When Patti Spaniak-Davidson arrived here from Philadelphia she was warned by several people, “You’ll never meet a native San Franciscan.” Ten years later, as director of Cayuga Community Connectors, Spaniak-Davidson introduces San Francisco seniors to available services and to each other, many of whom have lived entire lives in the Outer Mission and Excelsior districts, seldom leaving home.
“Some are 85 and 90, still in their homes, worked their whole lives, raised their kids, and are alone,” said Spaniak-Davidson. “On Friday maybe the family had a pizza, on Saturday they did chores. Sunday was church and Monday it was back to work. They never went downtown or to a museum, they were just busy.” Spaniak-Davidson understands that story, though her own San Francisco life is still unfolding.
Born into a large working family in the hospitality business, “I love being around older people, sitting with them and hearing their stories,” she said. She knows how to make people comfortable and welcomes newcomers with snacks and easy conversation.
“One of my ladies, I’ll never forget, shared a diary one of her relatives kept of the 1906 earthquake,” said Spaniak-Davidson. “I also hear stories of arriving in America,” she said, as told by her Filipino neighbors. “Lumpia? Never heard of it til I moved here.” She’s getting more conversant in Filipino and Chinese cuisine and culture, the more she talks to participants in the connectors programs, shopping with them, and making friends.
Through walking tours and discussions, lectures, activities and informal conversation with participants in the Cayuga Connectors and Community Living Campaign, she’s gleaned what the neighborhood looked like in the early part of the 20th century.
“They will point to the hills, where there were greenhouses, or where they’d go to get an ice cream cone, before the 280 and the BART were put in,” she said. Some of that imagery has made it into a mural at the Cayuga Playground, though there was a minimum age requirement to participate in that project. “You had to be 80,” she said. A stair mosaic is in the works.
Spaniak-Davidson got involved in the community after talking to her neighbor, the Rev. Glenda Hope, known affectionately by those she served as the saint of the Tenderloin.
“She got up every day, walked to BART and went to work in the Tenderloin where she had committed her life to assisting people,” said Spaniak-Davidson. “Retiring at 78, she realized she didn’t know her neighbors.” Spaniak-Davidson helped Hope establish a free exercise program at an under-used church.
The idea was to “turn strangers into neighbors and neighbors into friends.”
“They were leery in the beginning, arriving alone but in time, they’re walking home together, giving each other rides,” she said. Connecting neighbors to each other is the essence of “aging in place,” allowing seniors without family or relatives nearby to live alone yet avoid isolation.
“The Boomer generation doesn’t want to age like their parents,” said Spaniak-Davidson, who keyed into the need for some countercultural programming, lectures by music historian and educator Richie Unterberger, poet Tony Robles (featured in a previous edition of SF Lives) and even a newspaper columnist, which is how I know Spaniak-Davidson.
“Patti was quicker than almost anywhere I teach or present to make the transition from in-person events to Zoom programs in March,” said author Unterberger. “I usually had 20 to 30 people at my in-person events, but now I’m getting more than 100…It keeps building over time…That’s in some ways making the organization bigger and stronger even in the midst of this time of crisis.”
During the pandemic, Spaniak-Davidson has kept the neighborhood connected with a weekly “Walk and Wave” to those who can’t get outside. Socially distant protest and sign-holding gatherings have also kept at-risk seniors safe while engaged in the causes they support. And though she’s crisscrossed The City to connect isolated seniors in need of services, she finds the Excelsior to be most open and receptive while other neighborhoods are more reserved.
“Philly is a city of neighborhoods like San Francisco,” she said, noting each district’s class and cultural differences while knowing it’s through our similarities that we connect.
“Not everyone expects to be 80 or 90, and watch everything around them changing. … they don’t like the fact I’m saying ‘older’ adult program, they don’t want to connect,” said Spaniak-Davidson, who empathizes. “These people have lost their spouses, children and parents,” she said. “I’ve felt the same way. I grew up in a place where my parents said, ‘Good fences make good neighbors, don’t get involved.’”
Ten years ago, Spaniak-Davidson who had never been married, met Tyler Davidson, a travel industry professional based here. The couple began a long distance relationship until, she said, “I lost my job and Tyler said now would be a great time to move to the most beautiful city in America. It was time for me to take a chance.”
But, said Spaniak-Davidson, “Being 50 and moving to a new place wasn’t easy.” Leaving friends and family and the East Coast life she knew was challenging. The cultural mix of folks was different than that of Philadelphia. “I wanted to see more children on our street,” she said.
Enter the Eng family, five boys and five girls of Filipino-Chinese heritage who had recently lost their mother to untimely illness. The littlest ones started spending time in the Spaniak-Davidson yard.
“One of the elder neighbors told them Tyler and I weren’t married and the children were horrified,” said Spaniak-Davidson. “We weren’t really thinking about marriage,” she said, but at 60, she’s a first-time newlywed, celebrating a one-year anniversary.
“We had the wedding in the backyard, we invited neighbors. A gentleman who was 96 and just passed away did the toast. Another lady did the flowers as a gift. The five boys and girls really made my wedding,” said Spaniak-Davidson. Her experience has become a demonstration of the ways in which multigenerational relationships benefit the whole neighborhood, not just the elderly.
“Half the time, I get more in return than I give,” said Spaniak-Davidson, adding, “Like if you’re 62 and anxious about the future and then a 90-year-old tells you to get over it. The best is yet to come.”
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.