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A neighborhood history tour aims to strengthen Bayview-Hunters Point

Kyung Jin Lee
Oscar James stands in front of the old Chinese seafood restaurant where he used to buy bags of shrimp.

Sixty-eight-year-old Oscar James stands on a hill overlooking the old Hunters Point Shipyard. He points out a street that’s now closed off by a chain-link fence. That’s where his family lived on a street once called Navy Road. There’s a striking view of the bay side of the peninsula.

“All that dirt, see it behind the lab, the road?” he asks. “From that road all the way back used to be water.”

James is talking about how this area, land just north of Yosemite Slough -- a tiny channel between the shipyard and Candlestick Park, has changed since he was a boy.

“It’s all fill but it’s filled with toxins,” He says. “Filled with barrels, lead. When they spray painted the ships and sandblasted the ships, they’d get the dirt from the ships and bury there.”

James shared his experience with a lot of other African-Americans who lived in this neighborhood back then. It’s the kind of story that community activist Eddy Zheng wants to highlight in the neighborhood tour he’s creating. Zheng’s working to showcase the community’s diverse history -- both African-American and Chinese.

On the other side of the shipyard is India Basin, where James points to an old, dilapidated building that’s literally falling into the bay.

“Right there is where we’d come in to get the shrimp,” he says. “Right here. And buy em.”

It used to be a restaurant where Chinese shrimp farmers sold their catch to local residents.

“A big bag of shrimp would be like 15 cents to a quarter,” he says. “My mother would make gumbo, jambalaya and different things out of it. It was a lot of love in the community.”

This is the kind of historic gem Eddy Zheng wants to share.

“There’s a real lack of understanding within the different subgroups about what’s going on in each other’s lives,” says Zheng. “Meaning, each subgroup has challenges that people don’t know about. That’s the trend in the Bayview.”

Zheng says not many people know this history - how Bayview’s Chinese and African-Americans used to live together, and the challenges each community faces. And he thinks it’s important to start changing that. Zheng runs a multiethnic youth leadership program in the Bayview. Over the past few years, he’s seen racial tensions build up between the established African-American community and morerecent Chinese immigrants. He says the Chinese feel isolated.

“One of the biggest reasons is the fear of safety,” he says.

Zheng helped a Chinese family move out of the neighborhood after they suffered multiple home invasions. And others expressed similar sentiments of wanting to relocate.

At the same time though, he says African-Americans feel like they’re being displaced by the influx of new development and new residents like the Chinese.

“What I wanted is for Chinese population to be able to learn about the history of the African-American,” he says. “How they came here and the push and pull. Also learn about their own history - when did they come and why?”

So Zheng’s starting with a history tour of the neighborhood geared towards monolingual Chinese immigrants, who make up almost 20 percent of the area’s population.He’s talking to people like Oscar James about one view of that history, and artist Rene Yung about the other. Yung’s chronicling the history of Chinese shrimp fishermen, and says Bayview-Hunters Point had the largest group of these shrimp fishing camps.

Yung flips through a book filled with old photos of the shrimp camps.

“This is actually Bayview, at Hunters Point,” she points out. “This would be on the deck where people are drying whole piles of shrimp.”

The camps were all over the Bay Area in the late-19th and early-20th centuries until the Navy took over Hunters Point in 1938.

Then, she says, “The health dept came in and torched the remaining shrimp camps just to take them out of the environment entirely.”

Yung says no one really knows what happened to the Chinese shrimpers. By 1960, the neighborhood’s ethnic makeup was mostly black, though still very diverse. One Chinese family ran a seafood restaurant until the early-‘60s -- the same place Oscar James used to buy shrimp as a kid.

Locals say back then, Bayview-Hunters Point was atight-knit community. Millions of African-Americans were leaving the South, and many flocked to the neighborhood to work in the new shipyard. Like the Chinese immigrants before them, they worked hard and built success for several decades. But in the mid-’70s, the shipyard closed, jobs disappeared, and residents had to adjust -- just as they had before.

“One thing I want them to take away is there’s a lot of commonality between the two cultures,” says Zheng. “Based on that commonality, we should grow from that. To be able to dispel a lot of the stereotypes and have more friendlier lens when looking at the people and the community.”

Commonalities like the resourcefulness of both groups when it comes to food and folk remedies. And their shared relationship with the bay.

On a slow Sunday morning, Zheng meets with Tracy Zhu, another local activist. She grew up in the Bayview and is helping him plan the tour. After breakfast, their first stop is at Heron’s Head Park, a 22-acre wildlife habitat. Zhu plucks a leaf off a nearby tree and hands it to Zheng to try.

“It’s a medicine,” she says. “Tell me what it tastes like. Just chew it a little bit.”

She wants to show examples of native habitat and how things used to look in San Francisco. Zheng tries it and scrunches his face a bit.

“If you chew enough of it, it makes your tongue numb,” says Zhu. “This is the original plant from which aspirin came from. It came from willow, a willow tree.”

Once they check out the site, they discuss what they should present.

“So this part is definitely going to be here,” says Zheng. “We just have to figure out the narrative – what’s the narrative that we want to highlight for the people who don’t know the history of the area.”

Zhu adds this is also a good place to talk about the Chinese shrimp camps.Zheng wants to juxtapose the natural beauty, the environmental contamination, and the poverty and violence the neighborhood now has a reputation for.They get back in the car and keep driving, making occasional stops: the hilltop where Oscar James was born, the Oakdale housing project, to a tucked away park you can easily miss.

“So Adam Rodgers park is right here in this little pocket on Oakdale on this side,” says Zhu. “Then their garden is on top, but you walk up the stairs.”

A community garden has been managed by Hunters Point Family, a community organization that primarily works with African-American youth and their families, for more than 17 years. Their seminal program Girls 2000 does the programming for the garden every Saturday.

Zheng wants to stop here to help newer Chinese residents understand what they have in common with their younger black neighbors.

“The reason we want to focus on the farming, agriculture is one of the things in China – it sustained a lot of people in the village,” says Zheng. “We want to look for different locations where we feel is important and can connect the African-American and the Chinese.”

Takai Tyler is with the Hunters Point Family. She says this garden is a metaphor to connect the girls in the program to nature.

“To have them be involved in the cycle of planting and caring and harvesting and sharing with the community so they could see how all that could play out in their own lives,” says Tyler. For similar reasons, Tyler sees value in what Zheng is doing.

“When new people come in, they don’t understand the history and deep roots of the indigenous community,” she says. “So there’s a feeling of disrespect that can result.”  

But, she also says, “whenever you have community-wide efforts that bring people together, that promotes greater harmony and community.”

Back in the car, Eddy Zheng says that’s exactly what he’s trying to do for the immigrants he hopes will take the tour.

“Once they know the history and the conditions of the living spaces, the dynamics of the community, hopefully, they will be more sensitive to the change and people who live here,” he says. “To be more willing to take ownership of the community where they can contribute in different ways.”

Zheng’s planning to start the tour in mid-June.