Stock-taking is traditional as years close and decades end, though in a city precarious as San Francisco, checking in with ourselves and each other ought to be a daily exercise. The City’s reputation as a mecca for love and beauty has taken a beating in the media this year, but looking back over two years and 50 installments of this column, the stories tell another tale: Our people are where you’ll find the keys to San Francisco’s soul and its spirit of resilience and reinvention.
“Still plenty here to enjoy when you’re not pissed about how much is gone,” wrote Dale Duncan in an email, sent from Civic Center where he’d taken his daughter and her friends to ice skate. Back in 2018 when we talked to Duncan, a woodworker, and Marta Munoz, a pre-school teacher, the couple had left their longtime Mission home reluctantly amidst a suit filed by the city attorney’s office against their former landlord. Now happily renting in Sunnyside, a year later, their daughter Emilia has landed a small role dancing in the San Francisco Ballet’s 75th Anniversary production of “Nutcracker” at the War Memorial Opera House, a San Francisco tradition if ever there was one.
Perhaps that slice of life sounds a bit small time for the big city, but that’s exactly what I was going for when the column launched in the Examiner in January 2018: Lives are connected, thoughts and energies travel, not only within the seven by seven square miles we inhabit but beyond it, in keeping with San Francisco’s storied history as a city of incubation and innovation. These ideas were at the forefront of my mind when I spoke to Kathy Zarur, the art history adjunct instructor, independent curator and second generation Palestinian American earlier this year. During our talk, I discovered we shared common history on a patch of Ocean Avenue. Our interview also had an impact on Zarur.
“The Institute of Advanced Uncertainty read the article and invited me to curate the exhibit I described,” said Zarur by phone last week. Though she didn’t present that exact project, she said, “I had the idea for ‘Preoccupations: Palestinian Landscapes.’” Gathering seven artists from the diaspora, the exhibit had a successful run over the summer at Minnesota Street Project in Dogpatch and is now on its way to Detroit’s Holding Housing gallery for an opening Jan. 11. “There was an indication it’s an urgent time considering the U .S. administration’s actions when it comes to Palestine,” said Zarur. She said the experience of telling her story for publication contributed toward breaking the isolation she felt upon returning to The City after some years away from it.
“I found out how important it is to let the world know what I’m doing and to ask for help. It makes me feel a lot less lonely,” she said. As for teaching, “I’ve gained and lost classes. It’s the nature of adjunct teaching. There’s no stability,” she said. “That’s why I organize.”
The dilemma of adjunct teachers was spelled out in the December column devoted to City College art instructor and painter Deirdre White. Since then, she told me CCSF students unhappy with the school’s controversial class cuts have launched an exhibit of their artwork in protest. “(Not) Business As Usual” will be on view through January at Fort Mason Building B’s first floor gallery. No word yet on whether canceled classes will be reinstated and teacher benefits restored.
Another arts professional, Anna Lisa Escobedo, also lived big changes since we spoke in 2018. Spread thin with full-time work, volunteering and achieving her MBA, she got serious about health and wellness.
“I learned to take care of myself first, community second,” she said.
This month, she was hired as engagement project manager at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, liaising with the museum-going public and youth at Mission High School. Escobedo used her time between jobs to make art: She contributed to 24th Street’s newest mural, “Alto al Fuego en la Misión,” a multi-story building work that memorializes victims of police and state violence and features central figure Amilcar Perez Lopez (the floral detail on the piece is Escobedo’s). She also returned for her second installation at the San Francisco Symphony’s annual Dia de los muertos event and worked at the annual Latino Film Festival. Despite a period of not knowing, Escobedo achieved her goal to stay in The City, work for a cultural institution and make crucial connections between artists and community, not just for herself but for others.
“It’s amazing the way people reach out when they know your situation,” she said. “I’m not only still here, I’m here to stay.”
And then there is Paula Tejada, also known as The Empanada Lady and a Chilean cultural events producer. When I interviewed her in late 2018, we discussed the difficulties of running her small business, Chile Lindo, in the face of The City’s rigorous permitting and ill-attempts to cure the woes of 16th Street where the drug trade and tech buses compete for space. Things have changed.
“I rented my own kitchen, from Mission Housing (nonprofit landlord, below market rate and long lease), right across the street. It was the location that Virginia Ramos, The Tamale Lady, was going to use as her kitchen.”
The space was being retrofitted for Ramos, who for years sold handmade tamales to hungry Mission bar patrons until she died in 2018. If anyone is well-equipped to step into a new 16th Street kitchen while forging cultural alliance with Chile, it’s Tejada: a New Yorker by birth and Chilean by heritage, she’s San Franciscan by choice.
In early November, I talked to small business owner, Phyllis “Saida” Nabhan of Gaslight & Shadows. She was planning to close her antiques shop after 43 years following an exorbitant rent increase, though since our story ran, the rent was stabilized at its current rate; the shop will remain open for business and the holiday lines are back.
“It was your article,” said Nabhan when I ran into her in early December. Overwhelming reader and customer response and Nabhan’s own winning retail recipe persuaded the landlord that losing a tenant with her moxie would not be of benefit to anyone.
And finally, Erika Lam, the feng shui designer and energy worker whose family history here extends four generations, beginning with her grandmother’s detention at Angel Island, let us know her mother Cheryle Lam-Kawamoto, died at home in July. Lam told me her mother, who was born in San Jose and raised in Oakland, lived for over 50 years in The City, “working as a dental hygienist, raising her family… She loved all things of Hawaii, especially the ukulele…” Lam-Kawamoto is survived by her husband, Harlan Kawamoto, four children and nine grandchildren, her older sister Gerrye Wong and many relatives. “Family remember her strength and boldness, her youthful spirit and generous heart,” wrote Lam in a text.
Without getting deep into stats, about half of the SFLives columns are about people born and raised here. One of the great myths is the native San Franciscan is rare among us, though if you live here long enough, you’re sure to meet one: We are your shopkeepers, DJs, historians and artists. Some of us cook, others teach, write, or paint, and all of us work to keep our homes and jobs here. The other half of the column’s subjects are transplants who take their resident status seriously. There are no carpetbaggers, and definitely no scalawags in the mix. And while I may be among the S.F.-born, I and the 50 people gracious enough to open their lives to us are all guests here in Ohlone territory. Selected by my own proprietary blend of criteria that excludes solicitations (we aren’t publicity stunting), I hope my highly curated, handcrafted, artisanal column serves as a reminder: We’re still here. I look forward to meeting you and introducing more of us to each other in 2020.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.