In Here/Say's series "When the Lights Come Up in the City," we tour three neighborhoods in partnership with Broke-Ass Stuart to learn how businesses and community leaders pivoted to success during the pandemic. First up: the Bayview.
Forged in the shadow of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, the Bayview is a community known for its grit and self-reliance. It's a tight-knit, historically Black community and the center of many critical businesses—from industrial operations and breweries to innovative food and culture hubs—that proudly emblazon themselves with street art and serve the community and city as a whole.
As the pandemic forced San Francisco businesses to close and residents to scramble to adjust to living in lockdown, the Bayview did what it does best: it quickly pivoted and found ways to keep the lights on using whatever resources were at hand. These are the stories of the people and places who stayed Bayview strong during one of the most challenging years in recent history.
Art is a crucial part of Bayview culture. That’s why influential makers and creators like Nate Watson of Public Glass call the neighborhood home. Since 1997, Public Glass has been the only public access, non-profit glassblowing studio in San Francisco. Located at 1750 Armstrong Avenue, the art facility houses all the resources needed to support local artists who seek a career in glassmaking, including on-site training and professional development for youth and adults. They also provide affordable studio space and host events like their signature "Hot Glass, Cold Beer," which invites the public to watch artists blow glass live.
Eighty percent of the money Public Glass raises from programming goes toward funding materials needed for glass blowing, resources for local artists and salaries for staff. When the pandemic hit and events halted, the organization took a financial hit, so Watson pivoted and turned to the community for support.
"We reached out to folks and let them know that we were in real trouble. At the time, all I could think was if Public Glass goes away, then the support for local artists goes away,” Watson told Here/Say. “And if we don't have organizations that support artists, then artists leave the community, and I don't think that people understand what the absence of creative people working in a community actually means."
Watson's outreach helped him not only to revive Public Glass, but also to connect with a new community development called the Bayview Gateway Project. Spearheaded by the Bayview Hill Neighborhood Association, the project installed seven 10-foot concrete letters that spell out "Bayview" on Third Street, near Meade Avenue. The letters will feature a mosaic of ceramic material sourced from the neighborhood’s residents and are designed to be visible from the Bayshore freeway. Public Glass stepped in and is now leading a team of artists and community members to gather and place pieces for the mosaic.
"It's kind of like a time capsule," said Watson. "We're mining the material from the neighborhood and then putting it at the entrance to Bayview. It really lets people know what happened here."
Bayview residents have donated materials that range from dishware to pottery and jewelry. Once Watson and his crew receive the material, they smash it into smaller pieces and transfer those to different community centers like the Bayview Senior Center and Kipp Middle School, where groups of volunteers lay out and place each piece on a tarp that will eventually be installed on the 10-foot letters.
"It's special because it shows who's been here, who is here now, and how we have all come together," Watson said.
Founded by the nonprofit organization Economic Development on Third (EDot), the Bayview Makers Kitchen provides a commercial kitchen for creative chefs to expand their business and offer packaged goods. As the Executive Director of EDot, Earl Shaddix's days are typically focused on developing a plan for attracting and retaining businesses along the Bayview's Third Street commercial corridor. When the pandemic hit, Shaddix feared that the vibrant food scene emerging in the Bayview would fizzle out, so he took matters into his own hands and committed "nonprofit suicide.”
"We cashed out all our programming money and handed checks to businesses along the Third Street corridor to cover at least two months of expenses," Shaddix said.
But as time passed and the sheltering in place continued, Shaddix realized that wasn't enough. So he collaborated with the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) and SF New Deal to sign up restaurants to participate in providing meals at a high volume to the essential workers at the Moscone Center's COVID-19 Command Center and city-owned hotels that housed the homeless throughout the pandemic.
"That was our lifeline," said Shaddix. "We didn't lose any businesses. If anything, we are now stronger."
Now alongside EDot's board members, Shaddix is helping five other small businesses and craft makers expand at Bayview Makers Kitchen. The businesses include Nixta, a modern plant-based Salvadorian food company; Bonjerk, an Asian jerky company using ingredients to create flavors inspired by East-Asian recipes; Sweet and Sourcellar, a pickling workshop; Shared Cultures, a small business specializing in using koji, an ancient fungus, to create modern fermented food products; and The Vegan Hood Chefs, who specialize in creating vegan soul food and American-style favorites. Each vendor has also committed to using the space to host and teach community classes on making and producing goods at a high volume.
"A new economy has emerged," said Shaddix. "A lot of restaurants had to pivot and reinvent themselves, and what has emerged from all of this are homemade packaged goods, and there are several places in the Bayview that are part of it."
Built to look like a 1940s themed supper club, Old Skool Cafe features vintage decorations, classic cocktails and an event space for live music. Since opening its doors in 2012, Old Skool Cafe also employs and trains at-risk youth so they can gain skills and experience in the restaurant industry. In addition to operating the cafe, young employees at Old Skool Cafe attend weekly one-on-one training sessions with a life coach.
“The youth that we hire come to us from various life paths," said Desiree Maldonado, the floor manager and a graduate of Old Skool Cafe. "Many of them have been involved in the juvenile justice or foster care system."
The real magic at Old Skool Cafe happens in the kitchen.
"Our most popular dishes here are Daniel's gumbo, shrimp and grits, the peanut butter stew and fried chicken," said Maldonado. "The recipes are from some of our youth's family members, and everything from the chefs to prep cooks and dishwashers and hosts is all managed by youth," she added.
The majority of Old Skool Cafe's training requires youth to be on-site and in the kitchen, so pandemic shutdowns presented a significant challenge—one that made the future of Old Skool Cafe unclear.
"We were in the middle of a training session at Michael Mina's restaurant when I got the news that we were shutting down because COVID took over the Bay Area, and I freaked out," said Maldonado. Old Skool closed for a week to figure out the best way to pivot. They reached out to their donors and community members for financial support to keep their doors open and so youth could keep their jobs.
Even with community-backed funding support, Old Skool still had to figure out a new way to train and support youth under the city's shelter in place order, so they decided to shift to virtual paid training.
"We required youth in virtual training to be present with their cameras on because even through all this, we are still focused on professional development, but some didn't have wifi access or laptops," said Maldonado. So Old Skool bought six laptops and created a digital library where youth could come and borrow them to access training. "We even let youth use the laptops for distance learning," she added.
As the shelter in place order shifted, so did Old Skool Cafe, and what was first looked at as significant disruption became an opportunity for them to expand. "It was an opportunity to do something creative," said Maldonado. "We've never had outdoor dining; now we do on Mendell Plaza. We've never [done] to-go orders; now you can get Old Skool on apps like DoorDash. These have all turned into fun and exciting ventures for us."