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October 18, 2000
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Defending the barrio
Will working-class activists save the Mission?

By Cassi Feldman

IN A LOT at the corner of Shotwell and 23rd Streets, behind a corrugated metal fence, is Nuevo Ramize Flowers, a makeshift nursery with a blue tarp roof. Rows of plastic buckets hold daisies and irises, and pumpkins of all sizes are on display for Halloween. It doesn't look like much, but some people say it started a movement.

Before opening the shop, owner Carmen Ramirez cleaned houses for a living. But after years of enduring patronizing bosses and harsh chemicals, she found a way out. The daughter of El Salvadoran entrepreneurs, she began selling flowers out of the empty lot behind her home. Her business steadily grew, and eventually she got a permit and began to pay taxes to the city.

Ramirez's neighbors (mostly Latino) were impressed that an immigrant who spoke little English could build a business from nothing. But a handful of (mostly white) elderly neighbors complained about the light, noise, and traffic the shop brought to their block. They complained to the San Francisco Planning Commission that Ramirez was running a business on a lot that was once zoned residential.

After her first hearing before the commission, Ramirez feared she would lose her shop. But local nonprofits brought 60 supporters to the showdown March 18, 1999. After almost an hour of testimony, she was allowed to keep the nursery as long as she made changes to accommodate those who had complained. Ramirez was grateful for the commissioners' change of heart. "Before, they used to treat me like a dog," she told us. "But when people came, then they had a reason for listening."

MACtivism is born

The organizers who helped save Nuevo Ramize now face a much greater challenge: saving the Mission. "Aquí estamos y no nos vamos" (We're here and we're not leaving) is the chant you hear most often at rallies organized by the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition. Formed seven months ago, MAC has led 1,000 supporters on a spirited march through the Mission District, demonstrated outside the Mission's Armory building, shut down the Planning Commission after a speaker was forcibly removed, and invaded the offices of Bigstep.com to protest its takeover of Bay View Bank.

MAC's mission statement is ambitious: "To eliminate the displacement of low-income and working-class people from the Mission District – who are primarily Latinos and other people of color, tenants, artists, and community serving businesses and nonprofits." And their membership reflects that goal, drawing a cross-section of community organizers, Latino families, outspoken teenagers, and artsy Bohemians who mirror the Mission itself.

One of the group's first coups came in response to the commission's approval of Bryant Square, a 159,000-square foot office complex at 20th and Bryant Streets. Not only did the project displace existing homes and businesses, but many residents felt it was too big for a residential area and would negatively impact housing, traffic, and parking. Although 27 people spoke against the project, the commissioners still approved it on May 4.

MAC was outraged and staged several protests during what Victor Miller, editor of New Mission News, labeled "the summer of discontent." MAC members marched down to the Planning Department at 1660 Mission St. and stood chanting outside until director Gerald Green agreed to meet with them. Green showed up June 28 with commissioners Linda Richardson and Hector Chinchilla in tow.

Five hundred people turned out, twice as many as MAC organizers expected. "We planned to hype the thing up," Geri Almanza says. "But we didn't have to; they did it themselves." After hours of testimony, Green was given three minutes to speak – the same amount of time allowed members of the public at Planning Commission hearings. Green agreed to support and fund a community planning process but would not consent to the coalition's most pressing demand: a moratorium on development in the Mission.

Although the commissioners listened patiently, another planning official confidentially told us that real change would only come from the mayor's office. MAC member Renee Saucedo disagrees: "We've already had an impact," she says. "MAC is known not only citywide but nationally.... The eyes are on San Francisco as to how city officials can be held accountable for the makeup of the neighborhood."

Mission deluxe

The organization that now claims headlines and hundreds of supporters started last spring when local organizers came together for lunchtime meetings at Centro del Pueblo. Groups such as People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights, Mission Housing Development Corporation, and Mission Agenda had spent years fighting for economic justice. But this fight was different.

For one thing, gentrification, the new buzzword, was happening at an unprecedented rate. The San Francisco Tenants Union reports that 799 eviction notices were filed in the Mission during the past five years. Cynthia Martinez remembers being shocked when her family was evicted from the apartment they rented for 20 years on Folsom. "The Mission was a place where you could always get a cheap room," she told us. "There were handwritten signs in store windows, everywhere, and always for under $500 a month."

According to a Mission Economic Development Association report, the neighborhood's median home price jumped from $235,000 in 1997 to $381,000 in 1999, while average monthly rent on a two-bedroom rose from $1,330 to $1,678, and a square foot of office space shot up from $76 to $103 – all much larger jumps than in San Francisco as a whole. As commercial rents went up, dot-coms moved in, and local tenants and businesses moved out (see "Market Wreckage," page 31).

For every shiny new storefront, there is a history of displacement. Using the North Mission business directory from 1982, we looked at the 500 block of Valencia Street. Out of 25 businesses listed in 1982, only 5 were still around. Cafe Istanbul used to be Allen's TV and Radio; Yum Yum House was Pete's Grocery; Money Mart was Fosso's Pharmacy; Scenic India Restaurant was the Women's Press Project.

Even the legendary taquerías are changing. "In '79 and '80, Anglo families were chased out of taquerías. There was no way there was gonna be any gentrification back then," says Felipe Velez, an assistant teacher at Real Alternatives Program high school. But now even the taquerías are changing. "At El Castillito, they're wearing uniforms now," Velez says. "They're charging for chips and salsa. I will shoot my son and daughter if they ever order a green burrito."

MAC has responded to the changes with bright red window signs on which "residentes orgullos (proud residents) de la Misión" can let visitors know how many years they've been around. Because it fights gentrification, MAC has been accused of demonizing new arrivals and resisting change. But member James Tracy argues that dot-coms and their employees are not the enemy. "MAC's line has never been 'get out of the neighborhood,' " he says. "But I think everyone has the real responsibility not to displace people and make people homeless."

It's a responsibility the city's Planning Commission has ignored. Not only has it failed to address the soaring eviction rate, but it continues to approve scores of new office projects: hundreds of thousands of square feet are now being built in the Mission. "I've spent countless hours at the Planning Commission," MAC member Eric Quezada says. "They make decisions that go against even their own logic" (see "Planning for Profits," page 24).

Who speaks for the Mission?

While opposing unchecked development is MAC's main challenge, the coalition is also grappling with the need for a positive solution. It's no easy task for such a diverse group, which includes the mainstream Mission Economic Development Association and the more radical Mission Agenda, which engages in street actions and grassroots organizing. Some members are more comfortable pushing for change at the ballot box, while others simply want to reclaim the neighborhood, whatever it takes. But everyone agrees that the Mission needs a comprehensive new plan that encourages a vital local economy – but doesn't drive out the working class.

The issue of who represents the Mission is a sensitive one for MAC. Members recently drafted "Principles of Unity," including the following requirement for any group meeting with a dot-com: "First meetings are discussions only; offers made are brought back to the coalition."

The same type of democratic decision-making guides MAC demonstrations. During the Planning Commission protest on Sept. 7, when MAC leaders were trying to decide whether to negotiate with the commissioners, Quezada gestured outside the room to the angry protesters, saying, "This is not our decision to make. It's theirs."

But if MAC is somewhat divided, a much greater rift lies between MAC and some of the Mission's old guard. Luisa Ezquerro, a Mission activist since the '60s, thinks they're too focused on direct action. "They're hung up on dot-coms," she says. "They need solid plans, things that can be implemented." She remembers when the neighborhood was desperate for economic development and thinks MAC shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the dot-coms.

David Bracker, executive director of Arriba Juntos, a job-training center, agrees and calls the changes inevitable. "What MAC is doing is what I'd probably have done if I were their age," he told us. "But this community has always been dying to see new industry come in. But only a few organizations are really sitting down with these companies and getting jobs, and that's a mistake."

Where MAC fights gentrification tooth and nail, Bracker has tried to milk it. Working with Dan Kingsley, managing partner of SKS Investments and developer of Bryant Square, Bracker secured 3,000 feet of office space in the new development for his and other groups for just $1,000 a year. But Kingsley got something in return. He gave space and funding to Arriba Juntos and the Mission Language School – and in return those groups publicly supported his project (see sidebar).

In the struggle for the Mission, race figures in as well. At a regular Monday night coalition meeting that took place Sept. 11, one organizer pointed out that the room was looking "whiter than usual" and implored activist members to mobilize their base constituencies. Although MAC has worked closely with displaced artists, and meetings are open to anyone, there's a determination to let the movement be led and defined by working-class Latinos.

We asked a number of MAC members if the struggle faced by artists and low-income whites was similar to the struggle faced by Latino families. Many of the white artists said yes, emphasizing the solidarity of the movement. Latino activists overwhelmingly said no. "It's extremely different," MAC member Paola Zuniga says. "A lot of us lack the language skills and social skills required in this society to be able to navigate. And for families, it's harder to move."

Miguel Carrera was more succinct: "There's discrimination in work, housing, everything," he says. "This is my reality."

Those watching this movement from the sidelines marvel at the organizing power behind MAC, but activism has been a part of the Mission for much of this century.

Activism's deep roots

Fighting over territory is a Mission tradition. The Bay Area was first settled at least 15,000 years ago by Ohlone Indians, but Spanish explorer Captain Juan Bautista de Anza "discovered" San Francisco in 1775 and stole the land, founding the Presidio and a mission near a small inlet called Laguna Dolores.

The city expanded dramatically in the late 1880s, but land use in the Inner Mission was much as it is now: a mix of commercial and residential on major streets, an industrial section to the Northeast, and a saloon on every corner.

The Mission was one of the few neighborhoods spared by the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake. Irish and Italian immigrants displaced by the disaster moved to the area, as did many downtown businesses. By the 1930s, Mission Street was a "Miracle Mile" of thriving shops, movie theaters, and night clubs.

But in the '50s, prosperous immigrants began to move out of the Mission and into the suburbs, and an influx of immigrants moved in from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Samoa, and the Philippines. Some were refugees escaping violence at home, others simply sought a better life for their families.

According to the census, the Spanish surname population in the Inner Mission rose from 5,531 in 1950 to 23,183 in 1970. Meanwhile, the region was getting poorer: by 1970, 22 percent of people lived below the poverty line, and 9.6 percent were unemployed. Major employers such as Regal Pale Brewery, Borden's Dairy, and Best Foods were pulling out of the neighborhood.

The city's Redevelopment Agency proposed an urban renewal plan for the Mission, but that presented an even greater concern. Redevelopment had already hit the Fillmore district and evicted 4,000 families in the process. Triggered by that threat, 100 local organizations, including churches, radical political groups, and traditional Latino organizations, formed the Mission Coalition Organization in 1968. Rather than let outsiders obliterate the neighborhood, the group asked Mayor Joe Alioto for control over the multimillion-dollar federal Model Cities Program.

Although some of the more radical groups split from the MCO, as did white middle-class homeowners, the organization quickly gained momentum. "We were willing to take on anyone," Ezquerra recounts. "Committees, corporations, elected officials." The MCO created new playgrounds, banned pawnshops, picketed absentee landlords in their suburban homes, and forced local companies and shops to provide jobs for Latino workers.

The MCO eventually crumbled as a result of internal conflicts, but it laid the groundwork for future acts of resistance. In 1975, the Mission Planning Council, allied with La Raza, mobilized hundreds of residents to oppose the rezoning of a section of the Mission that would have converted residential property to commercial space.

The Mission Cultural Center became a key link between left-wing politics in Latin America and the growing Chicano and Latino solidarity movements here. Radical Latino youths established Brown Power in response to the 1969 trial of Los Siete de la Raza, seven Latino youths accused of killing a police officer. They formed militant La Raza en Accion Local, which gave birth to the Mission Housing Development Corporation and La Raza Information Center, both still active today. Years later many of the same activists would fight against a curfew, defending the rights of low-riders to cruise the Mission strip.

In 1977 community leaders hoped that electing supervisors by district would enable them to get a Latino candidate on the board. It didn't work out that way: Larry Del Carlo and Gary Borvice split the Latino vote, and the Mission's seat went to white candidate Carol Ruth Silver.

The neighborhood's Latino community is still underrepresented. The only Latino supervisor on the present board is Alicia Becerril, who lives in North Beach and has done little to address problems in the Mission.

MAC has not endorsed any candidates for supervisor. But Quezada says many of the group's members are supporting two white candidates: Mission Agenda's Chris Daly in District Six and Tom Ammiano in District Nine. While he'd like to see more Latino representation on the board, Quezada is more concerned that the area's supervisors protect residents from eviction. "It's not enough to be Latino right now, to run in the Mission," he says.

Mission impossible?

"The Mission presents a unique case of a Barrio that remains a centre of attraction for urban life, improving the real estate values while still maintaining most of its character as a neighbourhood for immigrants and the poor," Manuel Castells wrote in his 1983 book, The City and the Grassroots. Castells's hopeful description no longer holds.

When you ask MAC leaders about the future of the group, they are relatively quiet; that will be determined by MAC's members. But two goals are obvious: MAC wants to widen its organizing scope to other neighborhoods and to promote Proposition L. Chinatown residents facing eviction attended a recent MAC rally, as did members of the South of Market Anti-Displacement Coalition (SOMAD).

"What happened with MAC is not in isolation," Richard Marquez of Mission Agenda says. "In Noe Valley, they're fighting monster homes. On Telegraph Hill, it's Sutro Tower. What we all have in common is that the Planning Department has pissed us off, and that's why we'll win in the fight for Prop. L."

Even if Prop. L loses, Marquez believes MAC will triumph. "Whether that's through district elections or civil disobedience or shutting down the highest levels of city government," he says. "People are tired of writing letters to the editor. Remedies are exhausting themselves."

Research assistance provided by Camille T. Taiara.

E-mail Cassi Feldman at cassi@sfbg.com.



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