Life on the Corner
Corner stores are the most immediate barometers of economic and racial change in a neighborhood.
The stories of gentrification and shifting demographics are right there in what's for sale: soda or kombucha, malt liquor or Belgian Trappist beer, a deli or a fridge full of kimchi? Photographer Gundi Vigfusson and I visited 12 shops in the Western Addition to capture pictures of a neighborhood filled with contradictions and stuck in change.
Since the ’40s, the city has been working to redevelop the Western Addition, once a predominantly African American neighborhood west of Van Ness Avenue. The project ended in 2008, leaving the original community gutted. In an article written in 2008, The San Francisco Chronicle estimated that the city had destroyed 2,500 Victorians and forced out almost 5,000 families. The Fillmore District was transformed into blocks of subsidized housing and Japantown. In the ’90s and ’00s gentrification crept in to form neighborhoods like Alamo Square, Hayes Valley, and most recently, NOPA.
The state of each area is reflected in its corner stores. The impoverished Fillmore District is still dominated by liquor stores with inexpensive, convenience products. Around Japantown the corner stores have been replaced by ethnic groceries that import good from India, Korea, and Japan. On Divisadero Street, standard convenience stores are turning into or being replaced by expensive health food and specialty stores. Soon there will even be a Bi-Rite Market, which will be moving into an old corner shop next to the ultra-trendy Nopa restaurant in the next few months.
The products tell one story, but the owners of the stores tell a different one, of immigration and hope. All 12 stores we visited are owned by first- or second-generation immigrants — eight by Palestinians, two by Koreans, one by an Indian, and one by a Japanese couple from the earthquake-shattered town of Miyako. A majority of the Palestinians were refugees in the ’60s and ’70s who first came tothis country on student visas. They had few connections and limited language skills. Over the years they have become integral parts of their neighborhoods, living proof that there is more to a corner store than just four walls and a place to get a fix.
Visit these 12 shops in the Western Addition and/or your local corner store. Got a favorite corner store? Tell us about it!