What choice do we have but to rebuild our pandemic lives?


If you’re reading this, congratulations: You survived 2020 and so far the pandemic.

At press time, over 22,000 San Franciscans have contracted COVID and 182 have lost their lives. Others lost their homes and livelihoods and there will be more, according to the people who specialize in disease control and economies, two things among others in which I have zero qualifications to prognosticate.

Tempted as I was to skip the traditional year-end look back at the past 365 days, I remembered that grief is a process that we’ll all be in for awhile and though it may not feel natural, we may as well celebrate what we have and what’s left of this place and the people who call it home while we’re here.

The folks whose lives were featured in the column this calendar year each made unique contributions to The City, their neighborhoods and communities, whether Lamea Abuelros’ cafe serving early risers in the Mission, or Tricia Principe’s pampered pet owners in the Richmond. Some of the subjects, like Denise Dunne, have moved out and moved on, though rest assured their words, actions and San Francisco-experience is having a ripple effect on the people and places surrounding them as they adapt to their current environments.

What choice do we have but to rebuild our pandemic lives?

Tricia Principe and Cal’s Pet Supply in the Richmond District have continued to serve customers throughout the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Early in the year, before the pandemic was on our radar, hairstylist Donnelle Malnik was fed up with The City and ready to relocate, though the closing of hair salons at the outset of the shutdown made securing a new lease tough.

“No one will rent to someone who is out of work,” said Malnik by phone while walking her dog in Golden Gate Park. Yep, she’s still here, but she no longer works in the confines of a salon: She used the spring period of shelter-in-place to acquire and outfit an old Fed Ex truck and turn it into a mobile hair salon which she’s taken as far as Treasure Island.

“I love it, it’s like being on vacation,” she said. “I was cutting hair in people’s backyards and in the park in Alameda. Cutting hair outside, especially long hair is difficult,” she said, but she’s making do after seven months out of work, two months back and again, shut down.

When reopening is permitted, she’ll try parking at SPARK, the new shared outdoor social space at Mission Bay and in the spring, she hopes to find a new place to live.

“I see rent signs and hear rents are coming down and being negotiated. Hopefully, I’ll find someone who understands the situation,” said Malnik. “Cutting hair at Treasure Island gave me a fresh start and the space I needed to give the Bay Area a second chance.”

It’s unlikely there will be a second chance for the 100-year-old Clay Theatre, which closed abruptly pre-pandemic. The boarding up of the historic and beloved art house threatened to disrupt the existing balance of the surrounding businesses in the upper Fillmore District, foreshadowing what was to come for theaters citywide with the pandemic. We asked Cinema SF’s Adam Bergeron, who owns the Balboa and runs The Vogue, if the independent theater alliance would have any interest in acquiring the Clay space while negotiations were still underway and he’s since provided an update.

”The building owner decided not to use the building as a theater anymore,” he explained in an email. “He had Landmark Theatres clear out the seats, projectors, popcorn machine, etc., and said he didn’t have any interest in another theater tenant.”

What choice do we have but to rebuild our pandemic lives?

Sadly, the historic Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street shut its doors for good, even before the pandemic struck. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In the meantime, The Balboa and the Vogue have held strong, providing stability, light and focal points in neighborhoods that have seen COVID-related downturns.

“Our cinema and neighborhood communities have been incredibly supportive,” said Bergeron. “We have been able to sell curbside popcorn and merchandise at the Balboa, and built a parklet where we showed movies on a big screen before this last round of shutdown,” he said. “Financially, it has just allowed us to tread water, prevented us from shutting down, and remain part of our community throughout this pandemic.”

According to Bergeron, relief for independent cinemas may be on the horizon with the next stimulus, though that doesn’t solve the dilemma of the block of Fillmore where the Clay sits. Though amid all the closings, the neighborhood has a new tenant a few blocks down: Ericka Scott, a Fillmore District native we profiled in July, has opened her Honey Art Studio on California Street.

“My mom shopped up past Geary but I was always intimidated. I could see the difference between ‘our’ side of Fillmore and ‘their’ side,” said Scott, who has already received positive feedback from residents who have crossed the invisible line from the Fillmore’s flats to Pacific Heights.

“I don’t like the fact that it matters, but it does,” said Scott of the neighborhood home Honey Art provides for budding artists to workshop their painting, fashion design and architectural skills. The studio also serves as base for Scott’s prison art project Beauty Behind Bars, the virtual exhibit she curated with her husband Pride, highlighted in this column last year. The effort to bring inmate art outside was so successful among artists and patrons that it remains an ongoing effort.

“I ended up getting a grant from the SF Foundation to continue the project to do another one,” explained Scott.

Since we talked in July, Scott was named co-director with Ebon Glenn of The City’s new African American Cultural District in the Bayview’s Third Street Corridor, where new programming will launch full steam when the pandemic eases.

Whether wearing her hat as a curator or consultant, Scott’s efforts in the Fillmore and the Bayview seat her squarely at the center of preserving African American arts within San Francisco’s historically Black neighborhoods, and contribute to restoring the Upper Fillmore District to its roots as a culture center for Black folks (something the once-promised Jazz District failed to deliver). And though this year’s traditional seasonal festivities were curtailed due to COVID, there are still ways to participate in supporting African American arts and culture here.

“The best thing people can do to support Black-owned businesses is to shop at them,” said Scott.

Some of us thought gentrification had ruined everything that was holy and good about The City; what the massive disruption of culture hadn’t destroyed, COVID came and finished the job, though Scott’s story proves otherwise: That a daughter of the Fillmore is among those on board to lead The City back to health is cause for hope — a best-case scenario for rebuilding our city in the face of misfortune and its previously maladjusted programs like so-called redevelopment.

You may remember Denise Dunne, who decided she was done with San Francisco and the changing face of Noe Valley and packed out this summer after 38 years to be close to family on the East Coast. Sadly, her dad passed away soon after her arrival, but Dunne’s profile held some wisdom that should cheer all of us in these proverbial darkest hours before the dawn.

“This current cycle should bring about another creative burst,” said Dunne, citing the American cultural renaissance known as the Jazz Age of the 1920s. “In a few years, it’s likely we will see something blossom.”

It didn’t have to be this way and yet, it was: No one said we have to like it, but what choice do we have but to accept the pandemic changes and all that goes with them? Endings are, of course, also beginnings which will have their own middles and endings soon enough, whether next century or next year. Spring and summer will surely be here again. Until then, stay safe, stay strong, stay masked and enjoy your San Francisco lives.

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.