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Stephanie Cajina: Working to Improve the Excelsior

Vehicles, bicycles, energetic teenagers waiting for the bus all contribute to the symphony of Mission Street in the Excelsior, while merchants offer groceries, cosmetics, apparel, and many things to eat. It’s a busy, vibrant neighborhood that seeks to shake off being seen as the “outskirts” of the city.

The Excelsior Action Group has been a leading neighborhood nonprofit eager to contribute to making the Excelsior a better place for local merchants and residents, with an emphasis on safety and economic development.

Stephanie-Cajina

Excelsior Action Group Executive Director Stephanie Cajina has been leading the nonprofit in its revitalization projects since 2014. (Photo: Emma Chiang, Ingleside-Excelsior Light)

Vehicles, bicycles, energetic teenagers waiting for the bus all contribute to the symphony of Mission Street in the Excelsior, while merchants offer groceries, cosmetics, apparel, and many things to eat. It’s a busy, vibrant neighborhood that seeks to shake off being seen as the “outskirts” of the city.

The Excelsior Action Group has been a leading neighborhood nonprofit eager to contribute to making the Excelsior a better place for local merchants and residents, with an emphasis on safety and economic development.

Stephanie Cajina has served as the executive director of EAG since June of 2014. Having spent a couple years as a volunteer for EAG before stepping in as executive director, Cajina calls it her “dream job,” a culmination of experience and location. “I tell folks that the issues we are trying to tackle are issues that affect me as well,” Caijna said. “And I’m trying to address them on a personal level.”

Cajina picks up on issues that are personal for long-time residents. Excelsior residents were “tired of living in the community they had grown up in,” Cajina said, with, for example, a proliferation of liquor stores and check cashing centers on the corridor.

Improving the aesthetics of the neighborhood is a priority for EAG, who recently “spearheaded” an improvement project for the Excelsior branch library, according to Cajina. The project installed benches, greenery and a rotating art exhibit on the exterior of the building.

EAG also provides façade-improvement opportunities to local businesses, leveraging the cost of new awnings and paint jobs. “Stephanie patronizes local businesses for her lunch and uses it as an opportunity to connect with these businesses, and promote them,” Eamon O’Connor, chair of EAG’s Businesses Attraction and Support Committee said.

Last year Cajina was a proponent of an activity called “Small Business Saturday” where Excelsior residents were invited to partake in supporting local merchants, to “get folks out in the neighborhood and check in with local business owners, shop local, get an enhanced sense of the community,” Cajina said.

Stephanie-Cajina-2

Stephanie Cajina meeting with a neighbor at Mama Art Cafe on Mission Street. (Photo: Emma Chiang, Ingleside-Excelsior Light)

Cajina speaks of the Excelsior as a family, and she wants to bolster that idea through her work with EAG. It’s something that’s evident every fall on Mission Street; for four years now the EAG has combined its own Excelsior community festival with Sunday Streets.

The city looks to the Excelsior as a neighborhood whose progress can inspire others, according to Cajina. Opportunities provided by District 11 Supervisor John Avalos’ office, the Parks Alliance and other agencies are needed investments that benefit local merchants and residents. “It’s a wonderful position to be in,” Cajina said. “We’re not selling the neighborhood anymore, it’s selling itself.”

In January of this year Excelsior won the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Comeback Neighborhood of the Year award. “Yes, the Excelsior is here,” Cajina said. “It is alive and kicking.”

“The challenge [Cajina] faces is getting the community active and involved,” Lila Baker Reedy, a member of the EAG’s steering committee said.

Despite that struggle, there are people who live in the Excelsior that want to make it a better place. “It’s a very opinionated neighborhood,” Cajina said, “people want to work, to contribute ideas.” She said they are proud to be a part of the Excelsior.

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