cost of living, proximity to employers and housing costs. Most are in
the South and most -- coincidentally or not -- have black mayors.
"We don't even have any black leaders," said Blue, who unsuccessfully ran
for supervisor in 2004. "When I moved here, there was a vibrant and
enthusiastic black culture that brought its own ethnic mix and vitality.
Now, the culture and the political influence have evaporated. The
population is so low that it is beyond saving."
But Seattle and San Diego, which have reputations for being predominately
white, had higher percentages of African Americans than San Francisco in
2005, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. In
recent years, San Francisco's black population has dropped faster than
that of any other large city in the United States.
Though San Francisco is still often seen as diverse, it was 53 percent
white and 33.5 percent Asian in 2005, with Chinese Americans accounting
for about two-thirds of Asian residents.
"This is something the community and the mayor have been concerned about,"
said Fred Blackwell, director of the Mayor's Office of Community
Development. "But we want to approach it in a real thoughtful way, a way
that is solution focused."
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the Western Addition,
said the exodus has been 40 years in the making -- and the task force may
be too little too late.
"There has been no plan to fix this, and any talk of a roundtable is
bothersome because we are well beyond documenting the obvious," Mirkarimi
said. "This exodus completely belies our credentials as a progressive
city. We need to spend time organizing in the community."
Demographers cite economic success among black residents as the primary
reason for the exodus. But others, including those who still live here,
say that after redevelopment pushed black people out of the Fillmore
district in the late 1950s, there was no longer a strong black
neighborhood. The city's black population peaked about 1970, when 13.4 of
San Franciscans were black.
Even the Bayview district, still considered predominately black, is not,
though it is home to about one-third of the city's black residents. In
2000, Bayview-Hunters Point was 46.9 percent black; 28 percent Asian and
Pacific Islander; 4.9 percent white and 16.4 percent Hispanic of any race,
according to the census. Many analysts said the Bayview's black population
has fallen markedly in the last five years, but no firm count is
Oakland and other
older cities have seen similar shifts. Oakland's
population went from 46.9 percent black in 1980 -- when its proportion of
African American residents peaked -- to 35.7 percent in 2000, according to
census counts. The Census Bureau estimates that black people made up
between 29 percent and 33.2 percent of Oakland residents in mid-2005.
Johnson, the demographer, said many African Americans leave San Francisco
for outlying suburbs when they have the means, just like members of other
racial groups, in search of more of the trappings of middle-class life.
Although it is virtually impossible to track where people go, he said it
is safe to say that Bay Area cities with growing black populations are
seeing those gains because of San Francisco's loss.
Most are in the EastBay
and North Bay. Vallejo's black population has doubled since 1980 to 26.8
percent. In Pittsburg, the number of African Americans jumped to 19
percent in 2005. Suisun City is 19.3 percent black, and San Leandro's
black population went from 1 percent in 1980 to 12.2 percent in 2005 as
the small East Bay city grew 21.3 percent overall.
"This is a concern because this city values having a diverse population,"
said Greg Wagner, a program director at SPUR, the San Francisco Planning
and Urban Research Association. "But even if you can identify the causes,
it is hard to know what you would do to stop it. It is economics combined
with cultural things that are tough to sort out. There are restrictions in
this state about what you can do that is racially based."
Blackwell, of the mayor's office, is in the process of pulling together
prior studies, surveys and needs assessments addressing the issue. He will
look at some nationwide practices and then pick a task force, probably in
May, to analyze both what is pushing people away from the city and what is
pulling them toward other areas.
"We have a lot of information; we don't need to start from scratch,"
On the task force will be San Francisco
residents, business leaders, faith groups, community organizations,
activists and families who have left.
"We will not only have the established leaders but new voices," he said.
"This should not be framed as just stopping the flight. We also need to
put a better foot forward in being attractive to families, young
professionals and low-income folks. We will look at places that are
gaining African American residents, find out what they are doing
policy-wise, and replicate it."
The exodus has been coming up in lots of discussions across the city
recently because of current and planned development efforts in the Bayview
and Hunters Point. The Bayview Reporter runs an article or commentary in
nearly every edition about how a proposal for redevelopment and private
development at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard marks the end of
any chance for African Americans to remain in the city.
"All of the city agencies are working to please the big developers and
rich communities," said Willie Ratcliff, the paper's publisher. "The
supervisors want to grab the ground without any consideration for the
people who have lived here and suffered through the environment, the
shipyard and PG&E."
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