I am an outsider: walking around photographing four blocks of the project area — my “beat.” I came across a million details that formed my impression of the place. Obviously, this shouldn’t be taken as a commentary of the neighborhood or as a declaration; it is a musing and description of my remembrances of the neighborhood.
I like the calm respite of this neighborhood — so close to the vibrant and sometimes overwhelming 16th & Valencia area. On this overcast Sunday afternoon, I traverse each street of my beat like a scavenger looking for treasure: The tienditas selling everything in two languages, new cafes and old taquerias. Glimpsed through a tinted window — the sleek, modern furnishings in the entryway of a building full of freshly minted, recently sold loft spaces. The rolling, endless murals of Cellspace, depicting so many people’s ideas and points of view. A 2D geometric chameleon perched next to a row of m&m-colored bikes.
Art finds its way throughout the neighborhood — in an alleyway, scrawled on a rolling door, next to a tienda. “Brown and Proud in the next generation!” one mural proclaims. Dia de los Muertos skeletons stretch across the side wall of a mini mart. An entire solar system splashes up the walls outside Asiento Bar, its receding tide leaving the imprint of a seahorse on the sidewalk. The expected tags claim a dumpster or a street sign. Scribbled across a fresh white wall — “You think you stop me?”.
The greenery is like that too. Community gardens squished in between buildings; the proclamations of a community space painted on the wall like the declarations we’re trying to record. A scrap of nylon zip-tied to a chain link fence used as a planter for herbs. These green spaces permeate the area — neat aloe plants in front of buildings, moss seeping up through the cracks in the cement imitating the swamp and creek that was once there, giant barrels filled with palms. A carefully tended garden in the cement outcropping of sidewalk. A sprinkling of fallen jacaranda flowers turning the cracked sidewalk and cracked plastic in the gutter into a thing of beauty.
Like most of San Francisco this neighborhood changes and morphs from one block to the next. You are alone walking by a row of design firms, like a strip mall providing all your design needs. You encounter ghosts of the industrial era along these blocks but the quiet that permeates these cement wonders is deafening. The watery sunlight absorbs any stories these buildings may once have told. Turn the corner and you’re on what once was a thoroughfare of Victorian living but these houses have a dilapidated appearance now, slouching together on a quiet street, their iron and lattice work intertwining together. Two blocks to the left, you come upon markets packed with brightly colored chips and toilet paper, a soccer supply store run out of a garage, the orange buildings radiate heat.
Outposts of the new generation dot your path, fusion food and tiny art galleries, high end coffee or an entire rock climbing gym inside the gaping maw of a former warehouse. You feel their entrepreneurial energy. So many mixes: coffee and radio station, non-profit and union buildings, community center and restaurant, alley and garden. Old and new, young and old, hipster and hip replacement, sushi and burritos, bikes and low riders are layered one of top of the other to create these city blocks unlike any other. The connections of the community make up the foundation of this neighborhood, a group of people bound to a place working together to shape it.
But I can only speculate. Can someone from the outside enter into a neighborhood? This was our challenge as we sought to understand and record it’s essence. But then we find that this is the same question that is being asked within this neighborhood at the moment as newcomers move in. How do you get to a place where you “belong”? The one theme that I found throughout my interviews and time spent here is that of community. Everyone who lives here wants this community to be better, wants to maintain the small neighborhood feel. Anyone coming in has to respect that and abide. You can look in all you want but it takes a lot to be truly a “neighbor”. All an outsider can do is hope that the sense of community remains at the heart of the place.