Neighborhood Place-Making Essentials: Community Institutions - Part 2

(An open-ended series of posts …)

ONCE UPON A TIME IN SOMA, CANON KIP COMMUNITY HOUSE WAS THE HEART OF THE SOUTH OF MARKET... AND GENE COLEMAN WAS THE HEART OF CANON KIP.

The Death of Canon Kip Community House

The San Francisco Episcopal Diocese fired Gene Coleman in 1985, closed Canon Kip in 1989, one year after its 100th anniversary, and finally tore the building down in 1992. It was ultimately replaced with low-income supportive housing, the Canon Barcus Community House built and operated by Episcopal Community Services that opened in 2002.

Canon Kip Settlement House was the second settlement house founded in the United States (soon followed in San Francisco by the still-operating Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center) as part of a new movement of the 1880s to assist the European immigrants of the era – the first modern-style “multipurpose community center.” With the end of open immigration after World War I and the “white flight” from the central cities after World War II, Canon Kip evolved by 1970 to serving the mostly Filipino and African-American residents of SOMA. Their numbers had recently grown after the Redevelopment Agency demolished the Western Addition in the late ’60s, forcing many of its residents to move to other neighborhoods.

President Johnson’s War On Poverty in the 1960s pioneered federal funding for important new central city programs. Canon Kip was the first location of the South of Market Health Clinic (now located on Seventh Street) and the Neighborhood Legal Assistance office (whose young attorneys then represented Yerba Buena residents against the Redevelopment Agency) — the all-too-effective legal advocate for poor people that Ronald Reagan made sure to neuter in 1981 in his first year as president because they had sued him successfully when he was governor.

Reagan’s presidency also marked the appearance of widespread homelessness in American cities. It was a shock, and churches throughout the nation opened emergency shelters that first winter of 1982. As Bishop William Swing recalled years later: “The mayor of San Francisco [Diane Feinstein] asked Grace Cathedral to help with the ‘temporary’ and new problem of homelessness. On the first night we housed forty. On the second night, two hundred fifty. Today, one thousand one hundred fifty in eight locations. A vocation was born for us. Churches throughout the diocese followed suit and housed homeless” (from The Swing Shift blog, Aug. 9, 2004,).

That brief summary glides over a much more complicated true story. The Grace Cathedral basement shelter that brought homeless to the top of Nob Hill was quickly closed before the winter was even over, moving very uncomfortably to Canon Barcus’ Pacific Heights parish. As the San Francisco Bay Guardian reprised events several months later:

“Coleman is something of an antagonist to Bishop Swing. When the Episcopal Church asked Canon Kip last October to move the church’s ‘sanctuary’ program for the city’s homeless into the Canon Kip building, Coleman refused ... and the church was forced to operate the program out of St. Mary’s Church on Union Street.

“Only a few weeks later, after numerous complaints from St. Mary’s neighbors, the church’s board of trustees voted to close down the St. Mary’s shelter and Swing came back ... this time, Coleman says, with an ultimatum. ‘He came to the board meeting and basically said we could either take the homeless at Canon Kip or be cut off forever from the Church’s financial support. That would have, of course, closed us down. So we took the homeless’ ...

“And [Bishop Swing] has suggested, says Coleman, that the center might want to move elsewhere if future demographic change displaces the future low-income residents it has served since its foundation. Coleman, however, feels the center should stay where it is and fight those changes. ‘Swing called me and said, “We’ve lost the Tenderloin, we’re losing the South of Market, and we may have to move the center to follow our constituents.” ... ‘My position is that if we lose the South of Market, there won’t be any constituents left — not in San Francisco anyway.’”

Gene was referring to the civic battles over downtown expansion and the gentrification of SOMA and other central city communities that had grown in intensity and bitterness during the 1970s, leading to the pitched political confrontation of the first Proposition M growth-control initiative in November 1983 (which lost narrowly, followed by the subsequent 1985 Proposition M that passed). Canon Kip hosted SOMA activists’ community organizing meetings during these years, and Gene Coleman frequently was the public spokesman for the SOMA community. This put him in opposition to Mayor Feinstein and the downtown political leadership of the era.

Initially, his statements were restrained. In the November/December, 1981 issue of Consumer Action News, he said: “The residents and merchants [of South of Market] understand how important it is to have access to the decision-making process, and they’re frustrated at being constantly ignored by city planners and the Redevelopment Agency.”

But as the political debate intensified, with his typical understated courage he publicly supported Prop. M. In South of Market News in April 1983, Coleman wrote: “We have our own vision. It is different from the visions and plans of the Redevelopment Agency and the developers. We have no choice but to put forth to the public, in a meaningful way, our own vision of the South of Market and the need to preserve the housing, jobs, small business, public transit, and traffic patterns that are conducive to saving and enhancing the neighborhood, not wiping it off the map.”

During those years the United Way provided the largest portion of Canon Kip’s funding. The Episcopal Diocese that held the deed of trust on the Canon Kip building actually provided very little financial support to it. So looking to increase alternate funding sources and start new community services as it had before, Canon Kip had set up the city’s first senior paratransit service in 1979. For two years the city contract reimbursed all costs, but then — in the name of “cost effectiveness” — the City changed it to a per-ride payment. A businessman would have simply closed the program and laid off the staff, but Gene Coleman did not think like that, and in one year the program ran up a deficit of $160,000 in payroll taxes due before he finally gave up hope and shut it down.

Converting the Canon Kip gym into an ad hoc shelter at the end of 1982 had already severely affected its community. The staff advised its board of directors in a Canon Kip flyer, June 1983: “The truth is the sanctuary has had a significant, negative impact on the other programs. The tutorial program’s attendance has dropped over 60%. Recreation time to youth has been reduced by 30%. Many small children no longer come.”

Now this “fiscal crisis” gave Bishop Swing an excuse to ask Gene and the entire Canon Kip board of directors to resign at a public board meeting. As the San Francisco Examiner’s Dexter Waugh reported that June: “Not many blocks separate Canon Kip Community House in the South of Market from Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill, but distance cannot always be measured in city blocks. The Right Rev. William E. Swing’s efforts to gain more control over the community organization ... ran up against staunch secular resistance yesterday. ... The Episcopal bishop’s proposal to step in and essentially take control of the agency, in exchange for the diocese bailing [it] out ... was called ‘blackmail’ and a ‘scheme.’”

Bishop Swing never publicly objected to Coleman’s activism, and one can only guess what issues he discussed with City Hall officials. But five months later, immediately after the Prop. M election, the Center’s board of directors, now dominated by new members appointed by the bishop, fired Coleman, and only then did the diocese pay off the Canon Kip deficit.

Always a calming voice who never engaged in personal attacks, in the December 1983 South of Market News, Gene responded: “Canon Kip can go back to serving a very small, distinct population group, without any kind of concern for the bigger picture and the larger problems that we are facing in this community, like highrise office building, the eradication of affordable housing, human service programs closing almost daily, or the sale of the residential hotels on Sixth Street, where many of Canon Kip’s clients reside, but these are all issues coming to the forefront.”

Which is exactly what happened. The gym was closed and converted to a full-time homeless shelter until today’s Episcopal Sanctuary opened a block away in 1986. Canon Kip’s youth programs were cut back and then dropped, leaving only the senior programs until the center finally closed its doors in 1989.

In 1992 the old Center building was demolished to provide a site for 105 units of new SRO low-income supportive housing for “dual-diagnosed” homeless, disingenuously keeping the name Canon Kip Community House until it was renamed for Canon Barcus after he passed away. A small replacement senior center was rebuilt within its ground floor and continues in operation today. The gymnasium was functionally replaced by the city’s new South of Market Recreation Center that opened at Sixth and Folsom Streets in 1990. But while the Park and Recreation Department’s small staff (cut by 75% in recent years) hosts as many basketball teams and community programs as it can, they don’t have time to do “social work.”

After Canon Kip, Gene Coleman went on to his “second career,” joining the San Francisco City Planning Department as an outreach worker in 1984, working his way up to planner, and then transferring to the Mayor’s Office of Community Development where he served as deputy director until retiring last year. TODCO named its 2005 Yerba Buena senior housing development in his honor when it opened, the Eugene Coleman Community House with the word “Community” standing out in bright red on its 45-foot-high Howard Street sign. After a sudden brief illness, Gene passed away on Oct. 19, 2007 at a much-too-young age of 70.

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

COMING NEXT IN PART 3: An Appreciation plus Today’s SOMA Community Centers