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Article 1 of 11-Part Series
Local Paper Weds Radical Politics, Business Acumen
By Eric Zassenhaus
"He told us, 'You can have the paper for two thousand bucks . if you can have the money for me this afternoon," said Mary Ratcliff.
They did. Al-Kareem's urgent need for a down-payment on an apartment turned the Ratcliffs into publishers. Up until then, the couple from Fairbanks, Alaska had been organizing black contractors into the African American Contractors of San Francisco and occasionally volunteering at the paper.
An anomaly in an industry bent on increased consolidation, the Bay View, a weekly with an almost all volunteer staff, has remained independent and fiercely antagonistic to those it sees as bent on exploiting San Francisco's black community.
"They cover stories that are not covered by other papers," said Marcus Clarke, program coordinator for the Bayview Business Resource Center, "especially stories concerning the African Diaspora."
In the last several years, the Ratcliff's attention has been focused on the city's plans for their turf.
When the city issued a "notice of public hearing" on the planned redevelopment of Bayview-Hunters Point, it smelled like an eviction notice to Willie Ratcliff.
"If we allow the Redevelopment Agency Commission, whose strings are pulled by Mayor Gavin Newsom, to declare our neighborhood a 'project area,'" wrote Ratcliff in his February editorial, "we are consenting to our own eviction from the most valuable land - considering we have the best views and the most sunshine - in San Francisco, the city with the most valuable land on earth."
Using his newspaper, as well as a hefty $20,000 donation from North Beach businessman Brian O'Flynn, Ratcliff was quick to rally support from the neighborhood to oppose the redevelopment. In the spring, he gathered 33,000 signatures, far exceeding the 21,000 needed to return the Redevelopment Plan back to the board of Supervisors to reconsider.
In September, however, District Attorney Dennis Herrera ruled the drive invalid, citing the signature gatherers failure to bring with them the 60-page amendment as a reference.
"California law is clear," Herrera wrote, "and California courts have been consistent - that referendum petitions must attach the complete text of the measure along with key documents incorporated by reference."
Mary said they'll appeal the decision. At the moment, they are still looking for a lawyer to take their case.
Meanwhile, from the newspaper's modest home office overlooking Third Street, Mary, 67 and Willie, 74, can see the newly built light rail running practice trips up and down the street.
Initially hopeful, the Ratcliffs soured on the light rail after the larger construction firms contracted to build it failed to hire many local residents.
Now the Ratcliffs believe the city intentionally set out to destroy the mainly black-owned businesses along the strip. To the editors, the proposed redevelopment is no more than a concerted effort to pressure long-time owners to sell out to developers. They feel the Plan's "eminent domain clause," even though it applies only to commercial property, is one of the main tools being used toward this end.
"You don't have to use eminent domain," said Mary. "You just have to threaten it" to frighten residents into selling.
The combined projects of the light rail and the redevelopment plan, they said, go beyond gentrification. They're tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
"Because [the process] was so cruel, it took a long time for it to be believed by the people it was happening to," said Mary. "You don't want to believe that somebody hates you that much."
For its part, the Redevelopment Agency has maintained that it worked with the community for over a decade, fashioning a plan that would keep gentrification to a minimum, and make sure that homeowners would keep their property.
"It's a non-issue. Nobody will lose their homes to eminent domain," said Marcia Rosen, executive director of the Redevelopment Agency. Rosen said estimates have projected the plan will pump $188 million into affordable housing and other benefits for the community.
"You tell me how that will lead to a reduction in property values," she said.
The Bay View has created more than its share of enemies over the years.
Upset politicians and ruffled business-owners sometimes retaliate by encouraging others to pull their advertisements, said Mary. In July, the paper's website, which was receiving more than two million hits a month, was badly hacked. It remained paralyzed in early December.
At a circulation of 20,000 copies a week, the Bay View now prints more than twice as many papers as it did when Willie and Mary purchased it. Since they took control, said Willie, the editorial focus has shifted away from loftier political diatribes and toward pieces on the economic development of the community.
"A lot of people talk about freedom and all these other things," he said. "But they never get down to the real issues."
The paper is primarily a labor of love. The only staffer who receives regular payment is its web and layout designer, Terone Ward. Regular columnists, of which there are four, are paid a small stipend of around $50 a week.
In 2006, the Bay View turned 30 years old, as old as its editors' relationship.
The Ratcliffs met in Fairbanks, Alaska. Mary, then the head of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, assailed Willie, then head of the State Human Rights Commission, for what she saw as unfair hiring practices at the agency.
It was at the Democratic Convention in 1976, where they first connected, and "started screaming at each other," Mary said. "As we screamed for a while, we discovered we really agreed on a lot of things."
Years later, in 1987, Willie convinced Mary to return with him to San Francisco.
"I knew that if I got her here she'd never go back," he said.
Willie had spent several years in the early 1950s working at the Hunters Point shipyard, making $1.25 an hour as a "rigger," directing cranes as they loaded equipment onto ships. It was the higher wages - $2.93 an hour - that convinced him to move up to Alaska, where he eventually formed his own construction company.
With the shipyard, the neighborhood's main source of employment, now closed and the community slipping toward poverty and social strife, the Ratcliffs saw an opportunity to help it rebuild.
"Our detractors who say we have an interest in this are right," she said. "We do have a personal interest in this. We're not outside agitators."
Willie founded Liberty Builders in the mid-1990s, but after a disastrous stint working on the San Francisco Airport Expansion in 1998, the company failed.
Even now the couple hopes to revive Liberty and have plans drawn up for the revitalization of Third Street's dilapidated 4700 block - a plan they say has already gained support from the area's business and property owners. It will require a substantial loan, however, something that they have yet to secure.
In the meantime, said Mary, their only source of reliable income is from social security. But they persist.
During the interview, a lawyer who has been helping them find representation for their appeal against the city called. Mary was brisk in her response.
"It's going to take someone with a lot of resources and a lot of guts," she said.
Moments later she fielded another call from a writer in New York who pitched a piece on the recent shooting of Sean Bell, a resident of Queens who was shot and killed by police on his wedding day.
Mary gave her the go ahead and then turned to resume her interview.
"We have no intention of stopping," she said.
|© 2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism|