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Remembrance of Geneva Towers

Historical Essay

by Lee Hubbard

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San Francisco's very own public housing disaster, looming over Visitacion Valley near the Cow Palace. The Geneva Towers were scheduled for demolition in 1997.

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Further west lies the Sunnydale Housing Project, once a sprawling sea of barracks, now a dangerous and desperate home for those who must live there.

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Video: Geneva Towers Implosion

videography: Caitlin Manning

Pop, pop, pop, boom! Went the sound from the explosives that imploded Geneva Towers last Saturday. The two 20 story buildings fell to the ground like a heavyweight stiff after receiving a Mike Tyson blow.

Although they have stayed empty for the last three years, I can remember the Towers being full as if it were yesterday. There I saw elderly couples wait in the lobby for rides to church, and I saw parents raise their children.

But it was other things that the Geneva Towers were known for. Things such as elevators not operating, plumbing so deteriorated that the water ran brown, rampant drug dealing, shootings, and a never ending presence of "rent a cops" and hostile San Francisco police that looked like something out of present day Indonesia.

When the 576-unit buildings were built with federal money in 1967, I wasn't even born. The buildings were meant to be exclusive private dwellings, and at first they were filled with a mix of doctors, lawyers and people of all incomes. Gradually, the Towers became predominantly black and low incomes, and the management let the buildings go to hell.

Over time the white buildings became dull gray towers, but still they could easily pass on the outside for Central Park condominiums in New York City. I wasn't a resident of the buildings, but in my earlier years I was a frequent passerby and later a frequent visitor. The Geneva Towers were the only buildings south of downtown that you could see for miles away driving up 101.

As I would drive up the freeway, a quick look at the two ivory towers was a sign that I was almost home. So I watched with interest the crowd of people who were excited they were witnessing the first implosion in San Francisco. It was like a super bowl half time show as the barbecue grills were going and the kegs of beer were in abundance. But just a few years earlier, many of these same onlookers would have been scared to death to set foot in the buildings that were called G.T. or the Towers.

Scared not because anything would have happened to them, but because of the negative media perception of the buildings, according to Marie Harrison, Bay View columnist and former Towers resident.

I would always hear about a lot of crime at the Towers, but when the armed security officers at the Towers were shooting their pistols on the roof, you didn't hear anything about that," said Harrison. "The stigma always fell on the tenants."

She said this stigma was the death knell that led to the demise of the buildings. But for Keith Brown, a resident of a house next to the towers, the removal of the Towers signals a rebirth to the surrounding Visitacion Valley area.

"There were a lot of good times and bad times," said Brown. "I am kind of happy to see them gone, but they will be missed."

There will be a rebirth, but for whom? Where the Towers stood, a new 341-unit complex will be built costing over $70 million, the price to include job training, police services, and health and social services. These plans, which are currently scheduled to be completed in 1999, may please some people, but they have a bittersweet taste for others.

From San Francisco Bay View newspaper, May 20, 1998


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