San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods. The neighborhood in which I currently dwell is called “The Mission” or, sometimes, “the Mission District.” I have heard it said that a year or two ago The New York Times called it “the hippest neighborhood in the country.” No doubt that would have been around the time I happened to look through the front window of a taqueria I was passing and saw Quentin Tarantino eating chimichangas. Or a few months later when I suddenly came upon Woody Allen – whom I had previously seen in person only on a street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, then walking in the company of Mia Farrow – talking with a crew member while working on “Blue Jasmine.”
Much of the allure of the Mission is the complexity of its social fabric. It has been home over the past century and a half to successive waves of immigrants, each bringing the cuisine, the music, the traditions, and the folk culture of its homeland. One sees everywhere remnants of each epoch, like strata in the rock containing fossils of the forms that life has taken through the ages: German, Irish, Italian, Mexican, and Central American influences can be seen in architecture, restaurants, street names, art (including the ubiquitous murals), and music that thrive in this neighborhood.
Such are the relics of the past. Now, quite suddenly, a wholly new and entirely unexpected wave of immigrants has hit the shore and is flooding the streets and alleyways of the Mission. Like every one of the past waves of immigrants, this one is viewed with suspicion, its manners and mores are decried as uncivil and disruptive, and its displacement – or replacement – of the previously existing social structure is giving rise to anger, resentment, and occasional violence. Yet also like each previous wave, these immigrants see themselves as innocents who have happily discovered a new home that is to them so exciting and so inviting that they feel only pride and joy at taking up their residence here.
The new immigrants are – well, what shall I call them? The first epithet that came to my mind earlier this afternoon was “privileged white kids,” but that is not at all accurate. Yes, they are young, but their ethnic backgrounds are Asian, African, and Latin, as much as “white.” Indeed, I would say that their tribe, as it were, is determined not by any shared biological traits but by shared biographical ones. These are well-educated, highly paid, and adventurous people. One of them rode in my cab a couple of weeks ago. He was born in Nigeria, and after graduating from MIT had gone home to visit his family. Now he had returned to the United States and come to San Francisco to make his career in internet enterprises. He told me that San Francisco is for young people today what New York was for my generation when we were in our twenties and thirties: this is the place to come if you want to make your mark on the world.
And within San Francisco, these young people gravitate to the Mission and, to a lesser extent, to the Tenderloin.
I walked through the Tenderloin tonight and saw – or, more accurately, felt – a disquieting change in the short nine months since I moved to the Mission. The neighborly feeling of comradery, of sharing a relaxed and occasionally messy communal life, seems to have evaporated. In its place is a loud, rough, and sharp-tongued hostility. Last autumn I felt that people seeing me walk down the block would wonder where that crazy white boy was going and how he got so lost that he was walking through here. I felt tonight that they were eyeing me as an enemy. At the Lafayette Coffee Shop, where I ate my dinner, the usual crowd of regulars was augmented by a dozen or so young men of that new tribe I described above. Usually the Lafayette is filled with a general conversation among the regulars who discuss sports and their neighbors, gossip and kid one another, and anyone so moved is free to add their two cents worth. But last night that inclusive conversation was not to be heard, and the young men carried on one of their own.
When I left the restaurant, I passed three or four small groups, some of women and some of men, who were walking home from work and were chatting with one another oblivious to the long-time residents they passed along the way. The old-timers sauntered along the sidewalk or stood in clusters along the blocks of Hyde from McAllister to Eddy. I saw, though the young bourgeoisie did not, the looks and the posture, the attitudes, of the folks in the shadows through which the kids passed. The friction between these two entities, the heat generated by their passing so closely to one another, a heat unnoticed by one party and inciting the other, intimated to me a future that I do not care to name. Let us pray that the heat does not burn, that it does not burst into flame.
Let me return to the Mission, literally and figuratively, for it is this neighborhood that I make my subject tonight. The neighborhood takes its name from the Spanish Mission, which still stands on Dolores Street near 16th Street. A low, thick-walled adobe building, Mission San Francisco de Asis (La Mision de Nuestro Padre San Francisco de Asis) was founded June 29, 1776, five days before the Declaration of Independence was published, on land claimed by the Spaniards in the name of their King Phillip. This land was, at the time, known as Chutchui to the Bay Miwok, the Coast Miwok, and the Patwin peoples who had considered the area to be their neighborhood for at least a thousand years before the Europeans registered their own title to it.
The common name for the Mission, Mission Dolores, comes from the name of the creek that flowed by it: Arroyo de Nuestra Signora de los Dolores, or The Creek of Our Lady of the Sorrows. It is here that Europeans first settled. An historical marker at the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets records the basic facts. (Camp Street takes its name from the fact that the Spanish made their camp on the site.) That marker stands just a block and a half from the room in which I now write. I have long wondered why the Spaniards chose such a name. Was their journey to this spot so harrowing that they believed that they camped in Her quiet, grieving company? Or was the spot itself so inhospitable (I have read that ferocious swarms of mosquitoes plagued anyone who was here in those days) that they felt themselves to be encamped among sorrows? Had many of their party succumbed to sickness or even death here? I have searched many sources, and I have found no answer.
Certainly for the Miwok and the Patwin, as well as the other tribes of Ohlones living in the bay region, the arrival of the whites, with their murderous warriors and their strange religion, not to mention their foreign diseases, meant unrelenting, disastrous, and ultimately genocidal sorrows. I do not know what the Ohlone might have thought of the new immigrants in their neighborhood, but I have read many of the accounts written by the Europeans regarding the inhabitants of their “New World.” The Europeans found the First Peoples to be indolent, unproductive, ignorant, and child-like. They thought their own right to take the land and its resources for their own purposes was obvious in the fact that, as they saw it, the Ohlone had failed utterly to make any use of the bounty that surrounded them.
I have found this view of the prehistoric residents of San Francisco (and of the rest of Northern California) to have been held consistently into the early twentieth century. The first prominent voice that I have found raised in defense of and respect for the Native Americans was that of Theodora Kroeber, the wife of the University of California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Her book “Ishi in Two Worlds” tells the story of the last surviving Native Californian, a man who wandered into the white man’s world in the town of Oroville, almost dead with sickness and hunger, in 1911.
Now, another hundred years later we are beginning to understand the wisdom of the people who lived within the nexus of the ecosystem of which they were part rather than seeing their habitat only as “wealth” to be extracted. We Europeans have by now so altered that ecosystem that we may find that “making use” of all that wealth has cost us our lives. If we survive, we may well lament the 200 years during which we looked down on the First Peoples as lazy, ignorant, and unproductive and judged them unworthy of the wealth that their land held. That world view excused our wholesale appropriation of the land, and at its extreme that view justified slaughter.
Just short of that extreme this same language of judgment justified the oppression of Africans and African-Americans both during the period when slavery was practiced and on through the time after its abolition. To this day the same terms are used to devalue the poor and to justify the refusal to help them. The unemployed are called lazy. The drug-addicted, the alcoholics, and the mentally ill are described as spoiled children who just want to play and have fun instead of being responsible and productive. The judgments passed against these people are not drawn from any investigation or evidence: they are the shadow side of Capitalism’s supposed virtues and of its attendant bourgeois morality, and they are indiscriminately thrown at anyone the ruling class wishes to push aside.
The language of the conquerors, first the Spanish and then the Americans, defined the vanquished and marginalized them as individuals. In the Mission, as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, this language of oppression continued in force but in a sense reversed direction. Now it was the immigrant who was viewed as lazy, ignorant, and child-like. And each wave of immigrants, as it moved up the social hierarchy on the backs of a new wave of immigrants from a different land, adopted the same terms to denigrate the newcomers. So Germans who had been judged in this way condemned the Irish who followed them in the same terms; the Irish then condemned the Italians; and so on to today when these terms are used to denounce the poor in general, since the taboo against racism keeps that part of the oppressor’s world view unspoken.
In December of last year, Greg Gopman, the CEO at the time of AngelHack, a Silicon Valley tech company, posted the following on his Facebook page:
“Just got back to SF. I've traveled around the world and I gotta say there is nothing more grotesque than walking down market st in San Francisco. Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue. Each time I pass it my love affair with SF dies a little.
“The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it's a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that's okay.
“In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city. Like it's their place of leisure... In actuality it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It a disgrace. I don't even feel safe walking down the sidewalk without planning out my walking path.
“You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It's a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I'd consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn't made anyone's life better in a while.”
Again and again in the course of its history, San Francisco has been said to be in the throes of “another Gold Rush.” The same thing is being said today. But seldom does anyone examine the conflicts that arise when each wave of fortune hunters floods in. We have had two kinds of immigration crisis in this city: one kind is the influx of poor and displaced people fleeing disasters in their homelands and the other is the influx of middle and upper-class fortune hunters. The two have at times alternated and at times come in tandem, as they do today, when hysteria about illegal border crossings is combined with the kind of rancor toward the existing lower-class population that I just quoted.
This afternoon, while walking first in the Mission and later in the Tenderloin, I saw and felt that the great tear ripping open in this city’s social fabric is not so much the result of the pressures of a growing population from Central and South America but is rather the result of the pressures exerted by the influx of a wealthy and privileged elite. I do not doubt that the rich and powerful interlopers will win and drive the lower classes out of the two neighborhoods that have been, until recent months, affordable for them. But with them will go the rich cultural mélange that has been the Mission’s charm. They will find themselves conquerors of a barren field, rulers of an emptiness whose lack of interest and of cultural value will leave them wondering why they came here at all.