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Census: Blacks leaving San Francisco in droves

By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ Associated Press Writer
Friday September 07, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — Bobbie Webb considers himself a survivor of a seismic shift in San Francisco’s population. 

Blacks abandoned San Francisco faster than any other major U.S. city in the last decade, according to 2000 census data. More than 18,500 have left since 1990, a 23 percent decline that extends a trend that began a generation ago when urban renewal forced many to relocate. 

The main reason for the decline, according to population experts: Blacks are moving out to the suburbs in search of more affordable housing and the opportunity to be with their own. 

Webb, a blues musician who still lives in the Fillmore District, remembers the late-night talent shows at the Ellis Theater and the shops and jazz clubs along Fillmore Street that gave blacks a sense of community. 

“We have lost it as far as black people are concerned,” he said. “The Fillmore is gone.” 

In the 1970s, there were 96,000 blacks in San Francisco, accounting for about 13 percent of the population. There are now 60,500, just 8 percent of a city that has grown steadily since the 1970s and prides itself on its diversity. 

“There are better options for people in the suburbs,” said William Banks, a black studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “Black middle-class parents would prefer to get a larger house they could never afford in San Francisco.” 

Many move to be closer to family or because they want their children to experience a predominantly black community, Banks said. 

“People will move where they can feel at home,” said Banks, who himself lives in Hayward, a San Francisco suburb whose black population has soared 40 percent since 1990. “There you have the institutions intact.” 

Similarly, Miami lost 21.5 percent of its blacks during the 1990s, and Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles also had striking declines. 

San Francisco’s blacks were hit particularly hard during the 1990s, when hundreds of poor families were displaced as federally subsidized housing was torn down. The dot-com boom then attracted thousands of new residents, mainly young professionals able to pay rents that became the highest in the nation. 

Webb, 62, pays $576 a month for a rent-controlled, two-bedroom apartment where he raised his four children. He knows plenty of people are willing to pay the $2,400 his landlords want. 

“The people who own the building are just waiting to kick us out,” said Webb, who is fighting a 15 percent rent increase in court. “I can’t afford to move any place right now.” 

The city’s first large, visible black community emerged between 1940 and 1950, with a boom in shipbuilding and other war-related jobs. Many blacks arrived in the Fillmore; others settled in the Bayview-Hunters Point area, closer to the Navy yards. 

Then came the urban renewal projects to make room for six-lane Geary Boulevard and a shopping mall now at the center of Japantown. By the time the projects were finished in the 1970s, 20,000 blacks had been displaced. And as they left, so did the businesses. 

Reggie Pettus’ family has owned Chicago Barbershop on Fillmore Street since 1952. It remains a landmark of sorts for the black community, drawing the city’s best-known black resident, Mayor Willie Brown. 

But the shop is one of only about five black-owned businesses left on Fillmore. Said Pettus: “I call it the No More.” 

Aside from churches, blacks have few major cultural institutions to call their own in San Francisco. A black cultural center, promised a decade ago as part of a redevelopment project, will not open until 2003. Organizers are still working on the concept. 

Bayview-Hunters Point, which is isolated by freeways and long bus rides from other neighborhoods, remains the only solidly black area of town. Even there, Asians and Hispanics have been moving in. 

Some have tried to revive the Fillmore District’s jazz clubs, and a proposed commuter rail extension will eventually connect Hunters Point directly to downtown. But many feel the black exodus is irreversible. 

“The city of San Francisco is becoming an upper-class neighborhood of the Bay Area,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project.