“The Mission is the city’s first neighborhood.” So says Mission District native Bernadette C. Hooper, author of San Francisco’s Mission District, the latest book on San Francisco from Arcadia Publishing.
To get to the bottom of this story, Mission Branch librarian Nicole Cuadra spoke with Hooper about her new book. The Mission Branch Library will host a book signing with Hooper on Monday, Nov. 27 at 6:30 p.m. Enjoy light refreshments and learn the rest of the story.
NC: Is the Mission the City’s first neighborhood?
HOOPER: People don’t always understand the history of San Francisco; they think it started with the settlement at the harbor. But in reality there were three settlements: the Presidio and Mission Dolores were established in 1776, while the settlement at the Yerba Buena harbor was not founded until 1835.
There was a trail between the Presidio and the settlement at Mission Dolores. The first mission was established on the shore of Dolores Lagoon at what is now 16th and Albion. The current mission was built in 1791, a block and a half to the west at what is now 16th and Dolores.
It was the perfect location because it had a water source, arable land with few dunes, exceptional weather, and Mission Creek which was navigable to the bay. This was important because it allowed the residents of Mission Dolores to get to the bay for news and trade: for the most part the priests were European-born and hungry for news from home. They received it from ships from Spain and other nations. Also, the mission lands were all linked at that time: land from Mission Dolores abutted land from Mission Santa Clara, so there was trade between the missions.
When Mexico became independent from Spain the missions came under the rule of the Mexican government. In 1834 Mexico secularized the mission system and offered Mission Dolores land to entice settlers to the area. These were hard times for Mission Dolores, which was reduced to the status of a parish church. The area surrounding the mission was called the Dolores Pueblo. There are descendents of many families from the early days of Dolores Pueblo who still live nearby. Most of the settlers were professionals or persons with other skills that were in short supply. Francisco de Guerrero was an attorney from Tepic, Mexico who became alcalde of the area. He lived at Mission Dolores with his family. Mariano Vallejo was the Mexican governor of California. He was buried at Mission Dolores.
NC: What was the Mission District like during the gold rush?
HOOPER: Most of the big development happened at the harbor but the neighborhood served as a rural home for some; it was a place where some failed miners had large vegetable gardens. The Mission became kind of a playground with racetracks outside the city line. There was a resort called the Willows which was near the remnants of the Dolores Lagoon and streams in the area of 19th and Valencia. Woodward's Gardens, another resort, was at 14th and Mission. Cesar Chavez Blvd. was New Market and had a creek that ran along it. 18th Street had a creek too, and Folsom St. had a plank road. The neighborhood grew dramatically after the gold rush. It was a working class neighborhood with proximity to downtown. My great grandparents built a home in the Mission in the mid 1890s, so there was available open land at that time.
NC: How did the Mission become the neighborhood it is today?
HOOPER: There have been Hispanic people in the Mission since 1776. The neighborhood has had had great diversity; you can see this at the Mission Dolores graveyard. With the Gold Rush people from all over the world came, including South Americans who had experience working in mines. Before WWII there were more folks from Europe. The neighborhood was and still is a place for the city's newest immigrants. After the war, many neighborhood residents moved to parts of town with more single family homes, like the Sunset, or they moved to the suburbs. The Mission then began to absorb new immigration from Central America and Mexico.
NC: What kind of response have you had to the publication of your book?
HOOPER: The response has been great. I was motivated to write the book because I was tired of people not understanding or appreciating the neighborhood. I emphasized what makes the neighborhood such a special place. I proceeded chronologically, and I think it flows and that the coverage is even. Although, at 128 pages you cannot include everything you would like to.
There are some surprises for readers; the neighborhood wasn’t always what it is today! It’s changed and we expect it to keep changing. I have included a lot about schools because that is a big part of growing up and people's memories. There was a time when people may not have had family photos, but they would have had a class photo. I even discovered a school I didn’t know existed, the St. Charles’ Commercial School which prepared young ladies for office careers.
NC: How did you research the material?
HOOPER: I talked to people about what was important to them about the Mission. I used the San Francisco Public Library a great deal, especially the photo archive. The California history collection at the Mechanics Institute is superb. From there I built an outline, and told everybody I know what I was I doing. There were some surprising sources of photos and stories from institutions and from families I had not met before and who have now become friends. A lot of photos came my way because I made a lot of calls and spent a lot of time introducing myself. In particular the California Historical Society, the Archives for the Archdiocese in Menlo Park, the Mission High School Alumni Museum, and San Francisco General Hospital were especially helpful.
NC: Tell us about growing-up in the Mission.
HOOPER: My family has been in the neighborhood for four generations. I grew up in a top floor flat with a view “from the kitchen.” We could see across the bay to the Campanile on the Berkeley campus where I would later go to college.
As Mission residents do today, we enjoyed great weather. Where else in the city would there be an outdoor pool? We spent a lot of time at “Nickel pool,” (Mission Pool) at 19th and Linda.
I went to St. James on Fair Oaks, where my teachers encouraged my love of history. I always thought that everyone lived in a neighborhood as diverse a mine. Going to Mission Street to run errand was called going “down Mission,” like going down town. We were fortunate to live in a neighborhood with several generations of family, friends, wonderful weather, and everything you needed close by.
NC: What is your favorite bit of neighborhood history?
HOOPER: The Mission’s response to the 1906 earthquake and fire. Mission residents were resilient (half of the neighborhood was “lost” to the earthquake and subsequent fires.) Skilled crafts people and other professions lived right here and they were needed to rebuild the city.
I have a family story. After the earthquake and fire people had to cook out of doors. My great aunt, depending on who in the family you speak with, baked either brownies or fudge on her outdoor cook stove. She would have been about 13 at the time. Of all the stories I have heard of the time, no one contained complaints.
NC: What does the future hold for the neighborhood?
HOOPER: The Mission will continue to be home to new waves of immigrants. For years now we have seen Asian immigration into the neighborhood. The neighborhood has its challenges, especially over affordable housing. One thing is for sure: it will be always be an interesting place in which to live and visit.
The Mission Branch Library is located on Bartlett at 24th Street.