Community Profile

Ever Upward: A Portrait of the Excelsior

Central Drug.

A symphony of Tagalog, English and Chinese accompanied by hopes, dreams and the clacking of chopsticks wafted throughout the back room of Henry’s Hunan on Mission Street as more than 100 people honored San Francisco’s Filipino activists at the tenth anniversary of the Filipino Community Center in the Excelsior District on Dec. 8, 2014.

The Filipino Community Center is the only resource in the neighborhood dedicated to low-income and immigrant Filipino families. In a neighborhood with the city’s largest immigrant population, Filipinos rank fourth in the district according to a 2014 report by the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Educational Network, a partner of the community center.

The community center was established in 2004 as a result of protesting airport worker layoffs after 9/11. It provides legal consultation, domestic violence aid to Latina women, workers rights and youth abuse prevention and leadership development programs to the neighborhood’s 55 percent foreign born and 20 percent undocumented residents, according to the 2013 American Community Survey.

It is working to create a database to track the community’s needs and its client’s information. The tenth anniversary celebration highlighted the legacies of the Filipino community through the historical movements of the United Farm Workers strike, the International Hotel strike, where many indigent people faced eviction, and the Third World Liberation Front, where San Francisco State University students fought for an education that represented their cultures and histories eventually establishing the only College of Ethnic Studies in the nation.

“There is an increase of Filipinos who need housing assistance and human trafficking legal consulting,” said Melissa Reyes, 26, the administration coordinator at the community center. “We want to strengthen the community to empower Filipinos to know they are not isolated.” (The Filipino Community Center is hosting a more formal 10th anniversary celebration on Feb. 7, from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.)

The Excelsior District has over 79,000 residents where a diverse mix of age, ethnicities, cultures and long-time and recent residents live on the same blocks embodying the neighborhood’s deep historical roots.

Historical indicators are seen along Mission Street: Italian and Asian bakeries, mercados públicos, Mexican grocery stores, taquerrias, a 106-year-old Italian owned pharmacy—the oldest business to the neighborhood— and ethnic cuisines from Italy, Mexico, Philippines and China representing the neighborhood’s immigrant communities over centuries.

The neighborhood’s greater past is evident on Mission Street, formerly known as El Camino Real, “The Kings Road” during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, connecting the 21 California missions from San Diego to Sonoma. The oldest house in the neighborhood is found on Excelsior and Persia avenues, built in the 1880 by the first owner, the F.R Smith family.

After the Gold Rush, European farmers and fisherman arrived in San Francisco near the northern shores and Irish potato farmers moved south toward the Excelsior, followed by the Italians, Germans and Swiss. The land was a prime location to farm lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, artichokes and other produce. Subsequently, the 1906 earthquake caused less damage to the neighborhood in comparison to other areas, increasing its residents.

Since then the Excelsior has continued to change, as the older generations die out. About 40 percent or its residents moved to the neighborhood between 2000-2009 and 17 percent settled in 1969-1979, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. From the 1940s to ’60s, the neighborhood was mostly Italian and German immigrants. Some older residents remember the neighborhood with clean streets, when mom and pop stores occupied every corner and there was little to no crime as everyone knew each other.

“People took pride in their homes and neighborhoods, would communicate with each other if they spotted suspicious activity,” said John Weidinger, 73-year-old retired California Highway Patrol officer who grew up in the neighborhood on Athens Street the ’40s and ’50s. “This was a great neighborhood, I loved it.”

Photograph: Emma Chiang

Weidinger moved to the neighborhood in February 1941, nearly a week after he was born. He returned to his roots and has volunteered eight hours a day for the past 13 years at his former elementary school, Cleveland Elementary, where he tutors students in math. Ironically, it is his least favorite subject.

“I teach them little tricks to motivate the kids to get them excited about math,” Weidinger said. “As a police officer I found that many of the people who I arrested had little to no education.”

Weidinger went back to his elementary school with the goal to teach kids right from wrong, good from bad, to help them achieve academic success through mathematics and to put a little laughter in their voice.

“A lot of the kids come from oppressed backgrounds. I hope one day these kids can step out into the community to solve problems and not be the problem,” Weidinger said.

He is passionate about serving his neighborhood, the place where he received his education and athletic achievements, attending the neighborhood schools, James Denman Middle and Balboa High Schools.

Cleveland’s student body of 360 flipped from majority Italian and German immigrants when he was a kid, to 70 percent Latino from Mexico and Central American. Weidinger often shares the neighborhood’s history with the students on field trips, pointing out the oldest standing house on Persia Avenue and telling them stories of what the neighborhood looked like when he was a kid.

Photograph: Emma Chiang

“It’s good to have different ethnic groups, because you can learn about the world from your neighbors,” said Weidinger. “The kids at Cleveland often speak more than one language; at a very young age they are learning how to interact with people of different cultures.”

Three years ago Weidinger became a part of the city’s history upon his discovery of a sentence in an article referencing a time capsule hidden behind the cornerstone of the school in 1910, while researching its upcoming 100-year old history.

On Sept. 18, 1910 the copper box was filled and placed behind the cornerstone at the school’s dedication ceremony. Weidinger opened the copper box on Jan. 26, 2011, surrounded by a crowd of students. Inside the time capsule included a letter, addressed, “To the Honorable Mayor of San Francisco. Whoever he Maybe. During the period in which this box may be opened” and school district documents and a few textbooks. Cleveland school placed a new time capsule behind the cornerstone for the next 100 years, on May 26, 2011.

Weidinger says his biggest regret in life was not purchasing his mother’s house on Athens Street for $56,000 in 1976. He thought he could not afford it making only $700 dollars a month.

“I would be living in it today instead of renting in Daly City, that was a bad mistake,” Weidinger said.

Now an average three-bedroom house in the neighborhood costs $670,000, according the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development 2014 report. With 7.2 percent of the neighborhood’s population unemployed and 10.4 percent living below the poverty level, middle to low income individuals and families flock to the area in search for an affordable place to live.

About 44 percent of its residents pay $1,500 or more monthly rent in comparison to the city’s average of $3,088, according to the 2013 American Community Survey housing estimates and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Development 2014 report.

“Within the last five years there has been a renewed interest in the neighborhood,” said Jerrold S. Tonelli, the fifth owner of the 106-year-old Central Drug Store—the oldest business in the neighborhood—on the corner of Santa Rosa Avenue and Mission Street.

“Rents here are still reasonable, we are seeing more young families come to the neighborhood.” “The intermixing of older and younger generations has increased our businesses,” said Laura Cruz, an employee for more than 10 years and who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there. “There’s no place like Central. At other pharmacies like Walgreens you are just a number, but here you’re family.”

Walking into the drug store is like entering a time machine back to the ’60s. Patients are greeted with a warm welcome by two longtime employees, Antonia Ferretti, who is fluent in Italian and can communicate with the neighborhood’s older generation and, Cruz, who speaks fluent Spanish and can communicate with the younger immigrant generation.

The drug store has been in the Tonelli family since 1949 when his father first worked at the store and met his wife. After his father became a pharmacist he took over the business in 1965. Tonelli’s 88-year-old mother still works at the pharmacy during the week.

Tonelli has seen the neighborhood change having grown up going to his grandma’s house on Teresita Street and walking down Mission Street when all the business owners knew each other in the ’70s.

“There is lots of history here, the neighborhood’s history is interwoven in the history of the business,” said Tonelli, “It’s not just about selling drugs when you’re part of the neighborhood.”

Tonelli knows 80 percent of his patients’ prescriptions by memory. He has a relationship with each and is invested beyond their health, often inquiring about their families.

The drug store serves more than 1,000 patients from the neighborhood and continues to serve patients who used to live in the neighborhood and now get their prescriptions through the mail.

The Chick’n Coop restaurant used to be located next to the Central Drug Store, which drew business. Andrea Canchola, 38, a second-generation resident who grew up in the neighborhood and works at the Boys & Girls Excelsior Clubhouse remembers eating chicken dinners at the Coop.

“A lot of people miss it since it closed down a few years ago,” said Canchola, “the homemade mash potatoes, the ham and turkey sandwiches…tons of people knew they could get a full meal there for less than $10. And it’s sad that a lot of places we have had for a long time are starting to disappear.”

Canchola said she is sad to see these businesses die, but at the same time she would like the commercial corridor to expand in its food selection. “I really want a Starbucks Coffee shop in the neighborhood,” Canchola said.

She grew up attending the neighborhood schools, received a scholarship to Notre Dame University in Belmont and decided to return to the neighborhood where she has worked at the Boys & Girls Excelsior Clubhouse on London Street for 13 years. Every afternoon the center is filled with 230 neighborhood kids between the ages of six to 18 years old.

Canchola is dedicated to her students, a godmother to many and often invited to family gatherings and celebrations. The Excelsior has one of the largest populations of youth in the city with 14,372 under the age of 18, ranked the third largest of the city’s neighborhoods according to the 2010 San Francisco Department of Public Health report. Only the Mission and Bayview have more kids.

“The neighborhood lacks weekend recreational services for youth,” said Canchola. “I always get asked if the Boys & Girls Club is open on the weekend, and I say no.”

Many of the families she serves live below the poverty level, she says the neighborhood is in need of food pantries, affordable housing and employment services. About 22.8 percent of these youth and their families qualify for government food assistance according to the 2013 American Community Survey, five year estimates.

Cleveland Elementary school hosts a weekly food pantry for low-income families and partners with Coleman Advocates, a neighborhood nonprofit, to provide English language classes and job research.

In the next few years Canchola says she predicts the demographics of her students will change with the increase of young people of European descent to the neighborhood and the early signs of gentrification seen on Valencia Street in the Mission District.

In Cleveland’s new time capsule, John Weidinger included a letter explaining what he predicts the school will be like in 100 years and also what it was like to find the 1910 time capsule behind the cornerstone. Additionally students placed drawings, letters, newspaper articles of the opening of the 1910 time capsule and of the Giants winning the 2010 World Series and a video recording of the opening of the first time capsule.

“In the future technology will be so advanced that everything will be at hand, said Weidinger, “I fear the core classes like English and math will be limited because machines will do all the calculating for us, but most importantly I hope there will be great unity in the neighborhood to share knowledge and solve problems.”

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