Carnaval in San Francisco always means 65 degrees in the Mission District, sunshine and seabreeze, pepper trees and pupusas, low-riders and samba dancers.
I went to Carnaval last weekend in the hope of being taken back to childhood memories of Carnaval in the late ’80s and early ’90s — a time I’ve idealized as the last years of a San Francisco dream of diversity, low-cost living and creativity. What I found was that, despite all the changes — demographic shifts and rising costs — San Francisco still has a lot of soul.
Back in the days of my reminiscence, as everyone knows, the Mission was a bit different. Fewer of the Victorians were renovated. The Valencia Street Gardens housing projects were there and gave Valencia a different character (it wasn’t the epitome of post-dot-com Mission trendiness it is today). There were a lot of down-and-outs on Valencia Street — I remember that my brother and I loved to go eat there because the ramblings of the crazy people were as good as any street theater. It was thrilling.
The Soviet-style Army Street projects loomed ominously above Harrison and Army. I remember them as massive towers, and I still see the graffiti murals on their sides in my mind’s eye.
Now, the Valencia Gardens are being rebuilt (to the City’s credit they will include even more units than they originally did). The Army Street projects were demolished and replaced with affordable housing of a smaller scale.
Dolores Park was run by drug dealers who slanged their wares on the J tracks. (Now hippies do it semi-legally as they walk amongst the hipsters in the park).
It’s all neither here nor there, really. Good changes have, I suppose, come with the bad. But it is often jarring to see how many things have changed, and to see how much the street and community life has been affected. Carle Nolte accurately summed up the changes in a January Chronicle column on the changing San Francisco in which he described it as a “boutique city”.
So even as I searched for memories of my childhood Carnavals last Sunday, I walked to the Mission from Bernal Heights with a sense of apprehension. Would anything of the old neighborhood be left?
Indeed, plenty remained. Twenty-fourth Street is still covered with murals and lined with local business. Reasonably-priced taquerias, corner stores, football games (on an improved field in Garfield Park), sunbleached Victorians — they are all still there, in the midst of the Priuses, dogs, yoga centers and remodeled houses of some of the newer residents.
The colors were impossibly vivid. The families were all out in full force. Jeans were sagging. The “SF” emblem was everywhere — ball caps, t-shirts, customized sneakers, tattoos. Pullovers read “Giants”, “Gigantes” and “Tha Sco” above a throwback Warriors motif. Hairstyles were long braids, ponytails and slicked back hair.
There were also the ubiquitous red garments and conversations about gangbangin’. That’s been part of the Mission for a long time. Even though gangs are undoubtedly a negative influence on the community, so help me God, I felt that old thrill at seeing that element. Gangs are a reflection of an illness in a working-class community, but at least they point to the existence of a community at the same time: You can’t get cancer if you’re dead. If only that energy could be channeled into a more positive kind of unity.
The performers were as great as ever. I only caught the tail end of the parade, but the street fair was an overwhelming mix of different cultures. A highlight was the samba band on 20th and Harrison: beleza! Further down a man walked by and handed a half-smoked, still smoking joint to some women in a booth. They laughed and thanked him. A 25-person drum circle in a tent was spontaneous and listenable — and the axé (spirit) was in full effect.
Seeing it all, I felt that these streets remember everything that have happened on them, and that they are ready for — and can accommodate — more and changing memories. San Francisco moves on. It’s up to us — the people who happen to live there now (or have roots there) — to decide in which directions.
I’ll tell you one thing:
I’d move all the families back to San Francisco that were once here, and we would all run this city with community-based institutions and locally owned businesses, and send our kids to college, and live by principles more noble than turfs and dollars.
But we don’t get to do history over. Luckily we have something great to work with, even if it is drastically different from the city we once knew. So the question is, where do we go from here?