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Western Neighborhoods Project
"I am OMI"

Interview with Roland Gordon

May 21, 2003

Woody LaBounty

LaBounty: Interview with Reverend Roland Gordon at Ingleside Presbyterian Church, May 21st, 2003, by Woody LaBounty.

So tell me, first of all, how did you get to the OMI?

Gordon: How did I get to the OMI? When I moved up to San Anselmo for seminary in 1978. This church had died off to four members, the property was the eyesore of the community, the community called it the "pink elephant." Our presbytery pretty much had given up on the Presbyterian witness here at this site. So a few of my friends called me in to preach on Sundays, two ministers that knew about me. I was already a young preacher. I was in the seminary for two months and came over here to preach on Sunday morning to keep the worship service going, but I saw a bigger picture that the Higher Power was calling me to at this site. I liked the community. I saw the potential of the building, although it was outdated. The bathroom was so dilapidated, the women wouldn't even go downstairs to use it. So that's pretty much how I got here.

LaBounty: You came in and preached here, and you just kind of felt like this was the place for you?

Gordon: Well, when I saw the indoor gymnasium, being a former athlete, high school and college ballplayer, I knew. [Laughs] There was no doubt in my mind that the spirit had called me here, because, I mean, growing up, I still love basketball, but I was about thirty-four years old then. I thought about it, as a young person loving basketball, how we used to have to shovel snow off the court back in Gary, Indiana, to play. There was an indoor gymnasium, it just needed some updating. So, yes, I knew with that gym that that was definitely in my athletic abilities and my love for the game and all that. You know, the game can mean--to transferring those things you learn on the court, team ball and team play and all that stuff, carry over to life, that that could be a tool for training children.

LaBounty: This building was pink?

Gordon: They called it the "pink elephant." It was pink inside and out. I don't know what it was, the vision or whatever it was, to paint a building this large pink, but it was pink.

LaBounty: There were only four...

Gordon: It had died off to four members in this large building. And again, our structure was considering selling the property. In fact, they had listed it. They never admitted it to me, but years later the realtor, he was an elderly gentleman, he came down, he wanted to know what happened. He said he wanted to meet who the pastor was, because he wanted to know what happened, because this property was listed with him. But our structure, they deny it, but he told me, he confirmed it, it was up for sale, because they'd given up on the ministry here, the Presbyterian ministry in this community, at this site, at least.

LaBounty: What year was this?

Gordon: 1978. I came in August of '78, yes.

LaBounty: You grew up in Gary, Indiana?

Gordon: Indiana, yes.

LaBounty: So how did you go from Gary, Indiana...

Gordon: From Gary, Indiana, I went to college, Baldwin-Wallace, right outside Cleveland, Ohio. I worked there in Cleveland for a little while, was, in fact, the first African American in management at Blue Cross Insurance there in Cleveland while I was in school. When I finished my bachelor's degree, I always wanted to get away from cold weather, so I saw that I had some writing skills and also was a decent speaker, so acting became my big vision, and I moved west to actually pursue acting.

One of my partners was already in the creative field. He and I put together a musical called Revelations from the Bible. I actually played in that musical, and I saw that I really had some talent in that area. So I was part of the cast there for a while, and then I went to acting school. He challenged me to--we had a disagreement--to write my own musical, and I actually wrote a musical myself. I produced it with some kids. It's still got great potential. I'm going to pull it out of the can at some point in time.

LaBounty: What was it called?

Gordon: It is called The Winds of Change. It's actually talking about the change that's blowing over through young people, the fresh thinking. They know that war and all this stuff, and they're clear about it, what with the demonstrations from the current war, they know that war is not the answer. We've got to learn how to live in peace and respect all humanity. So it's pretty much that kind of theme, of the refreshing thinking of young people that's going to change the world at some point in time.

LaBounty: When you wrote this, were you a young man then?

Gordon: I was in my late twenties when I wrote that musical. Of course, my thinking was--I've always had a heart full of love because of my mother, watching her, growing up in our community everybody resonated to her. No matter what their race, creed or color, we were all in the slums together struggling to survive, and they all loved my mother, and she would respect everybody, she would give to everybody. If there was a death in the community, didn't care what their race was, she would be at the house scrubbing and cleaning and cooking, and just a lovable person finding ways to bless people. I saw that with my eyes and I saw that my heart was her heart.

I didn't know I was going to be a minister. She used to call me "Preacher" as a young kid, but I had no idea that that was going to be--my journey was to end up being a preacher, but she knew, evidently. But my heart is, I love people just like she did, and I like to respect everybody, and anything I can do to help a person, I don't care who they are, what color and all that stuff, it doesn't matter, I want to do it. She always would find ways to bless people, and I find I be the same way. If I see a need, I try to see how I could help. Or even like with this Cultural Participation Project, how can I bring the community together, like around Christmas, with my musical tribute to Mama. Just bringing people together in love in positive ways.

LaBounty: So you came to California, you had dreams of acting or performing in some way.

Gordon: Yes.

LaBounty: Did you go to Southern California then first?

Gordon: I was in Los Angeles, actually in Hollywood, and studied with, I think, Denise Nicholas from Room 222 was one of my teachers. Esther Rhode [phonetic] ended up teaching. The school was called Kirkpatrick Cambridge Acting School. I got in that circle a little bit, of some of those stars and everything, and I saw it really was not my lifestyle, partying and all this stuff. Plus, I had a family.

So I opened up a gift shop in L.A. I did greeting cards, posters, and my shop was called Roland Gordon's Creations. "Simply the most creative shop in the West," was my theme. I would gather those guys down there that could make things, lamps out of trees, and great art. I mean, some of the greatest art you're going to see. I mean, right there, raw talent right down there in L.A. So I opened up my little shop and I began to promote the arts, more or less. One thing led to another, and then some hardship, somebody broke in my shop and took everything out of there. Then they broke into my home and took all my clothes, and the most I got, this crooked finger is my legacy of that.

During that time of hardship, the ministry crossed my path, so I say the spirit brought him to me. He told me to read the Bible was the bottom line, was what it said, ask God and build the truth of Jesus Christ. I started reading, and everything my mother stood for and everything that was really my foundation just became alive. So I gave my life over to Christ and united with a church family down there. They needed a youth minister, so I began as a youth director. My teams were basketball champions, they were baseball champions, and bowling and everything. I got them to get the kids involved and it really brought some life to that church.

One day an old man said, "Have you ever thought about seminary school?"

I laughed at him, I said, "Me?"

When I thought about it, thought back on my journey, my heart and everything, I said, "You know, all along God was preparing me to be a minister."

Well, actually I went to Fuller [phonetic] Seminary for one semester just to see if I could do graduate work, because I was out of college, I had received my graduate degree about eleven years before that. I saw I could, and I applied to San Francisco Theological Seminary, and then that's how I got to this area, when they accepted me, and also wanted to give me housing and a little scholarship and everything. So, yes, that's how I got here.

LaBounty: So tell me about, you said you had a family when you came out west?

Gordon: Yes, my wife and my baby daughter.

LaBounty: Did they go through all this hardship with you and you suddenly becoming a preacher and all that? I mean, what happened with all that?

Gordon: Well, my wife worked for United Airlines, so she pretty much had the stable job. When I came to this church--when I moved to seminary, of course, I didn't have a job or anything, so she kind of carried the load. The rent was reasonable and everything, so that was no problem. In this ministry they couldn't afford to pay, not really, so I worked for a base salary of $50 a week for five years there. She used to think I was crazy. You know, "Why don't you get a job so you can help the family out?" Hey, somebody's got to sacrifice to make this thing work, and I felt I was called to this site to make it work. So, yes, my family, they struggled, basically, a little bit, because my wife had to carry me. She carried the load until I was able to finish seminary and got my ordination to full-time, and they called me full-time down here to make a decent salary, and I support the family. But, yes, we struggled, that's the truth.

LaBounty: As far as emotionally, when she met you, I guess you hadn't given your life over to God and you weren't going to be a preacher, you were going to be an actor maybe, or you had a gift shop. How did she go through that?

Gordon: Well, see, I knew her in the fifth grade. We grew up together. Well, we didn't grow up all the way together, but we were in the same neighborhood. In the fifth grade, and then later on in high school, I was a star athlete. I had never really paid any attention to her and then she invited me to what they called the "turnaround," the girl asked the boy to a dance, and I remembered her from way back when. So anyway, we started dating and then eventually got married. So she was with me in college, struggling. She worked at United Airlines then, actually.

Then when I felt the sense of wanting to be an actor and all that stuff and moving west, she came west and kept her job with United. So she just transferred out here. She was the stabilizing force, to be honest with you, while I was trying to find myself. Then when I knew that the ministry was what the Higher Power was calling me to, then I dug in and I became a real serious student, actually almost an "A" student, to be honest with you. I was a "C" student on my undergraduate work, but when I found out exactly what I wanted to do, it changed. But she pretty much supported the family during that time.

LaBounty: She was okay with you going to become a minister?

Gordon: Yes, she was. Yes, yes. Then she went on, after I got my credentials, she went to night school. I don't know how she did it, but she went to night school and continued working, and she's an attorney. So she got her law degree and passed the bar. But she was always good in academics. I struggled, but she was always disciplined. I was the wildcat, but she was real disciplined.

LaBounty: So you grew up together in Gary, Indiana?

Gordon: Yes, we grew up there.

LaBounty: Tell me what that was like as a kid, being in Gary, Indiana. You said it was cold.

Gordon: It was certainly cold. But where we lived, we actually were in the slums and actually were not a middle-class family or anything, but poor to a certain extent, but didn't even know it because we just had fun. You know what I mean? My mother sacrificed. My father, he died when I was nine years old, but he worked hard, hard-working guy, and provided until he died. Then we were welfare people, because my mother had nine children, and all of us were basically young people, so she couldn't work, she had to raise us, but she stressed education.

At that time, the school I attended, they prided themselves on education, and because of the time I was growing up, the black teachers could not get jobs other places, so we had a concentration in my school of excellent teachers. Boy, they disciplined us and everybody had a goal of going to college, basically speaking.

So in our era, back in the early sixties, when I graduated from high school, basically everybody went on to be something because of the teachers. Education was the way out, is what they would always say. I went back for my reunion. We've got doctors, lawyers, we've got everybody, professional people, and it was because of that concentration, I think, of excellent teachers back there in our school.

Basketball was my way out. My two older brothers were star athletes, and I saw getting a scholarship through my athletes skills. Also my goal was to be a professional basketball player, and that motivated me to discipline myself as far as my body and everything else. I wasn't a wild kid as far as out there smoking and drinking and all that stuff. I wanted to be a star athlete and I wanted to take care of my mother. I had a goal of purchasing a house for her and all this stuff later. So that motivated me to get my life in order and focus me on doing pretty much the right thing. She passed when I was twenty-one years old, so that didn't pan out, as far as me taking care of her.

The one thing she did that was really important, when my father died, at the age of nine, she used the insurance money to get us out of like the projects and that kind of living. She bought a house, and so we had a big yard and we were reared in a house when a lot of my peers were in apartment buildings and all that. My mother actually had enough foresight to purchase land, so we were reared in a house. I think that made a difference, too, in our development. Even then, with that house and that big yard, we were the center of the community. All the children, everybody, came to us. So we were basically happy. We didn't have a lot of money and all that kind of stuff, but just a happy group of people.

She would always say, "God will provide. He'll make a way somehow." All that stuck with me, and all through my life I've heard her voice ringing. She'd also tell us, "Every tub must sit on its own bottom." In other words, you're responsible for your own self, your own decisions, your life's journey, most especially whether or not you're going to trust the Higher Power.

LaBounty: What was the saying again? I missed that.

Gordon: "Every tub must sit on its own bottom." And I passed it on to children. Don't make any excuse for anything. It's your journey. You've got to decide what you're going to do with it. Whether people influence you or not, you make the decision that it's your life. If you don't, and you reap what somebody else puts on you, that's your problem. But it's your life.

So her teaching of that--and she also told us, "Where there's a will, there's a way." That also carried me through life, that if you got the will, there's a way to do anything and to fulfill your goals and everything, but you got to have the will. She also said, these three sayings, and the next thing was, "Trust in God. The Lord will provide. The Lord will make a way somehow." That teaching, a view when things look bad, that there's a Higher Power, unseen force, that's working for you, you've just got to keep trusting and keep the faith and keep on plugging and know it's going to be all right, and it's right. I mean, she was absolutely right. So I passed it on to other people and I pass it on even now in my ministry, those three sayings.

I'm going to be receiving an award from my seminary, in fact, this Saturday. The Board of Trustees and the Alumni Association selected me as the 2003 distinguished alumni for San Francisco Theological Seminary, and so they'll give me five minutes on the commencement exercise to respond to receiving this award. I've been thinking about it, and I started working on it last night, I don't care how I look at it, I can't get around my parents, the teachings of my mother and my father, the strong foundation. As a kid, I watched my father, he was a man, he worked hard, and a Christian man, and he would give to people and everything, and he stood for something. He would stand for truth. He would not compromise truth or his principles. I inherited that same nature from watching him. Then my mother, that soft heart of giving to people and everything, and trying to help make things better for people, I got that heart. It's a good combination.

So anyway, as I looked at that, here's my mother and my father, the principles that they gave me that is who I am today. It was all basically based on a respect for God and a respect for all human life, and that's molded me. I've got to give credit where it's due; it's my parents that have made me who I am today. Yes, that's the bottom line.

LaBounty: You're one of nine kids?

Gordon: Nine kids.

LaBounty: So where did you fall in that?

Gordon: Right in the middle. In fact, that's the way I see my ministry, right in the middle, with my arms locked with my people and we're all in a line going on with life. Leading from the middle.

LaBounty: So you feel like growing up in the middle has helped you?

Gordon: Oh, yes. I'm in the middle of my family. My older brothers and sisters, they see me as, to a certain extent, a stabilizing force, you know what I mean, right in the middle.

LaBounty: That's a good way to look at it, because if you were in the middle, you could also say the youngest get the attention, or maybe the older, they're up there, they're their first. But you can say, you're in the middle, you're kind of the keystone here in keeping it all together.

Gordon: Good point. Good word. Good imagery.

LaBounty: So tell me about, when you came out here, what was this neighborhood like? It's '78, right?

Gordon: This was '78.

LaBounty: You talked about the church and it was like the pink elephant, and the poor people here and that sort of thing. What was the rest of the neighborhood like? Did you ever live in this neighborhood?

Gordon: I never lived in this neighborhood, but I had to get out, trying to build a church.

LaBounty: Spent some time here, yes.

Gordon: It was predominantly African American. There's been a changeover, I mean, more Asian now, I think. I don't know if it's predominantly Asian now, but I mean, all I see now is many of the black families have sold their houses and moved out of here. I know that was a mistake, but they couldn't have predicted, I guess, how the value of land was going to shoot up like it has.

LaBounty: Right. So you say they sold before it kind of got up there?

Gordon: Before it got up like that, yes. Although they tell me that some folks, they're selling now because they come with cash money, and just "boom" and "boom." How are you going to turn down the kind of money that they're giving for houses now in San Francisco?

LaBounty: Right.

Gordon: But more of a struggling middle-class community. Actually, it's a good mix, because you always had that Ingleside Terrace, and then this part over here, whatever you call that.

LaBounty: Westwood Park.

Gordon: Westwood Park, those folks were pretty much middle-class. I mean, even that Ingleside Terrace, those houses now are multimillion-dollar homes now. So those people are professional people and doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs. [Laughs] But a good mix. It still is a good mix. But I see now it seems like it's becoming more predominantly Asian from what I'm seeing. A lot of people that I've met over the years left here, couldn't afford San Francisco, actually moved to East Bay and other places.

LaBounty: So when you were walking the streets and you were trying to build the congregation here, and what did you see? What kind of people were you meeting and how did you get the word out?

Gordon: Basically the way I got the word out here was I pretty much opened the doors of that gymnasium and the children came to me. This is part of my strategy. And all races, too. Predominately black, but all races would come and play. The kids want to play. That's the bottom line. So I would form teams, and some of the kids from the community would be the coaches or what have you. Then in other leagues, I have church leagues, other churches from that area would come.

What I would do was use that as a teaching method to instill principles, self-discipline and teamwork, and the importance of education. I would always pull them all aside, and we would pray before we'd begin any games. I mean, like on one day there'd be maybe five games played, let's just say, so before everything started, we would pray. I would require that the kids would have to come to worship service at least once, I don't know how many times, out of the season. When the season was over, everybody got trophies. I had a banquet, so all the families came, all races. We brought them together, and everybody got trophies. So the word got out.

So I think it was more of that strategy of the word spreading about there's a young minister here who cared about all the people and the children, and that the people spread the word about the ministry here. We went out actually knocking on doors once or twice, and my people didn't like the experience. Well, I'm the same, I don't like people knocking on my door, you know what I mean?

LaBounty: Right. Yes.

Gordon: So they didn't like the experience of knocking on doors. So I really didn't do much of that, to be honest with you. But it was more from the children, and then having their parents come in, that the word got out that we were concerned.

Then we always had the senior program. It was established here, oh, like 1969, I believe, by the pastor at that time. So it continued. We improved on it and built it a little more with folks coming in and stuff, but we continued that program.

Also, when my reputation got positive, as far as what I stood for, my ministry began to grow as far as other communities calling me to do different things and more high levels of government, even my own structure calling me to do things. So I couldn't spend the time like I did with the children here, and so we incorporated a Community Center. That was the idea for a Community Center. I founded that Community Center.

We also, over the years, our Presbyterian structure one year passed a resolution to claim African American males an endangered species, and that's when I got the crystallization of the idea about a school. When I first got here in '78, I went up on the street and I looked and where [unclear] twenty-eight is, that bell, I saw a school there. I didn't know what kind of school. I could almost hear a bell ringing. So I had the idea, okay, we're going to have a school at some point in time. I didn't know what the school was going to be. When they passed this thing, I said, "Oh, we could have boys, African American boys," because they're incarcerated, they had low self-esteem, killing each other, all sorts of negative things going on. So that's how we founded the Barrett Brown Academy here.

My wall project, that comes to mind, too. I put a picture of Muhammed Ali upon the wall and I noticed all the kids...

LaBounty: In the gym?

Gordon: In the gym. It's still there. I said, you know what, and I put a few more, and every time I put some up they would all, I noticed they would all come to see what new one was up. I said, "They may not read their history, black history, but they'll read the wall." And that's how I started...

LaBounty: They respond to photos, images.

Gordon: Yes. Images, yes. Role models. That's what the kids need, they need positive--so as it began to build in all areas, there were African Americans that could do whatever there was. So it was a good image for the young kids to see that, you know, "Hey, you are somebody. You can do whatever you want. What you want to be, you can be." So that's how that thing took off.

LaBounty: Now it's from floor to ceiling, this collage of images.

Gordon: Floor to ceiling, all over the gym.

LaBounty: Then you've got a mural up there, too.

Gordon: Mural. Yes, we were able to get funds somehow from the city, I forget, arts department or something, to get some artists to draw the mural up top. Then we also got something from the Mayor's Office of Beautification to get some key leaders from San Francisco, African American leaders, that we had on the Commission of Artistry, paint for us. Those are up there. Mayor Brown says that that's going to be my legacy to San Francisco, is that. In fact, he's trying to get--he said he's going to get it on the National Registry. He already sends people over here if they want to. "You've got to come over and see the collage" is what he tells people.

LaBounty: We had our meeting here because of that. Same thing, just to get people from around the state to know what's going on here. They go in there and they get a good feeling. You're right, right away they go, "Okay, we know what's going on here. This is something different."

Gordon: Sam Whiting, who did that article, he said I don't think people really realize that this existed, and in fact, he was saying Ocean Avenue has become a center of African art or something. I forgot how he worded it, but you know what I mean.

LaBounty: Yes.

Gordon: African history or something like that. So, yes, it's been an interesting project. Still I've got, I'd say, at least five more years of work.

LaBounty: There's some open space up there.

Gordon: Yes. I'm on the ceiling now. The collage has spilled over into the basement and everywhere else. Downstairs I'm doing the ceiling. I don't know if you noticed that or not.

LaBounty: No, I didn't.

Gordon: Yes. So I'm doing Michelangelo. My goal is, where you see open space, you won't see any space between pictures, all you'll see is faces everywhere. No empty space anywhere. So I've got a lot of work to do.

LaBounty: Now, what do you think about that? Because it started off as sort of like a black history or black heritage gymnasium, and now it's spilled over, it's going to be all over this church, and then you talk about the neighborhood, it's becoming more of an Asian neighborhood. What do you see down there? I mean, is this going to be an island of African American legacy?

Gordon: Well, if you notice, I've got all people in there, not just African Americans.

LaBounty: Right.

Gordon: I've got all cultures represented. Well, I believe it was a calling from the Higher Power for me to do what I've done, because nowhere in the city--well, now, [unclear] Hutch Community Center on McAllister and Webster, Wendy Nelder, have you heard, made a beautification fund, had commissioned artists to do African American leaders around that wall, and that's pretty much a black community over there. But otherwise in this city there's no black museum.

LaBounty: So you're making one.

Gordon: They call this place the museum, in fact. So during Black History Month, I mean not just for black people, but it's important to all cultures to understand and learn, because many people have the image of black people just as criminals and stealing. You know, when you come and you really check it out, you name the field and we got giants in the field. So we do everything. We're just people. I think the message is, we're all just people. We all have great people and we also have problems in all races, but we all can achieve. It's a matter of making your mind up; it's not about skin color. So there's a message in there, and I think the project is very important. I really do.

LaBounty: It definitely is a moving thing, too. You walk in and you go, "Wow." It's an emotional reaction you get in there.

Gordon: That's what most people do when they come in here, they take a breath.

LaBounty: Yes. So some people, it's funny, part of the reason we started this project was we were trying to get attention to this neighborhood, because we feel like even longtime San Franciscans who grew up here say, "Where is Ocean View? Where is OMI?" You know, they don't even know where it is in the city. And the people who do know it, they'll know it for crime. The nineties, the papers, whenever they would mention this neighborhood they would mention crime. Is it still like that? Do you feel like people know this neighborhood for crime? Is there crime? Is that kind of an illusion?

Gordon: Oh, there's definitely crime, but I don't think it's as bad as many neighborhoods across the city. I can remember the apartments in Ocean View Park when they were dealing drugs, just openly dealing drugs, and people would not even go over there. I think many in that group, they did a concerted effort to try to clean that park up, and the city did respond with police officers and law enforcement.

In fact, one of the kids that got killed over there, named "Squeegee," he was one of my boys, one of the first kids to be killed over there, was a part of my basketball program, outstanding young guy, athlete and everything, but allegedly he was caught up in the drug culture.

So I think all across the nation you've got problems nowadays, so I don't think we--I'm not afraid to walk down the street or anything like that. I don't think most of us now, in most neighborhoods, I think they feel pretty free in this community. It's not like some communities where there's no way you get out, you walk out of your house at night. There have been a few killings and stuff, but you don't hear that like it was in the early nineties, I think, anymore.

LaBounty: It's gotten better.

Gordon: It's gotten a lot better, because the neighborhood has come together. And I think this Cultural Participation Project is bringing the people together and all the positive things that we're trying to do to help out. I think people are just tired of that mad stuff. And trying to do something to influence these youngsters at an early age. I think, again, programs like such as what we've done here, giving kids positive role models and images and stressing education, I think it's helped. It definitely has improved in the years. It's a different scene, I believe. But every now and then you still hear of some kid getting shot or what have you, so they're still dealing drugs and stuff, but that's all over. I don't care where you go, that's the sign of these times which we live, I think.

LaBounty: When you got here in '78 was there any--I mean, it seems to me like people talk about a second arc, right? Like crime got kind of bad and it kind of peaked in the early nineties and then it's gotten much better.

Gordon: That's sounds accurate. Another thing that happened in the early nineties, not only that, but the racial thing right on my church, because I was dealing with trying to help people, and especially these African American boys. One lady in particular, we hired her on in our Community Center and her passion was helping these kids that people considered hopeless, these guys that were dealing drugs. She's got so many success stories. But because of other factors in the community that felt that you locked them up, you don't try to work with them, they fought us. They said I was only promoting drug dealers and all this stuff, but what I was doing was supporting the person who had a passion for trying to rescue these guys. Somebody had to do it. So she had that kind of passion, so I definitely supported her, like I support everybody. I mean, [unclear] anybody.

LaBounty: So she was bringing in guys who, you know, looked kind of criminal or something, and the neighbors got a little upset about that?

Gordon: Oh, heck yes. Yes. Yes.

LaBounty: You thought it was kind of a racist thing, too, they were just like--

Gordon: Yes, because most of these kids were black kids, and the ironic thing about it was she was white. [Laughs]

LaBounty: Isn't that how it always is? Yes.

Gordon: Yes. But I don't care who it is, there's no such thing as a hopeless situation. As long as you have breath in your body, there's hope for you. So if you give up, what the heck. So this lady had a passion for helping those. Another person may have a passion for helping those who are scholars. I'm for everybody, you know what I mean? So if I can give support to whoever is trying to help, I'm going to do it, to support. Unfortunately, it was misunderstood. Even to this day, I got people that look at me in a bad light because I supported her, but I know I did the right thing and I'd do it again.

LaBounty: Now, speaking of that, did you get any like flak for--you walk into a situation, right, you've got poor people here, the place has a bad reputation, it's an eyesore, maybe, and you've got to do what you have to do to improve it.

Gordon: Yes.

LaBounty: Did you get any flak from people for having been out there doing that? You know what I mean, because you have to be aggressive, right? You have to be out there and you have to be like saying, "Come on, let's build this up. Let's work hard," and people might say, "Who's this new guy?" Did you have any of that?

Gordon: Oh, heck, yes. When I first moved to the community--one of my strengths is structure, so one of my strategies was I called a meeting of all the--not all, but the predominantly key leaders that I knew, that people told me about here in this community. I called a meeting to find out what everybody was doing and what could we do to work together, because together we could make the community a better place. I was viewed with suspicion. It didn't work, man. That was when I first got here in 1978, 1979, is when I called that meeting. So I was viewed with much suspicion as a young guy coming into this neighborhood.

When I received that C____ Award, what was that, maybe about 2000, whatever it was, 2001, and the San Francisco Foundation selected leaders in this community, and they put money in this community to bring us together, and the vision I had twenty years earlier began to crystallize, and everybody doubted this was what I was trying to do. So the leaders got together and so we formed a Vision 2000 and all of that. So what I tried to do twenty years earlier, the San Francisco Foundation, when they recognized the supposed community leaders, and put money out here, that brought us all together. The concept was great. Unfortunately, it has not worked the way it should, but still we're on the road to make this a better community and the leaders are cooperating more with each other.

LaBounty: It took twenty years. It's certain to work.

Gordon: Now, I don't know if you remember the fight for senior housing down there across from City College, the Housing Conservation Development Corporation, when I found out they were trying to do something to build housing for seniors, they had $20 million in hand at that time, the county was down in this country and they fought us. It actually went to the ballot and the people of San Francisco voted against us, so we were defeated, I mean, for housing out there.

But during that period, because all the meetings were here and they knew the church, that I was trying to help, the word nigger began to appear on my building. It was in the papers, the Chronicle, a number of papers.

LaBounty: What year was this?

Gordon: This is about maybe 2000. Was that 2000?

LaBounty: Oh, that recent, huh?

Gordon: No, no, no. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. It had to be in the nineties, 1996, maybe. Okay. I'm sorry. I can tell you. Maybe ten. I've got it on the wall out there, so I can get the exact date for you. But, yes, that began to happen.

LaBounty: Because they didn't want senior housing over there?

Gordon: They thought what the senior housing was going to bring was bringing black people to the community, poor black people, when it was for everybody. It would have been a real positive thing for the community. They were going to build an archway over Phelan--what do you call that--the street there--for the kids to cross over to avoid the traffic, and then a high-rise. They were going to build theater facilities for the community. It was a great plan, but it was fought because, again, I felt it was racism to a certain extent. But you know, that happened and it's over and done with, and now you move on. Bottom line.

You asked about the Phelan Loop. Do you remember it was an eyesore of this community?

LaBounty: Sure. I used to take the bus there. Concrete and--tell me what's there now.

Gordon: Well, what happened, even on that, it was the eyesore of the community and just capture the vision that, hey, let's do something about it. Sitting around talking about something, let's--so we organized some folks, starting with first my kids, they began to pick up paper over there and then we organized one event. I've got pictures of it, where we had about 200-some people out there. Wendy Nelder was [unclear] and beautification director, and we organized getting those folks out there and we cleaned up the place further and planted trees, the Urban Forest planted trees out there.

Then the next thing that happened was the committee was going to tear down--I've got it recorded on here. I've got this recorded. They were going to tear down the building. We had the mayor come out when we did that.

LaBounty: Yes, the little shack they had there or whatever?

Gordon: Yes. I went to the mayor, Mayor [Willie] Brown, and I said, "You know, they want to tear down two-thirds of it and leave the restrooms for the bus drivers." I said, "You know, rather than tear the building down, why don't you support us in remodeling it and let me use it as an entrepreneurial experience for a coffee shop for our children from the academy." So he sent me to Michael Burns.

Anyway, this happened before that. They saw we were serious about cleaning up that area, pull them steel beams and trenches out of there and all that stuff. Michael Burns supported us, actually with $100,000, to be honest with you, to put grass out there, new grass, we got sixteen palm trees, we got the irrigation system out there, and the whole nine yards. Now we're about to bring to fruition the entrepreneurial experience by our young people. That should happen pretty soon, actually.

LaBounty: You're building a café?

Gordon: Yes. We'll be building a café out of there. So that was the experience I had with all the folks checking in. This is history, you know what I mean. History on file there.

LaBounty: Definitely.

Gordon: It brought the community together. Even all the different departments of the city came out and fought for it.

LaBounty: To clean it up. Yes, that's the thing I remember.

Gordon: So it was an open area, and homeless people were in there and urinating and all that. So the bottom line, that was us, so we took the lead on that and now it's a gym. Then other people now want to--I think the future plan has to do with--I heard they might be developing a high-rise building. I don't know, something.

LaBounty: There?

Gordon: Well, way down the road somebody's talking that kind of talk, you know. Personally, I think it should be, if they're going to do anything, leave it open for City College. Make it a grant to City College [unclear].

LaBounty: How does City College and State, how do they relate to the neighborhood at all?

Gordon: City College, in fact, when we knew that they were going to be improving Ocean Avenue, Wendy Nelder, who developed into a good friend of mine, and I went to Chancellor Day. We're on good terms now. The first thing that we did was, well, first we went to the fire department, because when you came up Ocean Avenue the first thing you saw, I don't know if you remember when there was a rail fenced in, they used to park their cars there, and it was ugly as heck. The first thing you saw was this ugly fire station. So, bottom line, we went to the captain there and we told him, "Hey, look, we're going to be doing something to clean this community up. The first thing you see off 280 is you." So we got the fence--how did we get that money? Somehow we got to raising money. But anyway, we tore that fence down and put a wood fence up there and put lawn, palm trees. I think the fire department was responsible for that. Put a sign "Welcome to Ocean Avenue."

LaBounty: Right. And that mural, it's got a mural.

Gordon: The mural, Wendy, with her funds, put the mural up. We went to Chancellor Daley and told him, "Hey, okay, the next thing is where that bookstore is." That's all new there. He put a new lawn in, put that fence in and matched the fence up with the fire department. Then when we did get the Phelan Loop, we matched the fences up, and so it was all coordinated effort. But the first thing you see coming up Ocean Avenue is that, the fire department, that bookstore and then the Phelan Loop. So it was a coordinated effort. So City College is a part of it, bottom line.

LaBounty: They do have involvement in the--

Gordon: Yes, they do have. Yes. In fact, Bill Daley when he--I'm a part of his bond oversight committee, so he pulls me in and, "You're a part of the committee." In fact, they plan to do a theater arts building facing Ocean Avenue. They want to make the college more a part of the community, so their future plan is to build a large theater arts building because they have part of that berm up there and it's going to face Ocean Avenue. So they want the interest of City College [unclear] to be, actually the Phelan Loop is what their vision is.

LaBounty: Right. Because it's been separated. I mean, it was built right here as part of it, but it's sort of not been part of the neighborhood in a way, too, the past. So they're trying hard to kind of be part of it.

Gordon: Yes. Well, I think also those younger projects, all the meetings were held here, basically speaking, and the chancellor sent a representative to all the meetings. Bill somebody. Yes, Bill was his name. So bottom line, yes, I think through this project, Ocean Avenue project, it's brought them into the picture and more involvement in the community. Now, San Francisco State, I don't have too much association with them, to be honest with you.

LaBounty: This project that's going on, it's like street merchants have been helping, too, the palm trees they're putting in, all this in the last couple years. I mean, what does the neighborhood think about it? Are they like all behind it or is there a split on this?

Gordon: There was a split for a while because of the bulb-out issue. I don't know if you remember.

LaBounty: The bulb-out. The corners where they have--

Gordon: The corners. That was a hot issue because the business community was against it. The number one issue out in the business community over the years has been parking. Okay. So with the bulb-out, theoretically you lost parking. Well, you've seen how it curves right there.

LaBounty: Because, yes, the sidewalk bulbs out into the street just to help safety for pedestrians, but it takes away parking.

Gordon: Right. So the businessmen were not represented, as far I'm concerned. I don't know if you know about the Ocean Avenue Renaissance Committee. For years, many of us in this community, we lobbied City Hall about Ocean Avenue, improving this thing. So anyway, when the money came under the Brown administration, it was actually going to happen, all of a sudden these guys from out of the hills, I mean they organized themselves and they pretty much were taking over and just ignored this community that we'd been fighting for this and Ocean Avenue improvement. When the money came, then all of a sudden people I'd never seen before--so anyway, the bottom line, they ignored the business people. There was a fight between the business community and this group called the Ocean Avenue Renaissance Committee.

The bulb-out issue was the critical issue. I tried to be a buffer to a certain extent when I understood even though we were going to lose a few parking, we could gain parking right in front of my church where they did the slanting, slants on different streets. We did pick up some parking, and now at the loop they're going to add twenty-one parking spaces there.

Anyway, the bottom line is the parking issue there was a real fight between the business community. So that fight did happen. And again, when I saw actually the bulb-out thing, I thought the bulb-out meant coming all the way in the street. Actually, what it is, it's like where the parking, where cars would be parked anyway and so it doesn't go farther than that. I saw that, you know, the fight that the business community had, I tried to be a buffer to say, "Hey, look." But I don't know if that ever healed, to be honest with you. They were really angry at how that committee rammed that down their throat without them being a part of the meetings. So there was a little fight right there in the gym, and sometimes I'd have to hold folks to one side, or jump up and get ready to work it out, "We've got to talk." You know what I mean?

LaBounty: Yes.

Gordon: [unclear], "Hey, don't go nowhere. You know, you can't go." [unclear]. We worked through, and, you know, now you look back and see, and it's beautiful.

LaBounty: I've heard people say there was a lot of vacancies, a lot of empty storefronts, that it was kind of not a vibrant corridor.

Gordon: That's true.

LaBounty: So you're saying that like when they started to put money in and they were going to do something about it, then people started to be more interested.

Gordon: Yes. Plus there's the property value, you know, it's going up. They need a little bit more coordination on painting. Still you look at it, you look down the street here, most of these businesses, all they need is some paint. Just paint the place up. I know that's going to come now, now that the avenue is improved. They've got to do that next time.

LaBounty: Give me some numbers here. How many people--you started with four when you got here. What's it like now?

Gordon: Our congregation is about 125. Still not a huge congregation.

LaBounty: Now you have the Community Center. How many people do you...

Gordon: Do they serve through that? Okay. They had an after-school project with children, they do job placement, they did computer training. Estimate of the number of people, like, on a daily basis?

LaBounty: You know, roughly.

Gordon: On a daily basis, as far as the young people, I would say--I'm guessing--about fifty kids.

LaBounty: Fifty?

Gordon: Yes. They go to the after-school program.

[End of interview]
California Stories: Communities Speak

This project is made possible by a grant from the CALIFORNIA COUNCIL FOR THE HUMANITIES with generous support from the San Francisco Foundation, as part of the Council's statewide California Stories Initiative. The COUNCIL is an independent non-profit organization and a state affiliate of the NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES. For more information on the Council and the California Stories Initiative, visit www.californiastories.org.

Page launched 10 Aug 2003.

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