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Community bids farewell to iconic Mural

Community bids farewell to iconic Mural

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Community members gathered on Sep. 7 at the corner of York and 24th Streets to say their goodbyes to “Nosotros con César y Dolores,” an iconic mural whose name and characters have evolved on this corner since it was first painted by Ray Patlán and Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez in 1985. 

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The laundromat where the mural was painted will soon be demolished and will be replaced with a market-rate apartment complex.

Contractors arrived at the site of the mural early in the morning of Saturday, Sep. 12, and began cutting out the pieces of stucco from the building wall to salvage the mural one section at a time. 

Some of the people walking by the site that day were not aware of the fate of the building, and were shocked as they walked by the mural, watching workers take out Frida Kahlo, then Pancho Villa, Nelson Mandela and many others out of the wall. 

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But for its creators, Patlán and Kookie, who have made peace with letting go, it’s all about the journey it took them on and all the lives it touched. 

In 1985, Raymond Patlan had an idea for a mural. But, as he told El Tecolote, “I had a hard time getting a wall.” Patlán was already an established artist in Chicago—where he was born and raised—when he moved to the Bay Area in the mid 70s to live and teach in Berkeley. 

It’s hard to picture it now, but in those days, Patlán was an outsider to the Mission, struggling to get his foot through the door of the local art scene. “The Mission was not exactly overtly inviting to a new artist,” he remembers. 

In 1984, Patlán spearheaded the PLACA Project, installing murals in Balmy Alley depicting the struggles in Central America caused by U.S. imperialist intervention. Kookie, who by then knew Patlán from collaborating in other murals, was one of the artists involved in that project. He remembers that Patlán’s work on Balmy Alley “had a lot to do with Ray being accepted in the community, he paid his dues.” 

Patlán’s idea was to feature people from the neighborhood. “I figured all the other murals already had super heroes from the old days in Mexico,” he remembered. “So I thought, what about our current heroes here? People who make a difference in our daily lives.”

Eventually, Galería de la Raza stepped up to help Patlán get a wall for his mural. 

He got the wall on the southwest corner of York and 24th Streets, which was then a pharmacy. Patlán took photographs of the neighborhood people he wanted to include in his new mural and used a projector to trace the portraits on to the wall, a technique now widely used in large scale murals. Their resulting mural had the feel of a family photo album. 

“You know how you would spread a deck of cards out? That’s how I put the photos up on the wall,” said Patlán. He meant for the mural to be an “ever changing wall, so that when something new happened in the neighborhood, we’d have another photo go up.”

They depicted their neighbors, people who worked at nearby restaurants and other local figures. One of them was Robert Sanchez III —known by many as Bob Sanchez— co-owner of Casa Sanchez and co-founder of the 24th Street Merchants and Neighbors Association which later became the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. 

As the years went by, the mural started to fade and get vandalized as the nearby area was impacted by drugs and violence. 

By 1995, Kookie, who grew up in the Mission, had become a probation officer and was doing outreach with gang members and at-risk youth through the Real Alternatives Program (RAP). 

He had an idea to involve the youth in the creation of a mural to give them “something else from being on the streets.” 

Seeing that their now 10-year-old mural was starting to fade, Kookie asked Patlán for permission to re-do the York Street mural with help from the youth he worked with. Kookie’s plan was to keep the photo album feel, but to change the people in the photos.

Patlán gave his blessing and Kookie “got ahold of some of the knuckleheads.”

One of them was muralist Suaro Cervantes, who was 14 at the time. 

“I got caught up as a youth in the system and Kookie was my PO,” said Cervantes, who ended up in the crew to redo the mural as part of his community service. 

It wasn’t his first time doing art, he had been part of the Urban Youth Arts Program, run by Precita Eyes, a local arts organization that Cervantes’ mother, Susan, founded and directs. But, aside from working with aerosol, “I hadn’t worked with brush as much.”

When El Tecolote spoke to Cervantes—now an established artist—he was tackling a large-scale restoration at the children’s Mini Park, just kitty-corner from the York Street mural he worked on in his youth. 

In the mid 90s, Roberto Ariel Vargas had just graduated from Mission High School and was working as a teacher’s assistant there when Kookie visited one of his classes. Though still young, Vargas had been putting paint on walls since 1977. He was six years old when he participated with his sister in a summer program painting murals in Balmy Alley—years before Patlán left his mark there with the second wave of murals of the PLACA project in ‘84.

Vargas’ own father, Roberto Vargas —who helped found the Mission Cultural Center and the NorCal Brown Berets—had been one of the people depicted in the first 1985 version of the mural. So when Kookie invited Vargas to join him on a project, he was “happy to get the invitation to help paint.” But he soon came to the realization that he would be part of the crew painting over his father’s portrait. 

The experience was bittersweet, but it gave him the opportunity to paint other people from the neighborhood. “I also hung out a lot on 24th and York in my teen years,” he remembers. “So it was really meaningful to be able to help paint a mural right there, I was able to contribute to my home.”

Today, Vargas and his wife, Xabela Sanchez, are both danzantes with the group Danza Xitlalli. On Sep. 7, as the community gathered to say their goodbyes to the mural, members of Danza Xitlalli, including Vargas, performed a blessing, with Sanchez leading that day’s danzada. 

Just five days later, Vargas returned to the site. There, Kookie was overseeing workers as they extracted sections of the mural from the wall of the building that will soon be demolished. 

“If I could be honest, I cried on that day,” said Vargas. “It made me think of all the families who are reflected in that mural, who don’t live here anymore, or the people that are no longer alive.” 

By the time Kookie came in to redo the mural in 1995, the building had been purchased and converted to a laundromat by the family of John Muhawieh.

Muhawieh’s family is from Palestine, but he was “born and raised in the Mission, and still here.” Muhawieh remembers growing up on a rented flat on 23rd Street and helping his dad at their grocery store.

He started running the family’s new laundry business in 1992. For a few years, business was good, that was until many of the laundromat’s customers were displaced by gentrification. “I could see the decline in revenue with people moving out,” remembers Muhawieh. 

He told El Tecolote that by 2010, “I knew there was no future…the laundry business is not what it used to be,” and eventually decided to turn it into apartments.

In 2014 the San Francisco Planning Department issued a Preliminary Project Assessment (PPA) of Muhawieh’s development proposal for a 55-foot tall, five-story market-rate apartment complex, which would have towered over Brava Theater next door. 

“When we found out, we fought them,” remembers Kookie, who has known Muhawieh for decades. “We went to the planning commission and we held them off for about three years.”

Even though the development wasn’t evicting anyone, the project nonetheless would have had a “gentrifying effect,” said Eric Argüello, President of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. “We wanted to protect the mural and what it meant to us,” he added.

Generally, murals that are funded by the city may qualify for a historical site designation, which protects the structure a mural is painted on from demolition. 

“Even though [the mural] was funded twice by the city…it fell through the cracks, they had nothing that said it was a historical mural funded by the city,” said Kookie. “For whatever reason the planning commission said, ‘Oh, sorry, we don’t have any record of that.’” 

“That was the loophole that the owners’ lawyers were able to pounce on,” he added. Eventually the planning commission granted Muhawieh permits to demolish the building.

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As required by the Planning Department, Muhawieh held community meetings in 2015 to share his plans with neighbors, many of whom vocally opposed the development. “We had some pretty hostile meetings,” remembers Argüello. 

However, after a shadow study found that the proposed project would have blocked the sun on nearby Mini Park, Muhawieh had to scale his plans down from five to three stories. He now plans to have two commercial spaces on the floor level, and four residential units above, with two bedrooms each, which he expects could happen in a little over a year. 

When El Tecolote inquired about how much the rent would cost for the residential units, Muhawieh said “I have no idea… it’s not even in my radar, to be honest with you.” When pressed, he said that when the building is ready for tenants, he will look at what the market rate is, and charge that.

A guide on rent limits published in 2019 by the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development calculated a Fair Market Rent cost for a two-bedroom apartment at $3,170 per month. 

“I’ve already reconciled many years ago that I’ll never be able to afford to be with my community again,” said Vargas, the danzante who worked on the mural in the 90s, who now lives in South San Francisco. “I’ve already mourned the gentrification of my barrio.”

Accepting that the demolition of the building could not be stopped, Kookie then shifted his focus to finding a way to save the mural. He believes the community meetings “eased tempers and we got [Muhawieh] to agree to let us cut out the pieces.” Though the extraction of the mural sections was a complex process, Muhawieh said it “meant a lot to the community.”

“My philosophy of murals all the way from my time in Chicago has always been that they speak to change, they’re about change,” said Patlán. “If you’re going to paint about change, you should be willing to accept it.”

Kookie set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to extract the mural sections and surpassed his goal of $3,000 within just a few days. 

Muhawieh has also pledged that when construction of his new building is completed, he will let Kookie paint a mural on the York Street facing wall. “I’m taking one [mural] down,” said Muhawieh. “Let’s give them back something.” In the end Kookie feels that his friend “redeemed himself.” 

(From left) Jacob Muhawieh, John Muhawieh, Carlos ‘Kookie’ Gonzalez and Jabra Muhaiweh. Courtesy: John Muhawieh

While Kookie is still deciding the specifics of what the new mural will be, he wants to continue the original theme that Patlán thought of 35 years ago, continuing with a photo album feel “in honor of my brother Ray, my sensei, my mentor.” He will include contemporary community members, but plans to repeat the images of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as centerpieces. 

The sections of the mural that were extracted on Sep. 12 have been gifted to different community organizations, businesses and individuals. The portrait of Frida Kahlo will go to Brava Theater. Cesar Chavez was gifted to Tío Chilos Restaurant. The portrait of the late Fred Urizar and his dog Mac will go to Fred’s daughter. 

Mission Housing Development Corporation told El Tecolote they are interested in three of the panels: the photo of the Martinez wedding, the portrait of Pancho Villa, and the image of the Mariachi trio, which at center features Kookie’s own father, Carlos Gonzalez, and his group, Trío Veracruz, who played around the Bay Area from the 50s through the early 70s. 

Mission Housing hopes to display them at La Fénix, their new all-affordable housing complex with 157 units located at 1950 Mission Street, and set to open for residents later this fall. 

Julio Lara, Senior Communications Manager for Mission Housing, told El Tecolote that they would be “honored to have a home for those pieces in that space.” While both Kookie and Mission Housing are excited about this possibility, as of press time, the deal is still pending. 

La Fénix was built on the former site of Marshall Annex elementary, where Kookie was a student. Later on it became Phoenix Continuation High School, an old location of the RAP program when Kookie used to be an employee there. 

“That’s part of my childhood, my youth, my young adult life,” said Kookie. He painted murals there with Raul Martinez (one of the sons of the Martinez family pictured in the wedding portrait section of the mural) when it was the location for RAP. “It’s kind of going full circle,” said Kookie. 

“We named it La Fénix (the Phoenix) because it’s supposed to symbolize a second chance, a second life,” said Lara. “Having this mural come to life again over at La Fénix…it’s symbolic of that.” 

Vargas was glad Kookie found a way to salvage the mural pieces. 

“To me, that’s something to celebrate…I celebrate our ability everyday to go back and contribute to preserving the culture,” said Vargas. “We do what we can every single day to keep the barrio thriving…that gives me hope.” 

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