As a teenager back in the 70s Hector Baca dreamt of becoming a photographer and spent his time capturing daily life in the Mission District on film. Earlier this month, more than 40 years later, he brought his photographs back to his old neighborhood and on a sunny Sunday morning turned Balmy Alley into memory lane.
The exhibition was low key. A simple sign pointed pedestrians towards the alley where Baca and his family had put up several panels. The photos had been printed out and pasted onto the panels in themed groups such as “1980 Carnaval”, “Mission District Business,” and “My Mission,” which was also the name Baca chose for the exhibition.
“I have always wanted to have a showing, in a fancy gallery of course,” Baca said. “But I realized that these photographs, coming from the Mission District, are not about wine and cheese. They are about living in a pretty gritty time period, it had to be for the public, for the people.”
Baca first started posting the pictures on Facebook several years ago. He said he has gotten a lot of positive feedback from others who grew up in the neighborhood but that seeing the changes it has been through could bring up mixed emotions.
“What pains most people is their memories. It might hurt to see that things are changing but that’s what life is.”
Baca, who now lives in 134 miles northeast in Placerville, said the biggest change he sees in his old neighborhood is the lack of children. Jason Blantz, a chance guest accompanied by his wife, Kim, and two young daughters, Vivienne and Ida, agreed.
“It is certainly interesting to see the images but mostly sad to lament the changes, that the city is no longer accessible to working class people,” Blantz said. He added that he feels lucky to be able to raise his children in the neighborhood but that it is very demographically skewed.
“There are very few old people in the city and we would like our children to get to know people of all different ages, demographics and backgrounds,” Blantz who has lived in the Mission since the 90s, continued.
Many of the other guests in Balmy Alley were in fact older but most had moved away some time ago. One of them was Gato Rivera who studied photography at City College and lived in the Mission from 1979 to 1989. Rivera happened to find himself in one of Baca’s images, dressed in white and carrying his camera equipment over his shoulder, walking away from a large crowd of people.
“Its listed as the Carnaval but if you see the way it is, its almost like a protest,” said Rivera of the photograph. “That was life in the Mission back then, there was always something, you had to activate to make changes otherwise they would roll over you.”
Rivera said rising costs have forced many of his friends from the neighborhood. Two friends with Rivera Liz Cervantes and Ayana Baltripbalagas who both moved away years ago, said that the photographs brought out nostalgia but also a bit of melancholy because the feeling the community created no longer exists.
Ayana added that she would like to see the communities find a common ground again “so we can support those that are still here, help them stay here and help keep the remnants of what was special about this neighborhood still here.”
For his part, Manuel Caballero who still lives only a few blocks from Balmy Alley, said the photographs brought him back to his childhood and that it was a great feeling.
“I do miss knowing people,” he said. “I would go up 24th street and I would know everyone, you would know all the store owners, they knew you, they would know your parents. “
This, Cabarello said, is not the case anymore so the familiar faces, both in the photographs and of those viewing them, were a very welcome reminder of the old days.
For Baca, who happily discussed the old Mission at length with the people who stopped by, that was the goal: To bring back memories to the older generation but also to try to inform new Mission dwellers about those that came before them.
“I tell people we are the storytellers,” Baca said. “Let’s tell the young people how it used to be, to give a sense. They will never really understand it but it is all we can do at this point.”