Sunnydale kids on Beniamino Bufano’s “Bear and Head” sculpture. (Barbara Bernstein photograph © Creative Commons BY-NC-ND.)
by Woody LaBounty
Sunnydale should have a book written about it. The 80-year old housing project in Visitacion Valley has been the set, and often the antagonist, in the lives of thousands of San Franciscans.
Conceived at the end of the Great Depression, constructed during World War II, Sunnydale was a great experiment, an answer to the affordable housing problem with which we still struggle in San Francisco. The Federal Housing Authority, born out of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, sought to “devise new housing projects in which low-income families [could] be more decently accommodated at low rentals.”1
Sunnydale was the third housing development planned in San Francisco after Holly Park (Bernal Heights) and Potrero Terrace (Potrero Hill), and it was the most ambitious, covering 48 acres with 772 units in dozens of low-slung buildings surrounded with white picket fences and children’s playgrounds. Ground was broken on February 17, 1940. Long-time San Francisco park superintendent John McLaren himself attended to bless the new community beside his namesake park. Barrett & Hilp, builders of the Golden Gate Bridge, had the contract for Sunnydale and gave a touch of Streamline Moderne style to the buildings. On March 1, 1941, just a year later, fifty families moved in, paying $17 to $29 a month rent ($317 to $535 in 2021 dollars).
View of Sunnydale under construction in January 1941. (San Francisco News-Call Bulletin, January 10, 1941. San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History Center, AAD-6107)
People fought to get into the new housing project, applying even if their monthly income crept over the maximum to qualify for a unit, which kept being reset higher as the crunch for housing intensified. From $73 a month the income level shot up to $133 in June 1941 and $175 for defense workers by January 1942. (These monthly income amount would be roughly $1,300 to $3,200 in 2021 dollars.) The Real Estate Board complained that projects like Sunnydale were too attractive and hurt apartment building owners.
Bobby-soxers posing for 1941 article on Sunnydale. Caption read “This is close view of one of the Sunnydale apartment homes. Their units are of similar design but their excellent planning avoids any monotonous look.” (San Francisco News-Call Bulletin, January 10, 1941. San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History Center, AAD-6107)
Public housing in San Francisco was segregated for its first dozen years, with African-Americans limited only to the Westside Courts project in the Western Addition at Sutter and Broderick Streets. The San Francisco Housing Authority claimed to be “maintaining neighborhood patterns.” In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ended the city’s discrimination by refusing to hear an appeal by the Housing Authority from a lower court decision, which deemed the policies “a guaranty of inequality.”2
Public housing across the nation began to deteriorate in the 1960s, a process that accelerated and, with rare exceptions, has continued to the present day. Our nation’s adopted stereotypes of “the projects” born out music, television, movies, and the media aren’t universal, but Sunnydale particularly suffered over the decades from neglect, crumbling infrastructure, vandalism, crime, and violence. Every ten years or so, a reporter visited to highlight the problems from which most of the city turned its eyes, and still does. In 1988, one newspaper summed up life in Sunnydale as “a no man’s land—a safe house for criminals and an emotional prison for its tenants.”3 In 2008, another article on Sunnydale was headlined “Life at the Bottom.”
That 2008 article mentioned mayor Gavin Newsom’s “Hope SF” program to rebuild the city’s eight worst housing projects, including Sunnydale. Resident Kenneth Johnson was quoted as skeptical: “The mayor tells us to sign up for this and wait a little for that. But we are always disappointed. We’ve been set up for failure”4
Thirteen long years later, the new Sunnydale is finally emerging. Boxy four-and-five story buildings in shades of gray and brown are opening or under construction. Last month, demolition permits for a dozen of the 1941 buildings were filed. Along with replacement housing for existing residents, an additional 995 “affordable” and market-rate units are planned for the site.
Mercy Housing’s 290 Melosi is scheduled to open this fall, with current or former Sunnydale residents having first preference in the placement lottery. (San Francisco Housing Portal)
So any author planning that Sunnydale book may want to wait. After years of neglect, major changes are finally underway at Sunnydale. Will the cartoonish sketches of leafy streets and farmers’ markets become reality? Will there be positive changes for the people who actually live there now? The next chapter is yet to be written.
4. Leslie Fulbright, “Life at the Bottom: S.F.’s Sunnydale Project,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 3, 2008.