Living Within An Environmental Nightmare

Bayview-Hunters Point has a history of environmental activism.

Bayview-Hunters Point residents, not new to environmental issues, feel as if the gap is as wide as it has ever been

“I feel like it’s a modern day killing spree.”

Bayview-Hunters Point Resident Michael Williams

“I feel like its a modern day killing spree,” Bayview-Hunters Point resident Michael Williams says commenting about the environment in his neighborhood while waiting for his next bus at the corner of 3rd Street and Van Dyke Avenue. “What it’s doing is killing us slowly, everyone here has a number to die, we don’t know when but we know we’re going fast.

As a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, Williams is not a stranger to the hand in hand environmental justice and health issues which have plagued the traditionally African American community. A community which at one point was 48% Black according to the 2000 U.S. Census. 

Williams has seen the intricacies of those environmental health and justice issues wrapping around the southeastern portion of the city like tentacles touching every corner and every citizen.

“It’s called accidental because you just heard about the shipyard, you ain’t heard down there by the slough where they are building new high rises down there by the new Double Rock because there is poison soil down there,” Williams adds referencing the historic U.S. Navy shipyard soil contamination that was exposed for false testing and relocation in 2018 which ended up infecting various landfills across the state and affecting numerous state residents. “They tried to ease it up out… it’s on the hush hush that they are trying to sneak it out of here.”

The level of skepticism and distrust between neighborhood residents and city officials in regards to environmental transparency is not only held solely by Williams but has been a common theme in the history of Bayview-Hunters Point according to residents involved in neighborhood activism and the environmental justice fight.

“I feel like the city of San Francisco has just totally forgotten Bayview,” resident and educational activist Sabrina Hall said in regards to the disconnect between city hall and the residents of District 10. “There is a lot of toxic waste and contamination… I feel like the city of San Francisco has failed San Francisco by means of not looking into our problems but still building around us…  saying they don’t have any money for our schools or to clean up the shipyard but steady building more homes on it.”

According to Bayview-Hunters Point environmental activist Jasmine Jones of GreenAction, a local grassroots environmental health and justice coalition founded in 1997 by various leaders from urban, rural and indigenous communities in California and Arizona, the ever continuous fight has brought a passive acceptance by the members of the Bayview-Hunters Point community.

Jones, who works as a representative for GreenAction in engaging with the residents of the neighborhood where she grew up in, is all too familiar with the neighborhoods generational struggle.

“I think a lot of the residents know what’s going on with the pollution, maybe not to the specific extent, but everyone knows,” Jones said. “So people are just accepting of it, they are like ‘Yea I know its polluted’, ‘Yea, I have a family member who has cancer’ but some people just accept it as it is what it is.”

According to studies done in 2006 and 2009, the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood’s rate of asthma among residents (10%) was nearly double the national rate (5.6%) as well as the rate in hospitalizations for congestive heart failure in the 94124 zip code (61 cases per 10,000) compared to the rest of San Francisco (30 cases per 10,000).

Leaotis Martin, who moved to the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood at the age of six in the 1960s, has seen this disproportionate amount of sickness compared to the rest of the city of San Francisco during his lifetime. The result of which ultimately propelled him into the environmental fight with GreenAction in 2006.

“I had a mother who died of cancer, a twin brother who died of an enlarged heart, another brother who died of diabetic complications and a sister who died of sickle cell anemia,” Martin said recalling the environmental health issues his family faced. “So all of these things adds up and moves me to help other people because it’s not right for a baby to be born in this world and have cancer or a five year old boy to live with cancer.”

Martin, who was brought into contact with GreenAction through the efforts of neighborhood environmental activists and member of the BVHP Mother’s Committee Marie Harrison, credits those who brought him into the environmental struggle because he has been able to leave something of a legacy for the neighborhood in which he grew up in.

“Bayview has a high rate of cancer and all these things,” Martin said. “I’ve been doing this environmental stuff for 13 years now and at first I didn’t give a damn about it because I didn’t know anything about it… I look at it now as this is where I give back to my community where I grew up because I was never able to give them anything back.”

GreenAction’s Executive Director Bradley Angel, a figure in the Bay Area environmental justice community for over 30 years and the co-founder of the Bayview-Hunters Point Environmental Justice Response Task Force, has seen the long standing struggle take its toll on generations of residents.

Executive Director of GreenAction Bradley Angel addresses members of the nonprofit at their holiday gathering.

“To a large degree, as Jasmine (Jones) said, some people are just accepting of it but some are just tired,” Angel said pointing to a 1990 People’s Earth Day in Bayview-Hunters Point. “This fight has been going on for decades.”

For Hall, battling this passive attitude towards environmental health and justice in the neighborhood starts in educating children on environmental issues in their public schools by dedicating courses that inform.

“If we (Black and Brown communities) don’t understand something, we don’t care about it and what’s going on,” Hall said. “Just like the Youth Climate Strike, if people really looked in and paid attention to those kids and asked them what schools they went to, those were private schools, our public education doesn’t teach our kids about climate strikes.”

Published by Joel Umanzor, Jr.

An East Bay native, studying Journalism and attending San Francisco State University. A contributing news reporter for the Richmond Pulse, a monthly publication highlighting life in West Contra Costa County as well as covering the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.

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