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Political Landscapes: District Nine’s Punch and Toughness

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BETSEY CULP/INGLESIDE-EXCELSIOR LIGHT

Is District Nine the poster child for gentrification? Or a raucous mix of people who insist that their voices matter in any conversation about San Francisco’s future? Or both?

From the very beginning, the people of San Francisco mentally split their city into two parts, one on each side of Market Street. Whether because the land on the north was closer to the seat of power or because the views were better, it became the desirable side of town.

The people who lived South of Market — mainly Irish, but also English, Germans, Austrians, Canadians, Italians, Chinese, Swedes, Norwegians and African Americans — worked in the factories nearby. Beyond them — in what is now District Nine — houses clustered along a few commercial strips or clambered over Bernal Hill into the sparsely populated farmland of the Excelsior.

“North of the Slot were the theaters, hotels, and shopping district, the banks and the staid, respectable business houses. South of the Slot were the factories, slums, laundries, machine-shops, boiler works, and the abodes of the working class,” Jack London wrote in his story “South of the Slot.”

The split was still there in 1906, when most of the buildings South of Market were destroyed by earthquake or fire. Houses were rebuilt as factories and the population dropped from 62,000 to 24,000.

Dislodged by the fire, the city’s immigrant, working-class population moved south, establishing the character of the Mission District and its neighbors for decades to come. Chronicle reporter Robert O’Brien wrote, “If Nob Hill and Russian Hill and Montgomery Street and Fisherman’s Wharf have given the city charm and romance, these districts and these people have given it punch and toughness, a sense of humor and a crude strength.” They also gave it a passion for banding together to resist what they regard as injustice.

10-30-2016-d9-amilcar-perez-lopezAs the city rushed to rebuild, frustration over long hours and stagnating wages exploded in 1907 into one of the most violent streetcar strikes in the country’s history. The people of the Mission were deeply involved, drawing on traditions of collaboration in neighborhood and labor organizations. The Planning Department’s historic context statement says, “As San Francisco’s largest and most influential working-class neighborhood, the Mission became a hotbed of union activism.”

The hot bedfellows also lit a fire under San Francisco’s political establishment. Until the 1950s, labor unions — and particularly their Irish and Irish-American members — dominated city politics.

After World War II, the ethnic make-up of the Mission changed, but the split remained. The older generation of European immigrants and their children moved to the suburbs. Immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua, fleeing unrest in their home countries, found a refuge in the relatively safe and affordable neighborhood. New music filled the streets: mariachi serenades replaced Irish ballads. Murals everywhere added new colors to the politics of the district. The Mission became Latino.

And then the familiar pattern of resistance re-emerged. In the late 1960s, as “urban renewal” swept through San Francisco, the Planning Department envisioned high-density towers buttressing the two new Mission BART stations. In opposition, more than 100 local groups formed the Mission Coalition Organization, drawing on traditions of collaboration in neighborhood and labor organizations. The movement ultimately fizzled, but the MCO left a legacy of social service agencies and more radical Raza groups ready for the next fight.

In the late 1990s, “urban pioneers” bearing new dot.com money arrived in high-tech wagon trains. Rents rose. So did evictions.  According to the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC), the Mission had the highest eviction rate in the city in 1999-2000. A culture war raged: hipster bars and high-end restaurants replaced local businesses. Cultural preservationist Erick Arguello and local merchants cobbled together an economic and cultural response in the Lower 24th Street Merchants and Neighbors Association (now called Calle 24). Other local groups, led by MAC and People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights (PODER), mounted boisterous street actions and sit-ins in City Hall and dot.com offices.

Soon the dot.com bubble burst. But today the process has resumed under a new name. “Gentrification 2.0,” the pundits call it. In what is possibly the most thoroughly studied social change in history, cavalcades of affluent professionals are entering the Mission. In response, Calle 24 persuaded the Board of Supervisors to designate lower 24th Street as a Latino Cultural District. Local activists, armed with the lessons of previous campaigns, re-energized groups like PODER and MAC. And now, as construction crews clamber over Bernal Hill and into the Excelsior, PODER is encouraging the people of neighboring District 11 to “plan their own neighborhoods and create community-based development that meets people’s needs.”

It might be too late. A study by the Center for Community Innovation at UC Berkeley says that between 1980 and 2013 the Latino population of the Mission declined from 44 percent to 38 percent; the number of family households went down from 52 percent to 38 percent. Levels of education increased markedly. And the median income rose from $41,739 to $76,762. Arguello told the Chronicle, “This is about removal of community.”

In the midst of this charged atmosphere, four candidates are vying to succeed Supervisor David Campos. Two of them — Iswari España and Melissa San Miguel — hope that growing up in District Nine has given them insights into the community that their opponents — Joshua Arce and Hillary Ronen — lack. Arce and Ronen speak proudly of their long progressive involvement with District Nine issues. But they speak from different political camps: Ronen, who is Campos’s legislative aide, has been endorsed by the present progressive supervisors; Arce is supported by moderates Assemblyman David Chiu, Supervisor Scott Wiener and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

Whoever is elected will be asked to solve deep-seated problems. For better or worse, Gentrification 2.0 has arrived. Implying the presence of another, less gentrified group, the very word “gentrification” points to the differences that have divided the southern districts from the rest of San Francisco since the very beginning. “Class” is a word rarely spoken in discussions of American communities, but that’s what has become the focus here. Many of the residents of District Nine feel that they’re engaged in a class war. They’re fighting back.

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