Can the Mission Save Itself from Commercial Gentrification?

While many efforts to preserve the neighborhood’s cultural backbone focus on affordable housing, United to Save the Mission rolls back gentrifying behavior one small business at a time.

For decades, Erick Arguello has been volunteering his time to preserve the Latinx culture of the Mission District. He was raised there, he went to Mission High, and he’s watched as the main corridors of the neighborhood have slowly evolved. Businesses for the thousands of working-class residents have closed, rent-controlled housing units have been bought and converted into condos, and upscale restaurants have replaced small, family-owned cafes.

While San Francisco is always changing, the Mission District has become ground zero for gentrification. It’s warm and sunny, it has two BART stations, and it’s filled with cheap eats and excellent nightlife. In spite of a widespread perception that the Mission is so gentrified that its salvation has become a lost cause, Arguello has never wavered in his belief that the neighborhood is still worth fighting for. In 1999, he helped found Calle 24, a grassroots, volunteer-run group that protects the diverse array of merchants, families, and artists who call the 24th Street corridor home.

In 2014, the city made Calle 24 an official cultural district.

“We’d been advocating with businesses — particularly mom-and-pop businesses — for a long time, to make sure they get the services they need in a culturally competent manner,” Arguello, who still volunteers with Calle 24 today, tells SF Weekly. “We had to bring their issues to the forefront, because we saw with gentrification that these businesses could disappear easily.”

A woman shops for fruit at a local Mission grocery. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

In the Mission, it’s largely people of color who dedicate hours of their week to combating the destructive influx of wealth in an effort to protect their neighbors. These are people who spend their free time organizing marches, who take days off work to go to Board of Supervisors hearings, and who toil over their computers late into the night studying the city’s planning code.

In a sense, that’s nothing new; the formation of Calle 24 has made official the type of organizing that many local activists had been working on for decades. And while much of the press around the neighborhood’s efforts to stem the tide of displacement have focused around major housing projects — like the so-called Monster in the Mission, which threatens to bring more than 300 luxury units to 16th and Mission streets — this is far from the only work longtime residents are doing to ensure that the neighborhood remains a comfortable, safe, and culturally aware space for its most vulnerable residents.

These activists have also, for at least 10 years, asked incoming businesses to sign what are known as “memorandums of understanding.”

Today, the coalition United to Save the Mission has taken on the task of negotiating these MOUs. Born in 2015, it’s made up of a wide array of organizations and individuals, a sort of umbrella coalition. It includes the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (which advocates for tenants’ rights), the Redstone Labor Temple (made up of a variety of nonprofits and artists operating in the old Redstone building on 16th Street), Our Mission NO Eviction, youth empowerment group HOMEY, custom furniture and design-build firm Factory 1, and many more.

“United to Save the Mission came from a very grassroots place to organize and protect the Mission,” Arguello says. “A lot of nonprofits, businesses, and individuals came together to give the community a chance to evaluate and think about what people can do to slow down, or stop the wave of gentrification.”

Using its members’ wide array of skills, United to Save the Mission has slowly become a powerhouse in the neighborhood. It provides support for commercial and residential tenants facing eviction and negotiates with new developers about affordable units. By drafting commercial MOUs, the organization helps incoming businesses provide local jobs, bilingual menu and signage, low-cost items, and services that meet the need of the predominantly Latinx community.

MOUs have historically been used as a means to help incoming shops, restaurants, and developments be friendlier to the people who live in the Mission, as opposed to just those who commute in or hang out there on Saturday night. While San Francisco’s Planning Department already has extensive guidelines for commercial spaces, MOUs aren’t an extra layer of city bureuacracy. They’re entirely neighborhood-driven, and much of what they do comes down to two things: education, and securing commitments from the new businesses to operate in good faith.

“People should do their homework when they come to the neighborhood, and know what’s going on,” Arguello says. “They shouldn’t be surprised about the activism and the sheer fight for survival. There’s been enough articles in the paper about what’s happening here.”

It’s no small task. No one gets paid to work for United to Save the Mission, and each MOU takes between 20 and 60 hours of volunteer work to complete. But for everyone involved, the payoff of preserving the longtime businesses and families in the neighborhood feels worth it.

Latin Bridal at 2644 Mission St. has lost many of its customers. (Photo: Nuala Sawyer)

One such business is quinceañera and formal-wear store Latin Bridal, located two blocks from 24th Street BART, and half a block from an empty lot where a 2015 house fire killed one resident and displaced dozens. To owner Silvia Ferrusquia, the preservation of the Mission is personal.

“Latin culture is part of San Francisco culture,” she says. “When we go, the Mission is not the Mission anymore. If everyone goes, it’s just one more city in the whole U.S. — and it’s boring. Who cares about San Francisco if it’s not San Francisco?”

Ferrusquia opened her shop in 1990, and has seen the neighborhood change around her. When she first started, she was selling dresses in a 750-square-foot store on 24th Street. Business was booming.

“My vendor said, ‘How can you sell this much? This is the smallest bridal business in the country!’ ” she laughs. “We were selling almost a million dollars a year. We went up to 12 employees there — in such a small store. I don’t know how we did it!”

But Latinx residents have gradually left the Mission due to evictions, rising rents, and limited job opportunities. In 2015, the San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst stated that the neighborhood has lost 27 percent of its Latinx community and 26 percent of its families with children since 2000.

The ramifications of this show up in odd ways. For years, Ferrusquia bought the same amount of Halloween candy to hand out to kids, and she would always run out. A few years ago, she began finding herself with leftovers at the end of the night. There simply aren’t as many families in the neighborhood, and for a quinceañera dress shop — which brings in an entire family for the special occasion of purchasing a gown — this loss is enormous.

“Americans don’t buy from us,” Ferrusquia states simply. “This is a special place for Latin people. It’s the soul of the Mission, this kind of business.”

Preserving cultural hubs like Latin Bridal is just one of the many goals the coalition behind United to Save the Mission works toward. And while it might seem like a stretch to link a new ramen place signing one of their MOUs with the long term preservation of a quinceañera shop, it’s really not. The more jobs, shops, restaurants, and housing there are for people who live in the neighborhood, the less likely it is they’ll leave — and the more likely it is that Ferrusquia will be able to work in the store she loves until she decides to retire.

At first glance, the MOUs that United to Save the Mission provides to new businesses include some radical requests. Each first draft is customized for the business the volunteers approach; a restaurant, for example, wouldn’t get the same copy as a coworking space. So the requests vary, from selecting certain artworks to incorporating awnings, but they’re always incredibly thorough, covering everything from hiring local employees, to creating spaces that are visually in line with the Mission’s cultural history, to having lower-priced items on the menu.

While new business owners may bristle at someone suggesting they operate in a certain way, the MOUs are not done with malicious intent — far from it. A business that serves a wide array of clients tends to be one that lasts longer, and conversely, a community that uses and appreciates that business will fight for its survival.

“We’ve seen on our side some businesses do not cater to everyone because of their price points and environment, it wasn’t welcoming to working-class folks, and those businesses are now closing,” Arguello says.

The Mission’s demographics have changed in the past few decades, as more Latinx families move out. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

When Bryan Tublin, cofounder of the health-food restaurant Kitava, first began working with United to Save the Mission volunteers, he was a little surprised at the number of requests.

“When I got the initial [MOU] draft, I was taken back initially at how aggressively worded it was. It appeared at first glance like it was trying to control how we operated,” he tells SF Weekly. “We invested a lot of money in opening this place. We do have a brand aesthetic we’re trying to promote here, and that makes a neighborhood unique — every place shouldn’t look the same.”

Kitava’s restaurant and catering company prides itself on “veggie-forward” meals with sustainably sourced meats, easily customizable for people with gluten-free, paleo, or vegan diets. It’s heavily branded — when we stopped in, Tublin was wearing a T-shirt with his restaurant’s name emblazoned across the chest — and it opened on 16th and Mission streets in a location formerly occupied by a McDonald’s.

“Historically, this block hasn’t been associated with dining out,” Tublin says. But the situation was too perfect. “The location was available, it has a big kitchen, it’s accessible, it’s zoned to be a restaurant. And then the irony of the fact that it was a McDonalds. … We could flip that on its head. We know our style of food is needed in this city and in the Bay Area — why not do it here?”

Good intentions aside, a health restaurant headed by white dudes on one of the most Latinx-heavy corners of the Mission doesn’t necessarily make for great optics. But Kitava, partly through Tublin’s willingness to participate with United to Save the Mission’s MOU, has defied all stereotypes to become a model business for the Mission District. The menus are printed in both English and Spanish. In its vast rear kitchen, Kitava hosts cooking classes with local nonprofits, even doing an affordable healthy-eating series with items purchased from the nearby supermarket Foods Co. Local community groups get discounts, and Kitava holds fundraisers for nonprofits. A large-scale mural on the back wall by local artist Carlos Gonzales provides a similar vibe in the health food joint to nearby taquerias. At least two items are under $10. The goal was to create a space that felt approachable and welcome to all walks of life, be it a Latina grandmother or a millennial straight out of yoga class.

“It helps a business for the long term to integrate and become part of the community in a number of ways,” Arguello says. “The art, who they hire and from where, the language their menus are in, they all make a difference.”

To be fair, many of the above perks Kitava provides the Mission are things Tublin wanted to do anyway. When challenged to create a couple menus under $10 that could be eaten as a “worker’s lunch,” he stepped outside and asked people how much they were spending at the now-closed Burger King. “$7!” they answered — so that’s what he matched.

“Obviously, we’re a business and want to succeed as a business, but not at the detriment of what the community wants,” Tublin says.

But still, it’s not exactly comfortable to have a neighborhood group show up at the brand-new business which you’ve poured blood, sweat, and tears into, and start making demands. Tublin enthusiastically embraced the MOU, but not without some give-and-take on both sides.

“For instance, I wasn’t going to agree to repaint our walls a certain color, because I believe business owners should have certain freedoms, and that’s crossing a little bit of a line,” he says. The mural done by Gonzalez — who United to Save the Mission connected Kitava with — was a compromise on that front, and Tublin loves it.

“He did an amazing job,” Tublin says. “He went all out in terms of incorporating Kitava’s brand, which I loved.”

Additional requests, such as that Tublin hire a certain percentage of employees from certain local ZIP codes, came with more flexibility than he initially thought.

“They just want to see good-faith effort,” he says about United to Save the Mission. “It’s not as if they’re like ‘In a month, you have to make all these changes.’ They just want us to be working toward these goals. I think the initial language said, ‘You will guarantee you’ll have a certain number of employees from certain ZIP codes,’ and we negotiated it to say that ‘We will make a good-faith effort to hire as many people locally as possible.’

“I didn’t view it as they were extorting me, [or] as anything but an opportunity for me to formalize our good faith effort to contribute to the community,” he adds. “These are things we wanted to do anyway. It’s just putting it in writing.”

The Mission Economic Development Agency, a member of United to Save the Mission, bought this old building with plans to turn it into affordable housing. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

Not everyone has been so open to working with United to Save the Mission. Mission Local wrote a sensational article on this, titled “Laundré owner shaken after a private meeting with Mission community groups,” in which it highlighted an uncomfortable meeting between the neighborhood group and owner Ariana Roviello.

“Nobody wants to be told what to do in their business, but the way I see it is if you’re a homeowner or you own a business, you’re not standing by yourself in the universe,” Arguello says. “There’s people around you, there are regulations. If your business is not engaged with what’s happening around you it doesn’t survive.”

New women’s coworking space The Assembly, located in an old historic church on 14th Street, only found out that United to Save the Mission existed after the group wrote a letter to the city opposing plans to landmark the building, stating that they didn’t appreciate the landmarking as “a pretense to erecting an exclusive, luxury club at this location,” the letter stated. “United to Save the Mission will oppose any such an attempt unless an equitable agreement outcome is achieved in a manner similar to other project agreements throughout the Mission.”

It was an unwelcome surprise. But when co-owner Molly Goodson reached out to make peace, she found a group willing to help her address some community-focused items that had fallen off her checklist during the chaos of renovating the empty building and launching a business.

“I really appreciate how much they want to help with the resourcing,” she says. “The connections to local businesses and hiring halls and all those things were part of a really long to-do list when creating a space like this. Any help in making it easier, and making sure we’re doing the right thing, is really, really helpful.”

Goodson and her business partner Carnet Williams have now considered collaborations with local nonprofits, opening their doors to groups for free, and having local, low-income-based membership programs. And they have a lot to offer: The former church has a women’s coworking space that can easily be converted into a meeting room or lecture hall. Downstairs, a kitchen leads into a large gym where members can take fitness classes. The Assembly is centrally located, and its mission statement — to nurture a community focused on physical and personal wellness — aligns perfectly with the offering of community service.

But finding those places to serve is a whole other task. By the time she connected with United to Save the Mission, Goodson had already collaborated with domestic-violence shelter La Casa de las Madres, but through connecting with the neighborhood group was suddenly connected to local caterers who were far cheaper than the ones she generally called, a slew of mural artists who could fill some empty walls, and a plethora of community groups in need of spaces to meet.

“It’s amazing the amount of work United to Save the Mission puts into this, considering it’s no one’s” paid job, Goodson says. “It’s really incredible. There’s no guidebook for opening up a business in the Mission, and how to do it right and with respect — and there are going to be a lot of people opening up businesses in the Mission! It’s great that there’s a resource along the way that says, ‘Hey, here are things to think about.’ ”

The process isn’t easy, though. Unlike Kitava, The Assembly had already been open nearly a year before its owners met with United to Save the Mission, and that makes some of the requests harder to enact. For example, it was already fully staffed, and naturally wasn’t willing to let people go in order to bring on local hires. But Goodson has pledged to make an effort to hire locally moving forward, as positions open up.

“It’s a whole, 10-page document with jargon that can be a lot,” Goodson says about the recommendations in the initial, uncustomized MOU. “But also if you look carefully at it, a lot of it is about an intention. An intention to do things with care, like providing welcoming spaces, making sure the community knows you exist, and finding ways to give back to it. These are not hard and fast rules. When you read it like that, and realize you’re both coming from the same place with that intentionality, it feels better.”

And through this process, she now looks at her neighbors a little differently.

“I walk up and down Valencia with different eyes than before. I see some businesses who I know didn’t have this conversation,” she says, laughing. “But the kind of people that we are is that we want to listen, we want to learn, we want to do the right thing. We really care about this city and this neighborhood.”

The historic Tower Theater has been empty since 2007. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

While each signed United to Save the Mission MOU — and there have been more than a dozen so far, with at least as many more entering into alternate codified agreements — marks a step in the right direction for preserving a sense of culture in the neighborhood, some repercussions are naturally larger than others. Co-working space Impact Hub, which opened up on Mission and 15th streets in 2017, went from what could have been yet another tech-centric office space to a nexus of community-serving operations. Their MOU has been written in an accessible manner (fewer bullet points, more prose) published for all to read on their site.

These changes — originally, Impact Hub was located in SoMa and drew in that aforementioned tech crowd — have drawn in a unique array of new clients and staff. Jesus Varela, Impact Hub’s event manager, was a longtime organizer with United to Save the Mission, Calle 24, Accion Latina, and art stroll Paseo Artistico. When a friend tried to recruit him to work at Impact Hub, he was on the fence, but the company’s new commitment to reserving 30 percent of its space for local nonprofits and organizations swayed him. Here, he could make a real difference.

“SF Jazz has a youth education department there, and right next to that you have an activist organization called SF Rising, and Plaza 16,” he says. “Altogether, you have these different organizations that would never have known of each other otherwise. Coworking spaces remind me of college — there are cliques. But here, they seek each other out and share space, and it’s eye-opening for a lot of people who come to that block to do work. It gives them an opportunity to better understand and contextualize the issues that face the Mission in a positive way.”

Impact Hub’s clientele has evolved with the move. With the shift to Mission Street, Varela says, “a flood of people left, and another flood came in.”

Today, Impact Hub has a board made up of employees, neighborhood members, and clients who meet regularly to make sure it’s on track with its goals, such as running workshops to help their nonprofit employees become better at accounting and marketing, providing 90 hours of space rental at a 40-percent discount to local organizations, and offering clients and staff ample opportunities to volunteer.

It’s even taken things a step further. The company has signed on as a member of United to Save the Mission’s coalition, taking on extra responsibilities to mitigating gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood.

Other neighborhoods are starting to take notice of the work being done by activists in the Mission. Affordable Divis, a neighborhood group that seeks to keep the Divisadero neighborhood free of chain stores and, when possible, filled with new below-market-rate housing, has reached out to United to Save the Mission for tips on how to move forward.

And groups from Los Angeles, where a similar type of Latinx displacement is taking place, have also turned to Mission groups to find out what tactics they employ.

“If we can be successful here — right here next to the 16th Street corridor, which is ground zero for gentrification in the Mission — then we can show that world what’s possible,” Varela says.

An empty lot on the corner of 22nd and Mission streets where a large residential building burned down in 2015. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

The Mission has endured an unprecedented amount of change in the past 100 years. Not one but two BART stations opened simultaneously in the fall of 1973, drastically altering the accessibility of the neighborhood for people from elsewhere. Mom-and-pop businesses already struggling to make ends meet were decimated by the Great Recession. Two tech booms — one in the 1990s, another in 2010s — brought an unprecedented influx of wealth into the city, and with it, a wave of businesses that catered to that income bracket. The once working-class neighborhood is now featured in tourist guidebooks, hailed as a culinary destination, and used as the set for music videos. And while Latinx scramble to hold on, their culture is exoticized and exploited by people dressing up for Dia de los Muertos and taking selfies with murals that reference revolutions in Balmy Alley.

All of the above would have flattened a neighborhood with a lesser sense of community. But the volunteers who make up United to Save the Mission are not alone — far from it. All across the Mission a tidal wave of energy is at work as residents, both old and new, come together to fight for the culture that made the neighborhood a destination in the first place. And — while it might not be obvious to those of us mourning the loss of the Elbo Room, Lucca Ravioli, Mission Thrift — there is a rumbling of change, hard-won by volunteers who pour their hearts into caring for their neighborhood.

“This is not the first time we’ve experienced gentrification We saw it in the late-’90s with the tech boom, when people left, and then the Mission reset,” Arguello says. “I see the Mission resetting itself. There are little signs here and there. It’s a little slower this time, more gradual. We see just small things, like people reaching out to the Latino neighborhood and marketing to it. We see more working class businesses coming in again, slowly. There’s been a lot of damage done to the community, and a lot of land taken. It’s not going to be exactly the same as the past, but we hope to retain its core, and to enhance and strengthen it so it doesn’t become fragile and disappear.”

Even Latin Bridal is faring a little better this year than last.

“We’re just building up a little bit,” Ferrusquia says.

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