Neighbor Peter Orner is a “bold-faced name” in the literary world and an esteemed Citizen of Bernalwood. From his home in North Bernal, he has been an eyewitness to the increasing glamification of Precita Park — a process that has included a recent home sale that displaced two renters (he calls them Josie and Steve) who have been mainstays of the neighborhood.
Neighbor Peter considers all this in a thoughtful piece published in the Opinionator section of yesterday’s New York Times:
Our neighborhood, at the base of Bernal Hill, has been changing for years, becoming more and more upscale. Lately, the realtors have begun calling it “Desirable Precita Park.” We now have all the necessary amenities: a comically overpriced organic convenience store and wine emporium, a new coffee shop with toddler play area, and yes, our very own pop-up restaurant. The playground at the east end of the park, which doesn’t need to be renovated, is being renovated. Celestially fit women march down our sidewalks with yoga mats slung over their shoulders like muskets.
It wasn’t always like this. Precita Park used to be a lot funkier, in a militant hippie sort of way. In 1975, Patty Hearst’s kidnappers were caught a few doors down from my apartment. A longtime resident once told me that the F.B.I. agents staking out the place wore long hair and beads and sat in their car smoking dope, and still everybody on the block knew they were cops.
Precita Park is getting nicer. But Joise and Steve are gone. Peter wonders if the tradeoff is worth it:
In Precita Park, the loss of this one family may not be calculable in dollars. But I fear that the more affluent this area becomes, neighbors — people who look out for each other — will become fewer and farther between. Lately in San Francisco, we seem to be comfortable tackling every progressive cause except for the question of where middle-class people like Josie and Steve, and so many others, are supposed to live.
These are difficult questions, and Peter’s essay generated some thoughtful commentary in the NYTimes.com discussion thread.
For example, Neighbor Robert posted this:
I also live in Bernal Heights. I am an owner. I find that the people who are most involved on my street are the owners, and the people who are least involved are the renters. I realize that there are renters who care about their neighborhood, but I do take issue with Mr. Orner’s characterization of owners. New owners in my neighborhood, including me, formed a neighborhood association and worked with the city on street beautification and traffic calming. We care about our neighborhood.
Neighbor TeeVee writes:
I know how the author feels. It’s not easy to see good neighbors and friends leave the neighborhood. And San Francisco, for all its charms, is a place where you’re constantly reminded of how much money you do NOT have.
But as a resident of Bernal, I really think he needs to get out more and meet more people who own houses in the area. Many of them, like me, aren’t rich. In fact they pretty much sacrificed all disposable income to buy in the neighborhood. I take on as much freelance work as I can scare up in addition to my regular job to pay my mortgage. As a result, I don’t have a lot of time to hang out in Precita Park reading E.M. Forster and stereotyping people. For a writer, he makes a lot of unfair assumptions about owners, lumping them all together when there is vast income disparity in Bernal among homeowners. […]
Having grown up in a dying automotive town in Michigan, I guess I take a different view of Bernal. Having seen what happens when the housing market collapses completely, I know there are much worse things than a few yuppies moving into a neighborhood.
And this from KJ, who now lives in Portland:
I grew up in Bernal Heights. Born at St. Luke’s Hospital — blocks from Precita Park. I swam at Garfield Pool on Army (now Caesar Chavez) for 10cents in the ’60s. My generation was gentrified out of SF in the 1980s…so I find it hard to feel sorry for the displacement of today’s generation of gentrifiers. Very few of my generation can afford to live in our native city.
Finally, Neighbor Catherine adds:
I love the dream that a place could be your home because you feel deeply connected to it, whether you own it or not. We experimented with exactly this – living in a house in Bernal Heights that we did not own, but were meant to own. But it didn’t end up being ours in the end, because it’s not ours. We knew deep down that no serendipitious moment would change this in reality, but it seemed wise to give it a shot and trust the fates; we enjoyed our time there immensely. In the big picture, there are many factors that go into what makes you happy in the place you reside, and there is also a very random nature to the place you land in a competitive market like San Francisco.
Whether an owner or a renter, folks who moved in or bought in to a neighborhood in 1971, or 1989, or 2009, or yesterday all have the same right to contribute to their neighborhood and be embraced by their community. I see people feeling great ownership and entitlement over neighborhoods because of their longevity, but that isn’t more legitimate than your new neighbor next door, and isn’t categorically what’s right or best.
The message in my mind is to focus on what it means to be a neighbor and part of a community, however you landed there, and for however long you stay. Our city will continue to change – that’s the nature of urban life, and that dynamism is part of what we love about it. You can’t have one without the other.
This is an extremely complicated issue that defies simple solutions, and when you scratch the surface even the most absurd Bernal real estate stories often become more nuanced than they might seem at first glance.
So by all means please do read Peter’s NYT piece, and let’s carry on the discussion about the impact of change on Bernal Heights right here.
PHOTOS: Top, by the Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen. Precita Park by Telstar Logistics.