MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. San Francisco is trying to make up for something it did decades ago. Starting in the 1950's, the city bulldozed thousands of homes in mostly minority neighborhoods as part of an effort to redevelop the inner city. Back then, residents were promised they would get new, affordable housing. But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, many are still waiting.
RICHARD GONZALES: The Reverend Arnold Townsend sits at a coffee shop at the corner of Fillmore and O'Farrell in a neighborhood known as San Francisco's Western Addition. Starbuck's and other chains dominate the corner. Townsend says when he closes his eyes, he can still see the days when this was San Francisco's most vibrant African-American neighborhood.
ARNOLD TOWNSEND: We had more servicemen. There was TV repair shop. There was the record store. There was the restaurant. It was just a diner, (unintelligible). There were mechanic shops. We owned every kind of business imaginable.
GONZALES: But it all changed in the mid-1950s, when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency declared this neighborhood blighted. In the name of urban renewal, the bulldozers moved in.
TOWNSEND: It was destroyed in every way. What you destroyed was a way of life.
GONZALES: And the same thing happened in the adjacent Japantown. Steve Nakajo directs the Kimochi Senior Center.
STEVE NAKAJO: Redevelopment, without any doubt in my mind, was part of the total destruction of the Japanese-American community.
GONZALES: Taken together, almost 900 businesses were shuttered. More than 4,700 households were uprooted, and roughly 2,500 Victorian homes were destroyed. The displaced residents of the Western Addition and Japantown were given certificates, promising them first crack at new housing. But for many, it was an empty promise, says the agency's current executive director, Fred Blackwell.
FRED BLACKWELL: What happened in the Western Addition is that we did all the bulldozing and thought that that would spur investment. And, in fact, for probably about a decade and a half, the land just lay fallow, because there wasn't the kind of investment that folks anticipated would come.
GONZALES: Eventually, the neighborhoods were rebuilt, but only a fraction of the displaced residents ever returned. But now, San Francisco Supervisor Russ Mirkarimi hopes to help remedy that. He proposes that people who were forced out of the Western Addition and Japantown get first priority in the city's new lottery for affordable housing.
RUSS MIRKARIMI: It's really no sweat off San Francisco's general fund. It's no sweat, really, off our housing policies. But it requires the Redevelopment Agency to make good on a promise they never delivered, and that is to a population that is disaffected and disenfranchised, who's been waiting for a very long time for some redemption.
GONZALES: Redevelopment director Fred Blackwell says perhaps as many as 96,000 people could be eligible for the housing certificates, but he believes far fewer will respond.
BLACKWELL: Some people have passed away. Other people are no longer interested in living in the city and they've moved on. And still more people are not income eligible.
GONZALES: The proposal comes as San Francisco's black population is dropping faster than any other major city's. A city report attributes the decline to substandard schools and a lack of affordable housing and jobs. Back in the Western Addition, Reverend Arnold Townsend says the legacy of redevelopment shares part of the blame, too.
TOWNSEND: If it took an agency and a whole lot of money to get rid of us, it's going to take an agency and a whole lot of money to get us back. And the will is not here.
GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
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