The day was September 14, 2015. It was breezy and partly-cloudy, an average San Francisco day for this time in September. But this was not a typical day. Byron Kaufman was in the process of moving out of his house on Yerba Buena Island — he had been for weeks. In fact, about a hundred other residents on the island were going through the same process. It was a day Kaufman knew would eventually come, but nothing could prepare him for what came next.
A neighbor arrived at his house at about half past two in the afternoon, and uttered words that no person would ever want to hear: “I think there is a body at the bottom of the hill.” Kaufman traversed down that ominous, low-lying hill until he came to an old pine tree facing a breathtaking view of San Francisco. That was when he first saw her.
“I walked down and found my neighbor dead with soiled pants and a gun in her hand . . . I almost threw up,” Kaufman said, recounting that sinister day. “I’ve had a challenging life. I’ve done some things that few people would do. Special Forces . . . I’ve been in some crazy shit. This [was] the most difficult day of my entire life.”
Kaufman observed her motionless body, heels pressed together, while her right hand loosely clasped the gun. Blood spilled from her right temple, a horrific reminder of what had just occurred. Kaufman quickly contacted the police and carried the burden of relaying the devastating news to the woman’s boyfriend. The very next day, Kaufman moved to Treasure Island.
Yerba Buena Island and Treasure Island are currently under a $5 billion, fifteen to twenty year redevelopment plan, depending on market demand. Former residents of Yerba Buena Island can attest to this, as they have been directly displaced. The developers, Lennar Urban, Wilson Meany, Stockbridge Capital Group, and Kenwood Investments, plan to include 8,000 residential units in the redevelopment project — 25 percent of which will be below market-rate.
Kaufman discovered he would be evicted the first day he moved to Yerba Buena Island. That was in 2008.
“The day I moved in, it was known in the community that we would be evicted,” he said. “At that time, maybe it was my housemate fucking with me, but he was like ‘look, we might be evicted in ninety days.’”
For many residents of Yerba Buena Island, it was like a dark cloud looming over their heads. The relentless threat of eviction was very real.
“The people who had been there the longest believed that they’d be there forever,” Kaufman said.
He recollects bulldozers razing trees to make an access road around 2014. It was an early indicator of what was to come. When residents on Yerba Buena Island were forced to leave, they were offered to either relocate to Treasure Island or receive a cash settlement of approximately $5,550 per adult, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Many were not pleased with either option, but ultimately, about two-thirds of the residents decided to relocate, according to Kaufman.
The artificially constructed Treasure Island was completed just in time to host the 1939 World’s Fair. In 1942, the U.S. Navy assumed control of the island. That was until 1998, when the Treasure Island Development Authority took ownership of the island. The Community Housing Partnership began developing residential homes for formerly homeless families in the same year. In 2002, the first set of units became available. The redevelopment plan was approved in 2011, but the first phase of construction was not approved until 2015, the same year residents on Yerba Buena Island were forced to leave.
The natural, rolling hills bursting with foliage on Yerba Buena Island is a far cry from the flat, barren landscape of Treasure Island — not to mention, Treasure Island is also radioactive. It has been since the Navy used the site to clean returning vessels after nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1940s. Intimidating bright-yellow biohazard signs recently illuminated the island and read: CAUTION RADIOLOGICALLY CONTROLLED AREA, along with contact information in case of emergency. Those signs are still present today but to a lesser extent.
Former Yerba Buena Island resident Tamara Farley chose not to relocate to Treasure Island. It simply did not possess the qualities that originally made her fall in love with Yerba Buena Island.
“There were trees and flowers, and it was just beautiful and quiet up top,” Farley recalled. “And down below [Treasure Island] there is traffic and it just isn’t the same lifestyle. It wouldn’t have the same feeling. Also I have a son, and the daycare down below just doesn’t have the same sense of community.”
Kaufman also stressed the sincere bond of the now displaced community.
“The roots ran deep . . . it was more than just not locking your door,” he said. “We would go on candle-lit walks together, we would go through a little forest. You know, life can’t get any simpler . . . just joyous.”
It was indeed a tight-knit community, which created a unique sense of belonging that is otherwise lost in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. On the occasional Friday or Saturday evening, right as the sun would set, twenty-five Yerba Buena Island residents would walk around a circular road at the top of the hill while holding candles that illuminated the night sky. Now that is in the past. Kaufman’s connection to Treasure Island cannot be matched by the incredible memories he shared with his friends on Yerba Buena Island.
“There is a still a sparkle there, but it’s pretty dim,” he says. “I can’t re-fight that battle; that battle has passed.”