Merchants, activists, city officials and community members of all ages gathered at a bustling corner of the 24th and Harrison street intersection on the afternoon of May 23 to celebrate a victory in the struggle to preserve the roots of San Francisco’s Latino culture.
The outdoor press conference and ribbon cutting ceremony came in the wake of a unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors on a resolution declaring 24th Street–which is a hub for artistic expression and a Latino stronghold–as “Calle 24,” an official Latino cultural district.
A joint effort between the San Francisco Latino Historical Society, Calle 24 Merchant & Neighborhood Association, San Francisco Heritage and local leaders, advocates are hoping that this declaration will not only help to retain the living culture and history of the neighborhood, but also spur growth, entrepreneurship and well-being within the Latino community.
“Calle 24 features vibrancy that we think is unmatched in the entire city and county of San Francisco,” Supervisor David Campos said to a cheering crowd. “[This street] is the heart of the Mission, and recognizing Calle 24 as a Latino cultural district is the first step in a larger and longer process to preserve the integrity of the entire neighborhood.”
The 24th Street Corridor extends over 14 blocks, from Valencia Street to Potrero Street, and houses more than 200 small businesses and community-serving organizations. The corridor has acted as a platform for Latino activism and artistic and social movements since the 1940s.
“In the ’60s, like a lot of the city, the urban cores were abandoned and it was the flight out to the suburbs,” said Ana Cervantes, founder of the Latino Historical Society. “Ethnic communities were left to rebuild and organized to improve the quality of life here. They were able to turn the neighborhood around into something unique, something that is valued. Latinos’ contributions to the city are now being documented with (this) resolution.”
The conference was intimate as neighbors, artists, educators, advocates and city leaders rubbed elbows–some have lived or worked together in the Mission community so long that they consider each other family.
“It wasn’t too long ago that there were certain parts of this city that disregarded us here in the Mission–our elected officials and our city government paid us no mind,” said Miguel Bustos, a third-generation Mission resident and community activist. “In this little corner of San Francisco, ‘familia’ supported one another. We fixed each other’s leaky roofs–some say those are things of the past, but that’s not true. By having a cultural district dedicated to us, we are putting a line in the sand to let people know that we are here, we have always been and we always will be.”
Many of those in attendance have fought long and hard in the face of gentrification to keep cultural roots and sense of community intact while witnessing the rapid changes that have befallen the city. The resolution came as a response to a housing and affordability crisis that has thrown many of San Francisco’s ethnic communities in turmoil.
Some used the opportunity to speak out against developers who have aggressively sought to take over parts of the Mission for financial gain, displacing families, small businesses, and the working class in the process.
“As we speak, there are condos scheduled to be built at 24th and Folsom (streets)–I turn around and I see new developments–that’s going to change our culture,” said iconic artist Rene Yanez. “It’s all going to be for the cultural tourists, there’s nothing left for us. Google and Facebook (are) a distant thunder, but we are here loud and clear. They should be here too to hear how they are affecting us.”
Yanez, who has lived in the Mission for 40 years and contributed to San Francisco’s artistic splendor, in part by co-founding Galeria de la Raza, was recently evicted from his home. He is among the many who believe that the city must take more responsibility in protecting its diversity and working class.
“The Mission was likely going to become a well-loved stuffed animal with all of its innards taken out if we didn’t do something to make sure that the real culture stayed here,” said Brooke Oliver, an attorney at 50 Balmy Law firm. “The concept of a cultural district is unusual–there are historical districts, landmark districts, but one focused on preserving the arts, culture and performances is unusual–this is a landmark piece of legislation.”
San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Fund and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development have contributed funds to carry out a citywide study on Latino heritage titled “Nuestra Historia,” which will provide “a mechanism for building a historical archive” and will be used by local decision makers to “evaluate and preserve Latino heritage and resources,” said Desiree Smith, SF Heritage’s project manager.
As another important next step, Campos promised to begin “an open, transparent, public community process” in which the community will decide on its priorities in terms of preserving institutions in the neighborhood, and bringing those demands to City Hall.