Murals in The Mission

Before I left to drive up to San Francisco’s Mission District, I told a friend I was going “Mural Hunting.”

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I’m not sure it’s fair to describe what as was doing as “hunting,” given that its ease could best be described by the idiomatic expression “shooting fish in a barrel.”   There are murals everywhere in the Mission – and by everywhere, I mean at least on every block. And to make up for the rare blocks where there aren’t any, there are several alleys that are covered with murals from end to end. Demand is so high for them that a non-profit organization, Precita Eyes, exists primarily to facilitate the execution of more murals by connecting landowners with artists and assist with project funding.

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You’ve almost certainly heard about the Mission in one many discussions about the changing face of San Francisco. From the 1940’s through the mid-1990’s, this area of the city was predominantly Latino – with Mexicans moving into the area first, followed by Central and South Americans.  This traditionally working class neighborhood provided an affordable to live for immigrants. A great deal of music and art came out of it, and Mission pride was touted in paintings, prints, songs, and dances.

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As rents in the rest of San Francisco became prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of people in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Mission became an appealing neighborhood for young people – especially those working in the technology sector. Companies like Dropbox and AirBnB have their headquarters nearby, and their employees have stormed the neighborhood. A common joke is that the new “uniform” of the Mission is a white t-shirt with a start-up logo on the front – an outfit commonly sported by mid-twenties to mid-thirties males.

There’s no shortage of articles in the media world about the “gentrification” of the Mission, and the decrease in the number of Latino households and concomitant increase in the number of white households is well documented. I spent some time in the Mission in the mid-90’s, and I have no memory of seeing the toney minimalist home décor shops, hipster latte joints, or craft beer nightclubs that are hard to miss today.

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That’s not all that’s there, however. In exploring the neighborhood, I was really pleased to see the kinds of discount stores with bins of cheap clothing that you see all over Latin America, as well as numerous mom and pop taquerias, panaderias, and produce stands. There are people in the street selling oranges and cell phone cases – familiar sights to anyone who has ever traveled south of our border. I heard as much Spanish as English on the street (along with some Hindi and Urdu), and the mixture of faces I saw covered a wide range of ethnicities.

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Then there are the murals. Muralism has deep roots in Mexican culture, having been the birthplace of the giants who brought this art form to the international stage: Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Siqueiros. A movement towards decorating the Mission District with murals began in the 1970’s, and clearly continues to thrive in the present.

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The most well-known set of murals decorates the outside of The Women’s Building, a former Sons of Norway Hall that now houses ten non-profit organizations dedicated to serving the needs of women, children, and families. Seven well-known Mission muralists collaborated to depict the contributions of women throughout the course of human history, and their work absolutely ignites this city block with color and passion.

The city of San Francisco has over 1000 murals, and I’d venture to guess that at least half of them are in the Mission. There’s no real way to keep count, of course, because unlike the ones that adorn The Women’s Building, many are informal. You see them on fences and garage doors as well as on walls and foundations. Many are being continually painted over with new images, evolving in the same way the neighborhood has.

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The Mission wasn’t always a Latino barrio; before the Mexican population moved in during the 1940’s, the area was predominantly Italian, and before that, it was Irish. As is so often the case in our nation’s cities, the only constant is change.

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That constant is very much on my mind this week, as the world argues about the relative security of taking in refugees, the evolving ethnic composition of western countries, and where our moral responsibilities as global citizens lie.

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During my afternoon in the Mission, I took a workshop at a Latino Arts Center, shopped at a Peruvian handicrafts store, ate a South Indian dosa and a classic Italian cannoli – and I found a few of these places on a locally produced smart phone app.

I know where I stand on magic of the melting pot.  Yes, there are adjustment issues, always.  But there’s no question in my mind that we are better and stronger and brighter for our diversity.

Sometimes that diversity arrives at our door dressed in a head scarf; other times in skinny jeans and google glasses.  Can we accept it either way?

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