04.29.15
52-Blue | Audio

(in)Fringe 03: Blanket of Silence






Heading south from Vallejo's shuttered naval installation on Mare Island and isolated along the fringes of the bay just southeast of San Francisco is Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the region's most complex redevelopment sites. It's no coincidence that another former naval base serves as the stage here for a clash of actors, from the behemoth housing developer Lennar Corp and mayoral officials, to US Navy contractors and the EPA, affordable housing and environmental justice groups, newly transplanted first-time homebuyers, artists, skilled and unskilled workers, and a multiethnic blend of low-income residents who have been more or less forgotten after an era of naval and commercial shipyard operations slowed to a halt in the 1960s and ’70s.

The Hunters Point Shipyard, one of several decommissioned naval stations around the bay, was extremely active during World War II. It drew thousands of black laborers from the South, who went on to experience active discrimination both during and after the war, which effectively left them in systemic poverty. It is also where critical components of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were partially assembled and loaded for transport. Today, as the city's largest open tract of land, which is now undergoing a several billion dollar redevelopment, Bayview-Hunters Point is becoming one of the most significant urban housing, recreational, retail/business, neoliberal dreamworlds being materialized in the country, and perhaps the future crown jewel of the Bay Area's unprecedented gentrification as well.

If the sonic identity of the neighborhood's inevitable transformation is the protagonist here, it's been forged in a landscape of overbearing racism and bullhorn resistance, hushed displacement, and rowdy foreclosure, fused by the disquiet of industrial neglect and toxic pollution, ghettoization, and poverty cut off from the rest of the city. Each of these layers inscribe their own audible or inaudible territory onto the foundation of a more immediate acoustic terrain of Hunters Point as a place today. Brandon Labelle, an artist and scholar reminds us in his book Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life that “a place is generated by the temporality of the auditory.” While mass media may only listen to the gunshots emanating from the hills at night, Bayview families are the ones up hacking and coughing, still losing sleep due to an enduring legacy of the PG&E power plant's carcinogenic emissions, even though it's been torn down. In the acres of nearby wetlands, one may only hear blowing field grass or a distant basketball being dribbled over weedy cracked pavement. However, as unlistenable as the radioactive dust embedded in the soils from the Navy's pollution may be, it's the fallout of chronic health issues and lack of job creation that have been a loud cry for help for years.

Cruising around one weekday afternoon, we were immediately struck by a general pervasive silence around the shipyard's gated edges, broken up only by a small assembly of residents at the main intersection of Innes Ave. and Hunters Point Boulevard a half a mile away, the original downtown area where people congregate now to barbecue, fix cars, mingle, and hang out. We heard a woman sweeping up around a local church, and a swingset squeaking from a nearby park. Then, the hillsides whistled with coastal winds. Moving closer to the base's edge, the only discernable sounds were a cargo ship horn on the bay, a passing Caltrain, a beeping construction vehicle, passing cars, and the intense flapping of giant plastic tarps covering the partially erected architecture, torn and blowing in a fierce display of constructive idle. There was a feeling that the US flag has simply been replaced by the informal banner of Lennar's billowy plastics. Whereas one presided over yesterday's shipyard during a war leaving the community in shambles thereafter, the other rules the region today through yet its own sort of half built ruins.

Abandoned in 1974 by the Navy, Hunters Point was finally made a federal superfund site in 1989, and became the most expensive brownfield remediation project in the nation overseen by the Navy. Last year, however, news broke that the Navy's contractor had submitted false radiation data while working on the cleanup, and the restored safety of the site has once again gone from being suspiciously hopeful to completely dubious. On our drive it was quite clear that Hunters Point tragically remains a symbolic island completely discarded by generations of surrounding regional progress. Sadly, it's another chapter in America's long dark legacy of institutional segregation. A good short primer on the neighborhood's genesis is the documentary Point of Pride: The People's View of Bayview-Hunter's Point. There is also the important film from 1963 Take this Hammer that followed James Baldwin around when he visited San Francisco. (Baldwin later disowned it after KQED censored many of his comments and turned the film into a shorter, politically stripped down, version.) 

Lennar's master plan for 1400 acres of redevelopment has been years in the making, remains controversial, and, while well underway (the first fleet of eighty-eight market rate housing units instantly sold out), is already showing signs of the predictable shenanigans that have come to be associated with Lennar, the nation's largest house builder, over the years. Critics claim Lennar has been stalling the Hunters Point project on purpose in order to capitalize off of the surging real estate values that continue across the region, which will only further jeopardize any guarantee of lower level affordability.

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Driving away we were left with the feeling that the silence cast over Bayview-Hunters Point represents a complicated acoustic politics on several levels:

—It makes obvious a pattern of silence (and political lack of will) on the part of the city to more aggressively lead Lennar through the process rather than the other way around. Certainly, this is linked to the city's longstanding chronic silence over decades on the shipyard's direct correlations to health hazards and residential illnesses

—The seemingly deliberate slow-pacing of Lennar's advances that appear to exploit the unending rise in land value for all its worth every step of the way, which is also linked to their own strategic back and forth vocal/non-vocal stances about the clean-up's levels of success and failure

—The vocal and lack of vocal demand among black laborers for transitional jobs ever since the shipyard was closed that still plays out to some extent today. As Dr. Willie Ratcliff (publisher of the historic SF Bayview newspaper) put it in 2013 in response to the shift in black employment: “if you don’t say anything, it’s like those squeaky wheels: If you don’t squeak, nobody pays you any mind. We aren’t squeaking—we’re doing everything but that.”

—The choice of silence as a survival mechanism, and how the dilemma of not wanting to be involved for one's own protection, to remain under the radar, continues within the very real and daily contexts of discrimination, gang violence, police abuse, fear of eviction and/or losing one's job, that exist within Bayview

—Sadly, the more critical blanket of imposed silence that Hunters Point residents (a few of whom have still managed to keep their homes and businesses despite the forces of mass redevelopment) must wrestle with generation after generation as they continue their struggle to have their voice be heard without being displaced against their will; or, choosing to sell out and voluntarily leave the neighborhood caving under big government pressure

—And finally, the reverberations of this silence's active contrast heard in the collective vocalizations from generations of unionists, activists, and other justice efforts from the past, that continue to assemble for the greater Black Lives Matter movement. 

Silence often demarcates power, while it can also be used as a tool in response. In the case of Bayview that afternoon, silence was a compounded diffusion of many agencies of power, from those who have been silenced to those who have chosen to remain silent. Surrounding a small vivacious street party, the only other thing left to hear in a few hours listen was the ominous quiet of the status quo. Yet, in the words of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, as penned in their deeply poignant essay The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study: “the fugitive art of social life .… emerges as an ensemblic stand, a kinetic set of positions, but also takes the form of embodied notation, study, score." Here, “the multitude uses every quiet moment, every sundown, every moment of militant preservation, to plan together, to launch, to compose (in) its surreal time.” 
 




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