Work-in-progress/ Extract (updated Sept. 8, 2014)
For Mary Brown—
My friend —M— gave me a list of 108 homes with listed owners who had not changed in the last 35 years. I went knocking on those address doors wanting to know who lived there. I started with names on my list that did not sound Hispanic, hoping to find a few old Mission immigrants: Irish, Germans, Jewish, Scandinavians, and others of European origin.
Built 1900. A slender, well maintained white-washed Victorian on a busy Mission street. Behind door number one was a sweet and polite Japanese elder, whose husband’s father had bought the place in 1935, soon after arriving from Japan. She was not certain of talking to me. I asked if I could return to interview her or others in her family. The Japanese lady called me later -twice- leaving voicemails clarifying that they did not want to be interviewed. Someone else would have simply ignored me, yet this lady’s etiquette required that she personally cancel the relationship. I had already thought up personal questions, such as “Had they experienced the egregious World War II internment camps, and were they ever pressured to sell their property during that time by the U.S. government?” But the more I thought of the family’s chosen silence, the more embarrassed I became of my questions.
A two-leaf roof home, after the style of an earthquake shack, but likely not one. The home had undergone decades of patchwork renovations to overlay the original style with a mismatch of asbestos and wood shingles and modern ironwork. A Latino family of Jehova’s Witnesses arrived as I was knocking on their door. They are renters: Mom, Dad, little boy, and little girl. The daughter was about 8 years old, and hung to the gate, while her mother and brother went inside. She beamed happily at me, curious, healthy and bouncy, as her Dad explains how he and his wife bonded years ago, when they realized that they were both on a quest for The Truth (La Verdad.) The little girl gave me a leaflet about the Truth, and I recalled my adoration for my father when I was about her age. I would get up to accompany him to 6am mass just to have time alone with him, without any of my five sisters. I knew all the Old Testament stories. The man tells me he has been knocking on Mission doors for over 20 years, and so I ask if he’s noticed the shifting demographics in the Mission. “¡Oh sí! Está muy cambiado. Many more white people and less Latinos.” I am invited to attend their services. Walking away, I wondered whether his mission will ever take him out of the Mission, when there is no one left to evangelize door-to-door in Spanish, but mostly, I felt a smug satisfaction for having knocked on the door of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Built 1900. I wander towards the western edge of the Mission to that strange patch of land between Guerrero Street and Valencia Street, where the houses look wealthy. The family name on my list sounds Italian. There is a gated garden around this manicured house. I trespass the gate and I ring. The face of a Caucasian woman, about 45 years old, appears in the little window of the door. She decides to crack the door open and I hear children inside. I inquire about the person on my list. The woman at the door seems confused that I have the name of the woman on the list. I explain that I’d like to talk to this lady on my list. I’d like to know what her life here was like in the Mission. “She no longer lives here,” said this other woman, closing the door on me.
Suddenly, I feel certain that the woman on my list is sitting aimlessly in an old folk’s home, despite having a claim to this home. I am certain, but only because I am reminded of my own landlady Francis Carati, 84 years old, second generation Italian-American of the Mission, languishing in a prison not of her choosing on a hill with a view to the City. She can never leave, except under strict supervision of a state appointed conservator or her trustee. Instead of wobbling on the Mission streets that she has known since birth, dragging a rescue dog along and cackling up a storm with everyone and no one, as she always has done, Francis sits depressed in a nursing home.
This is what happened. Francis met a woman named Ori Calderon at the McDonald’s on 24th Street and Mission Street. The McDonald’s might as well be called the 24th Street Senior Community Center of the Mission. Old men and woman gather around tables for their daily chat and crappy coffee, and it is a blissful sort of scene; the type that militant organic food eaters will never see, and therefore, a slice of ungentrified heaven to me. Ori hooked Francis on her addiction for car rides around the City. Soon Calderon bullied her way into Francis’ apartment and even pushed her to make cash withdrawals, under threat of stopping Francis’ car rides. We —the tenants and close neighbors— feared and defied Ori, since she seemed to be a professional swindler.
After a few fruitless screaming matches with Ori, while Francis wept forlorn on the stoop because all she wanted was a car ride, we called senior protective services, and inadvertently doomed Francis to lose her independence at the hands of a state appointed conservator; a man who makes a million a year arranging the lives of old people according to normalized solutions that leave no space for the eccentricities of a chatty old Italian lady who wants to die in her home throwing bread out the door for the pigeons and petting a dog. We call our building “The Pigeon Palace” after the other tenants, and we miss Francis. When friends of Francis come knocking on my door worried and asking about her, I tell them the full gossip. That’s what good neighbors do. That’s what Francis would do.
Built 1906. A large whitewashed Victorian home with a garden. The name on my list sounds Italian. To my surprise, an 80 year old Filipina opens the door. I explain my simple purpose of wanting to know more about her life in the neighborhood. She invites me into her home, and we sit in the parlor where the mantles boast family photos. Her father was a U.S. veteran, and she lived in the Mission most of her life. First near 18th Street, where her sister still lives. Later at her current address, after this lovely Filipina married an Italian-American. Her late husband spent countless hours in their garden teaching the neighborhood kids how to plant tomatoes, before urban gardening was even a thing. Their favorite thing to do back in the day was to go to the New Mission Theatre on the weekends. She misses him. In the 1980’s, the gangs made the neighborhood scary, since dealers used her potted plants as drug drop-offs. Finally, a neighbor asked the dealers to stop. Then graffiti artist started tagging their blocks, but they also made a deal with them. They could tag their garage door on Lilac Street, if they left the whitewashed house alone on Capp Street. This woman and her husband knew most of the neighbors. Now there are many new ones she does not know. Lilac Street remains one of the most beautiful alleyways of the Mission, in constant color motion due to graffiti renovations of the streetscape every weekend.
Wandering on the western boundary of the Mission, my list takes me to a home with an open door. Peering inside, I feel I’ve stumbled into a quintessential San Francisco place. The walls and floors and staircase are decorated with odd knickknacks: busts, flower vases, books, posters, and rich colors. I ring, and here comes a senior white woman to tell me a tale of living there with her female partner, who passed away a few years ago. I feel a tremor of excitement at talking to an original lesbian of the once famed queer Valencia corridor. The old lesbians near Valencia Street are another type of vanishing O.G. of the Mission. I asked her if it was hard to be gay back in the day. She shrugs, “No.” She worked in the downtown financial corridor all her life making a modest income, and earning enough to buy this place with her partner for a happy queer existence in San Francisco.
Built 1900. The name on my list sounds German. The Victorian house is decorated like an Easter Egg. A very elegant African-American housekeeper opens the door. She lives in the Bay View, but keeps this unique home for a woman who lives in the East Coast. This is the owner’s West Coast home. The housekeeper at the door wears flowing clothing, dangling earrings, and a beehive braided up-do. I leave a card, and never hear back. Returning home one day, I see a realtor sign on the window: “Do not disturb,” says the sign. This house is on the Valencia Street Corridor, once of lesbian fame, now of tenant terror fame. Any renter living in this corridor is vulnerable to a no-fault eviction with property values highest due to their proximity to the tech shuttle bus stops on Valencia Street. Mission veterano artists Yolanda Lopez, Rene Yañez, and Cynthia Wallis live a few blocks over, resisting their Ellis Act Eviction. Back at home, I check the address on the internet, and learn that the house is up for a probate court sale. The Old Dame had died. Estately.com shares the following listing:
Probate Court sale 1st overbid price is $1,714,100 […] Located in the Sunny Tech Path of Progress, Three level home with Three Bedrooms plus office/den, Two full bathrooms, Spacious main level features Large Living Room, plus Family Room …
Reading the probate court filing, I wished she had left it to the housekeeper from Bay View. There were four murders in the Bay View on 4th of July weekend, where the Sunny Tech Path of Plunder does not yet so harshly shine.
Home # 7.
Built 1900. A handsome blue home in the northeast Mission at the edge of the former industrial corridor. The industries of the Mission attracted workers to live in this area. Bryant Street was a lane of factory workers’ homes, and standing there, I imagined the smokestacks and puffs of steam rising northward down the street. I rang and a dark haired man stuck his head out of a top window. After a few back and forth questions, he decides to come to the door and tip me to the fabulous Downing Family history. The iconoclastic English surname was handed down by Alexander Downing, a Missouri man who came to San Francisco in the post-Gold Rush era, and ended up hopping on a steamboat to Nicaragua, where he settled and established a class act casino. A grandchild of Alexander, named Alberto Downing, made his way back north on another boat to find work in the Mission in 1928. He later brought over his own son —also named Alberto Downing—, who became a lifelong night shift pastry cream-maker at the Wonder Bread and Hostess Factory up the block, now a U-Haul center. The man who answered the door was the son-in-law of Alberto Downing (Ho-Ho maker.) After letting me in on the family tale, he recommended I join the facebook page “O.G.s of the Mission” (O.G. stands for Original Gente) and also recommended I visit Casa Sanchez on 24th Street (near York Street) on the weekends, where his generation of Latinos hangs around to listen to their peers play salsa. Circuitously is how I came to be friends with great grandson Al Downing the Postman: son of Alberto the Ho-Ho Maker, who was son of Alberto the Factory Worker, who was son of Alexander Downing the Casino Owner. I believe García Marquez would also be intrigued by this family with a tale of 100 Years in Fogtown.
[TO BE CONTINUED…]