Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

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
Comments (18)

Page 3 of 5

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.


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.

Comments (18)

Showing 1-18 of 18


Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"