Riding my bike through town I came across a piece of art that caught my heart at 24th and Bryant. My friend posted a photo of it and it churned my feelings into words. These words, about this town I call home.
Located at 24th and Bryant.
For as long as there has been a place called San Francisco the story has been of shifting change, cycles of riches and busts. It is a city of tall tales of enterprise and spirit played out on the fringe of the continent. Always it is the Westest of the West and when the Pacific Ocean hits your feet at the end of the West there is story to carry you further.
This town is magic with her fog covered cold heart of gold. San Francisco will lure you to believe you can depend on her sunshine, then she rolls in the fog; all beautiful and quiet. You fall in love with the soft light and muffled days longing for the return of the sun. Always when on the verge of abandoning hope there appears the sun again.
I am no local.
Since the moment I drove across the Bay Bridge with my best friend in 1992, with dreams of I don’t know what packed into our Ryder truck in Chicago and unpacked in the Upper Haight I had a gnawing sense this was not the town for me, but I fell in love with her contradictions and non-committal attitude. Jerry Garcia was still alive and Haight-Ashbury was not yet Ben and Jerry’s corner. There were coffee shops and warm sunshine through to New Year. North Beach was alive and well with young and old characters intermingling. The Mission was sticking out her artsy head. The Tenderloin was all grit and TuLan. But, I paid more for my drafty room in a dark railroad flat, rumored to have housed Charlie Manson at one point, than I had for my 2 bedroom flat in Chicago were my landlords dropped off rolls of toilet paper and lightbulbs when they picked up the rent each month, which we left tumb tacked to the door with push pins they provided. And, there were no good jobs, not that I was looking for one. I was 22. A bike messenger by day and a cocktail waitress at Yancy’s Saloon in the Inner Sunset at night. I studied Middle Eastern history, Arabic, The Greek Classics in Greek, drank shit tons of beer at Zeitgeist and fell in love with the wrong boys, and this town.
San Francisco, this town pretending to be a city, all earth quake prone and wind swept – at once chilly and warm – is a town of contradictions, oxymorons, and made up histories. It is rich and poor. Strongly liberal, inspirational, free spirited and civil rights centered on the left hand and cold hearted, profit seeking, diversity squashing, free spirited and corporate rights centered on the right hand. Don’t lie to yourself, this is San Francisco’s history. And, this is why your heart breaks for her promises no matter who you are. And, no matter who you are, you can call her home, at least for a while, she doesn’t mind being left, she knows there will always be a new lover and that she owns your heart forever.
I moved to The Mission in 1994 or 95 I think. I had a little studio on Shotwell Street by 19th. I was in the back of the building and I shared my little back patio with junkies, hookers, and a bunch of chickens raised in tandem by the grandmothers of the Laotian and Guatemalan families that lived in the other two flats. There were a lot of drive by shootings. I shopped at the local bodegas and was as poor as the rest of my block, save the few houses that were bought up by “gentrifiers”. Those people were setting down and raising their kids in those houses. My little flat was $500 a month. Which was too much for the creepy bathroom that I could never clean clean enough to rid it of the feeling that there had been a bloody death in there. I would have felt weird saying that had I not had to clean it when I moved in, and it was dirty in a bloody way in those corners. I was part of that wave of change in The Mission that has come to a head in the 10’s of these 2000’s. Already at that time Latino Families were being squeezed and change was lurking as a few dive bars, art galleries, cafes and shops began to open up to serve this changing population and offer income and community to young entrepreneurs, musicians, artists and activists.
The Mission was still affordable, working class, bohemian and artsy. But, often those last two words are the death knell on the neighborhood and community that builds up and gentrifies in that way. Now The Mission is more White than Latino. It is more rich than it is working class or poor. And those of us who have struggled to make this home, an affordable home in an unaffordable city, are scrambling to feel at home in our hood. And at this point – so many years in I feel like it is my hood. I have raised my son here. He is a Mission Local. All his education has happened in San Francisco Public Schools in the Mission. He is Bilingual – Spanish and English. He would be listed in the government stats in kids in poverty.
We use the Local Clinics. Have used the local food banks. I have at least two jobs going at any one time. This is an expensive town, and it is getting even more so. I am so grateful that this crazy town has afforded me the chance at holding it down with smoke and mirrors, odd jobs with off hours as ways to earn a living , and a community of underemployed artist and activist friends available for school pick ups and afternoon baby sitting so I can be around for my son and not locked into a daily grind of an inflexible 9-5 job. And, every day as I look out at my view and feel the warmth of home I am grateful for rent control. With the rents the way they are now I can’t imagine trying to trying to set up shop as a single mom in this town!
When I moved into the Mission I didn’t want to chase out those who had been living here, who made this neighborhood what it is. I wanted to join in to their community to help it blossom grow to add my voice – to have good schools and safe neighborhoods, for decent affordable housing that working families, artists, musicians and activists can afford. This last wave of gentrification does not have the spirit of joining in the community. The shell of color and grit is appreciated, but not those who made it and struggle today to live in their neighborhoods.
I want to stay in this town, raise my child in this neighborhood I call home. I want community – real community – that kind that stands up and yells for what is good. Yesterday as I walked with my kid to school down Valencia street dodging joggers, private tech shuttles and people who don’t know that rents in this part of town, even a year ago were not manhatten-esque I was so saddened. It is not just the gentrification. That has been going on forever. It is the lack of heart. The beauty of the Mission to me has always been its vibrant heart in the midst of this cold town, the sun lives here metaphorically and figuratively. In a little observational survey I conducted during my years as a bike messenger I concluded that the corner of 24th street and Alabama is the sunniest place in town. There was a pay phone there once upon a time and I sat next to that phone with a pocket full of dimes and a book waiting for my pager to buzz many a day basking in the sun keeping company with Winos and their stories and Mama’s and their young children playing around the concrete benches.
As evictions are on the rise and rent is sky rocketing those of us in rent controlled places are trapped in them and we are losing our neighbors and friends to Oakland and beyond. San Francisco’s cold heart is blanketing the warm Mission and the loss is heartbreaking.
Thank you for reading.