Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco, 1974

Chester Hartman’s Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco served as one of the first works focusing on the actions of urban residents against the overwhelming tide of urban renewal that swept across American cities in the second half of the twentieth century. In relation to events in other metropolises, San Francisco’s begins in a very similar manner. Business interests, planners, and municipal government designate South of Market as an area in need of slum clearance. They establish agencies (San Francisco Redevelopment Agency) within the municipality while also incorporating civic organizations (San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association) into development plans. Under San Francisco’s Robert Moses-like Justin Herman, the SFRA exerted a large amount of authority in determining and carrying out urban redevelopment. The SFRA, SFPUA, and other civic associations rename the area South of Market to Yerba Buena (an ironic name considering its Mexican roots and the idea that whites pushed out Mexican over one century ago; moreover this seems to have been a harbinger of the future as gentrification in the 1990s emerged new names applied to old neighborhoods became a frequent tactic to draw more investors/residents, most notably whites … the most relevant examples in recent memory might be Bushwick’s transformation into East Williamsburg, Golden Hill (SD) into South Park, or Chicago’s “new” West Bucktown community), then through media and ephemera, create the perception that those individuals residing in the area were little more than “skid row transients” or worse. The city's main newspapers join in to promote development, though fail to reveal that their own properties benefit from such actions. Resisters or opponents of the YBC are labeled difficult or unreasonable, holding back the entire city for their own selfish interests, “What YBC supporters and planners meant by “blight” was not the physical characteristics or condition of the hotels. It was a social and political description, ‘the poor are a blight on everyone else.’” (121).

In many ways, Yerba Buena’s narrative reveals the similarity between urban areas of the time. As Joel Schwartz pointed out in The New York Approach, most academics, local unions, institutions, and politicians viewed urban renewal as absolutely necessary. Industry was a blight, something urban areas needed to excise. Much of that appears in Hartman’s text. As well, the practice of devolving most authority and control from the federal government to local municipalities also appears, as SFRA repeatedly mislead HUD who only belatedly took a firm and abiding interest in YBC and only after public embarrassment arose over its general inequality. Additionally, if more recent scholarship such as Barbara Ferman’s Challenging the Growth Machine claims that resistance to or cooperation with urban renewal is often determined by local political structures and cultures, San Francisco’s illustrates Ferman’s point. Unlike the Alinsky radicalism of the Industrial Areas Foundation/The Woodlawn Organization or the civic cooperation of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods with ACCD, San Francisco’s resistance formed TOOR which challenged the YBC plan in court. Of course, San Francisco’s proximity to the Univeristy of California Berkley and its environs greatly impacted this tactic as the low income protesters of South of Market engendered support from liberal lawyers and their local non profit organizations. However, while this tactic proved fruitful, it did not lack its own drawbacks, “Dependence on the attorneys meant deference to outsiders who likely would be acting out of a different set of priorities from those of residents.” (140)

The use of public housing also illustrated similar tropes to urban renewal projects in other cities. SFRA promised residents of South of Market public housing, giving “superpriority” over individuals who had been waiting for extended periods for access. This attempt to place poor communities at odds with one another was resisted as most YBC residents viewed such promises skeptically while also noting that their informal support networks and the like were all located in the South of Market area. Moreover, Hartman points out that disruptions to such networks might actually cost cities even more, “In fact, relocation may actually increase these public costs, as the disruption of social networks, particularly among the elderly, can lead to a need for greater medical and psychological treatment, social services, and welfare support.” (182) Repeatedly, SFRA promises failed to be carried out. Such promises were little more than attempts at accelerating development. SFRA often overwhelmed HUD officials with surveys, reports, and paperwork, much of it of dubious distinction as they selectively provided information that favored their cause. The process by which the YBC project advanced avoided city wide participation, “the redevelopment agency and the City sought to avoid having to secure direct public approval of the project by opting for a financing mechanism that allegedly allows circumventing the voters.” (183) Like Clarence Stone’s actors in Regime Politics, no unified city opposition existed. Rather, the YBC community organized itself through the courts to resist. Another facet of urban renewal uncovered by Hartman involves planning and negotiations themselves, “what is finally constructed on removal sites tends to be more the product of subsequent negotiations between developers and agency officials, rather than procedure strictly according to the formally approved plan.” (86)

Hartman’s own suggestions for future resistance center around the ability to construct citywide unity. This is a message reinforced by more recent works by anthropologists Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek, who illustrate the need for communities to couch their resistance in language that incorporates the costs for the entire populace. Hartman notes the zero sum aspect of organizing in that he cautions non-profits and the like to stop fighting over diminishing resources. Media outlets are to be viewed warily as they, at least in the YBC example, lack a sense of democratic underpinnings failing to act as a watchdog for the wider community. Finally, Hartman calls for legal controls over urban renewal policy.

(Note: one interesting aspect of this case study has to do with class … i.e. Hartman suggests that the lower income nature of the resisters in TOOR along with their professional Berkeley lawyers meant the usual tactic of cooption didn’ t work in the SF case … though one wonders if similar developments in Chicago meant that coopting working class people was easier through machine politics etc.)

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