When people ask me where I live in the city, I have no idea how to answer. Technically, I’m at Baker and McAllister. But I live and work in a neighborhood with an identity crisis, caused in part by the number of names people have for it. Do I answer NOPA and risk sounding like a yuppie? Am I in the Western Addition, the historical tag for the area? Around the corner is Alamo Square – is that a neighborhood too, or just the park? Then there’s Divisadero Corridor, a new label that came from the business expansion on that street over the years. I’ve even heard my intersection called LoDi, Lower Divis. And I’ve jokingly dubbed my area WEPO (West of Popeye’s). So yeah, there’s been a lot of debate about the name of my neighborhood, but the bigger debate stems from the gentrification happening here.
The neighborhood surrounding Divisadero is changing fast. It’s gone from needing development support from the mayor’s office to having an established merchants association and skyrocketing rents. The Wall Street Journal called my hood out as “Mission 2.0” after news broke of Four Barrel and Bi-Rite moving in, and the backlash against the hipsters and yipsters has begun.
People love to talk shit and air opinions when neighborhoods change, myself included. I can proudly say I’m not all talk, though. I’ve contributed to my zip code for the past four years with three businesses and a fourth on the way. I love my hood so much I’ve worked to help get more merchants, friends, and events here. I even took on planning ArtWalk and brought Indie Mart to the Independent and Alamo Square Flea Market so there’d be more eclectic events here.
With so many opinions circulating about the future of Divis and its surrounding streets, it seemed like the right time to grab beers with a few of the major characters who live nearby and have them chime in on the subject at hand.
I started with my friend (and occasional NIMBY) Charles Hubert, a neighborhood veteran for 14 years and second-generation SF native. Charles has had a long love affair with this area and is actually responsible for luring me over here from the Mission. His biggest complaint is that with gentrification comes homogenization. He believes that getting a few great restaurants or coffee shops is good. But he’s worried that gentrification can start to take away from the businesses that have been here for years – the nail salons, the crazy wig shop, the BBQ joint, etc. When does the first local chain come in, and after that, the first national chain? When do all the businesses start to look the same?
Up until now, many of the new, hip spots that have opened here (Mojo, Bar Crudo, Little Star, Workshop, Mini Bar, The Independent) have been run by locals who are very involved in the neighborhood – their owners all reside here. But, Charles asks, when will that change?
To him, the best things about the neighborhood are its diversity and its community vibe. The more it grows, he worries, the more it starts becoming oversaturated with trendy merchants – pop-ups taking over the dining options, every design theme featuring recycled wood, etc. If that happened, how would we remain distinct from Valencia?
The minute people started saying Divis was the new Valencia, folks freaked out. I did too. Not that I don't like Valencia, I love it, but this is a more residential neighborhood. There’s a worry that we'll be run out of our favorite spots by the weekend warriors. As is, I can barely get a seat in a Divisadero bar on a Saturday night.
Onto the old schooler, James Williams, my neighbor and a long-time resident. James has lived here since the ’60s and is a vibrant character I regularly see out at bars. He hits all my Workshop parties and has even schooled some of my friends on the art of rolling a joint. He says he’s all for the changes, adding that it brings new blood, energy, and people to the hood. He’s seen this area in its jazz heyday, watched it decline, and then witnessed it bounce back. He believes the influx of art and creativity here gives the neighborhood a fresh face, not to mention more options for where to shop, eat, and grab a drink. He reminisces about a time when these streets were more connected to The Fillmore and to the jazz greats who played there. He recalls lots of crazy parties and slaying lots of ladies, and misses the rich black history this area once had.
I asked a few of the original black business owners their thoughts about all the new merchants coming in, and got mixed reviews. The staff at one of the old-school barbershops I’ve long been a fan of, Westside Cuts, agrees that the growth is a positive thing. They’re afraid of being priced out of the neighborhood, though, and of seeing a slow but steady shift of black residents having to move away.
Rental rate increases affect everyone in the area. Morgan Fitzgibbons, who is the Pooh-Bah behind the Wigg Party, a local group that promotes events and environmental initiatives here, is looking at being priced out by a greedy landlord as I write this. (Ironically, this is after Morgan has spent years being involved with and promoting business ownership here.) Friends of mine have had to move to cheaper areas, too.
Neighborhood shifts aren’t entirely about the landlords, though. There are the aesthetic changes as well, which can be great for locals. Remy Nelson, the owner of Mojo, says he’s pretty excited about the parklets, for example. He was part of the first parklet in SF, installed right in front of Mojo. He’s also stoked about the fact that Divis is slowly becoming a shopping district, with stores like Rare Device and San Franpsycho moving here.
After picking my neighbor’s brains about the changes to the streets around us, my opinions about gentrification land on both sides of the fence. In the end, though, I am excited to see new businesses, new ideas, and new faces here. It’s made my neighborhood feel like an ideal place to live where I can have a social life, get involved with the art scene, and hang out with some of the old cats over beers, taking in fun stories about SF back in the day.
Am I worried that all the work I’ve done – along with all the other businesses who were here before me – will eventually price me out? Yeah, but to me, it’s worth it. Knowing that Four Barrel and Bi-Rite are coming here is great. I love both spots and will continue to patronize them as long as they contribute to keep Divisadero’s culture unique, and not go after a Mission 2.0 thing. Do I want chain stores like American Apparel here, though? Heck no. It’s all a balance.
On the subject of the neighborhood name, that’s also complicated. I’m sticking with most folks I know here, including the old timers like my neighbor James, and calling it the Western Addition. But anything located on or close to Divisadero I call just that, Divisadero.
Wherever any of us fall on the issues of names or new businesses, the area around me is changing rapidly. In the end, I’m looking forward to seeing my hood grow in a way that’s respectful to the history of these streets and to the people populating them.