Places I’ve Lived, Bay Area Gentrifier Edition
From rat-infested rentals in the Mission to the last affordable bungalow in Berkeley
Studio on Albion Street, Mission District, San Francisco, 2005–2007: $800/month
I’m the only person I’ve ever met that moved from my college dorm directly to an apartment of my own. Leaving aside that the boyfriend I wanted to live with did not want to live with me, here’s why: my parents, without question and before I had secured a job, paid my deposit, my first month’s rent, and, while I’m being honest, they sent me a check again nine months later when I had the truly grown-up experience of being fired from my first full-time job.
The apartment was a studio illegally carved out of the back of a garage I did not have access to, which meant my walls rumbled when my neighbor opened or closed the rolling door, and my boyfriend parked on the street. Twice, his windows got smashed. The second time, a CD wallet — just the wallet — was stolen; Depeche Mode and Sisters of Mercy CDs were left scattered on the back seat like a commentary on his musical taste.
The apartment had no meter (I handed the upstairs tenant $50 cash every month) and, according to the telecom company I called up for internet service, no city record, either. The bathroom was essentially a very large shower: all tiled floor and walls, like a locker room. The drain was in the center of the room, equidistant between shower-head and toilet; I stood on the soap-scum-and-hair-encrusted drain while brushing my teeth at the sink.
The main room was large, though, or at least it seemed large to me. There was a real kitchen with a stove, play-sized but fully functional, which I used to heat water and soup. A glass door opened out to a courtyard I shared with the other tenants: a gay couple; an old drummer; a young bartender with gun-holster tattoos on her hips, who did things like disinter a hydrangea bush in order to set up an inflatable hot tub for her roller derby team; her brother, who partied like a young man just cut loose from the Army, which is, in fact, what he was; and a genderqueer hairdresser named Jet Black.
It was the bohemian Sesame Street of my not-terribly-original dreams, a slum with black mold and a bunch of misfits who lent each other cigarettes and drugs and offered to throw your dinner on the grill when they had it fired up. I bought an old wooden desk from Salvation Army and pushed the desk up against the courtyard window and imagined myself writing Important Early Works there. From my desk, I could see an overstuffed lemon tree, and I pictured myself plucking fruits, barefoot, in a white dress, for spontaneous mixed drinks with mixed company.
My first dusk in the apartment, I sat at my desk by the window, trying to write but unable to stop watching as rats, big as footballs, emerged from who-knows-where and tightrope-walked the telephone wires that intersected the branches of the tree. I never picked those lemons, and I never got much writing done, either. I got a cat to keep away the rats, and, soon, she brought home fleas. Slugs came and went beneath the door, leaving their glossy tracks streaked across a floor I never cleaned. The boyfriend who didn’t want to live with me stayed in my apartment rent-free for a month and then dumped me.
The building was on a little alley street, jutting off a stretch of 16th that at the time was lined with SROs, bars, liquor stores, and a smattering of early hipster outposts: a zine shop/art gallery, a Latin American communist revolution themed coffee shop/art gallery, a bookstore/art gallery, and a vintage/indie design/retro candy/art gallery that I was somewhat obsessed with. One by one, all the /art galleries became glossier, more professional versions of themselves, until eventually they were replaced by something more upscale.
The one thing in those days that seemed to unite people — across lines of class, race, national origin, and mental health status — was an unspoken but universal understanding that my street was an open-air public toilet. It was the piss-receptacle of bar-crawling Marina bros, wine-drunk art-opening hipsters, and malodorous junkies alike. Even the pit-bull that belonged to the leather-clad owner of the nearest bar was trained to walk itself around the corner and squat outside my door to take a shit.
I became friendly with a few of the /art gallery owners, who helped me to sell some of the jewelry I was making during all the time I freed up by not writing, and they became my source for neighborhood gossip. Much of it revolved around two central themes: 1) rumors that Urban Outfitters was scouting the neighborhood to move in, and 2) whether a local crazy woman famous for entering stores and punching salespeople in the face was back out on the street again.
This was a pretty good metaphor for the Mission in that moment: it felt like being punched in the face by a crazy person, and everyone was afraid that it would change.
Eventually, a new boyfriend started coming around. He was tall enough that he had to bend his knees to enter my apartment. When I asked him in a sultry voice what I could do for him for Valentine’s Day, he requested that I deep-clean my bathroom. (That I did it — literally prostrating myself towards an end, cleanliness, to which I am wholly indifferent — continues, in my mind, to set the bar for self-sacrifice in a relationship.)
We started talking about living together, but not there. By then, the rents were doubling around us. As a New Yorker, I was raised to treat real estate with a certain solemnity; in the hierarchy of life’s Really Big Deals, giving up a rent-controlled apartment ranked somewhere above marriage (which can, after all, be undone) and only slightly below having a baby.
In the end, I moved. I wanted to live with him, even if I wasn’t sure I was ready to say good-bye to all this, to the solitude and freedom and sometimes depressing messes of living alone in San Francisco in a romanticized hovel in my early twenties, something I knew, even then, I’d never do again.
One-Bedroom on Guerrero Street, Mission District, San Francisco, 2007–2009: $900/month (my half)
Reluctant to stray very far from our friends or our bars, and constricted by our budget and my cat, we ended up one BART stop away, in a dingy building on the quieter, south-east edge of the Mission just before it swells up into the hills and buffed residences of Noe Valley. The apartment had old carpeting and an ancient Russian owner who said we reminded him of himself and his wife when they were young. He didn’t have time to clean or paint the unit before we moved in, but if we wanted, he said, we could paint it ourselves, any color we chose.
I picked an egg-yolk yellow for the kitchen and paid for all the paints and materials myself. (I didn’t know!) Before we left, he said the kitchen needed to be re-painted in the original color or he would hold our deposit. We painted again, applying multiple coats. He held our deposit anyway. (I didn’t know! I didn’t know!)
On the sidewalk outside our building were two mature trees, and our windows were level with their dense canopy, which was wonderful. Lying in bed and looking out at leaves felt like living in a treehouse, private and wild. The cat, who at the studio had taken to coming and going out of the courtyard window as she pleased, became an indoor cat now, fully tame. Her fleas went away and the vet scolded us to put her on a diet. Sometimes, in bed, she would lower into in her hunter’s pose, muscles twitching, sight fixed on the birds that nested on the other side of the glass, hilarious and tragic in her desire.
The living room was too small for bookshelves, so we stacked our books in the non-working fireplace and piled them up into end tables. The kitchen, however, was enormous. Elsewhere in the apartment, we cobbled together whatever frayed and tacky furniture we already owned, but for the kitchen, we spent real money on our first big household purchase. For $600, we bought a farm table made out of reclaimed barn wood by some poor sucker on Etsy who probably lost half his payment to the cost of shipping. The boyfriend used the table to host board game nights while I used it to try to learn to cook. We subscribed to a CSA. Against my natural inclinations, I bought a yoga mat. The boyfriend, a Bachelor of Music, took paralegal classes at night. We got engaged. He proposed to me while we were cleaning, and I cried, because didn’t he know how much I hate cleaning? My parents took no part in our rent, though they did, after one visit, insist on buying us a TV. We were growing up.
Since I couldn’t bring my fuel canisters and messy equipment into the apartment — it wasn’t safe, there wasn’t room — I also paid a second rent ($400) for a workspace. In the spirit of the times and maybe the place, I began thinking about grad school. And I wanted a second bedroom where I could run my business while I figured out how to make my way down another path.
I’m not sure I’d ever been to Oakland when I decided it was the answer to our dreams. It seemed like I’d been hearing the name everywhere for months. When I talked to other crafters at fairs, they always seemed to live in Oakland. Whenever neighbors in my rented workspace left for cheaper digs, Oakland was where they were headed. It’s the Brooklyn of San Francisco, I said, since, like all native New Yorkers, I have the ill-advised habit of comparing everything to my hometown. Go Slightly East, Young Man.
The landlord, plainly thrilled that we were leaving, brought people to view the apartment at all hours and with no notice. We moved away just as the bookstore/art gallery from 16th Street moved to 24th. Later, I heard, the zine shop re-opened nearby on Valencia. RIP communist coffee shop, though. As far as I know, that one is gone for good.
Two Bedroom on Vernon Street, Adams Point, Oakland, 2009–2013: $1650, then $1700, then $1850/month
We signed the lease on one of the final days of 2008, when the building had multiple empty units and we were able to negotiate down our rent (no cat fee!) in a way that seems incredible now. The apartment was spacious. It had wood floors and two bedrooms and pink ’50s tiling in the bathroom and kitchen. The kitchen sink was tucked into a corner of windows. The landlord, who asked if we were married in a way that made me feel guilty for saying yes, though by then we were, pointed out this feature on our tour. He suggested I might enjoy “looking at the church” while I washed the dishes, which 1) ha and 2) no.
We moved on a Sunday, and on Monday, when my husband left for work, I took a long walk down Grand Avenue, thinking, What a terrible mistake, forsaking all the cultural riches of the Mission for this mild outpost of hair salons and Round Table Pizza in one direction, car dealerships in the other. This was no Brooklyn; it was barely Queens. But we came to appreciate the lake, the trees, the Korean food. Now, of course, that stretch is a string of cool faux-delicatessens and pour-over coffee places and artisanal spice stores and tattoo parlors/art galleries.
The second bedroom (!) we filled first with jewelry-making equipment, which eventually got boxed up or sold off, then with big folding tables we used as desks for schoolwork, and then, when the French family downstairs moved away suddenly and left their furniture, a fold-out couch that allowed us to plausibly use the words “guest room” in a sentence. Eventually, the room housed a crib, some colorful bunting, a changing table, a bin full of board books. In the many, many hours I spent at the kitchen sink, washing out baby bottles, I did come to appreciate those windows. I can’t say I ever gazed much at the church, but I often lost myself in the river of cars flowing in and out of the Whole Foods parking lot.
In the time that we lived in that building, the empty units filled up and those that were inhabited when we moved in, emptied out, one by one, their residents replaced by younger, whiter renters not unlike ourselves. Each time a unit turned over we observed the ceremonial removal of old ’50s cabinets and tile hauled out in pieces, followed by the ritual procession of the stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.
The building was sold to a cabal of Marin retirees in pursuit of investment income. When we first returned home with our infant son we found scaffolding had been erected around our windows. Light-blocking tarps turned the living room into perpetual night as workers sandblasted and painted for weeks. We got notices about rent increases and then about a roof garden whose cost would be passed onto tenants, amortized over ten years.
The manager stopped sending anyone to fix broken heating coils on the stove or to snake out a sink that didn’t drain. One of the new owners called to let us know that our upstairs neighbors, two young women, had complained about the sound of our baby son’s white noise machine, which they said sounded like a “wind vortex.” The new owner helpfully forwarded our phone numbers and emails to the young women so we could “work it out yourselves,” which we did: by leaving.
A Bungalow in South Berkeley, 2013-present: ~$2000/month in mortgage and property tax
I joke that we bought the last affordable house in Berkeley. It was affordable for us only because I inherited the down payment, and we were okay with living on a busy thoroughfare generally considered undesirable.
The day we moved in, I went to get a glass of water from the fridge door, and when I pulled back my glass, the water would not stop running. We had to unplug the fridge to stop our kitchen from flooding, and then we had to root out the box with our towels. “Call the super!” my husband said, winking.
We toasted that night to home ownership — the nicest possible euphemism for a quarter-million dollars of debt.
The house has a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, two small bedrooms close together, and an “extra” room at the back of the house. It comes with the ultimate luxury: a second bathroom. There is a little outdoor space in the back, too small to be described as a yard, and paved, except for a couple of feet around the trees. But it’s enough for a table and a grill and kiddie pool. It’s enough for a little gardening. It’s enough.
The house’s heating system is ancient, and we pray every fall it will hold out one more year.
The woman who sold us our house bought it when it was in foreclosure. The glass panels on the built-in cupboards are missing, the kitchen cabinets mismatched, the hearthstone deeply scarred because someone smashed up the place before they left. (Who were they? Where did they go?) The last owner was a theater person and did the repairs herself. When we moved in there were lots of “theatrical” flourishes like faux-gilt curtain rods and maroon trim. Awful, but whatever. We had a fire under us and were running on no more than four hours of non-continuous sleep a night.
For a long time, we were too tired to do anything more than unpack the necessities. We hung a few pictures, bought a couple of rugs, experimented unsuccessfully with baby gates. Eventually, my mother, who stayed with us for a few weeks when the daycare was closed, took charge, and together, we spent Christmas break re-painting the worst rooms.
Our daughter arrived. The old cat died. Slowly, we acquired appropriate furniture. Last weekend, we went shopping for bunk beds.
The biggest upgrade came courtesy of someone else’s insurance and misfortune. We had been living in our house for about three months when, one night, a speeding car crashed onto our front lawn, taking down three trees and our fence, and, horribly, pinning a dog-walker. For a lump payment of $10,000, we agreed not to sue. We hired someone to clean and haul the debris and then a contractor to design and install a front yard with dense vines and trees, irrigation, and a high fence.
Now we have our own lemon tree. Our kids love to pick the fruits and I do my best to not think of car exhaust as we eat them.
Many of the other houses on our block have been changing hands, and many have been putting up fences. We can always tell when it’s a flip because the fence is one of those horizontal, wide-paneled ones that look like fancy shipping pallets, and the houses are always painted gray. What was an empty grass field on San Pablo Avenue is now a new construction with $4k rentals and a yoga studio about to open in the ground floor retail space. The building stands across the street from two others as blighted as any I have ever seen, with paint peeling off in long strips and broken windows held together with packing tape and front yards strewn with garbage and children’s riding toys.
One Saturday morning a few months ago, I was at the Safeway, kids in tow, and I ran into the bartender that lived upstairs from my Mission studio. Her tattoos were invisible under her hoodie and jeans, her face a little leaner, but basically, she looked the same: same short, black hair, same blue eyes, same nose ring. She had an infant strapped to her chest and a man in a baseball cap was bringing her coffee. “Hey,” we said to each other. She lives in Temescal now, she said.
“It’s like the whole neighborhood up and moved to the East Bay,” I said.
She looked at my children and laughed. “Yeah, man. Or it’s like we got old.”
Joanna Petrone lives, writes, and teaches in the Bay Area.
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