Looking back on decades-long struggles for housing, long-time Mission resident Tony Levine has been through the neighborhood’s earlier existential crises.
We’re walking and talking on a Tuesday morning because Levine is interested in a wedge of a block Mission Local chronicled for Good Morning Mission, an inexplicably residential block of 11 homes at the end of 22nd Street and surrounded by the brick-red San Francisco General Hospital and the dull (and loud) 101 highway.
Levine imagines the block’s survival was a hard-earned battle.
“There’s this thing called political know-how,” she says, laughing. “Someone here knew how to organize. They wanted to stay and they fought like hell to stay.”
We cross the freeway to Potrero Hill to get a better look at the Mission as Levine talks about the struggles of the 1960s. “Nothing could be as dramatic as that was,” she says referring to the resistance to urban redevelopment that would have leveled much of the Mission. “That would have meant the core of the neighborhood would have been completely torn down and rebuilt.”
Levine, an 80-year-old former schoolteacher who lived in the Mission for 40 years before moving to Mission Bay, is a board member of the Mission Housing Development Corporation. Being front-and-center in past housing struggles makes her sympathetic to the work being done now.
“I think that it’s right that people are trying to get a moratorium on this market rate development right now,” she says of the ballot initiative. “I don’t think that that can last forever, but I think that [for] a few years, [until] planning can be done to develop more affordable housing.”
Levine started working in the Mission in 1965, teaching English and social sciences at Horace Mann — now Buena Vista Horace Mann — before buying a house on Guerrero with her husband two years later.
“A lot of the people who are involved in the movement now to try to change the way the housing is going were my students at Horace Mann,” she says, knowing it is an activism she may have imparted.
Levine was a member of the Mission Coalition Organization back in the mid-1960s, an “organization of organizations” that included hundreds of delegates from groups that fought against a planned redevelopment of the Mission corridor by San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency.
“The people in the neighborhood did not want to be torn apart and rebuilt, as in the Western Addition,” she said. “And that had already started, so you could see what they [the city] were doing.”
Churches, unions, and neighborhood associations unified to fight the proposed redevelopment, she said, adding that “a lot of the older people” banded together to fight the so-called urban renewal. Many of those people are still around today, including Pete Gallegos, president of Mission Housing; Viola Maestas, secretary of Mission Housing; and Jim Salinas, former president of Carpenter’s Local Union 22.
And they won. A 6-5 Board of Supervisors vote in 1967 halted the redevelopment, and soon after Mayor Joseph Alioto introduced President Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities program to the Mission. The federal poverty program gave rise to organizations like the Mission Housing Development Corporation, Mission Hiring Hall, the Mission Health Clinic, the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), and others.
“The neighborhood was very happy that we won,” Levine said.
But it’s not housing that makes the Mission special, she insists. It’s the artists.
“They’re the ones who really give the neighborhood its vibrancy,” she said. “I mean what makes this neighborhood different from the Outer Mission, the Excelsior? What makes this neighborhood different is the presence of the artistic mind, and they’re all over the place, doing all sorts of things.”
Levine also looks positively on the youthfulness of the neighborhood now.
“One thing that I really like about [the Mission] now is that there’s lots of young people there, and they’re just very energetic,” she says. “That’s a huge change. It can be young Africans, young Chinese, young Latinos, young whites — whatever they are they have that energy, and it does create a very different environment.
The conversation is not all history and housing. As we walk up Vermont Street – what she calls the “poor man’s version” of Lombard Street because of the lack of fanciful flower beds — and through the remnants of McKinley Park to Potrero Hill, Levine points out different buildings in the neighborhood below.
There’s the rainbow-splashed Vida apartments and the grey US Bank building nearby.
“It’s really hideous,” she says of the bank.
“Up there is that white building, that’s apartment housing, 25th and Fair Oaks,” she says of a massive seven-story building. “And over here, the white thing is the telephone building. Those are the only ones that are quite big. Then of course you have the high school, the technical high school right there.”
Her fingers move quickly across the cityscape, pausing at noteworthy buildings. San Francisco is such a low-lying city that every US Bank, Vida, or church spire jumps out.
She points out Bethel Church on 24th, with its pyramidal roof. I point out the red-black Buddhist temple on 22nd.
“There was a bit of a kerfuffle when that came in,” she says. “People didn’t necessarily want Buddhists next door. They didn’t know what Buddhists was,” she chuckles. “Finally they learned, ‘Oh it’s not so bad, they’re not going to throw bombs or anything.’”
As we trek back down to the Mission, Levine continues her neighborhood commentary, pointing out a housing complex on 23rd and Kansas that used to be a paint factory.
“They had a terrible time cleaning up, and a lot of people still feel that there’s a lot of bad [contamination] under there,” she said.
Each house we pass is meticulously inspected. This one is Edwardian, this one Victorian. These are from the 1920s, these from earlier before the fire, with stained-glass windows intact. This one has asbestos siding, this other light-blue fish-scale shingles.
“This was where the stone salesman came along,” she says about a fake stone facade. “This is the stucco man, he came along. The stone man, the stucco man, the asbestos siding man.”
We cross the freeway and see the number 10 bus coming, which will take her back to Mission Bay.
She jumps on the bus and issues a rushed goodbye. “Let me know what happens today,” she says, referencing the Airbnb vote at the Board of Supervisors meeting.