By Matt Henry, Clubhouse Director, Greater Visitacion Valley
How does a neighborhood in one of the world’s most prosperous cities become almost entirely isolated and be allowed to suffer so much?
For San Francisco’s Sunnydale neighborhood, this question has lingered for decades. Sunnydale is a diverse community that has faced long-term, systemic problems such as poor housing conditions, generational poverty, under investment in services and infrastructure, violent crime, and the immediate and long-term impacts of trauma. Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco (BGCSF) opened the Sunnydale Clubhouse in 1991, and we have been a consistent presence ever since. Our deep roots in the community have shown us that young people are able to overcome difficult environments with the support of skilled and caring staff, fun and effective programs, and a strong organization that can provide consistency and innovation year after year.
As Sunnydale undergoes the beginning phases of its large-scale redevelopment, I want to give a little history on the neighborhood and the work we’ve done to provide a safe and enriching place where youth can learn and grow together.
Sunnydale was built in 1941 to temporarily house military personnel during World War II. After the war, the military barracks changed purposes to become temporary housing for low-income residents. Soon, the “temporary” part of living in Sunnydale went away. Geographic isolation (Sunnydale sits at the southernmost edge of the city just south of McClaren Park), extreme poverty, and a lack of access to social services have made it extremely difficult for residents to break away from the neighborhood.
The temporary housing units, built nearly 80 years ago, have not held up to long-term use. Broken plumbing, mold, and asbestos are common problems. Kids growing up here face respiratory problems as a result of these conditions. With too little help from government officials, residents have been forced to try to fix their units themselves.
Historical tension among gang factions across the Visitacion Valley community have further isolated residents. An invisible but very well-known dividing line along Hahn Street has prevented residents from moving freely within their community for decades. BGCSF operates a second Club, the Visitacion Valley Clubhouse, less than half a mile away. Until recently, each site served a different population of youth due to this divide and moving kids from one neighborhood to the next was challenging - and usually not possible for teens.
We’ve worked hard to bring the two communities together. In 2016, we unified the two Clubs under the leadership of one Clubhouse Director in order to build strong relationships that will bridge the neighborhoods and enhance their capacity for transformation. This past summer, in partnership with Mercy Housing, BGCSF served 35 teens from both neighborhoods in a leadership program that spanned five community events. The teens met with the architects who are designing the new community hub (home of the future Boys & Girls Club), and visited other Boys & Girls Clubs and Recreation & Parks Department facilities to gather ideas for what they would like to see in the hub design. And, each week this summer, teens safely crossed Hahn Street to make it to our job readiness workshops at the Club.
This community-building work has contributed to the easing of tensions in the neighborhood. Violence in Sunnydale has gone down in recent years and residents are starting to feel more comfortable on the streets. Steps like these mark progress for the neighborhood. Everyone associated with Sunnydale is proud to see that a safer environment is emerging for youth.
Our work in Sunnydale is at a critical juncture. Although conditions are starting to show signs of improvement, there is still a lot of work to do. The statistics that young people in Sunnydale are up against are still staggering: the median income in the neighborhood is just over $13,000 a year, the unemployment rate is higher than 65%, and violent crime continues to be a major factor.
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco is an extremely important part of the support system for Sunnydale residents. We are open 225 days annually, 45 more days than the schools. Our skilled and caring staff go the extra mile to connect kids to opportunities and resources that will help them learn, grow, and succeed. The bonds between staff and youth facilitate access to high-quality programming in the arts, competitive sports, STEM, leadership clubs, behavioral health services, and more.
Although the Sunnydale Clubhouse is limited in size (2,000 square feet), we utilize every resource available in order to make opportunities available to our youth outside the Club. These experiences—such as field trips to local parks, swimming at Coffman Pool, museum visits, visits to college campuses, activities at other Boys & Girls Clubs across the city, and Camp Mendocino, BGCSF’s residential summer camp in Mendocino County—build skills and expand the perspectives of our youth. As Sunnydale moves through revitalization, the strong roots we’ve built in the community over nearly 30 years are more important than ever.
Thanks to strong activism, the Sunnydale community is finally getting the deserved revitalization it has needed for decades. In 2017, the late Mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, signed historic legislation to vastly expand and improve the housing in Sunnydale, growing from 785 units to as many as 1,700 units. It is projected that nearly 3,000 low-income San Franciscans will reside in Sunnydale, moving in over the next ten years. Of these new residents, approximately 1,000 will be youth, many of whom we will serve at a brand new Boys & Girls Club.
In my next piece, I will discuss what the future looks like for Sunnydale, the Club’s larger presence in the neighborhood, and the partners who are ensuring that Sunnydale’s best days are ahead of us.
Click here to learn more about the Sunnydale revitalization project.