In my search for long-time Mission residents, I didn’t have to go far. John Nuno, who was born in North Beach in 1943 and moved to the Mission in 1955, has lived behind my house on York Street my entire life. (I’m 25.)
He lived temporarily on 18th Street, between Mission & Valencia, but by the age of 25 he had moved to York, between 24th and 25th Streets.
Nuno turns out to be a walking/talking Mission District Encyclopedia. One block into a stroll through the Mission, he pointed out Ricci’s Market. That, he said, was once a family-owned Italian delicatessen where he purchased all his cold cuts. Then the building was sold to a Middle Eastern family, who turned the deli into a liquor store. Today, he goes to Lucca’s on Valencia.
Most of Nuno’s time away from the Mission was spent in the service. In 1962, he was drafted and served two years, just before the Vietnam War; during that time, he married and began his family. Later he volunteered at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, serving as president of the parents’ committee.
My mother, who’s in her late 40s, recalls being chaperoned by Nuno on field trips from kindergarten to second grade. “I always wanted to be in his groups,” she says. “He was the coolest parent and all my classmates loved him.”
Unlike many Mission old timers, Nuno has a comparatively sanguine view of the area’s transformation. “Not all of the change has been for the bad,” he asserts, adding that 24th Street “has really cleaned up.”
Younger people born-and-bred in the Mission are upset because they’re priced out of the housing market where they grew up, he notes. “In our cultures, the Latino and European cultures such as Irish and Italian, we are all accustomed to living near family.”
He said that his children, like me, cannot afford the rent in the city. As a result, a lot of adult children are living with their parents well into their thirties.
When I was a kid, I would see grown men still living in their parents’ or grandparents’ garage or cellar. “That’ll never be me,” I used to think. Evidently I am not a good prophet. Not only has this been my living situation but I don’t see many alternatives in the near future. As a photographer, I have plenty of demand for my work but it’s not well paid.
Nuno, for his part, takes a longer view of gentrification in the Mission. In his time, he’s seen the population shift from mostly Irish and Italian to Mexican and then Central American. Nuno’s father was of Mexican descent. The difference this time is the amount of money involved.
“This has always been a blue-collar neighborhood,” he said. Mission residents worked at local food producers like Best Foods on Bryant. “The problem that I see now is that the young people moving in are very well paid. There are a lot less jobs in the city that are blue-collar because the ‘techie’ jobs outnumber them disproportionately.
“We have a lot of the younger people saying, ‘Hey, you’re destroying my neighborhood,’ but really it’s just a new group of people coming in. This has always happened in San Francisco, especially the Mission, but we see a lot of excitement around it today because, whereas before it wasn’t so much about money, today it’s all about it.”
For those of us who are young, Nuno advises being politically active. “The biggest changes come from a single voice,” he says. “It is our civil duty especially to raise your voice on matters that need attention. Otherwise, no one says anything and nothing changes.”
Nuno said the gang activity and violence prevalent in the early 80’s until the mid 90’s was ultimately quashed by members of the community standing up and demanding change. “It’s not squealing or snitching,” he says. “As a resident you can file reports anonymously and that’s what we need. The residents are the ones who changed the Mission. We demanded more police and eventually they heard us.”
For me, it was a welcome perspective. If the culture of the neighborhood I was born and raised in ever disappeared, I would be devastated. It’s hard to say how many Hispanic homeowners there are in the Mission District but there are four on my block alone and two rent out their property. My own family includes a few homeowners with multiple properties in San Francisco and none are interested in selling.
My grandmother, for instance, owns two homes and a restaurant and constantly receives offers from developers. My mother translates each letter but her answer is always, “Muchas gracias pero no.” (Thank you very much, but no.)
Nuno, whose home is easily worth over a million dollars, also says he’s not interested in selling. Nor does he think the Mission will ever be completely gentrified. “I see the Mission being the same Mission twenty years from now,” he says.
“Our culture is simply too rich” to vanish, he adds. “Of course, change is inevitable. But the Mission will always be ‘La Mission.’”