Take a walk down Mission Street, and you’re as likely to hear Spanish as you are English. Family-run bodegas, taquerias and laundromats line the streets next door to community services providers.
A stroll down Valencia Street, just one block away, feels a little different. Sleek, luxury apartment buildings house trendy coffee shopsbelow. Nearly every block boasts destination eateries and funky bars that attract droves of twenty-somethings on weekend nights.
The juxtaposition highlights the age-old story of the Mission District’s battle with gentrification, and that of San Francisco more broadly. Once a safe haven for immigrants and working class residents, the neighborhood has become a hub for Silicon Valley transplants with six-figure paychecks.
“There’s a lot that is great and lovely about the new Valencia, but it is not a working class neighborhood the way that it was years ago, and that is a change, not just in Valencia but in many neighborhoods,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents half of Valencia Street and lives on the corridor.
Though gentrification horror stories are well-documented, what’s less so is how Mission residents and merchants are learning from the past. They’re applying some of those lessons elsewhere in an effort to strike a more equitable balance between growth and development in the future.
“You could make the case that Valencia Street has all the power,” said Christopher Gil from the Mission Economic Development Agency. “But it’s swung a bit because we’re just making sure everyone has a place at the table.”
Activate public space
Valencia’s rise has given way to its increased ability to garner the attention of power brokers in City Hall.
Take the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association, which worked with city officials during the pandemic to pilot a first-of-its-kind street closure that limited vehicle access to boost foot traffic and open space for businesses to operate outdoors.
Business owners said the idea saved their storefronts. They also said it would be untenable without more help, and they lobbied City Hall for long-term support.
Mandelman delivered. He included $175,000 of district-specific funding in the latest budget cycle to finance the hiring of a full-time corridor manager to steward outdoor commercial activity plus the purchase of materials and services needed to activate the space for one year.
Jonah Buffa, president of the VCMA, has worked on Valencia for 25 years, and he’s the first to say the street’s success can’t exist in a vacuum.
“If we can’t have people living or working in our neighborhood because they can’t afford to live here, that’s not a community,” Buffa said.
According to a Yelp study, areas with robust outdoor dining fared significantly better in 2020 than those without. Valencia Street’s street closure provided a blueprint to other corridors citywide for how to capture those benefits.
But for many merchants to enjoy the same kind of success, they’ll also need help with funding. Offering other sectors of The City financial support, akin to what VCMA is set to receive, might be in order, according to Mandelman.
“If these are going to be successful over time, I think it is going to be a necessary conversation,” Mandelman said of parklets and street closures. “I think it’s going to have to be a citywide conversation.”
Much of Valencia Street’s influence has stemmed from its ability to organize.
“I really notice the power of organizations, even small ones,” Buffa said. “The VCMA is a handful of us meeting once a month and planning events, deciding to write a letter or pick up the phone. Our budget is nothing.”
Mission community members, who once operated largely in their own silos, are now banding together to achieve results through collective action. They’re having some success in making their voices heard.
For example, a contentious market-rate housing building proposed near the 16th Street BART station was derailed last year after fierce community pushback. Mission Food Hub sprung out of the pandemic to feed food insecure families and has since received $1 million in state funding. And the Latino Task Force galvanized more than three dozen existing community groups to create a central source for COVID-19 information, while also partnering with city agencies to bring vaccines, tests and other resources directly to residents.
“You have to protect your neighborhood, make it so that everybody has a place at the table,” Gil said.
Calle 24 leads much of that work in the Mission. Though it’s been around since 1999, it’s known most recently as the steward of the Latino Cultural District, created by the Board of Supervisors in 2014.
The organization endeavors to celebrate and preserve the 24th Street corridor’s rich Latino culture, even in the face of new entrants to the neighborhood.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times the thought of improving a neighborhood doesn’t go hand-in-hand with improving the neighborhood for the people who are already living there,” said Susana Rojas, executive director of Calle 24. “Cultural districts give a bit of strength and power to communities that are often marginalized.”
Calle 24 creates memorandums of understanding — basically, an agreement — with new business owners in the neighborhood, working with them to ensure they meet certain guidelines to maintain the cultural integrity of the area: height and design requirements, local hiring commitments and community involvement, for example.
Rojas said they also worked tirelessly during the pandemic to keep the vast majority of the 200-plus member businesses afloat. Calle 24 provided PPP to workers and helped merchants navigate grant applications.
“All we want to do is to ensure that the Latino community has a standing in the Mission and in San Francisco,” she said.
Given the success of the cultural district, there are ongoing conversations about expanding or replicating a version of it on other corridors in the Mission District, as well as in other neighborhoods where residents face possible displacement.
Working class families used to be able to live fairly comfortably in the Mission. That’s no longer the case.
Even with the deflated rental market caused by the pandemic, a one-bedroom apartment in the Mission currently goes for an average of $2,695 per month, according to the real estate website, Zumper.
Fabiola Torres, a mother of three who immigrated to San Francisco nearly 18 years ago, has long struggled to find stable housing. It took five years and multiple applications to The City’s below-market rate housing lottery before she landed an apartment of her own in March.
“I finally have a place to call home for my family,” Torres said. She expressed sadness that many Latino families she used to see in the Mission have since left because they can’t afford it.
Continued investment in affordable housing is essential to preventing further displacement and deepening inequity. Advocates tout the nine affordable housing projects already built, or under construction, in the Mission that will total 1,000 units.
Gil also points out that these buildings can use their ground floors to house the non-profits, cultural and social services organizations that have long served the local Latino community but are increasingly at risk of eviction.
It bears noting, though, that Valencia Street plays a hugely important role in creating the space for these developments. It’s still home to many of the area’s housing alternatives and community service providers, such as the recently opened Hummingbird Place that provides shelter for individuals living on the streets with mental illness.
“As we’re bemoaning the Valencia of yesterday and all that’s been lost, it’s still actually quite rooted in the community,” Mandelman said. “It’s a wonderful street and it has a lot of the contradictions that have defined San Francisco.”