3rd & Mission, 1961
Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
In 1967, executive director Justin Herman and his San Francisco Redevelopment Agency began the official displacement of SOMA residents to facilitate the building of the Yerba Buena Center. By mid-1969, the Redevelopment agency had acquired 44% of the land in the project area. The agency was putting pressure on the remaining landowners in the area to sell their property. Those hotels that the agency had taken control of quickly fell into disrepair, and the neighborhood rapidly became a slum.
At the time, the South of Market area was a community of poor and elderly people, who were attracted to the low-rent housing and relatively safe neighborhood streets. Many of the residents had lived there for years, averaging less than $40 a month rent.
The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency had been eyeing the neighborhood for some time as a natural place to accommodate the overflow of businesses from the financial district. Having already completed the Western Addition project, the SFRA sought to build a huge convention center in SOMA that would generate big money for San Francisco hotels and businesses. Both the Chronicle and Examiner had tracts of land near the proposed site for the Yerba Buena center, and, not surprisingly, applauded the SFRA in numerous editorials.
In 1968, the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation filed a petition with the local branch of Housing and Urban Development asking for the SFRA's relocation plan. Although the Legal Assistance Foundation filed its petition repeatedly, HUD claimed there was no process for a hearing. They also falsely claimed that relocation had not actually begun.
Finally, in 1969, local residents became fed up with the intransigence of HUD and formed their own organization, known as the Tenant and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR). Founded in the lobby of the Milner Hotel, the slogan of the organization was "We Won't Move," although its ultimate objective was merely to find decent new housing for displaced residents of the area. TOOR was fronted by George Woolf,* a former leader of the Alaska Cannery Worker's Union, and Peter Mendelsohn,** a sailor who had returned from his final voyage to find the SFRA had taken control of his property.
In spite of a study conducted by HUD revealing that former residents were not likely to find appropriate housing anywhere else in the city, neither HUD nor the SFRA responded to pleas for a coherent relocation plan. On November 5, 1969, TOOR brought suit against the SFRA, charging that it had not found alternative housing, as promised. An independent study commissioned by TOOR showed that there were only 200 vacancies citywide that were considered affordable by area residents. The report also chronicled crimes against elderly SOMA residents who had already relocated to more dangerous areas like the Tenderloin. SFRA leader Justin Herman called the crime reports "a hoax" deliberately staged by the opposition to whip up popular support.
TOOR and its lawyers eventually got a restraining order halting demolition and relocation until an agreement had been reached by both parties. Despite attempts by the presiding judge to urge the parties to negotiate, SFRA repeatedly refused to obey the spirit of the order by harassing residents in the area, urging them to move voluntarily. Finally, on April 30, 1970, Federal District Court Judge Wiegel ordered an injunction against the SFRA, ordering that federal funds for the project be cut off if the organization did not come up with an acceptable plan of relocation. This was a unique instance in American urban history -- federal court judges do not often question the policies of HUD.
To break the deadlock, both parties agreed to bring in former California governor Edmund "Pat" Brown as a "special master" to evaluate the situation and make recommendations to the court about what actions should be taken. Members of the SFRA were chummy with the veteran politico and figured he would give the green light to the redevelopment plan. Instead, Brown recommended that 2,000 new units of low-rent housing be built for the former residents of the area, and that no relocation occur until the units were completed. Caught off guard, the SFRA repudiated Brown's findings and demanded the injunction be lifted, using the argument that HUD had already approved of their plan.
The wrangling of TOOR and the SFRA eventually ended in a decree by Judge Weigel that 1500-1800 new units of housing be built for displaced residents, who would retain control over four of the project area hotels as "hostages" until the building was complete. Justin Herman signed the decree, marking a victory for TOOR in a case that had no precedent. But the SFRA managed to get around the stipulations of the agreement by convincing the San Francisco Housing Authority to give "super priority" to residents in the YBC area on the long list for publicly-funded housing. Of course, this meant that many who had waited for public housing for years, including those that had been displaced by the Western Addition project, were bumped down the list. In the end, only a handful of SOMA residents were properly relocated as per the agreement.
For the many retired trade unionists in the area, organizing their fellow residents against the bulldozer harked back to organizing efforts in building the labor movement three and four decades earlier. TOOR's elected chair was 80-year-old George Woolf, an organizer and first President of the San Francisco-based Alaska Cannery Workers' Union and earlier president of the Ship Scalers Union (now an affiliate of the ILWU). Woolf was intimately involved in the San Francisco progressive labor movement in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and had his front teeth knocked out during the city's 1934 General Strike, After his retirement in 1954, he organized his fellow ILWU retirees into the Pensioners' Club, a "union within the union." He described himself by saying, "I've lived my life so that I can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell." His attitude toward the Redevelopment Agency was uncompromising. A newspaper interview with George Woolf noted that "it was a casual remark by Redevelopment Director M. Justin Herman which started him in battle." Herman had reportedly called the residents of the South of Market area "nothing but a bunch of skid row bums." Woolf was indignant -- "I'm not a bum and I resent being discredited and discounted."" He responded by helping to establish TOOR.
Co-chair of TOOR was Peter Mendelsohn, for 40 years a merchant seaman who lived on the same South of Market block when he returned from the sea. Although 65 years old, Mendelsohn had more energy than most people 30 years younger. Like George Woolf, Mendelsohn was a union organizer and also organized for the Communist Party in the 1930s. When Mendelsohn returned from his final voyage in the summer of 1970, he discovered that the Redevelopment Agency had taken over his hotel. He briefly visited relatives and on his return found that his room had been broken into and robbed of all his valuables, which were quite substantial, as he had been a coin collector for years. Referring to the Agency's plans to move him to another neighborhood, Mendelsohn said: "I've lived on this block for 40 years. I know everyone here and they know me. To move me even five blocks away would be the same as moving me to another city. It'll take years for me to build up new relationships, and years off my life in the process." George Woolf died in June, 1972, at which time Pete Mendelsohn became TOOR's chair.
--Chester Hartman, The Transformation of San Francisco