Commentary

Commentary: Julie Pitta

The Great Gentrification

A Redistricting Plan Threatens to Mute Minority Voices Including the Richmond’s Chinese Americans

By Julie Pitta

Supervisor Connie Chan came to San Francisco in 1991. Then 13, Chan, her mother and brother, settled in Chinatown, the first home for many new arrivals from China. The Chans struggled, as immigrants often do, to secure a place in their adopted home. Through hard work, they not only survived, they thrived. 

Connie Chan’s story resonated with District 1’s Chinese-American voters who played an important role in electing her to public office. The supervisor, who is fluent in Cantonese, enjoys a special bond with her Chinese-American constituents. Not infrequently, they stop her on neighborhood streets, greeting her as they would a family member. To them, she is simply “Connie” and she is one of their own.

During most of her career, Chan has acted as a bridge between the Chinese-American community and city government. As a member of the Board of Supervisors, she continues that work, acting as an important connection between Chinese Americans and City Hall where they have often been overlooked.

A plan for redistricting the City’s 11 supervisorial districts threatens to dilute the influence of the San Francisco’s minority communities, including Black, LGBTQ and Chinese-American residents. A preliminary map, just released by the Redistricting Task Force, scatters so-called “communities of interest,” in effect muting voices that fought long and hard to be heard in the City’s corridors of power.

The map drew sharp criticism from several sitting supervisors, among them Rafael Mandelman who represents District 8, which includes the Castro.

“This district has reliably elected an LGBTQ person since Harvey Milk,” Mandelman said. “I don’t think that would be the case anymore.”

Redistricting occurs every 10 years, beginning 60 days after the federal census results are released. Last month, my Richmond Review colleague, former District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, offered a detailed description of the process.

The Redistricting Task Force, a nine-member panel appointed by the mayor, the Department of Elections and the Board of Supervisors, must weigh multiple factors when redrawing district maps. The most important should be maintaining the voting power of communities of interest defined as ethnic, political, social and economic minorities.

At the same time, the Task Force is required to accommodate population changes, creating districts of similar size. Districts 2, 5, 8, 9 and 11 have seen their numbers remain stable since the last census. Districts 6 and 10 saw significant increases, while Districts 1, 3, 4 and 7 declined. That means Districts 6 and 10 must shrink and 1, 3, 4 and 7 need to expand.

The Task Force has hit on a deeply problematic solution for boosting District 1’s size. It has added Sea Cliff– formerly part of District 2 and home to some of San Francisco’s wealthiest residents – to a district that is largely working class. Sixty percent of District 1’s residents are low- and middle-class renters, many living in rent-controlled apartments. Forty percent are Asian-Americans, including a sizeable number of non-English speakers.

Large concrete monuments, separating Sea Cliff from District 1, serve as stark reminders of the uneasy relationship between the two communities.

Tacking Sea Cliff onto District 1 would weaken the power of vulnerable communities, including Chinese-Americans who have earned their place at City Hall. It would roll back San Francisco’s progress toward creating a government that reflects the City’s rich diversity.

Much of that change can be attributed to district elections, first instituted in 1977. That same year saw the election of Harvey Milk, the first-openly gay man, Ella Hill Hutch, the first African-American woman, and Gordon Lau, the first Chinese American, to the Board of Supervisors. Lau, the son of a warehouseman and a typist, became District 1’s representative.

Lau was a trailblazer. After graduating from law school, he worked tirelessly to organize the City’s Chinese-Americans to speak out for fair treatment in employment and housing. It came at a time when few in that community participated in the political process. Former State Senator John Burton compared Lau to Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball.  

“He was a first, the first elected Chinese American when the Board of Supervisors used to be all white people and a few women,” Burton said.

Unfortunately, these wins proved short-lived. In 1980, San Francisco returned to citywide elections and the results were impossible to ignore: The Board of Supervisors again became largely white and largely male.

In 2000, San Francisco reinstated district elections. Since then, District 1 has elected three Chinese American representatives: Chan, Fewer and Eric Mar, all staunch advocates for Chinese Americans and other vulnerable communities, including working families and tenants in rent-controlled apartments.

The Task Force has voiced a commitment to inclusion. 

“I want as much public involvement as humanly possible,” said Task Force Chair Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice-president of the San Francisco NAACP. “It’s important that we try to draw districts that give people a fair chance to be represented, and be represented in a way that the people who represent them have to listen.”

A map drafted by a coalition of grassroots groups does just that. Called the Community Unity Map, it enlarges supervisorial districts without disrupting their demographic composition. It protects the hard-won political gains made by working-class communities of color. It allows another Connie Chan to be elected to the Board of Supervisors.

The Redistricting Task Force is scheduled to release a final map on April 15. Push back against the Great Gentrification by attending a task force meeting or emailing the comments to rdtf@sfgov.org.

Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at julie.pitta@gmail.com.

5 replies »

  1. This is an extremely important issue given the diversity of San Francisco residents. I believe the current inclusion of Sea Cliff into District 2 (along with Presidio Heights, Pacific Heights, and the Marina) is a fairer representation for both the Richmond as well as Sea Cliff.

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    • Actually, upon examination of the actual maps, I feel that the redistricting includes only a small part of Sea Cliff. I now have no strong opposition to the work of the redistricting task force.

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  2. I spoke at last Friday’s Redistricting meeting. As a long time resident of D1 I consider the current configuration of D1 to be the worst Gerrymandering amongst the 11 Districts. In 2016 I saw a blown up wall map with D2 running north of Lake Street into and through Sea Cliff. My response a the time was, “What’s this?” I have always considered both the north and south sides of Lake Street to be part of the Richmond District. Sea Cliff is also home to the Richmond District. Why the current boundaries were drawn into their configuration is a question only the previous Redistricting team and City Hall insiders can answer. To maintain the geographical integrity of the Richmond District the current configuration must change.

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  3. I’ve never agreed with Lee Heidhues on anything, but in this case he is absolutely right. The law requires compactness and continuity in district mapping, and cutting out SeaCliff and North of Lake out of D1 fails those requirements badly.

    The writer’s cynical and frankly racist and classist perspective is that the San Franciscans in the SeaCliff and North of Lake are rich and white and therefore they simply cannot be counted on to defend and promote the interests of their fellow Richmond District neighbors.

    I thought this was San Francisco, the City that celebrates diversity.

    Every four years when we elect a D1 Supervisor, the writer and like-minded “progressives” try to scare the D1 Asian American community and D1 renters by arguing that we must elect them otherwise their interests will not be represented, and this will result in greater discrimination and renters losing their rent control. This re-districting process has given us another opportunity to hear the same arguments.

    Meanwhile, for more than 12 years under the leadership of “progressives” like the writer, our D1 public schools have worsened and gone underfunded, our D1 streets get dirtier, new housing projects which might cool down the housing market never get built, our D1 parks grow dilapidated, the homeless crises expands further into D1, and crime – including Asian hate crime – worsens.

    I have no doubt that the writer and the “progressives” genuinely care about vulnerable communities; it’s difficult for them to accept that they cause more harm than good with their divisive “us-vs.-them” rhetoric and even more harm with their failure to demand competence in governance.

    The results speak for themselves. Try as she might, the writer cannot blame the current state of D1 on our Seacliff neighbors, as they have been segregated off in D2! The only monuments that divide the SeaCliff and North of Lake communities from the rest of the Richmond District in today’s San Francisco exist in the writer’s head.

    Why don’t we exhibit the same behavior that we try to teach our children, which is to avoid stereo-typing our neighbors based on their color and economic status and instead give them the benefit of the doubt? Our Seacliff and Lake Street neighbors made the decision to live here with their families in the Richmond District. Until proven otherwise, let’s assume they see the value in preserving, protecting and enhancing their community which includes people of color and people that are less fortunate economically. Let’s assume that, like our Asian-American D1 neighbors and D1 neighbors who rent, our SeaCliff and North of Lake neighbors also want good schools, clean, safe streets and modern parks. Instead of the politics of division, let’s invite those neighbors to participate in D1 and work together to improve the lives of all D1 residents.

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