I have changed neighborhoods.
San Francisco is a city comprised of distinct neighborhoods, each fiercely proud of its character and jealous of what it considers to be its superior standing vis-á-vis the others. Competing snobberies and reverse-snobberies can make the place seem positively Balkan: a collection of independent city-states always on the verge of internecine war. I would guess that only two or three –- the Tenderloin, Bayview/Hunter’s Point, the back side of Potrero Hill – that is, the neighborhoods where poor people live, avoid this provincial snobbery.
Whenever I tell people that I left the TL for the Mission, they tell me that they are happy for me. They say that the Mission is much nicer, cleaner, and safer. I say that I agree with them, but I do not say how little.
I have left the most run-down, dirty, and impoverished part of The City, and moved to what The New York Times has called “the hippest neighborhood in the country.” I have moved from streets that smell of human excrement, urine, and garbage strewn beside garbage cans to streets smelling of spicy Mexican and Central American comidas, of pupusas cooking over an open grill on the street, and of artisanal coffees which can take as much as ten minutes to prepare and cost $4 a cup. Other cuisines add their aromas, among them Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Pakistani, American, Italian, Chinese, Salvadoran, and Honduran.
I have also moved from the last part of downtown that remains free from gentrification, which is just beginning there, to one in which it started in earnest around the turn of the century, during the “dot com” boom. (I liked to refer to the Techno-Plutocrats of that era as “dot-commies.”) Now the Mission has reached the stage at which the prosperous are forcing out the last of the artists (see this report on the father and son who began the San Francisco observance of El Dia de Muerte), the older, blue-collar working class residents, and the most recent immigrants, who are always outrageously creative and entrepreneurial.
I now live on a block that only three years ago was dicey. I remember attending a memorial service in the early 1990s for a friend who died of AIDS, which took place at his little Episcopal Church, which is around the corner from the SRO hotel where I now live. The Church itself is lovely, dating back to an era of horses and unpaved streets. It looks as though it belongs in the Lake District, set in the midst of rolling fields and perhaps framed by group of ancient oaks, where a wandering Wordsworth might see it encircled by "an host" of daffodils.) Its siding is of weathered cedar shakes, and its trim is a pristine white.
When I attended the memorial service I noticed that its neat appearance was belied, when one got up close, by obvious damaged to both to the exterior and to the interior. The floor seemed to dip and rise and dip as much as the Lake District topography itself. And the surrounding blocks were littered and bleak, void of any vibrant commercial activity except the drug trade.
All in all, the Mission was then very like the Tenderloin is now.
But conditions here have changed completely in the 20 years since. The hotel in which I live is itself a good example of the changes and may well have been one of the first properties to spark the revolution. This hotel was gutted and refurbished in the early 1990s, and well‑maintained, clean, full of air and light, and well-managed. Everything else in the surrounding blocks seems also to have been revamped since the 90s. Even the church has been carefully restored.
Now, in the evenings, hundreds of errant people in their 20s and 30s crowd the sidewalks. They range from restaurant to restaurant, bar to bar, nightclub to nightclub. From what I have observed, their numbers are evenly divided between couples (both mixed and same-sex) and small knots of three to five. These groups are almost all made up of men or women exclusively; the few groups that are mixed are usually made up of two or three couples. Some individuals do walk alone, though they are not likely to be so for long, since they are looking not at the street, sidewalk, and people around them but at the little lighted screens they hold in their hands. All seem eagerly social and either chatter with their companions or busily tap tap tap on their little screened devices. The movement of the crowd is fluid, as everyone concentrates on bobbing and weaving their way through the masses, both stationary and on-coming. These people never stop to take in their surroundings, whether shop windows or other humans, but pass by everything closed in on themselves.
The contrast to the Tenderloin is sharp. There people wander more erratically, not noticeably intent on their destination but more involved in the ongoing life of their society. In the TL, folks are always looking for friends, neighbors, or other familiar faces among the rest of the crowd on the streets. When they see someone they know, they shout their greeting, their loud calls certainly not compatible with bourgeois manners. But the folks of the TL bear no shame for their sociability. And they could not be more different from the Mission crowds whose earphones cut them off from the surrounding humanity as surely as the screens at which they stare make them blind to the traffic, pedestrian or otherwise, around them.
In the Mission, the people who are out and about with groups of friends seem to have arrived together and to be traveling on together. One does not see them encountering one another by surprise, as in The Tenderloin. Their conversation often consists of the names and locations of bars, clubs, or other night spots and of the way to get to them. They are very much focused on their destinations and unaware of all that actually surrounds them at the moment.
I would guess that those who live here continue to be mostly Latin American and Asian immigrants and that they own and work in the restaurants, bars, and clubs that these disconnected crowds patronize. Of course, some of the youthful bourgeoisie also live here, but many only gravitate here to eat, drink, and socialize after work. Judging by the prices on the menus in the windows of the restaurants, which list salads at $8 to $12 and entrees at $16 to $25, these young diners and drinkers are part of the “tech” workforce which is rapidly growing in this town. Their salaries start at $100,000 to $150,000, and they are pricing everyone else out of everything.
Rent for a small studio apartment in one of the less desirable parts of San Francisco begins at $2,000 a month; one bedroom apartments set you back $2,500 if you are lucky; and you cannot find a living space to buy for less than $900,000 to a million dollars. And that million buys you a “starter” apartment or a small house that needs real work.
And while the little Latino market on the corner just went out of business, a new, brightly lit grocery, with expensive brands displayed on shiny chrome-wire shelving, just opened half a block away. Prices there are roughly triple what they were in the old neighborhood bodega.
At the far end of my block, at the intersection of Valencia and Sixteenth Streets, the appropriately named Val-16 Market has gone out of business after twenty-five years. It was larger than most corner bodegas but like the rest stocked a mix of fresh produce, boxed or canned foods, cleaning products, dairy products, sodas and mixers and waters, beer and liquor, and a few sundries behind the counter.
As with most markets in both the Mission and the Tenderloin, half to three-quarters of the items on the shelves were Productos de Mexico, including the candles in tall glass cylinders that sport images of various saints on the front and prayers appropriate to each in both Spanish and English on the back. (I have a particular fondness of Santa Muerta, but we will not be talking about that.)
Outside, the faded maroon awning that runs the length of the store, wrapping all the way around the corner of the building, reads “Money Orders – ATM – Beer – Liquor – Frutas – Veduras Venta De Toda Clase De De Productos Latinos Y Centroamericanos.” The implied priorities clearly belong to the needs of the old neighborhood, not to its future.
The building that housed the Val-16 Market is typical of almost everything in the Mission. It has commercial space on the ground floor and apartments above – the “Alturas Apartments.” If you begin at the entrance to the apartments and work your way around the corner, you will see that the first space holds a trendy restaurant and bar, the second is empty but has a “Leased” sign in the window, the third is the now defunct Val-16 Market, and the fourth is the “International Depository.”
This last business is quite interesting. Its signs announce that Gold, Jewelry, and Silver can be bought and sold there and that Safe Deposit Boxes can be rented. The storefront used to be a bank, hence the Safe Deposit Boxes. What sets this business apart is that these safe-deposit boxes are not under the jurisdiction of the government. No one will ever be able to examine their contents. They are the most private and safest place to keep anything. I believe it to be a business of use to so many members of every class that it will remain unchanged for years to come, impervious to any and all of the social and economic forces swirling around the corner of 16th and Valencia Streets.
Like the faded awning that wraps around the market, other relics of the past linger along this block. Next to the Val-16 Market stands a much newer building on whose windows are painted the words “Centro del Pueblo.” In front of that building, large river stones have been set in concrete. Instead of having a straight edge along the front, running parallel to the façade, the line formed by the stones swoops and waves in and out, suggesting perhaps the watery environment that wore them so round and smooth. While that suggestion may make a passerby think the placement of these stones to have been motivated by eco-friendly California-Warm-and-Fuzzy architectural values, I recognize that their function is to keep anyone from sitting against the wall (for back support) or lying alongside it (for shelter, comfort, and some safety) while sleeping. The amateur urban archaeologist interprets the river rocks as evidence that a significant number of folks took lodgings along this block not long ago.
[There is still one gentleman who makes his bed in a doorway of the Val-16 Market. Whatever business next occupies that space will most likely force him to find another shelter. I will be watching.]
Another bit of the old community survives along that stretch of sidewalk too. On any day of the week, and especially on weekends, a handful of people spread their collections of used items –- clothing, books, CDs and DVDs, dolls, housewares, small appliances and consumer electronic goods, gadgets, etc. -– in neat groupings along the pavement for sale. I have seen these little shops-without-a-shop in the Tenderloin as well, though there the posts of the various floor-brokers in the double-auction drug market take so much more of each block that the little retail goods operations are both smaller and harder to spot.
I must say once again that anyone who thinks that the poor are lazy is himself too lazy to observe the world around him without prejudice. These men and women are as resourceful, focused, hard-working and knowledgeable as any corporate executive; this is especially true of those who are homeless or, even if housed, getting by on General Assistance and Food Stamps. The ingenuity by which they acquire their inventories, without benefit of small-business loans or other capital, and then display and market them amazes me. These are Millet’s Gleaners living in a post-agricultural society; these are Edward Markham’s “Man with a Hoe” or Wordsworth’s Leech Gatherer in the new millennium.
But I have wandered from my topic. What I want to articulate is the odd temporal and spatial double-vision I have experienced in making this move. I had a strange feeling this afternoon that I had moved not just a mile or two but five to ten years as well. Just as I remember walking the block on which I now live three years ago and seeing rundown store-fronts, intoxicated people, garbage, and shoddy hotels, I imagine that walking long Eddy or Leavenworth Streets (where I used to stay) two or three years from now, I will find new and high-priced restaurants, residential buildings renovated and sold as condominiums, fancy cars, and people who, if intoxicated, are nevertheless well-dressed, jolly, and utterly bourgeois. Those who do their shaky dances, talk to the Shadow People, or ask me if I want a date will be all gone.
Or perhaps not all.
In the late afternoon and early evening, anywhere from three to eight o’clock, a few older African-American men congregate along the stretch of sidewalk in front of the Centro del Pueblo. They hail one another, tease one another, and pass along the neighborhood news and gossip, loudly and with much laughter, enthusiasm, and affection. The atmosphere they generate is omething like that of a black man’s barbershop without the barber or the shop.
Sometimes one of them is wobbly with drink –- or acting the part for comic effect –- as he approaches the rest. As the teasing and boasting and reminiscing swell, their manner and humor remind me of the Rat Pack. These gentlemen were young men out on their first nightclub sprees when Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and the rest played similar pranks in those venues. Now they gather on this windswept sidewalk, warming one another with good cheer, until the dark and cold drive them home.
Just past the Centro del Pueblo one finds the “Black and Brown Social Club.” It is closed around dinner time but open again from 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening. Despite the name, it is not a variation of the informal social club I have just described; it is a pre-school and daycare facility. Early each morning I see the arrival of the children who attend the Pre-School there. Parents walk up the block holding their little ones’ hands, or pull their cars over to the curb, get out, and walk the children to the door. The evening hours are in effect extended day-care for those parents whose day-jobs number more than one and whose work day extends into the night. Here older kids can find safe, healthy, and educational activities.
The words “Pre-School” and information about the school and its programs are painted on the windows to the left of the door. On the window over the door are the words “Black and Brown Social Club”, with images of hands of different colors clasped together. And on the glass panel immediately to the left of the door the following statement has been painted:
The Black and Brown Social Club is a project of Compañeros del Barrio pre-school, day care, and parent support project. We strive to unite and empower the Black and Brown communities through support, guidance, inspiration, and training. Encouraging and inspiring Black and Brown families to showcase their many talents in order to create and build their own futures. Empowering people to believe in themselves. Not to be co-dependent on government assistance or government agencies. We must strength the hands of our communities, not weaken them. [Beneath this statement is a drawing of a pair of handcuffs, the chain that tied the two wristclamps together broken apart.]
You might be tempted to think this rejection of government assistance to have its origins in conservative Republicanism. One can imagine Paul Ryan as ventriloquist, moving his little Black and Brown puppets and making them prove that “good minorities” are as fiscally conservative as he. But if you were so tempted, you need only look a bit to the right, on the other side of the door, to see a window full of pictures of Hugo Chavez and the slogan “Viva La Revolution Siempre!”
Despite the ongoing gentrification and displacement of the poor, this is still, after all, San Francisco.
Like the Tenderloin, the Mission has long been home to numerous non-profit, charitable, and governmental organizations and agencies. Like the Tenderloin, it has long had a relatively high percentage of subsidized housing units. In both neighborhoods there is growing concern as to how these essential services will be able to afford to keep offices where their clients can access their services easily.
Unlike the Tenderloin, the Mission has always been the Immigrants’ neighborhood. Having been the Spanish-then-Mexican Mission settlement, it retained a largely Mexican population even after the Americans took the city for themselves. Later the Irish and then the Italians made the Mission their home. One can still find Irish and Italian businesses maintaining their place in the neighborhood. Because it has been an immigrant neighborhood, it has always had a vibrant and prosperous economy of its own.
I simply cannot understand how anyone can think that immigrants drag down an economy. The truth is as obvious to common sense as such a thing can be. If you grow your population (and economy) by births, you will not realize the benefit resulting from the labor of each new person until they have about spent twenty years growing up and getting an education. During these long years they produce nothing, but they do consume resources. However, if you grow your population (and economy) by immigration, you will find that the new members of your community have been educated, nurtured, fed, clothed, and raised to adulthood at someone else’s expense. And they become productive members of your economy from day one.
In all the demagoguery and politicking, and in all the endless media babble, I have yet to hear anyone speak this simple truth outright. Does no one arguing on either side of the “Immigration Reform Issue” indulge in common sense?