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Blacks abandon San Francisco

No US city has seen a more rapid decline of its African-American population.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2009

Staying: John William Templeton, a historian, stands in San Francisco’s Alamo Park. He and others say economic exclusion has contributed to a declining African-American population.

Michael B. Farrell / The Christian Science Monitor

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San Francisco

On a recent overcast Saturday, just before noon, the ministers from some of this city's largest black churches arrived in their dapper and dark suits, looking somewhat out of place on a dusty construction site.

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They had come to break ground on 21 affordable apartments – a joint project between a church-affiliated development group and Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare provider. There were photo ops, the ceremonial shovels of dirt, and, given the number of reverends on hand, plenty of prayers.

This neighborhood, known as the Western Addition, was once the heartbeat of San Francisco's African-American community. Fillmore Street, known for its vibrant postwar jazz scene, is a few blocks away. KPOO, the first black-owned noncommercial radio station west of the Mississippi, is up the street. And the ministers say they hope that these new apartments – albeit not solely for black residents – begin to stem the rapid decline of the city's African-American population.

Blacks have been leaving San Francisco in record numbers. Blacks accounted for 6.5 percent of the population in 2005, down from a high of 13.4 percent in 1970 – the steepest decline of any major US city, according to the US Census Bureau.

While San Francisco's image has been defined by a history of tolerance and openness, some say today's reality is much different. They paint a picture of a racially and economically divided city where blacks are vanishing from the social and cultural fabric, priced out and marginalized by the urban redevelopment policies of the past half century.

The decline in the black population has been so rapid that Mayor Gavin Newsom launched the African American Out-Migration Task Force and Advisory Committee in 2007 to reverse the trend. One key recommendation of the committee is for more affordable housing – much like the new development in the Western Addition.

It's projects like this, says the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, that could help retain middle-class African-Americans who may otherwise flee to northern California cities such as Stockton or Antioch. That flight has left a wide gulf within the black community here. On one end of the spectrum, seniors stay because they own homes. On the other, poorer and younger black families populate public housing. What's missing, he says, is a middle ground.

That means fewer churchgoers in the pews on Sundays and not as many parishioners taking part in community efforts. "It just kills the life and spirit of the community," he says.

Findings of the mayor's task force confirm that black families with moderate and above-moderate incomes have been leaving since 1990. As a result, very-low-income households made up more than two-thirds of the black population in 2005 – up from roughly one-half in 1990.

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