What we talk about when we talk about the Mission

When I first set foot in the Mission District of San Francisco, I had just stepped off the BART station at Sixteenth and Mission. The place wreaked of feces and urine. Beggars accosted me. It was almost midnight when I arrived, and a sense of fear crawled up the back of my spine. Although I only had to walk a couple of blocks to arrive at a friend’s apartment, I felt an anxiety that bordered on dread.

It was an inauspicious start to my acquaintance with the Mission. Two years later, I now set foot in the Mission almost every day. At first, I could not get over my first impression. The streets are dark and dirty — despondent if you will. The people are loud. As an outsider, really anyone who hasn’t lived in the Mission for over a decade, you feel unwelcome. More than that, you feel despised for causing shifts in a world that wants to remain motionless.

Working in the Mission has made me see many sides of the table. Some of my co-workers say that the place is a dump. They say that they would love to move out. Others just want it to be cleaner. Very few of them feel safe walking around at night. Most people aren’t used to the violence and fear that come with living in the Mission. And most people dislike it. I felt the same way too, until very recently.

The Mission, though, just like any other neighborhood, has its own character and it’s own vibrant history and life. It’s very easy to miss the good parts when you’re too scared to lift your head.

I only realized that when, while walking to work one day, I saw someone painting a tiger on the side of a building. It was then I realized that the Mission is filled with incredible beauty.

Art is everywhere. Most people don’t notice it because they’re too busy getting away — but if you take a close look, the paintings in the Mission are quite dazzling. Almost every building is adorned with a mural, and it’s not just that, but each painting has character to it. Each piece tells a story quite local in time and space. You’ll never see the same things on the sidewalks of New York or Chicago. No, these paintings have the character of San Francisco written on their sleeves. Even in seemingly the worst parts of the Mission, art prevails.

That’s quite a beautiful metaphor isn’t it? Where one person sees grime and poverty — another sees artistry and craftsmanship. If you pick up your head and just appreciate where you are, you’ll get an entirely new perspective. Much of San Francisco is like that, particularly the Mission District.

I’ve begun talking to people native to the Mission, and they have many great stories. Their lives form a cultural net demarcated by geographical boundaries. Most importantly, though, they have found a pleasant neighborhood to live with friends and family. In other words, they have found a home.

It saddens me to think that in a couple of years, most of this culture will be gone. Silicon Valley will have left its mark. Often, people who work in the technology industry forget that there are consequences to everything — each force has an equal and opposite reaction. Most people don’t even recognize any problem. “Gentrification of the Mission is great,” they say, “It’ll be less scary.”

Unfortunately, the cruel action that happens opposite of gentrification is homogenization. We’ve seen it in other cities and cultures. New York’s ethnic enclaves have given way to a homogenous upper-middle class lifestyle. Beijing’s three thousand year history has gradually eroded into a western, capitalist society. As one moves further towards the bleeding edge of technology, the pockets of small, distinct cultural groups begin to fall off. Customs begin to die, replaced by a single, uniform devotion to reason and technology.

That’s the price of progress. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it sure seems like that is where the world is heading.