“Mission Playground is not for sale!”
Last October, chanting these words, protesters and activists banded together in front of City Hall to present a list of demands. In the wake of massive tech yuppie move-ins, Mission residents have increasingly faced eviction, pay-for-use public spaces, and the displacement of long-time businesses and neighborhood services. So, when this video, Mission Playground is Not For Sale, went viral, adults and youth alike reached their boiling points. In the video, we see the image of white, rich, recently transplanted men, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with their tech companies’ logos, presenting Latino, working-class youth with papers that demand that they leave—an image that feels all too familiar for many in San Francisco’s Mission District. While protesters were successful this time in getting the Recreation and Park Department to stop selling permits for adult play at the Mission Playground, it’s a small win in the face of incessant gentrification. How did we get to this point?
The development of urban spaces is a deliberate process. In attempting to explain why cities take the shape that they do, and to justify or condemn these processes, two major theories have been adopted by academics and experts in urban development: urban ecology and political economy. While urban ecology theory assumes inequalities to be fair and even sometimes beneficial, political economy theory posits that inequality is an intentional outcome of the economic and political institutions that shape cities to the benefit of these institutions' key players. Political economy theory is clearly at play today in San Francisco’s Mission District.
In their work The City (1926) that advocates on behalf of urban ecology theory, Park, Burgess, and McKenzie argue that in a natural habitat, when left alone, the fittest survive. Consistent with this notion, the city is civilized man's natural habitat, and as such, it should also be left to private enterprise to determine where districts and businesses should locate. After all, “personal tastes and convenience, vocational and economic interests, infallibly tend to segregate and thus to classify the populations”—and those factors alone segregate populations. Political economy theory, on the other hand, not only accounts for such factors but emphasizes them over urban ecology’s trust of free competition as the biggest determinant. Logan and Molotch's 1987 work Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place, in contrast, argue that growth tends to “intensify the separation and disparities among social groups and communities”. Logan's position holds true for the Latinos of the Mission District; they were a highly vulnerable, working-class population who were effectively coerced out of vibrant communities.
The Mission District was never used as a temporary settlement for the Mexican, Central American, and South American immigrants that started arriving en masse in Los Angeles in the early 20th century. From the very onset, they intended the Mission District to be a center of Latino culture. As Latino “artists, radicals, and intellectuals” moved into the Mission, they further invested the area with a sense of cultural identity. They painted murals; produced literary works like the local Mission newspaper, El Tecolote; and hosted community events like the annual 24th Street Cultural Festival. Though the Mission had family income levels below the city's average, it was a barrio that fostered a strong working enclave with close-knit networks.
The Mission bore witness to city redevelopment plans and the tendrils of gentrification in the 1960s and 1970s, but grassroots activists formed the Mission Council on Redevelopment (MCOR) and successfully campaigned against an urban renewal policy that would have unfairly hurt their community. Community activists also successfully worked to provide social services to their neighborhoods. The Model Cities Program (MCO) and Los Siete were able to create a breakfast program to feed over 100 Mission children daily, create new playgrounds, ban pawnshops, and fight discrimination, all because of high resident participation.
However, when the dot-com boom hit in the 1990s, gentrification resurfaced with a speed and precision that had not been seen for years. Because of the suddenness of the dot-com boom, Mission activists were ill-prepared to mobilize in time. Peter Plate noticed in San Francisco Magazine that, by 2000, the “Mission must have had something like 200 dot-com companies in a two-mile radius” (Plate 144). To make room for those companies, and all of the upscale dining, entertainment, and shopping facilities that accompanied them, landlords did everything they could to throw out their longtime Latino residents for tenants that would pay higher rent. More than 80% of the Latinos in the Mission were renters with low incomes, language barriers, lack of citizenship, or traits that made them otherwise more susceptible to gentrification pressures.
Structural barriers were many and worked in cohesion—Owner Move-In laws; the Ellis Act which provides landlords a legal way to “go out of business;” the 1988 ordinance allowing industrial spaces to be converted into lofts, which caters to childless dot-commers; and then-Mayor Christopher George's racist concerns the presence of ethnic minorities posing an “obstacle to attracting corporate investors and developers” (Mirabal).
By using terms like “blighted,” “dangerous,” and “run-down,” politicians and businessmen served to racialize space and spatialize race. By “shifting markers of consumption” (encouraging businesses that target the wealthy,) developers forced longtime residents to travel outside of their neighborhood to get their needs met. The physical Latino presence was made less visible in that way. Suddenly, the area surrounding Valencia Street is “now described as the 'hippest in America' by Vanity Fair magazine” (Sinclair 149). Young, hip professionals love the muralists, painters, poets, and musicians of the Mission—the same artists they ironically drive out.
The Silicon Valley tech industry prides itself on doing things differently. Well, I think true innovation involves being socially responsible. Although many of the Mission’s residents hold little political clout, tech giants do and ought to exercise it for the sake of their new community.
Welcome to the neighborhood, guys—but try to stay welcome.