Paying the rent has never been an issue for Mei Wan, the owner of the Fillmore's El Bethel Cleaners (1320 Golden Gate Ave.) But after 29 years, she's packing up her store, after her landlord—the adjacent El Bethel Church—doubled her rent.
The new rent for the cleaners is $1,385, but Mei is not in a position to pay it, as she only makes $18,000 or so a year. Even before the rent hike, she said, she'd only managed to keep her doors open out of love for her customers.
“They make me happy," she told us. "I live a simple life, and the money I make is spent mostly on groceries. What kept me going is the people in this community who rely on my service. I love and will miss them dearly.”
A native of Hong Kong, Mei originally owned a laundromat, while her husband worked the late shift at the airport in baggage claim. But with a small child and another on the way, she found herself struggling to find affordable childcare so she could keep the laundromat going.
Luckily, she said, she was approached by the management of El Bethel Church, who said she could bring her children to the cleaners while she worked. She ended up selling the laundromat to work full-time at El Bethel Cleaners, and subsequently bought the business.
Working in the Fillmore District wasn't an easy adjustment. In the late '80s and early '90s, the neighborhood had higher rates of crime, and Mei's business was sometimes a target.
“I have been robbed at gunpoint at least five times, and had a knife held up to my neck once," she recalled. "It was usually by kids who were trying to be tough, and I never really had money to give them. I was scared, but what could I do? My English was horrible at the time and I was always by myself, with my husband working late.”
Mei said that emotional support from the church and the larger community helped her power through these obstacles. But as the Fillmore community changed, so did El Bethel’s church management, and Mei has found it increasingly difficult to run her business.
Mei told us that 29 years ago, when she signed her contract, she was promised that she could use the garbage service and washing machine in the adjacent El Bethel Arms apartment building, which is also owned by the church, for free.
"But the manager that I worked with at the time has since retired, and the new manager wouldn't honor the contract. So if I come into the building to use the machines, I’m usually kicked out. I’ve even had building security wrestle me down to the floor ... The new manager and I got into an argument last year, and she choked me. I've had to call the police twice."
"Again, what can I say? I can continue to fight for my rights by writing letters and going to meetings, but I’m outnumbered.”
Now, facing a rent hike, Mei has decided to cut her losses and move on. Today is El Bethel Cleaners' last in business.
“Now I understand how other people feel when they are pushed out of a community," she said. "Things start improving, so they get rid of the old stuff. But I will say that I served my purpose. I loved the community and they loved me. I have watched the children grow up, and Supervisor London Breed supported my business and was a longtime customer."
Now a grandmother, Mei plans to retire and spend more time with her kids and grandkids.
"From day one, it was always about my kids. I ran this store to also be a mother, and because I loved the work and it’s what I know. My kids have grown up, so I am OK now.”
Thanks to tipster Greg A. for giving us the heads up. See something interesting while you’re out and about? Text Hoodline, and we’ll see what we can find: (415) 200-3233.