On Guard: Supervisor Breed fights for the Fillmore, one life at a time 

click to enlarge New Board of Supervisors President London Breed grew up in the Fillmore and knows the challenges its lower-income residents struggle with on a daily basis. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • New Board of Supervisors President London Breed grew up in the Fillmore and knows the challenges its lower-income residents struggle with on a daily basis.

Four young men were killed in Hayes Valley two weeks ago. Weapons were found in their car, but regardless of the circumstance, they were young men with mothers, friends and endless possibility. Any chance they may have had at changing their lives, they lost.

The reality of living in a metropolis, even a tiny one like ours, is that many folks move here from other places and then leave. They may not concern themselves with these young men. But for Supervisor London Breed, now Board of Supervisors president, helping those like them is her life's work.

Breed represents District 5, encompassing the Haight, Inner Sunset, Hayes Valley, Japantown and her native Fillmore.

The City is not only in her blood, but it's in her legislation: From holding the Fire Department accountable, to public-housing funding, her priorities bolster everyday San Franciscans.

Her new presidency is not without controversy. Her appointments to supervisor committees largely pushed progressive supervisors from power, gifting key appointments of the planning and budget committees to the most Realtor- and business-friendly supervisors.

But sitting with London Breed in the African American Cultural Complex on Fulton Street last week with San Francisco Examiner Photo Editor Mike Koozmin, I could see just how deep her ties to San Francisco go. First, she showed off her Galileo High School photos.

"This is you in high school?" Koozmin asked her, pointing to a photo of London at a school dance, striking a pose. "This looks like yesterday!"

London smiled wide, answering, "Goooood," with a laugh.

She then pointed to faces in her Raphael Weill Elementary School class photo. One of her friends still lives in Plaza East, she said, another is a professional actor and another is incarcerated.

London's family felt the pulls of vice as well. One of her brothers is now in jail, and her younger sister died of a drug overdose a decade ago.

It's a familiar story in the Fillmore, a neighborhood oft-ripped apart by sweeping government policies, with prejudice. First it was the Japanese internment, and then urban renewal, displacing over 4,000 residents, many of whom were black.

London grew up in one of the housing projects erected in the urban renewal's aftermath: Plaza East. She knows the seeds of poverty were sown long ago. Now, she can change that.

"I think about the resources of The City, the money, the programs, I think, why is this not touching the people that need this the most?" she told me. "That's why I became supervisor."

She was voted Most Likely To Succeed in her Galileo yearbook. It also features photos of London every five pages or so: At dances, in clubs or just because.

"Clearly, I was running the school," she said, laughing. But growing up, she also saw the usual drugs, prostitution, and violence.

From the outside looking in, that's all some know of her neighborhood. But London smiled wide as she led us outside the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, on Hayes Street. At the Hutch, girls hung out by Virgo's store, and the boys chilled just across the pavement, she said. Occasionally special agents from each camp would infiltrate the other side, an ancient brand of warfare.

"I could never get a boyfriend though, because they'd say 'Oh, she's Sonny Boy's sister!'" London said, referring to her older brother. "I had my share of guys I liked who said 'Nuh-uh.'"

Then it struck me. No one else was there on the street. We were surrounded by ghosts. What changed?

"I don't know if I would say it was like the way it is now," London said. "Stabbings happened, fights happened, robberies and all that stuff. But now we just have a lot of those shootings that run rampant."

Just a week ago and two blocks away, Breed spoke at a vigil for the four young men gunned down nearby. The image of a mother of one of those young men is seared into my memory. Her anguished screams cut me to the bone.

London attended so many funerals for young men in her neighborhood, she's stopped going to them. She opts to pray on her own, privately, she says. Publicly, redemption comes one life at a time.

She helped one young man prepare for a job at the Department of Public Works, cleaning graffiti. Another she helped is graduating from San Jose State University next year, and another from Sacramento State University. Recently, Fillmore residents were hired to drive Muni buses.

London told me she's now working on a push with the San Francisco Unified School District to target young black boys, and their families, to help them succeed.

"The light gets shined on those we lose," she said, "but there are stars in this community."

One day that will be what the Fillmore is known for. But the neighborhood's scars run deep. As we walk back to the African American Cultural Complex, we run across Ron Hall, a friend of London's.

"I haven't seen you since before the election!" he says to her, reaching for a hug. "Where are you coming from?" she asks.

"A friend of mine's brother died," he said, "so I was at the funeral."

London's smile disappears. The oft-told story starts again.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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