Community art addresses loss, healing after fire

Photo by Laura Waxmann

Some 1,500 pieces of yellow and red plastic are sending a clear message to the Bernal-Mission community: home is community, and community is built on the people and stories that exist within it, past and present.

Arranged to spell out the words “there is no place like…”, the pieces are attached to a fence that separates Mission Street from a now empty lot. Passersby are prompted to fill in the blank.

The lot was home to Cole Hardware before a fire last year ended with the demolition of the building that housed it at 3312 Mission St.  The business had served the local community since 1982.

“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like Mission Bernal, there’s no place like Cole Hardware,” said Eden Stein, president of the Bernal Mission Merchants about the art installation by local artist Brian Singer. “You get to choose.”

The installation is homage to legacy businesses destroyed in the fire, and an attempt to beautify the blighted lot it left behind.

“We have empty lots sitting here ever since the fire and it’s important to know that the merchants are strong and that the merchants are going through the process and coming back,” said Stein. “This is a hopeful message to the community. I’m passionate about people not being forgotten.”

Also strapped to the fence, next to the installation, is a blue banner announcing the eventual return of Playa Azul, which existed in the building adjacent to Cole Hardware and was also demolished after the fire.

Photo courtesy of Eden Stein

A photograph of three generations of Playa Azul’s proprietors decorates the banner, along with images of flowers and fish taken from the restaurant’s original signage. The groups worked diligently with the property owners of both lots to install the banner and colorful art installation.

In a collaboration with the Mission’ Galeria de la Raza, the merchants association raised money to beautify the block marked by disaster and loss.

With help from volunteers from the Galeria, the group spent all day Wednesday installing the public art project.  As they were working, Stein said that a woman driving by “slammed on her breaks, double parked and ran across the street” to hug the group, elated by the news that Playa Azul  will be returning to the corridor.

“We are a tight-knit community, and this is a really special thing for the community,” said Stein. “We want to show that merchants can survive after something like this – we have their backs.”

While El Paisa, a Central American restaurant at 3322 Mission St., also damaged in the blaze, reopened its doors earlier this month, Playa Azul’s return will likely take years – the property owners recently started the permitting process to rebuild.

“We don’t have control over when these businesses can get through city process to come back and open their doors, “ said Ani Rivera, executive director of Galeria de la Raza. “Our goal was to beautify corner that had a lot of blight and issues of security.”

“It changes how people relate to our neighborhood. It feels like a disconnect in the middle of our corridor,” she added, referring to the empty lot.


Photo courtesy of Eden Stein

Another unknown is the fate of the Graywood hotel – a residential hotel at 3308 Mission St. that was damaged in the fire, displacing some 60 of its residents.

“We are anxiously and cautiously waiting to see what will happen with Graywood. We want to make sure the tenants come back,” said Rivera. “And that those units will  be protected for that. Its message for folks to ponder on.”

Unrelated to the installation, a poster that read “RIP 33 Club” on Wednesday could be been plastered to the wall of the legendary bar that had operated below the Graywood Hotel for some six decades. Because of extensive water damage after the fire, the 3300 club is permanently displaced.

Rivera said that the poster paying homage to the bar was not the work of her group.

But by Thursday, the Mission Street-side wall and poster had been whitewashed with paint, and parts of the merchant association’s Playa Azul banner were also targeted.

It is unclear who is behind the paint job – Rivera wondered if the whitewashing may have been the work of the San Francisco Public Works Graffiti Abatement crew. Inquiries to Public Works about the abatement were not returned by press time.

“They just ruined a community art project,” said Stein about the unidentified vandal, but added that the group would not hesitate to restore the banner.

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