The gangs of San Francisco: remarkable footage from the late 1950s

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“Ask Me, Don’t Tell Me,” an amazing short film that I learned about through the Bernal Heights History Project, shows a glimpse of San Francisco street life in the late 1950s. (The film was published in 1961, but the aesthetic of its “juvenile delinquents” seems to owe more to the 50s, so let’s call it that. The 60s in San Francisco brings to mind flower children, which these aren’t.) It’s got some dated moments, but sparkles nonetheless as a little historical treasure.

The film is more interesting to me for its poetic pastiche of street scenes (and gritty bongos-infused blues) than it is as a record of the program, Youth For Service, that it was made to promote. I’ve never seen anything like this, nor have I read very much about these scenes in San Francisco. But as I watched the clip, I felt like I knew this world, if obliquely. These young men were the progenitors of the San Franciscans I grew up around. In their gestures, their expressions, their postures, and their voices, they foreshadow the later Bay Area culture with which I’m much more familiar.

This is post-War San Francisco. The Mission is just becoming a Latino district. The Fillmore — which the narrator calls “The Moe,” a nickname still in use today — has just undergone the disastrous redevelopment project that sent many of its residents to the East Bay. (Thus the “Harlem of the West” was stifled.) Eureka Valley, now known as the Castro, was still a working class Irish area. (Read all about it in Randy Shilts’s classic, The Mayor of Castro Street). The multiethnic San Francisco of the late 20th century was just taking shape — the city was still more than 70 percent non-Latino white. (The city today may be on its way to losing its exceptionally multiethnic character.)

Growing up, I didn’t know about any gangs with names like the Lonely Ones or the War Lords (feel free to correct me in the comments if I was simply oblivious —  a distinct possibility). And aside from motorcycle clubs, the days of wearing cuts had passed by the time I was watching the city through Muni windows. But in the slouched posture of kids on the back of the 14 Mission, in their slang, in the braggadocio and micro-awareness of neighborhood distinctions in San Francisco rap music, in the men congregating on corners like Cortland and Moultrie in Bernal Heights, I saw and heard the echoes of these earlier times.

The film also has some value as an artifact of the type of program it was made to promote, Youth For Service. Considering what happened with street violence in the rest of the century, it would be easy to laugh at the naïveté of this simple program. (Others like it exist today, of course.) It seems to be the sort of thing Tom Wolfe humorously ridiculed in his 1970 essay “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers.” But the history of what actually happened in the decades after this hopeful-seeming project is really about much bigger forces: the Vietnam War, racism, the isolation of red-lining and the freeway system, the collapse of manufacturing in the United States, Reagonomics, the prison industrial complex, and crack cocaine and other hard drugs.

The 50 years since the film saw many changes in San Francisco, but there was some continuity to the story.  Here’s an idealized bookend to that period.

And it is something of a bookend, because now, San Francisco has definitely entered some kind of new era. It’s the capital city for one of the fastest growing, most powerful industries in the world. Its high quality housing stock — in enforced shortage — is some of the most expensive anywhere. There is still grim poverty and occasional, horrific violence — like the massacre in Hayes Valley this winter. But for better or worse, the days of a hundred neighborhoods, each with a thousand tough guys holding down the corners, seem now to be a thing of the past.

This film is that history.

The significance of a small tour of the Mission’s gentrification

Buzzfeed ran a video following around Kai, one of the main characters in the pick-up soccer game flap that took on a kind of remarkable life of it’s own last year. Have a look:

I liked the clip. I’m not sure it lives up to the headline Buzzfeed gave it, but I relate to Kai’s sentiments. I’m also a San Francisco native, originally from Bernal Heights, which is a Mission satellite neighborhood. I too pine, oddly, for the days when I fell asleep listening to Hells Angels revving motors and, more sweetly, the sounds of gospel music from the now-defunct church catty-corner from my mother’s house.

But this clip may not do much to convince the unsympathetic about why anyone should care about the kind of change that has now all but taken over San Francisco’s once-working-class and and economically mixed neighborhoods. Let’s not beat around the bush: here’s a sampling of an uncharitable reaction to Kai from another soccer-playing native San Franciscan who was never fully convinced by the whole brouhaha over the pick-up pitch argument.

  • He romanticizes the loud motorcycle bar, give me a break

  • “The wealth is directly related to people’s displacement from their homes” Weak argument. The real issue is the eviction laws (specifically Ellis Act), not wealth/gentrification.

  • He says: “20th & Mission, um…not alot has changed” Hmmm, dude’s already weakened his position

  • “Dia de los Muertos street art juxtaposed with luxury restaurant + luxury condos on top.” Weak again.

  • Turf soccer field: “Not until it got nice did the permits start coming” No shit, no insight here.

  • On Natives vs Tech worker soccer incident: “Instead of deciding to play with us they decided to play on half the field… so there’s still this segregation of people”. No, weak assessment again. When you play pick up soccer you can generally include everyone. Though it’s not all that fun to play with kids so gotta draw a line somewhere. But more so those tech workers came that night to have a team practice. It wasn’t the time to switch to pick up and include everyone in some utopian gesture. So the solution of playing separately but sharing the overall field was a good solution. Not, as we are lead to believe, evidence of class segregation. Its more accurate to say it was evidence of team play vs. pick-up.

  • He says: “If you know something is wrong, you can’t just accept it for what it is. And if there’s a law in place that shouldn’t be in place, change it.”  Finally we get to something good and useful. I support this.

  • Dude has to tighten up his argument and get to the crux if he wants to be a community leader. Otherwise he just ends up railing against vague malevolent forces of change. Don’t get caught on the wrong side of change. Change is going to happen. Don’t resist it, learn how to harness and direct it.

To which I say, Damn, some of those are pretty good points. Most of them are arguable, at the least. There’s really no need to rehash what the soccer pitch row did and didn’t represent — much time spent on that already here and here and here . But there’s one thing I think my friend missed in this reaction: the validity and value of Kai’s memories of the way things were. Here’s what I would say if someone made a video of me standing on my corners pointing at the new high-end businesses (I’m accepting invitations btw):

Some people talk about all the new restaurants and bars and expensive property like it’s just a net gain for the neighborhood. Like things were blighted, and now they’re better. But you have to understand that the Mission wasn’t blighted. That could have been true of somewhere else, but not here. There were a lot of great mom and pop businesses here, and they’ve been replaced by things that cater solely to a luxury market. I’m not saying you can stop that kind of change, but showing the changes can maybe help people relate to the sense of loss we feel — those of us who grew up around here — and think twice before assuming that fancier is better. 

My memories are not fantasies, though the new money seems to mock them. The worst thing about the soccer pitch fight wasn’t who got to play at what time and where. It was that painful moment, when someone off camera throws a “who gives a shit about the neighborhood” into the mix. In that moment, all the weight of “progress” and the power and privilege of new money came down like a giant eraser on the stories, passions, triumphs, and pain of a neighborhood that thought it existed.

Turns out, you don’t matter at all, the new millionaires seem to tell us. Oh, but we’ll hang on to some Dia de los Muertos tchotchkes. That stuff looks kinda cool.