Noe Valley Voice April 2001

Rumors Behind the News:
The Nouveau Middle Class

By Mazook

NOE NOISES hit the front page of the New York Times last month as the Edison School controversy (to yank the charter or not) boiled over at the S.F. Board of Education.

Times correspondent Edward Wyatt, in a March 13 story, wrote, "The debate over [S.F.'s] Edison Charter Academy has become a kind of dialogue of the deaf that offers a warning for school systems around the country, including New York City's, which is facing growing opposition to the Board of Education's proposal to give Edison [Inc.] control over five failing public schools."

He put the school's location in "Noe Valley, a middle-class neighborhood in the center of the San Francisco peninsula."

(Actually, Edison is located at the edge of the 'hood at Dolores and 22nd streets. Some might even say it's in the Mission, since it's near the bottom of the slope separating what's been known as N.V. from what's been known as the Mission. However, the Balkans--I mean the boundaries--keep a-changing. The Voice usually defines Noe Valley as 21st to 30th, and Dolores to Grand View.)

Wyatt added that Edison's "students were mainly drawn from the poorer and largely Latino neighborhood known as the Mission, ...and from Hunters Point, an impoverished, largely black industrial neighborhood a few miles away...."

Anyway, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Rob Morse read the Times piece and took issue with the description of Noe Valley as "middle-class."

Writing in the Chron's March 16 edition, Morse first sniped at the Times writer for "parachut[ing] into town to pontificate." Then he wrote, "[Noe Valley] isn't much of a middle-class neighborhood anymore. I called up the Hearth Realty web site and found Noe Valley homes priced from $499,000 (one bedroom, one bath) to $1,295,000 (three bedrooms, 11/2 baths). No way a middle-class family can buy a house for over a million--or survive with just 11/2 baths," Morse railed. "I don't care what the Dow and the dots are doing, it's still No Way Valley."

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HOLD YOUR HOUSES, ROB. Noe Valley homes may be outrageously expensive, but most people who live here still consider themselves "middle-class."

A hundred years ago, the German and Irish and Spanish immigrants who settled in this area made Noe Valley a "working-class neighborhood." And there are lots of their spiritual descendants left.

In fact, the Noe Valley Bureau of Investigation (NVBI) estimates that 90 percent of Noe Valleons would classify themselves as "middle-class." The upscale types might say they are "upper-middle." Another bunch--those who live in rent-controlled units or who are on social security, including struggling artists, musicians, teachers, the elderly--might check off "lower-middle."

Some might even say they used to be rich...last year.

But most of us would say "middle-middle." If truth be told, most of us have the good fortune to have been owning or renting here for a while (many for quite a while), because we sure couldn't afford to rent or buy property in the current Noe Valley real estate market. Nor could we afford to move elsewhere in San Francisco.

Also, the insane housing costs that the recent arrivées face take a big bite out of those high-end salaries. They may be rich by Sioux City, Iowa, standards, but in Noe Valley that healthy paycheck will barely keep you in the middle class.

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EDISON'S INVENTION: As for the issue of who attends Edison Academy, the Voice is still trying to figure that out. And we'll have a story next month.

But meanwhile, I talked to Juanita Little, the school's current director. Little was also principal in 1998, when the New York­based Edison Schools Inc. took over the operation. She says Edison Charter, which is three years into its five-year contract, remains "a low-economic school" and that the Times was right: Most kids live either in the Mission District or Bayview/Hunters Point. Only a small number come from "upper" Noe Valley.

She also claims that since the for-profit Edison Inc. took over, "our test scores have shown much improvement. The kids are happy and learning."

But all the media attention is driving them nuts. "We have had so many news reporters in our halls since December [when the school board first proposed revocation of Edison's charter], bombarding us with questions and requests for interviews and information," says Little, "that Edison had to fly a person out here from New York to deal with the press. We just want [the media] to leave us alone and let us teach."

Little thinks the school board will cast its vote (as this goes to press) in favor of revoking the charter. "Edison in New York will then have 90 days to 'correct' those conditions before the district can take back control of the school." She adds, "[My supervisors] have told me that we plan to fight to complete our contract here."

All eyes will be on Edison, as educators, parents, and politicians grapple with the ABCs of educating our children.

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CLASS OF 2001: The exciting news at James Lick Middle School--which is on Noe Street, in the heart of Noe Valley--is that the kids are having a talent show, and they want Noe Valley to come check it out on Thursday, April 5, 7 p.m. The ticket price is $2 per person, or $5 per family. No matter what class we are, we all should be able to afford it.

James Lick is also still glowing from a March 14 book-signing party at Cover to Cover on 24th Street. The bookstore was jammed with 25 student-authors from Heidi Hess's eighth-grade Language Arts class, plus all their families and friends, and even some book shoppers who happened by. Everybody partied down and read through the books that each student in the class had written about their individual experiences.

"Each kid wrote their own book, which ranged anywhere from 5 to 15 pages, and read aloud their favorite chapter or passage," gleams Heidi. "It was really great."

Cover to Cover will have a display of the students' books in their front window this month.

With the help of art teacher Vivian Alcalay, Lick students also have their art works on display in several Downtown Noe Valley businesses. The ones I've seen are at Real Food Company, Starbucks, and Tully's, to name a few.

If you are a merchant showcasing the art of the neighborhood's school kids, leave me a message on the Voice phone at 821-3324, and I'll put you on the list for the May issue.

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GETTING INVOLVED in the neighborhood is what Paul Kantus, president of the East & West of Castro Club, was talking about in his club's newsletter last month. His plea for new members was eloquent:

"Do we really care about our neighborhood and the direction in which it is heading? The East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club, in existence now for almost a hundred years, needs your input, Noe Valley," wrote Paul, who was born in Noe Valley in 1926.

"In the past, the club has campaigned for car and bus lines in Noe Valley, for closing the rock quarry and getting the city to purchase the property and turn it into what is now Douglass Playground, for paving the streets in Noe Valley and for supporting political candidates who support Noe Valley residents."

He goes on to recall the club meetings at the Willopi Hall, which stood where the public parking lot is now, on 24th Street next to Hopwell's. In the old days, 100 to 200 neighbors would regularly show up.

"But that was back in the 1920s and 1930s," laments Paul. "Attendance at our [current] meetings has fallen off sharply. Membership renewals keep coming in, and the donations to the club are numerous, but attrition has taken away many of our members, and we are getting very few new ones. One comment from several longtime members is that people come to the meeting with a particular axe to grind, and the club helps them out down at City Hall, and then we never see them again."

The lack of interest has Paul concerned: "When we and our other neighborhood organization, the Friends of Noe Valley, go down to City Hall to argue our cases before the Planning Department or Permit Appeals or the Board of Supervisors, we meet for the first time younger Noe Valley residents who oppose some of our views and say that the club... is no longer representative of the residents of the district."

He's not sure what other issues might be important to these younger people, but says East & West will continue to tackle things like "service on our Muni bus lines, parking, double-parking, graffiti, litter, unaffordable monster homes and condos, homelessness, impossibly high rents forcing out home and apartment renters and small businesses, and losing the character of our unique neighborhood."

So, what did he forget--scooters?

I'd recommend joining East & West--it's a neighborhood treasure. The dues are just $4.20 per year (increase it to 5 bucks, Paul). And the newsletter rivals the Voice. As founder of the Noe Valley Archives, Paul has some great old photos of the neighborhood and helps organize Noe Valley History Day at the library each year.

East & West's next meeting is Wednesday, April 4, at the Noe Valley-Sally Brunn Library, 451 Jersey St., at 7:30 p.m. Yes, cookies will be served.

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IN A VALLEY GROOVE: Smooth is the word for the recently released 19-track compact disk Powerful Seeds, by a poetry-jazz trio called Word of Mouth.

The musical master is longtime (since '77) Noe Valleon Dr. Robert Markison, who sets down some hometown jazz under the velvety tones of David Watts, playing acoustic bass and some brass. The mix is overlaid with poetry written and read by Watts and his wife, Joan Baranow. It's kinda Noe Valley hip-hop, if you know what I mean.

Doctor Bob composed, arranged, performed, recorded, mixed, and then produced the CD in the dining room of his Alvarado Street house. He plays the clarinet, sax, trumpet, steel guitar, electronic keyboard, percussion, synthesizer, and the recorder.

If you're wondering how he can handle all that, it may be because he has good hands--he's a hand surgeon, at UCSF Med Center. That's where he met and teamed up with David, who is a doctor, also--he teaches internal medicine. (You may have heard Dr. David Watts on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.) David's wife Joan is an English professor and poet. "We live in Mill Valley, and it's very much like Noe Valley," David notes.

Bob will try to make the CD available to local music stores, or through the group's web site at If you happen to be on the road this month, Word of Mouth is headlining at the International Poetry Festival in Austin, Texas.

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SO SORRY about the flap I caused last month when I repeated rumors that Star Bakery on Church was having its Irish soda bread trucked in. Not so.

Although some items in the bakery are kneaded elsewhere, the Irish soda bread is now, and has been for over 100 years, baked right there on the corner of Church and 29th Street.

According to the bakery's current owner, Bill Phillips, "We have been baking in our rotating ovens with the same recipe that goes back to the 1920s and has been handed down from owner to owner."

Star has been open continuously since 1889, but it is scheduled to close sometime this summer. What's going to happen to the recipe, Bill?

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THAT'S THIRTY. Tune in next month when Rumorama will update you on the latest shocker: Hopwell's Restaurant served its last meal on March 25 and has closed. A French restaurant is rumored to be on the way--but can we still order No. 6, la spécialité de Wayne? Or would that be too middle-class?

Your Noe Quiz question for April: Where in Noe Valley can you take your old fur coat and have it turned into a teddy bear?

Answer next month! Bye, kids.