Design by Claudia Escobar

This is one of several profiles of the people who make the Mission District what it is today. They are included in the new MyMission Zine, which you can buy here

The contemporary dance class at ODC Theater lets Essi Salonen tap into her many passions.

Under the guidance of teacher Christine Cali, Salonen and her classmates spend each session choreographing an original contemporary dance from scratch for later performance.

“Every time we step into the classroom, we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Salonen said.

She’s at home in that creative process. At university in Finland, her home country, Salonen studied how to ideally structure team-driven design projects. She examined the effects of having diverse viewpoints present, letting members claim ownership for ideas instead of attributing them to the group as a whole, and a bevy of other factors. Today, she applies that knowledge to her work in San Francisco’s tech industry.

In Salonen’s field of Service Design, the best collaborative work happens when each member shifts a group’s direction a little, and they limit their personal expectations about what the final product should look like.

“We have to embrace the whole process and where that’s going to take us,” she said. “And that’s how, in my opinion, you might discover something that you never knew existed, which is amazing.”

Salonen came to the Mission District in early 2013. It was grittier, then. “When I first moved here, seeing all the homeless people in the Mission was really shocking.” Perhaps equally unsettling, she said, was that “over time, I got used to it.”

She quickly came to appreciate the neighborhood’s dynamism and variety. “What makes the Mission interesting to me is this mixture of things. There are so-called hipster things, like Mission Chinese — and there’s Latino culture” and other markers of yesteryear, represented by some of her favorite haunts, like Taqueria Guadalajara on 24th Street or nearby dive bar The Phone Booth.

Like others whom Mission Local interviewed for the 2015 version of its MyMission Zine, Salonen remarked on the Mission District’s utility. The mundane necessities of urban living — shopping for groceries, doing laundry or just getting out of the apartment for an afternoon — can seem daunting in a city where most activities are expensive, and whose 47 named hills can make it laborious to run errands on a bike. But in the dense Mission District, plenty is within walking distance.

“I don’t have to leave the Mission. Everything’s here. I love it,” Salonen said. She buys almost all her clothes at Buffalo Exchange on Valencia Street, or the other little boutiques in the area. “They’re close by. And they make cool stuff. And I like the fact that some of the clothes in the boutiques are actually made in San Francisco. I really enjoy buying local.”

But no one can say whether the neighborhood will look the same in years to come.

This November, city voters shot down the so-called Mission Moratorium, a ballot measure intended to temporarily stall market-rate housing construction so that city officials and community members could figure out how to build more affordable housing in the Mission District, potentially staving off gentrification. If it had passed, the measure would have paused two massive, much-maligned housing projects: the “Monster in the Mission” and the “Beast on Bryant.” But now, they’ll continue.

Voters meanwhile approved a housing bond that will set aside $50 million specifically for building or repairing affordable housing in the neighborhood, as well as a fund for helping longtime businesses continue operating despite rising commercial rents.

Salonen is wistful about the prospect of losing the neighborhood she originally moved to. But years in collaborative-design settings have taught her not to hold on to her own notion of what’s best.

“I can’t cling to that,” she said. “Nothing’s forever.”

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