Phyllis Bowie (photo via author)
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When Phyllis Bowie first signed her lease at the Midtown Park Apartments in the Fillmore District of San Francisco over 20 years ago, she was told that her rent would go toward purchasing the apartment: Once the Federal Housing Administration mortgage for the property was paid off, residents were supposed to get cooperative ownership of the property. This was not the case when the residents paid off the mortgage in 2007. Instead, the City of San Francisco terminated its agreement with the tenant group responsible for overseeing operations of the complex and signed a new lease with Mercy Housing, a nonprofit developing low-income, affordable housing.
The Midtown Park Apartments were built in the 1960s amidst the wave of post–World War II urban “renewal” and “revitalization” projects in San Francisco. “Urban renewal” is, of course, a euphemism for the displacement of racialized and classed undesirables: “Negro removal,” James Baldwin famously called it.
Talking to Phyllis about the impact of contemporary “urban renewal” (i.e., gentrification) on Midtown residents reminded me that systems don’t change. They just become more sophisticatedly violent over time.
Prior to the displacement of the 1960s, the Fillmore neighborhood, rich in Black culture and business, was considered the “Harlem of the West.” “This was the largest concentration of Victorians…[it was] the poppin’ town,” Phyllis says. Black icons like James Baldwin, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and others “all came and performed in Black-owned shops on Fillmore Street.” Segregation did not allow these Black artists to stay in hotels with white patrons, so these Black homeowners opened their homes to them.
During the so-called renewal, which took place from the 1940s through the 1960s, large parts of the Fillmore District were razed, and thousands of Black homes—and their owners—were displaced. Many Black residents were pushed across the bridge into Oakland and other parts of the East Bay, while others stayed in the city to fight the wave of racist urban planning. As Phyllis notes, the municipal government “demolished a lot of the homes, but when they demolished a lot of the homes, they didn’t rebuild so that it could be classified as a ghetto,” which would then justify further razing and redevelopment.
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Photo courtesy of Save Midtown
After pressure from resident organizers—including the Western Addition Community Organization, which won an injunction against new city redevelopment work in 1967—Justin Herman, a city administrator, used private money to enable residents of the Western Addition (which includes the Fillmore District) to own their homes. Herman was responsible for much of the urban planning projects at the time and according to Phyllis he was despised as the “archvillain in the Black depopulation of the city.” The Midtown Park Apartments were built within this context of destruction, and Midtown was described by Jack Shelley, the mayor at the time, as “a home for all who wish to live in San Francisco.” But more than five decades after its construction, many Midtown residents are still renters rather than owners. The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, in partnership with Mercy Housing, is raising Midtown’s rent to pay for structural repairs to the complex. The costs are estimated at around $38 million. Furthermore, in 2014, the city began raising rent at Midtown to align with affordable housing standards: According to city government, housing that costs 30% of an individual’s income is “affordable.” The rent hikes are ranging from 30 to 300 percent: Phyllis’s rent skyrocketed from $956 to $3,575. Displacement is still at the front of residents’ minds even after the 2007 passage of the Board of Supervisors Resolution No. 325-07, which “formulat[ed] a long-term ownership structure and development plan for Midtown Park Apartments.”
Phyllis is a second-generation San Franciscan raised by a former Black Panther, and as she watches the intensification of gentrification in the city, Phyllis says she “can no longer be quiet as [she] sees the same stuff repeating itself.” There is something profound and disturbing, she says, about “marching for justice for Mario Woods on the same steps of city hall in 1964 that [she] marched with [her] mother for civil rights.”
Her mother, Genie, was a young, single mother with two children. While living in the Potrero Hill projects, Genie organized other young teenage and single mothers to provide childcare for one another while “trying to work a couple jobs to get her kids out of the projects.” She went on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed March on Washington in August 1963, and soon after, she felt she had to decide between King’s politics of nonviolence and Malcolm X’s and the Black Panther Party’s more radical politics. She chose the latter.
Her mother’s participation in the Black Panther Party resonates with Phyllis’s current housing struggle. She remembers that the Party was about “community empowerment [around] education, economics, and food.” Black Panther programs, such as Free Breakfast for School Children, were a way for the Black community to gain autonomy and access to the resources that were being deliberately withheld from it through systems of anti-Black oppression.
Midtown residents have been on a rent strike since August 2015 and are refusing to pay the hikes in rent. This is the largest rent strike in San Francisco since 1978, when Ed Lee, the current mayor of San Francisco, organized residents of the Ping Yuen housing project in Chinatown. In the nearly three years that Midtown residents have been engaging with Mercy Housing, Midtown residents have raised allegations of mismanagement, antagonistic service cuts (like the 24-hour building security that residents previously enjoyed), and tenant harassment that has already caused 10 families to be evicted. London Breed, the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, claimed in December 2015 that there would be no evictions from Midtown as long as residents “follow the rules of affordable housing throughout the city and the country.” But this would mean ending the strike and swallowing the rent hike, and, perhaps more devastatingly, abandoning hopes of home ownership and long-term housing security.
Phyllis told me that “public housing is like sharecropping, and mass incarceration is like slavery.” If Black lives in the Bay supposedly matter, then accessible housing and more permanent and dignified housing solutions to the ever-present threat of racist displacement do, too.
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