- One-dollar coffee
- Seniors in berets and windbreakers
- A continuous, agreeable hum
About twenty years ago, Mike Davis, the grand leftist excavator of Southern California’s buried history, came out with his fascinating book Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City. Davis pointed out how the relative ease of international travel and affordable long-distance communication changed the way immigrants experienced life in the United States. That transnational rootedness, if you will, plays a role in how communities made up of folks from Mexico and Central America maintain some aspects of their old homes in their new homes. One significant way they do this is in how they utilize public spaces.
If you walk along Mission Street from 23rd (and sometimes from 22nd) to 24th Street in San Francisco, you’ll see what Davis means. The sidewalks on either side of this four-lane street are open-air markets. DVDs in not-quite-color-correct covers. The ubiquitous bacon-wrapped hot dogs sizzling on good-enough flat-tops; plastic coolers stacked with tamales; glass carts displaying cut-up fruit arranged in blossoms. Niners and Warriors merch, unofficial and unlicensed of course. The sidewalks become the agora. And the same way you would stroll around a plaza, taking in the scene while chatting with cousins, that’s how people move up and down Mission. Deliberately, eyeing the wares. What’s being sold may be different from what you saw on summer visits to the madre patria, and the space to navigate is much more cramped, but the idea that part of being alive means being outside, seeing and being seen, is there.
When you get to 24th and Mission, there is a McDonald’s. Across the street from that McDonald’s, to its north and west, are the brick-paved “plazas” that serve as the entrances and exits for the 24th Street BART station. They, too, have regularly served as sites of public gathering, becoming informal marketplaces and also the commons for protests and proselytizing and various outreach campaigns by city agencies. In late July 2022, though, the local government decided to fence off all that space, limiting its use to getting on and off BART. There had been stolen goods for sale in these plazas, boxes of cold medicine and jugs of detergent and packets of ground coffee neatly arranged on blankets on the ground. It was deemed that there were too many of these blankets, and too much drama. The optics weren’t good. The inequality that defines San Francisco was all too revealed, not just in that people had to resort to selling stolen household goods to get by, but that there were so many unapologetic takers. So now, as I write this in July 2022, the plazas are empty.
Fortunately, the McDonald’s remains unencumbered. It is still the clean, well-lit place I have known it to be for at least twenty years, functioning as one of the unlikeliest oases of public life in all of San Francisco. Folks are here to linger, to meet up, to be together alone. Men and women well into their sixties sit at the four-tops, all of them nursing hot coffees, the golden paper cups resting atop their brown serving trays. It’s seniors in their caps and berets and windbreakers that populate the place, their murmured Spanish and meditative silence a comfort. But there also are quiet teens who do their homework here, young smiling families that let their toddlers roam a little. Nearly everyone here is brown, as is true of the employees. Sometimes a tout will come in and interrupt a group conversation and try to move kids’ clothes. And sometimes there are those who bear upon their faces and bodies the distress of neglect and illness, sitting by themselves at a corner table. Mostly, there’s a continuous, agreeable hum, like an uncrowded departure lounge at an airport. What a way to be in communion with your neighborhood, in a McDonald’s, where a posted sign (and how long has that been there?) reads please no loitering time limit 45 minutes. Olvidalo. Watch the people winding along 24th and Mission. Read your book and give them time to come inside and see all of you.