Counterpoint: A Lifetime Resident Laments the Transformation of Bernal Heights


Bernal Heights is changing.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Actually, Bernal Heights has been changing for about 180 years.  Change is often difficult, yet my sense is that the changes that have taken place here during the last decade or so are particularly unsettling to the generation of residents that came of age in Bernal roughly between 1970 and 1990.

Neighbor Orlando is one of those residents, and since I have great respect for his perspective, I  also appreciated his comments in response to a recent Bernalwood post about the transformation of Bernal Heights into an enclave for the so-called “Creative Class” (though he just as easily could have written it in response to the data which shows that Bernal real estate prices are going up, up, up.)

Neighbor Orlando writes:

Bernal Heights originally was a village made up of blue collar, very low educated immigrant families that moved here because they could not afford to live in many other areas of the city. I bared witness to such because my parents were of this class as many of their neighbors also were.

The last time I checked, a home in this neighborhood sold for one-million dollars. This must have made my father roll over in his grave. No home on the hill was ever of such extreme value during the sixties up here. As a matter of fact, it was quite the opposite considering that the hill was a wasteland of debris due to the fact that many San Franciscans would use it as place to dumb old odd size household goods such as mattresses, ceramics tubs, toilets, and wooden furniture.

So rugged a hill it once was, that I as a young boy learned to ride a motorcycle; a honda 50cc that my father bought me one christmas “motorcross” style on many of the trails still visible today! Yes, you read rightly, one once was able to ride a motorcross cycle on that hill.

Todd, I am curious to ask you when was the last time you met a low income non-english speaking family move in recently? I believe you have met many of the original dwellers moving out since this is one of the overall goals of this recent gentrification that is popular for real estate values.

After all, is it not true that before such a movement (when bernal was predominantly made up of these uneducated, non-english speaking middle class families) the prices of homes were indeed affordable to someone whose job was to clean upper middle class homes or work as a baggage handler at SFO?

This is hardly the case when a home on the same property sells for one million dollars. The same block of land ten times more the costs simply because folks that clean houses or work as baggage handlers have recently moved away so that these creative scientist, lawyers, and managers can move in. Who by the way, are not likely to be of negro or hispanic ethnicity.

I only ask that if you truly cannot see this Todd, that the next time you meet the new family on the block, you check off my list to see if this new family fits the Bernal enclave that it once was for many, many generations. Myself included.

Good fodder for discussion. So, dear and respectful neighbors, let’s discuss.

PHOTO: A recent billboard modification on Cortland, photographed April 30, 2012 by Andrew

78 thoughts on “Counterpoint: A Lifetime Resident Laments the Transformation of Bernal Heights

  1. Yes, in the OLD Bernal Heights, a graffiti artist wouldn’t have bothered to match the paint color with the printing on the billboard.

  2. A lot of the problem here is that unions have gone away. When I was a kid, jobs in the hotel, restaurant, and retail industried paid a LIVING wage. This was because they had strong unions. Today, Big Business tells us that those are “entry level” jobs, but doesn’t tell us that there are only a small number of jobs for scientists, techies, and other highly skilled workers. The rest of us will continue to work in hotels, restaurants, and retail all our lives, creating a permanent underclass where we have to share homes with unrelated housemates.

    San Francisco was once the strongest union town in America, more unionized workers than even Detroit’s auto industry. Restaurants, even barber shops proudly displayed their union seal on the wall or in the window. We didn’t go to non-union barbershops, which also meant we didn’t get haircuts on Monday, the day when union barber shops were closed.

    It’s Top’s diner on Market and Octavia, was the last union restaurant I ever saw. An older waitress working there had been a holdover since the 1950s and they had an ironclad union contract. She made a living wage even without tips. Well, Dick Chapman sold the business to his children Shiela and Bruce. Well, they shut it down, laid off the woman, and then reopened as a brand new business. The union decal was gone, as was the living wage. Someone I knew who worked there told me that they paid only minimum wage.

    We need union jobs in order to survive in this town. It’s not me talking, but generations of workers. This is what the 1934 waterfront strike was about. Here’s a useful link:

    • I too have been preaching this. I have had two careers that had union support, and I would not have the lifestyle I have today without that union support. Our younger people are really losing out when they they say they don’t want unions. Heck, all of our society is losing out.

  3. To have well-educated white collar professionals move into a neighborhood is a good thing. They buy their homes, take care of their property, shop local [Cortland Ave is a great example of this; you can barely move on the weekends], people walk around their neighborhood, they know their neighbors, crime goes down. BH was the wild West. The area was a dump; could hardly be called middle class. Seemed everyone thought normal was to live in poverty, filth & squalor. Very recently a 1920s home four doors down from me in the flatlands recently sold for $1.2 million – 2bd/2b/2c. The new owners are already gutting/remodeling the place. I’ve been living in BH for over 12 years; very glad to see the positive changes.

  4. While it is fun to lament the past, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the ‘hill’ is no longer made up of middle class workers. In fact, one of my friends owns (yes owns) a home that has been in his family for nearly 100 years and he is the head of a working class household.

    Now, not to nit pic, but there are a few other items I just want to point out. First, calling the hill a former “wasteland” is not exactly glorifying the past neighborhood. I think that may of the new and old residents of this area have made major improvements to the neighborhood, including turning that “wasteland” into a park worthy of all families (rich & poor).

    Second, “negro” is not the correct nomenclature. I recommend thinking over who you might offend when you decide to use such terms.

    Finally, all families “fit” in Bernal. That’s what makes it amazing and makes it stand out from some of the other SF neighborhoods. We do not check to see if you “fit” or don’t “fit” and no one in this neighborhood ever should. To even suggest that shows that you, my friend, might find another neighborhood a more comfortable ‘fit’ for yourself.

    • Maybe you you could show a little sensitivity to the justifiable resentment many people feel at being run out of their generational neighborhoods. Secondly, is it really necessary to use your “superior intellect” to run others down?

  5. Fortunately many of the working families of Bernal also bought their homes in the sixties and seventies – many of them are probably thrilled that their properties have increased in value by so much! That said, this still is a diverse neighborhood and although some parts of Bernal have gone definitively white collar there are many parts that haven’t. The only constant of life is change and while we can be aware of it and attempt to mitigate any consequences there is not a viable way to stop it.

  6. We are one of the new families on the block, (over on the south side of Bernal) and we are so, so glad to be part of the change that is occurring in Bernal Heights! My partner and I both came from blue collar, uneducated families in the east bay burbs. (As an aside, if anyone wants to visit a garbage-strewn environment with uneducated neighbors who let their kids ride motorcycles may we suggest that you visit the nearby towns of Union City or Fremont?) After years of studying and working my partner and I were able to escape the drudgery of our parent’s lives and into the category of “creative scientists, lawyers, and managers”. Now, we live in a beautiful and unique, almost 100 year old home in a magical neighborhood with wonderful parks and open-minded neighbors – all on the side of hill between the bay and the rest of SF! As far as my partner and I are concerned, we would both love to see more posts about how to further effect change in Bernal Heights!

    (If it makes Orlando feel any better, my partner is Filipino – not sure if that ethnicity is on the same footing as “negro or Hispanic”).

    • Go Hunter Go ! Tell it like it is ! My partner and I also live on the south side and feel the same as you !

  7. One only has to take a walk in any of the neighborhoods minutes away, on the other side of the 280, to reminisce, there you will find just the kind of working class, non-english speaking immigrant families that Orlando is missing. This isn’t a Bernal “problem” or a San Francisco “problem”. This is the natural effect of a more and more urbanized society valuing the experience of living in a great city, and when any resource (housing in SF) is finite in nature, and it is desirable, the price goes up. There is indeed more affordable housing available nearby in the Excelsior, Portola, Silver Terrace, the Bayview, etc. I suspect that one or many of those neighborhoods will look more and more like Bernal Heights in the coming decades, buy now!

  8. Most people are buying houses in Bernal because it is the only place where they can afford a real house (not a condo or a TIC). So what should they do? They should have to rent forever or they should be stuck living in a 600 sq foot condo because it makes you sad that your neighbors are selling? They are selling by the way. Not too many houses are being foreclosed upon, they are mostly all selling or in probate. What is your solution? Everyone just stay where you are and if you weren’t lucky enough to be born in SF and can’t afford a house in the marina than too bad for you? Where are people allowed to buy houses?

    People who take care of their homes and front yards and shop on Cortland and plant trees are GOOD for a community even if it means that you’re grumpy that you can’t buy a single family home in a major metropolitan city on a house cleaners salary.

  9. According to the author Bernal Heights used to be a dangerous garbage dump, and now it’s beautiful and mostly crime-free. I’m not sure what the author is lamenting over. Blue-collar homeowners choose to sell in the face of making massive profits. Profits they made on the back of the new “creative” class. Sounds like everybody won.

  10. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Orlando! And thanks Bernalwood for hosting the discussion. I’m troubled by some of the comments here… I think a healthy conversation about the nature of change, how to preserve a diverse community, etc. is great. But are some of you really suggesting that wealthier people are the only ones who care about their neighborhood (shop locally, take care of their homes/yards, know their neighbors, etc.) and lower income people prefer to live in filth & squalor? In our corner of Bernal, the neighbors we know best are those who’ve been here a long time–people who probably couldn’t afford to move here as renters or buyers today (our family included).

    • In MY corner, many of the intrenched homeowners lucky enough to have inherited their homes (and the property tax basis) resent the newcomers, and treat the neighborhood like it’s theirs and not everybody’s. Many of these people “work” for the city, hog parking spaces for their 6 automobiles and two loud motorcycles (with garages straight out of “Hoarders”), and call people like me (a straight guy) “faggot” when I walk past their home.

      *I* would argue that a good 50% of homes owned by long time residents are in a state of disrepair, while the inhabitants take the neighborhood and city for granted. I walked past one such residence and noticed an orange-bristeled push broom in their garage. I kind of know the woman that lives there (from the family that owns the liquor store on Bocana and Cortland), and I asked her about the broom. “Oh my brother works for the city” she said, and I told her I don’t appreciate her brother stealing city equipment.

      IMO, Orlando’s frustrations are natural, but hardly newsworthy. He liked the neighborhood better as a dump, because that’s what allowed him to grow up here. I like the gentrification because I don’t want to live in a dump.

      And BTW, I bought my house here because of the affordability of the neighborhood, 12 years ago.

  11. Perhaps one of the messages here is not to lose connection with the history and values that a neighborhood brings. Certainly there are a multitude of reasons for why real estate values and selling prices have escalated which I won’t even try to explore here. One of the bottom lines is to make sure each of us is engaged at in the civic processes that affect these realities. Do not forget the ballot box. And check in on your neighbor, to see if they are OK.

  12. Just to make you gasp (@ the $s):

    My family (2 parents, 4 kids), lived in a flat on Precita from 1957-1967. The rent never exceeded $85 a month (at the very end). If memory serves, the approaches to bernal were occasionally littered but the hill was in good shape, as was Precita Park. And a peek at my class photos from Le Conte (now Flynn) showed a remarkable diversity. Friends’ fathers included a barber, a bus driver, a butcher, a paper salesman and a wholesale grocer (my dad). Very few Moms worked (lots of eyes directed towards kids).

    Pre: microwave tower, Sillicon Valley, BART, etc., etc.

    • Yes, and likely a union barber, a union butcher, a union bus driver, a union grocer; not sure about the paper salesman, though. And these folks each made enough money to support families without the mom having to go out to work.

  13. Two days ago we learned our beloved neighbors of 6 years here on Andover are moving to Noe Valley. Movin’ on up….bigger house, bigger yard. This is a middle-class neighborhood to me.
    I moved to Ellsworth street in 1990. At that time Cortland was depressing and dangerous. The Good Life parking lot had a pay-phone where all the drug deals were made, 24/7. I don’t lament the changes one bit.

  14. So let’s see the arguments here:
    A. Blue-collar middle class is finding it less affordable to live in Bernal
    B. Crime is down / improvements are being made
    C. White-collar middle class are buying homes for higher and higher prices
    D. Unions are in decline in San Francisco

    I think there are some nuances in the discussion above about the character of things changing along with these changes, but this is all pretty typical stuff, and not very different from what’s been happening throughout much of semi-urban California since the real-estate boom of the 1970s.

    What I’m left reacting to is the hint of conspiracy, as opposed to market forces. I get the sense that those who lament the change blame other people, as if it is the fault of the newcomers who are paying the higher prices that the prices were high… that those prices were better than prices in other neighborhoods, or that the neighborhood now attracts people willing to pay such prices, etc.

    There is no conspiracy. There are only market forces. If you want nothing to change… well, good luck with that.

  15. I actually grew up in Bernal and in fact come from the families this person references. We bought a home in Bernal about one year ago and honestly, I moved back because of what it has became, combined with my memories of what it was. I am latino and my parents came here as immigrants. I remember how it was in the early 90’s, how bad it became and how scary it was for a number of people. Growing up in the city I was used to that so would not hesitate to be in the area. However, living in that is a completely different story. I appreciate and value what Bernal has become. Latin America is NOT a bunch of lower class, dirty, ghetto, crime filled areas. While they may have limited income their TRUE identity is one of community. They try to make their communities as “pretty” as possible but the true value is in the idea of community. THIS exists in Bernal Heights. I agree, many people cannot afford to live in this neighborhood but as one post mentioned, this is across SF in general. I also agree with another post, walk across Bayshore or even to Alemany, shoot, go over Folsom and into the Mission, Bernal is surrounded by and actually has “low income” families thus, the original message makes no sense to me. I am proud to say I live in this neighborhood because of what it is. One last point, the Mission is full of monolingual families which is what makes IT “The Mission.” Those houses now actually go for a pretty good amount as well. SF is the melting pot, one block changes from the other, take pride and enjoy it!

  16. @bldxyz – Your “market forces” comment ignores the history of racismin in this country and the fact that our society still has a long way to go in changing that pattern . I’m not sure if that technically fits the definition of conspiracy but it’s close.

    Wealthier folks displacing poorer folks is market force. The fact that the majority of those displaced are minorities is the result of a long history of racism. The market forces are a direct result of capitalism. Capitalism as we practice it does a very good job at widening the gap between the have and have-nots. I think we need to work on that. And the racism is a crime against humanity and we definately have to work on that. There are of course many, like Jose, that overcome the disadvantages that minorities suffer in our society and find success. But the problem is that while minorities have to overcome those disadvantages, the majority of whites do not. Hence the change in color of our neighbors in Bernal. There are many whites in this country that suffer severe disadvantages, I’m well aware of that and they too deserve attention and assistance and those that overcome deserve acknowledgment. However, their minority neighbors generally have it worse than they do.

    PS – Trail runnin man… you’re wasting the potential of the human being that you are. We can do great things but it takes effort. Your comments only serve to promote the problems our society faces. Think about making an effort in the future. You might like it. And if I just totally missed the point of your post, I apologize. But I don’t think I did.

    • I’m trying to follow your logic here. You seem to imply that gentrification forces (in general, or in Bernal specifically) are connected to racism, and hence are not strictly about market forces. I could possibly agree that capitalism has some racism built into it (especially because how power in capitalism is disproportionally held by people not-of-color), but the trouble I have with this point of view is that the actors in any specific circumstance are playing out the rules of the game without recognizing the influence of the prior history of racism that allows them to be where they are in the game. Hence, it is market forces without present bias, even if prior bias set the market forces in motion.

      Case in point: I bought my house in Bernal from people who were not-of-color. Had there been tenant renters whom I would have to evict, and had they been of color, I would have been making an active decision that still would have had nothing to do with racism, as I would have had to evict anyone, regardless of color, to live in the house I was buying. I’d pretty well insist that it was an unbiased a market force that put me in Bernal. You can saw all you want that I have had advantages in life, but that doesn’t make my (mostly) liberal actions colored by racism.

      Lastly, you are saying that “wealthier folks are displacing poorer folks.” This is something people have proffered here in various real estate-related threads that I’ve never understood. In any sale, there is a buyer and a seller who agree on the transaction (so the poor(er) who sell are doing so by choice, not being displaced). Due to Prop 39 (1978), the poor(er) do not feel pressure from real estate taxes taxes increasing just because the properly values in the neighborhood are going up. The only scenario I can understand is if a rental unit becomes an owned unit — in that case, poor(er) renters can be evicted by wealthier buyers when a non-poor(er) owner sells, but I’m not getting the sense that that’s what you mean by displacement.

      So again, I’m feeling like there are people here who are blaming the buyers, and you’ve tied this to racism, too, which furthers the implication of blame upon the newcomers. Are you blaming the newcomers, or are you blaming the way society (and hence the market) works?

      • I’m not blaming anyone. I’m white and I just moved here. But in this country capitalism and racism are not separate. The kind of capitalism we practice serves to maintain the status quo.

        We don’t need to tell people where they can and can’t live. We need to work towards making sure that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed. Until we do that the trend will always be a whitening trend in areas like Bernal.

      • Dear Bernal Dweller,

        I may not know who you are, but what I do know about you is that you are among the few who have the uncanny ability to recognize the obvious.

        I respect that.

  17. How is this a Bernal real estate phenomenon? In 1975 a house that goes for over a million today would have cost 40k-60k in Los Gatos or Walnut Creek.
    It’s not like there is a great Caucasian white-color conspiracy to drive out people of other ethnic backgrounds from the mission, bernal, pot hill.
    The major shift that has be going on in SF I think can be attributed to folks being priced out of other neighborhoods and the desire to live on the southern side of San Francisco. For all the jobs in mid and south peninsula, who wants to drive an extra 30 minutes each way to live on the north side of the city?

    • The need to commute is actually one of the primary reasons I ended up buying in Bernal rather than elsewhere in the city. Its a prime location for commuting to the east Bay or to the south.

  18. I have been a part of Bernal Heights since 1994, I was able to buy my house because it was less than $250,000. And while someone walking down the street might think that I am part of the “creative class” I am not. My husband works non profit and I make a modest living in the corporate world. Being able to buy an affordable home is the only way that we are able to stay in SF. While I wish Bernal could keep the diversity that it had when I first bought my house; I do not miss the neighbor who would go off on a drug induced rampage yelling across back yard fences how he was going to kill my husband because my husband asked him to turn down his blaring radio.
    Some changes are hard and some are easy and some are just are what they are. I feel safer in Bernal than I did 20 years ago and that is one thing that has changed for the better.

      • My experience is very similar to SMC, I moved here in the early 80’s for a couple of years as it was the only place I could afford while in college (later I “moved up” to the Excelsior). Came back in the early .90’s to buy. At that time, we also had a drug house almost behind our back yard,and thank goodness its long gone. We are a Latino family and we appreciate the changes and that is the reason we moved back — because of the potential of change and the village feel that one could appreciate even in the 80’s . The neighbors who have left (Chinese, Filipino, Japanese) were original owners and they either passed away or went to a retirement home.

  19. One thing that’s enormously under-discussed in threads like this (Bernalwood but also basically any city facing these issues, too): Density allowed by law.

    San Francisco and the Peninsula have huge restrictions on how densely you can build, with parking minimums some places, allowed % of the lot that can have buildings in others; height restrictions and the ability of neighborhood groups to scotch projects if they don’t meet arbitrary standards of “blending in”.

    When new construction projects are proposed in the Mission that are more than 2 stories high, there’s huge outcry. But when you have an amazing area like SF where lots and lots of people want to live, the *only* way for things to remain affordable in the long run is to increase the supply of housing. That doesn’t mean everywhere needs to turn into Manhattan (or Mission Bay!), but it means that there needs to be a balance between preserving the existing aesthetic and making it so that more housing can be built.

  20. The changes in Bernal have been constantly evolving – over many many years. It’s the nature of living in a very small city/neighborhood. For the most part, it’s been pretty gradual. However, lately,… it’s become kind of gross. People are increasing their rent 10-fold, properties are getting foreclosed on and banks/auction-buyers could give a sh*t about keeping a healthy mix of diversity in Bernal. No. They want to make money. This is their Gold Rush. They don’t care who they displace or sell to. They care about turning a profit. Let’s be honest here. People are getting pushed out of Bernal at an alarming rate. I wish I could get my hands on some data to support this. I just know from personal experience. My family was pushed out. And it’s happening to another family friend (they just started the process last week. Non English speaking too – so they don’t even know their basic rights). Plus, over the last 2 years, I’ve met a lot of people at the community center going through the same thing. I don’t typically respond in writing to posts like this – but isn’t anyone paying attention to how QUICKLY Bernal is changing? Don’t people find it alarming that a 250k 1 bedroom home can be resold for 800k (w/o even fixing it up?). People buying these homes (or renting) think they are getting such a deal for an $800k/1mill home or $3,500 a month rental. Seriously. This is a HUGE jump from just 2 years ago. This is just crazy money!

    Money seems to trump cultural diversity in SF. Clearly, Cultural diversity must be actively promoted by governments and civil society – I’m surprised that BH hasn’t pushed more for this. If you still live in the hood and you REALLY support this thinking, then get involved. I would – but sadly, I don’t live here anymore. If not, you can’t complain about your super rich techie-whatever neighbor moving in. Get involved with your community if you want to keep Bernal ‘different.’

    • This is the most realistic, how it looks from the street post on this entire page. Thanks!

    • Please explain how “pushed out” works? Are you saying that non-rent controlled places are increasing in rent so people have to move out? Are you saying that people are buying properties and then evicting renters?

      • Yes. We were renters. Living in a foreclosed home (that we tried to buy). We made an offer & were willing to pay more than what was owed (we also knew that roof and windows needed to be replaced ASAP and that the bathroom had to be gutted due to termites). It wasn’t thes best place, but it was our place and we really enjoyed raising our daughter there. They said, no – they wanted to make a bigger profit (yes, they said that). Once they declined our offer, they informed us that our rent would be increased to 3,500. Totally unreasonable for the 1 bed, run-down home that it was. That, my friend is how one gets pushed out. I’m skimming over the threats to evict us along the way – it’s behind us – but still feels very unfair whenever topics like this come up on BWood.

  21. One of my favorite moments of the past three years of living in Bernal happened in a taxi. My husband and I met up after work downtown for “date night,” and decided to take a cab home. We told the driver we were headed to Ellsworth street, and promptly started to qualify that (“Oh, that’s in Bernal Heights, you can take Cesar Chavez or Folsom, we’ll help you get there, it’s actually really pretty easy”) when the driver – who looked to be in his late 50’s – turned around and interrupted us. “I used to live on Ellsworth!” he said. The rest of the cab ride was spent sharing stories about our shared street. We learned all about the old movie theater that used to be on Cortland, the windy streets where teenagers used to (and probably still) learn how to drive, and even heard the story of our driver’s first kiss on Bernal Hill. By the time we reached home, he was teary eyed, and turned to us and said, “You two are exactly the kind of people I always hoped would keep living in the neighborhood.” We ended the drive with a hug. (I was a little teary-eyed at that point, too).

    I’m hoping that as a neighborhood we keep remembering to say hello to one another, and that we take the time to listen to one another’s stories. The three of us in that cab ALL came from different backgrounds, but that didn’t stop the connection we were able to make.

  22. Bernal Hill Dweller

    Thank you for putting out the one main central topic that most rather not acknowledge either from shame, regret, or simply from just a prehistoric plain old defense mechanisms kicking in to avoid the painful realities of America’s history of racism.

    I believe what you were touching on was perhaps the realities of the American banks past common practices of “Red Lining?” These other terms such as “market forces” and “conspiracy” are all vehemently being used in an all out effort to avoid the ugliness facing the realities of racism. So much so that even one our readers became uncomfortable with my simple use of the term “negro” which in all honestly is worthy of respect. All of these terms have one thing in common. Avoidance. Proving Bernal Hill Dweller absolutely correct when s/he writes that “we still have a long way to go in changing such a pattern.”

    It’s been said that a child today is African-American, her mother is black, her grandmother was colored, her great-grandmother was a negro, and her great-great grandmother was a nigra in a parlor and a nigger in the field. I did not use the latter epithet, or “nigger” which indeed is the one that carries to this day the very same sting it did when it arrived in the American slave ships to the new world. Which, by the way, is the one used in anger, or to humiliate. I correctly and respectfully chose the word “negro” which is plain simply spanish for black(bether24). Thus, it is correct and without disrespect. If you new the honest etymology of the term maybe it would not have made you feel so much discomfort. Or perhaps you just confused the two. This is, after all a case of: it’s not how it was born, but rather how it was historically wielded. Enough said on that, I do not apologize for my use of the term negro(again,bether24). I chose that word for “cause and effect” serving a forceful purpose for the sensitive subject of the essay I wrote on our neighborhoods recent drastic velocity of gentrification.

    Now back to the subject of racism. It does not surprise me in the very least that only one individual was brave and confident enough to bring the subject of racism to the surface so openly. Clearly, this subject creates an uneasiness with many affluent Caucasians. Those that it does not, have come to terms with our American History, understand the injustices done, and thus have made peace with it through acceptance and acknowledgement of our ugly pasts’ exploitations. I congratulate you and commend your courage. This is no easy task.

    Case in point, many may not want to remember what occurred immediately after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (for many of us, that was only yesterday and not a chapter we read at the schools Social Studies period) when hundreds of non white families began moving to suburbia next to whites. Economic value of suburban homes declined simply because the negroes moved in (conspiracy?). Or “Block Busting” where realtors bought real estate at below market value and resold to Blacks at a profit (inflated prices, perhaps a direct result of “economic forces?”). In like manner, when whites began to leave it created an immediate economic incentive for businesses to withdraw thus triggering a detrimental domino effect for as businesses fled, tax basis eroded creating and giving way to legitimate grounds for an increase of welfare recipients. It is no accident why even to this very day, a whites comparative net worth is still twice that of non-whites.

    So, with all this said, one cannot deny the fact that when all “those” people who live on the “other” side of 280; the non-english speaking immigrants, the ones that work in hotels, restaurants, retail, clean your homes and raise your children lived here, the prices of our homes in our neighborhood were still within one’s (“those people”) potential of owning. Similarly, as the highly skilled techies, managers, and attorneys continue to displace “the families that Orlando is missing” then yes, there is something much greater than just plain “economic market forces” or “conspiracy theories” at play. Something at a much grander scale. Until we accept and admit the underlying truth, then and only then, will we come to terms with the past injustices which will in turn defuse the sensitivity of this hot button that sends off all the alarm’s bells and whistles that it does each and every single time my good friend Todd puts this subject out for discussion.

    It never fails.

    • Racial discrimination (structural, enforced) helps explain why the folks with the money to buy into Bernal right now are disproportionately white, but the rising prices are the market. The truth of one does not invalidate the other.

      • Yes, but I just don’t see this as a Bernal Heights-specific discussion then. I thought this original post was lamenting how Bernal has changed. And now we’re talking about how racism underlies the system which guides individuals actions… but that’s not specific to Bernal. If this post was an invitation to discuss how racism feeds the structures and results of our society at large, and then Bernal came into the discussion as an example, I could get that. But when you go from the specific to the general, then for some reason it feels like blaming. “Oh, the system has finally reached our little idyllic hamlet! Blame the racist white people who are pushing all the non-whites out with their — gasp — huge mortgages that will take several lifetimes to pay off!!!” That just doesn’t play.

        I’m with you on this, though: society in general has some circumstances and even rules that bias it towards an already powerful and mostly white population. But many of us are pawns who just want to send their kids to public school and live in wonderful part of a wonderful city.

      • Are we sure they are disproportionately white? At least where I work, non-whites make up a large percent of our workforce. I know at least two, other than myself, that have recently purchased in Bernal Heights. One of these gentrifiers is black and the other is asian.

      • I recall seeing some 2010 census graphics that showed the % change in ethnic populations for Bernal, and the general trend was, yes, increasingly white.

        I’m looking for the link to what I remember, but in the meantime, one and all can have a field day playing with the NYTimes’s interactive 2010 census map. Here’s a sample; use the View More Maps menu at top left for different slices of the data:

        Here’s another:

        (Confession: I meant to do a Bernalwood post about this, but never got around to it. Posts with a lot of ‘splaining required take a lot more time to do… so they sometimes don’t get done. Sorry)

        UPDATE! I found it. To see changes in ethnic population for each census tract, roll your mouse over the relevant tract on this map:

        Here’s a sample image, showing population change in southeast Bernal:


      • David, I, too, am a gentrifier of color, but I’m the exception. But, if it helps establish my working-class bona fides, I was a car mechanic when we bought our house. 🙂

  23. Bldxyz

    I don’t think it is a Bernal Heights specific discussion because its the same thing that happens in any area where real estate appreciates quickly. Orlando was speaking about Bernal because he lives here and its happening here at a rapid pace but Bernal is certainly not unique in that way. It doesn’t really make any sense to discuss the issue of gentrification in any one specific area as if its not connected to all areas in the US that are being gentrified. That leads to treating the symptoms rather than the disease. People hatch plans like rent control and BMR units that have all sorts of unintended consequences but don’t really fix anything.

    The changes required to break the pattern are universal. Everyone regardless of economic status or racial identity should have access to top quality free public education all the way through college (if it was a priority we could afford it), money has to be taken out of politics so that the people in our society are proportionally represented in Congress (and that goes for women too), and minorities and women need to have equal treatment in our courts. Starting with those would go a long way to changing the pattern we see now in Bernal.

  24. These are fair points, Bernal Dweller. I support the idea of trying to make societal changes that would help those who have been on the disadvantaged side. However, there are several in this thread who are implying blame to the individuals who came to Bernal by buying homes here that helped escalate the market pricing.

    Blame society, not the individuals, and the discussion is yours.

    • Yeah, not blaming individuals moving here at all. We were priced out of much of the City so we looked here. We weren’t that familiar with the area and we made the move pretty quickly. We’re very happy we did because we love it! And I’m happy to hear long time residents speak about the positive changes in the area. I think the history of Bernal will lead to a unique experience for the residents here, both new and old.

  25. Lots of talk about superficial diversity. How about I describe the actual diversity my wife and I brought to Bernal Heights when we moved here 3 months ago?

    My wife: born in China, a few hours from Shanghai. While she was growing up, they had so little space she shared a bed with her parents. Her parents worked hard to put my wife through school, where she excelled and eventually came to the USA for her Ph.D. Do you know how hard it is for someone from middle China to do that? You have much better odds getting into Harvard. She moved to the Bay Area for work, which is where we met. Since we’ve met, she’s been a wonderful partner, saving money so that she can give her kids a better life than she’s had. She is financially supporting her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and niece in China, one of whom is battling with serious health issues.

    Myself: Raised as the oldest of 6 children in a Mormon family. My dad wasn’t Mitt Romney; for a few years we lived packed in a trailer in rural Washington while he staved off bankruptcy by the skin of his teeth. I got married young as good Mormons are supposed to. Then I left the Church, went through a bitter divorce, and my Mormon university put my degree on hold because of some allegations my ex-wife made. I had almost nothing left, spiritually or financially, and lived in a $50/month windowless basement bedroom in Utah. My low point was in a suicide-prevention cell in a Utah jail. A year later, I had an epiphany when I took some magic mushrooms that my drug-dealing roommate sold me, causing me to immediately resign my job and move from Utah to the Bay Area 6 years ago to chase my dreams. I had $2,000 in the bank I had saved up and it was make or break. Three months ago my wife and I bought a home for $1,200,000.

    So my wife and I know as well as anyone, change is a constant. Sincerest apologies if my wife and I are too white, too asian, or too whatever. Accidents of birth, you see. We’re just happy to be part of this neighborhood and glad to be part of its story.

  26. I’m from NYC, just moved to Bernal with my small family after a few years in Berkeley. We paid a high price to move here, but it was still more affordable than other places in SF. I suppose you could call us gentrifiers, though the people we bought from were of a similar class.

    This is a cool community, and it won’t be improved by losing its affordable housing. I don’t know what we can do to help it stay affordable, but I welcome the conversation. Orlando, I recognize that your post, while pointed, was not meant to tear anyone down or blame them, and I’m sorry to see that some people got defensive. I hope you & Todd keep talking about this.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful post. I think it does nobody any good to get defensive in either direction. We know Bernal is changing, as the whole city is. It is okay to mourn that loss and to honor the memory of those who came before us. We don’t have to assert our own good intentions and claim no part in the problem. We are the problem, whether we own it or not. But owning it makes us more compassionate and better neighbors.

  27. fivetonsflax (@fivetonsflax)

    I wish to welcome you to this wonderful and special community. I urge you to search the story on
    widow O’Brien’s cow. This is fine example of the kind of neighbors you are likely to encounter. Of
    course, there will be some sours (you will get to know them sooner than later just as I got to know them, it’s no secret), but in general, I’d like to believe that there are indeed more good than bad. Because the truth is, there are.

    About your request, I’m afraid that I really don’t have too much more to add. If I indeed left any thoughts out, as you can clearly already see, neighbor Bernal Dweller (a person of great virtue) has been kind enough to share his knowledge and wisdom. I do hope that one day, Bernal Dweller will stop to greet me and reveal his human character. I believe we can have some deep intelligent conversations together.

    As far as touching on this “hot button” in here again, well, I don’t believe it will be anytime soon. Those who have taken insult to Bernal Dweller’s honest and true comments, or my life’s experience’s of three generations of growing up on “our” hill cannot, and will not understand the pain one feels when one looks at the very same “Satellite Spinner” at Precita Park where once children of many different ethnic backgrounds span together as I once was a part of, creating a colorful human rainbow of every ethnic background that you could possibly imagine.

    Just yesterday, I passed by that same “Satellite Spinner” and as I stood to reflect for a moment (as a direct result of this blog) there it was-spinning round and round, as it has for generations past. The only thing different I saw, was that today, unlike yesterday, it span as almost merely one color. I saw no African Americans, no Hispanics, no Samoans, no Filipinos, no Chinese, no American indian. Thus the rainbow of countless human ethnicities it once secured in our community is no more. A direct result of gentrification; a phenomena bread by Capitalism, one that since the founding of our country has been systematically maintaining its status quo through its racism (another “hot button” folks vehemently avoid). It’s all connected.

    And yes I do feel the pain because for me it has been one great, if not, tragic loss. For this very reason, I do not apologize to those who have taken defense after reading my short essay.

    • Orlando: Thanks for your thoughtful contribution here. I agree: racism is a hot button in this topic. What I suggest is as follows: Call it “institutionalized racism” to distinguish it from potentially being misinterpreted as individual racism.

      Examples: the invisible hands that guide gentrification has made it likely that people with money (and power) who are predominantly not-of-color are contributing to increases in the rents and purchase prices of homes in Bernal. Those invisible hands include institutionalized racism.

      I tend to want to understand the set of actions that are underlie this phenomenon, and what I’ve seen so far is:
      1- Person who owns a rental property raises rent
      2- Person who owns a rental home sells it / new owners evict tenants
      3- Person who buys a home from another homeowner

      All three examples are guided by capitalism and contribute to the increase in real estate values and rents (which includes some institutionalized racism, so we see the neighborhood getting “whiter” as a byproduct). Only example #1 and #2 actually contribute to the displacement of individuals. When those displaced individuals are of color and those replacing them are not, we’re seeing an actual case of … something. It is merely institutionalized racism if the actions are done without consideration of the renter’s race, but it would be individual racism if the renter’s race was a consideration.

      What I found difficult to swallow earlier in this discussion was the use of the very heavy word “racism” in a neighborhood known for its liberal sensitivities without any qualification, specificity, or detail. I interpreted it as relating to individual racism, and hence I was very, very skeptical. Sure, capitalism isn’t warm to the disadvantaged, but individuals making choices on the basis of race as a widespread pattern that explains the change in demographics here? I just couldn’t swallow that. If we qualify our terms a little better, I think we can have a better discussion.

      • My question is, How (do?) they become invisible? Or is it that different groups travel in different circles with limited/no interaction? If it weren’t for some community stuff that I sought out, my perception of the neighborhood would be quite limited, mainly centered on young families and commercial activity on Cortland.

        For some folks, St. Kevin’s is the locus of the Bernal community. For others, the library playground. Precita Park Cafe. Martha & Bros. Wild Side West/Stray Bar/Lucky Horseshoe. You name it.

        I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to be part of a diverse community, you have to reach out to those who may seem different. And that responsibility does not rest solely with the so-called gentrifiers.

  28. Sigh. More of the same from some of the newcomers to Bernal. Honestly, if you are so culturally tone deaf that you cannot empathize with long-time residents who write here to share their lamentations about the KINSHIP that once characterized the neighborhood, then you are, in fact, part of the problem. No one here is saying that the “garbage dumping” and rampant crime was PREFERABLE. And if you are posting 13 year-old Census data to attempt to “support” a case that “market forces” have not significantly altered the ethnic and class make up of this neighborhood, then yes, you are a member of the white-collar OVER class that is fast making Bernal a rather insufferable place.

    My family lived on Ellsworth Street during the ’60s (we’re African-American or Negro, take your pick, as I am not hyper-sensitive about such labels…the only label I proudly claim is NATIVE SAN FRANCISCAN). My Mom worked very hard, diligently and smartly in order to be able to BUY a home “over the hill,” south of Bernal, in Merced Heights, right near SF State. She was able to do so because of BLOCK BUSTING, i.e., realtors who banded together to buy up lots of the Doelger homes in the Merced/Ingleside/Oceanview/Lakeview neighborhoods that HAD BEEN REDLINED and make them available for blacks and Latinos with good incomes and credit, starting in about the mid-1960s. We did NOT however view during our time in Bernal as being “Crime ridden” nor did we ever see the Hill as a “dumping ground.” (Really, does that anecdote date to the ’20s? I do not ever recall seeing furniture or heaps of trash on the Hill during the many years we lived in Bernal! We recall open spaces, where we would take large card board boxes, flatten them, and SLIDE BUMPILY down the Hill at high rates of speed!)
    If you are a newcomer, and you do not have the wherewithal or cultural EQ to do more than judge negatively and criticize former residents or current residents who are Old School and rightly distressed by the PROBLEMANTIC MINDSET of to many of the newcomers, then you are, in fact, part of the problem. If you are on the other hand TRULY, genuinely interested in bridging the divide, you will use some of your world class tech acumen and your business connections to begin CONTRIBUTING to creating opportunities for the working class families (in particular CHILDREN) who are still hanging on in Bernal and nearby neighborhoods.

    And not through some big, faceless nonprofit org, one of the HUNDREDS of “do-gooder” organizations in SF — and in my current city, Washington, DC), that are staffed and led EXCLUSIVELY by myopic, upper-middle class whites who believe that “sustainability” and “green initiatives” are most urgently needed in DEVELOPING NATIONS, while the DOMESTIC communities that are experiencing DIRE financial hardship are merely an after thought. No, if you are SERIOUSLY about the business of being EGALITARIAN and doing more than simply projecting your PROBLEMATIC, ENTITLED, SUPERIOR attitude on the few remaining working class residents, you will contribute to LOCAL community organizations, be they churches that offer AFTER SCHOOL PROGRAMMING or Boys/Girls Clubs or even starting a CHESS CLUB or INTERNET PROGRAMMING GROUP for local youth. Instead of coming to this site to whine and post IMPERSONAL DATA that allegedly “makes your case” of how your “improving” the neighborhood, you will truly open your eyes, learn the breadth and nuance of the CULTURAL HISTORY of Bernal — not just study the CRIME STATs, DUH — and get a clue.

    I am planning to relocate from Silver Spring, in Montgomery County, Maryland — think MILLBRAE to SF, ha ha! — back to SF my hometown very soon. I am educated, accomplished and quite interested in learning more about the newcomers who now throng the streets of Bernal and other formerly working class SF neighborhoods. I am genuinely up for bridge-building, since so much on this topic that I read here appears to lack a deep understanding of CULTURAL HISTORY, its value and implications for the positive progress of San Francisco’s CORE. I will not, however, probably be living in Bernal or even Merced Heights, as my Mom’s house is now being LEASED, and I have recently learned that the changes in tenant laws means that we would have to BUY OUT the current residents to the tune of nearly $30k! I understand for these kinds of protections for tenants, so, while I do wish I could move into the Merced Hts home where I grew up, I am fortunate to be able to (hopefully!) select another neighborhood — likely PARK MERCED or even WEST LAKE in Daly City. I am thankful that the tech overclass and hipsters view Park Merced and West Lake as not “sexy” enough for their purposes! And once I do return with my two school aged children, I will be sure to look up the proprietor of this website/blog: He is doing a tremendous public service by providing this forum.

    Finally, if you have any issues with what I’ve just shared, please do write back. I am all about open Communication, I do not CARE if you find any of what I’ve shared “insulting.” If you are an adult, have a working brain, and any modicum of emotional EQ, you should be able to engage in an informed, respectful debate. Or so it would seem.

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