Elderly activists and SF natives march to preserve San Franciscan culture at Our Mission: No Eviction

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Gum Gee Lee recognizes that she’s not the only one. 

Dressed in her now signature floral patterned blue jacket, she climbed the white flatbed truck that served as a makeshift stage of the Our Mission: No Eviction rally on Saturday, and with the aid of a translator she spoke to the 300 or so protesters. 

“Its not okay to use gentrification to takeover,” she said. “It is disproportionately affecting the elderly and disabled.”

Lee, 73,  took to activism as she, her husband and her disabled daughter were evicted from their Jackson street apartment near Chinatown. Her home of more than 30 years is one of many casualties as rising prices push long time San Franciscans out of the city. 

The demands the rally organizers made were to address just that, asking Mayor Ed Lee to halt all Ellis Act evictions and put a freeze on rent increases and for the city to declare a state of emergency as the culture of the city experiences a dramatic shift. 

The rally was inspired by a wave of nonprofit and tenant evictions in the Mission district over the past year, like the recent threatened Ellis Act evictions of Chicano artists Rene Yanez, Yolanda Lopez, and Rio Yanez. The march started at the Brava theater on 24th street, a mostly feel good celebration of a shared San Franciscan culture. The elder Yanez, 71 years old, bemoaned the loss of the Mission’s heritage.

“If a mural gets painted over, no one gets upset, but if a muralist gets evicted no one says anything,” he said to the crowd. He later told us that though he has seen many changes in San Francisco since he landed here, he feels the new tech culture only has dollar signs in their eyes. “In the 70’s people came here for love, not for money,” he said. “Those were hopeful times. That’s bohemia.”

Gum Gee Lee and Rene Yanez weren’t the only elderly rabble rousers, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise, Ted Gullickson, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union told us. 

Its the elderly who are most often targeted, he said, because they’re the ones who pay the lowest prices by virtue of being tenants the longest. 

Landlords who are “okay with” taking smaller amounts are more likely to house elderly tenants with reduced rents, he said, and those landlords are targeted by real estate speculators who want to flip the place to sell as tenancies in common. The landlords themselves are often elderly, and may be looking to get out of the market. This makes buildings with elderly tenants fertile ground for Ellis Act evictions, he said.

“There aren’t going to be a lot of landlords willing to sell if they’re renting to pricey tech people,” Gullickson said. 

But older activists weren’t the only ones to make it out to the march. A surprising number of those the Guardian talked to were San Francisco natives, born and bred.

Paul Altamriano is a strapping guy with shoulders like a football player, so it made sense that he and his young son (also named Paul) both sported Joe Montana jerseys like true 49er faithful. They marched together with the procession, except for the occasional burst of energy causing the younger Paul to run excitedly ahead. 

Altamriano went to Mission high, and so did his two daughters. When his son is old enough, he hopes he can carry on the tradition. 

“I was born and raised here, you’ve got to fight,” he said.”I want my son to grow up here.” 

His face grew dark when he said that his father died shortly after being evicted from his San Francisco apartment, passing in a city that was not his home. 

Vida Ramirez was also out with her children, Cynthia, 16, and Jose, who is “seven and a half,” he said. 

“This is our barrio and our neighborhood,” she told the Guardian, as she held her children and marched. Her mother, grey haired and graceful, kept pace. Ramirez remembers when the first Mexican coffee shops and bars packed up in the first tech boom in the 90s.

She felt wronged, as if someone had attacked her personally. Maybe they had. 

That’s the heart of it. Longtime San Franciscans fear their culture is being left behind, erased. And its not just the Mission. As has been widely reported, Chinatown is a target for evictions as well as the Castro and Sunset districts. 

But despite the expressions of grief at the rally, San Franciscans also used the day to enjoy the culture thats left in the neighborhood. As dancers in colorful headdresses bobbed and stepped to the beat of a drum, local luminaries stopped to watch along with everyone else. Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, Sups. John Avalos and David Campos, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, housing activist Sara Shortt, and a sister of Perpetual Indulgence showed up to the rally. Though they were all the usual suspects, there was something different about this march. A barely perceptible change, but there all the same.

There was hope. 

“There’s been a lot of despair around seeing so many people unfairly pushed out, but people are starting to wake up,” Mani Drayton said. He’s an SF native who said he was “a Mustang” (he went to Lincoln High). He agreed that there were a lot more cheers and a lot more smiles than the usual SF protest. As the rally of folks made their way up to Mission street, he speculated on why. 

Maybe it was the amount of kids in the crowd, maybe it was the good weather, he said, but maybe it was a newfound feeling of agency.

“I think there’s a positive vibe because a lot of people believe there’s a difference that can be made,” he said. He smiled, pushed up his glasses, and went back to marching with the crowd.