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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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Excelsior residents, absent the chaos of a grittier era, can now glance about — at the mattresses and filth littering the streets, at the grimy awnings on the businesses, at the litany of shuttered storefronts and other affronts to their quality of life — and call for something better. But it's hard for a neighborhood that can't decide what it is to chart a path to what it will be. In a neighborhood trending younger and more diverse, Excelsior booster groups skew disproportionately old and white. (You can still find city natives speaking in Brooklyn-like San Francisco accents here).

Every troop of activists may dislike elements of the status quo — but not nearly as much as they seem to dislike one another. And yet, when members of the warring neighborhood parties are spurred, privately, to share their dreams for the retail corridor, they all desire the same sorts of things: ice-cream parlors, delis, coffee shops, a pet store, a bike and skate shop. And keep it neat and clean.

In short: the past.

The old-timers pine for the Excelsior of their memories. And the newcomers desire the neighborhood their very presence has helped to erase.

The past, however, is holding back the Excelsior from whatever its preferred future may be. Commercial leases here hover between $2 and $2.50 a square foot; restaurateurs tell your humble narrator their monthly rents are one-third what they could have found in the Mission — 10 years ago. Meanwhile, million-dollar homeowners are rolling into the area. There's talk of condos, condos, condos coming to every underutilized scrap of the corridor. Business ought to be hopping here.

But it's not. A stroll up and down the mile-long Mission corridor reveals nearly 40 vacant or dilapidated storefronts — a 16 percent rate. Foot traffic is sparse, even on weekends.

A number of these commercial buildings, it turns out, are owned by family trusts and have been in the same hands for eons. Many are crumbling and woefully out of code. Even with low rent, the move-in costs for a small business of the sort that'd hope to make a go of it in the Excelsior are prohibitive.

But, since the buildings were paid off during the Truman administration, they can be left vacant with few repercussions. And, since the owners no longer live here, they may rent space to businesses not exactly inspiring pride of place among Excelsior residents.

Fifteen people — 12 men, three women — languish in the stifling heat of an illegal online casino at 4 p.m. on a Sunday. They stare, catatonically, at the cartoonish swirling fruits of the virtual slot machines. The "Ping! Ping! Ping!" befitting a Nevada truck stop is partially mitigated by the loud and ill-fitting music blaring over the sound system: Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

One day later, the first of September, the joint is closed down per an agreement with the City Attorney. There are still surreptitious gambling dens to be found within the shuttered and padlocked vacant storefronts here on the Mission corridor. After-hours, you can sit alongside sketchy characters, put your money on the table, and take your chances in every sense of the phrase. But the scourge of overt, all-hours online casinos along the Excelsior's main drag has been legally quashed.

The most noisome of those casinos, Net Stop, was promptly replaced with yet another Excelsior dollar store. This, crestfallen locals admit, amounted to a Pyrrhic victory.

The infestation of overt gambling dens, lumped in with mounds of trash on side streets or graffiti-strewn empty businesses, has added to Excelsior residents' sense of indignation.

Why must the city's detritus, physical and metaphysical, always wash up here?

Does a one-mile stretch of real estate really require half a dozen marijuana dispensaries? No, grumble the indignant community activists. Though they do appreciate that the dispensary represented by a striking young woman wearing Cleopatra eyeliner — who dutifully attended the Excelsior District Improvement Association monthly meeting along with nine other people (and a dachshund) — has hired security, installed benches and greenery, has a guy sweep up the sidewalks, and is lobbying the city for a crosswalk in a precarious intersection. The dispensary may yet be greenlit to sponsor the forthcoming community festival.

It is, after all, a good neighbor.

San Francisco did indeed age out of its wild years; the future of so many of its neighborhoods is predictable if not preordained. But not here. The Excelsior is a place that highlights both the city's great changes and its residents' deep disdain for them. It never was and never will be the most exciting part of San Francisco. In a heavily home-owning district, however, residents won't suffer the wave of displacement that transformed the Mission. In that neighborhood, the vibrant cultural institutions established by past generations were transformed into Realtors' bullet-points. The Excelsior, to put it mildly, isn't like that. For new residents and old, it's a place to park the car and raise the family. It's a place to experience San Francisco — but on your terms.

But today's city is increasingly imposing its terms on everyone, even in the outer neighborhoods. The demographic and economic ramifications of our protracted Gold Rush are impossible to ignore.

They are coming.

Thirty years ago, Noe Valley was still an ostensibly blue collar enclave. Realtors, oblivious to this, now dub the Excelsior "the New Noe Valley." How prescient. But the Excelsior's precarious mix of affluence and poverty; of overlapping races and cultures; of newcomers commingling with stalwarts and adult heirs weighing what to do with grandma's house makes it difficult to foresee in what direction this neighborhood will go.

And it may not go in just one.

Perhaps affordable housing developments may yet preserve the neighborhood's traditional character. And perhaps the retail corridor will, in the future, reflect the neighborhood it serves: a mix of races and classes living alongside one another.


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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