Life and death in Sunnydale


Photographs by Sarah Phelan

On the first Friday afternoon in September, as most folks were trying to get an early start on their Labor Day weekend, C.L.A.E.R. director Sharen Hewitt and her advisory board member Carrie Manuel welcomed friends, family, neighbors—and a handful of D10 candidates—to a basketball hoop dedication ceremony outside C.L.A.E.R.’s office on Brookdale Ave at the heart of the  violence-racked Sunnydale housing project in Visitacion Valley.

By afternoon''s end, Hewitt had managed to get D 10 candidates Malia Cohen, Kristine Enea, Chris Jackson, Tony Kelly and Marlene Tran shooting hoops with a dozen African American youngsters who live in Sunnydale, the city's largest public housing project, and talking about what they have learned about life and death in this deceptively pleasant-looking sun-and-fog bathed spot that overlooks the Bay, backs onto McLaren Park and the neighboring Gleneagles Golf course--little knowing that within two hours, yet another young black man would be fatally shot one block away from C.L.A.E.R.'s office.

Sunnydale's appealing geographical location has made it the target of redevelopment plans that seek to rebuild 785 low income unit and add 925 market rate units into the mix—plans that have Hewitt concerned that Sunnydale's current residents could end up being displaced through a combination of factors, including the San Francisco Housing Authority's  announcement that many of these residents owe thousands in back rent, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s announcement that he is seeking a gang injunction against 41 alleged members of the Down Below Gangsters and the Towerside Gang, who have been engaged in a violent turf war in the Suinnydale for the past three years.

Many of these alleged gang members don't actually live in Sunnydale, but their friends, families and their own children still do. Currently, seventy-five percent of lease holders in Sunnydale are single female heads of household. And while African Americansaccount for only six percent of San Francisco’s population citywide, black males represent 60 percent of the county jail's population and feature in disproportionately high numbers in the city’s homicide statistics.

An unfortunate case in point occurred just hours after C.L.A.E.R.’s basketball hoop dedication, when 38 year old Asa Roberts was fatally shot on the first block of Brookdale Avenue, which is a stone's throw from Hewitt's office. Found after police responded to a report of gunshots at 8:20 p.m. at the Sunnydale projects, Roberts was pronounced dead at San Francisco General Hospital on what was his 38th birthday, making him the city’s 35th homicide this year.

And at the C.L.A.E.R. ceremony, held at 5:30 p.m. that day, the majority of kids in attendance raised their hands when asked if they knew someone who had been murdered—a shocking illustration of the traumatic stress that these children live with, even as they reside in one of the richest cities in the world

“This is more than just a basketball dedication ceremony and this is hardly just any basketball hoop, this hoop represents a small step toward safety and security for the residents of Sunnydale public housing," Hewitt told the crowd, just hours before she would find herself rushing around the projects, trying to determine if families and kids in Sunnydale were safe, in the wake of Roberts' shooting.

“In remembrance of Labor Day, one mother's labor of love will unite a community under siege,” Hewitt said at C.L.A.E.R.'s 5:30 p.m. hoop dedication, recalling how she had seen Carrie Manuel’s four boys playing basketball against the wall of a public housing unit that was home to an old gas line with pipes that were in dire need of repair. Shocked, Hewitt called upon city partners and C.L.A.E.R. donors in an effort to get these boys a real hoop and thus minimize safety concerns.

“Because the little things change a community, “ Hewitt said.

Hewitt recalled how Sup. Bevan Dufty put her in touch with the Department of Recreation and Parks and the San Francisco Parks Trust, when he heard about the basketball hoop situation, and that these departments helped heed her call to action.

Hewitt also tipped her hat to the five D 10 candidates who attended the hoop dedication: Kristine Enea for being the first to respond to this particular crisis, Malia Cohen for her ongoing support of CLAER's Brookdale Center, Tony Kelly for his general support of the community, Chris Jackson for connecting Sunnydale residents, including four named in Herrera’s gang injunction, to the Gateway to College program, and Marlene Tran for her work on public safety.

After the dedication, Hewitt paired each D10 candidate with one of the bright-eyed small boys that were eagerly waiting to play ball, as Manuel looked on.

“She’s a woman under siege,” Hewitt said of Manuel, recalling how this woman and her kids witnessed a homicide outside their window, and how Manuel’s 16-year-old son was murdered before his child—her first grandson—was born. "This family has been besieged by no less than three murders, but they don’t even have space to run up and down," Hewitt observed.

“Look at what we do with nothing,” Hewitt said, pointing to the basketball hoop outside C.L.A.E.R.’s office. “We are not a service provider in a box.”

“Look at this beautiful property,” Hewitt said, pointing to the Bay that sparkled in the distance below and the fingers of  fog that tumbled across the sun-baked hills behind Viz Valley. “But this has not been such a beautiful place. This has been a forgotten district, a forgotten neighborhood, but not in our name.”

“This mother,” Hewitt continued, pointing to Manuel, “must be embraced by all of you. And we must give these boys more options than a cage or a coffin.”

Hewitt was referring to the disproportionately high number of young black males that end up jailed or dead in San Francisco, with many of those arrests and fatalities occurring in and around Sunnydale. But while the City Attorney’s office has responded to this pattern of crime and violence by issuing gang injunctions, Hewitt believes this strategy is a waste of money and resources, given that local non-profits which seek to provide education and restorative justice, have just had their budgets decimated.

Last month, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed an injunction naming 41 alleged members of the Down Below Gangsters and the Towerside Gang, claiming that the two groups were engaged in turf wars that had terrorized the residents of the Sunnydale housing projects for the last three years. And on Thursday, September 30, Herrera will go to court to try to get a judge to support his injunction request.

But Hewitt fears that Herrera's injunction will further stress an already fragile community.

“Gang injunctions are plaguing this neighborhood and their families, but we don’t have gangs, we have families,” Hewitt said, as local residents Larry C. Jones of TURF and the Marsha Kyer Foundation, and Robert Cowan, watched the kids and candidates play ball.

After the basket ball game, Hewitt asked the five D10 candidates what they had learned from the C.L.A.E.R-sponsored event

“I’m struck by how strong the entrepreneurial spirit is,” Marlene Tran said, surveying a greeting card business that Sunnydale youth Tyree Vaughan started, under the auspices of C.L.A.E.R. “For 35 years, I was with kids every day,” Tran continued, referring to her career as a teacher. “And when I was 9 years old in Hong Kong, I helped my mother with work, and at 16, I had my own import/export business. So, we should recognize youth, all the positive things they do."


Kristine Enea also praised the entrepreneurial spirit that was evident on the ground in Sunnydale."Entrepreneurship is a powerful drug," Enea observed. "Every child should know the joy of holding in your hands a product that started as an idea in your head,"


“This neighborhood is getting ready to be demolished,” Hewitt interjected. “What do we have to do with Project Hope?”

Tony Kelly admitted that he had never been to C.L.A.E.R.’s office before.
“But I’ve been involved with Hope SF on Potrero Hill,” Kelly said. “With Hope SF, there’s this weird thing of competition between public housing sites, this, 'Oh, we can only get one project taken care of,' and 'Oh, we can’t get services'  attitude. But this is the largest public housing project in the city. We need complete neighborhoods where we live.”

Chris Jackson complimented C.L.A.E.R. on doing so much with so little.
“When I look at how many millions we spend on community services, but not something as simple as a basketball hoop, which gives a dozen black youth access to exercise, team work and figuring out how to work together, I see that you are doing with $300 what Goodwill and JHS failed to do with millions," Jackson said." You have brought the community together.”

Hewitt, who likes to call herself Mini Mouse and isn't afraid to challenge her biggest supporters, responded by urging the candidates to get more hands on.

“The rhetoric doesn’t bode well for the community,” Hewitt said. “You can’t only come here every six months.”

Malia Cohen, who is on C.L.A.E.R.’s board, expressed her belief that the community needs to do more in terms of giving back.
“This is a partnership, I brought resources here, but people who live here ought to respect the resources, and say, this is our home and we are going to sweep up,” Cohen said, pointing to untended pathways and a couple of wilted potted plants that had died for lack of watering outside C.L.A.E.R.'s office.

“You did this because you are a board member,” Hewitt retorted, giving Cohen, who she supports politically, a predictably hard time.“But where are we collectively in terms of challenging ourselves to respond?”

 “I see great opportunities here, but because of budget cuts, you haven’t had resources,” Cohen continued. "The Department of Children, Youth and Families has been funneling funds to mega-organizations, and not the grassroots.”

“One opportunity is with City College,” Jackson, who counts Hewitt as a mentor, interjected. “And we can give deeper. I believe 20 percent of our participants are from Viz Valley, and we can do a better job of reaching out to the 41 young men listed on gang injunction. It’s something the City Attorney should have talked about before he put in for the gang injunction. A week later, he declares he’s running for mayor, while those of us on the ground are left to clean up.”

“785 units will come back as low-income and there is a zero vacancy rate here, so the one-to-one replacement of the units is not so much the issue as the replacement of the people,” Hewitt told me, as she locked up her office and the rest of the city prepared to enjoy a Labor Day weekend in a world that is not scarred by memories of fblack and brown brothers dying in a hail of bullets in the street.

And as I drove away, towards the bonfire of vanities that is downtown San Francisco, I couldn't shake the twin images of those young black boys raising their hands when asked if they knew someone who has been murdered, and of Hewitt, fearlessly grilling the D10 candidates, even as she tries to hold together this fragile community of color on a prayer and an increasingly frayed shoelace budget.