Streets of a multicultural city

Lisa Feldstein's picture
This past weekend I attended a memorial service for a local activist. Eric Quezada was important in many planning-related issues here in San Francisco – how we create space that reflects the cultural traditions of our large immigrant communities, the importance of preventing displacement of low-income people, the development of affordable housing and institutions that meet the needs of all of our citizenry. I had known Eric for many years, but had the privilege of working most closely with him when I served on our city's Planning Commission and he was a lead organizer in the Mission District, an historically Latino neighborhood threatened by dot-com fueled gentrification. In his short 45 years on earth, Eric touched the lives of thousands here and around the world. The hundreds at his memorial reflected some of the many communities with which he'd worked. Eric was an internationalist, and this was reflected in the faces of those gathered to laugh and to cry together in his memory.  Eric's memorial was also an homage to the use of urban space and the seamless multiculturalism that is San Francisco. The memorial was held in a public school auditorium, a space that belongs to everyone. American public schools, cultural battles aside, represent education, equity, opportunity, and hope – the best in us. In a city like San Francisco, that includes language immersion, futbol and football, and murals of local community leaders – including eviction dates for many. It means that when Aztec Dancers emerge into the school courtyard to begin the ceremony, they are both special and familiar. Children and politicians, activists and families, White and Black, all bow in the four directions while the dancers commemorate the passage of this Guatemalan immigrant, descendant of the creators of these ancient dances, from our midst.  Hours later, we gather again in the courtyard, this time answering the call of trumpet, sousaphone, drum: a New Orleans style brass band. The Liberation Brass Band is of San Francisco – the drummer is a six-foot tall tattooed woman with dyed red dreadlocks wearing impossibly high heels – but the music is St. James Infirmary. The band leads us in a Second Line down the wide sidewalks along Valencia Street. Eric spent hundreds of hours working to keep viable the small businesses that lined that street and which served the neighborhood's low-income community; the gentrification of the Mission is inscribed on this street. The street itself testifies to Eric's impact. We dance past used bookstores and trendy restaurants getting ready for evening service, past corner bodegas and stores selling expensive curios; tiny pocket parks and a shop which trades in pirate goods such as eye patches and peg legs. A DJ spinning records outside one business turns off his music as we pass; a group of musicians jamming on a corner join the brass band's song. People stop what they are doing to watch, some gawking, some looking satisfied, as though they expected a Second Line or some other equally unlikely spectacle – isn't that what the Mission is all about? A few people ask "For Eric?" as we pass, nodding sadly when we reply. We stop for call and response in front of the nonprofit Eric directed before he died: "¡Eric!" "¡Quezada! ¡Presente!", and again at a few other locations that were meaningful in Eric's life. The best urban spaces are almost infinitely adaptable. They are experienced as different places by different people. For the Hipsters drinking kombucha in Valencia Street cafés, that street is a space of tribal tattoos and restaurants serving locally sourced food. For poets and other artists it is inspiration and performance space. For activists, planners and academics, Valencia Street is a space of contestation. For neighborhood families it is a school, an after-school tutoring program, a short walk to the transit they take to their jobs. And when all of those people are gathered in shared remembrance? It is the route of a Second Line that seamlessly, naturally, encompasses the multudinous cultural influences that make up San Francisco.
Lisa Feldstein seeks to use land use as a tool for social and economic justice.


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