A thin piece of glass separated two worlds Saturday. Outside, hundreds of protesters marched to stop evictions in the neighborhood while inside at cafes and bookstores that line 24th Street, customers quietly worked on laptops or leafed through books. Some wondered what the protest would accomplish; others thought it was simply a waste of time.
For 23-year-old Eric Hartsukyer who works in the tech industry downtown and lives in the Sunset because it’s more affordable, the changes happening in the city are inevitable.
“There is a limited amount of space in the city, and if people want to live here, rent can get raised,” he said as he sat at Haus Coffee on 24th Street near Treat Avenue. “That may force out people who are making less money, but it’s not any one person’s fault, and it is the nature of capitalism. You see a lot of people complaining. I think it’s a bunch of whining, and I don’t really support the movement in general.”
That movement tried to get some traction on Saturday with a march that started at Hampshire and 24th streets at 2 p.m. with 300 to 400 protesters. Erick Arguello, the president and founder of the Lower 24th Street Merchants Association had said earlier that the protest would be a joint march with the Valencia Merchants Association. However, with some exceptions — Andy Blue, for example, from the successful campaign to keep Jack Spade off 16th Street who spoke to the crowd toward the end of the protest — it appeared to be mostly tenants or supporters from elsewhere in the city.
“I think a lot of Valencia merchants couldn’t go because it was being held during our busiest hours. Saturday Afternoon.” said Jefferson McCarley, general manager at Mission Bicycle located at 766 Valencia Street, in an email following the protest. “Most of us are stuck in the shop then.”
McCarley himself could not attend the protest because he was working.
By the time the march reached the corner of 24th and Mission streets at around 4:30 p.m., the Aztec dancers and the drummers of Loco Bloco appeared to make up a good portion of the protesters.
Nevertheless, speakers had much to say about tenant evictions, which rose by 26 percent between March 2012 and February 2013, according to the San Francisco Rent Board.
Many of these were Ellis Act evictions — up by 81 percent in the same time period — in which the landlord decides to evict all of the tenants in a building and hold the apartments off the market for five years.
Although only 8.7 percent of the evictions since 2011 have occurred in the Mission, some recent ones have included high profile, long-time residents such as 71-year-old artist René Yañez, who is also ill, and the owner of Chile Lindo, Paula Tejeda. Both were at the march.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos said the divisions in San Francisco represented a tale of two cities. “We have a small amount who are doing very well, but then we have the vast majority of folks, the working class and middle class people who are being left out of the prosperity,” he said.
Unemployment reached a high of 10.1 percent in San Francisco in January of 2010 and has since dropped to 5.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On Saturday, it was rent, not jobs that the protesters focused on.
“I’m here because I feel like this movement that we are seeing right now is a struggle for justice,” said Sister Eaton Asp of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist organization which unanimously voted to officially endorse the march. “[We want] the people who live here, the artists, the people who work in restaurants or hospitals to afford to still live here, not pushed out of the community with the cultural legacy erased.”
The changes in the Mission District began during the last dot com boom of the late 1990s and nowadays, those who moved in then are considered old-timers who look at the recent arrivals as newcomers, techies, or “gentrifiers.”
Jon Fellman, a member of the board of directors at Adobe Books, and Chris Rolls, a manager there, witnessed the protest from inside their store. Both have lived in the neighborhood for more than 15 years. “It’s a tricky situation,” Fellman said. “You have people that are moving in and occupying houses without realizing that someone else had to be displaced for them to get it.”
Older residents also question what the newcomers bring.
“As far as the new breed of wealth moving in here, I’m not sure I have seen any positive changes to be totally honest,” Rolls added. “I’m not seeing a huge investment in the infrastructure of this city or a lot of interesting philanthropic movements. I just see a lot of entitlement and self-obsession.”
“It’s really saddening to see these kids moving in and be disrespectful of the history of the city and the people who have raised their families here for generations,” he continued, referring to the neighborhood’s Latin culture. It was unclear how the newcomers have expressed disrespect.
Rising rents forced Adobe Books, a cooperative and independent bookstore, to move from its home of 24 years on 16th Street to 24th Street. Their landlord wanted to rent the space to Jack Spade, but that opportunity ended on Friday when Jack Spade said that community opposition made it decide to look elsewhere.
Rolls said, “You could argue in some ways we are gentrifiers because we are bringing a business that was eight blocks away to this new area.”
He lamented that many lower-income families are being pushed out of the Mission, but he feels resigned to that happening.
“It’s like watching extinct animals walk down the street with a sign asking not to be burned while it’s undeniable that there will be massive upheaval and change in this neighborhood,” he said. “To conceive of this neighborhood without the Latin influence that has been here for the past 60 years is difficult and very saddening.”
Other recent newcomers to the street argued that the changes are more complicated. One of them is Ron Mullick, the owner of Haus Coffee, which opened in May 2009.
“I sort of resent this label of gentrification…..I’m just a small business,” he said. “We just have a nice, clean space for everybody. Why is that not part of the Mission? Why is that somehow you are supposed to have a grungy place and then it’ll be of the neighborhood?”
“It’s a Latino-oriented neighborhood, and it’ll always stay that way, which is great,” he continued. “Nobody is changing that. It’ll stay that way if the neighborhood is that way. This used to be, if you go back 100 years, an Irish neighborhood. Then it became a Latino neighborhood. Should the Irish come back and protest that?”
Candice Turchin, an acupuncturist who has lived in the Mission for 23 years in a rent-controlled apartment, overheard Mullick and jumped in.
“It’s a societal problem,” she argued. “What we really have going on here is this influx of Internet and high-tech, high-paid jobs — kids in their 20s and early 30s coming in and getting paid an exorbitant amount of money that is very out of balance with the rest of the United States. We are in a little bubble.”
Turchin said she would have to leave the Bay Area if she were to lose her rent-controlled apartment to eviction.
“Be that as it may, it’s just one of those things that is,” Mullick said. “It’s just the way things are.”
On Saturday, the protesters who had just walked by his coffee shop disagreed. They want policies that will protect long-time residents from evictions.
“We really need to look at statewide laws, but we also really need to look at local laws and take a stand,” said Leila Salazar-López, program director at Amazon Watch and a young mother of two who is currently facing eviction from her home located at 23rd and Florida streets. “The local government has to get involved and intervene. There has to be a moratorium on Ellis Act evictions and a moratorium on the speculation that’s happening in our community.”
All of the residents of her 10-unit building recently received Ellis Act eviction notices asking them to move within 120 days. All have refused and are asking for extensions.
The cries for a moratorium on Ellis Act evictions got some support from the political leaders who attended the march. “I support the effort to have direct action to stop evictions from happening,” said District 11 Supervisor John Avalos, who joined the other politicians at the protest. “We are here, literally putting our bodies on the line to keep people in this city, because we’re losing the best of what San Francisco is about.”
Additional reporting by Alexandra Garreton.