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Black San Francisco: The Politics of Race and Space in the City


This dissertation examines how Black residents in San Francisco navigate the politics of race, space and power during a time of massive change in the city. Based on field research conducted over a two-year period, this study provides an ethnographic account of the concerns that both middle-to-upper and low-income Black residents share about redevelopment and gentrification in the Fillmore and Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods of San Francisco. This dissertation illuminates a mismatch of ideas and values regarding the renewal of historically Black neighborhoods. The meaning of the word "Black" in San Francisco was intimately tied to the concept of "urban renewal," and the concept was integral to the context and the subtext of many conversations concerning current redevelopment projects in the neighborhood. The words "Black" and "urban renewal" are connected to a shared history of dispossession, instability and the persistence of a racial hierarchy in San Francisco. My analysis finds that Black residents frame their experience living in the city as similar to living in a "chess game" played within a larger "battle" for power. Conversations about redevelopment and gentrification most often operate within a context that makes clear the politics of who is "in" and who is "out." Middle-to-upper class Blacks who have "made it" are in, but as this study seeks to explore, what about low-income Blacks? Where do they fit? Today's economy, built so much more heavily than in the past upon reliance on secondary education and specialized knowledge, tends to transform and redevelop the city's oldest neighborhoods in ways that often leave out poor, uneducated Blacks who lack the means to flee the city and , as a result, are the most vulnerable to institutional control. This study questions the stability and presence of a Black community in San Francisco, which has declined in population since the 1970s. This study of Black San Francisco contributes to sociological knowledge by exploring the different values, meanings and perspectives found among Black residents living in the city, as well as those who compete with them to renew their spaces.

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