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Last Street Standing

The scruffiest thoroughfare left in S.F. is transforming—one contested high-rise and storefront at a time. But the battle of Mission Street is far from over.

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For every tale of local fortunes being made, there are many more like those of Acaxutla, Charanga, and El Herradero— Latino-owned restaurants that closed after their rent was hiked or they were required to make renovations that they couldn’t afford. Mike’s Fashion, a fluorescent-lit shop sandwiched between a liquor store and Bruno’s bar that sold discount jerseys and spandex tops, was one of the many businesses on the street held on a month-to-month lease when the landlord put up a Craigslist ad for the property.

Fresh out of a low-income women’s business incubator program and with a small business loan in hand, Kelley Wehman and her business partner thought the place would be perfect for a new type of store on Mission Street—a furnishings shop with a vintage, hipster aesthetic: Carousel Consignment SF.

Wehman, a slight, friendly 36-year-old personal assistant, is part of the artistic crew that gravitated to the first hipster bars pulling into the Latino Mission: Pop’s, the Make-Out Room, Amnesia, the Latin American (“before it became super-über-hip”). But like early fans who move on when their favorite band goes mainstream, she’s grown disillusioned with Valencia. She says that Mike’s landlord told her he was looking for a “cool” or “interesting” business—but she suspects that was code for “Ka-ching! This cool new business is going to come in and help gentrify the Mission.” (The words that he used over the phone to me were “stable” and “permanent.”)

Wehman started drawing visitors as soon as she exposed the old tin ceiling that had hung over Mission Villa (the longest-running Mexican restaurant in the city, it predated Mike’s) and painted her turquoise Valencia-esque facade under Mike’s sign. “A lot of the neighboring businesses looked at us and saw a couple of white chicks,” Wehman says. So she started a subtle public relations campaign—keeping her door open, letting old folks sit on her vintage chairs to wait for the 14 bus, allowing kids to use her phone to call their parents. The store’s price points are much lower than those on Valencia, and she sees herself as helping out locals trying to make a buck—many consign furniture as they move out of the city. Little by little, the neighbors have warmed up. The liquor store owner next door advised Wehman to board up her storefront for the 49ers play-off game in case the neighborhood rioted.

Sometimes Wehman’s landlord—a guy who grew up two blocks away, his Polish father running a furniture shop on Valencia—will come up from San Mateo to tour the revamped store. “He says, ‘This looks really good, girls. We should have charged you more rent.’”

Peter Chin had had enough at the Radha Hotel: the drug dealers, the prostitutes he suspected of paying off the manager to admit johns. “I couldn’t deal with those people,” Chin says. The Hong Kong–born immigrant had worked his way from line cook to landlord of 10 buildings in the city. He bought the SRO, smack-dab in the center of the skid row near 16th Street, with partners in 2006. The building was making good returns between its SRO rent, Marian’s Apparel on the bottom floor, and apartment tenants above, yet Chin envisioned turning it into a gold mine in the future by demolishing it and erecting condos.

Ask people what has caused 16th and Mission to be a holdout against gentrification—why, before a fire closed Maverick, its staff told tourists to avoid the stretch altogether—and they’ll tell you it’s the down-and-out SRO residents who gather on the sidewalks and in the BART plaza. Along with violent gang members and other criminals, they were the reason that local property owners launched a Clean Up the Plaza campaign last year.

The city’s hotel conversion laws protect SRO units by making it prohibitively expensive to turn them into tourist hotels. Yet without fanfare, some SRO owners in this patch are seeking upward mobility too. Chin removed the furniture from the Radha’s 12 units, installed new carpet and sinks, and turned the manager’s kitchen into a communal one for all the residents. He started writing long-term leases for about $800 a month—competing with bedrooms in shared apartments on Craigslist. The rent is lower than that of typical SROs in San Francisco, which charge about $60 a night. Yet because Chin now had full occupancy—previously the rooms had been only 50 percent occupied, and SROs often kick residents out before a month is up so they won’t get tenant rights—the money was a wash. More important to Chin, the building attracted a different variety of tenant: art students, interns, and techies, the type who don’t hold stock options or enjoy lavish perks.

The new resident manager is Leanne Davis, a 31-year-old graphic designer with red hair sculpted into a faux-hawk. She says that the crowd outside hasn’t liked the demographic shift. “We’re starting to get some push-back from the crackheads. A little bit of mean-mugging. They can smell all the changes happening, and we’re part of that.”

Housing advocates have watched the Radha trend repeat across four SROs in the area—raised prices, online ads, some marketing to tourists. The 50-unit Sierra Hotel above T-Mobile was vacant for years, prompting Homes Not Jails squatters to invade in a 2011 protest. Two years ago, it became home to 20Mission, a tech and artist live-work space. Still an SRO on the city’s books, the very symbol of downtrodden San Francisco has become a different kind of symbol: a techie dorm.

7. “The future is a toss-up.”
Here’s the latest from Mission Street over the last few months:

In late November, police stepped up enforcement to move transients out of the 16th Street BART plaza.
On December 2, Davis posted news of the possible apartment building at 16th and Mission on the Radha Facebook page, drawing comments like “Dislike!”
On December 19, 20Mission had an ugly sweater party.
Also in December, the school board voted to hand over an empty gravel lot near 16th Street for low-cost housing.
In late December, news broke that the Tamale Lady—a vagabond peddler of Mexican savories who had been ousted from Zeitgeist bar for not meeting health codes—had found a brick-and-mortar location right across from the proposed apartments at the BART plaza.
On New Year’s Day, anti-gentrification protesters marched down Mission and chanted at Vara residents who recorded their invective on smartphones: “We hate you! The Mission hates you!”
Construction continued apace on Vida.


On February 1, a group of Mission activists held their inaugural Plaza 16 Coalition protest at the BART plaza. Holding “Maximus: Leave the Mission” signs, they laid out demands for “resources and services that create healthy neighborhoods” and demanded a hiatus on market-rate housing until more affordable places are built. Tejeda, her activist star having risen in the months since the tech bus protest, was among the first community members that the organizers called.

What does the future hold for Mission Street? There are as many opinions as there are experts.

“The reality is, I don’t think Mission will ever change the way people think,” says realtor Cornejo. “You’d have to have such a critical mass of change, I don’t think you’ll ever lose the color here. It’s impossible.” “The future of Mission Street is a toss-up right now,” says Erick Arguello, president of the 24th Street Merchants Association.

“Mission Street in 10 years?” Paula Tejeda asks, perched on the counter at Chile Lindo after closing on a Friday night, surrounded by her local empanada awards. “I think that there will be maybe 20 percent of what exists today. You never lose the essence completely, but look at North Beach: What’s left of the Beats in North Beach? It’s all touristy. The approach of coming and pouring a lot of money in, gentrifying a community, and thinking that you won’t destroy that spirit—it’s completely ridiculous. There’s something being lost every second that this goes on.”

Tejeda’s future is also up in the air. She rejected the constantly shifting terms of a $40,000 buyout offer to vacate her apartment, writing the attorney that Chile Lindo “gives the community the charm that makes this very house prime real estate.” The negotiations continue. Her business future will inevitably have something to do with the business card of Bert Polacci that’s sitting on the counter at Chile Lindo. During the protest in February, Tejeda urged the community to ramp up its demands: “We have to make as much of this opportunity as we can!” That could include giving Polacci a chance to resolve both her headaches. “I could move [Chile Lindo] into the ground floor—and they need to include a penthouse apartment for me,” Tejeda says, hooting with laughter. “I’m just kidding.”

Tejeda locks up and strides across 16th to the giant Victoria Theatre, where the marquee glows with the words “Save the Waves”—it’s a film festival aimed at protecting surf breaks endangered by coastal development. Tejeda focuses her charm on the ticket clerk with a true tale: “I was invited by the director of the film on Chilean surfers that’s just starting... I own the business across the street... I know the sister of the star… Yada, yada, yada...”

And bingo, she talks her way in.


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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