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Rebuilding community, one family at a time in Bayview Hunters Point

San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood has higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and violence than any other part of the city. But its relative geographical isolation – it’s cut off by the 101 and 280 freeways – can make those issues all but invisible to residents of other neighborhoods.

For decades, it was a bustling neighborhood – one of the only majority African-American neighborhoods in the city. During World War II, the booming Naval Shipyard drew thousands of African-American families, mostly from the South, with the promise of well-paying work. And they thrived.

By the 60s, though, years of racial discrimination and rising unemployment were beginning to take their toll on black families throughout San Francisco. Redevelopment in the Fillmore pushed many African Americans out of the center of the city and into Bayview Hunters Point. At the same time, work at the shipyard was slowing down.

The Navy shut down the shipyard completely in 1974, causing even more unemployment and poverty. Since then, persistent toxic waste and limited access to fresh food have led to disproportionately high rates of asthma, diabetes, and cancer. The crack cocaine epidemic in the 80s and 90s devastated many families.

Today, Bayview Hunters Point is still dealing with the aftermath of its troubled history, but the area is pulling together in many ways. The Bayview Hunters Point YMCA is a bright spot in the neighborhood, where people are working to rebuild their community, one family at a time.

The Bayview Hunters Point YMCA is housed in an imposing three-story building at Lane and Revere Street, a few blocks off busy 3rd Street in Southeast San Francisco. The front door and lobby were recently renovated with glass and open space that lend visitors a warm, welcoming feeling. Blonde wood floors gleam in a shaft of sunlight. There’s an old-fashioned popcorn machine in a corner, and artwork on the walls.

The building used to house the All Hallows Catholic School, which the Y’s Executive Director, Gina Fromer, graduated from in 1977. She was born and raised in the neighborhood has seen it evolve over her 48 years. “I think we’ve gone through a lot of change, we’ve gone through a lot of trauma,” she said. “I think we’re at a tipping point right now.” 

The YMCA took over the building in 2001. Fromer became executive director in 2006, excited to give back to the community where she was raised. When she arrived, Fromer surveyed residents about their priorities for the area. Personally, she thought strong families were crucial. She found that her neighbors felt the same way. They thought strengthening families would help with a multitude of issues, from truancy to street crime. “And the way you strengthen families,” Fromer said, “is you strengthen the children.”

This is a key point: children make up close to a third of the neighborhood’s population – compared with under 15% in San Francisco as a whole. The Y’s programs have been built around this family-strengthening goal. As Associate Executive Director Neal Hatten put it, “We’re not just a typical swim ‘n’ gym.”

The Y fills its three floors from 8am to 8pm with programs ranging from social services to Zumba. Kids can participate in after school activities like nutrition workshops, street art classes, or a mock government club. There’s a school district teacher and a counselor onsite.

The Y collaborates with the school district on an anti-truancy program called the Center for Academic Re-entry and Empowerment, or CARE. “A lot of kids have been out of school, truant for as long as a couple years,” explained CARE’s executive director, Eason Ramson. “They might be 15-, 16-years-old, but they can only read at fourth or fifth grade level and they’re embarrassed to go back to school because they can’t keep up. So we meet them where they are, and engage them there, and bring them up to speed.”

19-year-old Devon Burroughs said it was hard for him to focus in school because he had troubles at home. He was able to get his high school diploma through the Y’s programs. He said he appreciated the attention paid to students’ different learning styles. “It’s like you got choices of which way you can learn, which way is best for you,” he said.

From the classroom it’s literally a few steps across the hall to the Family Resource Center, which offers food assistance, counseling and other services. Jim Martin directs the fatherhood and men’s services program. “Whatever it takes to help keep a family whole,” Martin said. “Because we believe here that – it is said that it takes a village to raise a child, we believe that it takes a family to create the village.”

Martin himself grew up in Hunters Point and believes it’s important for people like him to remain in the community as role models for youth. As a young person in the 60s, he participated in a Hunters Point community program that showed kids different career options. He said it was a life-changing experience. “We got to see other functional people as children, working in jobs that we had not had exposure to before, and it changed my life.”

Although Martin’s experience was decades ago, kids in Bayview Hunters Point today still have trouble finding safe, productive, enriching activities in their own neighborhood. That’s why the after school programs at the Y are so important.

Seventeen-year-old Ian Smith, Jr. has been coming to the Y for about two years. He does his homework there, attends a music class, and is about to start with a graffiti art class. Alia Anderson visits the Y every day after school. “I love it, coming here,” she said, “cause it’s better being here than on the streets, like other people.”

Teen services director Jasmine Benton also grew up in the neighborhood. As a teenager, she went to an after school pottery class in this very building, when it was still All Hallows school. Benton is like many, if not most, of the staff at the Y: born and raised right here in Bayview Hunters Point. Benton believes this is one of the reasons the Y’s programs are so effective. “Especially dealing with youth, they feel like you’re more real,” she said. “Because you’re not coming in saying ‘This is how I think things should be because this is what I’ve heard.’ I experience this with you. So let’s take this road together.”

Every Thursday, the Y has a free public Day of Fitness. Anyone, member or not, can attend workshops, enjoy open gym time, or play basketball. The Day of Fitness ends with evening Zumba, a high-energy exercise class based on Latin dance. The class at the Y regularly draws around 100 people, from teens to adults and even some seniors.

Though the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA is bustling now, there are still more plans in the works. Fundraising is in progress for a new preschool, an expanded teen center, and a commercial kitchen for entrepreneurship training.

Executive Director Gina Fromer feels the time is ripe for change in the neighborhood. “But ultimately, it’s not the outside that’s going to heal us,” said Fromer. “The people who live here are going to say, ‘No more.’ We’re moving forward,and we’re going to take advantage of these beautiful places like the Y, and the storefronts. This is our community, and we deserve to have a beautiful, viable community."