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Calle 24 - The official Latino Cultural District of San Francisco

Sara Brooke Curtis

Every place has a history hidden that lives beneath what you can see on the surface. Just take the Mission District. The Bart Station at 24th street and Mission is called Plaza Sandino by some -- because in the 1980’s Pro-Sandanista protesters would rally there. Right down the street, Potrero del Sol Park is better known to those who grew up here asLa Raza park -- back in the 70’s it was a major gathering spot for low rider cars. This neighborhood has also been called the birthplace of Latin Rock.

“Carlos Santana, was raised here in the neighborhood,” says long time resident Erick Arguello. “Start out with Carlos and all of these other rock bands started to pop up,” Arguello explains as he points to different buildings in his neighborhood.

“La Victoria, Dominguez Bakery, they’ve been here since like the 50’s.” Arguello says. “And this one’s still thriving, this one’s going through some changes now.”

Arguello is the president of the Lower 24th Street Merchants Association, or Calle 24 Merchant & Neighborhood Association. Today he is showing me some of the places that he remembers from his childhood and from living here for the past 50 years.

Places like the Mexican restaurant Casa Sanchez, “the mom died and now the daughter is taking over the business. That’s what makes this area so unique it’s these anchor businesses that have been here for so long and now they are being passed on,” Arguello says.

Arguello’s is on a mission to preserve his neighborhood. He started by organizing a Merchant & Neighborhood Association -- a group of residents, nonprofits, business owners, young people and artists who came together more than 15 years ago to raise money for local improvements.

“We had the sidewalks and road improved, had some lights installed on 24th street,” he says. “With those improvements, investors from outside the area began taking notice. That is when Arugello says things started changing, fast.  

In recent months, residents and local activists have been rallying to draw attention to the increased rents and evictions in the Mission. Partly in response to those changes, city supervisors are implementing some first steps to preserve the cultural identity of the district. They unanimously voted to declare 24th street and the area surrounding it a Latino Cultural District.  

Inside the historic Brava Theater on 24th and York Street, Supervisor David Campos is addressing an audience of about 40 people, here to hash out just what the neighborhoods new Latino Cultural District status means.

Campos championed the move to make the Mission a cultural district because he says the neighborhood’s identity is slipping away. “Something is happening, we are losing our cultural heritage, identity,” he says. “Doesn’t seem like the city is doing anything to address it so we need to do something.”

Campos hopes recognition of the Latino Cultural District will lead to more dialogue about how to preserve institutions that have a long history here.

“The bottom line is that this is not my process, it’s our process,” Campos tells the crowd of community organizers and concerned citizens in the audience at the Brava Theater. “I think it’s great that you are here,” Campos says, “but it’s clear that not everyone is here.”

One of those who is here today, is Dr. Jose Cuellar, a professor emeritus of Latino studies at San Francisco State University. Cueller stands near the front of the stage with a small ceramic flute called an Ocarina in his hand.  

“For our ancestors, for our creator, we thank you for this support and this help,” he says and begins to play the flute.

The organizers invited hundreds of people to this meeting, but as Campos points out, most of the seats in the theater are empty. The people that have shown up are full of ideas -- and concerns.

People ask how to preserve the Mission District for low-income families, how to combat rapidly rising rents and real estate, and how to deal with long waiting lists for elementary schools. Others bring up the lack of resources for undocumented workers in the neighborhood and the changing landscape as more high-end restaurants move in, the list goes on and on.

Many of the people in the Brava Theater audience today either live in the Mission or used to, and have since moved out. Even if they don’t live here anymore, the organizers of this event say their input is still important.

The crowds comments get written down on a large piece of paper in the front of the theater by one of the facilitators -- the hope is that by the end of December these conversations will add up to a list of priorities and a plan for how to make them happen.  

Organizers hope to be able to present initiatives to the city to preserve the places that define the heart of the Mission. It’s similar to what other distinctive San Francisco neighborhoods have done – places like Chinatown, North Beach and Japantown.  

Japantown, for example, created a heritage sub-committee, recognizing properties that had historical value and then providing property owners information about the importance of preserving certain architecture.  It’s worked out well for these other neighborhoods, but not everyone at the Brava theater thinks these meetings are going to amount to much.

“This change happened 15 years ago, so everything we are talking about today isn’t relevant,” says Derick Raskin. Raskin was born and raised in the Mission, and he says what made this neighborhood unique has already disappeared. “This is who I am, my identity is my neighborhood and it’s gone,” he says.

Raskin says that these talks about how to save certain buildings and preserve the culture of the Mission are too little too late.

But Raskin does have some ideas about how to try and preserve what is left, “we need to tax these new businesses. We need to have a progressive tax so if they want to come in and invade they need to be taxed.”

Input like this is exactly why the city supervisors are calling these meetings, to gather ideas that could eventually be presented to the city.

Another audience member reminds the crowd of a recent success story, “there was a victory a couple of months ago where a land trust was able to buy back the building in order to prevent it from being sold. Can we use the land trust to take back buildings and work to take properties away from speculators?”

“Land trusts to buy back buildings” gets scribbled down on the paper at the front of the theater.  More meetings like this one will take place throughout the Mission until December, then a list of criteria and priorities will be presented to city planning commission and the mayor’s office.

The next step for the Calle 24 Neighborhood Association is to have the city designate the Latino Cultural District a “Special Use District.” That would allow the neighborhood to include clear guidelines for developers and investors based on what the community prioritized -- all with the hope of keeping what they call  “The heart of the Mission,” beating strong.   

Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.