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McGee Avenue Baptist Church: Preserving Housing and History

South Berkeley has a long history as a social and cultural center in the Bay Area, and the McGee Avenue Baptist Church has been at the center of the development of this community for a century. Now they have teamed up with the Bay Area Community Land Trust (BACLT) to preserve affordable housing in the area and keep a historical community alive, dedicating eight long-vacant units on their property to the cause. The project was awarded $1 million from the City of Berkeley’s Small Sites fund, enabling the BACLT to begin rehabilitating housing units that will be kept below market rate for eligible low income tenants; the church’s donation, the city’s subsidy, and the BACLT’s work will preserve these affordable housing units for years to come.

To enable people to remain in South Berkeley, an area that is undergoing intense gentrification, is to preserve an important history - a history of one of the Bay Area’s largest African American communities. African American families moved to Berkeley in great numbers during the 40’s for the wartime job opportunities and the public school system. The jobs were well paying, especially for those who had previously been sharecroppers in the South, and many families could buy houses for the first time. Real estate covenants and agreements in place in the city prohibited selling houses to African American families above Martin Luther King Jr. Way (formerly Grove Street), so South and West Berkeley became predominantly African American neighborhoods.

Though the neighborhoods were largely separated, the integrated school system and little league allowed for interactions between communities that benefited everyone. Darryl Bartlow, who moved to Berkeley for first grade in 1953 and has been here ever since, recalls that people in Berkeley had a hard time contextualizing the racial issues in the South during the 50’s and 60’s because African American families had a very different experience here. “I didn’t really know exactly what a segregated society was,” he said.

McGee Avenue Baptist Church was a huge communal center at this time. “Three institutions influence character, particularly among young folks: family, school, and the church,” said Bartlow. He graduated with Reverend James “Jim” Stewart’s son, and attended throughout his childhood. The church was a driving force in the development and growth of the community. It particularly served the younger generation through recreational activities and field trips, as well as through a moral education. Adults and children would go to the church together to connect with members of their community and culture. It gave the adults a chance to socialize, and taught children about their culture, reinforcing their self esteem and confidence. Bartlow attributes South Berkeley’s formation of “good citizens” to the church.

McGee has also been the center of this very progressive community’s social movements throughout its history. Reverend Stewart, who spent many years at the church, was involved in the Black Panther movement. Susie Gains, who was influential in local government and started Berkeley’s first senior center, would attend McGee Ave every Sunday. The church fostered South Berkeley's first Boy Scout troop, and held the area’s first voter registration drives for African American communities. When neighborhood families began being priced out and becoming unhoused, McGee members started programs to feed the community. The church’s members organized an economic development initiative for community members to financially benefit themselves and those around them. Parents at the church started groups like the Black Student Union to ensure adequate representation for students of color at Berkeley High School.

Reverend D. Mark Wilson, who was a pastor at McGee from 1992 to 2014, witnessed first hand this neighborhood’s transition into a new era of gentrification. Through his time at McGee he saw the neighborhood change from predominantly black, with most families owning their property, to gentrified; South Berkeley’s white population has steadily increased with each year, and the area is now around 51% white. The transition to a new generation of gentrification is evidenced by a new median age of about 34, and a steadily climbing median income that now sits around $75k. Wilson saw white families that moved in and overutilized the police to criminalize many of the young African American men he worked with in the neighborhood. He saw city policies that made it difficult for a lot of these men to return to their neighborhood after their criminalization. He also knew many African American families in the neighborhood that were forced to sell inherited property that had been in the family for generations to a new wave of largely white residents because they couldn’t afford to pay newly increased property taxes. This is a trend nationwide - gentrification exponentially displaces historical communities as new residents increase property values and taxes for the area, initiating a spiral away from affordability for an area’s original residents.

Derrin Jourdan, Chair of the Board of Trustees and member of thirty five years has seen the same effects. In his time with the church, membership has dwindled from around 700 people to about sixty regular attendees in recent years. The average age of membership has changed from around thirty to over sixty, and almost all the church’s members now commute. As the new generation is forced to sell inherited property, they have to move away, largely to Solano and Contra Costa counties, where they are too far from the church to continue attendance regularly.

The church’s fall in membership is a symptom of the strong forces of gentrification working within South Berkeley. “A new community is coming in, and that new community is not for African Americans or the poor,” said Wilson. He sees this neighborhood’s future as determined by one simple question: “Do we care for human beings or do we care for economics?”

As developers and city governments continue to concern themselves primarily with economic gains and long-time community members are priced out of the area, the church becomes able to reach fewer and fewer people. The strong history of accomplished people in a positive communal environment is lost as families are forced out by gentrification. Not many people remain in the area to keep the narrative alive, and thus not many people know of the grand history of these African American communities.

South Berkeley was a home to African American school board representatives, police officers, and firefighters at a time when those were positions rarely held by African Americans anywhere in the nation. This community fostered Dr. David Blackwell, the first tenured African American professor at UC Berkeley, and Don Barksdale, a pioneer African American basketball player, as well as many, many others. The neighborhood was more than just big names though. Wilson recalls Mr. Joseph Charles, the Waving Man, who would stand on his porch on the corner of Oregon and Martin Luther King Jr. Way each morning, waving at commuters and spreading joy to the neighborhood. Each person in South Berkeley had, and still has, something to contribute, whether through activism, the church, or friendly neighborhood support. Bartlow remembers a vibrant community where outstanding role models were always right next door. He worries that as the community is stretched thin, the younger generation no longer has the influence of those figures or of the church to create high aspirations for them.

The Bay Area Community Land Trust works to take housing off the market and preserve its affordability for low-income families, working with systematically disadvantaged people to ensure that they can afford to stay in their neighborhoods and maintain a connection with their communities, roots, and histories. Working to ensure that residents can remain where their homes are will keep these communities and their stories alive for the future.

Kai Page is a recent Berkeley High School graduate who is now attending McGill University. He is a Bay Area native, and has witnessed the effects of gentrification on his home, which prompted his interest in affordable housing. He entered the field by working as an intern for the Bay Area Community Land Trust.

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