Political Landscapes: In District Eleven, Common Cause Leads to United Action

Jasmani and his caregivers Santos Rodriguez (left) and Bidal Gonzalez walk up Excelsior Avenue on a fall afternoon. PHOTOGRAPH BY EMMA CHIANG/INGLESIDE-EXCELSIOR LIGHT

Ask a resident of District Eleven which neighborhood he lives in. He’s likely to say, “I don’t know.” Yes, the neighborhoods have names — Ocean View, Ingleside, Excelsior, Crocker Amazon, Merced Heights and several others, depending on the current cultural buzzwords — but they all sound like the concoctions of a realtors’ convention. The names don’t seem to have much to do with the people who live and breathe beneath the real estate maplines.

If you’re ever in Merced Heights, in the southwestern corner of San Francisco, you can play an interesting mind game. Stand at the edge of Brooks Park and look north. You’ll see block upon block of two-story houses.

You’re looking at District 11.

Now mentally erase those houses. Abracadabra! The urban density of the 21st century has disappeared, leaving behind wide open spaces. You’re looking at Rancho San Miguel, owned by José de Jesús Noé, two-time alcalde of the tiny Mexican settlement of Yerba Buena. It’s easy to imagine cattle grazing on the rolling hillsides.

In time, the cattle gave way to vast vegetable farms worked by Italian immigrants, but even at the beginning of the 20th century, signs of human habitation were scarce. An Ocean View-Merced Heights-Ingleside, or OMI, historical context statement issued by the mavens of the Western Neighborhoods Project, Richard Brandi and Woody LaBounty, says that this area contained just 263 buildings and 1,512 people in 1900. On sunny days, visitors came to fill their arms with wildflowers. But on a foggy night, as the wind howled outside the window, a farmhouse must have felt pretty lonely.

Just 1,512 people! In those days, most of San Francisco’s 342,782 people were hunkered down on the other side of town. You can almost see the tip of the peninsula bending from their weight in the northeast corner.

Maybe the imbalance had something to do with it! In any case, on April 18, 1906 the earth of San Francisco quivered and quaked. And from that date forward, migration moved in seismic waves into District Eleven. About a hundred years later, in 2010, when the U.S. Census Bureau counted 805,235 people in the city as a whole, 76,818 of them lived in the southernmost district.

In 1906 parks all over the city were converted into temporary living space after the earthquake. One popular racetrack, rechristened the Ingleside Model Camp, was assigned to offer aid to hundreds of refugees who (in Brandi and LaBounty’s words) were “unable to support themselves – the aged, the handicapped and the convalescent.” Most of them were immigrants, many Irish. Most of them belonged to low-income, blue-collar families.

When the camp closed, many of the residents moved to space nearby, sometimes taking their “earthquake cottages” with them. They were joined in Ingleside and in the Excelsior by recently unhoused Irish, Italian and German workers from the Mission. The sounds of construction must have echoed throughout the district during the 1920s and 1930s, as San Francisco’s population shifted south.

The 1940s brought more new residents of all races and ethnicities, war workers who had migrated to San Francisco from other parts of the country and returning servicemen and women. In Merced Heights, African Americans discovered a lack of racial covenants barring black ownership, and they quickly seized the opportunity to buy houses there.

But San Francisco’s population patterns changed in the 1980s. Large numbers of African Americans left the city, and large numbers of Asians moved in. Priced out of the limited housing supply to the north, many Asians discovered the attractions of Ingleside and the Excelsior.

And today? Today the district has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in San Francisco, the lowest percentage of graduates from college or professional schools. It has the lowest percentage of households where only English is spoken. And the highest percentage of children.

In 2000, when San Francisco reinstituted the district election of supervisors, the people of District Eleven complained that they were invisible to the makers and shakers in City Hall. No longer! Traffic congestion, inadequate sewers, struggling businesses districts, unkempt parks and playgrounds, a problematic healthcare system — those problems are still here, but somebody must have sent a crate of telescopes downtown, because they’re beginning to get attention.

It hasn’t hurt that the district’s termed-out supervisor, John Avalos, has been one of the most outspoken progressives on the board. And it certainly hasn’t hurt that local residents have learned the secrets of effective organization in the past 16 years. At a recent Neighborhood Empowerment Network ceremony, community groups from Ingleside, Excelsior and Outer Mission received four of the 14 awards. The declining Randolph-Broad corridor is finally getting some official attention. The five candidates who hope to replace Avalos are all experienced in community organizing. Three of them, Francisco Herrera, Magdalena Deguzman and Berta Hernandez, are immigrants; the other two, Ahsha Safai and Kimberly Alvarenga, are children of immigrants. They are all progressive — Avalos told Noah Arroyo of SF Weekly that even Safai, the most moderate of the bunch, is “generally more liberal than not.”

Safai and Alvarenga in particular know their way around San Francisco politics. Safai nearly beat Avalos in 2008. Alvarenga worked for six years as district director for California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano. Many downtown telescopes will be trained on their campaigns, in what Randy Shaw of Beyond Chron has called “the most competitive and perhaps the most interesting supervisor’s race of all.”

It sounds like District 11 is just an old-fashioned San Francisco neighborhood, full of left-leaning working-class folks and their kids, the kind of people who once delighted in picking lavender wildflowers in a nearby field. But now there’s also a lavender elephant in that field, threatening to trample the pretty picture: The Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley has created a map showing the parts of the Bay Area in most danger of displacement and gentrification. On it, District 11 appears in the same color as those old-time flowers, but this time lavender signifies, “Undergoing displacement: Already losing low income households, naturally affordable units, and in-migration of low income residents has declined”

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