Neighborhood Place-Making Essentials: Community Institutions - Part 1

(This is another in this open-ended series of posts …)

Once upon a time in SOMA, Canon Kip Community House was the heart of South of Market... and Gene Coleman was the heart of Canon Kip.

The Life of Canon Kip Community House

Gene Coleman (photo by Ira Nowinksi)

Gene Coleman (photo by Ira Nowinksi)

I’ll never forget my first visit to Canon Kip at Eighth and Natoma Streets early in 1978. It looked like a drab-green concrete warehouse and I couldn’t spot a front door. A plain metal double door down the alley looked like a service entrance. I gave it a try – and walked like Alice through the Looking Glass into a wonderful place and time: a genuine “Community Center.”

One room off the hall was filled with middle school kids sitting quietly at desks doing homework. In the large back room were seniors, relaxing after the lunch program, waiting for bingo. In the big gym teens were shooting baskets at one end and a team was practicing plays at the other.  Filipino, black, some white ­— it looked just like the neighborhood.

I found my way down the hall to Gene Coleman’s office, a small side room. From behind a crowded desk surrounded with stacks of paper he greeted me with that big, warm smile that everyone who ever met him will never forget. I was the newbie, the just-hired Executive Director of TODCO. Our first Yerba Buena senior housing project, Woolf House, had just begun construction that month, January 1978. Gene had been a charter member of TODCO’s board of directors since he became Canon Kip’s director six years earlier at the end of 1971. I had met him a few weeks before at the TODCO board meeting at which my job was approved. Now he was going to show me around.

We went back to the seniors’ room, the general gathering place, and Gene introduced me to the group. The ladies were very polite and kindly welcomed me, asking when the new building would open and how they could apply to live there. But one fellow immediately challenged me with a combative question: Were we going to move the people back in to Woolf House that the Redevelopment Agency had displaced 10 years earlier when it tore down the old Third and Fourth Street hotels?

 I don’t recall my answer (only about a dozen finally did move back), but it was definitely a poor one because he charged forward, called me a “punk,” and took a roundhouse swing at my jaw. Gene effortlessly pushed me back just enough so it almost missed (his ring chipped my front tooth), stepped easily in between and said, “Now Leland, he’s new, give him a chance.” It was Lee Meyerzove, a long-time and very vocal SOMA resident and moderator of the KPOO radio broadcasts of Board of Supervisors meetings in City Hall in the decades before SFGOV TV and Webcasts (TODCO’s Leland Apartments on Howard Street near Sixth is named in his memory – he passed away in 2005). Welcome to the ‘hood!

Senior Health Education Presentation

Senior Health Education Presentation

Lee was one of the Canon Kip “regulars.” Most any day you could find him there talking about the latest neighborhood news and gossip with Enrica Sabala, Isabel Ugat (TODCO’s Hotel Isabel at Seventh and Mission streets is named in her memory) and others. You didn’t need a newsletter, you just went to Canon Kip to find out what was going on. And over the next five years I got to know the larger SOMA community network that revolved around the Community House.

  • Right across Eighth Street was Westbay Filipino Multiservice Agency’s Teen Center (still in modest operation today). Not only did the kids go back and forth daily between the two, but so did the staff. Just out of college they got a job with Westbay, moving to work at Canon Kip after a few years of experience. Or vice versa. Ed del la Cruz, its longtime director, seemed to be at Canon Kip as often as Westbay (he passed away in the early 1990s). There was no organizational rivalry or “turf.”
  • Most of the Filipino seniors played bingo and worshipped at St. Patrick’s Church on Mission Street whose longtime pastor, Monsignor Clement McKenna, was also a TODCO board member. He had spearheaded the parish’s development of Alexis Apartments senior housing on Fifth Street, opened in 1974 with resident programs provided by Sisters of Mercy living at the rectory (they have all since passed away).
  • Or they could choose the Salvation Army Senior Activities Center in the former Mission-style Southern Police Station on Fourth Street that the Redevelopment Agency had granted to the Army along with its Silvercrest Residence senior housing site, completed in 1972. Bingo and dancing were not allowed, but the lunch program and pool tables were always full. Major Evelyn Dexter (long since retired), who only wore her uniform for official Salvation Army events, ran a popular professionally staffed secular center with a very busy calendar and many good times. Until the late 1980s when the Army closed all the programs except the meal site as it refocused internationally on its evangelical mission, turning the Yerba Buena Center over to a uniformed minister and his wife to run as part of the chapel (as it still remains).
  • The St. Patrick’s Childcare Center next to the Alexis Apartments on Clementina Street also had a gym that the Police Athletic League used for weekly games. Judy Baker began there as a child care worker in 1976. In the years since, as executive director, she successfully led the center’s expansion into the new Yerba Buena Gardens Child Development Center, and then ten years ago, its relocation into new affordable housing at Eighth and Howard streets built by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. (TNDC) where it continues to care for SOMA’s preschoolers today.
  • Bessie Carmichael School was of course the center of SOMA family life. Its rundown “temporary” buildings (finally replaced by the new school in 2005) were very modest, but its principal and longtime teachers cared. The nearby Filipino Education Center on Harrison Street provided bilingual support for immigrant children. Three generations of SOMA kids had passed through by 1980, plus two or three more by now with more to come (the two sites were formally merged administratively into a single school a few years ago).

Everybody knew everybody.

At Canon Kip, everyone was a social worker, official or unofficial. Gene Coleman’s formal degree from Findlay College in his home state of Ohio was a BA in Social Work. But titles didn’t matter. The office manager did social work. The teen program staff did social work. The meal program staff and even the janitor did social work. Any staffer had time to listen to a senior or youth. If an elder missed lunch, someone would walk to their house and knock on the door to be sure they were okay. If a teen got mixed up with the police, Gene would go to Southern Station to help them out. If a family was in trouble, any kind, they could come to Canon Kip for help.

Everyone cared.

(Any additional info is much appreciated, please add in the comments)

COMING NEXT IN PARTS 2 AND 3: The Death of Canon Kip Community House and An Appreciation plus Today’s SOMA Community Centers