Sunday, January 25, 2009

Wise Bayview resident talks about election

by Jeffrey Betcher
Bayview Resident

The day after Senator Obama became President-Elect Obama, Edward Allen’s thoughts went to his military days, a past president, and a time when the country was in peril beyond what we’re experiencing now.

“You can’t touch it,” Mr. Allen said of the Great Depression, World War II, and the generation of Americans that came together to turn things around. He ought to know. He’s lived through most of it.

I wanted to take a walk around my neighborhood, San Francisco’s maligned and challenged Bayview Hunters Point, to soak up the community reaction to the prior day’s election. I said “hello” to Mr. Allen, who was sitting about a minute’s walk from my front door, next to Wendy’s Bakery, looking out onto the unique urban beauty of the Quesada Garden.

Almost daily, weather permitting, Mr. Allen walks by my house carrying a folding stool, and takes position where folks have been gathering for the ten years I can speak to, and probably since the corner emerged from a dirt road and open space. Allen and other locals know that the corner has always been favored by the sun.

“December 7th, 1941,” Allen said. “The whole country came together in about a week.” He blew a gust of military and national history in my direction, complete with dates, names and events. De Gaulle…Churchill…Montgomery…Roosevelt…

Allen served from 1952 to 1954, during the Korean War, spending a good bit of time in Germany where he witnessed the stunning rubble that called itself “Berlin.” The Korean War was the beginning of the United States’ slow left turn into conflicts that should have been avoided, Allen believes. Vietnam and Iraq are on the same list.

“It’s not people like Bush who have to fight,” he said. “Poor folks do that part.”

Allen was drafted away from a job he had held at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for five years, and there was nothing to do but put on a uniform. The Shipyard, a rare hub of job opportunities for working people, was no protection from the draft.

Allen, I already knew, was the son of a farmer. Usually quiet, he was walking by one of the community gardens in the area a few months be ago, on his way to Quesada Avenue and Third Street. He pointed out that the corn in the Bridgeview Garden needed more water than we were giving it. It was obvious that he knew what he was talking about.

Born in 1931, Allen was raised in Louisiana. With the exception of his overseas service, Bayview Hunters Point has been his home since he arrived as a teenager in 1947. When he returned from the service, in 1954, he looked for a job outside the Shipyard. “Working with longshoremen, there was a lot of hard living, drinking and that kind of thing. I ended up working for Best Foods on Bryant, and was there for thirty years.”

The Best Foods job was fortunate for Allen as the Shipyard began its postwar decline, and the neighborhood began to suffer from the evaporation of employment opportunities. But he remains proud of his military service, and his time at the Shipyard.

The election of Barak Obama stirred both that pride and his concern about how far we, as a country, have drifted from the generation of leadership that sent soldiers into harm’s way only when absolutely necessary.

“Where’s Osama bin Laden?” he asked, and then shrugged his shoulders. “And look at all we need here at home.”

The view we had, from the corner of Quesada and Third, supported Allen’s opinions. This is the kind of neighborhood that disproportionally bears the human burden when leaders call upon the military. It’s the kind of neighborhood that most needs the economic vitality that bringing resources home could create.

Allen grew up understanding the struggle to survive, and came of age in an era of unity generated by the demands of World War II, which, he believes, remains the best example of when the United States should fight. He remembers how, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, everything changed and ultimately got better.

Allen understood the comparisons of Obama to FDR. For him, the fact that a black man was elected president is meaningful. But what is more important is that a new president might unite everyone, and cut a path to the future that we all can find and travel together.

As we talked, passers-by -- each different than the last when it comes to race, class, and other things that usually separate us -- all smiled and shared in the excitement of the day. “From the outhouse to the White House,” one said.

If a sunny corner in Bayview and a conversation between neighbors are any indication, Allen’s vision for the country under an Obama presidency seems especially focused, and as close to becoming reality as the people walking by.

Whether we see sudden “change” or a long slow climb, we can find Edward Allen on most sunny days somewhere between the Quesada Garden and Wendy’s Bakery, making sense of the day’s events by remembering the past.

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