No Monster in the Mission! Build the Marvel, not the Monster!
Competing voices and visions packed the auditorium of Mission High School Feb. 7 to speak for and against the proposed development for the Plaza on 16thand Mission.
Longtime tenants, union members, students, elders, parents, business owners, and community activists (the Plaza 16 Coalition) converged on the Planning Department’s special meeting at Mission High to hear a presentation from Maximus, the developer that’s proposing to build an enormous housing development of more than 300 units of housing—47 of which would be designated as below market rate, or affordable.
The evening featured the developer—whose representative was a young man of color–pitching a proposal to a Black and Brown community that has lost thousands of residents to gentrification. The developer, it was said, was not friendly to working class people, having fired union workers at Park Mercedand possessing a housing record that was clearly conducive to gentrification and removal.
The community spoke out during public comment. Folks in favor cited the opportunities for jobs and much needed housing. Those in opposition cited the lack of truly affordable housing in this development, the traffic impacts that would surely arise and that it would facilitate further gentrification in a neighborhood plagued by it. The meeting pitted Black folks against Black folks, Brown folks against Brown folks and the switching of allegiances between allies on the issue.
I thought about the address—1979 Mission. As I sat in the auditorium of Mission High School, my thoughts went back 40 years, to the year that marked the end of a decade.
It was 1979, the year I became a freshman at Mission High School.
Our family lived on Abbey Street, an alley a stone’s throw from the rear of Mission Dolores. I was a scared, unsure kid. I never thought of the word “Mission”—what it meant, what it implied, what the mission was, who was on the mission, who commissioned the mission and who financed it (and why).
I had no idea that the remains of the city’s original people were buried beneath Mission Dolores—the bones of thousands. I was a stone’s throw away from it—a large boulder, which, underneath, were the bones, the remains, the silenced voices.
All I knew was that my father worked as a janitor. I was at Mission High School. My father had wanted me to go to Lowell (Which he pronounced Low-uh). He was a working-class guy with the physique of Robert Blake (Baretta) and the face of Erik Estrada (Ponch). He started a small janitorial business and he brought me in to the workforce—where I got acquainted with an arsenal of janitorial equipment including mops, buckets, brooms and the sacred toilet brush.
It was 1979. I walked the halls of Mission High School. My legs went one way, my ass, the other. I was, maybe, a buck-35, a lightweight among other lightweights—but also among heavyweights, middleweights and welterweights. I was 15 and I looked young. I occupied the space between total weakling and the guy who told the bully at the beach, “Hey, quit kicking sand in our faces.” There were guys in my classes, in the halls who had mustaches and beards. Some looked to be as old as my father.
In my homeroom were at least 15 students whose last name was Rodriguez. Three others shared my name albeit a bit different—Anthony, Antonio and Tony—all with the last name, Robles (Which, to my immense pleasure and joy, was never mispronounced: Roll the “R.”) I was Filipino but I looked Latino and there were Black and Brown people all over.
There was our social studies teacher who presided over us, telling us about the Russian winters during World War II. He told us that things were scarce and that, to keep warm, people would take a bite of lard, a bite of pumpernickel, and a bite of onion. It’s funny what one remembers and I’m sure those who survived that Russian winter didn’t forget it. I didn’t forget the taste of my teacher’s words as he described it.
In the backdrop there was music. Music of leather jackets clinging to bodies, cut to the waist and the sound of zippers that shut them tight or opened them to the world, blooming in the halls or across the street at Dolores Park where the music was thick in the air, so thick that it rubbed off on us leaving the scent of cigarettes, chewing gum, weed. Working-class Latinos, Filipinos, Samoans, Blacks, Chinese. Funny, some of the Chinese students were more Latino than the Latinos. The Filipinos supposedly had beef with the Latinos, but I got along with the Latino cats I knew. Perhaps it was because they thought I was Latino and—I never would have mistaken them for Chinese—but some of those Chinese cats would whip your ass so there was no scarcity of things happening.
I was a loner who didn’t socialize a lot. But there was music. One Nation Under a Groove by Funkadelic filled the halls. I felt like I was swimming in an Aquarium of sound. I remember the words:
Here’s our chance
To dance our way
Out of our constriction
And I felt constricted in my awkwardness and I’m sure others did too. I recall a confrontation on 17thStreet near Everett Jr. High (Not yet anointed a “Middle” school). Three Latino youth walked towards Dolores with an older white man approaching from the opposite direction. One of the youths dropped a soda can on the ground and the old white man grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shoved him towards the can and said, “Pick it up!” And the kid picked up the can and threw it at the man as if throwing a spear, hitting the man in the gut. The kids walked away and the man was left to curse silently with an empty soda can as his witness. And there were those in school that could follow rules and regulations; joining ROTC (AKA Rotten Old Tin Cans), strutting their way on to the drill team: Ten Hut! About Face! Present Arms! Forward March! (And so on). Some found that this cadence suited them while others found cadences that were in accordance to other principles that suited them better while others never found their cadence or are perhaps still seeking it.
And outside the walls of the school, down the street, around the corner were grocery stores, bars, drive-in diners that had stood for generations; a mechanic’s garage, a corner store where you could get a sandwich with salami, ham, cheese, pastrami—everything. And children walked by who would become teens, and adults passed through who would become seniors. And I can still hear that song by LTD, blaring from a radio that a student at Mission High School carried in his hand as if it were a briefcase filled with rhythm, sounds, dreams—providing the cadence of what was in his blood:
Is very hard to do when love is gone
And that’s no lie
Followed by another, “She Used to Be My girl”
Deep Down inside
I still love her
I place no one above her
And when I entered that building that is Mission High School–the auditorium-a voice over the PA system announced that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk had been shot. And beyond those walls, unbeknownst to me at the time, were poets, artists, filmmakers, activists who put their lives on the line for their political beliefs, their community, their art—and in those pots in those homes filled with Abuelos, Abuelitas, ninos, ninas, mothers and fathers, a resistance simmered and nourished the people who sprouted from the soil of La Misionwho became, and are still, its soul. The murals of resistance and history and consciousness not only covered the skin, but the mind.
That was 1979 through my eyes. My family moved from Abbey Street in my sophomore year and I transferred to George Washington High School where I encountered murals that blended into my mind a scheme of many colors as well.
I sit in the auditorium of Mission High School on Feb. 7th, 2019 where the voices on the loud speakers come through. Voices of old and young, black, brown and all colors—those who refuse to let the community die. They cry out: No Monster in the Mission!