A mustached Muni driver jumps off the steps of the 16-Noriega Express, long-haired mechanics stand in front of a streetcar at the Geary Carbarn and a black female driver proudly poses next to the 71-L bus.
These are but a few in a series of photographs that hang on the walls of the San Francisco Municipal Railway Employees Federal Credit Union’s Ocean Avenue office.
The man jumping off the bus was Jimmy Anderson, a longtime driver and member, whose children still hold accounts there. Passersby might miss the credit union, located on a quiet stretch of Ocean Avenue between Granada and Miramar streets, but those looking closely will spot its hand-painted windows, featuring familiar pictures of streetcars, buses and cable cars.
A far cry from the glossy, impersonal world of corporate banking, the credit union formed in 1952, when a group of 92 Muni workers each kicked in $3,000 to start a nonprofit banking system for drivers and their families.
“That’s the coolest part: drivers started it for the drivers,” said teller Brendan Bickham, who has worked there since 2001. He sees about 30 to 40 customers a day, he said. The number that has gone down since the introduction of the credit union’s ATM cards.
Only MUNI workers and their families can gain membership to the credit union. They are recruited at trainings and union meetings, and most who join stick with it. Incentives include free ATM fees, financial counseling, easy auto and real estate loan applications and interest-earning checking accounts.
“I’m happy here, they treat you like family,” said Henry Mejia, a mechanic at MUNI’s Kirkland Yard who stopped by the office. Mejia’s sister is a manager at the credit union, and she recruited him and other family members 22 years ago.
The friendly atmosphere is a big draw in an age of slick, corporate mega-banks, where personalization is rare. Bickham joked around with Mejia after he was momentarily locked out of the partition windows. It was easy to tell they’d known each other for years.
“Other places are like, ‘Thank you. How may I help you?’” Mejia said of the formal, stilted customer service at most financial institutions. “Not here.”
Most of the credit union’s nearly 800 members are black or Asian men, Bickham said, a demographic he hasn’t seen change much in the past decade. Nelson Pino, the credit union’s vice president, drove for Muni for 44 years—manning everything from the 38-Geary to cable cars. He also spent 14 years as a union chairperson for Muni’s Flynn division.
The credit union has a volunteer, member-elected board and supervising committee, and members come together for annual meetings at Alemany Boulevard mainstay Patio Espanol.
“We talk about the previous year, and most of the people express their happiness” with the credit union, Pino said. Though increasing numbers of MUNI workers are moving out of San Francisco due to rapidly rising rents, and many endure long commutes to get to their jobs, membership has stayed relatively stable.
“The membership is a niche, so it hasn’t hurt too bad,” Bickham said of the economy’s changes.
The credit union owns the building at its only location at 1425 Ocean Ave., so it’s likely to stay put—and immune from commercial rent hikes.
People sometimes come in off the street to check out the old photos, but most are probably unaware of the credit union’s uniquely San Francisco, tight-knit community.
“Everyone who comes in here pretty much knows each other,” Bickham said.