Ever Upward: The Excelsior, the Blue-Collar Soul of the City, Struggles to Keep It Real in San Francisco's Era of Make-Believe

The bus rocks ever so slightly as you crest College Hill. The drunk teenagers surrounding you drop whatever's in the baggie. Hilarity ensues. It wakes you up.

For decades, few outsiders other than dozing public transit patrons would find themselves in this part of town. And few who lived here would be much compelled to venture out. You glance down at your city map to collect your bearings. But that's no help at all: Like a mariner of the Magellanic era, you've sailed clear off its southern edge.

Here there be nail salons.

You've discovered the Excelsior, home to nearly 40,000 San Franciscans along the city's southernmost section of Mission Street. It manages the impressive feat of simultaneously being one of this city's largest and least-known neighborhoods. As recently as 2005, the author of a guidebook illustrating the history of this corner of the city wrote that the purpose of penning a history of the Excelsior District was to inform the average San Franciscan that there is, indeed, a district called the Excelsior. A recent supervisorial candidate made putting the district “back on the map” his campaign slogan.

He lost.

Even so, the lifers here — and you will never run into more lifers than you do here — have a chip on their shoulders. They resent that the area in which they were born and raised has been ignored by the city writ large.

But there are worse things than being ignored: At long last, the Excelsior has been noticed.

College Hill, like so many things here, is a place best known for what it used to be (St. Mary's College up and moved to the East Bay in 1889, beating the trend by a century). The Excelsior Woolworth's is now a dollar store, giving off that medicinal, plastic dollar-store smell. The beloved Granada Theater, the pride and joy of the district for six decades, is today a Goodwill. The marquees for a mile of mom 'n' pop stores with jaunty Italian names ending in vowels are still here. But those stores, mom 'n' pop, and the Italians are all long gone.

Now it's more than just the boozy 14-Mission cresting that hill. It's BMWs and Volvos and the well-heeled refugees within them, fleeing from a monetary onslaught pricing them out of everywhere in this city but here.

They are coming.

You step off the bus at Mission and Brazil Avenue and begin your ascent. It's something of a world tour; the streets perpendicular to Mission are named for nations of the world (Peru, Russia, France, Italy) and the parallel streets are world capitals (London, Paris, Lisbon, Edinburgh; that last one is, for now, pronounced “Edinburg” in the local vernacular because, for decades, it was spelled that way). Other tracts feature streets named for 19th-century intellectuals (Danton, Rousseau, Lamartine, Lyell) and international universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Bowdoin, even Goettingen. Nobody's quite sure how to pronounce that one.

The Excelsior is quite possibly the least pretentious corner of all San Francisco. Its street names, however, are the most pretentious.

At Athens Street you turn left off the hill and walk up an even bigger hill. You join a processional of young people filing into a modest home. Everyone dons surgical booties as they clomp around the three-bedroom, one-bathroom shoebox-like structure aptly described as “charming” on the literature stacked in a corner.

The asking price is just shy of $850,000. Someone will likely pay this. Someone will likely pay significantly more. Quite possibly in cash, and quite possibly acting for an overseas buyer, purchasing sight unseen.

The phenomena of San Francisco homes going for prices befitting space tourism is not new. But, in the Excelsior, a different, more elemental Rubicon has been crossed.

This neighborhood has been, since its inception, a refuge for immigrants and workers — the pressure valve of the city and San Francisco's family neighborhood of last resort. The Excelsior's very name (“ever upward” in Latin) is a nod to its preconceived role as a rung on the ladder of the American Dream. For more than a century, this was a repository of the unionized, blue-collar families that, literally, made San Francisco work. In the eyes of this neighborhood's most ardent boosters, it will always be this way.

But that's tenuous. In August, the median sales price for a home here hit $771,000 — a market peak and 54 percent spike over just two years. Amazingly enough, the Excelsior remains San Francisco's neighborhood of last resort. But not for blue-collar, working-class families.

“Millionaires are not moving into the Excelsior,” says district Supervisor John Avalos. But, after a moment's thought, he revises his statement. “Okay, multi-millionaires are not moving into the Excelsior.”

Oh, but they are coming. The waves of money that broke at College Hill during previous times of plenty are now coursing down into the neighborhood. Area denizens are besieged by Realtors' glossy postcards announcing the hovel across the street sold for three-quarters of a million dollars; new arrivals answer the door to find their elderly neighbors asking “How much? How much?” Those neighbors, meanwhile, are answering the door themselves, to men offering cash on the spot for houses not for sale.

Change is inevitable. Change is under way. For so long, the Excelsior represented everything San Francisco wished itself to be: a city of neighborhoods, a middle-class milieu, a way station on the American Dream, and — even now — a place with twice as many households with kids as the city average. But, today, the Excelsior increasingly represents what San Francisco is: a place as bifurcated as it is diverse and increasingly stratified between the affluent and an underclass of hardscrabble immigrants living many to a room in basements and garages.

All the while, the cost of buying in — and staying in — spirals ever upward.

Shaking Catherine Consiglieri's hand is a memorable experience. She's a petite 68-year-old with a shock of white hair pulled back in a ponytail. But don't be fooled: That grip is iron.

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This runs in the family. Her father, John, was, in fact, an iron man. He wrought and installed the rebar incongruously caging the trees in front of the family home. He and his union brethren more or less built this place anew after it burned in 1954. It's a boxy, single-story home that fits in with the others on the block. But a painting hanging in the parlor reveals what it looked like before the blaze and before there were other homes on the block: a grandiose Victorian complete with a minaret-like turret, surrounded by acres upon acres of farmland.

Despite the Excelsior's self-styled patina of upward mobility, a more fitting mantra for much of the last century would be “Stick Around.” People did. The neighborhood enjoyed lengthy periods of equilibrium between its punctuated spikes of upheaval. The Excelsior formed its identity in those times. That took generations. Losing it did not.

And so, from the airy, well-lit kitchen of her childhood home, Consiglieri can point out everywhere the Italians used to live: her father's childhood home, her mother's childhood home, and half a dozen other nearby nests in the branches of the family tree. Everyone matriculated to Catholic schools that no longer exist or Balboa High School, also visible from the Consiglieri kitchen. Back then, it was important not only to wed a fellow Italian, but one hailing from your province (Genoa, in this case).

As with so much else, this didn't require leaving the block, much less leaving the Excelsior.

Leaving the Excelsior was left to Catherine Consiglieri's generation. Of the 50 or so classmates at Corpus Christi parish she keeps up with, only two remain in the old neighborhood. John Consiglieri died in May at age 96 (his handshake was a bone-crusher up to the end). In his later years, he loved showing the Corpus Christi schoolchildren the little farm he kept in the backyard; it didn't matter to him that, by then, they were nearly exclusively Latinos.

At times, however, he'd shake his head and wonder out loud where all the Italians went.

“The population is surprisingly stable in the Excelsior,” reads a 1968 San Francisco Chronicle story profiling the city's mysterious hinterlands. “The turnover rate [is] low and people who move away after growing up in the neighborhood frequently return.”

Within a few short years, this statement would be as dated as the Chronicle's praise of the branch library's collection of Jefferson Airplane phonograph records; the Excelsior underwent a prodigious bout of White Flight as Italians, spooked by the onset of school busing and incursions of Central Americans into their neighborhood, stampeded to the outer rings of the East Bay and the Peninsula.

They left, and quickly. But then, they arrived quickly too.

After North Beach was smote by the Great Quake of 1906, cavalcades of Italians descended upon this sparsely populated realm of Irish subsistence farmers cut off from the rest of the city (a horsecart ride downtown and back was a seven-hour undertaking). The streetcar lines that eventually linked the Excelsior to civilization boasted faster commute times than surface transit today.

And yet, the neighborhood remained isolated. It was never a destination. And, if you were already here, it was self-contained. “When I was a kid, you had places to go. And you never needed to leave,” recalls Jacquie Chavez, whose Nicaraguan family moved to “The Big E” in 1972 and was the first Spanish-speakers on her block. You had ice-cream parlors, delis, coffee shops, the movie house, and on Geneva, drive-in movies and a bowling alley. You had your keggers by the blue tower at McLaren Park. Kids shot the shit at the bike and skate shop.

All of that is gone, as are most of the people who'd know to miss it. There really aren't many hip amenities here. But new people are coming, droves of them, in spite of this. Or, perhaps, because of it.

Not long ago, the children of the Italian family across the street from the Consiglieris put the house up for sale when its elder generation made every San Franciscan's inevitable final move — to the vast necropolis of Colma. This is happening more and more in The Big E these days. As is what came next on the Consiglieri's block. The asking price was $799,000. The family received more than a dozen bids. Some were in the 800s. Some were in the 900s. But a young tech baron bought the place for nearly $1.1 million.

His friends were charmed with the neighborhood. One of them scooped up a nearby house for $1.3 million. Up the block, meanwhile, at least three generations of one or more Chinese families live under one roof. At any hour of the day, someone is likely folding cardboard and loading it into a pickup truck. Catherine Consiglieri admires their industriousness. “Those trucks,” she says, “are getting newer and newer.”

Other neighbors' activities are more clandestine. The cops are not infrequent visitors to a house down the street. No one is quite sure why. This would be unthinkable in a neighborhood that was static and tight-knit until even quite recently. But that was then. Consiglieri isn't sure what her neighbors are up to these days — or even who they are.

In 1942, the Stoneson brothers, a pair of Icelandic Canadians, got the opportunity to do what they loved best: develop large swaths of San Francisco and slap their name on it. They quickly and inexpensively threw together Stonecrest, a suburban-style neighborhood on the Excelsior's northern tip. Its 300 essentially identical five-room houses were intended for wartime shipbuilders and steel workers who'd hop the No. 44 bus on Silver Avenue to the bustling waterfront.

The streets here are unsubtly named Stoneyford, Stoneybrook, and Gladstone.

With backing from the Federal Housing Administration, a buyer needed only to scare up a 10 percent down payment; the neighborhood, like the Excelsior writ large, soon blossomed into a blue-collar Valhalla. There was a catch, though: The FHA would only provide mortgage backing for white people.

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Perhaps karmically, the Excelsior has become San Francisco's most diverse neighborhood. Waves of Latinos moved here in the 1970s (the district's white, working-class voters responded by electing Supervisor Dan White — an Irish Catholic cop and firefighter who was described in the papers as the “All-American boy type” even during his murder trial). And, over the past several decades, Asians — mostly Chinese — have flocked here. Data from the 2010 census reveal the Excelsior is now half Asian and 30 percent Latino; the vast majority of its residents do not speak English at home.

Head to any open house here and you'll meet battalions of young Chinese families, often with children and aging parents in tow. Multigenerational households aren't uncommon, nor are multiple families pooling their resources and buying homes together.

These are often cash transactions. Realtor Lily Cao says half of her sales are cash deals; some of her buyers have purchased multiple homes in the area. “For children. For school. Or just for an investment.” Oftentimes, Cao's moneyed mainland Chinese and Hong Kong clients will obtain an Excelsior home, move in friends or relatives (or both), and decamp home overseas. “Sometimes the buyer doesn't even see the house,” she says. “A representative says okay. As long as the condition is okay, no problem. Just buy it.”

Even for those left behind, one of the major Excelsior selling points pushed by Cao and other Realtors is how easy it is to leave. Its proximity to downtown San Francisco isn't nearly as valuable as the ease with which a commuter can reach a tech job in the South Bay.

In a part of the city in which established homeowners actually place orange cones in front of their houses (a parking spot in front of one's residence is apparently a birthright), the influx of cash-slinging neighbors — especially ones who don't resemble “All-American boy types” — has raised hackles.

But a white picket fence and a Chevy Monte Carlo out front is only one version of the American Dream. There are others. The (often unwelcome) Latino families who inspired the unsubtle political campaign “Unite and Fight With Dan White” had theirs. And the (often unwelcome) Asian families now flooding into the district have theirs too.

The rungs on this ladder, however, have grown far apart. The only way this neighborhood — and this city — remains an “affordable” option for the “middle class” is via semantic warfare. Mayor Ed Lee told Time magazine that middle-class earners here may bank $150,000 a year. Perhaps these are the people residing in homes the city qualifies as affordable, which is anything up to $1.5 million.

One out of every three houses in the Excelsior, meanwhile, is equipped with an illegal in-law unit. Informal polling reveals the inhabitants of these often-substandard dwellings are overwhelmingly Asian and Latino, pay far below market rent, and have far more children per capita than their above-ground neighbors. One basement-dweller says he doesn't even know how many people live in his house.

He was surprised to learn that, come November, his garage will be the neighborhood polling place.

A life underground is the only opportunity for the members of this hidden community to even conceivably reside in San Francisco. Opportunities for families unable to buy homes or unwilling to crowd illegal in-laws dwindle, even in the Excelsior. Even here, a neighborhood in large part set aside for the middle class, the population is growing bifurcated between the well-to-do and the underprivileged.

There is, however, the occasional miracle. A recent stroll through Stonecrest, a stone's throw from your humble narrator's home, was interrupted by a U-Haul blocking much of Stoneyford. The new arrivals to the neighborhood were a couple, both schoolteachers. Neither would likely have qualified for the FHA's race-based mortgage backing. They only managed to land this house because the listing agent, a former schoolteacher, bent over backwards for them.

A recent essay on the Stonecrest neighborhood by the architectural historian Chris VerPlanck notes that “the houses were of necessity built quickly, using inexpensive materials, and have not stood up well to the test of time. Much of the maintenance that has taken place over the last 70 years has been done using poor-quality materials that have negatively affected the integrity of the neighborhood.”

The teachers were elated to have bought in for a mere $630,000. The path ever upward grows ever narrower and ever steeper.

Jacquie Chavez attended Balboa High during its “lowrider phase.” If you were cool, you drove a lowrider. And if you didn't drive a lowrider, well, you weren't very cool.

Each clique had its real estate at Balboa then: The “hardcore cholos and cholas” hung down by the basement stairs; the recently arrived Spanish-speakers stayed by the cafeteria; the Samoans staked out the football field; the blacks had the basketball blacktop; the Filipinos were over by the tennis courts. The kids interested in venturing outside their cultural and ethnic groups, meanwhile, gathered at the flagpole.

When asked where residents of today's Excelsior District can find the figurative neighborhood flagpole, the mother of five pauses. “You know,” she says quietly, “We really don't have a flagpole in the Excelsior now.”

They're not cruising in lowriders here anymore; the city unsubtly installed no turn signs along strategic Mission Street intersections and police swooped down upon Latino-operated muscle cars. Gangbangers are no longer apt to careen up and down Persia Street as was so often the case in the past (Excelsior and Daly City gangs were aligned against those in the Mission). Many thugs made that move to Colma, too.

Cops aren't being overpowered anymore in wild bowling alley parking lot melees. Miscreants aren't dumping bodies and appliances and bodies within appliances at McLaren Park. Folks who can't make the payments on the Oldsmobile aren't setting it on fire in the park anymore either.

The city has aged out of its wild years. So has the Excelsior. Balboa has quietly become one of the city's better-performing schools. Its racial makeup largely matches the district's own.

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Excelsior residents, absent the chaos of a grittier era, can now glance about — at the mattresses and filth littering the streets, at the grimy awnings on the businesses, at the litany of shuttered storefronts and other affronts to their quality of life — and call for something better. But it's hard for a neighborhood that can't decide what it is to chart a path to what it will be. In a neighborhood trending younger and more diverse, Excelsior booster groups skew disproportionately old and white. (You can still find city natives speaking in Brooklyn-like San Francisco accents here).

Every troop of activists may dislike elements of the status quo — but not nearly as much as they seem to dislike one another. And yet, when members of the warring neighborhood parties are spurred, privately, to share their dreams for the retail corridor, they all desire the same sorts of things: ice-cream parlors, delis, coffee shops, a pet store, a bike and skate shop. And keep it neat and clean.

In short: the past.

The old-timers pine for the Excelsior of their memories. And the newcomers desire the neighborhood their very presence has helped to erase.

The past, however, is holding back the Excelsior from whatever its preferred future may be. Commercial leases here hover between $2 and $2.50 a square foot; restaurateurs tell your humble narrator their monthly rents are one-third what they could have found in the Mission — 10 years ago. Meanwhile, million-dollar homeowners are rolling into the area. There's talk of condos, condos, condos coming to every underutilized scrap of the corridor. Business ought to be hopping here.

But it's not. A stroll up and down the mile-long Mission corridor reveals nearly 40 vacant or dilapidated storefronts — a 16 percent rate. Foot traffic is sparse, even on weekends.

A number of these commercial buildings, it turns out, are owned by family trusts and have been in the same hands for eons. Many are crumbling and woefully out of code. Even with low rent, the move-in costs for a small business of the sort that'd hope to make a go of it in the Excelsior are prohibitive.

But, since the buildings were paid off during the Truman administration, they can be left vacant with few repercussions. And, since the owners no longer live here, they may rent space to businesses not exactly inspiring pride of place among Excelsior residents.

Fifteen people — 12 men, three women — languish in the stifling heat of an illegal online casino at 4 p.m. on a Sunday. They stare, catatonically, at the cartoonish swirling fruits of the virtual slot machines. The “Ping! Ping! Ping!” befitting a Nevada truck stop is partially mitigated by the loud and ill-fitting music blaring over the sound system: Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

One day later, the first of September, the joint is closed down per an agreement with the City Attorney. There are still surreptitious gambling dens to be found within the shuttered and padlocked vacant storefronts here on the Mission corridor. After-hours, you can sit alongside sketchy characters, put your money on the table, and take your chances in every sense of the phrase. But the scourge of overt, all-hours online casinos along the Excelsior's main drag has been legally quashed.

The most noisome of those casinos, Net Stop, was promptly replaced with yet another Excelsior dollar store. This, crestfallen locals admit, amounted to a Pyrrhic victory.

The infestation of overt gambling dens, lumped in with mounds of trash on side streets or graffiti-strewn empty businesses, has added to Excelsior residents' sense of indignation.

Why must the city's detritus, physical and metaphysical, always wash up here?

Does a one-mile stretch of real estate really require half a dozen marijuana dispensaries? No, grumble the indignant community activists. Though they do appreciate that the dispensary represented by a striking young woman wearing Cleopatra eyeliner — who dutifully attended the Excelsior District Improvement Association monthly meeting along with nine other people (and a dachshund) — has hired security, installed benches and greenery, has a guy sweep up the sidewalks, and is lobbying the city for a crosswalk in a precarious intersection. The dispensary may yet be greenlit to sponsor the forthcoming community festival.

It is, after all, a good neighbor.

San Francisco did indeed age out of its wild years; the future of so many of its neighborhoods is predictable if not preordained. But not here. The Excelsior is a place that highlights both the city's great changes and its residents' deep disdain for them. It never was and never will be the most exciting part of San Francisco. In a heavily home-owning district, however, residents won't suffer the wave of displacement that transformed the Mission. In that neighborhood, the vibrant cultural institutions established by past generations were transformed into Realtors' bullet-points. The Excelsior, to put it mildly, isn't like that. For new residents and old, it's a place to park the car and raise the family. It's a place to experience San Francisco — but on your terms.

But today's city is increasingly imposing its terms on everyone, even in the outer neighborhoods. The demographic and economic ramifications of our protracted Gold Rush are impossible to ignore.

They are coming.

Thirty years ago, Noe Valley was still an ostensibly blue collar enclave. Realtors, oblivious to this, now dub the Excelsior “the New Noe Valley.” How prescient. But the Excelsior's precarious mix of affluence and poverty; of overlapping races and cultures; of newcomers commingling with stalwarts and adult heirs weighing what to do with grandma's house makes it difficult to foresee in what direction this neighborhood will go.

And it may not go in just one.

Perhaps affordable housing developments may yet preserve the neighborhood's traditional character. And perhaps the retail corridor will, in the future, reflect the neighborhood it serves: a mix of races and classes living alongside one another.

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Or perhaps a starker future awaits. Establishments catering to well-heeled newcomers could price out those patronized by its struggling underclass. The businessmen drawn by low rents and neighborhood potential could yet be swamped by the very success they beget. A rising tide may lift all boats, but it's quite a different situation for those tethered to the ground.

On the other hand, Excelsior newcomers may not even think to give a damn about their gritty retail corridor. They may drive to the Safeway or the spiffy new Whole Foods on Ocean Avenue surrounded by all those condos, condos, condos. Cao says her Chinese clients still prefer to do their shopping in Chinatown; she doesn't even bother to talk up the corridor.

Those who do shop in the neighborhood may simply migrate to and from their chosen stores and restaurants, never giving a moment's thought to the totality of the place they live in, the types of establishments they don't frequent, or the types of people who'd frequent them.

There is, after all, no flagpole here.

The Southeast is Red.

And never more so than on a Sunday. It gets real quiet here during game days. Until, invariably, it gets real loud. This is what the 49ers left behind when they abandoned this city: The Latino brothers in Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith jerseys arguing about the game in Spanish; the ebullient man who unfurls a bedsheet-sized San Francisco flag as he teeters atop an AT&T utility box; the woman who walks out of one of the 25-odd hair or nail salons along the Excelsior Mission corridor with red-and-gold talons.

This will always be 49ers territory, even if the privilege of attending the games has been wrenched away from this population and rendered the exclusive domain of wealthy arrivistes willing to buy in at any cost.

It's hard to miss the deeper meanings here.

“I love this city,” says community organizer Oscar Grande, an Excelsior lifer and father of four in a part of town where that's not yet an aberration. “But I don't feel like it loves me back.”

Grande and his family have made a life here because, in a prior epoch, the city's love wasn't merely apportioned to the highest bidder. His father, a union janitor, was able to afford a house here within five years of emigrating from El Salvador. Because of that, subsequent generations of Grandes can stay in San Francisco as well. It's that sense of nostalgia that keeps people here — in this neighborhood and this city. But not nostalgia if it's still happening.

A few months back, sirens blared and the harsh, smoky odors of a nearby fire pervaded a side street along the Excelsior's southern tip. An impromptu block party of curious neighbors ensued. Men and women laughed and talked on the streets; kids rode bikes and played with dogs; old women leaned off their porches and chatted with one another.

In that fleeting moment, everyone knew where the flagpole was. In that fleeting moment, it looked a bit like San Francisco.

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