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The Mission goes boom

By Justine Sharrock | October 25, 2010 | Story Neighborhoods

A little over a year ago, the question arose: If Mission locals had their druthers, what would they do to improve their streets? Given the terrible economy, the query didn’t seem to invite anything too pie-in-the-sky: maybe wider sidewalks, more bike lanes, better lighting to make the alleys less hospitable to muggers. But an opportunity like the worst recession in 70 years only comes around once in a lifetime. Settle for street lamps? Not a chance.

What the community got was a market—actually a street fair/after-school program/performance space/microbusiness incubator that materializes late on Thursday afternoons on Bartlett, a side street off 22nd. It’s not particularly ori­ginal, maybe, but it’s executed with a cheerful energy and low-key inclusiveness that feels rare in this city—in this world. The mood reflects the profound change that’s come over the Mission in the past couple of years: the destination restaurants and DIY galleries, the small-business hubs, the Dwell condos inhabited by earnest young families who like graffiti and homeless people, the shops selling twee ceramic Polaroid cameras and $350 Japanese jeans, the open-source geeks partnering with microfinance nonprofits, the two-person web startups operating out of coffee shops, the buzz. Maybe all this would have happened anyway; the fact that the Mission’s second coming has occurred during a devastating downturn is less remarkable than the genuinely good feelings it has stirred up.

“We all feel like the neighborhood belongs to us,” says queer activist-poet and Mission long-timer Michelle Tea. “Mexican families and anti-gentrification queers and kids with some money who moved here because they heard it was cool and pregnant straight ladies eating at Tartine and all the writers who wound up here and go to the million literary events.”

“I liked neighborhoods I lived in before, but I never loved any,” says MissionMission blogger Allan Hough. “Love is a powerful thing.”

The last time the Mission was booming, things were very different. “The dot-com era felt like living in a Latin Amer­ican country, with things changing so quickly,” says Lydia Chávez, a 13-year resident who oversees Mission Local, the university-funded bilingual news site that kicks the San Francisco Chron­icle’s ass. Tea recalls, “I was throwing eggs out my window at people attending web parties across the street. There was an insane, frantic, greedy energy, where one day, you had your neighborhood, and the next, it was full of speculators.” Back then, the idea of people working together in any way, or even just trading composting tips while wolfing down pupusas at the farmers market, seemed not only ridiculous but wrong, like giving up or selling out or consorting with the enemy. But that’s the difference between a boom in a bubble and a boom in a bust.

“Maybe they had a lot of money and kicked you out of your rent-control unit—now they are baristas and struggling to make it as well,” says Eric Quezada, a self-described “housing justice advocate” who is now the executive director of Dolores Street Community Services. “Instead of anger, folks want to find ways of building alliances that weren’t as obvious in the past.”

That’s not to say that the neighborhood doesn’t have plenty of problems—crime and the skyrocketing cost of living being two of the most obvious. Nearly a quarter of Mission residents live below the poverty level. Some kids hanging around 826 Valencia or the new Boys & Girls Club on Alabama Street have nowhere else to go. You need only look at the Google commuters on their iPhones and the day laborers on their generic cells, both lined up on sidewalks waiting for rides to work, to get a sense of the huge income disparities that exist side by side.

Yet there’s also an enormous sense of possibility, as if the global economic collapse were just the catalyst people had been waiting for. “It’s allowed people to see things in a dif­ferent way,” says chef-owner Joshua Skenes, who went from running lunch carts to starting a weekly pop-up to opening the new Saison, on Folsom between 17th and 18th Streets, this past spring. “People look at simple things, take them apart, and do them better, return to the source of what they are.”

What the Mission has decided to be—beyond the expected creative, ambitious, PC, yadda yadda yadda—is functional. No more keying SUVs (all the rich techsters ride bikes, anyway). No more waiting around for city hall or Sacramento to solve anyone’s problems (not that they ever really did). Bit by bit, the neighborhood has developed its own communal Wi-Fi system that delivers what Gavin Newsom and Google could not, loans and training programs for single immigrant mothers who need a way to support their fam­ilies, nonprofits that help send poor kids to college, and—smack in the middle of the traditional media meltdown—its own alternative news source: a vast network of blogs that obsess over schools, crime stats, food carts, house fires, and all the other daily minutiae that bind communities together.

The Mission even has its own mission statement, reduced to a few easily tweetable slogans by the artsy duo behind Little City Gardens, the speck of an urban farm at 18th and Guer­rero that everyone hopes will start delivering affordable CSA boxes to the neighborhood before long: “Make positive spaces”; “We need to figure this out together”; “We don’t need permission”; and, of course, “Start small.”

It makes sense that so much of this recessionary fervor has been fueled by food. Food is sustenance, food is comfort, food is community, food is art, food is cheap if you make it yourself—and food is one of the ways in which immigrants have always eked out a living in strange places and tough times.

Indeed, the hardscrabble frugality of the Old Mission has proved one of this era’s most useful role models. The food-cart scene, for example, was inspired by Latino immigrants working as street vendors because they had no other options. The micro­loans and incubators that finance many of these ventures bear a distinct resemblance to the cestas populares—lending circles—that have provided startup and operating capital to immigrant businesspeople for decades. The hybrid businesses along Valencia are the hipster progeny of the immigrant mercados that sell everything, including the kitchen sink, under one leaky roof.

The other essential factor in the Mission’s Great Recession is its artistic impulse. These days, everything here is an art form: benches, sandwiches, collabo­ration, recycling, engineering code. Unlike in the days of the MBA assholes, today’s Mission-residing entrepreneurs “are the hacker guys, do-it-yourself types, creating things, throwing events around art or random music interactive pieces,” says Paul Bragiel, cofounder of i/o Ventures, a coworking–tech incubator hybrid in the New School building that’s helping to nurture a new generation of geek geniuses. “They’re solving things in creative ways, but using math and hard science—not as eccentric as real artists, but with a similar vibe.”

The people who aren’t artists can be curators or patrons. Every artist needs a benefactor, as does every food cart, tutoring center, and cultural experiment. The poetry readings at Viracocha are bankrolled by the people who buy the shop’s $385 vintage Underwood typewriters and lamps made from old blenders. When a restaurant pays $25 a pound for Little City Gardens herb salad, it isn’t only catering to its finicky customers; it’s part of being a good neighbor and citizen. Ditto for when i/o decides to assist with computer classes for seniors and low-income kids at a nearby community center.

Maybe these are the most important lessons the Mission has learned since the dot-com boom: that decency is the antidote to dysfunction; that helping each other out helps everyone out; that if you want to make a great community, you have to roll up your sleeves and work really hard at it.

What else have people learned? Things end. Just try to make your way through the crowds outside the Summit, and you can’t help but notice a worrisome, let’s-party-like-it’s-1999 vibe. There are rumors—unsubstantiated, but telling all the same—that Facebook and perhaps Disney are moving into the neighborhood. Latino businesses complain of feeling isolated and short-changed by their more moneyed white neighbors. As rents soar to levels that make the dot-com years seem positively cheap, class rage is also in evidence: Boutiques such as Self Edge have been vandalized, Levis’ temporary print workshop was spray-painted with words like “scam,” and Blue Bottle’s proposed opening of a trailer in Dolores Park has ignited another round of anti-chain fury. All this has created a certain amount of anxiety. Is it inevitable that the Mission’s revival will turn into another bubble? Has the neighborhood internalized enough of its own lessons to to continue to thrive without all the old animosity and excess?

Maybe it’s a good sign that Michelle Tea sounds less worried than philosophical. “The Mission, astrologically, is a Gemini,” she says. “It will keep morphing into all these other Missions, so don’t get too attached.”

Justine Sharrock
's last feature for San Francisco, on the city’s pioneering universal-access health plan, ran in January 2010. She first moved to the Mission in 1999.

THE HUB: LA PLAZA
THE VIBE: Grubby by day, hopping by night, this stretch of 22nd Street bridges the Mission-Valencia divide, with hippies and burners mingling with teenage capoeira dancers and Latino moms.
THE PROMISE: The emerging comminty market has the potential to unify us.
LANDMARKS: Latin American Club, Revolution Café, Make-Out Room, Boogaloos, the Mission/Bartlett Garage (350 spots!).



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