“Fuck this city”. My best friend of twelve years, Luz, is full of rage at our hometown. Her family lived in a small apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco and their landlord sued them, claiming their belongings were a “fire hazard”. They contacted Causa Justa and San Francisco Tenants Union for help. Two months after a furious clean-up effort was underway, they lost the case and were evicted from their home of 36 years.
Prior to the trial, Luz had attempted suicide and her therapist advised her to stay in the psychiatric ward. When I found out on Halloween night, I broke down crying. Many of Luz’s friends and working-class neighbors are being systematically displaced. In the Mission, the diaspora of Chicano, Caribbean, Central and South American immigrants came in the mid-20th century and revitalized the spirit of the city before gentrification. Luz’s family holds strong roots: her father teaches music classes at the Mission Cultural Center, her mother knows all the church ladies, and she and her brother frequent flea markets to support their resale business at conventions.
We were both born and raised in this city. We’ve been involved in each other’s cultural backgrounds since we met in high school. She signs up every year to be a vendor at my synagogue’s Hanukkah Crafts Fair, enjoying tchotchkes like the “Mensch on a Bench” while we sell a variety of handmade gifts. We would volunteer together during Dia de los Muertos at the cultural center, passing out cinnamon hot chocolate mixed with corn husks, and breads shaped like skeletons. Her dad calls me, “my second daughter”. It makes me very sad to imagine their family gone from the Mission.
What has happened to San Francisco? My generation is living with our parents, or splitting rent amongst many roommates while working two jobs. We are the lucky ones. There are many more, California locals, who are living out of vans, wooden shelters and tents on the street, battling the elements and a society who wishes they disappeared. This city and its prosperous neighbors, Oakland and Berkeley, prefer to sweep the blocks, destroying belongings, acting like the homeless should be criminalized for their state of being. San Francisco was a haven: for the Hippies, the LGBTQ+ movement, cultural neighborhoods from Chinatown to the Fillmore district of black jazz, and so much more. Now, it welcomes affluent travelers, but treats the counter-culture as a novelty of a bygone era.
Last month, my friends and I were at a bar following a meal at one of the coziest Vietnamese restaurants still around. As I watched a television, someone started a conversation. “Where’d you grow up?”, he asked, and I answered, “the Sunset”, a quiet gridded neighborhood west of Twin Peaks. His eyes got large, and he said, “Can I touch you? Are you real?”, while delivering a poke to my shoulder. I looked at my friends, and gestured to them, saying, “They’re also from here. Of course we’re real!” As comical as it sounds, the comment was vaguely insulting. You want to talk about “real”, why don’t we acknowledge the Native North Americans who still live here, too?
It’s a common misconception that the Native Americans disappeared. We rarely consider the assimilation of Native people into the urban mainstream, or the reservations which Natives may call home, miles from their ancestral origins. Read Tommy Orange’s latest novel, There There, a fantastic representation of Native Americans in modern-day Oakland. There may be a lack of media covering Native culture beyond the stereotypes we see in pop culture, such as racist sports mascots.
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher Mr. Chard taught us about the Ohlone, a Bay Area tribe. We went on walking field trips to canyons and lagoons, collecting acorns or watching birds flit about the wild reeds. We studied the Ohlone’s tule reed and redwood bark homes and built small models of their villages. We also learned about Ishi’s cave, a shrine nestled in the cliffs of Mount Sutro. During the 19th century, a series of battles between the U.S. army and Indigenous tribes sent survivors into hiding. Ishi was kept in the campus museum as an exhibit by UC Berkeley, working as a janitor while his homeland irrevocably changed. By looking back on the past century, we may see parallels in this story of systemic displacement.
Following WWII, the Great Migration of African-Americans led from the deep South to Oakland and the Fillmore District of San Francisco, where they worked in the shipping industry and established strong black-owned businesses. The African-American population in San Francisco peaked at 100,000 in 1970. For fifty years following, however, they have been forced out of their homes and neighborhoods. Justin Herman of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency engineered “urban renewal” to widen Geary Boulevard and turn family homes into parking lots on over 60 city blocks that were demolished. The SFRA enforced patterns of urban planning that are detrimental to cities being lively networks of history and culture.
I always grow anxious as a passenger, stuck in traffic riding over the 280 North. High-rise condominiums in Mission Bay loom over the freeway, a tight grid complete with LED streetlights uniformly dotting a sterile, soulless path. Redevelopment is everywhere, catering to the mass migration of out-of-state corporate tech workers. As a child, I used to see marshy wetlands out the window, a smokestack on the horizon, brick warehouses; industry crossed with the beautiful wilderness of open land. Cooped up in a car, neck-and-neck with thousands of other vehicles on the freeway, I breathe a sigh of relief when I see the gritty sidewalks of 9th and Bryant again.
Grief. That’s the word I finally identify with what I’m feeling. It surfaced during the night of November 16, while I lay curled up in a borrowed green sleeping bag, on two yoga mats and a gray tarp covering the parking lot of an organization that provides art classes and job training for underserved youth. Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) hosted a “sleep-out” complete with a poetry reading and film screening of Lost in America (2019), a documentary on the neglect of youth homelessness. In 2017, the first study on this subject revealed 4 million unaccompanied youth, living out on the street.
At first, I felt a level, grounded sensation as participants in the sleep-out joined in solidarity with advocates at Here There homeless encampment, standing on their patch of land, holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome”, an old spiritual I learned as a child. Folks shared why they were there; one young mother said, “I feel homeless, even though I live with my mom in my hometown of San Francisco.” One thing I realized while lying in the parking lot: two yoga mats barely made the concrete surface any less hard, and cardboard would be better. My face was cold, and I wore gloves, a scarf and socks. I was crying quietly at 3:00 AM. Outside on that gray tarp, as the stars shone, I was thinking too much. I was remembering the past and worrying about the present. I was disconnected, confused, lost: revisiting the part of myself that was scared of feeling too much. I noticed my big heart. Change on its own is inevitable, but is different from injustice. I weigh the events of the past. I reflect on these memories, the love, the confusion, the bridging of boundaries and the dissolution of borders. What the sleepless night at YSA taught me was that instability from losing one’s home is harsh. Where do we go when the last safe place is gone?
I had left the rent-controlled apartment I shared with over 25 different roommates in my early twenties. Living there was a roller-coaster of joy and misery. I was the last original tenant and therefore, Costa-Hawkins, the California law that restricts rent control measures on certain kinds of tenancies, allowed my landlord to raise the rent to market value once I moved. My roommates were displaced, and if I hadn’t found new tenants to sign on, they would charge me every month the apartment stood unoccupied. As stated on Causa Justa/Just Cause’s plea to expand rent control,“Because of Costa Hawkins, tenants in the community are divided by who has rent control and who doesn’t. People are afraid to give up their current rent-controlled apartments because it is now exorbitantly expensive to move to a new place.” When everyone and everything there was gone, the apartment stood as a cold, empty shell, waiting to be filled.
Luz and her family moved northeast of San Francisco to one of the last towns on the BART line, settling in during the winter holiday season. They were able to buy their own house, complete with a large yard, fireplace, and bedrooms for everyone. During Thanksgiving, Luz, her brother Plato, his childhood friend Lio and I went to the movies. I hadn’t seen Lio for almost seven years, and was surprised to see he’s on disability, walking with a crutch. He cracks jokes, lively and mischievously. Within the same timeline as Luz and Plato, Lio’s family was hit with an arbitrary $600 rent increase this January that may push them out of their home. Displacement is absolutely heartbreaking.
We helped Tetris boxes of belongings into the family’s rented moving van, and drove with them to unpack in their new home. We passed by scenery fluctuating between new high-rise apartments by the BART tracks, and one-story bungalows filling suburban gridded neighborhoods. We reached “cow country”, and the vast open fields evoked a primal sense of loneliness and calm satisfaction. Many of their neighbors from the Mission are also facing eviction notices. They need unions, better income distribution, and public resistance. But, Luz is going to be okay. We’ll miss this city.
Are you a resident of the Bay Area? Are you facing eviction? Here are several resources:
-Causa Justa/Just Cause: “We fight grassroots campaigns to win immigrant rights and housing rights and work toward building a larger movement for social transformation.” https://cjjc.org/
-San Francisco Tenants Union: “Through drop-in counseling services and the distribution of the Tenants Rights Handbook, the SFTU has helped thousands of San Francisco renters stay in their homes.” https://www.sftu.org/