“We’ve never been in a city with light like this. We sit in our hotel room for hours, watching the fog come in, the light change.”
— John Lennon
I grew up in what was once called the “gritty Mission District” of San Francisco, predominately Irish and Italian Catholic working class. There were dives but no “fern bars.” There was a gang called the Black Barts who were actually Latino and on Saturday nights would tool down Mission Street in customized low-rider cars with hydraulics to lift the chassis, adding to the display. A few wore Zoot Suits dating back to the 1940s era. There was a gang of white youth called the White Shoe Boys because they wore white suede shoes or white bucks, different from the alligator skin shoes of the Black Barts. Changing one’s shoes could avert a fight. The White Shoe Boys were reminiscent of any high school production of West Side Story.
Our neighborhood had many small butcher shops and grocery stores run by families of different ethnicities: Middle Eastern, Chinese and Greek. San Francisco had a bohemian feel, made famous by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore that in 1956 published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem that expressed the profane lyricism of the Beat generation that included Jack Kerouac who wrote “On The Road.”
Ferlinghetti, now 95, laments San Francisco’s “gentrification.” The technology industries brought in a predominantly white male conservative class of landlords that can legally drive out old tenants. The rebel poets have left San Francisco’s North Beach.
According to the SF Gate, “A little over a month ago, an anonymous Twitter engineer in the city told the Guardian that he was barely getting by on a $160,000 annual salary.” This past week, CBS This Morning reported that a salary of $159,000 a year is essential to live comfortably in San Francisco. Rents for an apartment are now $3,000, minimum.
My grandfather who bought and rebuilt the small house I grew up in overlooking Dolores Park would be truly shocked. He moved in by 1919 and raised a family of five children. The house still exists unchanged, but with a price tag of more than $2,000,000. The property tax alone is beyond the reach of laborers, as my grandfather’s working class were called.
In Idaho, Ketchum is a good example of “gentrification.” Only film stars can afford to live there, or the extremely wealthy who often abandon their elegant homes during the winter. One could argue this is progress. If one needs at least $110,500 to cover necessities like rent and utilities, this indicates growth and economic strength. It could also mean hard-working professionals are being priced out of their own homes and neighborhoods.
In 2009, I paid a visit to San Francisco and found a very different city, with higher prices, trendy coffee shops and elegant restaurants. Even the so called “gritty” Mission District had become posh. I didn’t need to discard my white bucks. A young man named Mike in the computer industry rented my old house and invited me to visit. The house was full of ghosts, including Father and Grandfather who died there. Since that visit, Mike had to move because his salary in the high five figures wasn’t enough.
I realize time moves forward, but has San Francisco’s soul been lost, including the Castro District (gay) and the Fillmore District (black), neighborhoods that are now amorphous.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.