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A Cultural Hub is Reborn in San Francisco's Bayview District

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The Bay View Opera House (Photo: Anne Hammersky/Bay View Opera House)

Fifty years ago this month, the Bayview-Hunter’s Point District exploded in three days of protests after a white police officer shot a 16-year-old black man in the back. The governor called in the National Guard to patrol the mostly African-American neighborhood, and people holed up in the Bayview Opera House on Third Street.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee coverage of the riots following the shooting of Matthew Johnson in September 1966, during which Bayview residents sought shelter from the National Guard and police in the Bayview Opera House
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee coverage of the riots following the shooting of Matthew Johnson in September 1966, during which Bayview residents sought shelter from the National Guard and police in the Bayview Opera House.

Angelique Tompkins remembers: “The building became a sanctuary at that time.”

The Tompkins family is rooted five generations deep in the Bayview. Angelique is a community activist who’s worked for years to revive the opera house as a place to meet and debate issues like Black Lives Matter or gentrification.

“Talking about what was resistance,” Tompkins said recently while sitting in the Victorian jewel box of a theater. “What was protest, what is resilience in this community, and what we see now as another period of renaissance.”

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That new renaissance begins when the opera house, originally built in 1888, holds its grand reopening Saturday, Sept. 17, after a $5.7 million renovation, paid for by the city and nonprofits.

Architect Paul Cooper, Executive Director Barbara Ockel, and activist Angelique Tompkins on the stage at the Bayview Opera House
Architect Paul Cooper, Executive Director Barbara Ockel, and activist Angelique Tompkins on the stage at the Bayview Opera House (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Executive Director Barbara Ockel says that starting next week, the opera house will welcome kids back for after-school arts programs in dance and music, and concerts as well.

“What was always the most wonderful aspect of working here was the sound of the kids,” Ockel said.

“What we heard from the community was that they wanted a heart for the community,” said Paul Cooper of TEF Design. Cooper worked with the African-American landscape designer Walter Hood to preserve the opera house’s architecture as well as improve its accessibility. Hood set up a rocking chair on the porch for listening sessions in which he took suggestions on the redesign from local residents.

“Our job,” Cooper said as he showed me around, “was to listen to those ideas and harness all the energy that is already here in the community and build on that.”

Cooper oversaw the almost invisible seismic upgrades to the building, and making it ADA compliant. Outside, there’s a new walkway, outdoor theater, drought tolerant plantings and a patch of green.

Outdoor theater at the Bayview Opera House
Outdoor theater at the Bayview Opera House (Photo: Anne Hamersky/Bay View Opera House)

“So now where we had a really ugly parking lot where people were working on their cars,” said Ockel, “we have a beautiful lawn for the kids to play on.”

The reopening party Saturday will feature performances by Mary Booker, who has taught theater and poetry in the Bayview for decades; the Prescott Circus Theatre, and PUSH Dance Company, with its production about the slow cleanup of toxic waste at the Hunters Point shipyards.

After all the work, though, Ockel notes the opera house still needs work. “The paint is peeling outside, and we need to upgrade the stage lighting and sound, which date back to the 1970’s.” So Ockel says the fundraising will continue.

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