In these Troubled San Francisco Times, there is a lot of talk about who was here when, and what that does (or doesn't) mean. In an effort to both assist newcomers and take long-time residents down memory lane, we present to you Ask a San Francisco Native, a column penned by SF native and longtime SFist contributor Rain Jokinen, which is inspired by a similar one on our sister site Gothamist, and is intended to put to rest all those questions only a native of this city can answer. Send yours here!
I have been in the City since 1998. All the talk about the disappearing diversity has me wondering:
What did the diversity look like in San Francisco when you were young? Was it all mixed up together like today? Or, did you have to go to specific neighborhoods for Chinese food? For gay bars? For sushi?
Plenty of articles and posts have been written about San Francisco's shrinking minority population, so I'm not going to go into stats and numbers; check out those links for that. But the bottom line is the city's diversity has changed, and it's something I've definitely noticed and felt after a lifetime here.
You mention that the diversity in the city is "all mixed up together" these days, but I'm not sure I agree with that. Yes, it's true that you can find Chinese food, gay bars, and sushi all over the city. But that's different than saying the entire city is now a melting pot of diversity. If neighborhoods that were once primarily of one culture or another are now filled with other types of stores, bars and restaurants, that actually sounds like the opposite of diversity.
I went to nothing but public schools growing up, and San Francisco schools are something I hope to talk about in a future column. But I will say that every school I went to was racially mixed, although perhaps not always as mixed as other schools in the city may have been. My high school — J. Eugene McAteer High School (may it rest in peace) — was home to both a championship football team and the city's only School of the Arts. It was a sometimes insanely crazy mix of kids.
Post high school, in the early 1990's, I lived in the Lower Haight, (in an apartment with closets I still dream about. So many! So big!). Nearby Hayes Valley, at that time, was primarily African American, and filled with restaurants and stores run by African Americans. Walking through the area now, never in a million years would you be able to guess that was once the dynamic in that neighborhood, which is now filled with expensive boutique clothing stores and restaurants the majority of which I would not be sad to see go if it meant the return of Powell's.
Nearby Fillmore and the Western Addition was much the same. True, the lower Fillmore retains a high concentration of African American businesses and homes, but until the late 1980's that used to extend a lot further up the street, past Bush, where you could get some pretty tasty barbecue at Leon's.
(And perhaps this makes it sound like I am just lamenting the general loss of genuine soul food within San Francisco, and yeah, I am. But I'm also lamenting the loss of the locals who once were able to afford to run those places, too.)
The city's gay community had a much bigger neighborhood footprint back in the 1970's and 1980's as well, with numerous bars and clubs to be found south of Market and on Polk Street. In fact, Polk Street was doing the Halloween street party thing before the Castro ever did. I can understand the argument that it's nice that the gay community is more integrated these days, and not relegated to just a couple of neighborhoods, but I also think it's sad that it's getting harder and harder to find an area with block after block of gay businesses. (And Polk Street could sure use some of that these days, let me tell you.)
I spent the first half of my youth in the Mission, and as has been well documented of late, things there have definitely changed. But I will say that in the 1970's (the decade I lived there) through the '80's, there were always non-Hispanic families and businesses within the area, (some of them Irish families that had been there since the neighborhood was primarily Irish). There were punk rock clubs on Valencia Street, a movie theater on 24th Street (The York) that showed English, not Spanish movies, and plenty of bars filled with white 20-somethings. The big difference is that, at least until the late-90's, it felt like a nice co-existence, and much closer to the definition of the word diversity than it has of late.
But here's something that was true decades ago, and is still true now: You'll get the strongest Mai Tai of your life within Chinatown*, but you're gonna have to look elsewhere for the best Chinese food in the city.
Rain Jokinen was born and raised in San Francisco and, miraculously, still calls the city home. Her future plans include becoming a millionaire, buying a condo complex, and then tearing it down to replace it with a dive bar. You can ask this native San Franciscan your questions here.
* Editor's note: Mai Tais aren't actually an Asian thing, but the drink was created by "Trader Vic" Bergeron at his East Bay Tiki bar in the 1940s or, if you believe his rival Don the Beachcomber, it was created a decade earlier by Don in Los Angeles.