If I recall correctly—always a dangerous way to start a sentence—it was sometime in the early to mid-’70s that John D. Berry wrote in his fanzine Hitchhike about a line of thinking that placed value on having “a sense of place.” My memory hasn’t retained where he got this notion from—possibly from an issue of Whole Earth Catalog—but the gist of it was that there was great virtue in settling down in one location for a while, paying attention to what made it unique, and savoring a sense of rootedness.
Considering most of us in our twenties at that time had recently left college and were bouncing around from hither to yon, often changing locales every year, this sense of place idea was oddly exotic. It smacked of growing up, maturing, and being a real adult. But not just any old adult, mind you. In my case, I wanted to be a cool adult in a cool place. If I was going to put down roots, I wasn’t going to do it in the ’burbs from whence I had come. I was going to do it in a big city with lots going on. I was living in San Francisco by then, so I laid my claim there.
I had a few requirements I insisted upon, which the city easily accommodated. One was that I wasn’t going to live in any building that was younger than I was. I wanted a feeling of connection with the past. Another was the rent had to be low enough for me to pay my share while trying to make it as a cartoonist, or a writer, or a paste-up artist. Or all three. Finally, I wanted to live with people whom I enjoyed being around. I had had some roommate situations in my first few years in San Fran that had left something to be desired.
I met Dixie in the fall of 1974, and by the following summer it was clear we wanted to live together. Then my brother Todd moved to the city, and the three of us set about finding an apartment that was roomy enough for each of us to have some privacy. We lucked onto an enormous flat on the top floor of a grand old house at Fell and Ashbury, directly across the street from the Panhandle extension of Golden Gate Park. Dixie and I and a succession of roommates lived there happily for five years. We’d probably still be there if the owner hadn’t sold it to two investors who evicted us, then turned around and flipped the property once we were out.
Where to go? This time Dixie and I scaled down our hopes to finding an affordable apartment for just the two of us. It was 1980 by this time, and we were now a married couple with two cats. We finally found a roomy flat above a laundromat on 16th Street in the North Mission neighborhood. There was another above ours and a series of apartments atop six storefronts running down to the end of the block at Guerrero Street. There was a courtyard behind these shops and flats with another series in a long building that was part of the same property, something like 30 in all.
Unlike our previous place on Fell Street, our 16th Street flat fell under San Fran’s rent control laws, which meant our rents could only be raised by a cost-of-living percentage each year, effectively locking us into a very affordable and predictable arrangement. Granted, we were no longer on the top floor of a mansion along the Panhandle; we were now living above a laundromat with a single-room- occupancy hotel immediately beside us, which was full of the working poor, welfare recipients, and winos. The sounds of police and fire sirens were much more frequent, especially at night, and the infamous Valencia Gardens public housing complex was just a block to the north. A block to the east was a shabby adult bookstore, a couple of liquor stores, a barber shop, a Latino drag bar, and a dirt-cheap Chinese restaurant, the Sincere Cafe.
A block to the west was a Shell station across the street from Flo and Swede’s, a corner bar so down on its luck they were selling bottles of beer out of an ice cooler. A few doors past the bar was a late-night pizza stand, while next to it was an enormous defunct industrial barn. Its gray corrugated metal walls gave the block a spooky, noir feel, especially at night.
Our own block of 16th Street, between Valencia and Guerrero, was a hodge-podge of urban funk. The shop beneath the 16th Street Hotel next to us was home to the organic Rainbow Grocery, run by a collective of followers of Maharaji, the teenage Indian spiritual guru who was then on the upswing. This was supplemented by the Rainbow General Store on the other side of our laundromat. Also on the block were three dusty neighborhood bars, two Chinese-run “corner stores” (although neither was on a corner), a Chinese laundry, a Chicano family burrito shop that was popular with Rainbow shoppers as it had a brown rice option for their burritos, the Roxie Theater, a small repertory movie house, a one-man printshop run by a crazy Greek printer who had painted large diagrams to explain his crank theories, another fleabag hotel, an AA meeting house, and a used paperback book shop that survived a year, tops.
On the other side of 16th Street was the Industrial Club, a former bar on the Guerrero corner that was now a social club for AA members; a dry cleaner; a cheap restaurant whose cook was a bleached blonde tranny; the La Raza Silkscreen Center, a tall old-fashioned wooden former firehouse; a large auto body shop; a little Latino Evangelical Christian bookstore with a revolving rack of Jack T. Chick comics; Aunt Mary’s, a breakfast and lunch Mexican/Salvadoran restaurant that was a neighborhood favorite because of its large portions and very cheap prices (we suspected it survived due to a sideline of money laundering); and a coffeehouse café that had walls lined with books, which closed when its owners were busted for dealing drugs.
Oddly enough, despite Valencia Gardens just a block away, a public housing eyesore full of drug dealers and their welfare neighbors, one rarely saw these residents on our block. Foot traffic was not heavy, winos often sat on the front steps of our flats, and the block was quiet at night, sirens aside.
Basically, the North Mission was an old working-class neighborhood with its side streets filled with two-story duplexes and three-story apartment buildings. Our own building dated back to the days following the 1906 earthquake, and our flat still had its original molded tin wainscoting up and down the hall, high ceilings, and bricked-over fireplaces with mirrored mantles and puny modern space heaters installed. In many ways, it was our own piece of San Francisco history that we had the privilege to live within.
Of course, time stands still for no one, and San Francisco’s neighborhoods are evolving organisms whether one likes it or not. When we moved to 16th Street in 1980, the neighborhood was already in transition. The Industrial Club had its name for a reason, as industrial workers formerly employed at the big corrugated barn nearby would head there after work for a happy hour of their own.
The punk scene in San Fran was already underway, largely in North Beach, as the ’70s morphed into the ’80s, but it soon spread to the North Mission. The Deaf Club, a small upstairs meeting space for deaf people on Valencia near 16th, became a new venue for punk shows. The deaf patrons enjoyed the punks’ antics and could feel the sonic vibrations of the blisteringly loud music even if they couldn’t hear it.
We knew something was afoot when the vacant firehouse across the street from us was leased out as a punk shopping mall, featuring a copy shop, a punk boutique, a postcard shop, an art gallery, and an espresso bar. Predictably, this lasted less than a year, but it was an indication that the North Mission’s days as a low-key urban backwater were numbered. The coming changes were gradual and not at all unpleasant.
The dry cleaner went away to be replaced by an ice cream shop, which was replaced in turn by a café. There was an influx of used bookstores to the point that for awhile there were four or five within a block’s distance. Coffeehouses and cafés proliferated.
The Industrial Club was replaced by a series of restaurants, my favorite being Maya, a long-lived Mexican taqueria where you could order a giant $2.99 taco that stuffed you to the gills. An era of cheap food ensued, where we found it was often less expensive to eat out than to eat in. The local media dubbed our block the heart of the “New Bohemia,” and there was truth in that.
I think of this period in the ’80s as a kind of Golden Age of livability in that section of the Golden City. We owned a car, but had no garage, so we had to park it on the street. Things were still quiet enough at night that we could drive off to a party or a punk show and could find an empty parking space without too much hassle when we returned. We had to be very mindful of where the car was parked—not due to crime, but for street cleaning, as each side street had a different cleaning day.
Over time, the rather dim and dusty old neighborhood bars changed hands, and a younger crowd began to find its way to the dive bars that replaced them. Even that didn’t make much difference, until 1993 when a city ordinance passed that banned smoking in restaurants, bars, and workplaces. Suddenly all the smokers in all the bars were out on the sidewalks outside our flat every half hour, yakking away into the wee hours of the night.
As foot traffic grew, one of 16th Street’s charms was that if you wanted to get rid of old furniture or still-working appliances, you could simply put them out by the curb and they would be carted off by someone within a few hours. Similarly, enterprising street sellers set up shop on the sidewalks, like pop-up thrift stores. Even the quality of street people was above average then, with some of them sweeping up or carrying out odd jobs for shops on the block. All this began to change as the crack plague hit, homelessness ballooned, and, ironically, so did 16th Street’s popularity as a late-night entertainment destination.
There was still much that was attractive about the neighborhood, but outside forces were at work. The mid-’90s saw the rise of the first dot-com bubble in San Francisco: the Internet gold rush grew the city into an entrepreneurial boomtown. Coders and tech hustlers descended on San Fran in search of venture capital and stock options. For several years, office, retail, and living space were at a premium. Rather remarkably, the North Mission largely managed to weather that storm. At the turn of the millennium, the bubble burst and the rents began to level off or even drift downward.
But that was a temporary respite. In due course, a new tech boom grew, both in San Francisco and down in Silicon Valley. As far as the North Mission was concerned, it attracted well-paid young techies who wanted to enjoy its amenities as residents while hopping their companies’ free commute buses down to Menlo Park or Mountain View. They had plenty of disposable income to enjoy at high-end cocktail bars that sprang up across the street from our flat, or trendy restaurants like Lers Ros, a popular Thai bistro that took the place of a less expensive one a few doors down from us.
The same rent control that allowed us to remain on the block let other long-time residents also hang on. With demand exceeding supply, San Francisco began to suffer from a much-deplored housing shortage. The solution touted by local politicians and trade unions was a massive uptick in housing construction, usually in the form of five- or six-story condo buildings hastily erected in the most awkward and annoying locations.
By some political sleight of hand, the Mission District was designated as a target for “high-density” development. Formerly a neighborhood zoned for buildings topping out at three stories, the Mission now became splattered with tacky industrial-style condos going for $1 million a pop and casting shadows down on their more modestly priced pint-size neighbors. By contrast, even when the industrial barn on Guerrero was razed in the early ’80s and replaced with a condo complex, it held itself to three stories, and its stucco architecture meshed well with other homes on its block.
I’m not so much pointing the finger of blame at “those damn techies” as simply chronicling the changes in our neighborhood that I’ve witnessed during four decades of enjoying our “sense of place.” I’m perfectly willing to consider the possibility that our arrival on 16th Street so many years ago was even an unwitting precursor to gentrification. Artists and hipsters seek out funky, low-rent neighborhoods that allow them to create art and music, and to try out new ideas. That draws attention and builds a certain cachet. I didn’t anticipate the punk shopping mall, but I certainly enjoyed the $2.99 tacos, while they lasted. And to be perfectly honest, there is still a good taqueria three blocks away that has a fine Taco Especial for $3.75 plus tax. I’m not sure how they do it, but they must own their building.
This year marks 40 years of our residence on 16th Street. I’m not quite sure whether that is an accomplishment or a manifestation of inertia. It is most likely an indication that we favor the familiar over the unknown, or at least the loved over the unloved. Perhaps that is what a “sense of place” ultimately means. The big question is whether any of what we’ve loved most about the North Mission will survive the next few years.
Dixie once said that we would know it was time to leave when the 16th Street Hotel next door was turned into a bed-and-breakfast. It’s not there yet, but I hold my breath before I peer out the window every morning. Wish us luck.