Politics & Government

Battling for the Mission’s soul

The city’s Mission District, where small bodegas, taquerias and brilliant colored murals now share the streets with upscale cafes and restaurants, is fighting to hold on to its identity as a hub of Latino culture.

“Little by little, everyone is leaving,” said Cindy De Losa, an artist and third-generation San Franciscan who works in the Mission but lives in the coastal town of Pacifica because she can’t afford city rents. “It’s like they are taking the whole world away from you.”

In what has become a battle for the soul of the Mission, city supervisors recently designated one of the key commercial corridors on 24th Street – where it is now possible to eat lunch for $3 or buy a single cup of coffee for the same price – as the Latino Cultural District. Business owners and residents have embraced the new name but wonder if it’s enough.

The densely populated district was not always a center of Latino culture. Earlier it was home to Polish, German and Irish immigrants, who were then replaced by a wave of newcomers from Latin America.

But rents jumped during the tech boom of the 1990s, forcing many to the suburbs or outer reaches of the city. The percentage of Latino residents in the neighborhood dropped from almost 50 percent in the 2000 census to about 39 percent in 2010.

The latest boom pushed rents to new highs. Once considered affordable, the Mission is now ground zero in the controversy over gentrification. Protesters have blocked private buses that ferry tech workers to their jobs and rallied against speculators and the growing number of evictions.

“There is a lot of tension,” said Erick Arguello, head of Calle 24 SF, an association of merchants and residents in the area. “You can feel it in the air.”

Arguello, who has lived in the Mission since he moved from Nicaragua with his family in 1963, has seen the changes. There is still a mix of businesses affordable to local, working-class residents, he said, but many of the small produce stores, bakeries and butcher shops are disappearing.

Calle 24 has held a series of public meetings to discuss options for preserving the neighborhood. Among the suggestions are getting the city to build more affordable housing and adopting a moratorium on new restaurants or protections for existing long-standing businesses.

“We don’t want it to become a Disneyland theme area, but a place where people come and shop and pick up groceries,” said Arguello. “Not a museum.”

Jaime Maldonado, whose father opened La Victoria bakery on 24th Street in 1951, no longer lives in the neighborhood. He is glad that the street is getting much-needed help, but he wishes it had happened 20 years ago, when the last tech boom almost derailed his business.

“It’s on the verge of being too late,” he said. “We are social road kill for the money and institutions of San Francisco.’’

These days his bakery offers traditional Latin sweets and cakes, but also coffee drinks and mainstream cookies. Gone are the egg-based and leavened breads.

He also rents kitchen space to other chefs and is thinking of opening a Latin bistro.

“Eating habits have changed, and the culture is morphing,” he said. “A third-generation Latino becomes an American, and you are going to lose something in that process. I’ve changed recipes to make them more palatable.”

Nearby, Miles Pickering opened a new sandwich shop, Pork & Pie, two years ago at the site of a landmark record store and neighborhood hangout called Discolandia. He had lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and never considered another location for his business, he said.

“It’s such a dynamic corridor,” he said. “It has a lovely walking environment and the feeling of the old city before it got all gentrified.”

A member of Calle 24, Pickering agreed to keep Discolandia’s large iconic sign. At first, he got some nasty glares and window tagging, he said, but that dissipated. Now he mostly has customers who come in and thank him for preserving a part of history.

“We still do get people who walk into what is obviously a restaurant and ask if we sell records, though,” he said. “It’s mostly a branding problem.”

Businesses on 24th Street need to figure out a way to cater to new and old customers, he said. Others think it’s unlikely that small bodegas, hair salons and groceries can do that. They say their old customers are disappearing and the new ones don’t want what they sell.

“Gentrification is a powerful economic force,” said Pickering. “You can’t stop it. You might be able to slow it down, but figuring out how to manage it is the only thing we can do.”

De Losa, who is store manager at the nonprofit Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center and creates boxes containing miniature scenes from the Mission’s history – called Homes for the Homies – is partly relieved to be out of the city, with its traffic and high prices. A long waiting list for senior housing is her only hope of moving back, she said.

“Sometimes I’m hating my hometown for what is happening to it,” she said. “You see all these new people and hipsters. They don’t fit.”

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.