Navarro’s Martial Arts Academy has been operating in the Mission for more than 40 years. Pictures of founder Carlos Navarro standing among past generations of young fighters cover the walls. And trophies dating back as far as the 60’s loom over young, mostly Latino, students as they strike punching bags with controlled shrieks of aggression.
“This is what they’re taking away from the Mission,” said Rubie Navarro, Carlos Navarro’s daughter, who runs the studio with her father. “The community is really going to lose a precious diamond.”
In May, Navarro’s rent tripled. Despite the legacy the martial arts studio has built over past four decades, the Navarro’s fear they must shutter, being unable to afford the $6,500 per month their landlord is now demanding. “Some renters have protections,” Rubie said. “But there’s no protection for San Francisco businesses.”
But that could change. Supervisor David Campos, along with nonprofit San Francisco Heritage, has launched an effort to preserve long-time San Francisco business considered essential to San Francisco’s soul. “If the city can help Twitter, why can’t we help businesses that are critical to San Francisco’s character?” Sup. Campos said.
It all sounds easy, but can become more complicated in practice. “How do you legislatiate what community means?” asked Nancy Chárraga, self-described cultural preservationist and owner of fair trade import store Casa Bonampak. “Who has a right to define that? Everyone who works in my store lives and works in the Mission.”
Chárraga said the legacy business program reminds her of problems that arose when SF Heritage and merchants association Calle 24 SF established the Latino cultural corridor–namely, that “culture” and “community” are hard to define.
Casa Bonampak, like Lost Weekend Video on Valencia Street and Morena’s Fashion on 24th Street, isn’t yet 30 years old. And the store is not eligible for an exemption, which requires a business to have been open for 20 years and be in serious risk of displacement. Chárraga argues the threshold should be lowered to ten or fifteen years. “If you survived those years, you survived both waves of gentrification,” she said.
But even though Chárraga feels left out of the plan, she said she won’t be bothered. “This is what immigrants feel: a lot of businesses that fled Central American wars don’t count on anyone to bail them out,” she said. “We’re surviving on our own, and we just have to count our ourselves.”
The legacy project is being rolled out in two phases. The first phase, which was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in March, created a legacy business registry. A business can join the registry if it has been open for more than 30 years and can prove that it has contributed significantly to San Francisco’s identity. If a business is 20 years or more and is in significant risk of displacement, the business too is eligible for grants.
The second phase – Proposition J – will be voted on in November and in Campos’s words, “add heat” to the registry by creating a $3 million fund for registered businesses and property owners. Legacy businesses would be eligible for an annual $500 per full-time employee. Property owners leasing space to a legacy business would receive $4.50 per square foot if they extended a business tenant’s lease to ten years.
Campos says the Mission District has the most legacy businesses with Chinatown and North Beach close behind. On 24th Street alone, there are 21 businesses that have been open for more than 30 years, according Erick Arguello of Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, an organization that works to preserve the 24th Street in the Mission.
But nine of those businesses own their own buildings so they would only be eligible for the $500 grant per employee. Arguello noted that because these businesses are less at risk of being displaced, the process will “work differently” with them. He said those details have yet to be ironed out.
Louie Gutierrez, part owner of the La Reyna Bakery & Coffee Shop, which has been on 24th Street since 1977, said that even though the family owns the building, his bakery could use the help. But, he said, he and some Mission business owners fear that the application process could be too complicated. “If we have to jump through too many hoops, we might shy away from it,” he said.
Indeed, for a business to join the registry, it must receive a nomination from a supervisor or the Mayor, must prove to the Small Business Commission—which seeks analysis from the Historic Preservation Commission—that it has contributed to the city’s history and identity. And in order to receive grants, a businesses must file an annual application with city. “It would be sort of like going to jury duty,” Gutierrez said.
But Gutierrez ultimately appreciates the intention of the program, as do some owners of relatively new small businesses that might not even qualify for the grants. “I’d be bummed out if this [24th Street] became Valencia Street,” said Scot Thompson, owner of Mission Skateboard, which has been in the Mission for about seven years.
Yet some businesses feel that they are contributing to the neighborhood’s identity and are struggling like everyone else. Lost Weekend Video has been on Valencia Street for 18 years. “We’re a hard scrabble, nickel and dime kind of shop,” said Adam Pfahler, Lost Weekend’s owner. “I wouldn’t throw us under the hipster bus. We’re part of the community.”
But the video store is just shy of the 20 year mark, which means the legacy program would leave Pfahler and his business by the wayside, even though Lost Weekend is struggling. “We would be interested in applying in two years if we’re still around,” he said. “Maybe if we get a special exemption, it would put us through the next year.”
Morena’s Fashion has been on 24th Street for eleven years. It’s owner, Luz Morena Martinez, feels that she’s contributed enough to the neighborhood’s character and community to receive assistance. “Congratulations to them that they’ve been here for 30 years, but it’s not fair,” she said. “We all try to survive.”
Martinez said that a little money from the city would go a long way for her business. She said she would use the grants to buy new clothes for her store. “If I put different clothes up, business would be much better,” she said.
“It’s [the legacy program] is good for the older businesses, but it would be nice if it included all of us,” said Denise Gonzales, owner of Luz de Luna, a Latino gift shop, which has been on 24th Street for three years. “We’re all fighting,” she said.
For her part, Rubie Navarro doesn’t know how long she and her father can keep up their own fight for their martial arts studio. “We always tell our students, ‘whatever they throw at you, fight back twice as hard,’” she said.