Nothing in San Francisco seems to change. I mean, it does, but the engine thrust of the boom and bust seems to continue on some kind of subterranean, internal axis. The scheming is always under the surface, and the movement of money is always perceptible, swirling over swiftly closing tracts of land like puffs of smoke in opium dens or the harmonized clouds of dirt under the hooves of horses at ovoid race tracks sprinkled throughout the city. In San Francisco, public life seems to always be an ellipses between the furious roar of empire building. We were miners with pickaxes before we were flower children, and before we invented Burning Man we clamored to build arenas to view the public fighting of bears and bulls who had been caged and taunted while we drank ices and fanned ourselves with ostrich feathers.
In the summer of 1910, the San Francisco Call ran a series about how easy it was to purchase a home for anyone with even a modest income. Real estate agents breathlessly summarized the Mission with the familiar highlights that have not changed – sun, lack of fog, easy access to downtown and transit, rich loamy soil to grow vegetables (the historic equivalent of taquerias and food trucks). Another bonus perk of the Mission district in 1910 is that it largely survived the earthquake and conflagration of 1906, so was experiencing an influx of residents from other areas of the city. The building boom started in 1907, with hundreds of new homes being built in various neighborhoods, as fast as builders could get organized.
An accompanying article about the demand for homes in the Mission notes that “it is currently easy” for people with even a modest income to own a home. The first step is getting land, and the author notes cheerfully that a piece of property in the city on a streetcar line can be had for $700 to $2000. The few years prior to this article had seen a steady demand for homes in “suburban” Mission, and a number of real estate and homestead associations forming to sell the lots for $400 or $450 each.
I am about to say something that is very pedestrian and at this point probably boring, but I am still awestruck by historic numbers. I breathe in sharply to consider that just over one hundred years ago (my grandmother was alive!) I could plunk down $700 and be drinking Pisco in my own fog-less bungalow. It feels boring to say because the cost of rent is a constant swirl of conversation in the city. We gnash our teeth and howl and trade stories of friends who pay $5000 a month for a 2 bedroom apartment on 17th and Albion (right at the corner where someone was once selling a leather jacket on the sidewalk and when I asked how much he wanted for it, he replied, “Five dollars, but I’ll take three because someone pissed on it.”) We gasp with horror at near-daily headlines of rent increases, seemingly flowing as fast as the tech shuttle buses streaming down Valencia Street in the morning (I once sat next to someone at a coffee shop who was timing the shuttle buses during the morning commute and there was a bus going by once every thirty seconds). The numbers and stories are collected with a luridness that borders on obscene, mostly because for those of us who are somehow managing to stay in San Francisco, we add them to the perceived value of our own decision. We feel better when other people are spending a lot of money on something, especially if we are spending not quite as much money as them, and we rest in the aura of the preciousness of the commodity, especially as others proclaim that to be status. Like the Mission, like Bi-Rite Ice Cream, like Blue Bottle Coffee.
Somewhat related, the other day, I had read in the SF weekly that Lagunitas Brewery will now alert you when a keg of Pliny the Younger is tapped, and later that night, I stood at a Beer Week event next to a man who bragged to his friend, “Hey, I have an underground tip…there’s this beer from Lagunitas, and [gesturing to his iPhone] and my buddy is going to let me know where it is.” (Oh, your buddy that lives inside the Lagunitas Twitter feed?) Everyone thinks they’re getting a deal, like this is a secret experience for those important enough to secure information, but at the end of the day, we just swipe right or left with a wrinkled and dehydrated index finger and then bleat and brag our limited edition status with our thumbs. Nobody cares (nobody is really listening) but you’re doing it anyway because if you didn’t, then maybe it would’t be worth standing in line for an hour. (And for the record, I waited a 15 full minutes for an Allagash 2014 Fluxus and it tasted like a spruce tree and a hop vine had a baby and I loved it).
But let’s consider the current value of these historic lots (quick, before I make myself sick with the banality of the Mission of today). Let’s say we traveled back in time in our Delorean, and want to buy the $700 lot in the DeMartini Tract. Using an historical real price calculator, $700 would be the equivalent of $17,700 today, measured using just the consumer price index which is referenced to a ‘bundle’ of consumer goods (food, utilities, etc). In considering real value (the increasing size and cost of that ‘bundle’ as households require more and more of those consumer goods), that $400 would be closer to $33,900 today. Now, if we consider an improved lot with a home built (let’s say that this is the $2000 referenced in Sichel & Williams’ ad), we’d be looking at $50,600 of real price today and $96,900 of real value. Tying this to income, or rating a ‘prestige value’ of this amount of wealth, the number would be $290,000.
But, let’s back up. The De Martini Tract is actually more like Mission Terrace, where Mission Street coasts down the south slope of Bernal, and wends around that weird 280/101 interchange. So in some ways, Sichel and Williams real estate agents have got their hustle on because they can use the word Mission to describe anything they’re selling. Abraham Sichel himself lived smack-dab square in the hot hot hot center chamber of the Mission – on 20th between Valencia and Guerrero. Today, he might be a real estate guy that wants to have a margarita at La Rondalla with you because he’s a neighborhood guy. Their office was at 2338 Mission (some ads seem to indicate 2838 or even 2888 Mission, which are probably typos or ink smears)(authentic!), so with a fine view of the North Slope of Bernal.
And speaking of the North Slope, as if these ads for the Mission wasn’t this all wasn’t laid on thick enough, the Call, in its August 1910 article emblazoned “Never a Better Time Than Now” invited readers to share their own stories (see? Social media was not invented with the smartphone), and thus we are able to share the joy of Thomas Mize, a retired attorney who purchased his lot on the southwest corner of Montezuma and Shotwell in 1908. The editor prefaced Thomas’ own words with the requisite Horatio Algers run-through of bootstrap indicators, and then Thomas notes that he arrived “without a dollar, a stranger in a strange land.” Thomas persevered, saving his earnings, and then purchased his lot on the north slope of Bernal in 1908. He describe view where he could gaze at all the important comings and goings of the city, the stone wall and garden around the smart residence he built, and waxes poetic about his garden (“The size of the gooseberries and the length of the blackberry vines are a wonder to all who see them!” ).
I will pause here to note that, in real time, Bernal Heights just recorded an epic sale of a newly constructed home at $3 million, edging out the previous record which had just been set a week prior at $2.3 million. Bernal is listed in various indices as the ‘hottest’ real estate market, though I’d be curious to see the difference in price between older homes and newer construction. Out of curiousity, I searched for Thomas Mize’s home today; it is still standing, and last sold for $675,000 in 1999 (and is not for sale, so hands off, ye attorneys looking for somewhere to grow strawberries).
Though, I have no reason to doubt Thomas Mize’s rags-to-home-ownership story and his exceptionally large gooseberries, the civic boosterism of the Call can’t be overstated. And though there was technically more land available then than there is today, it wasn’t necessarily easier for someone looking for a home to just ‘get’ that piece of land and build. People had to really organize to secure the necessary improvements. Where I live, for example, my house is located in the Mission Block, part of the original Rancho San Miguel (even up until the early 1900s, some still referred to it as “the Mission”). When Jose de Jesus Noe sold it off in pieces, developers bought huge chunks started subdividing. Some chunks remained in the hands of developers who wanted to build value-added tracts (like Sichel and Williams). But some smaller chunks sold to individual owners who then had to secure building contracts, get their own architects, and then band together to submit petition to the Board of Supervisors to have the street graded and macadamized and other improvements. Other chunks still were purchased by small homeowner associations, a sort of middle ground between the developer and the lone wolf. For property owners in some of the outer lands or ‘expanding’ neighborhoods, the Board of Supervisors would have to approve each petition for each specific improvement, then go through a public bidding process. It doesn’t seem like the timeline was always predictable (in Eureka Valley in particular my neighborhood in particular, it seemed that there were some lengthy disputes over bitumen paving, which I will explore in another post).
And then of course there were all kinds of tussles with groups of property owners trying to influence the Board to extend of streets to accommodate their particular parcels (or in some cases, I guess, avoid). The larger land developers, who bought acres and acres of land, greased the gears for the planning and arranging, the grading, paving, laying the pipes for electricity and gas and sewers. It’s not just that those things had to go to the individual houses on the lots, but in some cases, they had to lay out pipes and conveyances of the system, or they had to essentially build out the transit system so folks could reach these new homes. There were also all of the railroad and streetcar lines (there were a ton of them). The relationship between land ownership and railroads has long, deep, turbulent history stretching back to the land grant system (and I have a lot to say about this crony capitalism, which I will save for another time), but each line was often trying to get the city to approve electrification or public lamps or a right of way so they could gain an advantage while giving their competitors a disadvantage. I don’t think I realized for a long time how cattywompus so much of San Francisco is. When I first moved to San Francisco from the curvilinear suburbs of Orange County, I imagined that the city had been laid out in orderly grids and then expanded like an ever-opening soft-bellowed accordion that was efficiently filled in with the Victorian and Edwardian crispness that my naive mind assigned to all historic men and women, based solely on the herky-jerky timing of silent pictures and my own romanticism. Of course, the grid laying out was complicated, just as messy as the muddy, sandy, unpaved streets themselves that overflowed with viscous piles of trash, manure and nightsoil.
In the late 1890s, there was a persistent confusion with multiple street names and house numbers. There were several groups of numbered streets and avenues, house numbers had no assigned system so that anybody just numbered their house as they pleased, and some folks, when they moved their entire house to another location (which was more common than one might expect as the streets were adjusted and re-paved and re-shaped), they just took their house number with them, no matter how the numbering of the new street went. This problem (clearly San Francisco is not a Virgo) was well documented as early as 1893, when the Postmaster noted the sheer numbers of mail that ended up in the dead letter office could be avoided if there was one system for numbering houses or naming streets. But he seemed to have been blown off because in 1898, another blurb in the Call had laughingly noted that there were three Henry Streets in San Francisco. There wasn’t a concerted effort to systematize and in many cases rename and renumber San Francisco streets until 1909. By that time 20,000 new homes had been built in San Francisco since April 1906.
Let’s be clear: renamed streets and improved functioning of a post-earthquake city came at a cost. The mayor and Board of Supervisors were rife with graft, and the months following the earthquake was a bonanza of under-the-table licenses and corruption charges. A mayor that was looking for kickbacks and an array of opportunists seeking to take advantage of a city whose social order had been disoriented, whose terra firma had literally been ripped apart, eventually left office.
And it feels this way again, and sometimes I don’t know if the demand for the Mission District is as urgent as the real estate agents make it to be or if they need us to believe the value that they’ve created, because as soon as the lie gets out of hand, the spinning earth wobbles. Is the value of the real estate what a lot of people will pay, or just one person will pay? If value is just the ceiling of what impulsive or frazzled folks with money will pay, not the floor where most folks feel comfortable, then the Mission is still paved in gold for the builders of high-rise apartments, and it makes perfect sense that they name their $5000 a month condos after the unit of measurement of Spanish land grants, as if to underscore that everyone has a role in turning the Mexican sheep farm into an Italian vegetable garden and then into glass-and-steel flat-front structures that feed into transit for occupants to go to work and make profit that they spend on selvage jeans or limited-construction shirts or oysters or first edition books.
I have one more piece of evidence to ponder in wondering if we have really changed at all. It is beards and chops. It is great big wings of hair affixed the face of a white dude who really, really has something to say to you.
See, he has a heart of gold and wants to help you. Not unlike the bearded hipster who wants you to have a green detox juice from his bicycle cart or to smell the coffee in his gold filter while he tells you about the terroir. The past has gone absolutely nowhere.