824 Florida Street


Sunday, after a late morning breakfast of hot cross buns and coffee at Joey & Pat’s, my husband and I slowly perambulated the Mission, doing errands in a desultory way. On Florida Street, between 20th and 21st, we encountered a scrum of people on the sidewalk.

Two men in their fifties or sixties were presenting a building plan to the neighborhood. Blueprints were on a folding table. You could take a copy. The men and the table were in front of an old, white house with a garage door right at the sidewalk. We stopped to see what was happening. Why were they sitting in front of the house with an attitude of resignation?

The “house” is, or was, a dwelling for someone, but when it was constructed (in 1908, as it turns out) it wasn’t built to house people. It was clearly a garage or a space for light industry.

Two women were looking at the plans. The table was in the shade of the building, a nice place to linger. Two children biked around the women. We walked over to the table.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“We’re presenting these plans to the neighborhood,” replied the sitting man. He was older, maybe in his late sixties. “We’re adding a vertical element.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the plans. “Are you the owner?”

The man shifted in his chair. “We’re the designers,” he replied. “We’re going to add a couple floors.”

Sensing circumvention, I tried again. “Who owns this place?”

The heavyset man sighed and moved in his folding chair again, almost imperceptibly. Evasion hung thick in the air. Crosstalk prevented the moment from becoming too acute.

One of the women knew the building’s history. The Travertini family had made pottery there. A truck used to pull into the garage and load up, she remembered. She moved to Florida Street in 1965, when she was eight years old, and has lived here ever since. “I’m first generation,” she said. Her parents were from Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was full of Italian families when her family moved to the Mission, she said. “We were the minority. Can you imagine that?”

I said immediately, as I always do when Mission history comes up, “My great-great-grandparents lived down the street!” The woman and I beamed at each other, pleased to find another ancestral Missionite.

The standing man said the building was originally a gymnasium.

Back to the question hanging in the air. “Are you the owners?” I asked again.

The sitting man sensed that I wasn’t going to let it go. “There’s a group of owners,” he said. “I’m the face of the owners.”

He wasn’t going to say who. He wasn’t going to name names. Eleven owners? Twelve? Three? We thanked the men and left.

At home I went online. The San Francisco Public Library has online city directories from 1850 to 1982. I searched the 1963 Polk’s City Directory and found Travertini & Co. Mfg., “plaster casting,” owned by Gino and Ulaldina Travertini at 824 Florida Street. No pictures emerged on Google of Mr. and Mrs. Travertini. The only picture of them with their plaster and lathe and delivery trucks is a memory held in the mind of the woman who moved to the Mission in 1965, the year I was born.

My husband went back to get a blueprint at 2 p.m., perhaps thirty minutes after we’d seen them, but the men were gone. Nothing was posted on the building or the telephone pole in front of the building. Apparently, the men had given notice to the neighborhood.

The men were nice, and spoke to us in a civil fashion about the change in the neighborhood, the alteration of the Travertini place. But a description posted last year on Zillow seemed offhandedly callous. It described the structure as a “Great one open space with bathroom, kitchen, lots light and huge backyard. . . . We will tear down place in 22 months.”

It’s bewildering, this speculative wilding in the Mission, where prices are so high that groups of investors need to pool their money to purchase property, where the blueprints detailing changes to the neighborhood are grudgingly unveiled for a few minutes on hot, sunny Saturday afternoons and then folded up and secreted away so that neighborhood re-visioning can start, and where the perfect moments of the Mission stay preserved in memory.


This article originally appeared in on March 10, 2015 as a feature in Mission Local, San Francisco’s finest local newspaper. Many thanks to Lydia Chavez.

From the wayback files: Imagined Nation

  Imagined Nation


The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which was the first pass made by the Allied Powers of the West at dismantling the Ottoman Empire after WWI, made certain promises to the Kurds; then and now a people of a virtually realized nation. Virtual, be cause if you go to the website http://www.kurdishyoungsters.com, you will see an animated image of the boundary line of the imagined nation, Kurdistan, springing forth from Syria, and snaking through Turkey, Iran and Iraq before coming back to Syria and vanishing. The Treaty of Sevres offered the Kurds conditional steps towards full nationhood, starting with dedicated territory and ending with Turkish recognition of their independence. But it was a halfhearted gesture. The bureaucratic doubtfulness of a phrase like “if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence” reads like a sentence of foretold disappointment for the people under discussion, and so it was for the Kurds. These promises were banished completely from the treaty that was ultimately adopted, the Treaty of Lausanne. It did not mention the Kurds at all.

On June 26 of this year, The New Yorker ran an article by Seymour Hersh, which detailed alleged new alliances between Kurdish regional authorities in Iraq and Israeli intelligence agents. It is possible that Sharon’s government, worried that the Americans could not contain the hornet’s nest stirred up the Bush administration, has decided to do that magic certain nations do, namely, to try to transform a semi-autonomous, regionally-based government into a full-fledged nation, complete with militarily defended map coordinates.

I went looking for a map of Kurdistan. Reading descriptions of where the Kurds were located-North of Iraq, South-East of Turkey-wasn’t enough. After all, these coordinates contain their own confusing and highly mutable polarities Eastern Syria turns into Western Kurdistan or South-Eastern Turkey can transform into Northern Kurdistan, depending on who is doing the describing. I needed to see an enclosed chunk of land, with boundaries and fixed dimensions. I need to see and assess Kurdistan’s spatial relationship to the other countries. Seeing Kurdistan next to or in between Turkey/Syria/Iran/ Iraq would give me a instinctive sense of what it would mean for Kurdistan to heave upward and outward, from the Treaty of Sevres, into the reshuffled and re-mapped Middle East.
Finding one, I found that I have an instinctively fanciful reaction to maps. When I think about The Green Line, I see a line, twanging like a taut harp string, sounding the notes of raging parliamentary debates. Ireland looks like a sow laying on her side, with the jagged outline of the rocky west coast fanning off like multiple teats toward her offspring parishes in America. England reminds me of an ink blot, and America looks like a creature L. Frank Baum invented for his second Oz book “The Land of Oz”, which he called a “Gump”: a flying creature with a bad temper and an enormously over- sized body. The proposed map of Kurdistan looks like an exaggeratedly drawn hominid skull with the occiput jutting into Syria and Turkey and the long jaw facing east.

As a peace organizer in the nineties, it was my job for a while to alert the American public to the fact that Turkey was attempting to massacre the Kurds with American-made weapons. My job was to a provide a vastly oversimplified analysis of the contradictory position America had towards human rights- denouncing, on the one hand, dictators and human rights abuses in the Mid-East, and peddling, with the other hand that was frequently clutching expensive loan guarantees, as many missiles, helicopters and tanks to allied nations like Turkey as we could. I described the Kurds as a distinct people living within Turkish borders, even though describing them this way extended the conversation by a good ten minutes. Most people didn’t understand the idea of a landless nation and I hadn’t heard the word “diaspora” yet. It was hard to prove that Turkey wasn’t simply attacking itself without recourse to that most basic of explanations: a map.

When you view a map, you see circumstance and consequence in one fell swoop handed to you, enclosed and intact, by virtue of the impossible view from the heavens, which is where viewing a map will place you. A map tidily collapses the what-ness, and the why-ness of a people into a concise acknowledgment of their place on this earth. We know the country by the company it keeps (or is forced to keep) as much as we know a country by articles in The New Yorker. Maps leapfrog the endless to-ing and fro-ing of the world’s securocrats, stoking the fires of unrest here, placating them there, reacting militarily there and there and there. Image is everything to finalizing— dictating, really— comprehension. The very word “map” snaps with finitude. The map I stared at the longest was a transparent beige outline. It was superimposed onto the other countries, but still helpfully transparent, so that the boundaries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the boundaries that would likely be re-drawn at the behest of America and her allies (a prospect that worries me) were not obliterated, yet. They remained distinct.

The map of Kurdistan is, at this point, floating somewhere between a proposal and an outright demand. It hovers above the Mid East, a nation-in-waiting to itself, and an reminder to other countries, like Armenia or Ireland, whose ancient territories still languish under Turkish and British possession, that some small nations may matter more, especially if they have oil reserves.

In the Treaty of Sevres, the proposed outlines of Kurdistan are described this way: “east of the Euphrates, south of the Southern boundary of Armenia, as it may hereafter be determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia.” It is an appropriately mystical description of a mysterious land. It is suggestive, too, of the beginnings of a Kipling poem. Kurdistan, the hidden land hiding under four different countries. Go forth and discover it. Who will the Explorer be?

Reprinted from: Mississippi Review, Vol. 32, No. 3
Fall 2004