San Francisco just doesn’t feel like home anymore. This lament by those who were born here or have lived here for many years grows louder by the day. At home, my wife, Camille Peri — whose Italian-Irish-Greek family goes back three generations in San Francisco — and I take turns on the wailing and moaning. It freaks out our dog, Brando, when we both lose it at the same time, cursing the city that drives us crazy but that we can’t bring ourselves to leave. “Oh my God, it took over an hour and a half to drive across town today! Does Ed Lee allow construction on every street at the same time now?”
But home begins on your block. And for the lucky among us, we can retreat to that friendly enclave at the end of another frantic day, when all the city seems to care about is money, market share and restaurant reservations.
Camille and I have resided on our street in Bernal Heights for nearly a quarter of a century. We raised our sons here. All three are in their 20s and making their way up in the film world, a path nearly as rocky as the writing careers Camille and I decided upon in the same reckless spirit. This perilous family commitment to the creative life means, of course, that we’re stuck together, here in unaffordable San Francisco, in this crowded commune we call home.
Yet, there’s a certain, odd, bohemian stability to our family life here in Bernal. And the remarkable thing is that our street has remained miraculously resilient, a bastion of racially diverse, middle- and working-class families in a neighborhood where houses now soar past the $3 million mark.
I’m proud to say our street is also home to more than its share of civic heroes, activists and do-gooders. The San Francisco values that incited a national culture war and changed America, as I wrote about in my book “Season of the Witch,” remain strong among my neighbors.
In the dark days after Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, I found some solace going door to door on my street, and talking with my neighbors.
Now, it must be said that the Studio City neighborhood where I grew up, on the outskirts of Hollywood, had its unique charms. My father, actor Lyle Talbot, who broke into movies during their golden era — along with Bogie, Bette Davis and other Warner Bros. stars — liked our proximity to nearby studios, as did a number of other showbiz types. Across the street resided Thurl Ravenscroft, the basso profundo voice behind “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger — the same roar he used to call his kids in for dinner. Next door to us lived a hard-drinking ex-showgirl named Ruth, a bottle redhead (in more ways than one) who whiled away her days with her scary Doberman pinscher and any neighborhood kids she could lure into her kitchen to keep her company over multiple rounds of gin and tonic.
But all in all, I find my Bernal Heights neighborhood more interesting. We have a seismologist who has spent his life monitoring our precarious existence on the shaky Pacific Rim. And there’s a retired principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet. Farther up the block is the mordant film genius behind “Bad Santa” (the original), “Ghost World” and “Crumb.”
Yes, the new tech money is invading our oasis. But the street still feels anchored around the committed San Franciscans who grew up here or came here following a dream that did not simply involve getting rich.
We tend to look out for each other on our street, babysit each other’s kids, accompany a stricken neighbor to the emergency room, loudly commiserate with each other about the 49ers as we leave for work on Monday mornings. One neighbor, Bayard Fong, sometimes drops by with tickets to a Giants game. Bayard works for the city’s Human Rights Commission and his wife, Rosa, is the principal of Alamo Elementary School.
Up the street live Marianne Bachers and Rafael Trujillo, activist lawyers who met in the 1970s at the now-defunct hotbed of social change, the New College School of Law. Marianne is a death penalty defense lawyer. Rafael, a former president of the La Raza Lawyers Association, worked for the San Francisco public defender’s office for 25 years. His mother marched in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, and his father was a longshoreman. “We mourn the loss of what made San Francisco unique,” said Marianne. “We hate that the city is so unaffordable now for regular people, and so homogenous. I came here when I was young to be with people different than me.”
Norma Garcia, another activist lawyer, lives across the street with her husband, Bert Feuss, and their two sons. Norma, who grew up in the Mission, said she doesn’t know any friends from her childhood who still live in San Francisco. “Everyone got priced out,” she said. “But I don’t want to go anywhere else. My roots are here.”
Bert, the senior vice president of investments for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, thinks Mayor Ed Lee was right to offer tax breaks to tech companies after the 2008 crash as a way to create jobs. “But now he needs to play hardball with the industry and tell them, ‘You were part of the solution, now you’re part of the problem,’ because of the growing economic inequalities and social problems.”
A couple houses up from us live Jeff and Aileen Kositsky and their two girls. Jeff holds down one of the toughest jobs in the city, as the mayor’s point man on the homeless crisis. Why did Jeff take the thankless job? “Excellent question,” he said. “But despite everything, we’re making progress.” Jeff is one of those fundamentally decent people who makes you believe again in public service.
With Trump headed for the White House, Jeff knows that his job will get even tougher, as the new administration targets the programs that help immigrants who end up on the streets. Those fears have literally come home for Kositksy. The morning after the election, he found his 11-year-old daughter Hannah, who was born in China, crying on the couch. She was afraid that she — and the kids from undocumented families with whom she goes to school — could now be deported. “I told her that San Francisco is safe — it’s people in other cities we have to worry about.”
But Cristina Gutierrez is not so certain about Lee’s resolve to protect San Francisco as a sanctuary city under a full Trump onslaught, which will likely include slashing federal subsidies for municipal programs. Cristina lives a couple doors up from the Kositskys, and she and her family have tangled with Jeff’s boss. Her son, the rapper Equipto (Ilyich Sato), confronted Lee at Max’s Opera Cafe last year. “You’re a disgrace to Asians,” the rapper, who is half Japanese American, said to Lee’s face. “You’re kicking the people who built this city out of here. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Last spring, Cristina, 66, and her 42-year-old son led the Frisco Five hunger strike against police violence, fasting for 17 days outside the Mission Police Station, and sparking a movement that led to the resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr.
“I wasn’t looking for death, but I was prepared for it,” said Cristina, who emigrated from Colombia to go to San Francisco State. She now runs the Compañeros Del Barrio preschool in the Mission.
Now Mama Cristina, as she was known during the strike, is preparing for an even bigger battle, against the Trump-led federal government. “The kids at my school are just 3 and 4 years old, but they bring to school with them the fears of their families, who come from Mexico and Central America. The parents are always asking me, ‘What do we do, Cristina?’ I tell them, ‘Organize and fight.’”
This is the spirit that animates much of my neighborhood, and that makes me feel San Francisco will always be home. We need this spirit more than ever now.
With Trump certain to come after the most defenseless among us, we must remind ourselves that an attack on the weakest is an attack on all of us — and on the values that make us a unique community.
San Francisco, you are the embracing city that opens your Golden Gate, and lets nobody wait outside your door. That old tune made famous by Judy Garland, our beloved lady of sorrows, cuts to my heart every time the organist merrily pumps it out before the curtain rises at the Castro Theatre.
We are the city of Saint Francis. We take care of our own.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Talbot appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Email email@example.com” style=”text-decoration: underline; color: rgb(65, 110, 210); max-width: 100%;”>firstname.lastname@example.org