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District 3: Plus ça change

By Betsey Culp

Tiny District 3 has all the elements of a novel. Little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, Jade Snow Wong walking up the stairs of a Chinatown tenement, Lillie Hitchcock Coit chasing after San Francisco’s finest firefighters, Bill Bailey calling for working-class justice — there’s enough here for a dozen novels, and some of them have already appeared.

Here’s Frank Norris in 1899, describing Polk Street, where McTeague had his “Dental Parlors”: “It was one of those cross streets peculiar to Western cities, situated in the heart of the residence quarter, but occupied by small tradespeople who lived in the rooms above their shops. There were corner drug stores with huge jars of red, yellow, and green liquids in their windows, very brave and gay; stationers’ stores where illustrated weeklies were tacked upon bulletin boards; barber shops with cigar stands in their vestibules; sad-looking plumbers’ offices; cheap restaurants, in whose windows one saw piles of unopened oysters weighted down by cubes of ice.” 

And Margaret Parton’s semi-fictional reminiscence published in 1945: “On Telegraph Hill… country notes are surrounded by a conglomeration of old-style Italian apartment houses which march up the hill in flat-roofed terraces, by shacks like mine, clustering near the top of the hill, and by snooty apartment houses, some of them embellished with surrealistic bas-reliefs.”

In 1978 Armistead Maupin took a young woman named Mary Ann Singleton to an apartment house on Russian Hill: “The house was on Barbary Lane, a narrow, wooded walkway off Leavenworth between Union and Filbert. It was a well-weathered, three-story structure made of brown shingles. It made Mary Ann think of an old bear with bits of foliage caught in its fur.”

In District 3, saloons in Portsmouth Plaza once jostled the elbows of government offices as a rough-and-tumble Anglo city sprang up overnight halfway between the Presidio and Mission Dolores. Here, in a pre-telegraph, pre-railroad era, observers on top of Telegraph Hill signaled the arrival of ships bearing news and cargo, which the isolated urban outpost on the Pacific coast urgently needed. Here, at the present site of the Transamerica Pyramid, businessmen and politicians converged on the Montgomery Block to conduct the affairs of the city and the rest of the world; here in later years, in this same Monkey Block, artists and writers found companionship and quiet places to work.

Am I babbling? It’s because there’s too much, all in this one very small area. How does one encapsulate a district that contains Chinatown, the Embarcadero, the Financial District, Fishermen’s Wharf, Nob Hill, North Beach, Polk Gulch, Russian Hill, and Telegraph Hill? More to the point, how do the voters of all these neighborhoods manage to reach any sort of agreement about the person they want to represent them?

In fact, there are nearly as many choices facing the voters of District 3 as there are neighborhoods. Given the low turnout in recent elections — less than one-fourth of all residents voted — it’s possible that the two leading candidates will reach the runoff with slightly more than 2,000 votes each, in a district with a total population of more than 72,000.

And a motley group of candidates it is, too. Least well known are attorney/educator Bob Coleman and home improvement builder Paul Jacobucci. It was Jacobucci, an old North Beacher, who provided a neighborly comment at the time of Joe Alioto’s death when he recalled the man he had known for 50 years: “He always had time for a hello, he always had time for a few words, no matter how busy he was.”

Unusual in San Francisco, two Republicans are running — beauty pageant organizer and X-ray technician Rose Chung, and community projects consultant Mike DeNunzio. Chung repeatedly told SF Weekly writer Peter Byrne that she’s “tough on crime”; she also supported Earl Rynerson’s Proposition E, which hoped to replace General Assistance cash stipends with vouchers. DeNunzio, a hard campaigner who refuses to observe the $75,000 spending cap, is tough on homelessness. “No human being,” he asserts, in the phrasing that has come to be identified with homeless sweeps, “should live in the street.” Because the Telegraph Hill area, which is relatively affluent and conservative, tends to vote in greater numbers than the rest of the district, these two rarities can give the others a run for their money, no matter how much they spend.

Two of the candidates are Chinese — Chung, and Community College Board member Lawrence Wong. Like Chung, Wong grew up in the district. He has long been active in Chinese American affairs and presently serves as executive director of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, a civil rights organization with branches all over the country. The two may split the already low Chinatown vote in an area where Asian voters constitute only 16 percent of all likely voters, compared to 74 percent for whites.

There are two members of the Democratic County Central Committee — Meagan Levitan and Aaron Peskin. Levitan, who is community affairs director for the California Academy of Sciences, recently moved to the district. Under Mayor Frank Jordan she served as — in Herb Caen’s words — the “well-liked liaison” with the Mission and the Marina, declining a similar position under Our Mayor. There were apparently no hard feelings, however, for he appointed her to his advisory Committee 2000. Peskin, the president of an environmental nonprofit, is a Bay Area native who has lived in North Beach for a number of years. Nearly every district has its Ammiano endorsee, and Peskin is the one for District 3. He made a reputation for himself as an opponent of Ellis Act evictions and led a successful fight to limit chain store inroads into North Beach. In a district where 71 percent of the residents are renters (compared to 52 percent citywide), his support of tenant protections should serve him well. In other words, this bespectacled, fuzzy-bearded activist has been cast — or cast himself — in the role of challenger to the status quo.

The status quo is Alicia Becerril. Like the incumbents in other districts, she’s running on her record. Appointed supervisor in 1999, she insists on her distance from the mayor: “I go into a committee meeting with an open mind. I want to hear all sides, then make a fair decision.” Her open mind led to a decision in favor of Brown’s favored plans for Pier 45, the Malrite Corporation’s history-themed “San Francisco at the Wharf,” which many of her potential constituents oppose.

But underneath the motley garb — the party affiliations, the ethnic identifications — all eight candidates bear a family resemblance. They obviously came out of the same gene pool. Or more likely, the same city streets. Listen to a campaign blurb about Peskin: “As a neighborhood leader, he has successfully opposed chain stores, protected parks, preserved historic buildings, and improved bay water quality safeguards. Aaron will fight as supervisor to protect the unique character of San Francisco.” And DeNunzio’s: “I can preserve our neighborhoods and historic buildings.  I will work to protect the rights of all residents, small businesses, and senior citizens.” Sounds like they’ve been reading the same book, doesn’t it?

The very elements that have provided raw material for countless novelists — narrow winding streets, houses clinging to the sides of hills, small neighborhood shops — can also unite the widely disparate residents of District 3. Last November the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that will make large new businesses jump through a variety of Planning Commission hoops before they can set up shop in North Beach. James Lew of the North Beach Neighbors, who worked with Supervisor Mark Leno to draft the legislation, expressed the concerns of the residents: “When you get a national chain store in the neighborhood and they sell a variety of products and do everything, it drives smaller businesses out of business, resulting in streets filled with empty storefronts. That’s what ruins the character of the neighborhood.” He added the horrifying clincher: “The chain stores move in, and the next thing you know the neighborhood looks just like Yuba City, Marysville, or Modesto. We would look just like everyone else.”

When the ordinance was passed, Leno’s legislative assistant Bob Hartnagel noted, “Other neighborhood groups have been clamoring for this type of legislation for their neighborhoods as well.” Can it be that once again, just as it did150 years ago, the area near Portsmouth Plaza stands at ground zero for intense forces that have the power to change an entire city?