A Conversation with David Lee, Exec. Director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee

Urbanist Article January 1, 2000

Bruce Williams: You've been very involved in tracking the changing demographics of the city. How would you describe the major changes that have occurred over the last decade?

David Lee: Well, clearly from my vantage point the increased proportion of Asian
Americans-particularly Chinese Americans-is an important development. Of course, this change has been gradual: the Chinese have been in San Francisco nearly as long as there has been a San Francisco. But, with changes in immigration policy, both the absolute numbers and proportions of Asian Americans in the city have risen substantially during the 1990s. From current estimates, it appears there are at least 50,000 more Asians in San Francisco today than there were in 1990, to over a quarter of a million, and Asians are now more than a third of the population.

The other story of the 1990s has been the demographic shift of the white population to the central neighborhoods of the city. Even though there are fewer whites overall in San Francisco now, several neighborhoods are whiter now than they were in 1990. These neighborhoods include the newly-developing South Beach and SOMA neighborhoods, as well as the Mission, Hayes Valley and the Western Addition.

Finally, these two trends have put pressure on traditionally African American and Hispanic neighborhoods. For that matter, the tight housing market and high prices have put pressure on anyone of lower economic means, regardless of race.

Let's discuss the growth of the Asian community. What's the meaning of this trend for the city?

If you look at the city simply in terms of racial composition, there was a watershed event around 1980 when non-Hispanic whites ceased to be an absolute majority in San Francisco and we became a truly multi-cultural city. Twenty years later, we're getting closer to the day when Asian residents exceed whites as the largest single racial group in San Francisco. It won't happen in the 2000 census, but it will within a decade or so if current trends continue. That will make this city unique in the continental US.

When you look at government, business, and culture, its clear that white San Franciscans still exercise much of the power and dominate political discourse, but that power is inexorably shifting.

If the growth of Asian community is the major demographic story of the past decade, where has that growth taken place?

Well, that's one of the interesting parts of the story. With growth in numbers, the Asian community has spread out in several directions. In addition to migration of Chinatown residents to the Richmond-which has been going on for decades-Asian populations have been growing in the Sunset, in Visitacion Valley, and in Bayview. All over the periphery of the city, really, in neighborhoods where homes can be bought most affordably.

It has been a long time since there has been one Chinatown.

And now there are several; the community is certainly not confined to one neighborhood. And don't forget that there are also concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans, Filipinos, and other Asians as well.

You can really see the impact of Asian immigration in a community like Visitacion Valley. There, extended families are doubling up and working multiple jobs in order to afford entry-level housing in San Francisco. These families are buying property as soon as they can afford it. In contrast, in a neighborhood like the Richmond, the Asian demographic is more likely to be second or third generation residents.

Visitacion Valley sounds like the same old story of immigrants in America, doesn't it?

Yes, it does, and that's an interesting thing about a lot of this growth in the peripheral
neighborhoods. It is often Chinese (or other Asian, or Hispanic) immigrants replacing second or third generation white ethnics-the old Irish and Italian neighborhoods in the Avenues, Excelsior, Visitacion Valley. That's where the white population has been dropping since the 1970s, and continues to drop, as retirees sell and move out of the city.

These are the family neighborhoods of San Francisco. Take a look at the population figures for children, and you'll see that over 40% of children in the city are now Asian; Hispanics are the second largest group, followed by whites and African Americans.

Politically, the neighborhoods will soon be guaranteed representation through district elections. One changing neighborhood you mentioned is the Excelsior. The last time we had districts, the Excelsior elected Dan White.

Yes, and it says a lot about how the city has changed in the 20-plus years since then. It's not likely that District 10 will elect an Irish firefighter in elections next year. Although it's more likely that Asians will represent some of the new districts, it all depends on how well candidates build coalitions-both within the Asian community and with other groups.

You've been working hard to increase the voter participation of Chinese Americans in these neighborhoods.

Yes, that's the goal of CAVEC-to increase and enhance the participation of Chinese Americans in the civic and political discourse of the city. Chinese Americans are under-represented in the electorate compared to their proportion of the general population, due in part to immigration status and age, but the numbers are increasing every year and now represents from 15 to 18 percent of the vote.

It's not our goal simply to elect more Chinese Americans, though I think with the change to district elections it's possible we'll see more Asian supervisors than the three in office today. District elections are propelling the growing political role, but it's a role that is inevitably increasing with time anyway.

What's very interesting about the shift to districts is that the power of the neighborhoods south and west of Twin Peaks-the old family neighborhoods that elected people like Joe Alioto-will be important again. For 20 years, a progressive coalition has held the balance of political power in San Francisco. This coalition was rooted geographically east of Twin Peaks among white progressives, tenants and gays. Now, it appears the balance of power is shifting back somewhat to the home-owner, family neighborhoods. These neighborhoods just have a different complexion than they did 20 or 30 years ago.

Let's shift gears. We've been talking a lot about the growth of the Asian community in the neighborhoods south and west of downtown. What about the rest of the city? You mentioned earlier that a significant development in the 1990s was the shift of the white population.

Yes. If you look at the population estimates, the white population has continued its long term, slow slide in San Francisco. But that is largely because of the population loss in the Avenues and southern part of the city. During the 1990s, particularly with the economic recovery and the development of "multi-media gulch", downtown neighborhoods have become very attractive to what used to be called "yuppies". The growth of a new neighborhood in South Beach, the live/work developments in SOMA, the Mission and Potrero Hill; the "gentrification" of Hayes Valley and the Western Addition-these have all been relatively white phenomena. In addition, the Marina, Pacific Heights, the Castro and Noe Valley are all among the whitest neighborhoods in the city.

The last three years of economic growth have only accelerated this transition, as the domestic in-immigration of young professionals has increased. The demographics of the white population in San Francisco is surprisingly skewed, with the largest number from their mid-20s to mid-40s. No other group has that concentration.

So the whitest neighborhoods are near the center of the city. It sounds like Manhattan to me. Or Paris.

And not like most other American cities.

What about the other major demographic groups in the city – we haven't discussed Hispanics and African Americans.

Looking at the most recent estimates, it appears that the proportion of Hispanics is slowly increasing, and that the population of African Americans is static, as it has been since the 1970s. This is despite high proportions of children in both these communities. Black and Latino neighborhoods like the Mission and Hayes Valley are areas where a white "gentry" is moving in, and in Bayview/Hunters Point, the Asian population has increased markedly.

With incredible competition for housing in San Francisco, much of the African American and Hispanic community seems to be moving out of the city to more affordable locations in the Bay Area. Anecdotally, that appears to have increased in the last few years, but it won't be until the 2000 census that we will know for sure.

David, you are painting a somewhat uncomfortable vision of the future in San Francisco. San Francisco likes to tout its diversity. But it sounds like we are on the way to becoming more spatially and politically segregated. What does this mean to our vision of a multi-cultural society? Is it a myth?

It may well be, at least in part. Don't forget that the neighborhoods at the heart of the the traditional progressive alliance-the areas that supported Tom Ammiano in the mayor's race, for instance-are among the whitest neighborhoods in San Francisco. In some respects, we have really begun to see the multi-culturalism of the city become real in the past few years, and we'll see it even more in the future. That's perhaps most clear in politics, where a city-wide candidate really must appeal across the ideological spectrum to win, but we will also see it in the future of civic and cultural institutions, business, you name it.

And while there may be trends toward ethnic concentration, the city remains very diverse, even on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level.

When you look ahead at the next 10 years, how do you think these trends will play out?

Certainly on a political level, I do think we'll see the growing influence of the Asian electorate, particularly in the Supervisors' races and also in the general elections. On the Board, Asians stand to gain mostly at the expense of whites, who are currently over-represented. I worry that Hispanics and African-Americans may lose political representation under the district system.

If the economy continues to boom and the population continues to increase, I'm concerned that there could be increasing conflicts on a neighborhood level between ethnic communities. The competition for the scarce resource of housing could be sharp. The mere perception of a "zero-sum" game will pose significant challenges to leaders in the Asian and African American communities in Bayview/Hunters Point or whites and Hispanics in the Mission. The current situation has put incredible pressure on folks. It is easy to scapegoat, whether they are "yuppies" or extended
Chinese families. I hope that we avoid demagoguery and retain a civil society in San Francisco.

We've already seen that issue surface in the "Yuppie Eradication Project" in the Mission.

Yes, but interestingly, the rhetoric against gentrification has largely been coming from white progressives. In some cases these may be "first-wave" artists and lower-income whites facing displacement by wealthier professionals. Relatively little outcry appears to be coming from the Black and Hispanic communities. And no one talks about gentrification in the Avenues, only about housing prices.

Do you have any advice for SPUR?

I think any organization which represents the city as a whole faces a challenge in the future. As political power devolves to the districts, broadly based organizations like SPUR will need to be out in the neighborhoods making sure they are responsive to local concerns. Partnerships with local neighborhood organizations will be important. There's no way a small organization like SPUR can be everywhere at once, but you'll need to be in contact with local leadership, and refine your outreach
and communication to reach all of San Francisco's micro-constituencies.

SPUR also needs to keep working, as it has done, to ensure that its membership, board and staff are representative of the demographics of the city. SPUR's strength is in balancing neighborhood and downtown concerns, and trying to be an objective voice for all San Francisco; as always, you've got your work cut out for you.Spur logo

We'll keep trying. Thanks for your insights, David.

About the Authors: Dr. Richard E. DeLeon is professor and chair of the Political Science Department at San Francisco State University, where he has taught since 1970. He is the author of Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991.

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