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Halikias grew up in New York's Hell's Kitchen with dreams of being a dancer, but her mother forced her to take up dressmaking. Her mother's matchmaking, meanwhile, paired Halikias with a man who slept around while Hope stayed home with her two babies. Desperate and miserable, she escaped when she turned 21, bought a Mexican divorce, and gave the children to their father to raise.
Soon after, she met and married her true love, a Greek musician, 26 years older. They had a son. And then in 1957, 10 years after they married, her husband died.
Hope kept his name -- Halikias -- through six additional marriages and divorces. She moved to San Francisco with her youngest. She helped manage a Greek taverna on Market Street with a friend, the man she currently lives with -- "No more marriages for me," she says -- and for a while the place enjoyed a steady clientele. But then BART came; Market Street was torn up, the business was lost, and all of Halikias' money was lost with it. She moved to the Tenderloin and looked for work as a waitress. No one wanted her. She was too old, they said.
"I was a depressed woman that saw no light at the end of the tunnel," Halikias describes those days. When help came, it was in the form of luck. "I took my son to get his hair cut at a barber's on Turk Street who also cut the hair of some guy in the Housing Authority," she says. "And this barber told the guy about me, and told him I needed a place to live."
It was 1969. Halikias, 45, was given a place in the North Beach project, an island of flesh-toned cement amid Fisherman's Wharf and a spreading rash of tourist traps. She collected welfare while looking for work, and in 1974, found a job supervising a senior citizens program at the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, just a few blocks away from home. She never returned to the dole. "I wasn't the welfare type -- it hurt to be on it," Halikias says.
The job became Halikias' stability, but it could not change the mess that was the project, which in the '70s was a rotting empire on real estate that left developers slavering. The project is divided by the cable car line, visited daily by hordes of tourists who blithely park their cars alongside the buildings, and frequently find on their return that their windows have been smashed, and their valuables snatched. By the early '80s, a developer began lobbying to buy the property and replace the project, an eventuality that Halikias believes is inevitable. But back then, she was president of the North Beach Tenants' Association, and project residents fought the developer, and won.
The association became one of public housing's most active. With the help of community activists and attorneys, tenants filed a successful lawsuit against the Housing Authority for neglecting maintenance work at North Beach. They also won a $500,000 federal grant to finance building improvements and find jobs for teens. They convinced the local merchants' association to provide them with paint, and paid youngsters to spruce up the project.
They won a meeting room and a laundry room -- they hired someone to supervise it, and, unlike the Hunters Point project, successfully arranged to split half the money that was collected from the machines, eventually reaping nearly $4,000, which they used for youth programs. They applied, and won, showers for the units, which until then had only bathtubs.
It was shortly after this that I first interviewed Halikias. She showed me the orchids in her kitchen. She'd tiled, wallpapered, painted, and scrubbed. Almost daily, she hosed down the cement walkway outside her unit, washing away the urine that collected there, and on the stairs.
"Nothing upsets me anymore," she'd said. "This is life. This is the way it's going to be."
The project sometimes appeared to be moving backward even as it moved forward. The arrival of crack cocaine didn't help. "In the last 10 years, the violence there has been worse -- people plugging somebody for no good reason," says a police officer at Central Station, which covers North Beach.
And by 1991, after more than a decade of leading the tenants' group, Halikias had had enough. Her son was safely grown: He was a musician and school bus driver in Cleveland. She'd suffered a mild heart attack. She decided to quit her post as tenant president. John, her partner for more than 20 years now, had turned to her one night. "Hope, we're too old for this," he'd said.
"Hope was so involved," says Ora Anderson, one of Halikias' close friends at North Beach, who herself moved out in 1991. "John had to literally drag her out of there. She had a cause over there -- she was going to straighten that place out. And we both said to her, 'Hope, it's too much.' She would be going out with her flashlight in the middle of the night to fix things. She would be going to all the meetings, and every time an election came up she was ready to run again."