Inside Urban Solutions

Author: Leah Garchnik
San Francisco Cronicle
May 22, 2015


I am a distinctly urban person. My husband and I grew up in Brooklyn, before it was hip. And as a result of that experience ­­ looking across the river longingly to Manhattan ­­ when we moved to San Francisco, we wanted to live right in the middle of the city. Which is where we do live, in a neighborhood we call DMV Heights. It’s pretty near the geographic center of town.

So when I wrote this I was sitting at my desk at Fifth and Mission, which is pretty much Urban Solutions territory. I have been coming to work here for 43 years, often walking through the heart of Urban Solutions­land from my house in the Haight. And the best thing about walking isn’t really the exercise. It’s the chance to keep your eyes open and observe what’s on the street and just think about it.

After 36 years at The Chronicle, I was given a parking spot. And I need to use the car quite often after work to go to places I’m working. But I still try to do a hike, which starts at my house, at Baker and Oak, and takes me East on Oak Street, past Divisadero, then to Market.

So I’d like to take you along on that walk with me. First, a few words about the home territory. We came to San Francisco in 1971 and bought a house in 1973, with a down payment of $8,000, almost everything we had at that point. Although friends had driven us down Haight Street when we arrived ­­ and we saw that in the aftermath of the Summer of Love, practically every store window was boarded up ­­ nothing in San Francisco seemed like a slum to us. Not after having grown up seeing East Coast slums. To us, the Haight was a neighborhood where we could afford to buy a house big enough to fit our growing family.

It was a tremendous bargain even then … but we had a very tough time getting a mortgage. The neighborhood, right on the border of the Western Addition, was red­lined. Finally, my husband’s boss was on the board of the Berkeley Co­op, and it was their Twin Pines bank that loaned us the money.

Cab drivers directed to the neighborhood told visiting relatives they must have the wrong address. Surely, they wouldn’t want to go there. But stories were beginning to appear about people calling themselves “urban pioneers,” moving to Alamo Square and the like. We thought that was obnoxious. We weren’t pioneers at all; like every family who lived on our street ­­ some of them for 30 years before we arrived ­­ , it was the best we could do for the money we had. A practical solution.

The stretch of Divisadero between Oak and Page included a grocery store on the corner, and the Church of John Coltrane next to it. Slowly, creepingly slowly, the empty stores on that block started filling up. The grocery store became a cafe. The church of Coltrane became an old­fashioned barber shop. A dry cleaner moved in, an antique store opened, and a store selling vintage cooking equipment, a comic book store, and a game store and a green grocer (cheap and ripe, and we in the ‘hood called it, affectionately “the Used Fruit store”). .

Aside from that fruit store, which has now disappeared, these businesses seemed comfortable on the block. But they didn’t sell necessities. Increasingly, as years went on, there weren’t many places to buy necessities.

On Haight Street, you could have your choice of tie­dyed T­shirts, but if you wanted to buy a toothbrush, there was only one drugstore on that Western commercial segment of Haight ­­and the toothbrush price was high. When a discount drugstore (I think it was a Rite­Aid) threatened to move to Haight, an arson fire destroyed the building. Longtime neighborhood activists had decried the arrival of a chain. As a consumer of deodorant, and mouthwash ­­the sort of things you need from a drugstore ­­ I wasn’t so sure it would have been a bad thing.

Anyway, back to the walk to work. On Oak Street, I pass Fillmore ­­ which around Oak is still pretty much the same as it’s always been ­­ heading East through the Civic Center area. There, , the Conservatory, SFJazz, Girls Chorus Buildings and Nourse Auditorium have come to dominate the neighborhood with performing arts­related enterprises. An abandoned Caltrans Building became the home of f the French­American and Chinese American Schools. The building was empty for a long time, and nowadays it’s fun walking by there in the morning, hearing the voices of kids in the schoolyard, observing a crossing guard shepherding kids across Oak Street to a lively space that was once a wasteland.

And then I get to Market and Van Ness, the beginning of what I think of as YOUR hood, the Central Market (I guess about a year ago it changed from mid­Market, and I don’t know why that change was linguistically or civically important) area that stretches down to Fifth and Mission.

I cross at that corner.. For years, I would find myself in a crowd of street people moving around ­­ not seemingly heading anywhere in particular ­­ against the flow of civil service workers headed toward city hall, music students headed from their dorms to the conservatory. But now, coming from all directions, emerging from BART and MUNI Metro like bees from a hive, are workers on their way to the tech firms inhabiting Market.

At the corner of 10th and Market, I used to have a favorite shoemaker. I brought him a belt one day and asked him to turn it into a purse strap, and he took the time to put leather plugs in the belt holes so it looked like a strap. He cared about his work, and I cared about him. I’d drop off shoes on my way to work; and when I didn’t have anything to drop off, I’d wave as I passed the front window. His shelves were always lined with shoes being picked up, so I was mystified when his closing sign appeared in the window. He told me his landlord has sold the property. Probably a financially savvy landlord; the place sat empty for years, and I shook my head when I passed, wondering why.

But then Twitter moved in across the street, and a building went up on that Southwest corner, and then Topher Delaney designed a garden there, and now, it’s a beautiful space, and how could I say there’s anything not to like about a garden. I used to see the same homeless people every morning on my way to work. It t was going to be a good day, I knew, when they complimented me on an outfit. Now, instead, I find myself in a sea of workers going this way and that, talking with each other, I imagine, about the next big deal. Like many of us who have been here for a long time doing the same work and walking the same walk, I admit that I feel a little left out of the tech revolution..

Between Fifth and Sixth, I used to duck through a shortcut to Mission Street, a funky downtown food shop. There were individual vendors inside selling not ­great looking packaged cheeses, for example, tired looking meat, and pre­made sandwiches. Supermarkets were far away and I’d see neighborhood residents in housedresses coming out laden with shopping bags containing the week’s groceries. It was a food mall before the term was invented.

Now there’s a fancy supermarket in the corner of the Twitter building ­­ just like “Au Bon Marche” in Paris,” my husband exclaimed ­­ and I have gone in there to explore. It’s fun; the people behind the counters are pleasant and have good teeth. But I wonder where the folks who can’t afford it buy their groceries. And I wonder where they get their shoes fixed.

I turn up Sixth Street, where I walk for a few feet before turning left to dart through an alley to dart through a parking lot to dot through another alley, then up behind the old Mint to reach the Chronicle. And in that leg of my journey, I walk near Dottie’s, which I’ve ­­ rather lovingly ­­ watched grow from being an insider’s secret to a tourist destination, I pass an office building that’s had missing panels for at least 15 years, now getting spiffed up; an alley section where I’m playing hopscotch to avoid stepping in human waste; a marijuana dispensary that’s the brightest shiniest thing on the block (with security guards at both Mission Street front and Jessie Street back; and Blue Bottle coffee, which I know started as a small business but wow, I always think as I skirt the line snaking from the door, how does any working person ­­ the small business owner, for example ­­ have the time to wait for this?

Like any other San Franciscan, I’m invigorated by the changes in the city.

We used to say of any neighborhood upgrading, “Oh it’s going to become like Union Street.” The other day, at the opening of the Strand theater, I believe it was the Mayor who compared the upgrading of the Central Market area to the clean­up of Times Square in Broadway. I’m all for the Strand, I’m all for pitching in, I’m all excited.

But I don’t think Times Square is a model for anything but the wasting of electricity, and I’m wondering where my favorite shoemaker has gone.

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