Illustration by Brian Stauffer.
A crowd has gathered around Geary Brown and his letter.
"Look what I got," he says, almost in a whisper.
Heads peer over his shoulder.
They see the Bank of America masthead and the curt, three-sentence paragraph saying that the bank is considering giving him a loan modification. It is the first communication from the bank in three months, since the eviction warning in December.
"Congrats, Geary!" says a woman in a sweatshirt and jeans.
"Bout time they got back to you!" says a man sporting a beat-up 49ers cap.
Brown, a stocky 61-year-old with an amiable demeanor and a buzz cut, nods his head, smiling like a winner at the racetrack. He doesn't say anything more, just looks down at the paper as palms pat his back. Perhaps he doesn't want to gloat. Brown is the fortunate one. Many in this crowd are about to lose their houses and would love to get this letter.
They have congregated on this blue-skied spring Saturday in Bayview to mobilize against the foreclosure crisis that has hit this neighborhood harder than any other in San Francisco. By 3 p.m. there are more than two dozen people standing in front of 1401 Quesada Avenue, Dexter Cato's house. Technically the house belongs to Wells Fargo, because Cato was evicted in February. But two weeks later, Cato returned to the property and "the back door was mysteriously open," he explains with a sly grin. Cato changed the locks again, and hung on his fence and sidings yellow banners that say things like, "An Injury To One Is An Injury To All: Save Our Homes."
Since then, Cato's home has become a rallying point for many other Bayview homeowners facing foreclosure, a manifestation of the residents' will to fight back as eviction notices push them out of their neighborhood. And today he's hosting a barbecue — part block party, part protest against the banking industry.
As the swelling crowd bleeds into the street, passing cars slow down to rubberneck. Many drivers roll down the window to wave, or tap out a light honk-honk in solidarity. Passersby greet familiar faces, detouring for beer and short ribs. Neighbors lounge on plastic chairs by the grill. Two old men have set up a table for chess on the sidewalk. A local band jams on the street corner and several people are dancing.
"This block, man, something about it — we all grew up together, all our kids grew up together, went to the same school," says Cato, a 45-year-old longshoreman. "We looked out for each other."
But now the Bayview residents at this barbecue see their community dissolving. Foreclosures have spread like weeds. On Quesada alone, 11 houses are in foreclosure. Eight more on Palou Avenue, the next block north, and 15 more on Revere Avenue, the next block south. Between 2008 and 2012, according to projections from real estate database RealtyTrac, nearly 1,500 homes in Bayview's zip code will have been foreclosed on — a massive swath for an area with around 10,000 housing units.
To many residents' minds, the foreclosures serve to clear the path for the city's plans to redevelop and gentrify Bayview-Hunters Point, the southeastern neighborhood that both locals and Realtors call the final patch of San Francisco not yet redeveloped.
"Like they did to Fillmore," says James Pace, whose sister used to live across the street from Cato before she was foreclosed on. He leans against the house as he chats with Brown.
"You look at it now, where'd all the people go?" asks Brown.
"Went down to Pittsburg, went down to Antioch," replies Pace.
"It's all about money," deadpans Brown. "They're trying to get us out of here so they can develop."
Most every Bayview old timer remembers the way city leaders and developers in the 1950s and '60s whitewashed the Fillmore, the city's original black epicenter. The locals fear the same thing is happening to Bayview. Old timers have seen the exodus of the neighborhood's black population for decades. In 1980, Bayview was 65 percent black, and nearly two-thirds of that demographic owned a home. By 2010, the neighborhood was 34 percent black, and less than a third of them owned a home. The foreclosure crisis, many residents believe, is enabling the final thrust that pushes black people out of San Francisco.
"It's like they just plotted on us, just preyed on us," says Cato, his voice rising and brow tightening into a scowl. "They been tryna get this hill for the longest. All this new redevelopment — the palm trees, the light rail, Candlestick going down, the condos, the fancy restaurant — we know what they're doing. That ain't for us."
And so the Bayview residents are now trying to hold the line, fighting to keep a house and then a neighborhood. This time, though, it's not city leaders and developers forcing them out. It's the free market.
"I'm mad as hell!"
Rev. Malcolm Byrd stands on the steps of City Hall alongside more than a dozen activists and community leaders of all colors, a group that includes Amos Brown, president of the city's NAACP, and African Orthodox Archbishop Franzo King, the well-known preacher whose Bayview home faces foreclosure.
Byrd scans the crowd of 50 or so people, many of whom are holding signs with messages like No More Evictions & Foreclosures For Profit!, Hold Wall Street Banks Accountable, and Justice for Trayvon.
"You wanna know why I'm mad as hell?"
"Why?!" a handful of folks shout back.
"Because of the idea of the American Dream applying to everybody except black and brown people! You know how I know that? Because we are the ones losing our houses at disproportionate numbers!"
Over the last 40 years, the black population in San Francisco dropped from over 13 percent to 6 percent, the biggest percentage decline in any major American city. Around a quarter of the city's remaining black population lives in Bayview, which has the highest foreclosure rate in San Francisco.