Growing Up Black: Life in the Visitacion Valley Projects

By Christine Joy Ferrer

This was an article that my girlfriend Christine Joy Ferrer and I worked on together about Terry Rollins, 18 years old, who lives in Vis Valley in San Francisco, a low-income prodominently Black neighborhood. I took the pictures for the article while Ferrer wrote it and did the reporting for it. I think it speaks well to the many struggles many Black youth have to deal with in America, especially in their own neighborhoods. The articlce was written for a journalism class in San Francisco State University and appeared on City Voices.

Kenya Taylor was fed up with the gang he rolled with in Visitacion Valley and wanted a change. Realizing that no good could come from the dangerous lifestyle he was living, he wanted out, made the decision to move to Louisiana near family, and buy a house.

On June 24, 2004, before he had a chance to follow through with his plans, 24-year-old Taylor was gunned down by a member of his own crew.

That day, part of Terry Rollins’ innocence was lost. Taylor was Rollins’ cousin, best friend, and sole male role model. After experiencing the tragic killing of his cousin, Rollins chose to avoid the thug life from then on. He was only 16 years old then, but he might as well have been 30.

Rollins, now 18, is a young man of the streets, trapped in a world where violence is so prevalent that it seems like the only option is to be violent yourself in order to survive. One disgruntled look at a passer-by could cost you your life. Gangbanging is no joke when a case of mistaken identity could lead to a bullet wound in an innocent victim’s arm or worse, to his or her death.

Rollins was 15 the first time bullets flew in his direction. Though he has been shot at a few times since, he has yet to feel the penetration of a bullet through his skin. In his short lifetime, he has experienced the loss of more than a dozen people, especially youth 15 years and older who have either been murdered or shot at within the neighborhood. He wonders if he will live beyond the age of 18.

“Living in this area has taught me to be on my stuff. Anything could happen anytime, any second,” said Rollins. “You never know if somebody gonna’ hit the corner, never know, you can just roll over and die, it may be the last blunt I smoke. So I just live life like a fast car…make no U-turns.”

Violence and crime are two of the prominent elements that comprise his reality. When they lived up the hill, in the outskirts of the Sunnydale projects, before his family entered their house each night, his mother had to check the house for intruders while he and his siblings waited at the front gate. The moment he would hear gunshots or the sound of sirens blaring, his phone would ring. His mother or someone would be calling asking, “‘Where you at, bra…you good?’”

The second time Terry was shot at a couple years ago, he had been riding his bike outside his house. A red light flashed, then he dove to the ground. His mother found him with his knees bloodied screaming and hollering. His god-brother, Devron, lay by him, blood flowing from a head wound.

“Terry had this funny look of tiredness on his face and that’s when I grabbed him and started shaking him…everyone was around looking, but no one was helping,” said his mother Sheila Hill, describing the scene. “When the police came, they threw me against a wall…’til this day I don’t know why…I pushed back and started fighting with them.”

In the Vis, it’s a fight to survive. For some, it seems the only logical solution is to drop out of school and drown yourself in alcohol, drugs, and other vices to get by and escape reality.

“It’s like you want to sell drugs, if not, you want to hold a gun, if not, you want to get shot, you want to go to school, if not, don’t go to school miss a few days, if not you just be outside, I just chose not to go to school at all,” he said.

“Some people look out for themselves [in Vis Valley], some help, others are just there. I keep everything to myself; keep everyone guessing and let them think I’m doing bad. I don’t mess with them cuz you never know what they got.”

Rollins dropped out of school for a year in 10th grade without his mother even knowing. Since she was gone for most of the day working, it was easy for him to say he had gone to school. Then, he would use someone else’s report card by changing the name label.

Hill didn’t find out until the next year, when Rollins decided to go back to school. She had sent him to live with her sister so he could go to school in Antioch for a needed “change of scenery,” she said. Her sister noticed he was missing one too-many credits and told Hill.

“I was mad, but then again, I was happy he was going to school out there. Here, you’re square punk if you go to school, but there it was cool…I still remember the day I went to visit him he was dressed different. He wore a button-up shirt, his jeans tucked in—brought me to tears, such a trip to see him hanging out with a whole different crowd,” Hill said.

Rollins left school to make money. He explained that he wasn’t using anything he had learned at school in the real world. However, eventually he realized what he was missing. “I ain’t gonna’ be able to do shit without a diploma. So I figured why not,” said Rollins. As a senior, he made up for the credits he lacked by doing volunteer work, attending night, independent, and regular school and finally he graduated at Bidwell High, in Antioch this past year with a 2.87 GPA.

It was the proudest moment of his life so far.
According to Hill, one of his previous teachers from Thurgood Marshall, “Mrs. Rojas,” traveled from Japan just to see him graduate. “Good things can come from this neighborhood,” said his mother, with a strong sense of enthusiasm in her voice. “He was the first man to ever graduate from high school in my family. I’m so proud of him, because he could have easily gone the other route…some of his friends are drug dealers, they show him their fancy cars with rims…but he doesn’t want to disappoint me. I told him if he ends up in jail, gets shot, or starts selling drugs, I’ll lose my mind.”

After all, he’s seen and heard he’s not just a kid anymore. His father went to jail a few times for drugs and domestic violence, is out, but is not around. However, Rollins’ remains devoted to his family of four that includes his mother, his younger sister and brother, Tanzania and Triaryi, and himself. Rollins has taken on the role of a big brother, daddy, protector, mentor, and provider. “A lot of times, they’ll go to him first before they ask me,” said Hill. “I do get annoyed sometimes, but I love the fact they respect him like that.”

He works two jobs, one at U.P.S. unloading packages, the other, working with his mother at the Boys and Girls Club as the social recreational director, and runs on three hours of sleep daily. “The vibe [in the Vis] has inspired him to change. It’s why he wants to give money to his brother and sister, why he works at the Boys and Girls Club and has a second job—to strive to have a different life than down here which is so fucked up,” said Sarah Schumm, 31, the art director at the Boys and Girls Club. “Now, he’s become desensitized to it. Maybe he feels angry, but it’s definitely motivated him to be good.” To cope with life, Terry smokes weed fives times a day, chills with his friends, listens to music, and spends time talking with his mother. Their solid relationship plays a major role in what keeps him going.

When Rollins was just in middle school, Hill would work from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. However, in 2000, she quit her $42 an hour job as a foreman at the Concord Cement Company and then, began volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club. Rollins grades had been failing and he told her it was because she wasn’t home enough and that he missed spending time with her.

“I was trying to pay for this and that, just trying to provide for my family. My boss begged me to stay, but it ain’t all about money. I vowed never to be wrapped up in a job again.” Because of their consistent lack of funds for rent and other utilities, money has also morphed into an ideal aspiration for Rollins.

“If it ain’t about money then it doesn’t make sense, cuz if you ain’t doing it for money what are you doing it for? I’m not fittin’ to do it for free…life is free, but everything else ain’t free with it,” said Rollins. “I’m being here for my brother, he ain’t got no dad, same position I was in. But now he got an older brother who can buy him things, I can give him what I wanted when I was younger, like Jordans every week.” Rollins is trying to get into a university in Atlanta Georgia. If he’s accepted, his mother says they’ll all move with him.

“I want my children to know where they came from and what a challenge it was to get out, but I want them to forget about the rest,” said Hill. “I want [Rollins] to get the hell away and as far from this doggone place as he can.”

So much still binds him to Visitacion Valley. He desires to leave it, but when he does, he still wants to come back and visit. This is the place where he grew up and that is something he can never escape. His parents conceived him in the Geneva Towers. His extended family and friends live in the neighborhood. At least, the lifestyle in Visitacion Valley has enabled him to realize what he doesn’t want to become—another failed statistic. “See how high those birds are flying, I want to go to the top and get out of this area, get a house, and a good job…we’ve been at the bottom for too long,” Rollins said.