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When I left the Mission for UC Berkeley in 2004, I couldn’t imagine the neighborhood I would come back to.
When I was a kid, groups of young men wearing khaki pants with red bandannas sticking out of their back pockets stood watch all along 24th Street. The beauty of the neighborhood lived in the colorful walls, the tantalizing smells of meat and fresh bread from the taquerias and bakeries, and the chatter of Spanish that wafted through the streets.
When I came back after years at work and school, the gangs seemed to have dropped out of view, replaced by something foreign — it was a new Mission and a new 24th Street, where a coffee shop scene had taken root.
Where did I fit in? As a Mission native, Latina and cyclist, where should I go? My first stop was a place I remembered from childhood — Café La Bohème.
Open since 1975, Café La Bohème’s mismatched wood tables and chairs fill with longtime regulars and a mixed crowd of U.S. and foreign-born customers. When I was a kid, elderly gentlemen pulled the café’s chairs out onto the sidewalk most days and sat chatting in Spanish.
“We’re not planning to upgrade; we’re intentionally keeping the old style,” said Awad Faddoul, who bought the place in 1995 and says he’s happy to be a part of its history.
A few blocks away, I visit Haus, which used to be a tattoo parlor and fortune-telling shop. Today it’s a light-filled, clutter-free coffee shop, full of people mostly under 30, mostly plugged into their MacBooks.
But Haus’s owner, Ron Mullick, doesn’t see it as gentrification. The cafe’s open to everyone, he said. “Why is it expected that the Mission would have crappy places?”
Still, customer Katie Koerber said the place has a “hipster-y” feel that’s reflected along the street. “I recognize the flavor of the neighborhood has changed and it makes me sad. When I first moved here, I liked the [Latino] enclave, and I have some guilty feelings because I’m part [of the changes].”
Ross Lesslie, who works at the coffee shop, says, “People come in here to work and use this as their office space.” Owner Mullick has noticed the trend and plans to hold events and art showings to encourage mingling. “You see people on Facebook making friends instead of making them at the café.”
Café La Bohème’s Faddoul also notices the impact computers have had on community in general. “You’re losing the feel and touch of people; the computer is taking over.” Faddoul has found it a bit more difficult to get people involved in the poetry scene.
His latest success in bringing people together, he said, was the World Cup viewing parties.
As my search continued, I walked farther east on 24th Street to L’s Caffé, open since 2005. Whether holding public meetings by the mayor’s office or Supervisor David Campos’ office, or participating in the Mission Arts and Performance Project community art events, the owners of L’s Caffe have immersed themselves in the neighborhood.
Owned by three sisters, Gabriela, Lourdes and Rosy Lozano, L’s Caffé’s inception is rooted in family.
When the sisters discovered that their parents had reached retirement age without a source of income, they quit their professions and opened the café. Gabriela, a nurse and attorney, Lourdes, an accountant, and Rosy, an artist, began the work of opening a small business.
Their plan was to establish the café in five years and use its revenue to provide their parents’ livelihood while they returned to their professions. The business is now in its fifth year, but Gabriela Lozano says the economy has forced them to stay a bit longer than originally planned.
Within its red and yellow walls a diverse crowd — in both age and ethnicity — sits at L’s tables. “It’s amazing how people opened their arms to us despite not being from the neighborhood,” said Gabriela Lozano, originally from Mexico.
“I feel like this shop is Latino-friendly, has good food and free Internet,” said Guillermo Cole, a customer of L’s for about a year. A native of Los Angeles, Cole said San Francisco offers a different Latino scene. “In Los Angeles, the Latino communities are just black and brown, and in San Francisco, the deep Hispanic community is mixed with white people.”
Adan Cabrera said he likes L’s because he can concentrate. “I feel like the hipsters haven’t infested it.”
As I walked more around the neighborhood, running into new coffee shops on what felt like every corner, I realized that not only the neighborhood had changed — so had I.
Places like Haus and Coffee Bar seem to draw me in, but I think I’d grab my laptop before entering. And when I want to feel at home, I’ll have my mocha where I can watch seniors have tea and kids wiggle in their seats. For me, that place is L’s. It reminds that the old Mission still lives.