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A Mission Native Finds Herself in 'Baja Noe'
By Laurie Wackler
If Isabelle Muzio's storage basement were a thrift store, Mission District denizens would proclaim it the cutting edge in retro. Immaculate flapper dresses, multicolored jumpers, and pantsuits cram a wall-to-wall dowel that sags under the weight of decades of fashion. Shoe boxes cover one wall floor to ceiling. On another, dozens of hats -- still boxed and tagged with original prices like $3.50 and $4 -- fill the shelves.
"I've got to get someone to come pick up this junk," Muzio says, and then turns to me. "What size shoe do you wear?"
White-haired and stout, she represents the old in a neighborhood that is defined by the new. The three houses she owns are sandwiched between hip gourmet enclaves on Valencia and Guerrero streets. Her tenants -- among them a robotics engineer, a doctor, a computer programmer -- typify the residents in what is now dubbed "Baja Noe" or "Mission Deluxe."
But Muzio, wearing the oddly futuristic Terminator sunglasses she was given after her last cataract surgery, is vintage Mission District.
While her tenants would marvel at the contents of their apartment building's basement, Muzio is more impressed by the concrete reinforcements she recently added to the foundation. "This house isn't going anywhere," she says proudly.
At 83, this first-generation Italian-American is 41 years younger than the original foundation. Her father, Giuseppe Muzio, bought the house when she was 1. He paid $2,000 for it.
Today, that's the monthly sum Muzio-- who is single -- collects from the tenants in the building. (The two 2-bedroom flats bring in $1,000 apiece.) She lives next door at 66 Alvarado St., in the house where she grew up.
Back then, she says, "Everything was cheap. My father rented the apartments for $15, and the water bill was $2. The plumber came over for 50 cents. I can't imagine bothering to write a bill for 50 cents!"
Mission Street, she notes, was called "the Mission Miracle Mile, and families came from all over to shop."
Now, in addition to empty storefronts, Mission Street hosts a melee of money lenders, 99-cent stores, and taquerias. Dilapidated movie marquees memorialize theaters that once thrived. Muzio remembers going to them with her sister three times a week.
The deterioration of the district's main drag followed World War II, she explains. "Let's face it, after the war, people with more money moved out to the suburbs." The more upscale businesses followed their customers.
"It's sad," she says of the changes that have given Mission Street a gritty edge. "I won't even go down there in the night anymore."
In fact, she no longer considers Mission Street part of her neighborhood. Although Guerrero and Valencia are only two short blocks to the west of Mission Street, they are Muzio's world. To walk through those streets with her is to understand that neighborhoods don't necessarily get better. Sometimes they just change, to accommodate the new faces.
According to Muzio, in the old days, people from all over the city used to flock to the Polly Ann Bakery, around the corner on Guerrero. Now on that same spot, yuppies driving Saturns phone ahead to get a table at the Flying Saucer.
Mangiafuoco now serves customers in the building that housed McCanney's Pharmacy. The Moa Room dishes up "fusion" cuisine where a shopkeeper once dished up ice cream.
Muzio enjoys the restaurants, but stops short of saying they're an improvement over their predecessors. "It's a great neighborhood now, and it has always been a great neighborhood," she insists. But there is something about the past that she misses: families.
Single renters navigate the sidewalks where children once played ball. In her youth, families formed the fabric of the community, Muzio explains.
"When I was young, one day the family would go to your house, the next day to my house, the next day to his house," Muzio says. "We played the phonograph, and everyone danced in the kitchen. We knew how to have fun."
Her tenants are more likely to stop in for a drink at the Lone Palm or the Latin American Club than they are to dance in a neighbor's kitchen.
In Muzio's time, the church was the social hub, and it filled the niche now occupied by smoky bars and funky bookstores. Her 98-year-old brother, Frank Muzio, who moved from the Mission into a nursing home two years ago, still returns each Sunday for mass at St. James Catholic Church on Guerrero.
"When I was a kid, it was Irish, Italian, and German, and everyone went to church," the elder Muzio reminisces. "Either St. James or the Methodist church next door. Not anymore."
Today, a palm tree merchant occupies the lot next door to the Catholic church. And the Muzios report that the congregation of St. James has nearly disappeared.
Few of Isabelle Muzio's contemporaries remain to fill the pews: all but one of her childhood friends have moved or passed away, and Frank is her only living sibling of four.
Still, Muzio persists in her neighborly ways, occasionally delivering bags of homegrown rosemary to the local restaurants. Her tenants report that she will stop by or leave a note if they leave the porch light on all night -- she wouldn't want them to run up their electricity bill. She also tells them to help themselves to the apples, lemons, and tomatoes she grows in the back yard.
At a recent barbecue in Muzio's yard, one woman tended to a turkey -- seasoned with rosemary -- while Muzio chatted with the tenants and neighbors she had invited.
Pointing to some garages down the street, Muzio told her audience that they currently fetched rents of $150 a month. Chuckling, she then confided that she sold off those very garages in 1980, when she was getting $10 for them.
The numbers both amuse and baffle Muzio, who earned $65 a month in her first job at an insurance agency.
"Oh well," she sighs, sitting in the shade cast by her house, "the money's not the thing. It's the connection with family and friends that I miss. Let's face it -- it's a changed world. The old days are gone."
Editor's note: Ninety-eight-year-old Frank Muzio passed away in January, shortly after this story went to press. Our condolences to Isabelle Muzio and her family.