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Upscale culture and gang violence share a small space

In San Francisco's Mission District, gang violence is layered atop the flourishing restaurant and club scene that has grown up in recent years.

September 21, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Recent shootings are reminders that half of the one-square-mile Mission District in San Francisco is gang territory.
Recent shootings are reminders that half of the one-square-mile Mission… (Robert Galbraith / Reuters )

Reporting from San Francisco -- The first in a spate of casualties in this city's hipster haven was a quiet 22-year-old who held two jobs and sent money home to his mother in Mexico's Yucatan region. Gaspar Puch-tzek was grabbing a cigarette outside the swank Mission District restaurant where he worked on Aug. 30 when he was mistaken for a gang member and shot in the face.

Killed less than 12 hours later was 29-year-old Edson Lacayo — a member, police said, of the Suren?o gang, which for decades has battled the Norten?os in the Mission. Sept. 5 brought another fatal shooting near a strip of popular nightspots; two days later, a 19-year-old man was shot in the hip outside the bustling 24th and Mission transit station, sending bystanders scrambling. And at dusk Monday, a man who had opened fire near Guerrero and 15th streets was shot in the stomach before driving erratically across the Mission and crashing.

San Francisco's compact neighborhoods have for decades been a laboratory for change, undergoing identity-shifting transformations. But nowhere have the economic contrasts been as pronounced as in the Mission.

Here, the cluster of shootings has laid bare a reality many cafe denizens and bar-hoppers in this gentrifying landscape tend to tune out: About half of the neighborhood is gang territory.

For Latino families who long have struggled to make ends meet and keep their children safe, the "hipsterfication" of the Mission has brought little relief.

"It's two different worlds that we talk about," said Roberto Eligio Alfaro, 35, executive director of HOMEY, or Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth, which was created in response to a 1999 slaying. "There's a divide, and it has to get bridged because we're all one community."

The historically working-class Latino neighborhood, which covers just one square mile, has seen a burst of restaurants, galleries, bars and boutiques open in the last few years. In addition to the low-cost eateries from Latin America and South Asia, Mission denizens can find prosciutto ice cream, broccoli raab pizza, or lavender creme brulee served from a cart that roams the district (with a Twitter following, of course).

Young techies, many ferried by corporate buses to and from their jobs at Google and Facebook, have flooded into the Mission's Victorian flats and newer lofts — joining the artists and activists who arrived in the late-1980s and first gave the neighborhood its cool cachet.

The Mission's Latino population has fallen by more than 20% over the last decade as families were priced out of the housing market. What remains are stark contrasts. On a recent evening, tattooed youth with yoga mats pushed past lines of workers wiring their day's wages to relatives in Latin America.

The neighborhood's newer residents and night crawlers, Alfaro said, seem oblivious to the lives HOMEY is trying to better through its silk-screening business, music studio and leadership program — youth strained by poverty and other social ills.

A towering man with a ponytail, Alfaro grew up in a rough corner of the Mission. When his son was born more than a year ago, he decided — with a heavy heart — to move in search of cheaper housing. Those parents who remain are alert to the risks the Mission poses.

Sonia Aguila raised three kids here. They are now 20, 16 and 14. As she strolled past a restaurant touting its bourbon caramel lattes on a recent evening, the 41-year-old school cook spoke of steering her kids' clothing choices away from gang styles and colors, constantly telling them: "Walk carefully. Don't talk to people who you don't know."

In the wake of the recent violence, San Francisco police have stepped up patrols while asserting the neighborhood is safe. So far in 2011, the Mission's death toll stands at five, one more than at this time last year but far below the 18 recorded in all of 2008.

Lydia Chavez, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley who along with students and professional staff runs a bilingual news website called Mission Loc@l, said it was the coexistence of disparate worlds that sets the Mission apart.

The contrasts inspired a student to piece together a website map, dubbed "gangs and cupcakes," that overlaid the Mission's rival territories with its bakeries. The purpose, Chavez said, was to give people "a different way to look at the neighborhood."

But Alfaro said the map offended some in the community by appearing to minimize life-and-death issues while stressing the divisions he and others work so hard to erase.

The mistrust and misunderstandings were born in part out of the economic frenzy of the late-1990s, when flush dot-com employees flooded the Mission, prompting hundreds of evictions and sending housing prices soaring.

While the artists and writers who moved in before that time had "a respect for what was already there," San Francisco poet-activist Michelle Tea said that during the dot-com boom, "the gentry just came in on horses."

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