San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King has become the latest in a series of Baby Boomer journalists to lament how much more vibrant and exciting Bernal Heights was back in the wooly days before the Baby Boomers became… old. In a big column about Bernal that ran on B1 in yesterday’s newspaper, King writes:
Cortland Avenue, the commercial strip, doesn’t have the boutiques you might find on Fillmore Street. But the influx of affluent younger couples can be seen at VinoRosso, a wine bar that on Wednesdays holds a happy hour for parents and their babies.
Two blocks away, a shop specializing in electric bicycles opened last year next to Wild Side West, a lesbian-owned bar that’s been on Cortland since 1976.
The scene was far different when [D9 Supervisor David] Campos’ predecessor, Tom Ammiano, moved to the neighborhood in 1972.
“Cortland was not a warm and fuzzy place back then, especially for a gay man,” Ammiano said while sitting in Progressive Grounds, a coffee house where the only nod to the 21st century is the free Wi-Fi that’s heavily used. “I didn’t come over here for years.”
What attracted Ammiano and his boyfriend at the time wasn’t politics, but low prices: Their real estate agent said they’d be fools to pass up a $27,000 house with parking and a city view.
Pioneers by default, “Bernal grew on us,” Ammiano said. “The neighbors were always fine. The creep of gentrification came almost unnoticed.”
“It’s bittersweet,” Ammiano mused. “Bernal feels a lot safer, and people are engaged more. But I also know that most of the new wave doesn’t know the history. I’m a little worried it will get more and more generic – the whole city is facing it.”
The transitions are equally apparent to Rachel Ebora, executive director of the [Bernal Heights] neighborhood center.
The center today has 30 full- and part-time employees and a $2 million budget, much of it from government grants that go to specific programs, such as the subsidized elderly lunches that continue to be a mainstay. The center’s development corporation has helped build 445 units of low-income housing, with another 71 apartments under construction in the Ingleside neighborhood.
“I’m really proud to be a Bernal resident,” said Ebora, who moved to the neighborhood from Portland, Ore., in 2005 and worked as a taiko drummer before joining the center as a community organizer. “All the different groups here can be like factions, but they’re not afraid to be engaged about what’s happening.”
The question is what happens next.
Bernal is buffered from mass evictions by the fact that 58 percent of its homes are occupied by their owners, compared with a citywide rate of 38 percent. But each time an older house goes on the market, put there by the families of blue-collar parents no longer living, or aging children of the 1960s seeking an easier place to live, the economic diversity narrows a bit more.
And so on. As told by King, we are to understand that Cortland used to be a bleak and crime-ridden place, but now it has a vibrant wine bar and a thriving electric bicycle shop, which means… something that is left unsaid. Yet rather than celebrate this entrepreneurial transformation from the muck of urban squalor, King and his interlocutors would have us believe that Bernal is now a less interesting and close-knit place than it used to be.
Your Bernalwood editor wasn’t here in the 1970s or 1980s, so who knows if that’s true. And besides, who cares? What we know with absolute certainty is that Bernal is an interesting and close-knit place in 2013, and that Bernal residents — both new and old — are actively committed to making this the very best neighborhood it can be.
Moreover, a lot of these newer and highly engaged Bernal Heights neighbors are tired of being told that they are nowhere near as righteous or as committed or as interesting as the dewy-eyed Baby Boomers who colonized Bernal during the 197os and 1980s.
Neighbor Robert read King’s article in the Chronicle yesterday, and in an email to Bernalwood, he had this say about it:
They’re right, things are changing, with the rich yuppies moving in. But that started 16 years ago when the first dotcommers (us!) bought in. That’s when houses that had been $200K started selling for $300-500K, which was massive for Bernal at that time. And it happened in the 1960s, because at that point they stopped rejecting multi-ethnic families [under the previous redlining rules]. So all this has been going on for as long as this patch of City has been here.
I have a hard time with folks who want to hang on to a neighborhood’s particular ethos at the time they lived there. That’s as disrespectful to the folks who came before them as it is to the newer folks who are changing the neighborhood today. Basically, as politely as I can say it: They’re kind of hypocritical. And the fact that they don’t get that causes me to lose some respect for them. They’re smart folks. But if they don’t see all this, then maybe they’re not that smart. Sorry if I come off obnoxiously on this.
Here’s what another Bernal neighbor wrote to say after reading King’s piece:
Paraphrasing the Buddha, all is impermanent.
Neighborhoods change. Many of the people who have lived here a long time pushed someone out when they arrived. There are early gentrifiers, and there are late gentrifiers, and it seems that you always disdain the people who come after you.
For those who have tired of the new Bernal, the “next Bernal Heights” exists: it’s the Excelsior. Diverse community, engaged & organized neighborhood groups, good proximity to transit, decent weather, views, good parks, up-and-coming schools, etc., with relatively affordable (for SF) houses. You could take your Bernal profits now and move there and repeat the process, if that’s what you really want.
But when push comes to shove, many people don’t really want to move back in time to a neighborhood that’s still somewhat dangerous and scruffy, where there are some poorly maintained houses and not very many sidewalk trees.
Nostalgia for the old Bernal Heights leaves those details out. Obviously, these folks are also attached to the neighborhood, which is still pretty awesome. SF has a serious dearth of housing, and until there’s a lot more infill of one form or another, there’s going to be someone offering you a lot of cash when it comes time to sell your place. (By the way, there’s no rule that says you have to accept the highest, all-cash offer, but people seem to forget that when it comes to accept an offer.)
So if John King (or any other journalist of his generation) would like to come back to do another article about what’s really happening here on Bernal Hill in 2013, Bernalwood will be happy to assist. We will gladly introduce dozens of Bernal residents from younger generations who are neither politicians nor professional activists. He will meet people who are extremely well-versed in Bernal Heights history and who are actively engaged in the daily task of making this a better, more close-knit, and more beautiful place — regardless of whatever kind of work they happen to do during the day to pay the mortgage.
This is happening.
Get fucking used to it.