For long-time residents and recent transplants to San Francisco’s Mission District, the experience of strolling along the neighborhood’s “vibrant corridors” may be as different as night and day.
On 24th Street, the heart of the Mission, worlds collide as iPads and smartphones replace cash registers, and the grittiness of Mission Street fades into distant memory in the wake of a civil gang injunctions and increased financial investments by the City.
“Before, at night, it used to be ugly,” said Alfonso Felix, an employee at Casa Lucas supermarket at the corner of 24th and Alabama streets. “Now things are changing. It’s a lot more tranquilo around here.”
Numerous coffee shops have popped up along the 12-block corridor—a covert symbol of the street’s steady transformation from a working-class, largely immigrant neighborhood to a safer, more upscale tourist destination.
While attempts at beautification and infrastructural improvements—new parking meters, new ramps on sidewalks for the disabled, the planned remodeling of the 24th Street BART Plaza at Mission Street, and the pruning of trees—are evidence of the City’s investment in the neighborhood, a demographic exodus tells the tale of a community in the midst of reshaping its identity.
“Before, there were few Americans here, but that started changing four or five years ago,” said Elisa Berea, who works at Taqueria Vallarta. “Now, tourists come for the murals. Listed in their guidebooks is the name of this taqueria.”
As an influx of new businesses draws a more affluent clientele to the area, many Latino residents and business owners are out-priced and forced to relocate to more affordable neighborhoods, such as the Excelsior and areas in the East Bay.
“Gentrification is displacing Latino families and Latino businesses,” said Dairo Romero, community development manager at the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA). “Only people who have a lot of money can start a new business.”
Census data from 2010 has revealed a 22 percent decrease in the Mission’s Latino population over the last decade. Latinos once made up nearly half of the district, but that has changed as increasing rents surpass the means of many families.
This demographic shift is felt on many levels. New business owners, unable to afford a location on trendy Valencia Street, opt to set up shop on 24th Street instead.
“I get calls from local renters looking for space on 24th street—and they are asking about locations where there are current businesses,” said Erick Arguello, president of the Lower 24th Street Merchants and Neighbors Association. “That worries me.”
Arguello said he has witnessed a pattern of businesses being approached for a buyout by new enterprises, their rents marked up drastically by the property owners as soon as their leases expire—a cycle that has left even long-term renters powerless.
“The rents go up, and these guys can’t pay—the ones that can start to trickle in, and they are not your traditional mom and pop stores,” added Arguello. “Unfortunately, there is no commercial rent control at the state level. These merchants are really vulnerable to a lot of things right now.”
Both Arguello and Romero agree that small business owners have to be on top of their game in order to survive in the increasingly competitive market.
Preparing to renew their leases in a timely manner, maintaining a good relationship with their landlords, and calling on support from the community and their client-base, are some ways to be proactive about protecting their standing in the neighborhood.
With little legal protection, adapting to the change in the market is an inevitable step that many business owners are confronting in order to remain operational.
“Apart from the rents being too expensive, there are many people here that are not offering the products that Americans are looking for,” said Felix, whose uncle opened Casa Lucas nearly 30 years ago. “They are looking for organic products; that’s why here at this store we offer a lot of organic food and produce.”
The supermarket has always catered to the various taste buds of the Latino community, Felix explained, and new products are being introduced to engage the neighborhood’s newest arrivals.
“As the neighborhood is becoming more American, the products change,” he said. “It all depends on the need.”
While the change is beneficial to some, bringing in new customers and more revenue, others concerned with the neighborhood’s cultural identity lament the sense of “false happiness” created by gentrification.
“It’s a shame, because others come with a lot of money—they increase the rents for everyone,” said Alba Guerra, who opened Sun Rise Restaurant between Folsom and Shotwell streets eight years ago. “The owners of the buildings don’t care, because they know that if they raise the rents, there is always going to be someone who pays it.”
Guerra is worried about her family restaurant—she has witnessed taqueria El Tonayense a block away close, the owners were pushed out, she said. In it’s place, a Jewish deli opened.
“When we opened this restaurant, we were looking (to create) a business that gives back to the community,” said Guerra, who opens her doors free-of-charge every Thursday to local organizations as a space to host community meetings and events. “We are not a corporation or a chain. I care a lot about this issue because this is my community and my neighborhood.”