By Cindy Milstein
Just as I was about to snap this photo, two guys walking by stopped to read the pavement, too, and said, “Another arson. They keep happening here in the Mission.” They hadn’t noticed me, but our eyes met after the one spoke, and I nodded agreement. We all had a worn look about us, deep in those eyes of ours.
I took my picture.
The chalking is becoming too routine on the dirty concrete in my neighborhood. I know who does it, carefully, with solemn respect and raw pain. Chalking, as public and plain as the mourning in the Mission, but likely washed away by tears and time, not rain.
There is a lack of rain here. Drought they call it, as in a period that “causes extensive damage.” Yet there is no lack of people “getting killed and displaced by fires, gentrification & police.”
Minutes later, as I tried taking another shot, this time of the haphazard array of flowers clinging desperately to the padlocked security gate pulled tight across the front of the charred liquor store at Treat and 24th streets, another couple of folks strolled by, walked past, and then turned back toward me.
“What happened?” they inquired, as if somehow they knew that I would obviously know. Maybe it was those serious eyes of mine.
Burned household objects litter the street still in two big mounds, one to each side of this corner store’s entry, like sentries, like graves, smelling as if still smoldering, still dangerous.
The blackened piles are remnants of life, tossed quickly out windows in haste, one imagines, to battle flames. Yet they feel an affront now, left as if warning sign for others — by landlord? by city? by police? — as a way to spark further fear for the marginalized and precarious in this neighborhood.
Mostly, it feels like a violation, an injury, a dishonor toward the people who used to call these things “home.” This is not a fitting part of the communal makeshift shrine and quiet witnessing, quiet processing, that’s going on in between the smelly, messy heaps of disaster.
Indeed, one can still hardly take in breathe for the stench of it all.
“A 13-year-old, Amal Shaibi, died last night from smoke inhalation during the fire last week,” I tell this second pair of passersby. “Her 38-year-old dad, Mohamed Shaibi, died a couple nights ago. I heard the 13-year-old helped a younger sibling out a smoke-filled window during the heat of the blaze.”
I go into detail, too much probably, weaving in nearby evictions, nearby harassment by landlords and immigrant agents and plainclothes cops, who also murdered 21-year-old Amilcar Perez-Lopez only about a block and a half away, only about three weeks ago, and wander further afield to offer the story of the enormous fire on Mission at 22nd streets that killed one and dehoused many dozens of longtime, low-income, mostly Latino residents. I repeat the words heard often these days here: arson. “Or that’s what everyone thinks, at least those who think about and are impacted by gentrification.”
I can’t quite tell if they wanted to hear this thoroughly interconnected story, but they listen eagerly, and thank me profusely. They aren’t from this neighborhood, so all this seems like news to them. I can’t quite tell, either, if it touched their hearts or not, or was simply spectacle after a nice dinner and evening walk.
Earlier today, at a public hearing at city hall about all the fires of late, politicians fell over themselves to congratulate city workers for bravery, courage, and hard work. The workers fell over themselves to cover each other least they’d made any mistakes, and speak of how they are objective in determining the cause of fires. The politician who called the hearing for his district, David Campos, mentioned that people in the neighborhood have “conspiracy theories,” by which he dismissed any thought of arson even as he vaguely noted that such theories arise from “what’s happening in the Mission,” by which I assume he means gentrification and eviction by whatever means necessary.
The closest that any of these officials, all feigning investigative vigilance, got to touching on what nearly everyone at risk of disposal in the Mission believes — that the fires are part and parcel of dispossession — was when they danced around how sometimes landlords don’t keep their buildings up to fire codes in terms of safety.
This is, I think, arson as well, by any means, whether flagrant conflagrations are the result of landlord “negligence,” or secondary-degree burning of buildings comes in the form of winking away code violations until rent-stabilized apartments, say, catch fire. Funny, people in the Mission observe, how the huge 3-story building at Mission and 22nd got thoroughly destroyed but the extremely expensive new Vida apartment complex right next door — literally touching each other — didn’t seem to receive even a scratch.
All “conspiracy theories,” mind you, but they have a certain ring of reality down on the street level, especially around 24th and Mission these days.
Meanwhile, on Treat and 24th, two shopkeepers across the street from the vacant burned building, with plastic blowing out its windows now, tell me they are collecting funds for the family. “They keep refusing money, though. So we’re encouraging cards. But yes, we’ll insist they take the money for all their health expenses.” They explain how the family returned earlier today, briefly, and said they were doing OK.
I imagine they can barely begin to understand how they are doing, and hope they somehow didn’t notice those two sprawling heaps of burned objects, so that won’t become a memory, when memories return.
Grief settles slowly, like ash.
This family is now a woman, wife, and mom, now in a wheelchair from her own injuries, now with one husband less and one child less, no home, and no family business below it. She is left with two kids, ages six and sixteen, and too much pain to almost comprehend.
All that’s left on this forlorn building — ripe for the plundering for some new, bland, luxury project that has no community — is another chalked sidewalk soon to fade, flowers already beginning to wilt, and a cardboard sign with handwriting briefly attempting to explain the loss, attached on the liquor store door next to a beer ad with an image of the Bay Bridge, on this sad corner of a neighborhood being disappeared.
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For today’s news story about the family and fire, see:
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(Photo and words by Cindy Milstein, dusk on March 19, 2015; chalk by Lisa Ganser.)