I’ve lived in San Francisco’s Mission District for 15 years. So, while I’m still a relative newcomer, I’ve also witnessed massive change.
When a video of a group of tech workers sparring with Latino youths over the use of a public soccer field went viral last fall, it hit close to home -- literally a block away. I remember the old concrete yard that preceded it. My kids learned to ride their bikes on it. Now, with a fresh layer of AstroTurf, the field is in hot demand.
We’ve been inundated with stories about battles over gentrification. A mounting list of people and businesses being priced out of the neighborhood has left many Mission residents lamenting the dizzying pace of change, while tech workers -- many of whom were drawn to the neighborhood for its multicultural and creative spirit -- often feel unfairly blamed.
I wanted to learn about the survivors -- those longtime residents who have managed to thrive through the Mission’s many boom-and-bust cycles. To find out, I headed to the 24th Street corridor, generally regarded as the heart of the Mission.
If you stand at the corner of 24th and Alabama streets, you’ll see two Mexican bakeries. Dominguez is shuttered, closed for more than a year. La Victoria, across the street, remains open after 64 years in business. Step inside and you’ll immediately be drawn in by the scent of fresh-baked pan dulce. But this is not your typical panaderia. Here, you’ll find vegan cookies and organic coffee next to the more standard fare, like conchas.
When Gabriel Maldonado opened La Victoria in 1951, it was the first Latino-owned business on 24th Street. The Mission was predominantly Irish and Italian at the time. Jaime Maldonado, who took the reins from his dad in 1992, refers to his father as“the original gentrifier.”
“I've always said that tongue-in-cheek, meaning that there was space, people didn't want to be here. All those damn Mexicans were moving in, so who wants to be around them?”
The younger Maldonado has taken a lot of flak for some of the changes he’s made to La Victoria since he took charge.
“We were the first shop on the strip to have an espresso machine, and my dad nearly bit my head off,” he tells me over a frothy and delicious double latte. “I told him flat-out, right then and there, ‘You just don't understand the nature of the people that are living here.’ ”
Jaime Maldonado has tried to keep his finger on the pulse of the people living here as pivotal moments in history have left their mark on the Mission. Take, for example: the influx of refugees fleeing war in Central America and financial instability in South America; gang turf wars; the economic fallout from 9/11; the first dot.com bust; and now, the tech boom.
“My business model was changing every four to five years, depending on who was here,” Maldonado explains. “So, we had to retool, re-recipe, redo whatever we needed to do, in order to get this going.”
These days, Maldonado is catering to newcomers, including “lipsters” or “Latin hipsters,” a label he affectionately gives his own daughter, whom he credits with helping him transform his menu to meet the changing tastes of the neighborhood.
“I’d have to explain to her, ‘Well that's stuff that Grandpa really liked to eat, and all of the neighbors around Grandpa ate.’ She looked at me in the eye and she said, ‘Oh, so you're making stuff for dead people?’ I'm like, ‘I kind of am.’ "
So, he and his pastry chef came up with new recipes like dulce de leche croissants, beignets with a Mexican twist and rompopa scones.
In the old days, La Victoria used to bake and sell tens of thousands of traditional Latin pastries.
“Twenty-five-cent buns were wonderful when we were selling 30-40,000 of them, but when you're only selling a few hundred of them, what do you do then?" Maldonado asks rhetorically. "I think that's the change that most of the Mission didn't really understand.”
But now, he says, the equation is flipped with the specialized pastries bringing in the majority of his income. “It's hard to believe that 10 percent of your product can drive 80 percent of your income, but it did. But, on the flip side, it created 90 percent anger.”
The anger emanated from other Latinos determined to hold onto traditions they see as endangered -- and who also resent price increases that range from 30 percent to 300 percent.
One reviewer on Yelp complained, “Their pan for the money I paid isn’t worth any of it.”
Marcos Hinojosa sees things differently. As he’s filling a tray with conchas, morajas and empanadas, he says that coming to La Victoria “touches his heart.”
“It brings back memories of my childhood growing up and hanging out in the Mission in the daytime, where my grandma would go to St. Peter's for English classes and I'd hang out with grandpa.”
Jaime Maldonado says it’s a delicate balancing act. “No matter what culture you're in, no matter what you are doing, it's all going to change.” And he says, “You have to figure out: Are you going to be the instrument of change or are you not?”
Another change Maldonado has made is in the kitchen. With fewer pastries to bake, there’s plenty of extra room, so he rents it out to small businesses who cannot afford to maintain their own industrial kitchens.
The day I visited, there were bakers from Sour Flour and Salty Sweet, along with Phil Stefani from Cosmic American’s Voodoo Van.
As Stefani prepares a batch of "JuJu Balls" (fried mashed potato croquettes), he tells me how the Mission’s Latino culture is what drew him to the neighborhood.
“It’s almost like I wake up in the morning and I take a little vacation to, like northern Mexico, or something," he says. "Nobody around here speaks English. It's really cool and it's all traditional and you walk into the grocery stores and there's piñatas everywhere.”
As he’s talking, Jaime Maldonado is standing by, shaking his head.
He chimes in, “I think the culture that he's living, the culture that he loves, is for the most part extinct. Now the Mission is a museum of itself and it's a caricature of itself almost. And, you know, things evolve. Things change.”
So, we’re back where we started, with the word “change.” Is La Victoria a part of this museum Maldonado describes? Or is it simply a survivor keeping up with the times while still being true to its roots?
In keeping with the theme of change, construction will begin soon for La Victoria’s next iteration: a full-service Latin bistro.
Jaime Maldonado says he creates different pastries for the different types of Mission residents he serves in his shop. Can you match the pastry with its intended customer?
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