A heart once nourished

Pub date June 17, 2008
WriterG.W. Schulz

› gwschulz@sfbg.com

Community court, every second Thursday at 10 a.m. Narcotics Anonymous on Wednesday. Apprenticeships for construction workers, Monday, bright and early.

The ancient letter board just inside the entrance of the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center tells much of the story of this neighborhood institution. Since 1981 it’s been a crucial hub for the Western Addition, a mostly level stretch of terrain west of downtown that rivals the Mission District and Bayview–Hunters Point as the source of the most despair from senseless gun violence.

For decades Ella Hill was a safe haven, a place where kids and seniors felt comfortable, where people could learn and teach and talk and work together, a little oasis in the world of urban hurt.

A placard affixed to one wall of the entryway honors Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African American US Supreme Court justice. In a small office nearby, a tutor assists a young girl with the multiplication table. Elsewhere, a list of rules forbids profanity, play-fighting, and put-downs.

There’s also a poster of Ella Hill Hutch, the first black woman elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, where she served from 1978-81.

But in 2006, a man was murdered during daylight hours in the center’s gymnasium before dozens of witnesses. That slaying was one of at least five brutal incidents that took place in the shadow of Ella Hill between 2006 and 2007; three more murders occurred within blocks. Many remain open cases today.

And now the center is having serious problems — troubles that reflect those of the city’s African American population, which has been plagued by violence and socioeconomic changes that are closing opportunities and forcing longtime residents out the city.

Several census tracts in the neighborhood that at one time contained between 3,000 and 6,000 black residents are down to 1,000 or far less, according to a San Francisco State University study commissioned by the city last year. The report showed that between 1995 and 2000 San Francisco lost more of its black population than 18 other major US cities.

Ironically, the city is now preparing to close the final dark chapter on 50 years of federally subsidized redevelopment in the Western Addition. But the displacement that the bulldozers set off half a century ago continues today, unabated.

That exodus has compounded structural problems at the center just when its remaining clients need it most. The nonprofit late last year underwent an organizational shake up and brief takeover by the Mayor’s Office to save it from imminent financial collapse. The center’s executive director of two years, George Smith III, was fired with little public explanation last year, and a permanent head was named only recently.

As with many aspects of this troubled community, it was unaddressed violence that fed the fire. Simply subsisting in the heart of a violent neighborhood was strain enough for Ella Hill. But suffering an attack from within seemed too much to bear for an institution some call "San Francisco’s Black City Hall."

The 2006 killing took one man’s life, but Ella Hill itself — still facing an uncertain financial future — felt the searing rounds too. Now some wonder if the nonprofit can survive the very violence and poverty it was created to help end in a neighborhood that’s changing forever.

In Ella Hill’s noisy gymnasium at the building’s east end, two teams of middle schoolers practice basketball.

"My job is to be in the best position to box him out for a rebound," their coach says as they crowd around the free throw line.

The kids are radiant and attentive now. But from this same basketball court on April 27, 2006, the Western Addition briefly edged ahead of the rest of the city in extreme bloodshed.

Donte White, 22, was working part-time at the center. As he supervised a basketball game, two unidentified males entered Ella Hill. One brandished a firearm and shot White at least eight times in the face, neck, and chest as several kids looked on in utter horror. Among them was White’s young daughter.

Police arrested 25-year-old Esau Ferdinand for the attack five months after White’s murder. But within two weeks prosecutors decided they could no longer hold him and declined to press charges when a key witness disappeared on the eve of grand jury proceedings.

Even with other witnesses filling the gym, police gathered few additional leads, an all-too-common story in a neighborhood where residents often prefer to avoid both law enforcement and vengeful criminal suspects.

The center installed cameras and an alarm. A buzzer was placed on the front door. But the new security measures cut against Ella Hill’s image as a demilitarized zone, and the center remains shaken by White’s murder. Some parents began barring their children from going there.

"Can you imagine something like that, someone coming into a rec center in the middle of the day with a firearm and shooting and killing a guy?" asks Deven Richardson, who resigned from Ella Hill’s board in 2007 to focus on his real estate business. "That really set us back big time in terms of morale. It really was a dark moment for the center."

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Ella Hill, says that after he took office in 2004, he learned that the police weren’t stationed at the center during prime hours and had never created a strategy for attaching themselves to the center the way they had at other safe-haven institutions in the city, like schools. He told us he’s had to "really work" to get the nearby Northern Station more integrated into Ella Hill.

"Before the murder of Donte White, there had also been a series of incidences inside Ella Hill Hutch," Mirkarimi said over drinks at a Hayes Valley bar. "Nothing that resulted in anybody getting killed, but certainly enough indicators that really should have been taken more seriously by the mayor."

In June 2006, shortly after White’s shooting, the San Francisco Police Commission and the Board of Supervisors held a tense public meeting at the center. Residents, enraged over the wave of violence that summer in the Western Addition, shouted down public officials, including Chief Heather Fong, who was forced to cut short a presentation on the city’s crime rate.

That same month, the supervisors put a measure on the ballot to allocate $30 million over three years for violence-prevention efforts like ex-offender services and witness relocation. But Mayor Gavin Newsom, following a policy of fortifying law enforcement over community-based alternatives, opposed the measure because it excluded the police department. Prop. A, designed to finance groups like Ella Hill with connections to the neighborhood that the police will never have, lost by less than a single percentage point.

Meanwhile, four homicides in the neighborhood that year joined frequent anarchic shootouts in the Western Addition, including many that never made headlines because no one was killed. The fatalities led to promises by City Hall that the area would be saturated with improved security, including additional security cameras that have mostly proved useless in helping the police solve violent crimes.

On June 3, 2006, 19-year-old Antoine Green was standing on McAllister Street near Ella Hill early in the morning when he was shot to death in the head and back. On Aug. 16, 38-year-old Johnny Jackson’s chest was filled with bullets as he sat in the front seat of a Honda Passport on Turk Street not far behind Ella Hill. A woman next to him in the car suffered a critical gunshot wound to the head.

Two more killings occurred further east at Larch Way, a popular location for murder in the neighborhood.

Burnett "Booski" Raven, a 32-year-old alleged member of the Eddy Rock street gang, was found bleeding at 618 Larch Way early Oct. 7, his body laying halfway in the street and containing at least 10 gunshot wounds. On July 22, police found 23-year-old John Brown, another purported Eddy Rock member, wedged under a Chevy pickup truck, dead from up to seven gunshots.

Brown had reportedly survived two prior shootings, but the Western Addition’s cultural condemnation of "snitching" to police has so infected the neighborhood that he allegedly told police not to bother investigating either of the attacks.

Loïc Wacquant, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says neighborhoods like the Western Addition that once contained stable black institutions — schools, churches, and community centers that glued residents together — have been overwhelmed by the rise of a white-collar, service-based economy, the decline of unions, and the withdrawal of meaningful social safety nets.

Cities have responded to the resulting marginalization with more police officers, more courts, and more prisons. But the failure of those institutions to cure rising violence "serves as the justification for [their] continued expansion," Wacquant quoted Michel Foucault, the famous late UC Berkeley sociologist, in the academic journal Thesis Eleven earlier this year.

The roots of the Western Addition’s tragedy go back to the early post-World War II era. In 1949, Congress enacted laws giving cities extraordinary powers to clear out land defined as "blighted." In San Francisco, that meant neighborhoods where low income people of color lived.

The Western Addition was devastated. Huge blocks of houses were bulldozed. Clubs, stores, restaurants — the heart of the black neighborhood — were wiped out. Many residents were forced out of the neighborhood and sometimes the city forever; others lost their property and their livelihoods (see "A half-century of lies," 3/21/2007).

By the 1970s, neighborhood activists were hoping that at the very least the Redevelopment Agency would pay for a recreation facility for kids. But city officials wouldn’t put up the money, recalls the Rev. Arnold Townsend, a longtime political fixture in the city and associate pastor of the Rhema Word Christian Fellowship.

Townsend said activist Mary Rogers — whom he calls "the greatest champion kids ever had in this community" and a famous critic of redevelopment — gave up on City Hall and went to Washington DC, where she sat in at a meeting that happened to include Patricia Harris, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter. Rogers, joined by a group of colleagues from San Francisco, bumped into Harris afterward.

"[Harris] shook Mary’s hand like politicians do, and Mary wouldn’t let her hand go until she had a meeting," Townsend said. "They were having a tug-of-war over her hand."

Rogers’ determination paid off, and enough political channels opened up that money for the center became available. Then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein cut the ribbon for the $2.3 million Ella Hill Hutch Community Center four months after the supervisor’s death, complete with outdoor seating for seniors, a gymnasium, tennis courts, and child-care facilities.

A young counselor named Leonard "Lefty" Gordon who worked at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, one of the city’s oldest black institutions — it was founded in 1919 on Presidio Avenue, where it remains today — was named executive director of Ella Hill three years later and led the center to wide acclaim for 17 years.

A recreation coordinator at Ella Hill started a reading program for young athletes after discovering that a local high school football star wasn’t aware he’d been named the city’s player of the year: the teenaged boy couldn’t read the newspaper to find out. Other programs for tutoring and job training targeting young and old residents were likewise started under Gordon.

Many of the people we interviewed recalled the "kitchen cabinet" meetings convened by Lefty Gordon at Ella Hill as among their fondest memories. Everyone from the "gangbangers to police" attended Gordon’s meetings, Townsend said, and made them a repository of complaints about what was happening in the neighborhood.

Alphonso Pines, a former Ella Hill board member and organizer for the Unite Here! Local 2 union, eagerly showed up at the meetings for months after attending 1995’s Million Man March in Washington.

"I hate to see brothers die, regardless of whether it’s at Ella Hill," Pines said of Donte White’s 2006 killing. "But that was personal for me, because that was the place where I had sat on the board for years. That was real shocking."

Lefty’s son, Greg Gordon, said that his legendary father — who died of a heart attack in May of 2000 — worked so hard for the center that he allowed his own health to deteriorate.

Most beneficiaries of Ella Hill’s social services now live in the southeast section of the 94115 ZIP code, roughly bordered by McAllister and Geary streets to the south and north, and Divisadero and Laguna streets to the west and east.

The majority of Ella Hill’s approximately $1.4 million annual budget comes from government sources, either through grants or nonprofit contracts.

Newsom, through his community development and housing offices, has given $860,000 over the past three years to Ella Hill to help job-ready applicants obtain construction work and other general employment in the neighborhood. The center launched its JOBZ program in 2006, targeting formerly incarcerated young adults and others with a "hard-to-employ" status.

Caseworkers must convince some participants to leave gangs, deal with outstanding warrants, pay back child support, expunge criminal records, or eliminate new offenses, all of which can exacerbate a desire to give up. Sometimes the center has to buy people alarm clocks.

"None of these other programs that are being funded in this community want to deal with the kinds of kids or people who come to Ella Hill…. [It] is the last stop for everybody," said London Breed, head of the African American Art and Culture Complex on Fulton Street and a Western Addition native. "That’s where people go who have no place else to go, which is why it’s so important."

Most nonprofits working for the city must regularly report their operational costs or show how program funds are being spent on graduation ceremonies and trips to university campuses. The required forms are mind-numbingly bureaucratic and reveal little about what a place like Ella Hill might face on a practical level each day. But last year, former executive director George Smith betrayed a crack in Ella Hill’s veneer.

"Once again violence has impacted the community with three incidents in close proximity to the complex this month alone," he wrote to the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, which supports the center with college preparation grants. "One of the victims was a young man scheduled to graduate from high school in June."

On May 25, 2007, 19-year-old Jamar Lake was leaving a store on Laguna and Eddy streets, northeast of Ella Hill, when a teen suspect opened fire on him. Paramedics were so worried about security in the neighborhood that they fled before attempting resuscitation, according to a report from the San Francisco Medical Examiner. Lake died at General Hospital that day.

Weeks later, a manic 12-hour long feud erupted between several gunmen on McAllister Street. Seven people were wounded during two daytime shootings that took place in the Friendship Village Apartments, across the street from Ella Hill.

Then in July, a suspect randomly and fatally stabbed 54-year-old Kenneth Taylor in the neck as he sat on a park bench near sundown at Turk and Fillmore streets, within easy view of the SFPD’s Northern Station. Police didn’t respond until Taylor stumbled to the sidewalk and collapsed; a witness had to flag down a patrol car.

Following the Lake shooting, the mayor and police department promised, as they had the year before, that foot patrols would be increased in the 193-unit Plaza East Housing Development and other public housing projects in the Western Addition.

But the city’s most visible response has bypassed Ella Hill — which has some street credibility — altogether. Instead, City Attorney Dennis Herrera went to court to get injunctions against street gangs in June 2007.

Herrera’s initial filing came days after the wild shootout on McAllister Street, but the timing was coincidental. The city attorney also had been preparing injunctions against gangs in the Mission and Bayview-Hunter’s Point for months. For the Western Addition, the city attorney noted a "recent rise in violent crimes perpetrated by the defendants," and asked that the members of three gangs be banned from associating with one another inside two "safety zones" marked along the contours of their respective territories, a 14-square-block area that straddles Fillmore Street and rests just north of Ella Hill.

"The conditions within the two safety zones have become particularly intolerable in 2007 as the deadly rivalry between the Uptown alliance and defendant Eddy Rock has intensified," Herrera’s office told the court. "In 2007 alone, this rivalry is the suspected cause of at least three homicides and numerous shootings within the two safety zones."

Some critics viewed barring people from congregating with one another a civil rights violation. And worse, they feared it would merely shove more African Americans and Latinos out of the Western Addition, which would benefit the city’s wealthiest white residents.

"All of this stuff about gang injunctions is a bunch of malarkey," said Franzo King, archbishop of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Fillmore Street. "You don’t really have gangs here…. [In San Francisco] they’re a big club."

Herrera nonetheless convinced a Superior Court judge to issue the injunctions after filing 1,200 pages of evidence arguing that the three "clubs," which include only about 65 people named by the city, are endless public nuisances and force organizations like Ella Hill to battle with them for the affections of Western Addition youth.

Police admit that the injunctions since last year have, in fact, led people to simply leave the neighborhood. Still, they insist the injunctions have reduced trouble in the Western Addition. The Knock Out Posse, for instance, is evaporating, they say.

Paris Moffett, a 30-year-old alleged Eddy Rock leader, told the Guardian in a separate story on the gang injunctions last November that he and others were organizing to quell violence in the neighborhood and would do so in defiance of the gang injunctions (see "Defying the injunction," 11/28/07).

But on the day that story ran, Moffett hampered his new cause when, according to a March 27 federal indictment, police arrested him in Novato for possessing a large quantity of crack and MDMA, as well as a Colt .45 semiautomatic.

After Lefty Gordon died, the center went through a couple of directors in relatively short order. Robert Hector, a second-in-command to Lefty Gordon, helmed the center briefly; he was replaced with George Smith III, who left in 2007.

Meanwhile, problems at Ella Hill grew.

"The seniors just stopped their participation," Anita Grier, a former Ella Hill board member who first ran for the San Francisco City College Board of Trustees in 1998 at Gordon’s encouragement, told us. "Things were never excellent, but they just got much worse once [Gordon] was no longer director."

The center, a standalone nonprofit, had long struggled financially in part because it relied so much on contracts and grants from the city rather than pursuing funds from private donors. Mirkarimi says Ella Hill’s structure is unlike any other community center in the city. Many other centers are directly maintained by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

Contract revenue from one Ella Hill program, such as providing emergency shelter to the homeless, was often diverted to keep another on life support or to simply cover the center’s utility bills.

By early 2007, the center faced a financial catastrophe. Donald Frazier joined Ella Hill’s board as president in January 2007 and embarked on a reform effort to turn the center around. He commissioned what came to be a blistering audit that revealed the nonprofit owed over $200,000 in state and federal payroll taxes. As a result, the center faced $63,000 more in penalties and accrued interest.

Mirkarimi blames community leaders in his district for refusing to acknowledge a crisis at the center and for not turning to City Hall for help when Ella Hill appeared to be slowly rotting from the inside out.

The mayor’s staff, he adds, wanted to believe Ella Hill was working on its own and should’ve continued to do so because, despite its financial reliance on the city, it was technically an independent nonprofit. In reality, Mirkarimi said, "They were afraid to piss off black people, is what it comes down to. They were afraid to tell it like it is — that things weren’t working."

Sending delinquent invoices to the city, failing to institute reasonable accounting standards, and falling far behind on its payroll taxes all threatened the government contracts and grants that kept San Francisco’s Black City Hall afloat. By extension, the audit concluded, that meant Western Addition residents who relied on Ella Hill were "victimized" by the center’s improper use of its limited resources.

Aside from the audit, which Ella Hill instigated itself, there’s no indication in the records of agencies funding the center that any problems were occurring, which implies the city wasn’t paying attention.

"As far as I’m concerned," Mirkarimi said, "we had a renegade institution, and the only reason it wasn’t renegade in an illegal sense was because the lease allowed them to have a parallel governance structure. But it was renegade in the sense that the city neglected to supervise properly."

In November 2007, just after residents hijacked a chaotic board meeting with an extended public comment period, Frazier told the directors in closed session that the Redevelopment Agency was planning to restrict future funding for the center due to its management problems.

One month later, the mayor dispatched an aide, Dwayne Jones, along with redevelopment agency director Fred Blackwell, to a meeting at Ella Hill with an ultimatum. Jones told the assembled that new interim appointees would be taking over the center’s bank books, recreating its bylaws, and electing a new board and executive director. The old board would essentially be dissolved. According to observers at the meeting, Jones told them that if they resisted the plan, funds received by Ella Hill from various city agencies would be jeopardized, as would its low-cost lease of city property.

Two defiant board members viewed the move as a "hostile takeover" of a private nonprofit organization by the mayor and voted against it, but the rest of the board agreed to the restructuring. Mirkarimi says there was simply no alternative.

"Right now it needs to be shrunk to what it can do really well, instead of doing what they had to do in the last five years, an incremental sloppy way of programming," he said.

The interim board in April named a former Ella Hill employee and Park and Rec administrator, Howard Smith — unrelated to George Smith — to be the center’s new executive director. But after all the changes Ella Hill made to fix its leadership problems, there are no assurances the city won’t leave Ella Hill without the money it needs to keep the doors open next year.

It’s noon on a recent Friday and Ella Hill’s new executive director is scrambling to keep things together. An employee wants him to glance at a form. Another man wants to come in and play basketball. Smith has a board meeting minutes from now, but he’s scheduled an interview with the Guardian at the same time.

Smith’s a well-built man dressed in a pressed suit, polished shoes, and a sharply-knotted tie. He’d mostly avoided our calls for weeks. Word spread in the neighborhood that the Guardian was planning some sort of hit piece on Ella Hill.

But it won’t be a newspaper that capsizes the center.

A significant portion of the center’s funding will be threatened over the next year. The redevelopment agency is scheduled to end its 45-year reign in the Western Addition by then, a blessing of sorts since so many people in the neighborhood feel it’s done nothing but upend the lives of black residents. But the end of the agency means that redevelopment funds for Ella Hill’s job placement programs, about $400,000 annually, will disappear.

In addition, about $300,000 more a year will dry up since the San Francisco Human Services Agency hasn’t renewed an emergency homeless shelter contract with the center. Mirkarimi believes the mayor, too, will try to stop providing Ella Hill with funding through his community development office next year.

If Newsom does back away, Mirkarimi warns, there will be "a very loud showdown."

"What I’m worried about is that the Newsom administration is basically cutting and running on this, and I’m not going to allow that to happen, at least not without a fight," he said.

The alternative is for Rec and Park to take over managing Ella Hill’s facilities with DCYF continuing to fund youth programs there while the Redevelopment Agency commits community benefits dollars from a legacy fund to the center — the least it can do after a half-century of transforming the neighborhood, locals be damned.

An interagency council made up of the center’s primary funders could collectively watchdog its performance, Mirkarimi says. Once Ella Hill’s leaders prove that the center has fully returned to its original mission, it can consider expanding to serve other populations in the neighborhood, or even seek a plan to detach further from the city.

The mayor’s spokesperson, Nathan Ballard, did not respond to an e-mail containing detailed questions, and his aide, Dwayne Jones, did not return several phone calls. But Smith said during a later lunch interview at the Fillmore Café that he agrees with Mirkarimi’s idea.

"There are so many programs out there that say they’re doing something on paper, but they’re really not doing it," Smith said. "They’re running ghost programs. So what I’ve been saying at Ella Hill since I got there is, ‘We will do exactly what we said we were going to do.’<0x2009>"

In the meantime, Smith is determined to prove that Ella Hill’s history has only just begun. The mural of Lefty Gordon outside the center received a fresh coat of paint recently, and the color pops. The sidewalk is being repaved and new handrails installed. The walls inside are clear of the aging posters and letter board that hung there a few months ago.

Before heading off to his board meeting, Smith teasingly asks an adolescent boy meandering in the center’s entryway for 75 cents. The boy’s always hitting him up for pocket change.

"I don’t got any," the boy responds.

"You don’t have any," Smith corrects.

Smith suddenly realizes what time it is.

"Hey, why isn’t this guy in school?" he wonders aloud.

At that moment, only the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center was asking the question. *