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Breaking Bland in El Barrio

It is 7 a.m. in The Mission. Dogged Latino migrants carve the pavement to the bus stops. Obdurate homeless undock their shopping carts and billow away with garbage bag sails. Mulish children are towed to school by unyielding parents late for work. Caffeine-addicted professionals shudder into the cafés. Little old Catholic ladies resolutely bend their heads towards Saint Peter’s. The Mission is stubborn, bullheaded, and the 14 Muni bus brakes with an exaggerated exhale to reluctantly gather the service workers and the insane for the herky-jerky journey down Miracle Mile. Strung-out addicts dot the sidewalks: fragile, starving, raving birds out for their morning worm.

Mundaneness soon makes smooth the morning hours of the Mission, and by noon, day-laborers, still waiting for work on the corner, engage in a game of cards over a trashcan top. Nannies employed at a teenage mom support program roll little babies begot by baby mammas through the side streets. Query-eyed artists and radicals descend from their rent-controlled Victorian flats to contemplate the unemployed hipster, and bicycle away, indistinguishable from each other. Older homeboys sporting team colors roost outside the miscellaneous stores, in prelude to police molestation, and street drunks with paper-bagged beers wait on a bench for life to hurt less.

On Mission Street, immigrant shop owners have flung open the grated and metal roll-up doors to the palaces of made-in-China plastics, the border-oblivious remittance windows, and the caches of cellphone connections. They are barkers at a quantum carnival of impossible space: Merchant is worker is capitalist is consumer holding the tent door open to the spectacle of mass-scale unsustainable industrialization that we feign to afford in the shape of trinkets. Twinkle-eyed white-bearded hippies stroll past these snake oil shops in strange cotton dress, and the single-room hotel residents and the mobile homeless of the Lower Mission contentedly settle into their living room at the 16th Street BART plaza.

School is out, and the sidewalks become buoyant again with shoppers, and teenagers in baggie jeans and leggings sizing each other up. Rolling up and down 24th and 16th streets, the young-and-brown band and frolic, until cops stop and frisk them into more cynical versions of themselves. Tamale ladies, cellphone cover vendors, and Peruvian curiosity-crafters fish a buck from glances. The corner drug depots open for sale, the McDonalds feed badly for cheap, the taquerías are only just better, and the ethnic grocery stores are unburdened of their imports by mammas on a budget. Dilettante neighbors step off their tech company shuttles, outpacing established Latino tenants heading home to open an Ellis Act eviction notice. Streaks of passersby color the air above the asphalt, until it is night again, and the trashcans roll out, and the bottle scavengers come rattling down the street to make a living off the refuse of the day.

I perch myself close to all these Mission sidewalk potentates and weave quilting points through their sliding story layers. I anchor unsuitable relationships together to elicit confessions about their uncomfortable proximity. Whispers of insight set loose my catch, and I watch their stories uncouple and swim away into the rushing street currents. The meaning I found is gone, and I perch myself again on the banks of the human torrent coursing through the Mission.

A pulsing knot of multifarious relationships pumps the neighborhood. It comes undone as real estate agents sell out Mission oldsters to violent instability. Faster than I can write about the multi-ethnic, working-class marvels of el barrio, newly whitewashed blocks distend into a monotonous consumer corridor. Young professionals enter en scène to guiltlessly exacerbate others’ poverty through a banal, thoughtless existence at bars, restaurants, and boutiques. Self-righteous acts of forced displacement are undoubtedly the founding stone of the Mission, but in almost 240 years of demographic unsettlement, there was never a more vapid Western staged here than this pioneering of the blandlands.

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