Every revolution has its line-in-the-sand moment. For one architect south of Cesar Chavez, the moment came when locals — and even allegedly some city officials — started using “some hipster name” to refer to the neighborhood: La Lengua.
That translates to “The Tongue” in English, and it left a bad taste in the merchants’ mouths. In fact, they are forming their own merchants association — first meeting today — to rebrand themselves and define their commercial interests in the microhood where Bernal Heights and the outer edges of the Mission meet.
“That stupid name really got everyone listening,” said Harlan Hoffman, an architect with an office and a building on Mission Street, who is one of the main members of the association’s formation committee. “In a good way, that kind of spurred us on, and we decided to go ahead with this plan.”
Not everyone is quite as opposed to the name. ”Personally, to me, the name is not important,” says Dawn Houston, owner of El Rio bar. “The thing that is important is creating a vibrant healthy environment for neighbors and merchants. What’s important is addressing what’s happening in the city.”
The group will meet at noon Monday at Rock Bar to discuss bylaws, costs, goals and “our wish list,” Hoffman says. He adds that he has 20 to 25 interested merchants. Tongues will wag.
La Lengua’s Origins
The boundaries of the disputed area are roughly defined as the triangular patch between 24th Street to 30th Street, between Mission and Guerrero. The area’s main boulevard is Mission Street at the foot of Bernal Hill, a stretch that feels a tad more like the hinterlands than the thumping Inner Mission.
“I know there’s some people that don’t cross Cesar Chavez,” says Paul Miller, the owner of the Royal Cuckoo bar. “It’s where the city ends for them. It’s their DMZ.” Eateries like Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and The Blue Plate mix with bars like El Rio, taquerias and Latino night clubs like Roccapulco and Club Tapatio.
The name for the area has been an issue of heated dispute. A now-shuttered cafe named SoCha seemed to suggest a new name for south of Cesar Chavez, but it never caught on. The San Francisco Chronicle tried the clunky “San Jose Guerrero” in a 2010 article, which spawned a retaliatory cry on the popular Mission blog Burrito Justice: “La Lenguans of the World, Unite!”
Burrito Justice’s blogger known only as JohnnyO had staked out the “La Lengua” designation in an early 2010 blog post, due to the area’s “tongue-like appearance and preponderance of Latin American and Mexican eating establishments.” (Presumably, because many of those restaurants serve tongue meat). He later explained to the Examiner that he was a resident of the contested area and was tired of hearing misnomers like Outer Mission, Bernal Heights, or, heaven forbid, Noe Valley. (Burrito Justice didn’t reply to an email from Mission Local).
The anatomical designation took a licking from some commenters on the blog: “…While it is creative, I’m not feeling la lengua. I’m sticking with BerNoe until we find something better.” Or, “What transplant hipster decided to call my hood La Lengua?”
Still, the name proliferated in Yelp reviews, and on Curbed and Chowhound. Bernalwood, the Bernal Heights blog, ceded the territory in a tongue-in-cheek post. When a 2010 real estate map didn’t name the area at all, one Mission Local commenter chimed in “Viva La Lengua!” The name started taking on the possibility of a legitimate designation when it showed up on Google maps, leading Burrito Justice to gloat victoriously, “La Lengua Wins the Internet!”
As part of the mayor office’s Invest in Neighborhoods program — which identified 25 different areas of the city ripe for commercial and community development — several businesses in the area were tapped for the idea of forming a merchants association. Hoffman claims he heard city employees calling the area “La Lengua.”
It was the final straw. In late summer, Hoffman set out with a clipboard to collect signatures against the dreaded designation.
“More than 60 people signed,” he said. “You would think the really hipster types would like it, but they didn’t. Rock Bar, Front Porch, Royal Cuckoo hated it. It sounds gross! It was from there that we started talking more about the merchants association.”
Yet Miller, Royal Cuckoo’s owner, is a bit more diplomatic. “Call it whatever you want! I like Bernal Flats. Some People call it SoCha which I don’t like — too New York,” he says.
Hoffman presented the petition to city officials at a focus group, and, mercifully, the city listened.
Jorge Rivas, program manager for Invest in Neighborhoods, denied that he or his staff referred to the area as La Lengua.
“We aren’t calling it anything other than where it is on the map,” he said, chuckling. “People have different opinions on the name, so we are referring to it as ‘Mission, South of Cesar Chavez, bordered by Guerrero, running down to 30th…you get the picture.”
Merchants group will rebrand the area — and not just its name
Hoffman has worked with the existing Mission Merchants Association in the past, yet he says a separate group will bring a renewed sense of identity to the area and would draw more customers. Businesses credit the newly redesigned Cesar Chavez intersection for easing travel to the zone, which they hope will help make the microhood a destination as popular as the rest of the Mission.
“They are different from the rest of the Mission and have different things to offer, and this helps them form a community,” Rivas said.
The merchants association would weigh in on important decisions, like what businesses would be a good fit or identifying potential areas for trees or parklets. They could also apply for city funding, organize events and establish a go-to group when the city needs input on projects in the area. “When the city needs to hold focus groups or gauge opinion and insight on specific things, we’ll know who to talk to,” Rivas said .
Erin Archuleta owns Ichi Sushi, on Mission Street near 30th Street, with her husband, Tim. As part of the formation committee, she said the removed distance from the rest of the Mission warrants a separate association.
“We’re a unique community and our stretch of Mission is at a major intersection,” she wrote in an email, remaining tongue-tied on the issue of the Lengua name. “It’s a wonderful dining and entertainment destination.”
Aptly-named ally joins the cause
The merchants still need to get through the tedious details of forming the association, like identifying the needs of the business district. They’ve recruited the help of Catherine Hickey of the Local Initiative Support Corporation, a nonprofit that coaches groups through steps of community organizing.
It might just take Hickey to remove the name La Lengua.
“I’m here to ask the questions to make sure everyone knows what their goals and boundaries are,” Hickey says. “No two merchants’ associations are the same.”
Some business owners wonder if bringing in more people would change the area. “Giving it a name might bring more people here,” says Miller of Royal Cuckoo. “But it’s nice that we’re sort of an outer borough. More people might change the character of the place.”
Hoffman conceded a re-christening of the area could create opposition.
“People are concerned that it will create more gentrification, and what’s happening in the Mission is happening everywhere,” he said. Hoffman hopes that the opposite will occur — that the group will secure the current businesses. “A lot of commercial corridors have suffered, so we are hoping this will give us some security.”
When the group hashes out the details over the next few months, expect the business district to take on a slightly different profile — if not a new name.
“It’s not the Inner Mission, it’s not the Outer Mission — it’s its own thing,” Hoffman said. “We don’t know what to call it yet, but it will certainly not be La Lengua.”
Mission Local reporter Daniel Hirsch contributed reporting to this story.