Mission Impossible: The Social War in San Francisco's Mission District

The cry of “Eureka” rang loudly across the world.

While working on a sawmill, James W. Marshall discovered a gold nugget in the American River. What followed next was legendary, as people across the world risked their livelihoods and safety to voyage to San Francisco. During the peak influx of the “49ers”, the population of San Francisco grew from one thousand in 1848 to twenty-thousand in 1850 (Weiser, California Gold Rush) While the majority sought to exploit on California’s natural resources, other migrants were able to take in a broader view of the situation as a whole, and focused on creating merchandise for the miners. One of these men was Levi Strauss, an immigrant from Bavaria, used the sails of abandoned ships in the bay to make the most popular garment ever sold, jeans.

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The symbology that a pair of jeans evokes in America is the ideal perception of going westward: That at the end of your journey, you will find the freedom to innovate. Today, San Francisco still remains the womb of a changing America. In our long history, we have been apart of events that have transformed social conventions. Each aspect of our history is cataloged in the many distinct neighborhoods that make up the city. However, as often as we see new businesses expanding throughout the slopes of streets, we hardly seem to remind ourselves about what used to be here.

In fact, it is hard to imagine any Bay Area without development. The Mission District, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city (San Francisco Chronicle, “A Changing Mission”) continually reminds us that San Francisco is a city that was built over, not just created. In the likes of the Gold Rush, the Mission District has a history of harboring a wide variety of cultures, unevenly distributed and often displaced. When it comes to defining a neighborhood, one must consider what it means to be a part of a community. With the wave of technology enterprises happening next door in Silicon Valley, the Mission provides an ideal space for hopefuls. Sound familiar? However, these affluent, new citizens of San Francisco are causing rents to drive upwards, and the Latin-American community are at risk of being evicted.

New inhabitants of the Mission District are not contributing to the welfare of the community by working for companies that buy up houses at high prices, commuting elsewhere for their jobs, and purchasing from modern businesses instead of local. The Mission District is often called the “heart of San Francisco.” Since its inception, it has acted as a home to many foreign immigrants, including the Irish, German, and Scandinavians. When the rich preferred to live in large mansions on sunny hills close to the sea, the Mission was built for accessibility for the working class, with flat streets intertwined with available transportation. To this day, the Victorian homes that were built have been divided into flats, that often over-inhabited by extended families. During this time period of the early 20th century, the Panama Canal acted as the gateway towards an increase in Central American migration to the city.

Latin-American laborers worked at a number of industrial jobs besides the waterfront. Women often took jobs at cigarette companies, or making garments for low wages at Levi’s. The freedom to innovate is free, yet to see innovation put into work comes at a cost (San Francisco Chronicle, “A Changing Mission). To understand why the evictions are so evident in the Mission, we must first understand the wage inequality that is rapidly dividing San Francisco. In a recent study taken in March, San Francisco was ranked the second-highest city for income inequality, behind Atlanta.

The Bookings Institute expects that the income gap between the poor and the rich will only grow faster, with 7.3 people out of every 1,000 worth more than $30 million dollars. Although we like to imagine that San Francisco is more progressive with the middle class, the economic environment that it has developed for itself has contradicted any of its efforts. In San Francisco, the minimum wage has gone up to $15. However, to receive federal food stamps and state benefits, a family must earn less than 75% of the federal poverty level. In San Francisco, in order to be self-sufficient, one must earn four times than what is considered poverty-level, so living on the bare minimum will not help you receive those benefits.

In this day’s tech boom, the majority of business executives are much younger. While those who succeeded during the dot-com movement wanted to buy expensive mansions in Pacific Heights, it is now more fashionable to live in grittier parts of the city, where young workers can participate in local events and take public transportation. In the Mission, companies are buying houses for over a million dollars. A symbol of the divide between the residents of the Mission District are the private buses headed by the Silicon Valley companies. Early in the morning, double-deckered buses with tinted windows come and pick up hoards of its workers.

Many residents resent these buses, and have even prevented them from leaving their stop. They have argued that the use of the public bus stops for private buses for free have caused congestion and delays, as each company uses the same stops and different buses. The city of San Francisco has recently put a $1 tax on buses who want to use the public bus stops, which should generate a large income over time. However, with the majority of housing belonging to tech workers, business is slow for the full-time residents of the area (Problet, Gentrification). When the workers return home from Silicon Valley, they do not venture out to buy from the long-term businesses in the area. The Mission has been famous for its hole-in-the-wall venues that sell quirky aspects of Latino culture.

Many new restaurants with new ethic varieties have been moving into the area, with violent reprocussion following. With rumors about one new restaurant manager who refused to serve a Latina woman, his restaurant was attacked eight different times within two months (Golightly, The Global Grid). The Mission District is called the “heart of the city” for both good and bad. The heart is not a rational part of the body. The Mission, despite its changes and struggles through history, keeping beating and moving forward.

While nobody should be denied to live in the cultural hotspot, all residents should act as members of the community, despite wage differences. Although the cry of “Eureka” is now written in code, the most important innovation that this city needs is that of communication between neighbors.