STRATEGY

The Old Neighborhood

The Internet-fed economy is altering the face of San Francisco. One writer looks at what it means like to live at the center of this revolution.
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THIS PLACE

The Internet-fed economy is altering the face of San Francisco. For some, it's changing beyond recognition

I'm sitting in a bar in San Francisco's fashionable Mission district. Less than a year ago this place was a Mexican cantina for local "winetos" and blue-collar brown workers. Now it's a chichi lounge club, jam-packed with upper-class hipsters wearing gothic tattoos, retro hairdos, swing jackets, and vintage '70s clothes. From the old dÉcor, all that's left are two Mexican murals on the back wall.

The bartenders are two blond female bodybuilders with designer bodies and minds. There are no Latino customers other than myself, but the music coming from the jukebox is pure Latino '50s lounge: Esquivel, PÉrez Prado, Acerina, and Xavier Cugat. Occasionally, we hear Herb Alpert, who, as far as I'm concerned, is an honorary Latino.


"Man, this is the last chapter of a very old story, the conquest of the West."


I wait for a friend while sipping on my Myers's rum. Suddenly in the middle of this typical Bay Area vignette, the door opens abruptly, and an old Mexican homeless man pulling a shopping cart enters. He's holding what appears to be a sharpened stick. He begins to scream at the crowd, "I'm tired of all of you yuppies [Spanish spoken]," and begins to theatrically threaten the customers with his handmade weapon. He's clearly acting out, but the "Femme Nikita" bartenders have a different opinion. They grab baseball bats from behind the counter and go for the man. I cannot believe my eyes. I instinctively jump in between them and manage to persuade the Amazons that I'll take care of this situation. They back off reluctantly.

I grab the old man's arm, take him outside, and tell him in Spanish, "Life is a drag, you see. You must be real tired." The man nods affirmatively. "So am I." I try to commiserate with him.

He gives me a hug and begins to cry. "All I need is a little attention," he says. "I've been walking these streets forever and no one -- no one looks at me anymore. These kids are arrogant and selfish. They don't even know this was my hood just a few months ago."

He's clearly referring to the rapid process of gentrification that has transformed the Mission from a laid-back Latino barrio to one of the hippest hoods in the country, according to various national magazines. I grab his hand very firmly. "Man, this is the last chapter of a very old story, the conquest of the West."

"Yes," says he. "They are the cowboys, and we are the Indians."

Though I am not too sure in which category I fall as a Mexican, I answer, "True, but there is not much we can do about it." After a long pause, I tell him, "Man, we gotta move on."

The old man grabs his cart and begins to walk toward Market Street. I can see the distant lights of the financial district framing the fading silhouette of the homeless man. I go back to the bar, crestfallen.

This lounge hipster comes to my table and offers me a drink. I politely reject it. "Thank you, man," he says. "You handled the situation real smooth."

It was like a scene from any spaghetti western. The recurrent references to frontier iconography make me even more depressed. What I have just experienced is clearly a new version of a very old western movie.

My friend finally arrives. I suggest we go to another bar.

Guillermo G—mez-PeÑa is an artist and writer living in San Francisco. This commentary originally aired on NPR and is printed here with permission.


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Last updated: May 15, 2000




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