Weekend Reading: Savvy Perspectives on a Changing San Francisco

Spiral Sunset

Let’s take a moment took to survey the City of San Francisco, which we can see so clearly from our elevated perch in Bernal Heights.

As you know, San Francisco is a place that was, in no small part, created by great economic booms. (We even named our NFL team after one.) We are now in the midst of the latest boom, fueled largely — but not entirely — by the growth of our local technology industry.

Fun Fact: Did you know that since 2007, the City of San Francisco has generated more new private sector jobs than 47 out of 50 states? Only Texas, New York, and North Dakota created more jobs than San Francisco. Wow. That’s kind of nuts.

Yet as every true student of San Francisco history knows, prosperity is an awkward thing. Prosperity brings new problems in San Francisco — most of all in the domains of housing and urban culture. Our current boom is no exception, and there has been ample grousing about the perils of gentrification, evictions, displacement, cultural homogenization, and the goddamn kids these days. Bernal Heights often appears as a backdrop in these teeth-gnashing pieces about the changes taking place in San Francisco, and some of the most cranky grumbling has even come from our very own Bernal neighbors.

So what is to be done? How did we get here? Who is to blame? What are we becoming?

Thankfully, a few thoughtful essays have been written recently that transcend the ideological hysteria and self-absorbed nostalgia that have dominated the conversation thus far. If you’re in the mood, they make for good weekend reading.

The first is a must-read piece of analysis by Kim-Mai Cutler, entitled “How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained).” It’s a longread that masterfully combines quantitative data with historical perspective, economics, and policy analysis to clearly explain how and why San Francisco ended up being so darn expensive right now:

Everyone who lives in the Bay Area today needs to accept responsibility for making changes where they live so that everyone who wants to be here, can.

The alternative — inaction and self-absorption — very well could create the cynical elite paradise and middle-class dystopia that many fear. I’ve spent time looking into the city’s historical housing and development policies. With the protests escalating again, I am pretty tired of seeing the city’s young and disenfranchised fight each other amid an extreme housing shortage created by 30 to 40 years of NIMBYism (or “Not-In-My-Backyard-ism”) from the old wealth of the city and down from the peninsula suburbs.

Here is a very long explainer. Sorry, this isn’t a shorter post or that I didn’t break it into 20 pieces. If you’re wondering why people are protesting you, how we got to this housing crisis, why rent control exists or why tech is even shifting to San Francisco in the first place, this is meant to provide some common points of understanding.

This is a complex problem, and I’m not going to distill it into young, rich tech douchebags-versus-helpless old ladies facing eviction. There are many other places where you can read that story.

It does us all no justice.

If you read nothing else on this topic in 2014, Kim-Mai Cutler’s essay is the one to curl up with. The smartness will make your brain so much bigger you may need to buy new hats.

On the cultural side of the ledger, left-leaning San Francisco journalist (and former Bernal neighbor) Gary Kamiya just published a refreshing perspective on San Francisco’s current circumstances, and the phenomenon he calls The Change:

The Change is an unconquerable force of nature, like death. And much of the reaction to it recalls the first three stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving: a combination of denial, anger, and bargaining. If we yell and rage loudly enough, if we find someone to blame, if we replace reason with hyperbole— [Leftist writer Rebecca] Solnit memorably compared newly arrived techies to ivory collectors in China—then somehow the city we know will come back. This reaction is not surprising. Cities are always dying—their phenomenology is harsh, irrevocable, tragic. The building or business that you saw yesterday, that was an old friend for decades, today is gone forever. Enormous changes are never easy to deal with, and it’s human nature to want to fight back, to assert control. So it’s understandable that many progressive San Franciscans, people whose values and vision I share, are kicking and screaming and spray-stenciling sidewalks as they watch their city turning into something they don’t recognize.

But cities are also always being reborn. And as I wander through our new city, I find myself open to it. I’m not convinced that it is really going to become a soulless simulacrum of Manhattan (or worse, Atherton). I’m curious to know what San Francisco in 2025 or 2050 will look and feel like. I’m interested in the young people who are pouring in. When I wander through Dolores Park on a hot Saturday afternoon and watch the throngs hanging out, talking, drinking wine, smoking weed, and listening to music, I don’t examine them suspiciously, trying to figure out which ones are the bad techies and which ones are the good baristas (except for the people playing that inane toss-the-beanbag game—they gotta go). As I walk through Nob Hill or the Mission or mid-Market and see the fancy single-family homes or the sleek high-rise apartments that are sprouting up here and there, I don’t inwardly groan (except with real estate envy). Mostly, I view them with equanimity, as if they’re seedlings growing in the forest.

For even if it were possible to keep San Francisco exactly the way it is—and it isn’t—why would anyone want to? Any such attempt would be antithetical to the very things that I value most about the city: its youth, its vigor, its ability to reinvent itself. Responding to the Change by calling for a culture war—as several leading voices of the left have done—is a recipe for personal bitterness and public divisiveness. Ultimately, it transforms tragedy, which is painful yet fruitful, into politics, which is painful and fruitless.

The intelligence and perspective Kamiya provides will have you thinking for days.

Happy reading, and have a great weekend.

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics

SF Chronicle Urban Design Critic Eschews Urbanism, Succumbs to Nostalgia



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.

They’re here.

This is happening.

Get fucking used to it.

Next Saturday Sept. 28: Big Block Party on Elsie Street, and You’re Invited!

Bakeoff Winners



Indian summer is here (pretty much), and your neighbors on Elsie Street are throwing their big annual block party NEXT Saturday, Sept 28. All Citizens of Bernalwood are herewith invited to join the fun:

A Neighborhood Gem for Your Enjoyment

The 7th Annual Elsie Street Block Party
Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013
12 Noon~3pm
Elsie Street between Cortland & Eugenia
Bernal Heights, San Francisco

** Bake-Off
** Bhangra Dancers
** Bouncy House
** Bean Bag Toss
** Barbecue
** Piñata
** Elsie Debut of Wolfie the Puppet

Freely presented with lots of heart and talent by Elsie Street Neighbors.

  • The beautiful Bhangra dancers return to perform and teach us
  • Lots of Baking Sweat Behind those Bake-Off Smiles (You can be a judge!)
  • Ye Olde Bouncy House on our Block
  • The Piñata for the Kids’ Enjoyment
  • Wolfie and Puppeteer Nick Jones make their Elsie Debut this year
  • Busting Out the Brand-New Bernal Bean Bag Toss

And the Darnedest Friendliest Neighbors!

PHOTOS: 2012 Elsie Block Party

Census Visualization Reveals Racial Geography of Bernal Heights


Dustin Cable is senior policy researcher and statistician with the Demographics & Workforce Group at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. He recently completed a “Racial Dot Map” that uses data from the 2010 census to illustrate “geographic distribution, population density, and racial diversity of the American people in every neighborhood in the entire country.”

Each dot represents one person, with each race shown in a different color. The result is a vast, visual map that Wired calls “the most comprehensive map of race in America ever created.”

The image above is the racial dot map of San Francisco. The resolution of the interactive version of the dot map is limited, but we can zoom and enhance to get closer look at Bernal Heights:



There’s an impressive amount of mixing going on here in Bernal, even as there are also some very clear patterns of clustering. What you see here could quite literally be described as a kind of ethno-geographic Rorschach Test.

So shall we discuss? Let’s discuss.

MAPS: via the interactive Racial Dot Map

Neighbor Chuck Captures “Everyday Sights in Bernal Heights”





Neighbor Chuck B went for one of his occasional walks around Bernal Heights recently. (Bernalwood covered his last one, back in March.)

Equipped with a camera and his deep knowledge of our local flora, Neighbor Chuck captured a terrific series of snapshots that shows our neighborhood in its full seasonal glory. The result was another one of his wonderful “Everyday Sights in Bernal Heights” blog posts:

Ugh. I worked all day yesterday. Saturday! Today I went for a walk (and worked some more when I got home). It was summer-like, and got hotter as the day wore on.




There’s lots more where all this came from, so do check it all out over at Chuck B’s blog, My Back 40 (Feet).

PHOTOS: Chuck B.

All Are Invited to the Elsie Street Block Party on Saturday

Neighbor Michael invites all Citizens of Bernalwood to attend the fashionable Elsie Street Block Party that will take place tomorrow afternoon:

Bernal Neighbors – You are cordially invited to the 6th Annual Elsie Street Block Party, between Cortland & Eugenia, this Saturday, Sept. 29 from Noon to 3pm.

Bhangra Dancers at 1pm. Ten of them! Be a judge in the Bake-Off Contest, Jump in the Bouncy House, Swat a Pinata (if you’re young enough), enjoy food, drink and great company. Be carefree and carfree on the Best Block of Bernal.