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FALL 2000 ISSUE

The Invaders

An out-of-control influx of dot-commers
is displacing San Francisco's Latino neighborhood

by Beatriz Johnston Hernández
photography by Janjaap Dekker

 

A calavera protests the gentrification of San Francisco's Mission District sneaks up on an unsuspecting cell phone user.

 

I don’t know if we’ll be here much longer, Luna, in this old San Francisco flat where your bellybutton is buried. Barely walking in your crinkly diapers, you dropped that leathery button between the grids of the heater in our living room; I haven’t turned it on since. Now you’re ten, still young. But I owe you the truth as I once owed you lullabies. We may need to leave our Latino neighborhood, the Mission District, and this glistening city where you were born.

Our community is getting pushed out. People with money are moving in and pushing the rents up, way up. They are young, Anglo, dot-com workers with parties to go to and stock options to burn. You’d probably like them. They are successful and hip; so different from the Mission’s working-class, bohemian style. Buoyed by the Silicon Valley boom, they come with lots of sports utility vehicles, martinis and millions that flow gushing from the spigot of San Francisco Bay Area venture capitalists.

San Francisco is now the country’s most concentrated hub of digital media developments. And the Mission District is their magnet for its sunny, diverse, and an affordable disposition. The dot-commers work here, live here and play here by kicking out the old. Who needs permission when you’ve got money?

Those who service dot-com tastes are changing the sounds and colors of the familiar. Latino bars along Mission Street, the main strip, the ones that played jukebox rancheras and merengues, now have names like The Beauty Bar, where you sit on retro stools and look at 50’s pictures of blondes in 50’s do’s. Along its parallel strip, Valencia Street, young somethings pay $10.50 for hors’doeuvres and drink melon-green martinis. Down three doors at a Mexican restaurant their co-workers from some other dot-com talk through the raunchy but heart-felt corrido the door-to-door musicians play. The musicians leave empty-handed.

Dot-commers, as they’ve come to be known because they work in dot-com Internet companies, and developers are buying this old, colorful, diverse, Latino Mission District neighborhood right out from under us. Hija, most of us never saw it coming.

A very few who did are cashing in on the bonanza, like Jim González, the former San Francisco supervisor, son of janitors, who’s now spokesman for Information Technology Center, the dot-com’s political association.

Others, like those in neighborhood job-training programs, hope dot-coms mean training and jobs for Mission residents. After all, the thinking goes, the information technology industry has brought 60,000 jobs to the San Francisco Bay Area. Never mind that neighborhood programs placed only 150 trainees in these jobs, and of those, only 30 from the Mission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luna looks out onto San Francisco's Mission District from the window of her home.

 

But hope mustn’t die; it’s barely born. Give us time, they say. Meanwhile, they’ve buddied up to the industry and been thanked with airy office space and lovely computers in a five-story multi-media building known as Bryant Square, inside the Mission. The project has reportedly displaced around 60 small businesses and artists already, such as a sweater factory that employed 36 Mission residents, a small furniture factory, upholstery shops, a sex-toy factory, a custom-garment maker, a nonprofit publisher, and four dozen photographers, graphic artists, sound designers, and filmmakers.

It is no secret Bryant Square’s developers, SKS, contributed to progressive Mayor Willie Brown’s reelection campaign last year. Information technology (IT) courted Brown to be near San Francisco’s financiers.

The attraction is mutual; Brown courted IT’s sexy jobs and tax revenues. With jaw-dropping results: by early fall, Bay Area property tax rolls had surged to a front-page $56 million. Property values have never produced so much tax; land has never so expensive.

Latino activists, neighboring artists, and residents charged that the political marriage paved the way for City agencies to green-light huge dot-com projects and the resulting massive displacement of Latino renters, arts groups, non-profit organizations and scores of small businesses as the blood sacrifice to mainstream progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rene Yañez, co-founder of Culture Clash and long-time Mission resident and activist, holds nothing back in his posters that tell zealous developers, "No te metas con la Mission."

 

Brown, the State Assembly’s champion of the working class, turned out to be San Francisco’s policy-maker for the rich. Can we forget he took tobacco money?

Technology has long been viewed as politically neutral as the color of a keyboard. Yet it swept in a capitalism so raw and so forceful that Brown’s government was for three years disoriented, confused about its role amidst real estate’s and technology’s frenzied compulsion to boom. Build? Not build. Offices? Or affordable housing? For three years, Brown’s government tacitly favored development of dot-com offices and expensive live/work lofts for dot-com staff. The only ones in control were the private sector, the ones with the cash.

But scared people move when they have a plan, Luna. Angry people move even without one. Smart people make believe they don’t feel either. The movement that’s been born includes all three.

The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) is strident and smart. Its Latino leaders want a say in the future of their neighborhood and the people in it.

They figure that if you don’t have money, you have to build power. That vigor has not visited these parts since the mid ’60’s, the last time Latinos organized for change.

They’re organizing folks to mass rallies and meetings at City Hall.

MAC leaders are taking aim at city government, which has consistently interpreted zoning laws in favor of the dot-com industry.

“There is an air of inevitability about this displacement, that there’s nothing anyone can do about ‘the market forces.’ We don’t believe that. The Planning Department is allowing developments to take place that are causing the displacement,” said Antonio Díaz, a young man with the calm ways of a monk. He heads a tiny office called PODER. With its corps of three teenage volunteers and a 20-something organizer, PODER has walked Mission’s light-industrial sector documenting the dot-com displacement of small factories.

It is common now to see Chinese ladies scurry out of garment factories at 4:30 p.m., past young Anglos in horn-rimmed glasses out for a smoke in front of what used to be factories. Now they’re dot-com offices. Office space is nearly all taken up now. And there’s a voter-approved limit on taking more office space than allowed. So small factories are being pushed out to make room for dot-com offices. Dot-commers get around the limit by declaring themselves anything but offices — research and development is a favorite — to get the needed permits from the Planning Department. And they get them.

At a recent monthly meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission, its chairwoman banged her gavel repeatedly to quiet the raucous Latino presence come to give testimony against the displacement.

The house was packed. A Latina matron wearing a long salt-and-pepper braid down her back took the microphone. Her voice rang clear and strong. She held a charred and tightly bound herb bundle in her right hand.

“My name is Concha Saucedo Martínez. I am head of the Instituto Familiar de la Raza. As a psychologist, I carry within me the cries and pleas of the people who have been displaced from their homes.

“By hearing them, I hope you will re-examine our demands. We want a moratorium on new dot-com offices in the Mission. We want a stop to the illegal conversions of light industrial space into offices. We want a rezoning of the Mission District and funding so that community voices can be integrated into the process.

“Our community may be poor in profits, but we are rich in diversity. I am carrying sacred sage, hoping you can open your hearts and minds. Thank you”

Sue Hestor took the microphone. She wasn’t there to plead for an open heart. She assumes the Commission incapable. Other MAC leaders help the poor or make art. This land-use attorney knows every shady planning permit and the legal reasons why. This blonde does not mince words. Turning to Gerald Green, director of the Planning Department, she charges:

“1247 Harrison Street in the Mission. There’s a request for 64 units of live/work space. Is that for artists, like it should be, or is it going to become illegal dot-com offices?

“580 Howard Street. That is Robert Kaufman’s development, City Supervisor Barbara Kaufman’s husband. Even though everyone knows that is multi-media office space he’s planning, his permit is for research and development. And that’s going through you.

“Your staff promised a report on the dot-com permits in the Mission in April. It’s months and months later and you still don’t have it. You are the most inept director of planning I have ever dealt with!

“Commissioners: This Saturday we are going to start strengthening the law that will reign you in. You are irrelevant, folks.”

Hestor’s bravado sent a chill over those who know this fight is very far from claiming victory. By Saturday July 15, MAC members had penned a petition asking for a ban on new construction in the Mission. They would need 19,000 signatures to place it on the November ballot.

In the last three years, the number of real estate transactions has remained constant for San Francisco as a whole; but for the Mission, the number has increased by 57%. People with money are buying dumps for half a million dollars and evicting old-time residents. In the last three years, more than 1,000 Latino families have been displaced. In 1993, the number of rental evictions was 965. Five years later, the number almost tripled to 2,730.

We’re lucky our little family is still here, paying only $1,000 for our 3-bedroom Victorian flat. These new folks are paying $2,500 for the same space down the street.

Friends and not friends are getting evicted from their homes and businesses. A poster urging “Mission Tenants Unite!” adorns the little offices where St. Peter’s Housing Committee staffer, Nickolas Pagoulatos, helps the working poor like nannies and day laborers with their housing. When the young man with a goatee and two Chinese tattoos about love and belonging started working there a year and a half ago, his mandate was to organize the tenants and make their buildings more habitable. Now habitability has taken second place: St. Peter’s has become an eviction prevention center.

Young people with money can buy houses that people have been renting for 20 years and evict them.

Non-profits can barely pay between 85¢ and a dollar a square foot for rent. Now it’s going for between $3.50 to as high as $6.00 a square foot. Dancer’s Group Studio Theater was forced to leave its Mission District local in mid August because its rent was raised from $3,500 a month to $15,000. The American Indian Contemporary Art group and gallery lost its lease last December when its gallery’s rent went from $3,000 to 10,000 a month. Centro Social Obrero, a labor hiring hall and Latino dance hall closed in June.

A wave of anxiety sweeps over the community. El Cucüi, the Boogie Man, roams the streets cackling and enters homes uninvited. “No one is safe,” says Pagoulatos, “even if you’ve been the perfect tenant.”

During a protest over the threatened eviction of Dance Mission, demonstratores rest at a closed shop while observing a performance art piece.

 

Artist Yolanda López may be losing her home. The building she’s lived in for 22 years is up for sale. She has a teenage son named Río. She became famous with her paintings of the Virgen de Guadalupe in plain-people’s clothes. Some of them wore tacones. Another flat in the building houses her ex-husband, Rene Yañez, the artist who started Culture Clash and Día de los Muertos in San Francisco. He helped put up the first murals in the Mission.

Yañez wrote an opinion piece for local paper New Mission News recently. It’s titled “I’m not going without a fight.” He says:

“On my block people are disappearing. I don’t know where they’re going; I just see the moving trucks. This isn’t redevelopment — it’s relocation. It’s relocation of culture and people from the Mission. One day a realtor knocks on the door and says the building’s up for sale. Then, once it’s sold, you have 30 days to move out. It’s very shocking.

“My God — kids, my son, his mother, our compadres, and myself live there in four units. Our compadres have lived there for about ten years. They have three kids and it’s very difficult to find space with three kids. We’re an extended family — I can’t imagine being separated. And what will happen to the garden?

“I’ve been looking for space…Oakland, LA…? I found places listed on the Internet in San Francisco ranging from $4,000 to $17,000. I work as an artist, and teaching kids who are in trouble — I don’t make a lot of money. People say, ‘reinvent yourself,’ and all that, but it’s hard, because I also work as a curator, trying to bring spirituality into the community.”

Publicly, MAC blames opportunistic government, greedy developers and techies who talk Democrat and act Republican. Privately, some admit Latinos have called it on ourselves by insisting on being renters. A full 84 percent of the Mission District population does not own their home or their small-business address. And, as is common in San Francisco, most of the small businesses lease their premises month-to-month.

“Why haven’t Latinos bought their homes?” asks Luis Granados, a deeply committed leader, but a man of numbers. He heads Mission Economic Development Association (MEDA), which helps small businesses obtain loans. “Businesses should have bought their place of business. We tend to have lower income. But still, why aren’t these things happening in Chinatown?

“We need to take some responsibility. We are not just victims. We’ve let it happen.”

Granados should know: MEDA was itself evicted when its Mission District building, the Bay View Bank, was sold, then leased, to a dot-com for nearly three times the rent.

On the streets, the anger is directed at the dot-coms. The Mission has the feel of a battleground.

A Mixtec girl, sixteen or so, stops to sell me some red roses and long pink lilies. A bunch is still $5.00. Behind her is a poster. It’s on the old Leeds Shoes building that closed and then reopened briefly for very progressive Tom Ammiano’s mayoral campaign last December. He lost. The poster depicts black and white locusts teeming up Mission District street poles, eating up the names. “Dot-com plague,” it says. Below, it brands them the CULTURE OF APPROPRIATION. The image, multiplied by many posters in a line, is stark and chilling, speaking as it does of fear and with such contempt: dot-commers are insects, it seems to say. What is underfoot is devastation, not opportunity. And it is biblical in scope. Someone has scribbled in strong black: “HATE MONGER” on one of the posters.

Across the street, the Bay View Bank Building stands nine stories tall, the tallest structure in the Mission District. Its long street face has been attacked by red, white and green paint, the colors of the Mexican flag. Its statement is a nationalistic “I AM” aimed at Bigstep.com, which intends to lease eight floors, and the Cort Family Trust, the notorious new owners of the building. They evicted 26 Latino non-profits and small businesses, then almost tripled the rent.

The fifties-square structure is the most visible symbol of the dot-com invasion and land speculators.

The building’s office directory stands neglected by the lobby elevators. Like a gravemarker, it speaks of tenants who served the arts with letters and music, children, women, immigrants, labor, small businesses. They included Univisión’s San Francisco television station, a radio station, two bilingual newspapers, child care referral agency, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Inside suite 701 of the Bay View Building, a memorandum lies on the desk of Acción Latina staffers. They publish El Tecolote, a community newspaper, and produce Canto Popular, a folk-song festival. The memorandum is “Re: Preparing for THE MOVE.” Level headed office manager Adela Márquez bolds the important points, suggesting she knows which corners staff might want to cut. “All desks, credenzas and cabinets must be packed.”

El Tecolote ran a piece calling the Corts “greedy developers who don’t care about the community or the culture they are tearing apart.” That week, Vera Cort, the matriarch of the real estate-owning family called the paper. She wanted an interview because her family’s “image is tarnished in the Hispanic community.”

Two yeas ago, Mission Latinos cried foul when the Cort family whitewashed a mural on the old Lilie Ann factory building they’d just bought. Jesús “Chuy” Campusano, who died the year before, had designed it. The mural was four stories high and half a block long. Vera Cort said they didn’t whitewash it maliciously, they just wanted to seal against water leakage. They were making it ready for occupancy by iQuantics, a high-tech management-consulting firm. Still, they battled Campusano’s children and artist Elias Rocha in court as they sued for damages. The Corts lost and were forced to pay an unprecedented $200,000 in damages.

Now the Bay View Bank Building: a community center atomized so Bigstep.com could have space and the Corts more money.

Bigstep’s Chief Executive Officer, Andrew Beebe, is an ironic enemy. The 28 year-old New Yorker is pained easily by others’ suffering. He could trade jobs with the social-worker leaders on the other side of this battle, if he had been born Latino and working class. But he wasn’t. His company services 120,000 small businesses on the Internet, boasts a $50 million budget, and a future of unlimited expansion. “I want us to be as big as Yahoo,” Beebe dreams.

He also assumes the right to the Bayview. And yet he doesn’t have the city permit that allows Bigstep.com that much space, nor is the city pressing him to obtain it. MAC members are pressing him, however, and making a royal stink with the media and at the Planning Commission. Beebe is being forced to court community leaders. He’s even made appearances at rallies for day laborers and is offering ways to be a good corporate neighbor.

Behind his hip horned-rimmed glasses, he is sincere, even in admitting he has nearly no Latinos in his staff of 170. But he is offering internships, technology training by his staff, and employment. He’ll share 10 percent of his space with non-profits. He’s given a $10,000 grant to support the San Francisco Children’s Council — a Bayview tenant that’s getting evicted.

The city likes his style. “The community wouldn’t be so angry if all the dot-coms were all like Beebe,” said Mayor Brown’s liason to the Mission District, Erika Román. “If they can be a role model, then maybe we can get policy out of it.”

Policy! Finally, Brown’s bureaucracy started talking policy.

Lead and the leaders will follow, says the addage. As MAC gathered signatures for its November ballot initiative to slow down dot-com office growth, Brown went on the attack with his own measure, which is much more generous to developers than MAC is comfortable with. Brown would not be upstaged by ordinary street politicians!

The media was kind to him. The San Francisco Examiner’s August 4 front-page story had him “responding to the outcries over gentrification of working-class San Francisco neighborhoods,” and “moving to bring dot-com developments firmly under the city’s stringent growth control regulations.”

On Thursday, August 10, salty Sue Hestor sent an e-mail to “The Mission People.” Subj: November ballot — Yes on L, No on K:

“The Campaign to Save San Francisco will be formally on the November ballot…

“We have a ballot letter, Proposition L…

“The City Hall/Mayor’s version is Proposition K. The people’s version in Proposition L. No on K. Yes on L.

“There [are] less than 90 days to the election. What can you do help? We will be outspent by millions of dollars, so we have to rely on the people. Sue Hestor”

[Editor's Note: In fact, according to results from the League of Women Voters, Proposition L lost by only 1315 votes. Proposition K also lost, by a greater margin.]

Well, Luna, m’ija, we don’t have money, but we are people. So put your walking shoes on, girl — we’ve got some rallies and precinct walking ahead of us. In this world, you have to fight for things. You can’t assume, anymore, the way we did, that big daddy government will take care of us — it doesn’t; you can’t assume big business brings jobs. Often it’s just little mirrors and pretty beads that shine.

When you grow up, God forbid you have zany, artsy ideas few are ready to hear. May the Virgen de Guadalupe walk with you should you accompany the poor. There may not be any room left for you in San Francisco, although it has always welcomed those who hunger for justice and surrender to art. No doubt this San Francisco is changing. The working poor, the lower-middle class, small businesses, independent artists are getting swept out of the city.

In the meantime, will we stay in San Francisco? Will we win? I don’t know, m’ijita. Staying after the Mission no longer looks or smells familiar is not winning. We could be like los viejitos, living off our memories that fade with time, as do the neighborhood murals from having no one look at them. But we’ll stay as long as we can, because this is where you were born. It’s where I got married and became an adult. It’s our city too, God damn it!

On the side of Galería de la Raza, a mural expresses the tragedy of big business forcing Latino residents out of the Mission District.

 

Beatriz Johnston-Hernández has written for Proceso and Pacific News Service. She is a freelance writer.



© 2000 El Andar Magazine