Few would suspect that La Argentina Gift Shop, an odd sliver of a store at 3250 24th Street, is part of a small empire built on a piece of Mission District history: the private jitneys that filled San Francisco for a large part of the 20th century, ferrying riders all over town and competing against Muni.
The jitneys seem particularly relevant this week as commuters faced with the sickout by Muni drivers look for other transportation options. The city once had one—the jitneys—and some of their history is right on 24th Street.
Unlike the tech buses, they weren’t free, but they were private, for-profit services run by independent operators including the Di Pilla family, today the owners of the gift shop.
At their peak in 1950, some 7,000 passengers a day paid 10 cents a ride to take the private jitneys, according to Paratransit in the San Francisco Bay Area, a study by the University of California Transportation Center. The jitneys were seen as private vehicles competing well against Muni, and the city began to legislate against them.
Although many of the jitneys had been replaced by buses when Michele Di Pilla got into the business in the 1960s, the Mission route still operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. By 1970, Di Pilla, then 39, sat behind the steering wheel of one of them, moving passengers from Daly City to the Embarcadero and back via Mission Street.
He was known as Hot Wheels, recalled his daughter Michelle, who used to collect fares. “The dealer would give us vans with 12 seats, and we arranged to have 20 seats,” Di Pilla said. “We took out the van seats and put [in] bus seats that we bought from junkyards.”
To protect Muni, the city stopped issuing new licenses in 1972. The final blow, the study said, came in 1978, when voters passed Proposition K and the resale of jitney licenses ended. Increasing insurance rates also discouraged the private operators, and by 1983 Di Pilla and most other operators were off the road.
By then, the 52-year-old Di Pilla and his Argentine wife, Marcela, were already investing in real estate. Michelle said her mother, who had come to the United States on a Jacqueline Kennedy scholarship to study data processing—the 1950s equivalent of IT—was good with numbers.
When a fellow Italian immigrant wanted to sell a 14-room building at 2437 24th, they bought it. Shortly thereafter, they had acquired the building adjacent to the current La Argentina and set up the shop in 1972, naming it for Mrs. Di Pilla’s native country.
When she died, Di Pilla kept it open as a place to meet up with friends. Nowadays, his children are running the store and the commercial buildings, which are 100 percent Latino occupied, his daughter said.
This story first ran in Mission Local on August 8, 2009, and was updated by Andrea Valencia in May 2014.