Talk of the Mission town: The Memory Club
by Elizabeth C. Creely
Last Friday the 13th, I walked past a place of great misfortune: the intersection of 22nd and Mission where there had once been an old building wrapped protectively around the intersection. Built in 1907, it had apartments on the top, and shops on the bottom in keeping with the post-earthquake “intensification of commercial properties”, which is how the SF Planning Commission characterizes the urban development that took place on Mission Street. The building burned down in the evening of January 28th, 2015, killing one man and displacing 60 people, among them a boy, who stood on the fire escape for several minutes on that fiery night, with the burning building behind him. He jumped; like the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, there was no other escape open to him. (He was caught safely by a neighbor). There were hopes that the landlord, a man named Lou Hawk, would re-build, but he steadfastly maintained the same level of indifference towards the ruined building that he showed towards his tenants. The building had locked exits, awnings that prevented the fire escapes from descending properly, no functioning fire extinguishers or smoke detectors.
The building caught fire again twice this year. It was finally ripped down by the city a day or two before I walked by it, laying in a heap of huge wooden splinters and twisted rebar and stinking of moldy wood and raw sewage. I continued to walk north on Mission looking at the people milling around in the shadow of the disaster, walking the blocks of Mission Street now as they did one hundred years ago, with one difference: they seem to tour the street more than shop, which is different, I think, from its heyday as a shopping district. The street has become a destination and the demands that people make of a destination are different: while they may crave discovery, they do not want to be too surprised, too affected by unpredictability. The burnt building, which had been an awful eyesore and monument to unpredictable and terrible surprise, was gone now. Soon everyone’s eyes would become more accustomed to the space left behind by the absent building.
Mission Street was called for awhile the “Miracle Mile”, and was the core shopping district between 14th and what was then Army Street, a place where to confirm one’s middle-class prosperity through the act of purchasing. When I moved into the neighborhood in 1991, the street had lost its luster and was a scrubby mix of Latin American grocers, stores selling Jaffa cosmetics and money orders for remittances, which would be sent back to the cities and villages in South and Central America. Clothing stores lined the blocks, some featuring display mannequins with round, voluptuous butts, all wearing tight pants and facing outward, onto the sidewalk, the better to display the clothes. The stores that sold quinceanera dresses were my favorite: the dresses were opulent and princess-y, with their rhinestone work, and saturated colors. There were jewelry stores, automotive repair garages, and restaurants that served the working class and indigent alike. If I encountered any of my friends on Mission Street, which normally I did not—Valencia was much more of a host to the social scene of the late eighties and nineties—it was in passing, coming in and out of four places: Goodwill, Thrift Town, El Farolitos or the Walgreens at 23rd Street.
For me, Mission Street was not memorable; it was hard and bright and reminded me of too much of downtown Santa Ana, the place I lived before moving to San Francisco, which is to say it reminded me of Southern California, a place I did not want to live. I avoided Mission Street, which remained, for a long time, a series of disconnected locations, with no sense of place. I walked between its blocks without any other consciousness than the desire to arrive at my destination. Siegal’s Clothing was proof that I was at a midway point between 20th and 19th streets. The Dore Studio was the one place I’d stop and stare: its unapologetic depictions of female beauty were arresting, and I’d often wonder what the photographers could do for me. Could they make me as pillow-lipped and doe-eyed as the dark-eyed Latinas featured in their windows, with their flawless skin and that tumbling raven hair?
The Mission’s past was unknown to me mostly because it hadn’t developed a “past” yet. It has now: the story of the neighborhood, told in its marquees, obscured facades and burnt buildings—two actually— is being rapidly overwritten. The disaster site at 22nd and Mission creates a interesting space; sort of a temporal overlap which the onlooker can use to assess where they are in the history of the street, while the ruins are taken away and the past shifts into the future. Can you remember what the building looked like? Did you ever enter the subterranean Mission Market to buy rabbit from the butcher? Had I crossed Mission and walked east, I would have walked in a neighborhood that had hosted my family until 1915. But the caprices and accidents of family memory had discarded any memory of the blacksmith, his wife and their eight children, and their life at 916 Florida Street. Whatever had happened, or not happened, to the Creelys was totally forgotten, and so there was no inducement for me to explore my surroundings more wholeheartedly.
Another sad fact was that I was a suburban xenophobe, something I carried with me into San Francisco, along with my other possessions. And this is weird as well as sad: I was always waiting in those days for a street to turn into a something undiscovered. I didn’t understand that this was impossible: since the city was a man-made artifact, everything that was there—every street, sign, building or alleyway—was known, or had been known to someone. I’ve since realized that the longing for something undiscovered is common to city newcomers: they want to belong and one way to belong to America’s cities is ferret out its secrets, its forgotten locations which, having been located, serves as proof of belonging. The newcomer can claim, as a prize for themselves, the idea that they alone have discovered and deciphered the hidden meaning of the alley that goes nowhere and the old cobblestones that pave it.
Cities that are healthy don’t develop enormously distended underbellies of secret, inaccessible spaces; this happens after they develop great wealth disparities. The city as I knew it in the late eighties and early nineties lacked this particular neurosis: it felt like a stage on which people encountered each other in unrehearsed play. The Redwood Room on Geary had this great Saroyan-esque sweep of humanity: under the panels of redwood and the fake Klimt paintings, there would be fierce drag queens wearing vintage finery, prostitutes having quiet drinks with their clients, men in PG&E uniforms shouting happily at each other, and the bridge and tunnel crowd at the end of their Big Day in the City having a drink, and me, too, canoodling with my current lover or gabbing away with one of my best friends, eating olives, crackers and salted nuts from the little silver cocktail plates that appeared with your drink, which was always good, and never cost more than six bucks.
Maybe Original McCarthys on Mission Street had this wildly eclectic social atmosphere, but I don’t think it did. It was an working-class Irish-American bar with all the clubby insularity of that community, and it was beautiful: wide and deep, brick-lined and cold. Old men with slowly blinking eyes sat at the bar as if they’d never left, speaking briefly to the bartender and the other old men. I never went in until I was enrolled in the Irish Studies Program in New College, in the late nineties. I had just begun to grasp the residual presence of Irish-American culture in the Mission District and I stared at the old alcoholic men and listened to the bartenders with their chewy, growling Mission District accents, and wondered what I’d been missing, being so Valencia-centric.
All lot, as it turns out. But it wasn’t only because of my ignorance. The beautiful, derelict interiors of Mission District businesses were often secured behind locked iron gates, or, as was the case with the New Mission Theater, obscured behind mounds of cheap futons. Now these spaces are being excavated. The lobby of the New Mission theater was cleared of the futons and the doors were open and after some hard work, there emerged a gracious theater that is now in business again, its previous skin of scarred, scrawled-upon mosaic work enclosed in Plexiglas cases as a means of authentication, of provenance, age; to show, literally the scars of its history.
At the other end of Mission Street, past the site of the old Sinn Fein Shoe Store, now a Metro PCS outpost, I walked past a new condo development, located at 1875 Mission. Banners, fluttering in the wind above my head in the unassailable sky, had three words written in bold black: Eminent. Posh. Bold. It was the second word that snapped me out of my reverie: such a gauche and naked appeal to snobbery needs attention paid. What reality, I wondered, do they think they can obliterate by using this ridiculous word? The Navigation Center for the homeless down the street? The tent villages lining the sidewalks? How can a term like “posh”—a word which seems to mock itself every time it’s uttered —exist in a working-class neighborhood?
I came to 14th and Mission where the Armory squats solidly, another building that wraps around the intersection. Across the street is a bar. On the outside wall is a sign, looking vaguely like a heraldic device. My near-sighted eyes lit on the sign, which I automatically tried to read, even I knew I’d read it before, and should have known what it said. But the tour of Mission Street, with its absences and additions, had obliterated my memory and created a amnesia-like feeling. I am forgetting what used to be anywhere, I told a friend last month. Every time a building is resuscitated or new building gets constructed, my memory seems get wiped clean.
I stared at the sign which swam into focus as I moved closer to it. Memory Club, I read. I stepped closer and read it again. Armory Club, it said.
“How noisy everything grows”