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Willie Ratcliff can rev up from mild-mannered to full-blown outrage in two minutes flat. Or less.
At the May 9th Board of Supervisors meeting, he took to the podium looking owlish with his shiny brown head and oversized bifocals. "I guess I should say who I am," he said, almost bashfully. "I'm Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. I'm a general contractor and a developer."
Ratcliff hardly needed the introduction. Every city politician since Frank Jordan was mayor has known Ratcliff, the man always ready to join the fight for a noble cause and often ready to start the fight, if no one else will. For the past several months, Ratcliff has been trying to beat back the redevelopment plan for Bayview-Hunters Point, calling it a conspiracy by rich developers and their political allies to destroy the last black neighborhood in the city.
At the May meeting, he had two minutes at the podium to make his public comment on the plan, just like everybody else. He talked about his own plans to develop properties on Third Street, the Bayview's gritty main boulevard. If the Redevelopment Agency was really serious about helping the neighborhood's present inhabitants, they'd simply give money to people like him a black businessman and property owner instead of letting private developers march in, he said, his voice rising. The only local people who supported the plan were those who had been bought off, he claimed, and he lapsed into a brief impersonation of a bought-off resident praising the plan.
"Bull!" he then shouted.
He reached his oratorical climax as the two-minute bell bonged softly. "Everybody can see what you're doing, and we're going to fight you," he said fiercely. "This ain't over. Anybody who votes for this plan, I hope you don't have any plan for running for anything else! Cause we're gonna be on you ... like white on rice!" He turned his back to the supervisors as the small group of anti-redevelopment activists broke into applause.
He didn't sway any votes at the next meeting a week later, the supervisors passed the massive redevelopment plan for 1,300 acres of Bayview and Hunters Point, as expected. And most of them probably didn't take his threats very seriously Ratcliff is known for fighting many battles, but winning few.
But he spoke the truth the struggle for the soul of the neighborhood wasn't over. A few weeks later, Ratcliff and his allies launched a campaign to put the redevelopment plan before the city's voters in a special election. They printed up campaign posters and fliers, and went to work collecting signatures to force a referendum. With almost two months to go in their drive, they say they're up to 10,000 signatures, one-third of the way there.
The redevelopment must be stopped, says Ratcliff, because it's a recipe for gentrification, not to mention "pure criminal thievery." He believes the community benefits promised by the Redevelopment Agency are a pack of lies, and he isn't shy about saying so. The Agency is working for profit-hungry developers, he claims, and will seize properties owned by black residents using eminent domain, if necessary to let developers build their market-rate (meaning expensive) condos.
Ratcliff thinks the Bayview is caught up in a nationwide plot to take inner-city land away from blacks, from Harlem to Hollywood. Needless to say, the Redevelopment Agency takes some umbrage at this characterization.
Ratcliff's referendum campaign is a last-gasp effort if ever there were one. The redevelopment plan has already been passed, and the Agency is hard at work drawing up documents and defining their first steps. What's more, Ratcliff is not well positioned for this fight his newspaper and dependable megaphone for 14 years, the San Francisco Bay View, is facing its worst financial crisis ever, and is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
But of all the wild-eyed fights Ratcliff has taken on in his career as a newspaperman and professional gadfly, this last crusade may be the one with the best chance of success. It does not seem impossible that Ratcliff's crew will gather the necessary signatures indeed, it doesn't even seem far-fetched. If that's the case, then politicians and the powers that be will finally have to reckon with this man who has shouted from the periphery for so long, who has waged his lonely campaigns in his newspaper year after year. A referendum would have serious consequences for the Bayview neighborhood he holds so close to his heart. If his dreams come true, the $188 million plan will go before San Francisco's voters and be rejected. But Ratcliff won't have "saved" San Francisco's last black neighborhood. Developers will still come knocking, demographics will continue to shift, and Ratcliff may find that even if he wins the battle, he has lost the war.
Ratcliff's apartment is above a row of small stores on a stretch of Third Street that the redevelopment maps optimistically call "town center." In that grand plan, Third Street will eventually host tidy businesses sparkling with fresh paint and civic virtue, and folks will sit out on the sun-drenched sidewalks at coffee shops and cafes.