Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

S.F.'s Mission District a study in contrasts

03/04/2012 12:00 AM

08/30/2012 1:06 PM

SAN FRANCISCO – Stroll, do not power walk, down Balmy Alley here in the Mission District. Slow your overcaffeinated pulse from too many espressos in neighborhood cafes, quell your fired-up metabolism from super burritos scarfed in corner taquerias, empty your mind of the thrift store bargains beckoning on the boulevard.

Tranquilo, amigo.

Take it easy and allow the brilliant colors of this block-long gantlet of murals, located in the less-trendy and -trod part of the district, to wash over you with sensations both visual to visceral. Let the walls tell their tales: the images of life in the Mission in times past and the ever-evolving present, from Spanish cathedrals to turn-of-century horse stables; from poverty to AIDS; from low riders to low-rent flophouses; from the Central American struggles that made immigrants leave the homeland to the struggle by those same immigrants to stay rooted in a neighborhood transformed by gentrification.

Linger at one particular work, titled "Victorion: El Defensor de la Mission." Get in close, nearly nose to wall, to catch the subtlety of the fine details. Muralist Sirron Norris, using what he terms "cartoon literalism," paints a cityscape at war between tradition and progress. Billboards sardonically extol "New Organic Fair-Trade Condos." Storefront windows tout "Tattoos and 10-Speeds" under an awning with the sign "Hipsters Unique Together." A skinny-jeaned skateboarder careens down the street, holding a Scooby-Do-like dog, while below, so tiny as to be inconsequential, a brown-skinned mother holds a child's hand at a bus stop. At the center, a looming presence, is a robot dubbed "Victorion," whose mission is nothing less than to preserve the stately Victorian homes lining the avenues.

"There's a lot of tension in this one," Patricia Rose, who leads tours of Balmy Alley for the community arts store Precita Eyes, told a cluster of sightseers one recent rainy afternoon. "A lot of people in the Mission feel they're being pushed out. They can't afford to buy a Victorian and afford to live here anymore."

Her tour group dutifully pointed iPhones and clicked to capture images. Then they moved to the next wall, and the next, documenting works not only of mid-20th century Latino immigrants, but also stretching back to when the newcomers were Italian or Irish.

By the time they reached the tour's end at 24th Street, near Harrison, tourists could make a choice that was all about old and new: bopping over to the renowned designer ice cream boutique Humphry Slocombe for a chocolate with smoked sea salt scoop ($3.25); or stopping at a vendor pushing a sticker- covered ice cream cart selling Fudgsicles ($1).

New, old worlds collide

It's all about gentrification, a word fraught with sociological baggage. New lofts and restored Victorians have infused the neighborhood with money to spend on local businesses, yet the escalating cost of living has resulted in a 20 percent drop in Latino population in the past decade, according to census figures. In 2010, the hyper-local website Mission Loc@l ( illustrated this dichotomy with an ingenious "Gangs and Cupcakes" grid map, showing 20 bakeries selling cupcakes in either Sureño or Norteño gang territory, using as a pull quote an excerpt from a Yelp review: "This quaint little spot is in a slightly unsavory part of town."

So, do we celebrate the Mission as it was, grit and drugs and crime and all? Or do we applaud efforts, initially fueled by dot-com money in the '00s and now sustained by artists and free spirits, to launch new businesses and restaurants, to boldly challenge the city's other sectors for the tourist dollar?

There is no easy answer. Surely even those muralists who decry the supposed soulless sanitization of the Mission certainly don't want Balmy Alley to return to what it was in the early '70s, a shooting gallery strewn with needles and empty bottles and no real art.

But what to make of $20 artisan grilled cheese sandwiches or $40 shaves or $24 infant onesies made of organic Egyptian cotton, all of which now are available on a chic stretch of Valencia Street?

"It's a definite gray area," Norris said of the "G-question" in the Mission. "Gentrification is part of the Mission's history. It wouldn't have been called the Mission originally if it hadn't been gentrified. This has been a curse laid on the Mission long ago. People have been totally displaced (by the growth), but it's not black-and-white. I have friends who earned college degrees, got good jobs and bought a condo in the Mission. Is that a bad thing?

"Back in the day, you could get a super burrito on the street for five bucks. Now, you can't get one for under 10. But, you know, you used to never be able to go get a burrito at night without stepping maybe into a sketchy situation. That's changed, too."

Burrito inflation not- withstanding, the Mission District is one of San Francisco's most intriguing places to visit because, as writ large in Norris' mural, it perfectly encapsulates the cultural contrasts at play in many major cities. For that alone, it's well worth spending a day – and, yes, even a night – exploring.

The Mission may not be the most obvious tourist haunt in a city fueled by tourism. It lacks the guidebook cache of a Union Square, North Beach, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park or Nob Hill.

Nor does it possess the campiness of the Castro, the cutting-edge trendiness of South of Market, the unapologetic commercialism of Fisherman's Wharf.

But the quirkiness quotient of this 1.9-square-mile neighborhood south of downtown trumps the others. Perhaps you need to embrace the contrasts and treat the incongruities as splendid diversity, not stark, alienating contrasts.

Diversity of food, too

Take breakfast, for instance. On a bustling weekday morning in a less-gussied-up block well east of Mission Street, commuters in a rush could choose to stop at Dynamo Donuts & Coffee or Panderia La Mexicana Bakery.

Dynamo opened in 2008 and has a loyal following for its designer doughnuts, including a glazed maple bacon and spiced chocolate, which mixes cinnamon and sugar with chipotle and chili powders, and adds a dash of potato in the dough.

On this morning, with the line out front five deep, the Belinda Carlisle channel on Pandora Internet Radio played Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" on an iPod speaker by the cash register, and counter worker Walter Chumley sang the refrain "Turn around, bright eyes " with full-throated vigor between taking orders. He tried to get people to try the maple bacon instead of playing it safe with something chocolate.

"I was a vegetarian for five months when I started working here," Chumley said. "But the maple bacon is persuasive, even for a vegetarian. Eventually, the curiosity got to me and I tried one. I just giggled and giggled. Every month or so, I get the same urge to have one."

Harrison Pollock, a new Mission resident, is addicted to the chocolate spice.

"All the ones here that sound a little weird on paper, when you actually try them, make a lot of sense, taste-wise," he said. "Nothing feels strange to put in a doughnut. And I also come here because it's the closest place to my house."

A block away, presumably also near Pollock's residence, is Panderia La Mexicana. No music blares, but the scent of anise and pineapple waft as several Latino customers, armed with tongs, peruse a dazzling array of pan dulce (sweet bread). Customer Marcos Ortiz takes a BART train from downtown, where he lives, just to stock his breakfast shelves at home.

"I've tried other (panderias)," he said. "Nothing tastes as good as here."

Asked if he's tried Dynamo Donuts, Ortiz shook his head.

Food, perhaps even more than art, binds the Mission. What the district is most known for, and rightly so, is its taquerias. There has yet to be a definitive count, but there are at least two dozen in the vicinity. And everyone – Latino and Anglo, Asian or African American – has his favorite stop for a burrito the size of a football. But, judging by recommendations from longtime residents as well as gauging the size of the lines leading to the counter, three stand out: La Taqueria on Mission near 25th Street; Taqueria Cancun on Mission near 19th Street; and Pancho Villa Taqueria on 16th Street, between Mission and Valencia streets.

At the tail end of the dinner-hour rush at Pancho Villa, Derek Hanson and Carlene Cotter bowed their heads into massive burritos. Former Mission denizens, they had come from Oakland, where they live now, for a pilgrimage. This was their place, back in the day. They've tried other Mission taquerias; none measured up.

"I never liked Mexican food, any Mexican food, until I moved to the Mission," Hanson said. He laughed, then added, "I don't think it's required or anything, but I learned to like it."

Based on sheer customer volume, Cancun might be the most popular taqueria. At the prick of noon, the place was packed. Four fresh-scrubbed, pinstriped-suited businessmen doffed coats, carefully rolled up sleeves to mid-wrist and tucked paper napkins in their buttoned collars before each diving into the Mojado ("The Big One"), while someone punched up some mariachi music from the jukebox.

Diner Barbara Fried, a Cancun fan, said she likes the burritos there because "they don't fall apart, and it's important to have the right proportion of meat to everything else."

Finished, she came over to offer a bit of advice: "You know, if you're going to write about taquerias, you really should talk to a Mexican."

Many of Latino ancestry, it turned out, were lunching at La Taqueria. There was plenty of time to chat up customers, because the line was 15 deep. Linda Montoya and friend Carlos Arteaga said they were ordering tacos, not burritos, and they chose this taqueria because, as Linda said, "This is as close as you're going to get to authentic Mexican as you'll get in the Mission."

Arteaga, who speaks limited English, touched Montoya's arm and asked her to translate his opinions: "This is real Mexican food. The other places add too much stuff."

Such loyalty often extends to another Mission food fetish – ice cream – highlighted by the Bi-Rite Creamery and Humphry Slocombe. Bi-Rite, at 18th and Dolores, is more traditional but gives a nod to hipness in its use of organic ingredients and a few vegan offerings.

Humphry Slocombe, however, has become a phenomenon in the food world since opening its tiny shop under an unassuming blue awning saying, all in lower case, "ice cream" in 2008. The New York Times Magazine, in 2010, devoted 3,569 words to Humphrey Slocombe, detailing not only its odd flavors (Boccalone prosciutto) but explaining the origin of the establishment's name (taken from two characters in the low-brow English TV show "Are You Being Served?").

Each day, the Humphry's 303,837 Twitter followers eagerly await the posting of a snaphot of the flavor board, pining for their favorite concoction.

Amanda Szakats and Margaret Wooliever were tasting free samples under prints of Warholian Campbell Soup cans tweaked to feature its ice cream flavors. The friends mulled the Jesus Juice (red wine and Coke), Harvey Milk & Honey Graham Cracker and Apple Coded Bacon.

Szakats chose a dissolute favorite, the Secret Breakfast, made of Jim Beam bourbon and cornflakes.

"I think I'll be OK to drive back across the bridge," Szakats cracked.

The friends were holding shopping bags and sharing the scoop as they sauntered (not stumbled, Bukowski-like) back to the 24th Street BART station.

Shopping with whimsy

Shopping has long been an integral part of the Mission District, with its bodegas selling fresh produce and Central American delicacies. Thrift stores abound, because they cater to both low-income residents in search of bargains and vintage-clothes divas looking for that just-right retro look. Several of the long-closed theaters, whose facades blessedly remain intact, now house 99-cent-type discount stores. Same-day, check-cashing and money-wiring services, often with adjoining travel agencies for trips to Mexico or Central America, seem to be on every other block down Mission Street.

Upscale shopping? Not so much. But that began to change a few years ago, when younger residents with more disposable incomes and eclectic tastes arrived. Valencia Street now has become the nexus of quirky boutiques, none more so than the pirate store that fronts author Dave Eggers' nonprofit literacy project, 826 Valencia, and the odd bones, stones and freaky taxidermy home design shop, Paxton Gate, next door at 824 Valencia.

At Paxton Gate, customers can construct their own terrariums from materials such as Mexican river stones ($1.75 a pound) and Black Lichen ($3 an ounce). Or they can purchase the skeletal remains of animals ranging from a cat's spine to a coyote bone. Want a freeze-dried frog encased in acrylic? Of course you do. Fork over $59. All manner of stuffed and mounted critters stare down at you, from a snarling hyena to a pouncing bobcat.

"We get some unusual, really specific requests," said Francesca Giuliani, working the checkout stand. "Somebody once asked if we had lemmings (dead and stuffed, presumably). Most customers know what they want. They're that eccentric."

No doubt, those same customers will check in next door at 826 Valencia, a tongue-in-cheek "pirate store" whose proceeds help fund Eggers' youth-tutoring and -writing programs. Darkly lit with faux wooden warped shelving, with dirgelike organ music wafting, the interior of the store is made to look like a ship's galley. Much of the merchandise does not rise above upscale gag gifts like "Can of Blood" ($14.99), "Mermaid Bait or Repellent" ($4) or "Glass Eye Drops" ($15).

Plopped in the center of the store is a tub of lard, displayed as if it were in a bulk food section of a grocery store. What gives?

"Oh, see that bottle of hair clippings behind me?" worker Iris Alden said, slyly. "We actually trade lard for some (locks) of people's hair. For me, this store serves more purposes than just being a store. It's a store where people bring their out-of-town friends and family members. It's like an attraction."

Unexpected finds

The Mission teems with unexpected attractions, which is why you need to bring your walking shoes.

Look up into a window of a Victorian on 18th Street, a few hundred feet east from Valencia, and you have found the Troll Window (http://sftrollwindow., which each week or so features gussied-up troll dolls festooned in an idyllic scene. On this day: Pink- and green-haired trolls cavorting amid rainbow bunting. Elsewhere, a vacant lot on Mission Street features an impromptu mixed-media installation about love hung on chain-link fencing. Sometimes, the art is mobile, such as the man dressed in tight gold lame pants and Rick Santorum-issued red sweater vest, with an infant nestled in a Snugli. He loped down Mission Street strumming a ukulele; no one paid him any mind.

Another unexpected pleasure (at least for the customers, if not the proprietors) is finding four specialty bookstores housed above a discount paint store on Mission Street. To enter, you must find a call-buzzer intercom, state your intentions ("Uh, to, like, browse for books") and wait to get buzzed in. Then you climb two flights of stairs and get to Vahalla Books (first-edition fiction), then climb one more flight to the troika of Bolerium Books (radical politics), Meyer Boswell Books (collectible law tomes) and Libros Latinos (scholarly Latin American and Caribbean books).

Upon entering Bolerium (motto: "Fighting Commodity Fetishism With Commodity Fetishism Since 1981"), co-owner John Durham looks at you with a mock stink-eye.

"Oh, you found us," he said, crestfallen. "We don't get many walk-ins."

No surprise there. These specialty bookstores cater mostly to dealers, scholars and university libraries. But there are gems to unearth on the shelves, especially at Bolerium, such as a section devoted to "The White Problem in America," meaning white supremacist groups, as well as another on the Spanish Civil War and random eyebrow-raising titles such as "The Romance of Proctology."

Should you ever need it, Bolerium boasts the nation's largest collection of tracts on the Communist Party in California.

Lefties paradise?

Bolerium's niche fits the Mission as snugly as a hemp muscle T-shirt. At least, if you're judging by the ubiquitous murals, most celebrating revolutionary causes. As muralist Norris says, "We're in the Mission; it's in our blood to protest."

Which brings us back, inevitably, to the mural alleys, this time to Clarion Alley near Valencia Street.

Late in the afternoon, Li Lightfoot, a photographer who catalogs street art, admired a flowing, swirling work representing the early '80s Nicaraguan war. He leaned in close, thinking that a someone had "tagged" the work with graffiti.

"No," he said. "I think that's part of (the mural). I've found that taggers will not tag over a well-done mural. If it's not so well done, well "

In the Mission, apparently, everyone's an art critic.

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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