If you walk down 24th Street in San Francisco's Mission District these days, you might notice street signs around the neighborhood that read “Calle 24: Latino Cultural District.”
San Francisco has named four other districts like this one, including, most recently, the LGBTQ Leather Cultural District in SOMA. So far the move has mostly been symbolic. But now Supervisor Hillary Ronen wants to change that — before it’s too late.
San Francisco’s board of supervisors votes Tuesday on a new piece of legislation, championed by Ronen, that aims to salvage the spirit and identity of a growing number of San Francisco neighborhoods threatened by gentrification and displacement.
"Without intervention, I fear they're going to be gone," Ronen says. "And we will be just like any other rich, cookie-cutter city in the world."
Ronen says the cultural districts ordinance is about much more than staking out geographic turf and putting up a bunch of signs and banners. Cultural districts could opt to place tighter restrictions on new businesses. Calle 24 has already done just that.
"So a Starbucks could not move in," Ronen says. "It has to be the homegrown, mom 'n' pop, small business that goes in."
And for the first time, Ronan says cultural districts may get steady funding — as much as a million dollars annually per district.
"We're looking at different ways of having a regular set aside so that funds go to these cultural districts," Ronen says, "So that there's actual money to be able to realize dreams."
Over a steaming bowl of shrimp and cheesy grits at Auntie April's Chicken, Waffles & Soul Food in the Bayview, I chat with restaurant owner and Bayview native April Spears. Spears is leading her neighborhood’s charge to become a cultural district. I ask her what she would do with that million dollars.
"I would love to see an African Arts and Culture School in the district," Spears says. "I would like to see a Museum of African History, and programs where we reach the youth of our community."
But to truly preserve the neighborhood’s proud black culture and provide opportunities for its young people, Spears says, the city must solve the housing crisis. Since 2000, the Bayview's African American population has fallen by more than 20 percent.
"If you don't have anywhere for people to live, what are you preserving?" Sears says.
If the cultural districts do get funding, some of it could go towards affordable housing. But where the money comes from remains unclear. One source could be the hotel tax. Supporters are crafting a ballot measure for the fall that would set aside some of that tax for cultural districts.
Over the past decade, cultural districts have become a common tool for cities around the country looking to bolster economic activity in neighborhoods that have seen better days.
According to Lyz Crane, deputy director of Artplace America, a national organization that works at the intersection of culture and community development, San Francisco isn't like most other U.S. cities when it comes to implementing creative district programs.
"In a place like San Francisco, it's not a question of economic development; it's actually in some ways the opposite," Crane says.
"You're trying to create a public tool that can provide some level of control and sort of incentives for things that the market otherwise would just sort of bowl over."