Hairstylist and author Donnelle Malnik plans to leave San Francisco after making it her home for 29 years. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF Lives: Divorcing San Francisco

‘This is a town that thrived on being eclectic. I don’t think we can recover’

Donnelle Malnik has survived several rounds of booms and busts to the economy here but the hyper-gentrification that’s peaked in The Mission, where she lives, and in Hayes Valley, where she works styling hair, have become too much to bear. She’s leaving The City within the year, “sooner rather than later,” she said, after 29 years here.

“Both neighborhoods mirror each other,” she said as someone who has spent a substantial amount of time in both parts of town, and the reflection isn’t pretty. Malnik sees the well-documented changes of the last 10 plus years that are turning two working and artist class neighborhoods into homogenous playgrounds for the tech set as detrimental to what makes a city, particularly this one.

“This is a town that thrived on being eclectic. I don’t think we can recover,” she said from her perspective as a longtime contributing member to our San Francisco lives, not only as a service provider but as a musician and writer (her clients are also often creative types).

“I like to say I’m going down swinging. As long as I’m here, I’ll fight for the things I still love,” said Malnik, who was among the residents who recently turned out at City Hall in support of the mature ficus trees slated for removal in her 24th Street neighborhood. She loves the nightlife, places like The Knockout and The Make Out Room, and has fought to keep musician’s rehearsal spaces when one by one they closed. Before she leaves, she’s working on finishing a book, her second, inspired by the Little Golden Book series and the characters who have passed through her Capp Street building.

“It’s called ‘The Golden Coffin,’ you know like the Golden Handcuffs,” she said, placing her hands into the locked-in position.

“My building has burned several times,” she said. She’s seen other buildings in the Mission burn while people of all ages caught on the inside have perished. Recently she’s seen remnants of a serial arsonist targeting cars in Hayes Valley, a deranged person threatening pedestrians with a piece of rebar along the numbered streets in the Mission, and the effects of opioid abuse, a little too close to home and in plain sight. Though no stranger to the vagaries of city living, she called the number of people dying of drug and alcohol-related deaths on the streets “the soul crusher.”

“It breaks my heart to see and hear that much distress,” she said. “The screamers start at night, around sundown. They scream in the alleys and you can hear screaming from 18th Street to 24th,” she said. Other people have told her they hear the screams too.

“Walking my dog, you don’t know who’s going to come at you,” she said. She sees more and more people on the street immediately following release from mental health holds. “They still have the electrodes and wristbands attached,” and are often clothed in just a hospital gown, she said. She’s mindful of locals living on the street. people like Kelly and her dog Fatty who stay in a nearby alley.

“I check on her occasionally,” said Malnik. She heard Mercedes found shelter in her sister’s garage, but she hasn’t seen Frosty, in Hayes Valley, for awhile.

“She disappeared,” said Gino Valle, joining our conversation in the salon. Valle has been the proprietor since 1997 of Hair of the Gods, where Malnik rents a chair. His salon surroundings are decorated in a dream of San Francisco, golden era, hippie splendor, the work of Valle’s own photography, plants and artifacts.

Hairstylist, author and musician Donnelle Malnik sits in her barber chair at Hair of the Gods salon in Hayes Valley on Thursday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“I have a client who’s been an Apple employee for over 20 years,” said Malnik. “but I don’t get people from Twitter and Square. They don’t find us, we’re not on their radar, we’re not what they want, I don’t think,” she said. And Hayes Valley is not what she and her co-workers want.

“We bring our own lunch, stay up here and don’t go outside. Plus it’s $18 for tacos in this neighborhood and they’re horrible. Coming from the Mission, that’s truly a sin,” she said.

And then there are the things she has no control over. She said The City’s so-called “poop patrol” is non-existent: “The City doesn’t do a thing. Garbage is strewn everywhere. Why is it my responsibility to call 311?” she said, referring to dialing the customer service center for San Franciscans.

At holiday time, she launched a postcard campaign addressed to the mayor’s office.

“I took pictures of feces and garbage, made 30 copies of seven images and had people send them every day for seven days. Malnik has yet to receive a response from Mayor Breed.

Malnik started her San Francisco life in 1993. She came here from Eastern Washington to play in bands and do hair in the Haight. She and her husband at the time moved to San Diego for a spell but were turned off by its conversative streak and came back by 1997 to immerse themselves in the garage rock scene here. She played with Cleve-Land, Snakeflower 2, the Titan Ups, and the Nervous Breakdowns. As an act of civil disobedience, she played on the street in protest of the aforementioned rehearsal space closures.

“I lived on Lilly Street at the bottom of the Haight and at the top of Hayes Valley for nine years in a smokin’ one bedroom for $350,” she said. “They paid me $20,000 to move out of there when the neighborhood got fancy and the freeway came down and I moved to Capp Street.

She liked the Mission. “It was sunny and there are lots of bars, fun places to play,” she said.

“Nobody liked it when the money came into the Mission and people bought buildings for millions, gutted them and kicked everybody out,” she said. She felt little connection with new residents and the feeling was mutual. “They wouldn’t even look at you or acknowledge your existence. You could tell them by their jogging shoes, starter hoodies and yoga pants. Everything became a yoga or pilates studio. There were still clubs, but there were also double-decker buses and Uber and Lyft.”

“I feel like I live in a trash can filled with mentally ill people who aren’t getting help and I can’t get out,” said Malnik, although as a person with the wherewithal to leave, she’s about ready to make her move. She considered Russian River.

“Then the fires happened and it didn’t look good,” she said. She thought about Sea Ranch, “So I could have some downtime, consider my next step, but they didn’t have a great time with fire evacuation and power outages.” She’s seriously looking in Alameda and Oakland is a possibility. “I know I could still play,” she said of her current band, Marabelle Phoenix.

“It feels like I’m going through a divorce with The City,” she said. “It breaks my heart to leave it.”

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.

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