A heart once nourished

A murder in front of children leaves Ella Hill Hutch Community Center reeling


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.

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