In Ed Lee, Mission leaders saw an immigrant ally who couldn’t quell a crisis

Mayor Ed Lee listens to a victim of a fire at 29th and Mission streets in June 2016. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

The neighborhood best known for its immigrant Latino community and culture had an ally in Mayor Ed Lee — but the alliance was strained by the fallout of Lee’s well-intentioned business and development policies.

Mission nonprofit leaders, like everyone else who came into contact with him, remembered San Francisco’s late Mayor Ed Lee as almost an anti-politician: humble, gentle, considerate.

Myrna Melgar, who heads up the Jamestown Community Center, danced with him on his birthday. Mario Paz, leading Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, got a personal phone call from him the day immigration agents knocked at the doors of an immigrant sanctuary. “Mayor of the Mission” Roberto Hernández worked with him in the ’70s and ’80s in Lee’s early days as a bureaucrat, when they planned a bilingual neighborhood earthquake safety event together.

“We worked with him on the different paths he was in,” said Calle 24 Latino Cultural Corridor President Erick Arguello. “He knew the Mission well. He knew the area well.”

Lee seemed to remember his roots and keep the immigrant cause very close to his heart.

That phone call after ICE agents came knocking at Good Samaritan, Paz said, “was just another way he demonstrated he really cares, and cares about all the residents of San Francisco, including the undocumented.”

Years prior, during a crisis of unaccompanied minors from conflict-torn Central American countries caught up in a web of immigration law, Lee didn’t hesitate to allocate funding to get those children legal representation, said Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, who leads the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN).

And when blustering immigrant-hostile rhetoric helped catapult Donald Trump to the presidency, local leaders said Lee’s response was quick and emphatic.

“He called the city to unity and affirmed that this is a city for all and a sanctuary city,” Dugan-Cuadra said. “He was going to defend hardworking immigrants who he understood contribute not only economically but to the cultural wealth of our city.”

“As an immigrant myself, I was grateful,” Melgar said.

It was under his tenure, too, that the city established the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, affirming local groups’ calls to preserve the Latino history, businesses, and residents of the area.

“I think that was one of the greatest initiatives that this community came up with that he totally got behind,” Hernández said.

Doubts

But something about him shifted when he went from bureaucrat — Lee directed the Public Works department and was City Administrator — to politician.

“A lot of people really were taken aback when he didn’t keep his word and he ran,” Hernández said. “And I think that was the beginning of people not trusting him.”

Lee ultimately ended up being trapped between launching the city out of an economic slump and stemming the tide of eager new arrivals, many of whom descended on the Mission.

“He came into being the mayor in a very difficult time in San Francisco, at at a time when the gap between the wealthy and the poor is the greatest it’s ever been.” said Dugan-Cuadra.

The target may have been mid-Market, but the “Twitter tax break” had fallout in the Mission.

“There was a ripple effect in the community,” Arguello said. “It brought thousands of people into San Francisco, which caused this housing crisis.”

In other areas, he seemed again to be caught between what activists were clamoring for and what city status quo prescribed. When five activists went on a hunger strike in front of Mission Police Station to unseat the chief of police over deadly shootings by police of men of color, something moved him to visit, but not openly. He arrived through the back door. Rebuffed, he then declined to receive them at his office when the hunger strikers staged a march there.

Lee ultimately asked for the chief’s resignation and installed a reformist newcomer, Chief Bill Scott. But that, some felt, was the extent of his concessions.

“I think, on one hand, I feel like his approach to tackling the community’s legitimate issues around police brutality, especially the after the Alex Nieto shooting … there could have been more leadership there,” Melgar said.

Housing and Homelessness

Lee’s biggest footprint in the Mission is probably his work on promoting development, affordable and otherwise.

“His development politics, I think a lot of folks in the neighborhood felt like he was very pro-development in ways that did not help the Mission and its gentrification battles,” said Melgar. “On the other hand, there was no affordable housing built in the Mission for a decade, and it started being built under Mayor Lee.”

As Sam Moss, director of the Mission Housing Development Corporation, points out, Lee oversaw an office that is building more affordable housing than some entire states — and this while the state’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies meant a billion-dollar setback in affordable housing funds statewide.

Hernández and Arguello both pointed to the Mayor’s willingness to work with the neighborhood’s activists on a set of policies called the Mission Action Plan 2020, built around the concept of averting a gentrification point of no return by 2020.

“Because he came from our sector, he was an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, he grew up in public housing, he understood these issues better than anyone else,” said Paz of Good Samaritan. That seemed to come back to Lee by his second term, he said, but “I think the city was playing catch-up at this point.”

For the ever-present tents, a symbol of that brutal housing crush driving residents to the street, Lee had a proposal also.

“From day one Mayor Lee was supportive and worked with me personally to open up a Mission Navigation Center in record time,” wrote District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “Because of that work, as of last night we were on track to open up two additional Navigation centers in the area.”

As a flagship location, the Navigation Center garnered no shortage of attention, and it was completed with impressive speed for a project that needed multiple different departments to work in synchrony.

“I was in awe, and I congratulated Ed when I went to the grand opening of the Navigation Center at 1950 mission,” Hernández said. “And I was in awe how quickly all the city departments worked to get that Navigation Center open.”

That speed, Hernández said, was not replicated for getting affordable units built. The seven sites proposed around the Mission remain in the pipeline – not move-in ready.

“Housing is going to be an ongoing issue for our city for our future mayor,” Dugan-Cuadra said.

Budget

As business thrived on Market Street and new buildings sprang up around town, Mission nonprofits were telling the Mayor stories about a homeless mother washing her family’s clothes in the bathroom sink of a community center and an exodus of Latinos from the Mission. They were asking for a more generous share of the city’s wealth, and were told that Lee was sympathetic and willing to work with them, but the budget was not his “spending playground.”  

In the end, the various groups pushing for additional funding for programs to assist Latinos who had been left out of the city’s economic boom were allotted several hundred thousand dollars, but not the seven million they had requested.

“At the end of the day, we got very minimal resources to address it,” Paz said.

But it was an ongoing conversation, and Lee stressed that he was open to keep talking about it and seeing if an answer could be found.

“People fought to be heard and they were heard. And the city has sort of done their best to respond as best they can,” Paz said.

It was an unfinished conversation that Lee will no longer be a part of.

Other recent coverage of Mayor Ed Lee:

The Legacy of Ed Lee

Mixed feelings in SF Mission’s Chinese community about Ed Lee’s legacy

Ed Lee in the Mission




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3 Comments

  1. Edward Lop

    So simply put, Ed Lee was a mayor who supported all immigrants to San Francisco; both the Latin American migrants your MEDA sponsor supports as well as the techies that MEDA seeks to eradicate.

  2. Misty Fowler

    Well written article. I feel like Ed Lee had a fatal flaw, he felt everyone was like him. Hard working, motivated , valued education and helping people. He needed to remember that most people are lazy and want everything for free. I wish these non profits were 1% of Mayor Lee. He was the mayor of the Mission and mayor to all.

  3. Michael Nolan

    A fine piece of journalism, Laura. I don’t know that any Mayor could have stemmed the gentrifying floodgates of the tech gold rush in San Francisco. There might be an argument that a more aggressive chief exec for the City could have exacted better deals for housing affordability, jobs and job training for low-income residents. His stalwart defense of the immigrants among us and Sanctuary make us all proud to be San Franciscans. I also think Edward above unfairly depicts MEDA as your “sponsor”. Mission Local does rent a small space from MEDA in their building, but you have also shown your editorial independence in covering their actions in the community. Thanks.

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