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A version of this article was originally published in the Potrero View

As attention focused last month on the violence along the T-Third Street Muni, students from nearby Potrero Hill were also marching, but their three-year-old effort focused on bringing attention to the public housing projects that sit on the south side of an increasingly affluent neighborhood.

Students, community leaders and residents of the Terrace-Annex projects built in 1941 say the housing development is ignored and shut off from the neighborhood.  Surrounded by affluence, its a barracks-like complex where basic needs often go unmet.   One-third of its 1,200 residents are severely disabled, about half are children, and less than six percent have full time employment.

While homicide and crime rates are down so far this year, many Terrace-Annex residents believe that crime will persist until the public housing projects become incorporated into the fabric of the community.  Some are making efforts to do that and in 2013, Rebuild Potrero, a phased tear-down and rebuilding of the 606 public housing units, will begin. The new housing will triple the number of units and offer affordable rental units and for-sale market-rate homes. The  redesign will also offer a clearer grid compared to the snarl of streets that make getting around on foot complicated for anyone who finds it difficult to walk.

While many look forward to that day, it won’t happen for at least three years and in the meantime, they said, there is a sharp sense of isolation that makes the easiest of tasks complicated or impossible.

“No pizza place will deliver up here,” said one woman who didn’t want to be named as she waited for the 10 Townsend bus.  “If you’re sick and can’t go buy food, your kids will go hungry.”

Joe Tasby, director of the Potrero Hill Family Resource Center in the complex, said that of all the low-income neighborhoods he’s worked in as a service provider – including Bayview, the Mission, and Western Addition – Potrero is by the far the most isolated, both by geography and the number of support services.

“It’s a fishbowl –a lot of people don’t even know where the beach is,” Tasby said referring to the isolation in the community that sits less than a mile from the bay.

Since a crucial bus line that served public housing’s residents – the 53 – was cut last year, some Terrace-Annex residents find it hard to get to the resource center in their own complex or to St. Gregory’s food pantry on De Haro Street.

The 53 used to run along the perimeter of the hilly Terrace-Annex, stop at the resource center, make a loop around the housing development, and end at 15th and Mission.  It made it easy for residents to get to Safeway to shop.

The 10 Townsend  still runs, but to get to it, residents have to cross a hilly divide, an impossible feat for the many who are disabled or old. “They’ve cut us off from the outside world,” said Sarah, a Terrace-Annex resident, recalling how an elderly man flipped over in his wheelchair on his way down a hill he once avoided when the 53 was running.

Laticia Erving, a parent liaison at Starr King Elementary School across the street from the Terrace-Annex, said parents stopped attending a black parenting class she taught at the resource center after the bus service ended. She now offers it at Starr King, which has made it easier for some.

The differences between the projects and the rest of the neighborhood are striking. While Potrero Hill has steadily gentrified, demand at the resource center’s food pantry remains high, with roughly 2,000 emergency food requests a year.

“Your stomach’s growling and you go around the corner and people are throwing food away,” said Tasby.

Larry Ellis, a 30-year Terrace resident, believes that some of the car thefts and robberies that occur around the Terrace-Annex are crimes of need and says that crime nowadays is the lingering effects of the crack epidemic in the 1980s.

“It tore people down, especially the women,” he said. “Kids were raising themselves.”

They still are, said a woman in her twenties who asked that her name be withheld.

“It’s the younger generation, ages 12 and up, who are getting into trouble,” she said. “They don’t have any guidance or support.”

One Terrace resident works as a home care provider outside of the neighborhood and minds her own business when she comes home. Even though there’s grass, sunshine, and a breathtaking view of the bay, she doesn’t allow her three children to stray from her sight.

Bayview District Captain Greg Suhr said residents regularly report crimes but are cautious as a result of what he terms “the domino effect.”

“People who have lived there for generations don’t want to have everyone else’s kids getting arrested,” he said. It’s a question of living in fear or waiting for things to quiet down, he said.

But some residents say the police need to be more proactive about preventing crime among youth. “The police need to come out and talk to young black boys,” a woman said at the weekly grandmother’s meeting held at the resource center. “They shouldn’t harass them and walk around with their guns out and bother people who aren’t doing a damn thing.”

The Other Side of the Hill

Most Potrero Hill residents who don’t live in the projects have never set foot in the Terrace-Annex – many because they are afraid. That perception remains despite a drop in crime.  Homicides on the hill that were at 2 in 2007 jumped to 5 in 2008, then dropped to one in 2009. Five of the eight homicides in those three years happened within the Terrace-Annex. So far this year, there have been no homicides on the hill.

“There’s a lot of poverty on the other side of the hill,” said Lauren, a six-month 19th Street Potrero resident whose housemates have been mugged or had their car broken into multiple times. “Neighbors assume crime is coming from the public housing.”

One long-time Hill resident, Sophia Antipas, who lives across the street from Terrace-Annex, was mugged six years ago, and has found her car windows smashed six times.  She said she doesn’t want to blame public housing, but that’s her “best guess” as to where the crime on the Hill comes from.

Herb Dillard, the director of the Oscaryne Williams Center, said crime is largely contained inside Terrace-Annex, and doesn’t spill into the surrounding neighborhood.  And Suhr believes that Terrace-Annex residents aren’t chiefly responsible for the crimes committed in adjacent streets.  “If it happens outside of public housing, it’s usually not done by people from here,” Suhr said.

A quarter of the crimes committed in the Bayview District occur within public housing complexes, with another ten percent taking place near public housing, said Captain Suhr.  Terrace-Annex residents haven’t been implicated in any commercial robberies occurring in Potrero Hill this year.

“Even if it’s the most dangerous projects, they never come here,” said Olivier Setian, the owner of Chez Maman. “You don’t do that in your own neighborhood.”

When he was robbed at the restaurant at gunpoint in February, Setian said he never suspected anyone from the Terrace-Annex.   Suhr, the police captain, said the perpetrators were from outside the neighborhood, and later were arrested after they robbed another store at gunpoint in the Sunset District.

Bridging the Divide

The plans to redevelop the Terrace-Annex that began in 2008 have spurred some efforts to bridge the divide between those who live in public housing and those who don’t.

David Glober, a 15-year Potrero Hill resident a board member of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association, visited the Terrace-Annex for the first time a few months ago.  Through his participation in Rebuild Potrero, Glober has become friends with public housing residents.  He says the process has helped him overcome some of the fear he developed after being robbed near the Annex six years ago.

“People think the crime comes from public housing residents, but it can come from other places and people use the space as a base of operations,” he said, emphasizing that sub-standard housing is a breeding ground for crime.

One of Glober’s new friends, Maripousa Taufetee, president of one of two resident councils at the Terrace-Annex, is no stranger to crime. Two years ago, her 25-year-old niece visiting from Samoa was walking from the parking lot to Taufetee’s Terrace home when she was shot twice.  She survived.

“We don’t know who he was or where he was from,” said Taufetee, who chased after the suspect until she heard her injured niece calling her name. Taufetee, who is completing her associate degree in criminal justice, hopes to start a Crime Watch network.

Part of the crime problem has to do with the Housing Authority, said Ben Golvin, a principal at Equity Community Builders, a firm providing outreach services for Rebuild Potrero.

“Operating housing for low-income folks requires that the management company set firm rules and follow them,” he said.  Suhr, the police captain, said crime at the Bernal Dwellings, a public housing complex between Cesar Chavez and 26th Street, dropped by 80 percent after the buildings were torn down and rebuilt.

Though some Terrace-Annex residents hope that the Potrero rebuild might screen criminals, they worry that harsher rules could make it easier to evict people. At North Beach Place, a public housing project turned mixed income development, only 40 percent of temporarily relocated residents returned once the new housing was complete in 2004. Ten households were evicted.

While some Terrace-Annex have doubts about whether the redevelopment will benefit them, many hope that their input about safety issues will help lower crime.

Pease-Greene and others have joined the Terrace-Annex’s Safety Through Lighting Committee. “When it’s dark, you’re leery. You want to be able to see someone coming,” she said.

Tasby says people want to see a new Potrero Hill. “When you come outside to trash, gunshots, people cussing, it doesn’t make you proud.”

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  1. Yes, instead of tearing this down – let’s build more urban blight – they will “triple” the number of units. Fantastic. Watch those Portrero Hill house prices go way down.

    “Until the projects become incorporated into the fabric of the neighborhood” I think the neighborhood will move out first.

    How about figuring out how to divide the poor into smaller pockets so you don’t have these neighborhoods of blight? And as for crack and other things, hardly something for the north side to solve. Kudos to the mother who keeps an eye on her children. May you get out of there soon.

  2. It was built as temporary housing and its a crime that people have lived there for generations. Tear the whole thing down and sell the land.

  3. Thanks for writing this article, Deia. I remember jogging through this neighborhood when I lived on the Mission side that borders it. I wondered what was up there, why everything was so separated. I’m happy to hear about the Rebuild Potrero project.

  4. I live immediately next to the Potrero Terrace-Annex, and when residents say there’s a divide — you better believe. The contrast is just unbelievable.

    And much of it seems be by design. As soon as you reach the projects, you see fences, trash, dead grass, dead-end streets and curved, windy streets that do a horrible job of integrating with the rest of the neighborhood.

    However, we have a great opportunity coming with the Rebuild Potrero project. It’s a chance to nearly start from scratch! Community engagement in the process has been high, and I’m hoping that the rebuild will be better for the neighborhood — both those that live in and around the projects.