StoryCorps: Rudy Corpuz Jr. of United Playaz Shares Memories of Growing up in SoMa

An activist shares memories of growing up in a neighborhood now designated the SoMa Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District, and about the violence-prevention youth nonprofit he founded.

Just off Seventh Street in the South of Market (SoMa) District in San Francisco, a building stands out in between its two neighbors with a colorful mural that decorates the front. People make up a large part of the mural; some are notable figures, while others are Filipino Americans, many of whom are responsible for making the life in this building what it is now. This is the United Playaz Clubhouse.

“United Playaz is a violence-prevention, youth-led program, and our mission is basically to keep the people safe in our community and also, to teach kids to be successful and to be safe,” said Rudy Corpuz Jr., the founder and executive director of United Playaz.

The origins of the nonprofit organization date back to 1994, when Corpuz Jr. was hired as a gang prevention counselor for the Bernal Heights neighborhood. Instructed to look for Filipino gang members, he pinpointed to an incident at Balboa High School.

The outside of United Playaz in San Francisco. Photo by Lauren Lola.
The outside of United Playaz in San Francisco. Photo by Lauren Lola.

On October 8 of that year, a riot broke out between Black and Filipino students of the high school.

“It was a real big fight,” Corpuz Jr. reflected. “A lot of people got hurt, a lot of people got sent to jail.”

He arranged to get the students to get together in a room at the high school and talk it out, with no teachers or authorities present.

“We sat in a room, and we figured out how the fight started, and actually it was over nothing,” he said. “It was not even anything that serious after we all discussed it.”

There, solutions start forming to end the on-campus feuds and violence. The students tossed out ideas like football games with Black and Filipino players on both teams, basketball tournaments, talent shows, and barbecues. The club, United Playaz, was born from that meaning; the word “united” was an idea by Corpuz Jr., “playaz” was suggested by the students, in homage to the number of rappers in the Bay Area at the time.

Fast forward 22 years and United Playaz has been a nonprofit organization for the past five years. Other than its San Francisco location, there are other locations around the world, including in the South Bronx in New York and in the Philippines.

While unusually quiet on the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving due to a number of the attendees on school field trips, the clubhouse is normally filled with nearly 60 kids; about 25 are Filipino and almost all of them from the SoMa District.

“What we do is we have structured programming after school, and so the first thing we do is homework,” Corpuz Jr. said. “We’re very high into education. We do a lot of training and workshops; we do suicide workshops, gang violence ones, how to be entrepreneurs, how to be a cook, you know, we have people come in, we have celebrities come speak, and then we have our classes.”

Classes and activities include sports such as basketball and football and music. They also take part in civic engagement, such as cleaning various neighborhoods in the city. United Playaz is currently preparing for its fifth Gun Buy Back on Dec. 17th, with the previous four having been very successful.

Rudy Corpuz Jr. shares memories of growing up in SF’s SoMa neighborhood, now designated a SoMa Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District. He chats with StoryCorps’ Geraldine Ah-Sue.

“I think [United Playaz] allows kids to be kids, and also to raise them and give them the right guidance that they need as they grow up,” Corpuz Jr. said. “We teach kids the fundamental things of just saying ‘hello’ or a smile or looking people in the eyes, or ‘thank you’ or ‘no thank you.’ So I believe the things we’re teaching them to be are to become successful, but to be courteous and respectful.”

Despite the success United Playaz has had since its inception, that’s not to say that it hasn’t had obstacles along the way.

“I decided to start building relationships with a lot of developers in this neighborhood, because there’s a lot of development going on,” Corpuz Jr. said. “But my way is holding them accountable for them to give back to the community, and so one of the challenges is to get the other organizations to partner with us, because they don’t want to deal with a lot of them.”

Corpuz Jr. elaborated by saying how the organization may be looked upon by some as a sellout because of these relationships. However, he begs to differ.

“To me, we’re not selling out, we’re selling in, because I want to make sure anybody who starts building in this community is held accountable,” he explained. “One of the main things in the South of Market is gentrification and displacement.”

“I’m into building bridges, not walls,” he later added. “I’m not going to have people move in here who’re not willing to help the community out. I don’t support them, but the ones who do, who’s willing to give and help build are infrastructure and community, then I’m willing to sit at the table and at least listen to them.”

To prove his point even further, Corpuz Jr. pointed out to a building not far from the clubhouse that’s under construction. Once complete, it will provide affordable housing and be named in memory of Bill Sorro, who was not only affiliated with United Playaz, but also helped low income families, elderly, and children. Another example is the clubhouse itself, which was named in memory of Eric Fructuoso, a former staff member there.

It’s all meant to be a way of holding developers accountable to preserve Filipinos in this neighborhood.

For the future of United Playaz, Corpuz Jr. strives to make it more successful and secure. He also hopes that an additional floor can be added to the clubhouse to give the kids more space.

“I really hope that we can provide all the community the safety resources that they need,” he said.

-Lauren Lola

More on SoMa Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District:

Filipino Americans Make a New Name for Their San Francisco Neighborhood

StoryCorps: Carlos Carvajal and Four Generations of Filipinos in the Arts

StoryCorps: Exploring Filipino Arts in SoMa Through Bindlestiff Studios

StoryCorps: San Francisco Students Gain Education in Filipino Culture and History

StoryCorps: Exploring Filipino Arts in SoMa

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In partnership with StoryCorps. Audio editing by Geraldine Ah-Sue. Geraldine Ah-Sue is an independent audio producer based in the Bay Area, CA. She uses creative media to inspire a more loving and just world. Geraldine also works in film, print and sound design, is a graduate of KALW’s Audio Academy, and in 2016, was selected by the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) as a rising voice in public media with a New Voice Scholarship.

Transcript of the StoryCorps session:

When you look out the window, what do you see?

I live right there on Minna Street, off of 6th Street. So it’s like a concrete jungle out there, and you can hear, you know, just life; whether you hear cars passing by, or sirens, or broken glass, or somebody who’s just screaming at the top of their lungs, and you look and they say, “Hey Marvin! Hey man, turn down that radio!” And they’re like, “Alright man, I got you!” You know, it’s just so much life outside my window.

All my life, I’ve been born and raised in the South of Market, but where I live currently now, I’ve been living there for 16 years. But prior to that, my mom’s house was just on 9th-Howard. We all grew up in that house and we had cousins who stayed close proximity; Minna Street, Natoma Street, Rust Street, Ralph Street, Tehama Street… All those little alleys and streets was all folks and family.

So back then when I grew up in the 70’s, there used to be a community center on 8th and Natoma….Everybody from the neighborhood would go there because it was a community center; with a basketball gym, a rec room, an auditorium, and it was, like, everybody looked out for each other. The elders looked out for the younger, the younger looked out for the babies, and it was [of] mixed nationalities.

See, to me, when I grew up in the SoMA back then, it wasn’t just Filipinos where I grew up. There was a lot of Blacks, there was Samoans, there was Latinos, there was Whites, but it was a mixed pot of people that all came from the same background; struggling, surviving, but all looked out for each other.

I could remember memories of some of the older women who looked after me when I was little. They would hold you and talk to you and tell you things that would make your self esteem stronger. You know, “Oh you’re so good! You’re strong! You’re handsome!” Things like that. And so I remember it like it was yesterday.

I wish that we could always have the way things were back then. But the evolution that’s changed in our neighborhood… it’s tough! It’s tough because a lot of the families, family and friends that I knew, moved out. They either moved out or they got moved out. My mom had moved in that house in 1960, so when they moved out recently, it was like 2015. Man, it was tough!

Just to see the neighborhood the way it is now, it’s tough because four different economic backgrounds right in my geographical area where I can see, and what I mean by that is when I look out my window, there’s people sleeping on the ground, broke as hell, homeless. Where I live, [it’s] affordable housing. We just striving, you know, getting by. Then you got these buildings right over here; middle class who you can see they work and their cars are nicer, they having parties, you can tell they’re somebody. And then right over here is million dollar homes. All right here in the geographical area where I can just look at all of them at one time. I could throw a rock and it could bounce off each building. I could throw a rubber ball and it could bounce off all four walls. We’re in the same neighborhood, we should be able to learn to work with each other and get to know each other and build with each other. You having a party over here, invite us! We having a party, we invite you! And it seems that’s what’s happening. There’s four different parties going on at one time.

What do you think a community is?

A community is everybody from the people who live there – the storeowners, the moms and pops stores, the police, the homeless people – everybody in there are functioning as one and know each other. The kids are community to me. You can hear kids outside, laughing. You can hear people outside, music, smell food in the air. In the building I live in is community; everybody looks out for each other. So to me, community is a group of people who look out for you; that’s got your back. They really got your back, like a backpack. Like if you ain’t got no rice, you knock on that door right there and they say, “Yeah I got some for you.” They knock on your door and say, “I need toilet paper” and you say, “Hey, I got you.” Everybody looking out for each other, just the little essential things matter the most, because it ain’t always about having all the money. It’s the people, the power’s always in the people. And that’s the beauty of our neighborhood. That’s the real wealth of our neighborhood; is the love that we have. We have that.