An SF History Lesson and Advice on How to Fight for Housing Rights
Railroad industrialist Charles Crocker was a real asshole. You know the kind I mean, the bastards who think that just because they have money, they can buy, fuck, and own anything they want. The kind filled with the type of arrogance that ultimately brings down monarchies, leads companies be dismantled by antitrust suits, or kills you on the toilet while you eat your very last fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. That kind of asshole. The man acquired his immense wealth by overseeing the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad and with that money he bought up a bunch of plots at the top of Nob Hill and proceeded to build a magnificent mansion, with a magnificent view, to compliment his magnificent fortune. There’s one thing he didn’t realize though, not everything is for sale.
In the 1850s, over 20 years before Crocker chose Nob Hill as the seat of his fiefdom, before it was a desirable place for the wealthy to live, an undertaker named Nicholas Yung had built his modest family home there. Crocker wanted to own the entire block that his mansion would be on, but Yung wouldn’t sell for the price Crocker offered. In order to force Yung to sell, Crocker built a wall so tall that it blocked any sunlight from reaching Yung’s property. Yeah, Charles Crocker was that kind of asshole. So you know what Yung did? He dug in his heels, essentially said Fuck You Crocker, and refused to sell his property for the rest of his life. The fence ultimately came to be called The Crocker Spite Fence and became a tourist attraction. Yung’s heirs eventually sold the property to the Crocker estate in 1904, and in a great feat of cosmic irony, the entire mansion burned down two years later in the great conflagration of 1906.
See that thing highlight in purple? THAT was the spite fence! Look how big it was!
Do you see where I’m going with this? Not everything has a price and greed and arrogance can only take you so far. And at the moment we are seeing Crocker’s greed and arrogance, and Yung’s tenacity and badass gangsterocity play out again. Like the original gold rush, people have flocked to San Francisco from all over the world to seek their fortune while paying little heed or respect to the people that were here before. They look at The City not a wonderful patchwork of cultures, lifestyles, and ideologies, but as a place to simply make their nut. They see a golden city where anyone can get funding for whatever ridiculous app they can think of, as long as they go to the right networking parties and use words like “social” and “scalability”. This is another gold rush and the news is filled with people that were here before, getting pushed out by hundreds of little Charles Crocker’s. But we also have our own modern day version of Nicholas Yung.
When Bob and Marta Sanchez inherited the old Casa Sanchez restaurant from their mother a couple years back, they decided that instead of just renting to whoever could pay the most money, they would rent to a Latino business in order to help maintain the Latino culture that had been the heart of the Mission district for nearly half a century. The spot on 24th between York and Hampshire has been in the family for 89 years and as the neighborhood has become more up market, decades old business have been being evicted in order to get new fancy pants businesses in. This article from KQED mentioned the Sanchez family being offered $200,000 up front just for to sign a lease. But they passed because it goes against what they believe. KQED says, “In the end, they decided to go with the Banuelos family, who opened a taqueria called Ayutla in the Casa Sanchez space in mid-2012. The family is paying far less than market rate to rent the space.” Nicholas Yung would be proud.
We can’t all be the Sanchez family though, and we can’t all be Nicholas Yung. And even fewer of us can be Charles Crocker. In fact most of us aren’t in the position to be any of them. So where does that leave us? Do we block the google buses and slash their tires? Maybe, but while that might feel (really) good, it won’t change anything. Do we give up and resign ourselves to leaving the city that we love? Hell no! Then what do we do? We get organized! Put pressure on your district supervisor to push for legislation to stem this tide of evictions, and then do the same with your state representative. Contact the San Francisco Tenant’s Union and the Housing Rights Committee to see what efforts you can make to and where you can volunteer. Sign the petition at Tenants Together that aims to reform the Ellis Act (the law allowing landlords to unjustly evict tenants), and then use social media to get others to do. And when you come across the arrogance that so pervades the tech culture in Silicon City, when you hear things like “if you can’t afford to live here, then move” just smile politely, look them dead in the eyes and calmly say, “Go fuck yourself. I’ll still be here long after your next round of funding doesn’t come through.” It will certainly make Yung and the Sanchez family proud. And it will make me proud too.
* I sent this piece to the inimitable comedian and political activist Nato Green for some more ideas of ways to help and he said this: I’d suggest adding Causa Justa and Alliance of California for Community Empowerment (ACCE). I might also mention the Tenants Conventions which crafted a legislative agenda that should be pushed through the Board of Supervisors and at the ballot including an anti-speculation tax and increasing the cost of Ellis Act evictions.
* This piece was originally written for App360