The Square
News and perspectives from Covia.

For more than 20 years, muralist Dan Fontes has helped share the story of Bethany Center Senior Housing in the Mission District of San Francisco. Fontes first created the “Salud!” mural that covers the 9-story building at 21st and Capp Street in 1997 with only one assistant. Now, he is in the midst of a full restoration, working with five other skilled artists to bring even more life to his original vision.

The idea behind the mural was to bring the inside of Bethany outside by sharing true-to-life images of some of the residents. “Unfortunately at the time I had to wrap it up a little too soon,” he says. “So this time I’ve been able to develop the characters more fully as I originally intended. Probably a lot of the neighbors won’t even be able to notice, but I would notice. There’s a few color changes here and there. We’ve brightened up their clothing so they’re not so gray. They’re just more lively, which is what I always intended: to have the seniors look lively and happy and activated and just living their fullest lives.”

Starting at 7:00 each morning, Fontes and his team – Desi Mundo, Kristi Holohan, Antoinette Johnson, Gwen Renee, and Haley Summerfield – use brushes as small as ¼ inch to apply acrylic paint over every inch of the 98 foot tall building, followed by three coats of heavy-duty anti-graffiti varnish.

“I have the dream team. These people have it all. They’re talented. They’re full of courage because you have to have courage to step out over that 9th floor at 98 to 100 feet,” says Fontes.

“We’ve gone through a lot of brushes and a lot of the human figures have now been triple-coated with new paint, so it’s as if you’re painting an entirely new mural on top of the one that’s here. I think it’s going to show.”

“People ask if that’s me in the mural,” says Elizabeth Dunlap who has lived at Bethany since before the mural was first developed. “I think they are surprised that it shows actual people that live here at Bethany.”

The mural also includes a silhouette of the steeple of the Methodist Church formerly located on the site. Bethany Center, a Covia Affordable Community, was established in the late 1960’s as a ministry of the United Methodist Church in San Francisco to provide affordable housing for low income seniors. In addition to 133 apartments, Bethany offers programs, activities, and special events through Ruth’s Table, an art and wellness space named for renowned San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa.

For former Bethany Center CEO Jerry Brown, now Senior Director of Covia Affordable Communities, the mural represents a connection to the Mission and the greater San Francisco community and illustrates the “empowerment of people of diverse backgrounds aging well with vitality in a place they call home.”

“To me that’s a really critical message: that people understand this is a senior center, these are beautiful people who live here, that it’s a diverse community that’s shared by multiple races and people from different countries and areas,” says Fontes. “It’s a positive place, it’s a beautiful place, it’s a gathering of souls. In a way, it’s a work of art.”

Bethany Center Senior Housing will unveil the completely restored mural in mid-October as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

As Jennings Court, a Covia Affordable Community in Santa Rosa, celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, its first residents are reflecting on their initial impressions.

“I was one of the first 8 people to move in,” says Fred Campbell. “And the day I walked into the facility, I fell in love with the structure, the ambiance.” Campbell, who had lost his business as a hairdresser in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, had been cleaning houses in Southern California when he learned that Jennings Court was being built. “I always thought [low income housing] was bad stuff because that’s how the movies always show it,” he said. Instead, “On a scale of 1-10, I’d say my first impression was an 11.”

“It was a rural setting then,” when Jennings Court opened in 2008,  says Penni Colley. “Across the street were horses grazing around a barn. Of course, that’s not there any more, but it was so beautiful.”

Colley had been surprised there was still room in the new building when she received a letter saying there was an apartment available for her. “At my age and being low income, I didn’t think I would ever have a new apartment. You just kind of have to forget that because the chances of me having a brand new apartment were slim. When I saw how beautiful these were, I just couldn’t get over it.”

Colley explains that the apartments hadn’t filled due to the strict qualification requirements. Residents must be 62 or older and “very, very, very – three veries – low income,” she says.

“They were offering me such a sweet deal on the rent that I figured it would be a dump. And I was very pleasantly surprised to find how nice it is,” says Roger Hanelt, who had been homeless before moving into Jennings Court. “It’s been a very healing environment for me. Because I’ve gone through highs and lows and this place was definitely a rescue.”

Campbell remembers, “The day we got in, I stayed most of the time looking at the courtyard, so beautiful. Now I watch the seasons change with all of these trees outside my front door.”

Jennings Court has 54 apartments that look out on a central courtyard that contains a garden tended by the residents and a fountain donated by Spring Lake Village, another Covia community in Santa Rosa. It was built through a partnership between Covia and Burbank Housing with funding from HUD and the city of Santa Rosa. Along with housing, Jennings Court provides service coordination and programs such as a weekly Market Day and monthly visit from the Bookmobile.

Colley remembers “When we had our very first welcome party out in the patio out there, I just ran around to anyone who looked like they were a suit and said, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’

Before she moved in, “I remember thinking, ‘oh, well, I’ll have to let that thought go. I’m never going to have my own new place. And then God blessed me with this. And I just have a wonderful new apartment. Everything in it was new. It smelled new. There were no residual crumbs in the drawers that anybody had missed. So. Gratitude.”

“I kept telling myself how fortunate I was. I’m still poor as a church mouse but I’m not unhappy,” says Campbell. “Every time I think about Jennings Court when I’m away from it, it’s home.”