St. Francis Square

SFS - banner image

On Saturday mornings in St. Francis Square, Chinese music floats gently upwards from one of the courtyards in the middle of the community. The music accompanies a group of women engaged in a traditional Chinese dance, a beautiful ritual that is as much a part of the landscape here as the lush gardens and towering pines that define the shared inner courtyards. Residents describe St. Francis Square as a peaceful refuge amidst the busy city of San Francisco. "Here," one resident said, "its possible to come home from work, sit down on my balcony, and look out on a huge mountain black pine, listen to the birds that sing from its branches, and feel as though I'm a million miles from the city."

SFS - kids at play

St. Francis Square, a cooperative apartment community, consists of 299 family-sized apartments in three-story, walk-up buildings that wrap around three shared, open squares. Each has a personality of its own. In the first, a grove of pine trees shades paths that wind from one building to the next. Neighbors love to sit on benches here and enjoy the serenity of the space. In the center of the community, the largest square, which measures 300 feet by 250 feet, features a garden with a fountain at its center as well as two basketball courts. The third square, which is home to the playground, is a favorite with children. Residents each have a balcony at the back of their apartment, except for the first-floor residents whose back doors open onto private patios. The interiors of the apartments are oriented to the open space; large window in the living rooms look out on the courtyards, and bring a little of their enchantment indoors. Even the fences that divide private patios from the shared squares do not block the magic of that outdoor space from penetrating the interiors; the fences are made of latticed redwood that is easy to see through. This quality, residents claim, also makes it possible to see children playing in every inch of the property, so that they can be easily supervised.

These courtyards are the heart of St. Francis Square and have become the staging grounds for many aspects of residents' daily lives. As the morning sun breaks over the square, men and women engaged in their daily ritual of Tai Chi are silhouetted on the green grass of the courtyard. These rituals, which seem to help slow the pace of urban life and encourage a nearness to nature, reflect the culture and spiritual beliefs of those who live at St. Francis Square.

In addition to organized dance and exercise classes, children play on jungle gyms and basketball courts, adults chat on benches amid flower gardens, and students do their homework in the shade of towering pine trees. Social events such as weddings are also frequently held in the squares; one resident sent invitations to everyone within the community, and they all came bearing gifts. Some brought homemade delicacies and others provided roses from their gardens for the neighborhood children who served as flower girls. The lush courtyards and the activities they inspire imbue St. Francis Square with a unique sense of place.

Given the beauty of the open space in St. Francis Square, it is difficult to believe that the apartments sell for only $120,000, a striking contrast to the average selling price in surrounding neighborhoods of $550,000. Especially in San Francisco, a city of soaring housing prices, the limited equity policy that has kept prices so low in St. Francis Square is a rarity. However, the policy is in keeping with the development's roots as a project launched by the longshoremen's and warehousemen's union (ILWU). In 1963, ILWU, in conjunction with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) was the first union on the West Coast to invest its pension funds in affordable housing for low-income workers. Evidence of these roots can be seen in the continued limited equity housing, as well as the continued residence of many union workers and organizers (and, until recently, authors Alice Walker and Tillie Olson).

SFS - people walking However, the    union went beyond  simply meeting  the basic  requirements of  low-cost housing.  According to  ILWU Secretary-  Treasurer Lou Goldblatt, their purpose "was to build a consumer-controlled, non-profit development truly run by its inhabitants as a democratic community, and to build a fully integrated project which would represent all races and groups in the community." Such attention to design has rewarded the investment with national recognition, including awards such as the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence.

Even more telling than such awards is the fact that the residents have stayed in the neighborhood. According to residents, three generations of children have been raised in the community: "a majority of people here have stayed since the beginning, for 37 years," attests one resident. Today, 54% of the residents are over 64 years old. As the neighborhood becomes more elderly, residents feel the value of their especially close community: there is an ever-present support network available in case of emergency. For example, describes one resident, "if someone hasn't picked up their paper for a few days, there are caring neighbors to check in on them and make sure everything is okay."

This kind of collective care-taking extends to the maintenance of St. Francis Square as well. Each resident contributes funds for the salaries of two groundskeepers. Additionally, individual residents tend to much of the gardening, though occasionally they organize planting parties that help unite neighbors in the nurturance of the courtyards, which form the green heart of their community.

From gardening, to wedding organization, to care of the elderly, to childcare, the residents of St. Francis Square have spread the burdens and rewards of the neighborhood evenly. St. Francis Square Cooperative was conceived as a way to provide affordable housing to for the hardworking people of San Francisco's fishing and shipping industries. The original founders may be surprised to see that the term "cooperative" extends beyond the financial structure of the apartments; it describes a way of life for St. Francis Square residents.

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