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A flock of aides in suits and sunglasses follows Mayor Gavin Newsom, who strides up Griffith Street toward the wood-chipped landscape outside the Alice Griffith Opportunity Center, part of the Bayview housing project of the same name.
Across the street, Carmen Mack spies him from her front stoop. "That Gavin?" the young mother asks, then waves and calls out like a schoolgirl: "Heeeeeeyy Gaaaaaaavin!"
Newsom drops his chin to his chest and raises a pair of fingers high in the air, like a sports star basking in the glory of fandom. Without pausing to speak to Mack, he continues toward the building to greet this morning's guest, California's first lady, Maria Shriver. Behind the mayor, just above the tree line, Candlestick Park looms on the horizon.
A few doors down from Mack, about a dozen Alice Griffith residents show little interest in the hullabaloo at the Opportunity Center. Many fit the profile of those Newsom says he most wants to help: high-school dropout, unemployed, father, ex-convict, and African-American. On most weekday mornings, without uniformed officers 20 yards away, these men might be drinking liquor, playing craps and dominoes, and smoking blunts in the same spot. Today, May 15, they're just hanging out.
Newsom signs an autograph for a young boy, and then engages with Shriver in the bland small talk politicians conduct when cameras are flashing and tape recorders are shoved in their faces. They enter the building with Dwayne Jones, director of Communities of Opportunity (COO), the mayor's five-year plan to improve the lives of southeast San Francisco's low-income residents. After a yearlong pilot project at Alice Griffith, COO will soon confirm two years of public and private funding, expanding the program throughout Bayview-Hunters Point. As Jones describes the initiative, the mayor puts his hands in his pockets, beaming in front of a sign that reads "Newsom Hall."
The Opportunity Center is a "green" building, constructed by local eco-friendly companies as a demonstration project, then bought by the city at a fraction of its market value and shipped to Alice Griffith (also known as "Double Rock") by barge last summer. Among the 33 buildings in the development, the modern, well-maintained center sticks out like a bionic thumb. Alice Griffith just failed its annual inspection by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that funds public housing. Inspectors saw broken windows, holes in walls, exposed wiring, blocked fire exits, cockroaches, and graffiti throughout the property. They estimated "life-threatening" deficiencies in about one of every four units 73 in all. (The embarrassing reports, the San Francisco Housing Authority says, are due to unreasonably harsh recent inspections.)
Upstairs in the Opportunity Center, Newsom steps before the cameras to announce that Alice Griffith is the country's first public housing development with free wireless Internet access. He opens his speech by recounting the early successes of the pilot project. The mayor boasts that 80 percent of the recent refurbishing, repaving, and landscaping was done by residents.
"Coming back now, a number of months later ... it looks the same," Newsom says, contrasting Alice Griffith with housing developments at which outsiders, not residents, performed the work. "[At the other developments], it's back to the way it was brand-new playground equipment looks old and dilapidated because no one has a sense of ownership. But I think that the process here gave people a sense of ownership and a sense of meaning."
Newsom is either fudging or ill-informed. Since last year's resident-led cleanup projects ended, the weeds have grown high, the building walls have gotten tagged with graffiti, and the streets and sidewalks have become strewn with garbage and beat-up cars. But in the days leading up to Shriver's visit, residents watched laborers from the S.F. Housing Authority arrive in droves to make Alice Griffith presentable. To complete the Potemkin village effect, city workers placed several computers inside the Opportunity Center, only to pick them up within days.
"As soon as somebody of importance, like the mayor, wants to come down, they paint the walls, get the trash up, beautify the community," says Bradley Bradley (his real name), a longtime Alice Griffith resident. "[W]hy don't you do this while weare here?"
To residents like Bradley and Mack, COO seems like the latest in decades of all-talk-no-follow-through plans to overhaul the city's southeastern neighborhoods longtime victims of blight, unemployment, illiteracy, and crime. In the parking lot after the press conference, a handful of Alice Griffith occupants berate Jones for 30 years of failed social programs he had nothing to do with.
Jones says this plan, the largest public-private partnership in San Francisco history, is different. Its goal is systemwide change: Instead of heading up just one department, he supervises programs across several agencies, including the Mayor's Office of Community Development (MOCD) and the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. Over the next five years, Jones will direct up to $200 million in city funds and private grants in an effort to provide job training and create small businesses, teach children to read and adults to be better parents, curb violence, and make residents feel safe inside their homes.
Since Newsom first announced the program almost two years ago, Jones has converted many doubters into supporters, both in City Hall and at Alice Griffith. Given the results of the pilot project, though, the residents' skepticism may still be warranted.