S.F. no stranger to demographic shifts

Does any ethnic group have the right to claim a neighborhood as its own? Mission district Supervisor David Campos is proposing to designate a section of 24th Street in the Mission as Calle 24, which would designate the area as a Latino Cultural District in a similar way as Japantown is designated to preserve and honor Japanese culture. This comes at a time when the Mission district is rapidly changing to becoming a neighborhood of and for young, affluent people.

This is not the first time that an ethnic group has fought to stay in a neighborhood where it had established deep roots. After the 1906 earthquake, the city fathers wanted to move the destroyed Chinatown neighborhood to the far-off Bayview neighborhood.

Most neighborhoods change hands to another group at some point. Haight-Ashbury was traditionally Russian. The Fillmore neighborhood, the center of black jazz culture, was home to Japanese residents before World War II, but before that it was largely a Jewish neighborhood.

The Excelsior, which is rapidly turning into a majority-Chinese area from a Latino and Filipino neighborhood, was once as Italian as North Beach. The City's longtime black neighborhood, the Bayview, was once Italian, and Visitacion Valley was Maltese.

In fact, at one time, Visitacion Valley had the largest Maltese population in the world outside of Malta. San Francisco's Greek Town, once located in what is now known as South of Market, no longer exists. Perhaps it was a victim of changing demographics, but most likely, the building of the Bay Bridge in 1936 contributed to its demise.

Is it right to designate a neighborhood as a specific cultural district? Japantown is often seen as retribution for the forced removal of Japanese people during World War II. But in large part, it was part of Redevelopment Agency Czar Justin Herman's plan to separate the Western Addition from Pacific Heights by turning Geary Street into Geary Boulevard. North Beach hasn't been Italian in decades, yet the businesses still have an Italian flavor. This is to the delight of tourists, but the Italian population is more likely to be found in the sleepy suburb of Burlingame than in lively North Beach.

Before the Mission was the center of Latino culture, it was known as San Francisco's Irish neighborhood. If you dig a little deeper, there is more to the story. The Double Play Bar at 16th and Bryant streets displays sports memorabilia, including pictures of Mission High School's football teams from the 1940s and 50s. The names of the players are predominantly German and Polish. Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat, was invented in the Mission district by an Italian pasta distributor based on a recipe from his Armenian neighbor. Rice-A-Roni is essentially Armenian rice pilaf.

I was born and raised in an ethnically Irish neighborhood, the Sunset district. If you have been in San Francisco for fewer than 30 years, you would think of this neighborhood as mostly Chinese, not Irish. Growing up in the Sunset, my neighbors were also Greek, Palestinian, German and Italian.

My regular doctor at Kaiser Hospital is about 15 years my senior and also grew up in the Sunset. When he was in grade school he noticed something different at the start of the school year: another Asian student besides himself. He shyly approached the student and asked, “Are you Japanese too?” “No,” said the student, “I'm Chinese.”

San Francisco is a city of new arrivals — it always has been. The new arrivals to the Mission are here because of work, not ethnicity, but didn't the majority of Latino immigrants in the Mission come here to find work? San Francisco has always been diverse and so has many of its neighborhoods, just like the Mission.

I completely understand how hard it is to watch your neighborhood change. This change comes from the overwhelming desire for so many to live in a city that is geographically challenged.

After all, there is no other place like San Francisco. To quote native San Franciscan Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who was half-Irish and half-Mexican and hailed from the once Italian-Irish Excelsior neighborhood, “Once you leave San Francisco, the rest of the country is Daly City.”

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