Let’s be up-front: there are days when I love you, and there are days when I hate you.
There were times soon after I moved to the Mission when you disgusted me; times when I’d hold my breath to move through a cloud of stale urine and chemical-soap odors that clung to your very being; times I felt my fists clench and my heart race as I ducked and weaved through another drug deal well on its way to going bad. I’d jotted down a set of mental rules to ensure my safety – never make eye contact, never stop moving, avoid large groups, and move as fast as possible without looking like you’re running. You, 16th and Mission, you terrified me.
It’s been a while since I’ve known you now, my downtrodden friend, and more than just growing used to you, I’ve come to love and appreciate you. These days when I’m around you, I keep my head up, my ears open, and my pace at a reasonable gait. I’ve spent my mornings and late evenings silently walking your space, and I’ve learned about you.
I know faces now, sometimes names too. I know short, stocky Two-Tone, thuggishly perched atop his bike, his face a blotchy painting of vitiligo. I know John Ratliff, a.k.a. Swan the Birdman of 16th, the Lone Star poet, with his dirty, long white hair, a thin, brown cigarette clenched between his lips, and a quartet of pigeons cooing on his hunched shoulders.
More than anything, I now know that your sights and smells are more than just a loose conglomeration of sadness, more than just overturned garbage cans and 24-hour porn stores. You are, at your core, a gathering place and a support network for people commonly looked over and looked down upon. You are a community, the same as any other. You are the proof that life, regardless of its exterior trappings and the obstacles presented, finds a way to push through the cracks and continue on.
In a neighborhood slowly being consumed by upscale eateries, an influx of entitled technillionaires, and the polished sheen of chic boutiques, you stand as a stark reminder of everything we as a city have made an effort to thoughtlessly forget. If restaurant-clogged Valencia Corridor is this neighborhood’s vision of the future, then you, 16th and Mission, are the past that most would rather pave over with million-dollar condos. You are brash and gritty, rough around the edges, an organic mass of life that swells and deflates with hectic, horrible, sometimes beautiful life. You are good and bad and everything in between, and within your world, a thin, cagey heartbeat of opportunity persists for anyone and everyone willing to take the chance.
I love you, 16th and Mission, because between the crud-filled lines of your squalor, life—sometimes scrappy and unkempt—tries to make do. Whether it’s the brassy woman who screams through a megaphone about “Lord Jesus” while piecing together sloppy tacos for any in need, or Juan Gutierrez at the Sandwich Place, his sliver of a restaurant that bulges outward with his big-hearted personality and the wafting scent of a damn good sub. Or the flea market of the future that slowly grows in front of McDonald’s, a mishmash of electronics cords, Spanish-dubbed American blockbusters, and bath products – grassroots consumerism at its most base. Or the Latino-Hebrew church that bleeds a bass-y thump of religious hymns turned funky, all day and night. Or the tenants of the Hotel Union and the Radha Hotel, single-resident occupancies that offer a place off the street for those who can’t even think about San Francisco’s steadily increasing rents.
I am, at heart, a child of the suburbs, and you, 16th and Mission, have shown me the best and the worst of what a city can be. You remind me that even in the seemingly utopian bubble of this city of ours, a real city rife with the real problems of the world exists. You aren’t always pretty, but no one will ever say you don’t thrum with life in all its many forms.
This story is part of our week-long feature, Love Letters to San Francisco's Quirky Bits. Learn more about it here.