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Today’s post is by contributing writer Lucky Sharma:

The Mission neighborhood in San Francisco has always amazed me in all its existential aspects. Whether it is its history of drugs and shootings or its current day hipster culture emphasized by the vintage stores and rogue bicyclists, I have been truly enamored by how much cultural inclusion this few blocks has to offer.

Mission Street, also called as the “Mission Miracle Mile”, has historically been one of the largest and most active of the area’s shopping corridors. It runs north-south through the full length of the district. A diverse crowd of people and restaurants offer different kinds of cuisines and have catalyzed this area as a cultural incubator. The ease with which people interact with each other has increased the use of public space much more powerfully than in a suburb.

It is fun to walk up and down the Mission District in search of good food, or for checking out an exhibition at a vintage store. But living in the District is more than just about having fun, it is also about living a sustainable lifestyle for people who find themselves in search of something bigger than their own everyday life, just like the pilgrims who founded the Mission San Francisco de Asis, after which the Mission district was named.

The coexistence of the various counter cultures makes it easy for everyone to identify with the vibe of the place. This makes it more entertaining and fun for people to be outside and share ideas and much more. This diversity of cultures also creates a opportunities for different ways of using public spaces like the Dolores Park. On any given sunny weekend, the park is transformed into a picnic spot, where people share food, music and even break out in a dance. An impromptu jam session by people who have never met each other but happen to be out and about on a sunny day is so fun to watch. The happiness from sharing space and co-exiting is the thread that connects and builds strong communities. It is the foundation of a resilient city and a sustainable space.

The Mission District has been rightfully called a ‘city within a city’ because it has its own identity. It creates a multicultural ecosystem that presents a common platform for people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities to be part of one community.  I have always wondered how the Mission District made this cultural inclusion and a sustainable lifestyle a reality. Are the two related?

Is ‘awesome food’ the reason that the neighborhood can boast of its lively and divergent culture? It’s probably true, who doesn’t like good food? Will people hop on buses, bikes and Segways to stand in line for awesome food? Yes! This is how folks roll in San Francisco. It is quite possible that the relationship between awesome food and cultural diversity is causal.

I set out to explore the history of the area with hopes to find an answer to Mission’s awesomeness. Uncovering the Mission’s roots, I found that the 1900s brought waves of European and Mexican immigrants to the area. Their cultures and interests colluded to create the ‘bohemian’ Mission that we know today. The Industrial Revolution attracted a huge population of the working middle-class to the area, and with that came the eateries. In the late 1990s Mission was no longer a manufacturing hub, but was home to hip manufacturing like Timbuk2 bags.

The working class has always been an active part of the local grassroots movement in the Mission District. In the 1970s the grassroots organizations helped rezone the area to promote local businesses and also keep residential areas from being rezoned to commercial spaces. The strength of its grassroots organizations is where the Mission derives its rebellious spirit from. Every city needs a thriving grassroots task force to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard and taken into consideration while making decisions, like allocating public spaces. This inherently ensures efficient use of space based on its use by all the stakeholders.

Artists have sculpted the Mission cultura since the 1970s. Mural projects like Mujeres Muralistas on Balmy Alley are representative of the social values of today. The inclusion of art as part of everyday life is important to give a distinct persona to a place. For Mission, this culture resonates through art stores and vintage shops. My favorite mural is the Women’s Building mural which was finished by seven women artists from different generations and cultures – a beautiful representation of a community. It is just exquisite. One can find murals throughout the district, even on the walls of stores and  restaurants.

The early 2000s brought a lot of nouveau riche thirty somethings from Silicon Valley. Mission was fast becoming a playground for the rich, but it kept its culture intact. More sophisticated eateries like Foreign Cinema were prepared to cater to the new palettes. Innovative concepts like  screening foreign and independent films in an outdoor courtyard became part of the dining experience. This set the stage for a trend towards multi-use spaces.

After understanding the history behind the different eateries and how they came about, it seems easy to understand how a hole-in-the-wall place serving tasty inexpensive food exists right next to an expensive sit-down restaurant. This might not be a norm in all cities, which says a lot about Mission’s culture.

Since 2009 when I first got a taste of the food that Mission prides itself on I have had the most indulgent relationship with the restaurants in Mission. My friends and I have kicked off so many Friday evenings with a Mexican beer and tacos from El Farolito, and dabbed our fingers in and tantalized our palettes with South Indian spices at Dosa and washed it all down with wines at Lolo. We had no qualms about drinking a bit over the driving limit because we used public transportation to get there. Awesome!

Whether I wanted to taste the thin-crust Italian pizza or the spicy South American cuisine from Guetamala and El Salvador, I could have any of it right in the district. Wandering through the mental maze that I usually create for myself, I wondered which came first – if it is food that connects the people in Mission, or is it people that created this ecosystem where every one learned to appreciate different cuisines.

The people and communities are the heroes of the Mission District and its history. The people who chose to stand up for their communities created a truly sustainable neighborhood which can be enjoyed by every one. This in turn fueled Mission’s local economy and art scene, which in turn, has benefited the community.

I think this might very well be what they call as a circle of sustainable life.

Photo credit: Photo from the Women’s Building blog

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