Sam Jordan’s called it quits in November.
San Francisco’s oldest black-owned bar, named for the boxing champion who later ran for mayor, had survived for more than six decades in the Bayview. It was a favorite watering hole for blue-collar workers coming off their shifts.
Now it’s just one more shuttered business on Third Street, the historic African American neighborhood’s commercial core. Vacant shops and restaurants dot the city, but they are particularly severe along Third, where nearly 1 in 5 storefronts sits empty.
Each closure in this changing community — a Honduran restaurant, a dry cleaner, a barbershop — has chipped away at the diverse culture San Franciscans so often say they appreciate, but don’t always spend money to support.
“I felt like I had taken the bar as far as I could,” Ruth Jordan, Sam’s daughter, told The Chronicle in May. It had become, she said, “an uphill battle for me.” The crowd of regulars had dwindled. In September, the Jordan family lost the building to foreclosure with nearly $1.2 million in unpaid debt, property records show.
Prosperity is literally in sight in the Bayview: The shopping area is a short ride on the relatively youthful T-Third Street light rail line from the new Chase Center, with the booming downtown skyline in view. But decades of neglect still weigh on the neighborhood. A long-awaited plan to redevelop the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, the area’s economic engine during World War II, has stalled after soil tests for radioactivity were falsified. A plan for a mall on the site of nearby Candlestick Park was also scrapped.
$55,750: Median household income
31: Vacant retail storefronts
-15%: Change in sales tax receipts, 2017 to 2018
Since the turn of the millennium, the neighborhood has seen new arrivals, from the Flora Grubb Gardens nursery to an outpost of bakery Craftsman and Wolves, joining older establishments, many black-owned. But the newcomers haven’t filled all the empty spaces, and some business owners say they are struggling.
“For a long time, the Bayview has fought being an afterthought in terms of investment and resources,” said April Spears, who owns Auntie April’s, a soul food restaurant, and another dining spot called Cafe Envy. “But a lot of the business owners here are residents as well, and we’ve always had a vested interest to serve the neighborhood.”
Third Street faces many of the same struggles as other San Francisco shopping areas. Sales at brick-and-mortar stores are stagnating with the rise of online shopping, with ever-swifter deliveries giving people less reason to go out and buy. Businesses’ expenses are rising. For new businesses, city permits and lengthy renovations mean that opening can take many months, sometimes years.
Third Street has the third-highest vacancy rate among the city’s 24 commercial neighborhoods, behind Broad Street in Ocean View and Leland Avenue in Visitacion Valley. Of its 171 storefronts, 31 are empty, according to the latest city data and a Chronicle survey. The numbers have changed little since 2013. Sales tax collections — an indicator of retail health — dove almost 15% to $442,000 in 2018, compared with the year before.
In examining a rise in retail vacancies in North Beach over the past year, The Chronicle found a multitude of reasons stores fail and landlords struggle to find businesses to replace them, from seismic retrofits and fires to bureaucratic obstacles. A follow-up report on West Portal, where vacancies are much lower, found that a wealthy pool of nearby shoppers and a compact shopping district well served by transit have buoyed the neighborhood.
Third Street, which was the main route from the Peninsula to downtown San Francisco before the construction of the Bayshore Freeway, is very different from West Portal and North Beach, whose avenues embrace pedestrian crowds.
“It was built for cars and not for people,” said Earl Shaddix, executive director of Economic Development on Third Street, a nonprofit that works to bring in grants and other funding for retailers in the neighborhood. “We basically have a highway running down the middle of our corridor.”
At one time, the road brought customers to the businesses that had opened to serve the growing neighborhood. But, as the shipyard closed and elevated freeways sprang up elsewhere, those shoppers disappeared.
“A lot of the economic conditions and social conditions today are the products of what happened after World War II,” said Renee Roy Elias, who has researched food access in the Bayview and is the executive director of the Center for Community Innovation at UC Berkeley.
The rise of the Bayview’s economy was tied to the shipbuilding industry, which began in the 1860s and flourished with the two world wars of the 20th century. Other sectors such as meatpacking also thrived. In 1940, the U.S. Navy bought the Hunters Point Drydocks, and many African American workers came to the Bayview to work there.
After the war ended, those workers and their families, faced with discrimination in housing and lending, were left wondering what would come next.
Violent riots broke out in 1966 after a police officer shot and killed a teenager who was fleeing a crime scene. The naval shipyard closed in 1974, eliminating thousands of jobs, and manufacturing and meatpacking operations shrank or closed. The neighborhood slid into systemic decline.
“In a lot of ways, things are not that different today,” Elias said.
The African American population, which grew along with the shipyards, has plunged, with the number of black people dropping from 16,000 in 2000 to around 10,500 in 2016. The neighborhood is now 36% Asian, the largest group, and 28% African American, down sharply from 48% of residents in 2000. A similar proportion of businesses — 27% — is owned by African Americans. City data show 1 in 5 Bayview residents lives in poverty.
Asian grocer Duc Loi expanded from the Mission District into Bayview in 2016 after receiving a $250,000 grant from the city. The market shut down in March. Owner Howard Ngo told Hoodline that running the location in addition to his original shop in the Mission, which remains open, was challenging; he cited theft as an issue. The business didn’t respond to a request for comment.
With the closure of that market, Bayview — which had a Fresh & Easy until 2013 — once again lacks a full-service grocery store, an astonishing void for a district with tens of thousands of people. Parts of the neighborhood are classified as food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Anietie Ekanem, a Bayview resident and marketing consultant, is working with a group to open a food co-op in the area.
An upside to doing business in Bayview is cheaper rent. Listings on commercial real estate website LoopNet show annual rents of around $18 to $25 a square foot, half the rate landlords are seeking in neighborhoods closer to downtown.
But with those lower rents come older buildings that haven’t been kept up. Shaddix said many of the vacant storefronts are in such buildings, posing an obstacle to opening businesses there.
“The cost of bringing a building up to code ... is so astronomical,” he said. “In some cases, we’ve assessed it to be more than $1 million because they’re in such bad shape.”
LaWanda Dickerson has benefited from some of the grants Shaddix has sought for the neighborhood. Her fitness and nutrition center, U3Fit, at 4646 Third St., has received $259,000 for structural work. After renovations that took almost two years, her business finally opened in October.
“Having a variety of retail and service businesses, like a fitness center, is the way of the future,” Dickerson said. “We want to adapt but need help to get there.”
Across the street from her is a liquor store and not much else. She said she sometimes sees drug dealing on the streets.
The area has distinctive restaurants like Radio Africa Kitchen, Yvonne’s Southern Sweets and Frisco Fried, and bars like the Jazz Room, which is also known for live music.
But the perception of crime is a deterrent for people who might come from other neighborhoods, merchants said.
“In my experience, people are not comfortable coming to the Bayview at night,” said Barbara Gratta, owner of Gratta Wines. “I’m an evening business and the narrative about the crime here, which does exist but is often blown out of proportion, has a direct impact on me.”
Spears of Auntie April’s said the Bayview stereotype has hurt her restaurants.
“I get Zagat reviews that sing praises of my food, but almost always it’s accompanied with ‘But the restaurant is in a sketchy neighborhood,’” she said. “The crime here isn’t that much worse than what’s happening in the Tenderloin, the Mission or most other parts of San Francisco these days.” But long-held perceptions about crime and Bayview are hard to dismantle, she said.
Between January and October, the Bayview police district, which has more than 62,000 people and includes Dogpatch and Portola as well as the Bayview, recorded 615 violent crimes and 2,806 property crimes, both 3% lower than the previous year. It ranked fourth among the city’s 10 police districts in incidents of violent crime. The Tenderloin district, which has about a third of the Bayview’s population, had more, as did the Mission, whose population is larger. Bayview had 10 homicides, the most of any district.
The 12-year-old T-Third line was supposed to turn things around, as streetcar lines have in other cities. But the $667 million light rail project, which extends to Visitacion Valley, has not proved a panacea.
“First of all, it’s really erratic, and people are discouraged by it,” said Kristin Houk, owner of All Good Pizza and Mexican restaurant Tato. “Most of the people in the T line are commuters. No one really gets off from there to shop.”
Since street parking is limited on Third Street and few parking garages exist, customers often have to park on the side streets, Houk said. To attract people from other parts of the city, especially in the age of online shopping, “the neighborhood needs a little something extra,” she said.
That’s what Tyra Fennell says she’s trying to bring. Imprint City, a nonprofit she runs, commissions murals for the Bayview and organizes events. More vibrancy in the area, she hopes, will translate into more sales for local businesses. The events have brought some 50 performing and visual artists this year, most recently rapper Busta Rhymes, to the Bayview.
The neighborhood was recently named as San Francisco’s African American Arts and Cultural District, and Rhymes headlined an event to celebrate. The designation promises some city funding and may help draw more visitors from outside the neighborhood. But to thrive, businesses also must serve a changing constituency of residents, many of whom remain mired in poverty.
Trying to find that harmony, between the neighborhood’s heritage and its future, between old and new, is a challenge that the Bayview must surmount, on top of all the other obstacles shops face.
“In that context, trying to cater to all customers of retail in the Bayview is not an easy thing to do,” Spears said.