It’s dusk on 24th Street, and Latino families walk in and out of El Chico Produce, picking up ingredients for dinner. The Spanish radio station croons ballads, while a boy with his brothers speaks in English to his mother. “Que necesitas, hijo?” she responds.
Across the street, Stephen, with thick-rimmed glasses and a Beatles mop, picks a pattern on his banjo. His bluegrass tunes echo across a block where for years Latin music dominated. The store he sits in front of, Discolandia, closed in January, and when two Latino men walk by they hardly note the loss. They drop dollar bills into Stephen’s open case.
Latino-owned businesses have dominated this part of 24th Street since the 1970s, and they still prevail. But Stephen’s employer, Humphry Slocombe, and others cater to an influx of new residents who come not from other countries — as did the earlier Irish, Germans, Italians and then Latin Americans — but from another world.
Native-born, they feast on specialty ice cream, $3 doughnuts and organic produce. If this seems like a recipe for gentrification backlash, that hasn’t happened yet. Sure, there’s the peering at one another across an age or income divide, but instead of the sharp clashes that occurred during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, these newcomers share with longtime residents an interest in the neighborhood’s history, in making it a safe place, and — for the new businesses — in making money.
“The corridor is becoming more vibrant,” said Erick Arguello, who runs the 24th Street Neighbors and Merchants Association. “There’s more businesses coming in. We want these businesses to stay. It helps the economy on the corridor in the longer run.”
Moreover, a community action plan seeks to prevent direct clashes. Jacob Schultz, a program officer for the Local Initiative Support Corporation, known as LISC, studied the demographic trends during the planning process and found that the two biggest populations are longstanding residents — predominantly Latino families — and “mobile, tech-savvy, young people.” The public’s input confirmed the data.
“We found there are different people who coexist here but don’t interact in a meaningful way,” Schultz said.
The biggest change in the Mission’s economy happened more than 10 years ago, in 1998, when real estate values soared. Housing values in the Mission had increased faster than the city as a whole since 1990, but the dot-com boom meant a doubling and in some cases a tripling of prices.
The boom busted in March of 2000, but real estate prices remained high through the first downturn, and through the 2008 meltdown as well. That’s given the corridor more than a decade to grow accustomed to that change. Moreover, two economic downturns has made businesses welcome any signs of a recovery — even if that recovery comes from newcomers.
Retail sales on lower 24th Street have captured an increasing percentage of sales citywide over the last decade, according to a 2010 report from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. In the early 2000s, the retail sales tax base decreased with the bust, but then steadily increased to .14 percent of the city’s tax in 2009 from .08 percent in 2001.
The change from 2004 to 2009 came from increased sales at apparel stores, restaurants, food markets and building material stores. Sales tax from liquor stores dropped by 68 percent.
Latino businesses still dominate the street — 74 out of 125 storefronts on 24th between Mission and Potrero are Latino-owned, according to Arguello.
Some Latino business owners aren’t being run out by skyrocketing home and rental prices because they own their buildings.
“A lot of merchants own their properties,” Arguello said. “It’s helped the area from being overdeveloped.”
Many sell Latin goods and foods that you can’t always find in other neighborhoods. If some residents were forced out in the late 1990s, many return to shop, so the businesses still have a strong customer base.
“There’s a lot of specialty stores — La Palma, Gallinita,” Arguello said. “They get a lot of business from the outside. Latinos can’t find certain products in other parts of the city or outside the city, so they drive in on the weekend to pick up products they can’t find in their neighborhoods.”
Salvador Vasquez runs La Gallinita at the corner of 24th and Harrison, and this year his butcher shop turns 40.
He remembers many transformations on 24th Street, and lists shops — and cultural groups — that have come and gone. When he arrived, it was mostly Italians and Germans who dominated the Mission; then came Latinos like himself. Once again, the mix is changing.
“Every house that is for sale is taken by either an Anglo or Chinese, or somebody else in a different ethnicity,” Vasquez said. “Nowadays it’s much more of a mixture of racial and ethnic groups, which, in essence, I like.”
One block up the street is La Victoria Bakery, where owner Jaime Maldonado is making changes to the panadería his family has run since 1951. He still sells traditional Mexican sweet breads, but he now offers empanadas from El Porteño filled with grass-fed beef, and vegan carrot cake from Wholesome Bakery. He recently hired a Latino pastry chef who is updating some of the recipes to mix Mexican, French and his own techniques.
“You have to introduce things that are more familiar to the average person walking down the street, because even though they fall in love with the idea of wanting to go into a Mexican bakery and have a Mexican pastry, it doesn’t happen,” Maldonado said. “They’ll go in and go, ‘Oh, how cute, how charming, this is a great place. Give me a cupcake.’”
In this economic environment, Maldonado believes businesses need to adjust.
“You have all these things being put together that really makes the Mission neighborhood continuously evolving around new ways of thinking. Businesses who are in the Mission and who are not adapting to that quickly, you’ll see them go away quickly.”
Some Latino stronghold businesses have left in the last year — Discolandia is one, but the family still owns the building. In the last five years, coffee shops like Haus and Bello have taken over spaces that used to be a musical instrument store, Discoteca Habana, and Sister Madaline’s Palm Reading.
Sugarlump, once a paint store, now sells vegan tamales and organic coffee for $2. Dynamo Donut sells artisan doughnuts for $3.50 — and it’s not only newcomers who stand in line. Dynamo’s has become a favorite for longtime Missionite Marta Sanchez, who runs Casa Sanchez next door.
“Newer businesses coming in are younger, more educated and a lot more business-savvy in marketing, so they draw these crowds,” said Arguello.
But it’s also all about balance, and Arguello said that a major goal of his organization is to preserve the character of the neighborhood.
“We try to create the balance of keeping the corridor vibrant, but also community-oriented, bring together the old and new so that it can thrive and keep the character of the neighborhood intact, home-grown and community-based.”
Lots of people — the decades-old nonprofits, Supervisor David Campos, residents speaking up at community meetings — talk about preserving the character. For some, like lifelong resident Patti Eng, that also means keeping it Latin-oriented.
“What we’re saying is we want to keep it 24th Street,” Eng said at a recent meeting. “We don’t want it to change. If it’s up to a lot of us, it’s going to stay 24th Street and it’s going to stay Latin heritage.”
The meeting was part of an eight-month public planning process led by Campos, the city and LISC, where residents and merchants came together to focus on how they want their neighborhood to evolve.
“What we wanted was for the city to provide some resources to the community so that as all these things [that] are happening can happen in a more strategic way, so this vibrant community can have a discussion of its priorities and where the focus should be in the next few years,” Campos said. “I think it’s good urban planning to do that.”
The process centered on finding common ground among all the people who care about 24th Street. The community action plan that developed called for more community events, and for increased lighting and better sidewalks to improve safety.
“It focuses on the things everyone wants,” Arguello said. “Everybody wants to thrive, everybody wants to be safe. We focus on those commonalities.”
And the neighborhood has become safer, which nobody complains about. Although there has been a recent spike in gang violence, there were just five homicides in the Mission in 2009, compared to 18 in 2008.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, gang-wise,” said Gallinita owner Vasquez. “That’s one of the biggest problems we have in this area, and I’ve seen changes on that. It was a few years back that people were even scared to come by here.”
Robberies have also been an ongoing problem, though Arguello said they have lessened. There is now a merchant alert system, where if somebody is robbed they call the captain on the block, who communicates with other business owners on the street.
“Having that in place has helped a lot,” he said. “We have safety meetings. People are reporting more now and talking about it instead of being afraid.”
Though people invested in 24th Street don’t all agree on the way the neighborhood is changing (one resident worried that the neighborhood is becoming “Disneyland,” with all the bars and coffee shops), nobody denies it’s transforming.
Pete Gallegos, longtime Mission resident and now a realtor, has seen the neighborhood evolve and watched the boundaries of 24th Street narrow. In the 1960s, Latin 24th Street spanned from Potrero to Dolores, Gallegos said, but once BART opened in the early 1970s, Mission Street became the edge, and “now it feels like it’s more Bryant or Harrison to Mission where all the older, longtime stores are.
“I used to call 24th Street a river because it was always moving, and it still is.”