The past year’s clarion call of #BlackLivesMatter began with recognizing and disrupting patterns of police bias, abuse and brutality across the country. But here in San Francisco, there are many other kinds of brutal circumstances for black residents — so many that a child born today in Bayview-Hunters Point can expect to live about 15 years less than a child born in Russian Hill. There are multiple causes of all these years of lost life — ground, water and air pollution; violence and domestic violence; lack of access to housing, healthy food and medical care; overcrowding, unemployment and stress; and so on.
If you want to argue that government policies may or may not have caused black people to suffer the worst of all these societal ills, go ahead. But there’s no question that government action can help reverse the deadly trend and help people of color live longer, fuller lives. And yet, that action is rarely taken. Often, it seems, all The City can do to address its shocking health disparities is shrug its wealthy shoulders. The gruesome statistics of premature deaths remain the same for decades.
There are two recent efforts in Bayview-Hunters Point that offer some hope in changing this sad dynamic, at least when it comes to pollution. The Bayview Hill Neighborhood Association took on a significant environmental justice battle last year, fighting against a planned (but not permitted) implosion of Candlestick Park that Shipyard developer Lennar Urban and the Recreation and Park Department reportedly hoped to televise at halftime of the Super Bowl. That spectacle would have led to a massive dust cloud on Bayview Hill and elsewhere, with health consequences lasting far longer than the TV show.
The neighborhood association did its research on the health effects and on an all-volunteer media strategy and gathered support from other neighborhood groups and organized labor, eventually making the developer back down and take apart Candlestick piece by piece, the way demolition work is done everywhere else in The City. But Bayview Hill’s victory didn’t stop there. This year, the neighborhood has continued to advocate for improved air quality with city and state agencies. They’ve managed to increase inspections and add dust monitors in the area, with more outreach in multiple languages.
The air is cleaner in Bayview Hill today because of their work, and much more public information is available about air quality than ever before.
Another program for pollution cleanup and accountability started last month, with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice kicking off the Bayview-Hunters Point Environmental Justice Response Task Force. (It’s an unwieldy name, but it drew nearly 70 residents and 11 government agencies to a community meeting last week, so give them credit.) A decade ago, Greenaction (led by longtime community activist Marie Harrison) and a dedicated brigade of women from the Hunters View Tenants Association published a thorough Toxic Inventory of Bayview- Hunters Point; it’s both shocking and unsurprising how their findings are still substantially true 10 years later. The new task force is built on two ongoing efforts: a website (www.bvhp-ivan.org — IVAN stands for Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods) where people can easily and anonymously file complaints and tips about illegal dumping, odors and air pollution; and monthly community meetings with residents, businesses and government agencies to track responses to the complaints.
The task force website attracted a half-dozen complaints soon after launching, including one alleging a dust-control violation at Candlestick Park. And at the first neighborhood meeting at the Southeast Community Facility, state and local agencies in attendance were quick to accept the complaints, take responsibility for investigation and commit to returning at the next meeting with responses to the complaints as well as a record of their complaint history in Bayview-Hunters Point for the past year.
For anyone who has had to navigate local or state bureaucracy, especially regarding environmental complaints and community meetings, this kind of action and respect for a neighborhood is rare. Will it continue? Who knows? But the task force is already charting new territory with its immediate access to complaint information and its dedication to ongoing public contact with local government about those complaints. The bookshelves and file drawers of City Hall are filled with reports on the outmigration of black people, studies of pollution and other causes of health disparities in San Francisco communities and proposed measures to help slow down the displacement and the years of lost life. These reports have been customarily ignored after publication, only to be noticed when frustration and outrage peak again.
These two new efforts may be different — both created by the community, dedicated to ongoing information collection and not shy about demanding public accountability — and they may have a chance to break a sad cycle and give a measure of power to Bayview-Hunters Point residents.
Tony Kelly is a Potrero Hill activist and serves as vice president of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association.