Over his 18 years serving at Pilgrim Community Church Rev. Harold Pierre has noticed plenty of changes in the neighborhood.
These days the streetcar that rumbles along Randolph Street and stops outside the large tan church building carries fewer black commuters than it once did.
“When I came here I could stand out there from four to five in the evening and it was all African Americans getting off the bus and going to their homes. But now it’s one or two that I see getting off in the evening and coming home,” Pierre said.
Between 1980 and 2010 the black population in the Ocean View, Merced Heights and Ingleside (OMI) neighborhoods dropped from 61 percent to 14 percent, according to census data. Over the same time period the OMI’s Asian population grew from 11 percent to 54 percent.
As a result, the numerous black churches in Ocean View now serve smaller, more commuter-based congregations and remain empty for the majority of the week. Vacant storefronts and abandoned properties spread throughout the streets along the Broad-Randolph corridor are another fixture of the area.
Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, across from the Plymouth Avenue train stop, is a white, residential looking building with a set of steps leading to a high porch. Rev. Alfredo Lewis estimates that about half of Mt. Vernon’s 30 active members are from out of town. One family even drives to church from Oakley, almost 60 miles away.
Cosmopolitan Baptist Church, on Farallones Street, has around 250 members, although only about one quarter to a half of the group attends each Sunday, according to Rev. Dr. A. Ray Gentle. The dirty white building with blue trim is backed by a parking lot reserved for church services. A lot of the Pilgrim Community Church’s 50 regular members now live outside of the city, according to Pierre.
A 2012 Invest in Neighborhoods profile of the Broad Street corridor listed the prevalence of storefront churches as a challenge for the neighborhood. According to the profile, churches occupied 13 of the 53 storefronts in the neighborhood. Nine of the storefronts were unused.
“[The] high number of storefronts occupied by churches diminishes capacity for neighborhood-serving retail,” the profile states. The profile is only the first step in a process of determining what the neighborhood needs and wants, according to Diana Ponce De León, Invest In Neighborhoods project manager for San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
A few plans aimed at revitalizing the corridor are in the works. These include some beautification projects along the corridor and traffic calming construction at the Orizaba-Randolph intersection. The city is also working on a report about the vacant properties along the Broad-Randolph corridor.
A few churches have left the area altogether. At the corner of Capitol and Broad sits an empty lot where a long abandoned church used to sit.
Al Harris, a member of the OMI-Neighbors In Action, described the building as a “graffiti magnet” and a “squatter’s home.” In June, after receiving 11 Department of Building Inspection complaints since 2006, the owners of 200 Broad St. tore the building down in preparation for a three-story mixed-use project.
Next door, at 327 Capitol Ave., a blue cross remains on the outside of the white building as bulldozers work on the adjacent empty lot. The Little Bear Preschool, which is currently located on Ocean Avenue near Alemany Boulevard, will replace a church that moved to Oakland.
“The real issue is how to make sure that we can encourage change and still maintain the economic diversity of the neighborhood,” District 11 Supervisor John Avalos said. “So working class households don’t get moved out and that we have enough strong services there to support folks who are in need.”
The Future of Native Black Residents
During all of this change community members have been left to wonder what the future will look like and whether the black flight will stop.
“Sometimes I see young people on the street and it looks like their community is going away from them and they’re being left behind,” said Jackie Wright, executive director of the I.T. Bookman Center, said. “I don’t want to see young people become the ghosts of the past community.”
During her year and a half as head of the center, Wright has spent part of her time helping to pass current black-owned homes on to younger family members. Wright sees the churches as a chance for families who want to return to the neighborhood.
“Churches serve as a network for people who have rooms to rent,” Wright said.
Pierre, whose church is celebrating 125 years in the neighborhood this summer, is confident that the churches will remain in the area. “The churches are going to be here for the next 125 years,” Pierre said. ”You go through ups and downs but a church door never closes.”
The Historic Role of Churches in the OMI
Although Ocean View’s black churches have been a feature of the neighborhood for a long time observers tend to ignore or simplify their diversity.
Each church represents “distinct nuances” in the black population according to Amy Alexander, a journalist who grew up in Ingleside and has written about San Francisco’s black population.
For instance, Alexander’s family attended a Methodist church that agreed with her family’s roots in the western states while other more evangelical churches serve populations from the South.
Much of Ocean View’s black population arrived after World War II when the neighborhood was the only place in the city where black families were allowed to buy homes, according to the Western Neighborhoods Project.
The black population grew even more in the 1960s but sources disagree whether the growth was directly related to the redevelopment of the Western Addition.
In the 1980s and 1990s Ocean View struggled through the crack epidemic. In a 1988 Examiner article Police Lt. Troy Dangerfield is quoted saying “[there is] no time when [drug] activity is slow—it’s a 25 hour a day business here.” According to the article, “more than 1,300 drug arrests were made in the neighborhood” in 1987.
In 1993, when The San Francisco Examiner wrote a piece about Ocean View, they referred to the area’s “descent into hell,” and, of the more than 40 people they talked to, many did not want their names published out of fear of retribution.
“One longtime resident described himself as a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and confided that his closest brush with death came not in combat but in front of his house on Plymouth Avenue when a gunfight broke out,” the article continued.
Alexander examined the relationship between the crack epidemic and Ocean View’s churches in a 1986 article for the now defunct San Francisco State magazine, Prism.
“What distinguishes this working-class neighborhood from countless others with increasing drug dealing is the availability of the traditionally positive community resource, the church,” the article reads.
Still, Alexander didn’t get the impression the churches were on top of the problem at the time. “No one was really prepared for [the crack epidemic],” Alexander said in a phone interview.
The black flight from the OMI was different from other parts of San Francisco because black families only began arriving in the area after World War II, according to Alexander.
This became a problem when the next generation inherited the properties were unable to maintain the homes with fewer resources than their parents had access to in the relatively prosperous era.
Harris, a resident of the OMI since 1974, adds that several black residents he knows took advantage of high housing prices when they retired and moved back to the South where they were originally from.
Dream Team’s Vision
The corner of Broad and Plymouth, which was one of the most dangerous intersections during the crack epidemic, is now home to a cluster of stores. On sunny afternoons people lean against the railing of a Muni access ramp talking. The destination for many of these people is Dream Team, a glass fronted store with a bright blue neon sign flanked by a barber shop and a grocery store. Dream Team is a boutique and community gathering place for a young crowd like the neighborhood’s churches have been for others.
On two recent weekday afternoons Dream Team was filled with a stream of current and past community members. A few children on summer vacation played video games on a large TV behind the checkout counter while some older men sat along the windowsill at the front of the store.
The left wall of the narrow store is covered in art and glass display cases filled with sneakers. while the other side is dedicated to a wide range of branded merchandise.
Donald Andrews, 28, founded the store as pop-up shop to advertise and sell his music but the experiment outlasted its six-month test period and is now over three years old.
The store is an important symbol of what is now possible for customers who are old enough to have seen the area go from a calm working class neighborhood, to dangerous and back to calm over the course of their lives.
“It got really bad out there, real bad, but then as far as the gentrification, it’s like the houses are just going, everybody’s paying cash,” said Randolf Nixon, a 28-year-old who was born in Ocean View but left when it got too expensive.
“I came up in a time when we couldn’t even come down here,” said Kentrell Traylor, a 28-year-old Ocean View native. “Like literally, where the train tracks turns that was a dead end for me … there (were) a lot of people over here that didn’t make it that’s my age.”
Andrews was nearly killed in the neighborhood when he was shot in the face in a case of mistaken identity on Halloween night 2004. He still has a large gap in his teeth twelve years later.
For customers who now live elsewhere, Dream Team is one reason to return to Ocean View.
“I got family out here still,” Nixon said. “Like, three different family houses to go to out here and the store, of course, so why not come back?”
Although they like to visit, moving back seems unlikely for many who have left. Nixon doesn’t think he would be able to afford a comfortable sized space if he returned.
“Once you leave San Francisco it seems like it don’t matter who you are, it’s hard to move back. Damn near impossible,” Nixon said.
Andrews, who lives in Diamond Heights, expects the neighborhood to continue becoming more Asian over the next ten years. “I mean, that’s how life is I guess. Blacks are depopulating and everyone else is populating,” Andrews said.
In the face of this, Andrews sees himself as not just a business owner but also a role model for the store’s younger visitors.
“I’ll always push a dream on to these kids that it’s okay to dream and it’s okay to chase them because when you dream anything could happen,” Andrews said.