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Finding unchanged San Francisco spots for a ‘gentrification oasis’

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A stroll down to Musee Mechanique at Fisherman’s Wharf features long-ago refugees from the now defunct Playland at the Beach.. (Eric Risberg/2012 AP)
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On Guard column header Joe

Sometimes, you just have to reconnect.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, as I walked to that long-time Mission watering hole, Zeitgeist, to meet a friend. On the way, I was giving an out-of-town friend a tour of Valencia Street as I walked her to the 16th Street BART station, which was along my route to drunker pastures.

It was not the happiest of tours, I soon realized.

Here’s the Realtor’s office where Benito Santiago banged his drums in protest of his eviction. Over by Dolores Park is an apartment my father, a poor drummer, could afford decades ago. Now it’s in spitting distance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s multimillion dollar home. Even Clarion Alley was gloomy, as a mural featuring a map of San Francisco evictions showcased many homes of people I know.

Evictions percolated in my head. My mood darkened, and wading through a sea of Saturday-night tech workers sure didn’t help. By the time I got to Zeitgeist, a small tiff between another friend and me turned into a shouting match. I exploded.

I wish I had the pocket change to commission a study on the psychological effects of this untenable tech boom on long time locals and native San Franciscans: I bet they’d find we’d all gone a little bananas.

I later apologized to my friend. But it also spurred me to seek out an antidote, a “Valencia elixir” if you will: Places that feel like the San Francisco I once knew, to visit and recharge.

To my surprise, there are a few pockets of old S.F. left. All of our neighborhoods have changed, but some have done so more moderately, and reasonably.

This list is not exhaustive, by a longshot. But here are a few of my favorites.

Clement Street: The foggy Richmond district has largely escaped the tech boom (though I recently spotted a few commuter shuttle stops, portending a frightening future). Sure, a few notables are vaguely Valencia-esque (Seedstore, I’m lookin’ at you!), but it’s a moderate change. Little tykes still roam on kick scooters, fiddles still strum Irish tunes at Plough and Stars, and lychee piles plentifully at local grocers. Sipping a root beer float at Toy Boat Dessert Cafe and people watching is a perfect antidote to the gentrification blues.

Fisherman’s Wharf: The Wharf’s tourist charms repel many locals, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this salty stretch. Maybe it’s because I used to busk there myself when I was 18, selling ferry tickets on the street. It’s easy to go back in time: Down a few brews at Jack’s Cannery Bar, and amble amiably to Aquatic Park, where swimmers from the Dolphin Club breaststroke in the ice cold Bay. A stroll down to Musee Mechanique features long-ago refugees from the now defunct Playland at the Beach. And no matter how many years go by, I still get a kick watching the original Bush Man scare the stuffings out of tourists. The decadeslong prank will never get old.

Mission and 16th streets: The gritty portal to BART that serves as a living room for many of the poorest locals (and also, for awhile, slam poetry). Now the “Monster in the Mission,” a new housing development nearby, threatens to “clean up” the corner. Despite the bad rap, it’s an intersection replete with small acts of kindness: The Night Ministry’s sermons give hope to the homeless, and Lone Star Swan in his bandana can often be seen with a furrowed brow, bandaging an injured pigeon. The overflowing money two blocks west has nothing on their spirit.

Portsmouth Square: My Chinese friends from Wallenberg High School and I would sometimes find ourselves at this small Chinatown park, after traversing alleys and visiting Little Paris for Vietnamese banh mi. Little has changed. The Falun Gong protesters plead against regimes, elderly folks play checkers (and occasionally gamble), and many relax with a newspaper and coffee. The sound of children playing mingles with the gossiping chatter of locals, and it feels like home.

I often hear that San Francisco is gone, that The City has no hope to maintain the character it once had. I call bull on that. So please, readers, send me a few suggestions of your favorite places that remind you of the San Francisco you love.

And remember to visit them, often. I guarantee, it’ll do your spirit a world of good.

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