Housing Venture Splits San Francisco Community

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A new housing development in a decrepit part of San Francisco splits members of the city's African-American community. Black Christian ministers say the new homes will revitalize a crime-plagued area. But local leaders with the Nation of Islam say the construction is creating a health hazard.


A massive new housing development in a decrepit part of San Francisco has split members of the city's African-American community. Black Christian ministers say the new homes will revitalize an area long plagued by crime. But local leaders with the Nation of Islam say the construction is creating a health hazard, and they claim the preachers who support it have been bought by the builder.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: Out on the southeast edge of San Francisco, Muslim Minister Christopher Muhammad walks across a vacant schoolyard that sits next to the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. It's a Superfund cleanup site and one of the most polluted places in California. Now a portion of that area is being cleaned up and redeveloped for condominiums. Muhammad says too many people are focusing on the jobs in that construction and not enough on the plumes of potentially toxic dust that settle on his yard and the neighborhood.

Reverend CHRISTOPHER MUHAMMAD (Nation of Islam, San Francisco): The stuff on that jungle gym, literally on the swings and slides, it's very thick. And the children are doing what children do. So what happens is we now have a health crisis with our children because we don't know what exposure level they've experienced.

GONZALES: Muhammad says since construction began, his students and nearby residents have suffered from chronic headaches, bronchitis, rashes and other illnesses. Muhammad and other community activists took their complaints to the Board of Supervisors, demanding that the construction site be temporarily shut down so that nearby residents could be tested for exposure to asbestos.

Ms. JUANA TEO(ph): My name Juana Teo. I live on the 1700 block of Newcomb Avenue. I come here with a clear message for you all. The Bay View Hunters Point community is suffering. People are sick: nose bleeds, asthma, you name it. If the shipyard construction and redevelopment is safe, then what is the hesitation in proving it?

(Soundbite of applause)

GONZALES: But that's not necessary, says the city's Public Health Director Mitch Katz.

Dr. MITCH KATZ (Public Health Director, San Francisco): Our overall professional judgment based on all of the information is that there is no health risk posed by the development of parcel A.

GONZALES: And that's welcome news to a competing group of residents in the Bay View Hunters Point, who say the condo project and the jobs it provides are critical to the neighborhood's economic development.

Janice Brenner(ph) is a mother who's raised four children in the neighborhood.

Ms. JANICE BRENNER: We all can agree that there is health issue in the Bay View Hunters Point, but that didn't just start yesterday. So why are we, all of a sudden, trying to do something about it now that's going to stop the effect of jobs and homes being created for the people that's there? And to be honest with you, I'm more concerned about one of my kids walking through Hunters Point getting shot than I am concerned about them getting sick or getting asthma or cancer.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONZALES: Leading the charge to keep the building project open is the head of the local NAACP, Reverend Amos Brown. Like other black Christian ministers, Brown says jobs are key to keeping his flock in San Francisco. He also says when Health Department investigators went to the neighborhood to verify health complaints, they were intimidated.

Reverend AMOS BROWN (Representative, National Board of the NAACP): And I'm sad to say that you have members, some members of the Nation of Islam, who were following behind those health officials and telling the neighbors, don't you talk to them because you can't trust them. And this thing of sowing mistrust, it is wrong.

GONZALES: Nation of Islam Minister Christopher Muhammad denies that charge and he insists that some black community leaders have been compromised by the Lennar Corporation, the company building condominiums in the old shipyard.

Mr. MUHAMMAD: And now you have leaders in the community who have been purchased by Lennar. Lennar has an MO. They finance leaders and all of this is done to buy silence.

GONZALES: As for the Lennar Corporation, a spokesman insists that the company complies with all government air quality regulations. And the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to allow Lennar to keep operating. Still, this dispute raises questions about who really speaks for San Francisco's rapidly diminishing black population and whether any kind of development will help staunch black flight from the city.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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