San Francisco's Mission District: The proud beating heart of an activist city...

Setting the Table

The Mission has long seen itself as a city within a city, with its own institutions, identity, and culture. For more than a century it has been an immigrant and working-class neighborhood, first as a destination for Irish and Germans and Scandinavians, and later, for Mexicans and Central and South Americans fleeing repressive regimes. Over the years, although the causes and the culture have changed dramatically, the Mission has retained its distinctiveness and used its collective identity to fight back against outside pressure from “downtown”– and, increasingly, “Silicon Valley”– interests. Beginning in the late 19th century, many neighborhood organizations have mobilized the Mission and provided the structure for citizens to determine the course of their community. The Mission, ever since the city charter in 1850, has mobilized around neighborhood control of governance, planning, and development. After the earthquake and fire of 1906, the Mission fought a plan which would have destroyed Mission street’s vibrant commercial corridor. After World War Two, the Mission organized against freeway construction, BART plans, and suburbanization. More recently, Mission organizations have fought back against evictions, gentrification, and development. Today, this spirit, and the Mission’s strong sense of identity has created one of San Francisco's most distinct and sought after neighborhoods. Unfortunately, as a result of this demand, the neighborhood has undergone waves of gentrification, and many fear that the Mission's distinctive culture will be lost and that the people who contributed to this culture will be priced out. Most parties undoubtedly wish for the Mission to retain its vibrant, multi-ethnic and varied culture, however there are serious conflicts about how it can be maintained as the neighborhood continues to gentrify. But there is more to the story than just struggle.

The History

In March of 1776, Captain Juan Batista de Anza set off from Monterey to determine the best location for a presidio (fort) and a mission, to connect the peninsula with the chain of settlements running along the California coastline. After finding a suitable location for the presidio near the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, de Anza came upon a sunny valley to the south, with fresh water, ample land for grazing cattle, and access to the bay, which he pronounced to be an ideal location for the mission. Later in the year, two Franciscan friars, Francisco Palou and Pedro Cambon, along with a band of Spanish soldiers, arrived at the valley and consecrated the mission. Following settlement of the area, the Spanish compelled Native Americans, who were converted to Christianity, to build the mission chapel between 1782 and 1791.

Before Spanish conquest, the area now known as the Mission was home to the Yelamu, a small tribe numbering around 200 people. The Yelamu, who traveled by boat and practiced a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moved seasonally throughout the San Francisco peninsula. In the Mission valley was a summer village called Chutchuii. Beginning in the 1770s, the Spanish imposed forced labor, farming and disease on the Yelamu people, decimating their population and destroying their way of life. In a census in 1825, the number of Yelamu numbered only 18. More broadly, during this period, at least 5,000 native peoples from the Bay Area died in the Mission. By 1847, only 34 members of any tribe remained on the San Francisco peninsula.

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Depiction of indigenous Ohlone tribe by colonizers.

After the mission was secularized in 1834, much of the surrounding land was turned into ranches and farms. This settlement gradually grew into a small rural village separate from the commercial port of Yerba Buena (which became San Francisco). San Francisco remained a relatively quiet city through the Mexican-American war. However on January 24th 1848, just days before the war’s end, James W. Marshall discovered gold in Colma, CA. This discovery, and later, President Polk’s confirmation that gold was plentiful in California, induced a wave of migration to the state like none other in its history. San Francisco began to rapidly develop, as the population increased from under 1,000 in 1848 to over 57,000 by 1860.

Gold!

The discovery of gold forever changed the culture of the city, turning it from a sleepy village to a destination of opportunity. Up to this point, San Francisco was primarily a shipping outpost and settlement. To become a gold panner, or ‘49’er’, was to chase a dream of striking it rich. A 49er could spend six weeks panning for gold worth six years of income on the East Coast. The Gold Rush (1848-1855) marked a major population shift in the Mission, as tens of thousands of men travelled to San Francisco from all around the world, many squatting illegally in the Mission. Even during the Gold Rush, and in the years immediately following, the Mission sought to be a distinct entity from the rest of San Francisco. The ranchers who lived in the Mission wanted to maintain their rural way of life and protect their valuable land, and resisted incorporating with the city. However, at the time the state legislature was dominated by San Franciscans, and the ranchers were therefore unable to block the state charter establishing the city of San Francisco in 1850. The northern section of Mission valley was incorporated that year, and the remaining section in 1856, following a second charter that created the boundaries of the present-day city.

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Abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay bringing 49ers from around the world looking for gold.

Even as the Gold Rush era ended, San Francisco grew and commerce within the city expanded. The Mission district began to densify and develop, with expensive homesteads existing within a bustling immigrant and working-class neighborhood. The majority of immigrants during this period were from Ireland and Germany, as well as Scandinavia, Scotland, Russia, and England. As is true today, ethnic identity was a crucial part of the Mission’s neighborhood culture. For the 19th and early 20th century, this was explicitly a white identity, although with a forgiving attitude to national background and class differences. In this construction, Latinos often were considered white to the extent that they were of Spanish ancestry and could pass as white. The area gradually became more working-class in the later 19th century. Streetcar lines extended south, connecting the Mission to the industrial South of Market neighborhood and to the waterfront, providing an affordable commute for laborers, longshoremen, and other workers whose employment was based in these districts.

The 20th Century

The Mission’s development continued at a rapid pace until April 18th, 1906, when an earthquake struck San Francisco, setting off a massive fire that consumed much of the city. Over the course of several days, 28,000 structures were destroyed and 3,000 San Franciscans lost their lives. While most of the northern Mission was destroyed in the fire, the southern sections were largely spared. In the aftermath, there were competing visions of how to rebuild the city, the most famous being Daniel Burnham’s Neo-classical inspired plan for San Francisco. The Mission opposed this plan, which would have destroyed large parts of the neighborhood’s commercial sector. In rebuilding the Mission, the white residents explicitly used Spanish colonial heritage and style to create a distinctive architecture for the Mission and claim prestige as the oldest part of San Francisco. Many well known Mission district landmarks, such as the El Capitan theater, or the Women’s Building, which at the time of its construction was the meeting hall for a radical German exercise movement, were built to reflect this style. During the post-fire period, the Mission became politically powerful thanks to its union activism and large population. Politicians from the Mission dominated city politics for the first half of the 20th century and advocated strongly for the integrity of the Mission.

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San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires.

Over time, the demographics of the Mission began to change. In the 1930’s, increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants began to move to the northern Mission. Largely working class, they assimilated with relatively little conflict. During the 1950’s, federal and state policies subsidized white middle-class residents moving to the suburbs while simultaneously locking out black and brown families. The Mission increasingly catered to the Latino population, with business and neighborhood organizations conducting business and advertising in Spanish. In 1950, the Mission had a Latino population of 11.6%; by 1960 it was 22.7%, and 44.6% in 1970, marking another major population shift within the Mission. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Latino population increased to 50% following the movement of immigrants from Central and South America fleeing conflict in their home counties. The Mission became a welcoming point of entry for several generations of Latinos, and since the 1950s has developed a strong Latino identity. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, many arts and activist organizations with a focus on Latino rights and culture sprouted in the Mission.

Although this period also saw increased discrimination against Latinos at the city level, local Mission organizations formed multi-ethnic coalitions to fight for their own interests. The most significant was the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO), formed in 1968. The coalition included a wide range of interest groups and constituencies, including Catholic charities, Chicano rights activists, and far-left groups. Although primarily focused on preventing destructive redevelopment (such as had occurred in the Fillmore district), the MCO was a multi-issue organization that brought diverse groups together with a common interest in the Mission. At its peak, the MCO counted 12,000 members, with representatives from every ethnic and ideological constituency in the Mission and as such was able to convincingly represent the neighborhood.

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The Mission Rebels, a leftist activist organization, criticized the MCO for being too conciliatory toward outside influences.

However, by the the 1970s, following several decades of city disinvestment in the Mission and racially motivated redlining, which excluded low-income Latinos from homeownership, the neighborhood found itself in the midst of a speculation boom. Apartment buildings were purchased cheaply, touched up cosmetically, and then sold, an average of eighteen months later, for several times their starting price. Low-income tenants, who found their rents doubled or tripled, were forced out.

By 1979, the city supervisors had approved a rent control ordinance, which brought some relief to the Mission. However, in 1988, the city approved the conversion of industrial spaces into live/work lofts, which did not require a lengthy public approval process. This ordinance opened the floodgates for a second wave of speculation in the mostly industrial northeastern Mission. Although designed to help artists afford studio and living space, the law was quickly tweaked to accommodate the construction of expensive lofts for wealthy residents. Many industrial businesses left and did not come back.

Dot Com Boom and Bust

The first dot com boom beginning in the 90s exacerbated the situation. It was as if the Gold Rush was repeating itself. Tens of thousands of new workers moved to San Francisco to chase startup riches and develop innovative new products, and the construction of new housing could not keep up. Most of the zoning laws and planning code had been created in a context of slower growth. The previous boom had been so long ago that city planners couldn’t foresee the rapid in-migration to the city, a situation which was playing out in many cities in America.

Artists, tech workers, and other young professionals were attracted to the Mission’s vibrant life, cheap rent, and easy access to downtown. From 1990 to 2000 the area median income in the Mission increased from approximately $46,000 to $70,000, with matching increases in educational attainment. These increases have not been felt in the existing Latino community. According to a study that targeted Latino families in the Mission by the Mission Promise Neighborhood, 77% of the families surveyed earned less than $35,000, and only 26% of respondents had received a high school education. This influx of wealthier residents led to increasing rents and a larger number evictions. Between 1990 and 1999 there were 925 households evicted from the Mission district. Stemming from the development pressure and a lack planning oversight, several Mission non-profits (primarily Mission Housing, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and PODER) formed the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) in 1999 to organize Mission community members and fight displacement using zoning and land-use regulations. MAC marked a shift to a more confrontational approach to development in the Mission. They found success in opposing projects through the machinery of the city government, testifying at Planning Commission hearings and becoming experts in city zoning. Although the Planning Commission sometimes ignored community opposition, MAC’s direct action into the planning and review process has become a common (and successful) tactic. Local non-profits have used planning hearings to oppose developers in the Mission and push for community contributions in the form of affordable housing, reduced rents for local organizations, and other concessions.

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Billboard on the side of Galleria La Raza, late 1990's - http://www.galeriadelaraza.org

The Mission Today

Today, what's happening in the Mission is sometimes termed “hyper-gentrification;” a one-bedroom apartment now rents for an average of $3,400 a month, the number of households making more than 200% ($186,000 a year) of the area median income increased 31.36% from 2009 to 2014. During this same period, those in the low to moderate bracket—families making approximately $28,000 to $93,000 a year—declined 21.41%. Very low income families, those making less than $28,000, increased by 3.40% over the same period.

The Mission may become a place inhabited only by extremely wealthy and extremely low-income residents. Middle-class residents, the teachers, small-business owners, and police officers, are unable to afford to live near where they work, weakening the community they have contributed to and making it even more difficult for the Mission to be a port of entry for immigrants and newcomers, an essential part of its neighborhood culture.

The Latino community’s deep roots in the Mission, and the constant flow of newcomers has bred a unique culture. One of its most famous exports is the Mission style burrito, an extra-large tortilla filled almost to bursting with local ingredients. Two restaurants, Taqueria La Cumbre and El Faro, both claim to be the originators of the Mission burrito. On almost every block, there are local taquerias with delicious recipes from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Aside from the taquerias, there are large number of Latino-owned businesses, bakeries, groceries, and restaurants in the Mission, especially concentrated around 24th street. In 2014, after community involvement and the work of Calle 24, the area was designated as a Latino Cultural District, which has allowed the community to control the development and look of the street. Aside from the Mission's Latino heritage, there is also a thriving food and coffee scene in the Mission, with nationally acclaimed establishments such as Mission Chinese Food and Tartine Bakery alongside coffee roasters like Four Barrel and Ritual.

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Panaderia (bakery) in the Mission.

As for the the Mission’s history as a union stronghold, traces still remain. The Redstone Labor Temple in the heart of the Mission on 16th Street, held many labor union offices and was instrumental in the early 20th century organizing efforts, including the General Strike of 1934. Today the building is home to a range of artist studios, non-profits, and activist organizations. There once were at least 20 movie theaters in the Mission, catering the the neighborhood’s working-class families looking for cheap entertainment. Although most have disappeared, or have been converted into other uses, a few remain. The Roxie, the oldest continuously operating theater in San Francisco, shows indie and art house films. Recently, as part of a new development package, the New Mission Cinema was revived as part of the Alamo Drafthouse chain.

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The Roxie Theatre, built in 1909, is the oldest continually operating movie theater in San Francisco

Given the heavy immigrant population and an eye towards celebrating the neighborhood’s diverse culture, Mission residents often proudly display their heritage via parades and events, including a parade for Cesar Chavez Day, as well as an annual procession for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). During the 1970’s and 80’s the area became a haven for young artists, with low rents supporting a thriving art scene. Balmy and Clarion Alley are internationally recognized as high quality displays of mural artwork and tourists can often be found strolling down these side streets photographing the local artwork.

The murals, which reference politics or cultural history, sprang up in the 1960s as the Chicano and other civil rights movements took off in San Francisco. Inspired by Mexican muralists like Diego Riviera, artists in the Mission incorporated a distinctive style drawing upon their cultural heritage and political activism. Today, this tradition continues: many new murals address themes surrounding evictions, gentrification, and immigration; others celebrate Latino identity. Precita Eyes, a local arts organization founded in 1977, works to preserve existing murals and sponsor new artworks. The Galería de la Raza is another local long-standing arts organization that has continued the mural tradition as well as supported Chicano and Latino artists in other disciplines.

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Cesar Chavez Parade & Festival in the Mission

While the vibrancy of the neighborhood is readily apparent, residents of the Mission are worried that it will disappear. They see signs that the local culture is being eroded by new residents who do not respect the area’s history. Fearing this change, Mission residents and local organizations have been organizing and speaking out, frequently battling developers, and occasionally their fellow San Franciscans. This is all in an effort to preserve that lasting feeling that makes The Mission so enjoyable to live in.

Local businesses thrive in the Mission because of the neighborhood’s community spirit: “This bookstore is a social center and cafe for readers, writers, publishers, reviewers artists and others. We are still here because of the community and neighborhood support,” says Jude, the General Manager at Boderland Books. Borderland’s story is a perfect example of the community coming together to save a local institution. In 2015, the alternative and independent bookstore was facing closure due to increasing costs incurred by the recent minimum wage hike in California. The local community banded together to support a new business model owner Alan Beatts created, which sells sponsorships and books to ensure a sustainable store (for more information head here).

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Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands Bookstore.

Moving Forward

What can be done to protect the Mission’s culture and people? The solution to this problem, and to the problem of exorbitant rents and displaced tenants, is at the heart of a debate raging in San Francisco, and the Bay Area as a whole. How much, and what kind of housing should be built?

Two factions, roughly, each equally assured that their methods are what’s best for the city, have been battling at Planning Commission meetings, in the press, and online; to an outsider it seems as if San Francisco is at a crossroads, and must decide what kind of city it wants to be. On one side are the YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard), who want more development, of any kind, as fast as possible. They want to reduce regulations and appeals that slow the development process and to allow for denser and taller buildings in San Francisco. They argue that supply must increase for the rent to go down. The San Francisco area has been building far less housing compared to the number of jobs that have been added. In the past five years, the area saw a net addition of 373,000 jobs, while permitting only 53,000 new units of housing. It’s basic supply and demand, they argue.

On the other side, in a loose constellation, are the tenants rights’ advocates, non-profit housing developers, community organizations, and homeowners, who oppose market-rate development. They argue that supply and demand doesn't apply in the same way when it comes to housing; building more housing (especially high-end housing in a rapidly changing neighborhood) only increases demand and prices.

Opponents of market-rate development have fought back using similar tactics used in the first dot com boom. Today, some of these tactics have been criticized. Many accuse local organizations of extracting outsized concessions from developers and strangling new housing. At the local level however, these organizations are making use of the tools that they can wield most effectively. Extracting affordable housing concessions or assurances of local employment from developers make people feel like they are achieving something and asserting their value. It’s not so unreasonable for developers to take a cut off their profits and put that back into the Mission.

Unfortunately, this stance can also backfire. If the project no longer becomes profitable—as a result of the cost of land, inclusionary zoning requirements, concessions, and building and labor costs exceeding the expected return—developers won’t build, which in the long run, will not make San Francisco any more affordable. Asking developers to act against their own interests is not a sustainable position, but it is understandable from the Mission’s perspective.

It's no wonder a diverse population is clamoring to move to the Mission: it has everything you'd want in a neighborhood. From good food and strong community to a rich and distinct history, everyone from artists and tech workers, from new immigrants to established wealthy families, want to call the Mission home. It’s where people from different backgrounds and classes can encounter each other and where they can find common ground and build community. Walking around the Mission, each block is different, and there is a remarkable diversity of business and activities on the street.

Even on the block that Starcity calls home, there’s a Chinese fish market, a tattoo parlor, a Mexican-Italian deli in operation since 1979, a well known taqueria, and a busy public square. This diversity of uses encourages people to explore and to try new things. These valuable assets will be destroyed if cost is the only calculus, or if all kinds of housing are assumed to be equal. And the Mission will become another place the same as everywhere else, with nothing left to give and nothing to learn from. The goal of all sides should be to ensure that this never happens.

All is not lost, however, and certainly a vast majority on both sides of the divide want the same thing: both want San Francisco and the Bay Area to be an affordable and welcoming place for everyone, regardless of class, race, income, or identity. Both want people to be able to stay in their homes without fear of eviction, crime, or overcrowding. Both want neighborhoods to retain the qualities and people that make them appealing places to live. But no one can agree on how to make this a lasting truth.

For a neighborhood like the Mission, this conflict is real and present; communities are being worn down, friends and businesses are being priced out. When long-time Mission residents see a new building going up, or a store opening that is clearly not intended for the people who have lived there for decades, it undoubtedly feels out of reach and an affront to their culture. Trying to convince them that the best remedy is more housing ignores what that process feels like. It also ignores the history of the Mission, and what makes the Mission a vibrant and interesting place.

The Mission is valuable today because of the community that was built up there over centuries; it is valuable because the Mission has a long history of coming together as a neighborhood to protect their interests; it is valuable because people have invested their own time, money, social capital, and creativity.


Special thanks to Jon Dishotsky & Miles Dugan for co-authoring, and Alan Santos, Chris Maddox, Mo Sakrani, Genevieve Dishotsky, and Meg Bell for editing previous drafts.


Works Cited

“City Within a City: Historic Context Statement for San Francisco’s Mission District,” San Francisco Planning Department (2007), http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/pages/1054/files/mission district nov07.pdf

Gary Kamiya, “Searching for the Yelamu in San Francisco,” FoundSF, http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Searching_for_the_Yelamu_in_San_Francisco

Gary Kamiya, Cool Grey City of Love (Bloomsbury USA, 2013),, https://books.google.com/books?id=auinBQAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=mission dolores gary kamiya&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Ocean Howell, Making the Mission: Planning and Ethnicity in San Francisco, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)

“Mission District Case Study,” University of California, Berkeley (2015), http://iurd.berkeley.edu/uploads/Mission_District_Final.pdf

“James Wilson Marshall,” PBS.org, https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/i_r/marshall.htm

Thomas Sandoval, “MCO and Latino Community Formation,” FoundSF, http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=MCO_and_Latino_Community_Formation

Karl Beitel, “Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition,” FoundSF, 2013, http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Mission_Anti-Displacement_Coalition

Tyche Hendricks, “History, Culture Meet in Vibrant Mission Murals,” SFGate, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/History-culture-mix-in-vibrant-Mission-murals-3163036.php

Kim-Mai Cutler, “How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained), TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/

John McCloud, “Live-Work Law for Artists Roils San Franciscans,” The New York Times, April 27, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/27/realestate/live-work-law-for-artists-roils-san-franciscans.html

Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die (Penguin USA, 2017), https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K1AU10M/

Gabriel Metcalf, “It’s Not Too Late to Make San Francisco Affordable Again. Here’s How,” CityLab, https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2014/01/its-not-too-late-make-san-francisco-affordable-again/8106/

Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke, “Developers Aren’t Going to Solve the Housing Crisis in San Francisco,” TruthOut, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26656-developers-aren-t-going-to-solve-the-housing-crisis-in-san-francisco-the-definitive-response-to-supply-side-solutionists

David Madden, “Gentrification Doesn’t Trickle Down to Help Everyone,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/10/gentrification-not-urban-renaissance

Lauren Smiley, “Last Street Standing,” San Francisco Magazine, https://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/last-street-standing?page=3

“Inclusionary Housing Working Group: Final Report,” San Fransisco Controller’s Office, http://sfcontroller.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Economic Analysis/Final Inclusionary Housing Report February 2017.pdf

“The Story of the Mission Promise Neighborhood Communty,” Mission Promise Neighborhood (2017), http://missionpromise.org/update/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2652-01102017_MPN-MPN-Neighborhood-Survey-2016_v12.pdf