Google Buses and the Changing Geography of the Mission in San Francisco

The Mission District in San Francisco has changed a lot in the last five years.  When I arrived 28 years ago, it was definitely more of a working class Latino neighborhood. Everyday you would hear a car go by with salsa blasting out of the windows. It was thought of as being a dangerous spot, but if you lived there for just a few weeks you knew right away where not to be at 2 am (these are actually the same corners today) and everyone scraped along to get by. It was possible to move into a place and make it as a young artist or musician. Rents where not extreme. We were lucky. There were still phone booths every few blocks and your best place to get the latest news was the corner store.

The changes in the Mission are not reported about very often in the media very well I think. Sure, there are a lot of pieces about the price of housing and all the “techies” moving in, but not much about what it actually looks like and how it has changed in terms of culture and human interactions.

One street that has gone through a lot of changes is Valencia. A few years back, a Mission neighborhood youth group was performing on Valencia. You know the usual story. Probably a summer program. Keep the kids out of gangs and away from drugs. Part of the performance was a percussion ensemble and that is when it got weird. The luxury, custom bike shop inside, came out and requested the youth ensemble to stop playing as it was interfering with the store selling bikes. A similar thing happened at a nearby playground when some techies reserved a soccer field that was used every afternoon by the local youth for pickup soccer games. Here you could see the insensitivity and sense of entitlement by the newcomers in the glaring light.


Gentrification is the new colonialism

– From a sign in a shop on Valencia


Most mornings during the week I  bike to work down the bike lane on Valencia. Going the other way, heading south to Silicon Valley, are scores of “Google buses” – large white tall things with tinted windows where the passengers seem to be riding twenty feet up in air. They pull up to the stops and pick up the workers – mostly white – probably mostly software engineers or marketing coordinators, and take them of to their corporate “campuses.” In many of these companies, these workers have been instructed to not talk to the media. In the afternoon, these same buses come the other way. These same workers, returning from their isolated corporate enclaves returning to the city with the cool zip codes. While it is commendable that they sometimes take the bus,  I find it strange that they do not look anything like the diversity of San Francisco. They are the reason that people have gotten priced out of San Francisco. I would wager that not a single person on these buses makes less than six figures. San Francisco teachers’ salaries top out at under 90k.  Anyway, it would be interesting to do a study on why these new young techies  live in San Francisco.

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Google buses heading back down San Jose Ave…

Peaceful Demonstrations

This past year there has been a lot of outrage about police brutality. It got to the point where eventually the San Francisco police chief resigned – the pressure was just too much.  One such situation was the shooting by police of Alex Nieto, a truly tragic event.

Alex’s Story

One time while riding home from work, I stopped to take some photos outside of the Mission police department, where demonstrators were holding up signs. They where completely peaceful and it was a quite a sight. People of all ages and walks of life were there with their homemade signs.  While trying to take some photos, the Google buses just kept blocking the view. One after another, like the buses were schools of fish.

Turn Down the Volume

One of the things that has changed is the number of white tablecloth restaurants and cafes. They are everywhere. Where are the techies going to plan there next IPO if there are not cafes where everyone is staring into their laptops?

One place that has been in the Mission for a while is Radio Habana, a little hole in the wall at 22nd street and Valencia. It is run by a long-time San Franciscan Leila Mansur. For years there has been a Cuban rumba on Sunday afternoons. Many great rumberos from all over the Bay Area would make a pilgrimage to hangout and play. The level of playing was often quite high and it was a serious place for Caribbean musics.

But alas, the upstairs neighbors started to complain about the music. Too loud I suppose. My comment to them is that you are living in the city. If you want a quiet suburb, move to Walnut Creek! This sort of stifling of performance spaces is going on all over town. Where ever the new condos go in, the culture gets zapped. This sort of cultural event is the reason many people live here in the first place. Fortunately, the Sunday rumba has moved to other spots but there is nothing like Radio Habana. It is a closet with soul.

Burning Down the Place

Then there is the mysterious burning down of some of the older buildings in the Mission. First it was huge building on Mission and 22nd.

This building was from another era, when people got around on horses. The first floor was a microcosm of San Francisco with granted a heavy Latin bent. You had the florist in front, the travel agent, the dress maker, the Asian butcher, the Mission Meat Market which was run by some old-school San Francisco white folk, the Latin grocery and produce store. It had an open market feel that seems to disappear once the old make way for the new. I remember buying fresh wild salmon back in the 90s when they were running. Delicious and affordable.  It was a place where a variety of people did business and had to get along. Geographically, it was one of important soulful places in the barrio.

It burned down and then burned down again. The rent-controlled apartments above are no more. The shops all just a memory. Now it is but a hole in the ground waiting to become yet another beehive of condos and apartments, priced for those riding the Google buses. Soulless places made of glass and steel.

In April I was given a painting by Laurie Wigham of this building after the fire, but before the tear-down. Thanks Andy!

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22nd and Valenicia – Laurie Wigham

Then just last month further down Mission near 30th street, the building where Cole Hardware was burned down as well. All very mysterious.

New Buildings in San Francisco – The Private Life

The changes now are not only the people but the actual physical structures that have made up the fabric of the communities for decades.  The very cool funkiness of San Francisco is making way for more modern cold geography. There are places south of the Giant’s ballpark that look like San Jose.

We need the bubble to burst.