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The Continuing Evolution of 24th Street: Centuries of Change 

Wednesday, Mar 6 2013

Photo courtesy San Francisco Police Department Records, San Francisco Public Library

In his day, Jaime Maldonado says, his father was an interloper, too. When the elder Maldonado opened La Victoria Bakery on 24th Street in 1951, the neighborhood was mostly Italian and Irish; La Victoria displaced Murphy's Pharmacy. Mr. Murphy went out of business, but the bakery and the Catholic church down the block helped turn the area into a thriving Mexican neighborhood.

"It was like someone put a giant neon sign above us: 'Aquí están los pinches Mexicanos'," jokes Maldonado, 44, an exuberant man with a sly sense of humor.

Focusing on the neighborhood's history of transformation seems to help keep Maldonado, who has run La Victoria since 1992, upbeat about the erosion of the Latino business district his father helped forge along the strip of 24th Street east of the BART station.

The street has long been home to a mix of mom-and-pop restaurants, hair salons, and bodegas. The latest round of changes began quietly several years ago, as a few sleek coffee shops and restaurants popped up. But in recent months, they have become the norm rather than the exception, as 24th Street looks a lot less like the quieter cousin to gritty Mission Street and a lot more like a second Valencia Street, with its array of high-end boutiques and trendy eateries.

Those changes were abundant in 2012: Gourmet sandwich shop Pig & Pie opened where record store Discolandia had enjoyed a 30-year reign as a Latino cultural hub. Another of the street's oldest businesses, Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, changed ownership for the second time in five years. Taquería El Tonayense was evicted, giving rise to a Jewish deli, Wise Sons, which proved an instant success. A gritty Latino bar abutting the BART station was reborn as a well-lit café. A liquor store became a juice bar. A narrow store jammed with Catholic votive candles and statues shut its doors, and an arty out-of-print bookstore opened where the Purple Haze smoke shop used to be.

Long-empty spaces on the street are being filled, leaving it with fewer vacancies than any other commercial district in town, according to Erick Arguello, head of the Lower 24th Street Merchant's Association, an all-volunteer group. And rents are climbing. An unmemorable vacancy near Potrero Avenue recently bore a handwritten For Rent sign asking $3,500 a month. Arguello says prospectors have asked some businesses when their leases expire.

The street changed in fits and starts for years, but the pace of change seems to be accelerating in a way that has many Latino business owners scared.

"It's a time of lots of opportunity," Maldonado says stubbornly. But he knows that if La Victoria is to survive, he's going to have to place big bets on major changes.

How to perceive those changes depends on the stretch of time one considers. Jason Nazzal, who owns Sidewalk Juice, grew up working at his father's store, Valencia Whole Foods at 21st and Valencia streets.

"I saw Valencia 20 years ago, and it's a totally different neighborhood there now. I felt like the same thing was going to happen here," he says over the whir of blenders in his new 24th Street shop.

Changes to 24th Street began to snowball in the second half of 2012, but they've been building for some time. Those entrepreneurs thinking in the long-term have been watching and waiting.

Chris Dixon, a 42-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses, first moved to the Mission during the dot-com boom. Early on, he didn't feel safe walking alone at night in some areas. But two years ago, he opened a tiny record shop on 24th Street near South Van Ness with expectations that the street's commercial tenor would change.

Pig & Pie owner Miles Pickering, a tidy man in his 40s, also settled near 24th Street in the late 1990s.

"It was clear that it was coming, but I've been completely blown away by how fast things have changed," he says.

Meanwhile, some of the same businesses that presaged Valencia Street's gentrification in the 1990s have led 24th Street's transformation. Modern Times Books arrived in 2011, when the co-op could no longer afford the rent on Valencia. Alley Cat Books, a sister to Valencia's Dog Eared Books, followed last fall, taking over a long-shuttered smoke shop owned by the same landlord. Sidewalk Juice expanded from its original location just off Valencia on 21st Street to open its doors last summer.

Valencia Street now commands commercial rents high enough to force out the boutiques that took over during the dot-com boom. Currents, one of the first boutiques to open on Valencia in the early '90s, just closed due to a rent increase. Rents are so high that the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association has asked the city for a moratorium on full-service restaurants, which often outbid other businesses.

Because retail spaces on Mission Street have big footprints, designed to accommodate the department stores that made up the thriving Mission Miracle Mile in the 1950s, the spillover of boutiques and restaurants funnels down 24th Street. Wise Sons came to 24th Street in large part because the partners couldn't afford to rent on Valencia, says co-owner Evan Bloom.

Asked why she chose 24th Street, Alley Cat Books owner Kate Rosenberger shrugs, "Someone was going to do it."

Rosenberger, who sports a gray shag haircut with multicolored highlights, has an unwitting habit of landing early in gentrifying neighborhoods. She opened Phoenix Books on the Noe Valley stretch of 24th Street in 1985, and Dog Eared Books on Valencia in 1992. She hopes 24th Street will be spared the upscale homogenization of those strips.

"There's so much going on down here," she says of the street beyond Alley Cat's hardwood floors.

The incoming tide of affluent young white people into the Mission resonates change all the way out to its farthest corner. Even after the dot-com bubble burst, they have continued to come to the Mission. Economic forces drive the trend, of course, but individually, newcomers are lured by their compatriots and the neighborhood's reputation for being an exciting, diverse place to live. It's the same song being played on street corners in Los Angeles' Echo Park, Austin's east side, and pretty much all of Brooklyn.

About The Author

Cameron Scott


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