Interview with members of the Delancey Street Foundation
Before the Borders bookstore and high-rise condos, before the trendy coffee shops and Giants’ baseball stadium, the Delancey Street Foundation moved to South Beach.
One of the first ventures in the neighborhood in years, residents of the rehabilitation center built the facility — a bright stucco building with cast-iron gates and terraces and a view of the waterfront — in 1990.
When Delancey Street moved into the neighborhood, it was mostly dilapidated warehouses from a shipping industry that had since shut down, said Dennis Conaghan, the executive director of the San Francisco Center for Economic Development.
Now, almost two decades later, South Beach is a vibrant residential and commercial area with an increasing population and influx of business.
“It’s visionary people and risk takers who start to roll up their sleeves and say, ‘That could be good for us,’ ” Conaghan said. “Once one person goes in, and somebody else sees what’s possible, then they go in.”
For Mimi Silbert, founder and president of Delancey Street, the Embarcadero facility was only one facet of her long-time vision. Silbert started the strict rehabilitation center in 1971 on the principles of convicts and addicts teaching one another and learning job skills in 1971. When she moved more than 100 ex-convicts and former drug addicts into a mansion in the ritzy Pacific Heights neighborhood a year later, she was met with resistance.
“People have legitimate fears about, ‘Are we going to be safe?’ ” said Sandra Munoz, a 10-year resident of the facility. “A lot of people didn’t want us here, but it’s gotten better over the years.”
Just as the foundation won over its neighbors in Pacific Heights, they’ve worked to build a relationship with the growing community of South Beach, said John Long, who has been living at the foundation for two and a half years.
“We have a block party once a month and we have barbeque at the park,” Long said. The party used to be for residents of the foundation only, but in the last year or two, Silbert decided to open it to the community.
“Every Saturday people would walk by and smell the Barbeque,” Long said. “Now a lot of people come here quite often and its is a way of knowing us.”
Residents are also careful of their interactions with people in the community while they work in the foundation’s businesses, Long said.
“I’m in the moving company and you see the care we do. You experience our restaurant and you see how we act in the restaurant,” he said. “There’ll always be somebody who wants to hold on to old stuff. So, when you are given an opportunity to show (who you are), you do the best you can.”
Though the Delancey Street Foundation may not have been the cause of the development in the area, it didn’t stand in the way, Conaghan said.
“Knowing San Francisco, there were probably some people who didn’t like it in the neighborhood,” he said. “But, Delancey Street has a good track record for not causing trouble. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, they’ve been very good neighbors and they take care and maintain their facilities. People know it as a good program.”
Profile Article of Delancey Street’s Director, Dr. Mimi Silbert
Gary Dockery looked rigidly uncomfortable sitting in his black patterned suit and red tie. Tattoos peeked out from behind the stiff fabric. There were flames on his hands, letters on his knuckles, and other symbols on his neck.
But when he started to tell a story about his savior, the 29-year-old former convict, who was facing life in prison for a hate crime only a year and a half ago, relaxed. His eyes lightened as he recalled a conversation he had with other Delancey Street residents at the rehabilitation center’s upscale restaurant.
The construction crew was talking about tattoos while doing some remodeling work. Mimi Silbert looked over at Dockery and told him, “I don’t see tattoos. I see a soul.”
“That, for me, was one of the most awesome feelings because society looks at us when we come in, as ‘Look at these guys, they’re ex-cons and all this,’” he said. “Mimi doesn’t see that. Mimi sees right past all that. She sees the inner person she knows we can become, and that inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing and let that old life go.”
Dockery is just one of the thousands of residents to go through Delancey Street since Silbert founded the program with four former convicts in a small San Francisco apartment in 1971. She and then-partner John Maher started the foundation on the principles of self-reliance, teaching each other and learning viable job skills.
Thirty-six years later, the foundation has started five other facilities around the country, graduated more than 14,000 residents, and received commendations from several presidents and international leaders. And in February, when Mayor Gavin Newsom admitted to having an alcohol problem, he told the public he would seek outpatient help from the Delancey Street.
The dozens of accolades have all come while the foundation has had only one non-resident staff member: Silbert.
“She’s like an angel,” said 10-year resident Sandra Monez. “Her friends are people of stature, and people who are public figures. But Mimi chooses to be here with us and live here with us and teach us how to do our lives better.”
It’s true. She’s close to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senator’s office said. And the foundation’s 30th anniversary party drew the likes of Sharon Stone, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and future U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, according to a 2002 San Francisco Chronicle article.
Still, the long-time divorced Silbert raised her twin sons at the foundation, and continues to live there herself 36 years later.
“People have asked her, ‘Why do you want to do this? You could do anything.’” Monez said. “Her response is, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to do this? I get to be a part of watching people change and grow. What more is there?’ ”
Silbert serves as a model for the residents, Monez said. They watch the way she dresses and the way she interacts with people. She tells residents they need to learn to be responsible and educated.
Even when they graduate the program, Delancey alums still follow Silbert’s example. Many even work to extend the opportunities Silbert gave them to others.
Before coming to Delancey Street, Shirley Lamarr was a third-generation prostitute and drug abuser. She was beaten and sexually abused before coming to the foundation.
Now Lamarr, who married another Delancey graduate, works in jails in San Mateo County, Calif., implementing a program she created and modeled off of Delancey Street.
“I owe my life to (Silbert) and Delancey Street,” Lamarr said. “She’s the greatest woman I know in existence in this universe. She taught me a lot of what I do today, and left some of her personal touch with me.”
Lamarr spent the last two of her five years at Delancey Street working in Silbert’s office and doing administrative work.
“She helped me work through stuff,” Lamarr said. “The greatest part of what Mimi does is she’s a role model and she sets the standard. The people from Delancey Street who are successful follow her.”
Silbert established groups for the residents to learn to have healthy friendships and romantic relationships, and how to be a good parent. And she does it all with the theory that the residents should be teaching and mentoring each other.
When a new person moves into the facility, the last person to arrive before them is in charge. In the program’s 20-some different businesses, residents who have worked in the business longer supervise the new arrivals.
Together, they build a sense of community.
“Society don’t want us no more,” Dockery said. “We’ve done horrible things out there. She takes us in and shows us love and shows us there’s a family here that does care.”
It’s such a close family that Dockery considers Silbert like his mother.
“From the day I got here and the day I met her, I wanted to know Mimi. I wanted her to know who I was,” he said.
He recalled a speech Silbert gave the residents after Dockery arrived at the facility.
“Being who I was and who I used to represent, it hit home for me because this woman knows my background and knows who I am and knows what I used to be like and it didn’t even matter,” he said.
“She took me anyway and gave me a chance. It’s not wanting to let a person down that’s given you your life back.”
Summer of Love
He was headed to Australia, but never made it.
A detour to San Francisco left Buster Fleming captured — two years before the rest of the nation — by the resonance of rebellion and the visions of liberation and tie-dye.
In June 1967 he joined the chemical movement, his virginal system pumping with a purple panacea.
Lured into a North Beach record shop by colorful sergeant uniforms and a crowd of faces plastered to a piece of cardboard, Fleming stood in the store with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” charming his ears for the first time.
There, he met two girls giggling at the sight of him.
“Are you tripping?”
“Come home with us. We’ll take care of you.”
So he sat in their apartment, headphones blaring “With You Without You” even after the two girls fell asleep.
He left the next morning as the cars on street serenaded him with “Lovely Rita,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Finally, hours after his first-ever trip on the magical tablets, he returned to his commune off Haight Street.
“Hey Buster, we just got this new Beatles album. Come listen.”
And so it was the soundtrack to the summer, the summer that turned Haight and Ashbury into Haight Ashbury. It turned beatniks into hippies. It was the Summer of Love, 40 years ago.
“It opened up my mind to a lot of things. A lot of my prejudices were resolved, and a lot of my inhibitions were dissolved,” said Fleming, who is now a fiber artist and still living in a commune in the area.
Artists and musicians flocked to the famous intersection for the cheap rent, flooding the area by way of Berkley and North Beach and establishing a culture of creativity, said Peter Berg, a formative member of the Diggers, a group of improv actors that established various free events and centers.
“Everything was free so that people didn’t have to work, so they could be liberated,” Berg said. “Our premise was that in a future idealistic society, you wouldn’t have to work and everybody would become artistic.”
Today, boutiques and trendy salons sprinkle Haight Street between the various psychedelic stores and tattoo parlors. Grateful Dead t-shirts hang in windows, and the shoe repair shop has a “Birkenstocks, welcome” sign painted on a pane of glass.
Remnants of the counterculture still linger, and even the bookstore has a special section dedicated to altered states.
Most of it is new, and not authentic to the era. But the legacy of that summer still leaves some tangibles. The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic still treats homeless and poor and those without health insurance in the same building where Dr. David Smith founded it in ‘67. It no longer hosts the hoards of hippies crashing in the waiting room from a bad trip, though. The clinic focuses mostly on patient care, substance abuse and treating those infected with HIV and AIDS, said Leoni Figueredo, the clinic’s manager.
And the idea of a free food program, started by the Digger’s Trip Without a Ticket store, has caught on with church groups and various other organizations, all providing meals to the homeless and poor.
And former Diggers Berg and his partner, Judy Goldhaft, used their experiences with the group to start a new initiative, Planet Drum. The grassroots organization promotes eating local foods and purchasing goods regionally.
“You can see some of the same areas the Diggers were concerned with, but a different approach,” Berg said. “When you’re serving free food, you have to get the food from some place, and we were getting it at produce markets or from farms themselves.”
Not only did that summer leave its legacy in him, it also forever changed society — from the prevalence of four letter words to the tolerance of homosexuals, Berg said as Goldhaft nodded in agreement.
“So many of the changes are already embedded in society, so you don’t even know things could be another way,” Goldhaft said. “But things were very restrictive.”
Everyone who congregated on that corner during that summer may have had different reasons for coming, but the same goal while there.
“Young people running away from troubled homes and troubled society come here because of the openness of the city,” Fleming said. “And that openness was started years ago with beatniks and bohemians.”
Just four days ago, Fleming came across a 17-year-old runaway. He bought her coffee, told her where the free clinic and free food programs were and wished her well.
“It’s still happening,” he said. “They’re still running away and coming to San Francisco for their sanctuary,” he said.
He ran into the girl again just a couple days later. She had paired up with a young man she met on hippy hill, he said.
He didn’t scoff when he said the pair was in love after only four days. Instead, he looked solemn and respectful of the sanctity of it.
“Love is something you can’t challenge,” he said. “Love is the Haight. Love is all you need.”