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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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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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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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