A land forgotten, a land discovered
Most people in the San Francisco Bay Area have never heard of this part of the city. Some who lived in the city for a while want to disown it and avoid coming here at all costs. For them, Hunters Point is off-limits. It's ghetto. Its projects. It's a toxic no man's land. It simply doesn't fit into that stereotypical image of San Francisco. It's not hippie, it's not hipster, it's not techie, it's not a coastal paradise. Hunters Point history has too many pages that many want to forget. Yet Hunters Point is perhaps more intimate, more personal, more real San Francisco than Mission, Fishermans Wharf, Coit Tour, or Alcatraz. I would like to introduce you to my neighborhood, my San Francisco.
It all began with the native Ramaytush Ohlone people who inhabited Hunters Point and the surrounding areas since 4000 BCE prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. The district consisted of sacred burial grounds, the "shell mounds". The Spanish called local tribes, Costanoans, or "coast dwellers". And that makes perfect sense since Hunters Point is surrounded by the San Francisco Bay from 3 sides, perfect grounds for fishing and especially shellfish harvesting. The Ohlone traversed the Bay in canoes made out of tule reeds harvested from coastal marshes.
Ramaytush Ohlone in a tule boat in the San Francisco Bay, 1816. Louis Choris
Fast-forward to the middle of the 19th century. Following the California Gold Rush in 1849, Bayview Hunters Point developed and very quickly grew into a "butcher reservation". Eighteen slaughterhouses were open in 10 years. These mass-scale production facilities included a myriad of slaughterhouses and related industries such as tanneries, fertilizer plants, wool pulleries, and tallow works. The butcher industry declined following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake until 1971 when the final slaughterhouse closed.
Hunters Point at that time was much smaller than what it is now. North of Hunters Point, Islais Creek formed expansive tidal marshes and mudflats of the Islais Valley. All butcheries along the creek dumped stinky, rotten offal right in the creek, so soon enough, it gained the unofficial nickname as "Shit Creek".
San Francisco Map from 1850 with Hunters Point separated from by Islais Valley from the city
Post the 1905 San Francisco earthquake, debris from the earthquake was brought here and used as landfill to reclaim large parts of Hunters Points from the Bay. Islais Creek become much smaller and Mission Bay, Central Waterfront and Dogpatch neighborhoods were created. One theory is that Dogpatch got its name from the packs of dogs scavenging in Butchertown.
CHINESE SHRIMPING INDUSTRY
From the 1870s to 1939, the site was a commercial dry dock area and a once-flourishing Chinese shrimp fishing community. A community of Chinese shrimp fishermen made it their home along the shores of India Basin, possibly after building the Transcontinental Railroad.
In 1939 when the U.S. Navy took over the land under eminent domain for the Naval Shipyard. The Health Department came in and burned the shacks and docks that once provided a small village of fishermen and their families a steady living in the abundant shrimp harvest from the San Francisco Bay.
With the construction of the first permanent dry dock on the Pacific Coast in 1868, shipbuilding became a vital industry in Bayview. In 1916 the Hunters Point drydocks were thought to be the largest in the world. Maltese and Italian immigrants began populating the area. The United States Navy purchased Hunters Point in 1939 from Bethlehem Steel and took over full operations in 1941.
During the 1940s, many workers and especially African Americans moved into the area to work at this shipyard and other wartime related industries. War Manpower Commission recruited African Americans from the South to work the recently acquired Naval Docks. Many of them moving to the newly constructed war housing in Hunter's Point.
The Shipyard had docks for world's largest warships with massive cranes capable of replacing entire gun turrets on battleships. The largest Hunters Point Gantry crane is still standing 450 ft tall and weighing 8,400 tons, which at the time was the largest gantry crane in the world. The Shipyard also had smaller and narrower docks for building submarines, and even Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs)
Hunters Point Gantry Crane
HIROSHIMA AND BIKINI ATOLL
During World War II, Hunters Point Shipyard’s primary mission was the repair and maintenance of ships and submarines.
However, another function of HPS was the loading of components of the atomic weapon “Little Boy” that was eventually used on Hiroshima. “Little Boy” was loaded on the USS Indianapolis on July 15th, 1945, and is reported to have contained half of the uranium-235 (U-235) available in the United States, valued at the time at $300 million ($4 trillion in 2018). The USS Indianapolis left Hunters Point at 6:30 am on July 16th, 1945, but was not allowed to leave San Francisco’s harbor until 8:30 am, after the first atomic weapon test “Trinity” (5:29 am) had been confirmed successful in the New Mexico desert.
USS Indianapolis under the Golden Gate bridge
"Little Boy" atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945
After World War II and until 1969, the Hunters Point shipyard was the site of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, the US military's largest facility for applied nuclear research. After the 1946 atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific (Operation Crossroads), contaminated target and support ships were brought to Hunters Point and workers sandblasted surfaces to remove radioactive material.
In 1991, the Naval base and its facilities became redundant in the post-Cold War world, and it was decided to close it permanently. Since then, the site has been part of a superfund cleanup effort to remediate the leftovers of decades of industrial and radiological use.
In 2014, a former cleanup worker alleged his bosses at Tetra Tech instructed him to replace potentially contaminated soil samples with clean ones and falsify records. This investigation is ongoing until this day.
A worker at the Shipyard sandblasting a contaminated ship
By the 1960s, Bayview was predominantly African-American and was isolated from San Francisco. Hunters Point was a food desert, and housing in the Hunters Point area, especially the temporary housing erected during World War II to house shipyard workers, was dilapidated. Pollution, substandard housing, limited employment, police violence, and racial discrimination were key issues in the community.
On September 27th, 1966, police shot a 17-year old Matthew "Peanut" Johnson accused of stealing a car. Matthew was shot in the back and killed while running away from the police officer who made a total of 4 shots. Multiple questions were raised about the police officer's testimony, yet he was fully acquitted at the trial and the SFPD issued the following statement:
"The shooting of Matthew Johnson was not the killing of a Negro boy by a white policeman, but the excusable shooting of a suspected criminal by a law enforcement officer who never intended to kill his man. It was no more and no less"
— Staff writer, SFPD Officer's Association, The Notebook, Nov 1966
This incident was watched by over a hundred bystanders and sparked an uprising the same day. Residents took to the streets to protest.
During the uprising, 2,000 National Guardsmen were called in to patrol the streets, and the curfew was instituted. During the 128 hours that followed the killing of Matthew Johnson, 359 were arrested (many for curfew violations), and 51 were injured, including 6 police officers, 2 firefighters, and 1 municipal bus driver. And this was just a year before the world-famous "Summer of Love" in Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.
All of these trademarks of violence are but symptoms of a social tragedy that is occurring not only in San Francisco, but in all major cities across our land. The tragedy is the fact that a substantial group of American citizens here in San Francisco and elsewhere have not yet received all the precious opportunities and rights they deserve according to the sacred guarantees of our democracy. Specifically, members of our community who are Negroes are the victims of an almost unendurable frustration. Some are consumed with almost uncontainable fury because of the fact that they do not have the same economic and social opportunities that are taken for granted by their fellow citizens ... The time has come to do something about the things that caused this agony among us.
In 1969, San Francisco created the India Basin Industrial Park Redevelopment Plan to establish labor-intensive industries in order to provide job opportunities for the residents of the Bayview Hunters Point community. This industrial park consists of a major distribution facility for the U.S. Postal Service, a number of light industrial, commercial service and multimedia businesses. Residential uses were not allowed within this industrial area.
Michael Manwaring sign marking the entrance to India Basin Industrial Park
AMERICA'S LARGEST ARTIST COMMUNITY
Following the lead of sculptor and urban pioneer Jacques Terzian, visual artists, musicians and writers descend en masse on the shipyard. Jacques’ vision saw the possibility of transforming several of the neglected buildings into affordable workspaces, and in 1983, a handful of artists began renovating and renting their studios at the Shipyard. Within months, more than 300 working artists have opened studios and workspaces in the former Navy facilities. They organized to form the San Francisco Shipyard Artists, which grows to become the largest artist colony in the United States. To this day, Hunters Point Shipyard artist collective remains one of the largest art collectives in the United States.
In 2019, several scenes of The Last Black Man in San Francisco were filmed in Hunters Point on Innes Avenue. Named by Rolling Stone magazine and Barak Obama as the best movies of 2019, it pays homage to this historic part of San Francisco. The movie touches upon eviction of African-Americans from the Fillmore district in the center of San Francisco to Hunters Point, a remote, abandoned, environmental unsafe and high-crime corner of the city.
Last Black Man in San Francisco filmed in Hunters Point
And so here we are. In 2021.
In the place that brings back dark memories of our past.
In the place filled with pride.
In the place that relived all major world events of the last 2 centuries.
In the place that keeps us grounded.
In the place that gives us wings.
- Hunters Point Urban Documentary by Devon Kelley
- The Fire Last Time, San Francisco Magazine, by Walter Thompson, 2016
- Hunters Point Shipyard Artists, History
- The Home Front, Fighting for the Right to Fight. African American Experiences in WWII
- Hunters Point Gantry Crane
- India Basin Industrial Park
- Hunters Point Shipyard Contamination, Cleanup and Development
- The Ramaytush Ohlone - Lessons on Stewardship from the ancestral stewards of the Peninsula.
- The Potrero View: Manwaring Letters Erased, But Not Forgotten