The New Southeast Community Center Is Filled With Art and Promise

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View of building exterior with tall shaded awning and three-part bronze sculpture in foreground with plantings
The new Southeast Community Center celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 22, 2022. (Ethan Kaplan Photography)

It was hard to find parking near the corner of Evans Avenue and Third Street on Oct. 22, when San Francisco’s new Southeast Community Center officially opened. The assembled crowd — made up of local families, elected officials, city representatives and artists — counted down with Mayor London Breed as she snipped a red ribbon with oversized scissors, the final bit of ceremony before the three-story center’s glass doors swung open to the public. After two years of construction, the day had arrived; people surged in to inspect their new community center.

The 45,000 square-foot building, built by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for $100 million, is the result of generations of environmental activism. The original community center at 1800 Oakdale Ave. opened in 1988 to offset the effects of the Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant on the neighborhood. (Current construction on the plant, the city’s largest, promises to increase efficiency and reduce odors.) Rather than refurbish the original Brutalist complex, southeast San Francisco residents voted to build an entirely new center at 1550 Evans Ave.

Hall with large blue-tinted mural of people in collaged photographs, wood floor below
Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, 'Navigating The Historical Present: Bayview-Hunters Point,' 2022. (Ethan Kaplan Photography)

Set back from its busy corner, the new building is fronted by a wide expanse of native plantings, grassy areas, picnic tables, swing benches and a rocky playground. It also boasts three large-scale pieces of public art, all made in response to the site, its purpose and history.

The most visible is Mildred Howard’s majestic Promissory Notes, an 18-foot-tall bronze sculpture made of three oversized representations of West African currency, positioned to resemble ship sails and providing — the day of the opening block party, at least — the perfect backdrop for drum performances.

Inside the standalone Alex Pitcher Pavilion is Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s Navigating The Historical Present: Bayview-Hunters Point, a hall-wide mural that collages washes of indigo paint with photographs from the neighborhood’s past and present. The images are a mixture of formal portraits and candid snapshots: a smiling sixth-grade class from 1954; a football player posing in his Junior 49ers uniform; a view of Sam Jordan’s Bar on Third. Scrapbook-like, the mural will preside over community events that can open up onto an outdoor amphitheater, where even more celebratory, smiling pictures will be taken.

View of second floor with brightly colored mural against far wall and glass-edged stairs descending
Phillip Hua, 'Building a Better Bayview,' 2022. (Ethan Kaplan Photography)

The third (and most glittery) of the public art pieces comes from Phillip Hua, whose wall-mounted 3D mural Building a Better Bayview pays homage to “The Big Six” (Alex Pitcher, Harold Madison, Ethel Garlington, Dr. Espanola Jackson, Shirley Jones and Elouise Westbrook), the community activists who originally founded the Southeast Community Center. While streets in Bayview are named after Westbrook, Jackson and Garlington, Hua puts images to these names, rendering their faces in rainbow hues. (The artist worked closely with the founders’ families to select these representative images.) Covered in gold leaf, the mural glows across blocks of varying depth, creating a sense of “in progress,” a reference to the ongoing community activism taking place both inside and outside the center’s walls.

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As the new community center settles into its role, it will become an everyday destination — for childcare, nonprofit work, community meetings and casual hangs in its on-site café. The additional art that lines its second and third floor hallways will become familiar sights, enmeshed in the building’s very mission. This collection of nearly 40 two-dimensional works — all purchased by the San Francisco Arts Commission — was sourced from the Bayview Artist Registry, a group of artists with meaningful ties to the community.

Interior with round couch and three framed works on wall next to window
A view of the Southeast Community Center's third floor, with photographs by Derek Macario on the right. (Ethan Kaplan Photography)

Among the framed photographs, paintings, drawings and mixed media works are familiar representations of the life that passes through nearby streets (like Derek Macario’s joyful street photography). There are elegant compositions that pay homage to the opportunities that brought so many to San Francisco during WWII, and the labor that continues to build this city (Suhas Bhujbal’s painting On the Way to Work is a standout). And there are testaments to the innovation that defines San Francisco’s artistic past and present, thanks to Ron Moultrie Sanders’ beautifully layered photograms.

The new Southeast Community Center stands out from its surroundings — for its shininess, spaciousness and open, welcoming spaces — but it’s the type of building this area of San Francisco, now engaged in yet another battle for environmental justice, has long deserved. As sea level rise threatens to spread old pollution from the Hunters Point Shipyard, it’s the activity that will take place here that will truly shape the future of the neighborhood.