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.
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