Western Neighborhoods Project
"I am OMI"
Interview with Al Harris
July 3, 2003
Picar: This is Maria Picar. I'm doing this interview on Al Harris today and on his biography. It's about three-thirty, approximately, so we're going to start.
Al, I want to know how long you've actually lived in this neighborhood.
Harris: I bought a house here in November of 1974, so, a long time, and happy to be here.
Picar: Good, good. I know you're very active in the neighborhood with different organizations, so which ones are you a part of, and how do you feel about working all these different community groups?
Harris: Actually, this job that I have, part of my requirement is that I do attend community organizations' meetings, so I'm actually a part of about ten or twelve, I think, in some capacities more than others, of course. But with the Neighbors in Action and the Community Action Organization are the two most active here in the OMI, but also because we are part of a District 11 now, because there's different organizations from different part of the districts that I'm also affiliated with now.
Picar: That's good. You're very active. I know that you have a couple of kids, right?
Picar: Four? I didn't know you had four. What are their names? I know Julie.
Harris: There's Gina and Becky and Anthony, in addition to.
Picar: I didn't know that. How old are they?
Harris: Gina's thirty-eight. Becky is thirty-four. Anthony's thirty-one. Julie is twenty-one.
Picar: I just assumed you just had Julie and Anthony, so, oh, well. [Laughs] They all grew up in this neighborhood?
Harris: Yes, they did, absolutely, yes.
Picar: I know Julie went to SOTA [School of the Arts].
Harris: Yes. Gina went to Lincoln. Becky went to Wallenberg, and Anthony went to Burton.
Picar: What are they all doing now?
Harris: Gina lives in Santa Rosa, works for an insurance company. Becky works for an insurance company in San Rafael. Anthony is currently living at home and unemployed. Julie works for Women, Inc.
Picar: I've heard of Women, Inc. That's a pretty good organization, as far as I can remember.
Harris: They do good.
Picar: Yes, yes. They're kind of nonprofit, too, right?
Harris: Definitely nonprofit.
Picar: What was it like for the kids growing up in this neighborhood?
Harris: From what I can gather from them, they liked it a lot. Of course, the neighborhood has changed a lot since they were little. But they got along well with all the people in the neighborhood, and they really liked it, even though at that time there were certain parts of the neighborhood you didn't go to.
Picar: Right. Yes, and sometimes still. So they had no problems getting around, transportation-wise, and all that good stuff?
Harris: No, this is actually a very nice area to get around, and of course, we're just a block and a half from two major bus lines, the 29 and the 54, and then two blocks from the K line, so it's really a great transportation area.
Picar: Yes, it sure is. Do you remember anything significant about the neighborhood when you first moved here and how it's changed in the past, what, twenty, thirty years or so?
Harris: Oh yes. One of the things I remembered that I often think about was Farragut School.
Picar: I remember Farragut School.
Harris: That was on the corner of Holloway and Capitol.
Picar: Yes, I went to Farragut School.
Harris: Yes. I remember when they tore it down and they built the--I remember it was abandoned for a long time, and the alarm used to go off there at night.
Picar: Yes, I remember that, too. I remember that, too. [Laughter]
Harris: Then, of course, they tore it down and they put in the James Johnson Center and they built all those condominiums over there. But, yes, the whole thing kind of went through a whole decline and rebirth type of thing. I remember that we had lots of different stores on Ocean Avenue that were closed, including a Safeway. There was a nice hardware store there. There was a Westwood Pharmacy that was there that closed. Then, of course, Safeway closed and opened and closed again on two different locations on Ocean Avenue.
Picar: Safeway is Rite-Aid now, yes.
Harris: Yes. Of course, Kragen now has the original Safeway site, which was Grand Auto for a while before Kragen took them over at that site, which is also slated for development.
Picar: Oh, I didn't know that.
Picar: What are they going to do with that?
Harris: Right now we're trying to get a retail and housing, so retail on bottom, housing on top, with a medium-sized market, something along the lines of a Trader Joe's.
Picar: Oh, that would be great. A Trader Joe's in this neighborhood would be great.
Harris: Oh, it would be excellent. Oh, yes, it would.
Picar: It's one of my favorite places.
Harris: Mine, too.
Picar: But it's really funny, because they built that place, Safeway, where Rite-Aid is now, with the houses on top, for a lot of the seniors, too, that could not really go out and go shopping. When they took the Safeway out, that was kind of like--I heard they really had a hard time.
Harris: It left them high and dry, basically, yes, that's for sure. Then, of course, the post office tried to get that location for a place that would be a place to park trucks and store mail, but they weren't even going to offer any postal services there.
Picar: See, that's what we need. We need a post office or postal service place here.
Harris: Oh, absolutely. So the neighborhood started to complain, and they finally changed their mind. So as a result, Rite-Aid was able to get the spot, which was much better than having a postal location but no services.
Picar: Yes, that's true, that's true. Oh, gosh, that would be crazy.
Do you attend religious services in this area, you and Mary?
Harris: Mary and I are Buddhists, so we have meetings at our home once a month. Our establishment is on 17th and Potrero. We're members of an organization called the Soka Gakkai International.
Picar: Oh, that's kind of cool. So you guys chant?
Harris: We do, yes. I've been at it for like thirty-four years now.
Picar: No wonder you guys always have that spirit, that like easygoing kind of like flowing spirit. [Laughs] Do the kids practice that as well or do they--
Harris: Yes, they do, absolutely, yes, all except my oldest daughter, Gina. She became a Seventh Day Adventist. But all the rest, they remained Buddhists, yes.
Picar: And they like that?
Harris: And they like that, yes.
Picar: That's cool. So how do you feel about this new Rec Center coming up? I know you have some hand in that, in the Rec Center being developed, and Minnie Ward and Lovie.
Harris: First of all, I think it definitely is appropriately named.
Picar: Yes, I do, too.
Harris: Because everyone knows the Wards have done a lot to enhance this community over the years, including having their house shot up at one point, fighting drug dealers. So this is a great honor. Our Rec Center is so old and termite-infested, that it's going to be really nice to have a new facility. So we've been working really hard with Park and Rec to make sure that we got the type of Rec Center that we all can be proud of.
Picar: That's good. I know it's really going to be nice. What do you think about the Rec Center in general? Do you think it's like a place where people can congregate and get along as like one of the main places in the neighborhood?
Harris: I think it's sort of semi at this point, but we're certainly hoping that in the future with a new facility it will have a greater appeal to the community and that we can get programs in there that will draw from all segments of the community that will come there for different programming.
Picar: Because I know some people still complain that it's not that, I guess, kid-accessible or something, that they don't like going over the hill, because they still think about the reputation of Ocean View and all that.
Harris: Yes. One of the things that's happening is that this neighborhood is changing a lot, and we're getting a lot of different and new people moving into the neighborhood, who, fortunately, do not know about the reputation. The reputation is changing. I'm sure the name change will help a lot, too, because once it's called the Minnie and Lovie Rec Center, then all those negative connotations with Ocean View, hopefully, will go away.
Picar: I really hope so, because that will be great.
Did you go to school in this area?
Harris: No, no, I grew up in Southern California, San Bernardino, and graduated from San Bernardino High. I didn't come here until I was in the navy, so my last homeport was Treasure Island, so I was discharged from Treasure Island. I loved San Francisco so much, I just decided that I'm not moving anywhere else.
Picar: Yes, San Francisco's a great place to live. It's so diverse and it's--
Harris: I like when they say, the world's greatest city. That's it. This is it.
Picar: Yes, yes. It's definitely true.
Harris: We're here.
Picar: Are your parents from there as well, that area?
Harris: No, absolutely not. My parents were both born in Roanoke, Virginia, and then moved to Wisconsin, where I was born. From there, we moved out to, I think it was Bakersfield, and a couple other little cities before we moved to San Bernardino. My mom passed away in '72. My dad lives in Las Vegas, and he's eighty-eight.
Picar: Wow. That's how old my mom was when she passed away, eighty-eight.
How did you meet Mary?
Harris: At a Buddhist meeting, of course. [Laughter]
Picar: Really? Here in San Francisco?
Harris: Oh yes.
Picar: This was like how long ago? I hope I'm not being too nosy.
Harris: No, not at all. Let's see when I met her. 1970, yes.
Picar: Wow, that was a long time ago.
Harris: Sure was. [Laughter]
Picar: What do you like to see happen in this neighborhood? I know there's a lot of changes going on, and you guys with OMI, NIA, and some of the other organizations are a big part of that, but I mean it's all changing for the good, obviously.
Harris: Absolutely. I want to see Ocean Avenue continue to develop and get a wide variety of different businesses. I know one of my things on my wish list was a nice Italian restaurant to move into the area. I want an ice cream store. I want a [unclear] bakery.
Picar: Yes. I want a post office, and I want a Thai restaurant and Japanese restaurant.
Harris: Of course, and we already mentioned we want a Trader Joe's or the equivalent.
Picar: That's right, that's right. No, let's not settle for the equivalent. Let's have Trader Joe's.
Harris: The reason why I'm saying that is because I've heard Whole Foods mentioned also, which wouldn't be too bad. If we were to get Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, either one would be good.
Picar: Either one would be just great.
Harris: Yes, it would. But I'm really pleased that we're getting a brand-new library on Ocean Avenue, and so that's moving forward. When they complete the undergrounding of the wires and the artwork for Ocean Avenue and all the other amenities that are planned, I think we're going to be very, very pleased with the way the community's going.
Picar: Yes, that would be great. That would be great. Do you think that with all this new stuff that we're going to be getting, with Ocean Avenue and with the Rec Center, that it will be more welcoming for a lot of people that are just coming into the neighborhood?
Harris: Oh, absolutely. Oh yes, absolutely. Yes. I think most a lot of programs and stuff will be aimed at them, plus the fact that there'll be enough shopping facilities on Ocean Avenue and places to eat and other things so people won't want to have to leave the neighborhood every time they want to do something. So that will be great.
Picar: It's kind of getting like that now, to me. I just run down to Ocean Avenue, and in one block I can do everything just about, like Walgreen's and the nail shop.
Harris: The dry cleaners.
Picar: The dry cleaner, the coffee shop, it's all there, the video store.
Harris: Oh, yes, Blockbuster. Yes, don't forget about Blockbuster. Then there's also a couple of small video stores that are doing quite well there also.
Picar: Yes, I like the Asian guy that's right next to Miracle Cleaners.
Harris: Yes, yes.
Picar: We always go there.
Harris: Yes, yes. He's got a nice selection there for a small shop.
Picar: The thing is about him is, sometimes he gets his videos before Blockbuster gets them, the new releases.
Harris: Wow. I wasn't aware of that. I'm going to have to check him out.
Picar: Yes, you have to check him out. Ask him, because sometimes he'll have them like a day before Blockbuster gets theirs. It's a little secret I'm telling you. [Laughter] Yes, so I'm really excited about that.
Do you guys celebrate a lot of holidays here in the neighborhood with your family?
Harris: Oh, absolutely, yes. We don't miss any of them.
Picar: Christmas, Easter?
Harris: Oh, absolutely, yes. That's one of the things I like about being a Buddhist, is that there's a Buddhist phrase that says like, "When you're in Rome, do as the Romans do." So there's no restrictions on what you can celebrate, what you can eat, how you should dress, everything. Everything is inside of you. Happiness is inside of you. The whole thing is to bring that out in a very positive way and to contribute to society. I hope we try to do that in any way that we can, from being a neighborhood activist to just trying to be good people.
Picar: Yes, well, that's great. I love that philosophy. I should look into that myself.
Thank you, Al. I think that's all the questions that I have for today.
Harris: Thank you.
[End of interview]
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Page launched 23 September 2003.