Tomas F. Summers Sandoval Jr.: Community History in the Path of “Progress”

Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community and Identity in San Francisco by Tomas F. Summers SandovalWe are excited to bring you a guest post today from Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr., author of Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community and Identity in San Francisco. Born in an explosive boom and built through distinct economic networks, San Francisco has a cosmopolitan character that often masks the challenges migrants faced to create community in the city by the bay. Latin American migrants have been part of the city’s story since its beginning. Charting the development of a hybrid Latino identity forged through struggle—latinidad—from the Gold Rush through the civil rights era, Summers Sandoval chronicles the rise of San Francisco’s diverse community of Latin American migrants.

In the following post, Summers Sandoval examines the gentrification of previously working-class neighborhoods and the effect it’s having on the Latino laboring class and their community histories.


Are communities of color an endangered species in the 21st-century American city?

From New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco to Philadelphia, the transformation of once working-class neighborhoods into desirable, trendy, and expensive ones is displacing those who have historically made those neighborhoods home for generations. Almost always poor and working-class, and frequently nonwhite, scores of historic communities are being pushed from the city by the pressures of the market.

For simplicity’s sake, we call this process “gentrification,” but there’s nothing simple about it. The fact that it enters our public discussions masked as a whole slew of distinct but inseparable issues is the most telling proof of that fact. Demographic change, economic progress, preservation & development, crime & safety, jobs, housing, and the promotion of business-friendly environments are all part of the complex mix of forces making it hard for poor and working-class residents to exist within American city. But when desirable outcomes (like a rise in real estate values) have undesirable effects (like the displacement of African Americans and Latinos), what can a city do?

Few U.S. cities are more reflective of these complexities than San Francisco, the topic of my recent book from UNC Press. In it, I detail the creation of the Latino community in the “city by the bay,” a story that culminates with the post-WWII concentration of Latinos in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the Mission District. For most of the last 60 years, that neighborhood has become synonymous with Latino identity in San Francisco. Home to generations of Latin American immigrants, and abounding with visible evidence of their historical and cultural lives, the Mission is also a neighborhood undergoing profound change.

A series of “tech booms” over the last 15 years has brought capital and development to this once working-class barrio. It has also begun to chip away at the once dominant Latino cultural landscape. Trendy restaurants and cafés, redeveloped condominiums, and non-Latino residents (with ample disposable incomes) are increasingly part of the neighborhood’s profile. The visible markers of the Mission’s Latinos—Spanish-language businesses, affordable housing, and, of course, Latino families—are seemingly on the decline. The result is a tension-filled neighborhood where the issue can sometimes result in anger and frustration.

While the debate may seem to pit “techies” against Latinos, that perspective fails to see the forest for the trees. Like Latin American migration to San Francisco—a story I describe as the direct byproduct of U.S. capital involvement in the Spanish-speaking hemisphere—gentrification is part of a larger set of forces marking urban life on a global scale. The populations most at risk are those who have traditionally occupied the laboring classes, communities easily distinguishable by certain racial and economic characteristics. Their ability to make a home within the city was once tied to the economic vitality of the entire nation. Key manufacturing and related industries—the bellwether of the “old economy”—relied on a steady supply of qualified workers.

The “new economy” has different needs, and the modern city is reflecting those changes. Manufacturing jobs have all but disappeared as economic progress has been linked to an expanding financial sector as well as other “intellectual industries” like technology. This shift necessitates a robust service economy of workers who empty the trash, serve coffee, or perform other household tasks for those who are willing to pay. But those workers can no longer afford to live in the city. As one intellectual put it: “Global cities are turning into vast gated communities where the one percent reproduces itself.”

The amorality of the market is leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of more than a few urbanites as the realization sets in that much more than affordability is being lost. The diverse cosmopolitan character of cities like San Francisco is also being threatened as populations migrate. In some ways this exacerbates the traditional loss of the collective, historical memory that makes the city—or any city—uniquely human. Our neighborhoods and communities are forged from the precious stories of human relations, cooperation, struggle, and imperfections. When we lose the people who lived those stories, and who maintain the traces of them, we all lose something.

The solutions may be imperfect but they also remain necessary. Perhaps the first step is in the promotion of local history. A city cannot value a human past it does not know. Once it does possess that knowledge, it can take affirmative steps to protect its own cultural and historical character by protecting its visible communities. While we may be able to do little to abate the power of the global forces at play, a valuing of real community can help to assure we don’t lose the best parts of urban life in the face of “progress.”

Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr. is associate professor of Chicana/o-Latina/o studies and history at Pomona College. Follow him on twitter @tfss and on his blog Latino Like Me.