An Ode to the Haight

Today's story is from reader Susan of Made in the Haight, who writes about the character of the 'hood, and what it's like to raise a family in a place with so many identities.

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What can be said about living in the Haight that hasn't been said before? As it turns out, that’s a tricky question to answer. It begs the question of what exactly is “The Haight?” Reasonable people can’t even agree on what “The Haight” means. For example, if you’re from somewhere else in the City, you might call our neighborhood the “Upper Haight,” as opposed to the “Lower Haight.” But just as some San Francisans say they live in “The City,” as if San Francisco were the only city that matters, many of the residents here take a similar pride in simply saying we live in “The Haight.”

Call it what you will, the rest of the world may view the Haight as an icon, or less enthusiastically, as a relic: the Haight indisputably developed from a turn-of-the-century, middle-class, family-oriented neighborhood into an independent, do-it-yourself, homemade, homegrown, artisan and musical creative cultural hotbed in the '60s. Many San Franciscans today still view the Haight as a lost, slightly schizophrenic community struggling through one identity crisis or another, including gentrification in the ‘90s and more recently, the over-inflated drama over Mayor Newson’s “sit/lie” ordinance.

Today, it’s probably true that living in the Haight isn’t as cheap as living in the Mission or as hip as living in Hayes Valley. Haters may hate the Haight, but we see the forest through the trees. Don’t like big box chains like Whole Foods? Shop at the Haight Street Market instead. Pass on the infamous McDonalds by Hippie Hill and head straight down Haight Street to Burger Urge – or if you want a more local chain, head to Burgermeister. To counter Happy Donuts, we also have its superior neighbor, Citrus Club. Along with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, we now also have Ice Cream Bar. We even have our own Off The Grid and our own weekly summer Farmer’s Market.

My spouse has lived here in the Haight for nearly twenty years. He loves to tell the story of the real estate agent who told him in the mid-1990s he was “buying at the top of the market.” I moved in with him eleven years ago and we were married the following year. Back then, our next-door neighbor was an incredibly creative older woman who had been a real-life Rosie the Riveter World War II veteran. After she developed Alzheimer’s disease, her family moved her out of the home she’d lived in since the 1960s. Sadly, her family didn’t provide any care for her cat, who was left behind.

Like our elderly neighbor, some of what once was here when I moved in has now gone, including the Red Vic movie house, Eos Restaurant, and the Poster Shop. But thankfully, things here in the Haight never stay the way they were for long. We have a thriving new small business right here on our block, Soulful Pilates. Where Massawa Ethiopian restaurant was, now the Haight Street Market has a new and vastly improved deli counter. And where People‘s Cafe once was, well, it appears there might be another incarnation of People’s Cafe, or at least, that’s what we hope.

My spouse and I still live here in the Haight, but our lives have changed, too: we adopted our neighbor’s abandoned cat and we’re now raising our children here in the Haight, which is a truly remarkable and unique experience.

We chose to send our two toddlers to the Haight Ashbury Community Nursery School because working in a co-operative preschool environment is our way of investing in and building our local community. We interact with our neighbors on a regular basis to enrich our kids’ – and our neighbor’s kids’ – development. Like the Haight itself, our kid’s play area may be a bit run-down and our toys are truly well loved: today at school, during my work day, I noticed the back of a Big Wheel fixed with duct tape.

But our kids have bonded with a diverse group of local kids, and that’s saying a lot in a city that struggles with how to form tight-knit, healthy, safe communities.

Twenty years ago this May, I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Women’s Studies and Visual Arts from Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City. Two weeks after graduating, with no job prospects and nowhere to live, I packed my things and followed my dream of moving to San Francisco to become a public interest lawyer. I am now a stay-at-home mother by day and a law professor at night. I hope my family will continue to live, love and learn together here in the Haight.

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There you have it! Made in the Haight, indeed. Thanks, Susan!