Yesterday’s post about the impact the Silicon Valley commuter shuttle network is having on Bernal Heights pairs neatly with the article by Bernal neighbor David Talbot that appears on the cover of the current issue of San Francisco magazine.
Under the headline “How Much Tech Can One City Take?” Neighbor David considers how the growth of the tech industry is changing the texture of San Francisco, and in one part of the article, he looks at this through the prism of our own Precita Park:
I’m sitting at a table outside the new Precita Park café in Bernal Heights, a gourmet sandwich shop that’s one sign of the changing times. When I moved to this neighborhood in 1993, just before the first dot-com boom, I avoided taking my two toddlers to the playground across the street from the café, because local gangs sometimes stashed their guns in the sand. And yet, despite gunfire from the old Army Street projects that often shattered the neighborhood’s sleep, Bernal Heights in those years was a glorious urban mix of deeply rooted blue-collar families, underground artists, radical activists, and lesbian settlers. The neighborhood had a funky character as well as a history. The famed cartoonist R. Crumb once hung his hat there, and his old Zap Comics sidekick, the brilliant Spain Rodriguez, still does.
But at some point the new tech boom began to make its presence felt in Bernal Heights, whose sunny hills are close to not only SoMa startups but also the Highway 101 shuttle line to Silicon Valley. Nowadays, you see Lexus SUVs parked in the driveways on Precita Avenue. Young masters of the universe in Ivy League sweatshirts buy yogurt and organic peaches at the corner stores where Cuervo flasks and cans of Colt 45 were once the most popular items.
“We cleaned up this neighborhood—stopped the violence in the projects—but now we can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Buck Bagot who has been a Bernal Heights community organizer and housing activist since 1976. “When I moved here, every house on my block had a different ethnicity. There were Latinos, blacks, American Indians, Samoans, Filipinos. They had good union jobs, and they could raise their families here. Now they’re all gone.” These days Bagot fights to block home foreclosures as the cofounder of Occupy Bernal, engaged in a battle to preserve the neighborhood’s diverse character that he admits often feels futile.
Sitting outside the café, I’m joined by another longtime Bernal resident, a 47-year-old San Francisco public school librarian. She moved to the neighborhood in 1994 with her partner, a public school teacher, when many of their lesbian friends were settling here, attracted by the relatively cheap rents. “There were a lot of us—we were young, politically active, and underpaid, but we could afford to live here in those days,” she says. “But now that we have kids, we’re being priced out.” The librarian—who asks that her name not be used because she’s concerned that any notoriety will hurt her chances of entering the tight housing market—says that she and her partner have bid on five houses this year. But they lost each time to buyers who could afford to put up tens of thousands of dollars over the sellers’ asking price—and all in cash. “Who are these people, with that kind of money?” she asks.
The librarian and her partner dread the idea of moving out of the city. San Francisco is in their souls: They fell in love here, they took to the streets here as young dyke activists, and they have a combination of 22 years seniority in the public school system. They can’t imagine moving their family to some remote suburb, where their kids would likely be the only ones with two moms. But it’s getting harder each day to hold on. To make ends meet, they have begun to moonlight as dog trainers “I don’t want to blame young tech workers,” says the librarian. “I’d hate to sound like some grumpy ‘get off my lawn’ type. I mean, I love technology. I’m an early adopter. But if people like us, who helped make San Francisco what it is, get pushed out of the city, who’s going to teach the next generation of kids? Who’s going to take care of them in the hospital?”
OK, so… This kind of “Woe Unto Bernal” essay is fast becoming a local sub-genre; Neighbor Peter Orner recently penned a similar lament, also about Precita Park, for The New York Times.
The issues both describe are very real: Gentrification, change, displacement, uncertainty, and the pain of watching longtime neighbors forced to move because of the inexorable economics of local real estate. Nevertherless, I had a much more sympathetic reaction to Neighbor’s Peter’s piece in the NYT than to Neighbor David’s piece in San Francisco.
Why? I’m not exactly sure, except perhaps because Peter’s piece felt more like an open-ended question to me, while David’s article was infused with an unfortunate kind of Baby Boomer myopia, as if all meaningful culture ended sometime around the time when Fleetwood Mac released the “Rumours” album.
More importantly, though, while the underlying issues of gentrification are real and challenging, it’s unfortunate that Neighbor David neglects to recognize that Bernal Heights is now a home to a glorious urban mix of deeply rooted families, underground artists, technology innovators, cutting-edge musicians, groundbreaking journalists, stalwart activists, assorted oddballs, and lesbian gentry. Plus: The Bikini Jogger.
Yes, the mix is changing. But it remains deeply funky, and passionately connected to this place we all love to call home. Of course we mourn the loss of friends and neighbors who, for whatever reason, cannot stay. The problems of gentrification defy easy solutions. Yet many of us also see meaningful continuity amid the tumult and change, because we know that Bernal Heights has never been a better or stronger neighborhood than it is today.
IMAGE: Original photo illustration by Peter Belanger for San Francisco, photo illustrated by Bernalwood