By Natalia M. Vigil
My mother says cities are in my genes. This pull towards urban epicenters comes from the heart. This intellectual desire to understand the intricacies of neighborhoods with names like The Sunset, The Mission, Embarcadero, and Hunter’s Point hits me like chemical wiring. An industrial past spotted with skyscrapers and ocean causes cityscape cravings to emerge from my gut. And pupils sharp enough to see extremes, that are not sheltered from the delight and grief, gentrification and native grasses, the transplants and generations of families that stay like we do, the beauty and horror of the city—this is part of my inheritance.
My great-grandmother left Mexico for Chicago. The “Windy City” was my mother’s city until there was a conference in Seattle. And at this conference was my father, a young man from the Bay Area. And in this Emerald City begins their love story, and eventual decision to settle in San Francisco—my city.
San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children in any U.S. city. Couple that with the highest rent of any city, and it’s not difficult to understand why middle-class families are leaving. It’s important to notice that it’s not just those in the highest income bracket that are left to make up San Francisco, but multitudes of individuals and families that cannot afford to move and those, not unlike my family, that do not want to leave. I’m talking about the girls and boys that grow up here, not businessmen or transplants, and how these statistics encourage fleeing and how this fleeing encourages us to turn our backs on San Francisco. I do not have any children, so I am not immediately facing that challenge. But I do live paycheck to paycheck, and most importantly, I was a little girl in San Francisco and now I am a woman still in love with her city.
It is with this love and commitment that I am writing to bring light to a different type of currency. The currency of relationships. The currency of closeness and kindness. Call it barter or trade if you must. Long before the city of San Francisco, the native people of this land traded abalone, salt, feathers, obsidian, and more. By definition, the terms barter and trade reference an exchange of payment without money. Certainly the currency of relationships exists outside corporations and business, but it also embodies much more. It relies on human elements—trust, and friendship, and ingenuity. For generations, individuals, families, and communities have utilized the currency of relationships as a means of creatively surviving. There have always been working-class and poor people living alongside the middle-class and owning-class. There have been immigrants and laborers, artists and outcasts, activists and war veterans, and the homeless alongside industry and business. There have been mothers, fathers, grandparents, and legal guardians dedicated to the upbringing of young people and the right to a comfortable old age. Like many, I learned firsthand—the currency of relationships is what has allowed my family to stay in this city.
I was born to my city at San Francisco General Hospital in very start of the eighties. Right before my tenth birthday, my father had brief success in the computer world, bringing in more than forty-thousand dollars a year. It was the most my family had ever seen, so my parents jumped on the opportunity to move back to San Francisco from Hayward. My dad lost his job shortly after moving, but my parents were determined to raise their five daughters in the city.
Other than my dad’s stint with computers, my parents didn’t ever hold corporate jobs. Their main source of income was a sewing business, filling orders for a furniture shop in San Francisco. My dad designed, measured, and cut the orders, while my mom, a talented seamstress, completed the sewing. We’d scour used furniture shops for furniture to reupholster and redesign. My mom used this same skill to update our wardrobes. She could easily add a skirt to an old shirt and create a brand new dress. And if there wasn’t something we could afford to buy, she’d sketch the design on a piece of paper, take us to the fabric store, buy a pattern, and work with us until we got something close to what we wanted.
There was never much money for eating out or buying brand name or packaged goods, so they’d cook food from scratch—whole grains, vegetables, and lean meats. For many years we shared a garden with my dad’s best friend Dan’s family. Noticing a neighbor’s empty lot and dilapidated stairs, my dad and Dan offered a trade. They’d rebuild the stairway in exchange for use of the backyard to plant a garden. This was before “DIY” and “organic” were all the rage.
My parents couldn’t afford a car in San Francisco. We had already experienced the shock of having a car repossessed in Hayward, and San Francisco has an extensive public transportation system. So my parents had to be smart about getting us around. We rode the bus to the grocery store, and if we weren’t packing the bags light and sharing the load between six or seven of us, we’d pile into a cab. It wasn’t out of the question for my mom to arrive home with pizza after walking into a pizza-delivery spot and asking the question, “If I order a pizza for delivery, can you take me with it?” On one occasion when I was running late for school she announced we’d be catching a ride in a diaper-delivery truck. Bouncing my butt on a pile of fabric diapers, I watched my mom and the driver share stories. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for my parents to be so vulnerable with others. We relied heavily on my parents’ sharp ideas and on the kindness of other people.
For extra money, my dad painted houses, set tile, or rebuilt staircases. Even now, I can go into a restaurant and see tile set by my father. I love to sit in the restaurant knowing that each piece was laid by my father’s hands. Art and community organizing were at the center of my father’s heart, and very important work to him. It was often unpaid work, but on occasion he was hired to lead a program or be a grant writer. The emphasis on art and community not only enriched our lives, taught us about social justice, and gave us access to artists and politics, but also taught us a larger lesson about being intricately connected to other people. Relationships are the key to helping us remember our own worth outside of dollars and cents.
My father died on the warehouse floor of the hardware store where he worked. I was seventeen years old and my mom was a widow with five daughters. There was no savings or life insurance plan. There was no means to move to any other place. Still, we had our own form of currency. After our father died, the owner of the store extended a discount to us. At the neighborhood market, my mom negotiated a tab she could pay off over time, which guaranteed that we could get a snack after school. We all worked. Some of us, including myself, worked at the hardware store. My sisters were actively involved in free after-school programs and art classes. Other parents gave us rides from school or events. For every monetary thing we couldn’t give, we gave other things—our ideas, our friendship, our home.
Eight years ago, my mom and sisters moved into a new home. The house was built one hundred years ago by the landlord’s grandfather. Our landlord recalls the days of dirt roads and chickens, of fairgrounds along the beach, and crossing below red arches the day the Golden Gate Bridge was unveiled. His parents lived and died in the house we now rent from him. Of his family, only our landlord and his cousin remain. When we moved in, the house was carpeted, cigarette-stained, and stale. Since then, we have pulled up the carpet to expose hardwood floor, and filled the home with our large family, grand parties, and Mexican traditions. Our landlord has become part of the family. With her meager income, it is quite clear that my mom could not afford to live in this home at market value, and the landlord is getting less than what he could be getting for the home. But he has made it quite clear: in exchange, we have brought something invaluable—closeness.
Call it luck or social assets. I know there are many barriers and not everyone has the chance to negotiate as we have. But ask around—you’ll be surprised to find more stories like these in your city. You won’t find them on the headlines in the papers, or on nation-wide news.
This is my thanks to my mother and father, to those who believe in relationships above all, to my friends and their parents, to the artists and organizers, to the landlord with his dwindled family, to the diaper-truck driver, the pizza deliveryman, and more. The currency of closeness can’t erase a crippled economy, class-system, under-funded public schools, or an overused prison system. Even so, this is my call to action for another kind of currency, for people to stand up for each other, for a new type of investment in relationships. This is for all young people growing up in San Francisco, and all those to come. End the fleeing. Stop turning away from your cities.
Natalia M. Vigil is the oldest of five sisters born and raised in San Francisco, California. Her collaborative work has appeared in numerous shows around the Bay Area. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills but began her writing career in first grade when she wrote the poem, "You Make Me Glitter Up", for her teacher, Mrs. Kahn. Her work can be found at the January 2012 Curbside E-Zine.