Photography by Jeff Hunt
In Part 1, we meet Rudy Corpuz, a born-and-raised San Franciscan who grew up in the South of Market. Rudy's parents came to the US from the Philippines before he was born.
His dad was in the army, which was his ticket to this country. And he brought his wife and some of Rudy's older siblings with him. They went first to Boston, then to Seattle, folllowed by San Pedro, California, and finally, to San Francisco.
The family's first landing spot in The City was Hunters-Point. The family then moved a little north to the South of Market. Rudy is the youngest of nine siblings.
His early days in SOMA took place in the 1970s and ‘80s. He recalls many other ethnicities and lots and lots of families living in SOMA back in those days, and says that he learned a lot from his neighborhood. He ran with a crew of kids that spent a lot of time on Market Street going to shops, arcades, and theaters.
He fondly recalls a South of Market community center called Canon Kip, where he'd go as a kid to play basketball, attend study halls, engage in other forms of recreation, and go on field trips. Rudy cites his time at Canon Kip as playing a role in his current work with United Playaz.
At this point in the recording, I asked Rudy to rattle off San Francisco schools he's attended. The list includes: Buena Vista and Patrick Henry elementary schools, Potrero Middle School, and Mission High School.
In addition to his native SOMA neighborhood, Rudy spent a lot of time in Potrero Hill, getting around mostly on Muni busses. This was the mid-'80s/early '90s, i.e., the crack era. Rudy shares that he both sold and used the drug. His usage got bad, to the point that he crashed. He points to the death of his dad in 1987 as a major contributor to his behavior. He didn’t know what to do with the pain of losing his dad, and so he turned to drugs.
Rudy got busted in 1988 and was sent to adult jail. For the next several years, he was In and out of trouble (and jail). It took him a while, but eventually, he figured out that he was broken. Around this time, an adult at the Canon Kip community center offered to get Rudy into City College. He was still in a low period, but when he got to CCSF, he was blown away by the abundance of "pretty women" he saw there. He and I had a hearty laugh about that.
He got a part-time job convincing other teenagers to go to CCSF, and discovered that he liked helping people. In 1994, while waiting for a job assignment, he spotted a posting on a job board. "Gang Prevention Counselor (Filipino)." A light bulb when off. He got the job, which was based in Bernal Heights.
In his new gig, Rudy was tasked with finding Filipino gangs in Bernal/District 11. This brought him to Balboa High School, where h saw plenty of fights and sideshows. The school's principal told him that she needed his help.
After a big riot between Filipinos and Blacks on Oct. 8, 1994, Rudy got the kids who had been involved to sit down together at a table. And they were the ones who came up with their own solutions.
They called it United Playaz.
In Part 2, Rudy picks up where he left off in Part 1, talking about the origin of United Playaz and a race riot at Balboa High School back in 1994.
Rudy gathered those students who'd been involved in the violence to talk and determine their own solutions. And that's exactly what they did. They told Rudy and other adults that there was nothing to do at the school, and out of that discovery, the school implemented many programs to better engage kids.
In 2005, Mauricio Vela gave Rudy the blessing to bring United Playaz to Rudy's home hood of South of Market. Rudy shares that story of first getting funding, then getting their building on Howard Street. They moved in around 2008/2009. And in 2015, UP bought the building.
We talk about the origin of UP's motto: “It takes the hood to save the hood …” That story starts in New Orleans post-Katrina, where Rudy saw what the people were doing for themselves to recover when officials at every level failed them. The phrase was inspired by what he saw there, including drug dealers, drug users, and "thugs" helping out in the community against unimaginable tragedy and stiff odds.
Today, UP has chapters all over the country, but their scope has evolved over time. Rudy shares a story of having talked with Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who was in San Quentin at the time. Tookie told Rudy to "work with the little kids," not just those at the high school level. Nowadays, as Rudy puts it, they work with every age group, “from the elementary to the penitentiary (their prison re-entry program).” Some in UP programs had been locked up for 30, 40, and 50 years. Some of them work with young kids today.
We end this podcast with talk of changes in the South of Market, the massive gentrification in that neighborhood that's occurred over the last several decades, and the relationships Rudy has built to counteract that.
We recorded this episode at the United Playaz Clubhouse in the South of Market in November 2023.