About Us

Contact Us


District 5: The centre cannot hold

By Betsey Culp

What can I tell you about District 5 that you don’t already know?

Do I need to tell you about Matthew Kavanaugh’s “Six Sister” victorians, which line Steiner along the eastern border of Alamo Square? I doubt it. These pretty houses, their balconies gleaming in the afternoon sunlight against a backdrop of downtown skyscrapers, are probably the most photographed sight in the city. They’ve even been chopped up into a 1,500-piece puzzle — only $20.25 at Jigsaw Jungle.

Alamo Square is the heart of painted lady territory, with street after street parading often-tattered remnants of pre-earthquake glory. The Western Addition — beyond the pale in early surveyors’ maps, which stopped at Larkin — came into its own after April 18, 1906. As the firestorm threatened to leap Van Ness and sweep unchecked toward the sea, General Frederick Funston devised a plan to dynamite a 50-yard firebreak all the way from Golden Gate Avenue to Sacramento Street. It worked. Combined with a judicious application of water pumped from an army tug at Fort Mason, and a fortuitous change in wind, the firebreak held. The western part of the city was saved, and burned-out San Franciscans soon discovered the well-stocked shops on Fillmore.

 Do I need to tell you about the Western Addition in the 1960s? By that time a different clientele was “swimming in the river,” patronizing the shops and clubs on Fillmore. In those days before real estate euphemisms, Fillmore Street epitomized “The Fillmore,” home to thousands of African Americans in the very center of the city. But the days of what James Benét calls a “crowded, vital, active street” were numbered. Bulldozers had begun to level its victorians, leaving monotonous lumps of housing projects in their place. Much of the population was redeveloped out of the area, forced to find a home elsewhere. The task couldn’t have been easy in a region where, according to a 1963 report to the governor, “fewer than 100 nonwhite families have been able to buy houses in nonsegregated tracts in Northern California during a period in which 350,000 new houses were built.”

Do I need to tell you about Japantown in the 1940s?  More than 4,500 Japanese were living in the 20-block area between Octavia and Webster, and between O’Farrell and Pine. These families had been living there ever since 1906, when they joined the exodus of evacuees from eastern devastation. But in February 1942, FDR signed Executive Order No. 9066, allowing military commanders to remove ethnic Japanese from the West Coast. Within a week, the first contingent of “enemy aliens” had been shipped off to Bismarck, North Dakota. Others followed, sent first to Santa Anita or Tanforan racetracks and then to the desolate camp known as Manzanar, in the heart of the Owens Valley. By May 21, the Chronicle could announce, “Only a scant half dozen are left, all seriously ill in San Francisco hospitals.”

That same spring, city and business leaders began an early urban renewal program to clean up what they saw as a blighted and now deserted area. The San Francisco News reported, “Albert Evers, director of the San Francisco Housing Authority, declared the area might serve to meet the local housing shortage, if, properly rehabilitated, it were offered to defense workers or opened to the overflow from Chinatown.” When evacuated Japanese returned at the end of the war, they found little to come home to. Most settled elsewhere.

Do I need to tell you about the Haight and the Summer of Love?

Chronicle pop music critic Joel Selvin tried: “What happened in a small neighborhood in San Francisco among a relatively small circle of people was never fully understood even by the people involved. Events, once set in motion, overtook them. The public instantly romanticized what they thought was going on. From the moment that word of strange goings-on leaked out of the Haight-Ashbury, the truth and fantasy became entangled.”

So did photographer/writer Gene Anthony: “A fantasy, an idealism that isolated the flower children from the realities of a harsh world until they were faced with the reality of murder and the war in Vietnam. A summer fifteen months long, from November 1965 to January 1967, full of jingle-jangling flower children, rock stars and gurus celebrating the new LSD consciousness. The center for this new consciousness was the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, the Hashbury, near San Francisco’s idyllic Golden Gate Park.”

The memory lingers on, stained and moldy with age. The new consciousness has been distorted by drugs and poverty. Says a seventeen-year resident who recently moved away: “It’s a neighborhood that believes its own bullshit, that’s for sure. The Haight is San Francisco’s own little Donkey Island. If you grow up, you have to leave.”

What’s this got to do with the upcoming election? Everything. Alamo Square, the Western Addition, the Haight that was — they’re all still there, simply overlaid by new layers of building and displacement. For some of the candidates, they exist only as learned lore. For some, they were part of the very real past. Green Party candidate Rob Anderson remembers the flower children of the Haight, although he himself spent part of the 1960s in a federal prison “for refusing to report for induction during the U.S. attack on Vietnam.” Agar Jaicks, whom the Chronicle describes as the patriarch of local Democratic politics, has lived in the district and worked as a community advocate for the past forty years. As chair of the county Democratic Central Committee in 1978, he saw the rise of another Western Addition phenomenon, Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple. “You… had in Jones a man who touched a component of the consensus power forces in the city, such as labor and ethnicity groups, and he was very strong in the Western Addition. So here was a guy who could provide workers for causes progressives cared about.”

To a man — or woman — the candidates give the impression that they’ve seen it all before. They’ve seen things run amok on the streets where they live, with City Hall only widening the gyre. Anderson speaks of “the urgent need for new policy initiatives on homelessness in light of the obvious failure of the city’s present policy, since more than 100 homeless people die on city streets every year.” Even the more conservative of this progressive bunch, like Demian Barrett and Residents Against Drugs founder Joe Konopka, worry about the city’s housing crisis.

The political newcomers are equally savvy. Nicholas Gaffney proudly proclaims his independence. Jay Bagi speaks of “the thousands of working-class people who are being squeezed out of San Francisco.” “You would think,” adds John Palmer, “that in an era where companies are forming out of the vapor of ideas, tens of thousands of people are migrating to the area for work, and unemployment is less than 2 percent, the City of San Francisco would be in a position to provide for the needs of all its residents, communities, and businesses. Unfortunately, this is not true.”  Holman Turner says, “Let’s get directly to the point: San Francisco is rapidly becoming a city where only the wealthy are welcomed.”

District 5 has mounted a roster of eleven candidates in all, and four of them are powerful, experienced contenders. The ever-ebullient Richard Hongisto, who refers frequently to his previous service as supervisor, sheriff, assessor, and police chief, continues in his longstanding iconoclastically progressive stance. Decrying the “Manhattanizing of San Francisco with continual development,” he asks, “Why are we so anxious to build more housing so more people can move here from elsewhere?”

With his usual impeccable logic, Our Mayor has endorsed two candidates, Jaicks and Juanita Owens, both Democratic Central Committee members. Jaicks, “a candidate beholden to no one but the voters of District 5 and their fellow San Franciscans,” has also received the endorsement of recently fired Planning Commissioner Dennis Antenore. Former School Board president Owens cites her “experience to get the results you expect and deserve.” She’s going all-out to win, angering her fellow candidates by refusing to eschew soft money.

The Ammiano endorsement in this district is Public Defender Matt Gonzalez, who finished third in last fall’s excruciating race for district attorney. Gonzalez is on the attack: “My campaign… is about participating in a city-wide effort to retake City Hall away from special interests and developers who are closely associated with our mayor and restoring the ability of neighborhood and community activists to be heard.” Like Hongisto, Gonzalez worries about creeping Manhattanization and the housing crisis it spawns.

 Predictions, anyone? Will this tiny district, smack dab in the center of the city, signal the beginning of a new era in San Francisco politics, or will it symbolize politics as usual?