Di Pilla's original Jitney, with a young Michele, in 1976. Courtesy of the Di Pilla family.

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Although many of the jitneys had been replaced by buses when Michele Di Pilla got into the business in the 1960s, the Mission route still operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.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.

Rigoberto Hernandez

Rigoberto Hernandez is a journalism student at San Francisco State University. He has interned at The Oregonian and The Orange County Register, but prefers to report on the Mission District. In his spare...

Andrea Valencia

Andrea was born and raised in Mexico City, where she graduated as a translator/interpreter. She has been working with Mission Local since 2009 translating content for the Spanish page. Also lives in the...

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38 Comments

  1. Jitneys were still running into Manhattan from the boroughs and suburbs a couple of decades ago. I’d take them into the city every day. I can’t say if they still run.

    You just hailed them as they passed and paid the driver a buck. They weren’t allowed to run into the Port Authority bus station so they dropped off and picked up right outside there.

    If jitneys were banned from SF to “protect Muni”, as you say, then who is going to protect us from the resultant Muni monopoly?

    And why aren’t jitneys considered a precious part of our alleged Hispanic heritage, and therefore politically sacred?

    1. Not just a piece of Latino heritage as all the Irish-American and Italian American kids in Westlake would taker the jitney into town to get to a Muni stop to get to the Catholic high schools.

    2. “…a precious part of our alleged Hispanic heritage, and therefore politically sacred?”

      wow, dude, you’ve got a chip on your shoulder the size of a super burrito. Could you be any more snide, arrogant, and condescending?

      We get it, John: brown people scare you. It’s all right, there, there, now, little boy.

    3. Can’t you give your insecure white privelege a fucking rest? I’m white, too, but I never feel racially threatened when reading interesting stories like this. What is wrong with you?

      1. You and TwoBeers misunderstand. My satire was not directed at Hispanics at all, but rather I was lampooning the kind of kneejerk white liberal who sees anything Hispanic as something cloyingly precious that needs to be frozen in time and preserved.

        If you had read closer, you would have seen that I am very supportive of jitneys.

        1. “…the kind of kneejerk white liberal who sees anything Hispanic as something cloyingly precious that needs to be frozen in time and preserved.”

          Thank you for reaffirming my observation. Q.E.D.

          Dude, you are one sick puppy.

  2. I moved to SF in 1985, and there were still lots of jitneys running on Mission St then. White vans were everywhere during rush hour downtown, many doing express runs to the Excelsior or Daly City. Nicer than the 14, for sure.

  3. It’s not important that the tenants are Hispanic it’s a quote. We all know that muni with its hundreds of millions a year of red ink is a political power base from which political donations and “”volunteers” can be accessed. Much like public housing the actual beneficiaries are nit the end users

  4. So let me just get this straight:
    Jitney’s are good, but tech buses, ride share companies, and private shuttles like ChariotSF are bad.

    Got it.

    1. 1. the jitneys weren’t exclusive; they were open to all payers;

      2. they were a fraction of the size of the lumbering behemoths now clogging up our neighborhoods.

      1. 1. ChariotSF and Uber are open to all payers as well.
        2. Jitneys were bigger than Uber cars and the same size as ChariotSF shuttles.

        1. Jitneys were bigger than Uber cars — yeah, and they carried 20 people along a set route, like a bus! No comparison!

          1. There is a comparison. You just made the comparison (you just pointed out a difference, which is fine). Just because you disagree doesn’t mean there is “no comparison.”

            By the way, ChariotSF also carries 20+ people on a set route, and (GASP!), tech buses carry 50+ people on a set route as well.

            Sounds like the criteria required for something to be OK with you are:
            1. Accessible to all payers.
            2. Carry 20+ people
            3. Go on a set route
            4. Be smaller than a MUNI bus.

            I suspect those conditions were made ad-hoc after you already formed your opinion on Jitney’s and tech buses, uber, etc. Kind of like making up the justification after coming up with the conclusion.

          1. I’ve heard of ChariotSF, only because their drivers apparently fail to understand traffic laws and they’ve tried to run me out of the bike lane several times.

          2. Jitneys were also connected with the taxi industry. Yellow cab was an operator of several jitneys into the 70s.

  5. There’s still a Jitney in operation! He shuttles from the Caltrain station to downtown Fi-Di and back again. The one way fare is $2…the same price as Muni!

    1. Yes, you are right. Somehow that got edited out and replaced by “most” were out of business by the early 1980s. Is that jitney faster than Muni?

  6. “100 percent Latino occupied”? Wow. If that were “100 percent white occupied,” readers would be posting “Racist!”

      1. The words “racist” and “bad” are two different words with overlapping yet distinct meanings.

    1. Hmmm, not really true marcos. In fact, it’s illegal to make rental decisions based on race, so 100% Latino occupied does seem a bit suspicious.

  7. There is one that looks like an old hospital shuttle (I think it still says Kaiser Permanente or something on it) it goes down Mission late night from downtown to Daily City and back and forth. I’ve been on it around midnight and once around 3am. A little Asian man drives it. $2 My friend calls it the secret bus 🙂

    1. Funny how this article about small business transportation in the Mission evokes adver-comments for a corporate-funded shuttle bus in the Marina…

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