The camotero used to come out at night to sell roasted sweet potatoes (camotes). He kept them warm in a metal stovepipe on wheels that released a whistle to announce his presence on a street. In the summer, the sound carried throughout the La Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. Lupe, nanny to my mother and her eight siblings, would put my five sisters and me to bed on our summer visits to our grandparents’ place. She drew the blinds closed to block out the twilight and told the story of the time the family dog Penchi escaped, then returned mangy and world-weary to the house. She groomed him and made him well. She would repeat this story until the sound of the camotero signaled that the veil of dreams was thin enough to cross.
La Condesa is now often called La Fondesa, a reference to the fondas, or bistros, that have blanketed the middle-class art deco neighborhood by ignoring residential zoning laws and filling every street corner with valet parking to accommodate the transient diner and drinker. The camotero still makes his rounds in the evening, but his whistle is less distinct amid the pounding bass of the neon-lighted bars.
I now live 2,000 miles north, in the Mission District of San Francisco, a Latino barrio that is changing in much the same way that La Condesa has changed. For decades the Mission’s apartments were owned by working-class Poles, Russians, Germans, Irish, and Italians. My landlady Frances inherited her building from her Italian-American father, an ironworker at the docks; she was still a teenager when she helped him pick it out. Lucca’s Deli on 22nd and Valencia and Dianda’s Italian-American bakery on Mission and 24th are lingering mementos of an Italian past. Over by Shotwell and 22nd is the old Polish Club, or Dom Polski, among other remnants of a European Mission.
But the ironworks are gone now, and the docks are rotting. The work the new Latino immigrants find — at construction sites or on the line at restaurants — can’t cover a down payment on a mortgage. They’re renters, not owners as their predecessors were, and so subject to owner move-ins and other means of tenant eviction. The value of properties in the Mission, Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, and Cole Valley, in proximity to the corporate shuttles of Google, Apple, Facebook, eBay, LinkedIn, and other dot-com employers, has risen 10 percent over the last six months alone. Latino tenants are moving out to Daly City, Stockton, Richmond, Gilroy, and Hayward — some of these places nearly an hour away on the inefficient and inconvenient commuter rail. But every morning they still come in, to build houses they can’t live in and make food they can’t afford.
On a recent Sunday, I went out to the corner of Shotwell and 24th to find an open house sign. A Chicano family of seven siblings was selling their home. None of them had the means to keep it. One now lives in his truck on the street. Newer Mission neighbors were happy that they left — a few of the family members who’d lived longest in the house had been accused of associating with loud drunks and gangbangers — but I was sorry to see them go.
There is a young man named Christos who often hangs out at that corner. I pointed out the open house sign to him, and he told me that two years ago his family lost their place on Shotwell Street after his uncle failed to negotiate refinancing his mortgage. Christos now rents a room in the not-yet-gentrified Excelsior in southern San Francisco, while his family has dispersed around the Bay Area. Yet almost every day I see Christos standing on his corner, a homing pigeon returned to the Mission to roost.
Gentrification is turning vulnerable residents into tumbleweed, and it’s gradually transforming the Mission. The change is slow, and mostly invisible, but you can see it in the changing food establishments. Standing at the corner with Christos and his friend Xavier, I looked across the street to see that yet another taqueria had been erased from the Mission, this one by a delicatessen, Wise & Sons, selling $13 pastrami sandwiches, leaving people on $5 budgets to seek burritos downstream. Christos and Xavier, both born and raised in the Mission, watched bemusedly as a line of foodies turned the corner.
We think of gentrification principally in terms of real estate, race, and class, but I more often find that food is the thermometer reading the temperature of gentrification.