Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Excelsior: It's Not About "Potential"

When I was a kid, I was embarrassed to live in the Excelsior. I wanted to live somewhere "nice", like Noe Valley, where all the houses were freshly painted and there was no trash on the street. Back then, you would say the word Excelsior and no one even knew where you were talking about, even people from the city. 

Today, there are more hip young people and middle-class homeowners moving to the Excelsior than ever. I ran into someone I knew from Brooklyn; she now lives in the neighborhood. It was so strange that these people moved across the country to the little neighborhood I'd grown up in, one that few people had ever considered, that people had told me witheringly was "way out there."

But people need affordable places to live, and they are becoming increasingly scarce in SF. Plus, I knew she was aware of her role in gentrification; she and I had talked about the subject before. It wasn't like she was coming here to work at a startup and buy a condo.

Julia sent me a link to an article by a woman who considers herself "a pioneer of sorts" who recently moved to the "up and coming" (oh god) Excelsior, an, upon moving there, "longed to see a fixed gear bike or a tattooed girl walking down the street." Luckily, she managed to find some "diamonds in the rough," (all well-established Excelsior institutions) and came around to the hood, saying it has the "makings of an ultrahip neighborhood."

I met another young hip woman who worked in tech, she lived in the Excelsior too, off Ocean Avenue. She was really into Whole Foods. "Don't you love when you see hipsters in our neighborhood?" she asked.

Not really. 

It's not that I think hip young people are bad. I'm a hip young person. I'm sure people see me and think I moved here yesterday. (Once, while walking on 16th Street, some guy yelled "Hipsters!" in anger at my friends and I. True story.) Many interesting people are/were hip young people. My parents, and the parents of my SF native friends, were hip young people, some who moved here from across the county, knowing nothing about the city upon arrival. (My dad still likes to talk about, how when he got here in the 70's, he was shocked to find Haight Street "all boarded up.")

But I'm happy with how the Excelsior is now. In my dreams, hip young people and new yuppie homeowners like it too. 

"Urban" doesn't mean being surrounded by other hip young college educated people like yourself. It doesn't mean artisanal coffee and a wide variety of gluten-free prix fixe restaurants. Part of growing up in a city is being surrounded with people who are not like you and yet not being uncomfortable, not longing to see someone who fits in your own social group. Maybe you look around and people are not of your race or your economic class. Maybe the restaurants sell food you are not used to or do not look like the kind you went to back home. Maybe people speak another language than you. No one stares at you for the way you dress; no one is sizing you up; people mind their own business. 

The Excelsior isn't crying out for a Blue Bottle Coffee or a place that sells cured meats. Dry cleaners, hardware stores, pharmacies, hair salons, vegetable markets, inexpensive restaurants, thriving small businesses, handmade signs...aren't these enough? Why move to a city to go to a Whole Foods?

It's natural to want to be among your own kind; I get it. We all want that. And, historically, young people, especially hip ones, have shaken off the dust of their one-horse town to meet other hip young people and form a community in an urban area. And I know, for many people who have come from the suburbs, seeing a tattooed person or artisinal coffee shop might seem like a respite from what you're used to.

But if you want to be a citizen of the city, 4 real, you need a willingness to adopt local culture, and appreciate it for what is is, not what it could be if more white people moved to the area. To respect the local businesses and the ways of the hood. To not be grossed out by hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or upset by the lack of organic produce, or craft beer. 

The southern stretch of Mission Street bustles with activity and shoppers; there are few empty storefronts along a very long commercial corridor. The Excelsior doesn't suffer from urban blight or neglect or abandoned buildings, and crime is not a big problem. Many families live here, who own homes they worked hard to get. The Excelsior doesn't need to up and come, to wait for a brighter and more expensive future to fill the consumer needs of newcomers, even artistic young ones. These types of places are not what make a city great, and they are certainly not what make a city a city.  If that's what you want out of your neighborhood, you'll never be a citizen of San Francisco. 


Jim said...

Good modest article about an unpretentious part of San Francisco.

I recently left the Excelsior after 30 years and I miss it.

But wherever you go, if you pay attention, there you are.

Simone said...

Mary I feel like you should meet rebecca solnit and become her friend and write articles about SF with her. I love this piece of writing, especially because it says what I am always saying about living in a city: if you want to live in a place where everyone is just like you, why did you move here? Also, I remember feeling the same way about living in bernal heights as a kid.

Em said...

This reminded me that the first thing I actually heard about the Excelsior as a kid was the E-mob.

I looked them up and they have an a Noretno gang alliance(See slide 13: Well it seems gang injunctions( are one strategy used to gentrify SF, most notably the Bayview/HP. This article even characterizes it as ethnic cleansing:

But what they should really have is an injunction against Whole Foods.

Mary said...

That is interesting about the gang injunctions. Did you learn about them at Camo CUPSI aka Homey Camp, which I also attended?

Damn, the Whole Foods are popping up everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I remember them too. I used to see E-Mob tags during the day early to mid 90s.