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

Tuesday, Sep 16 2014
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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.


About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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