“For nearly a half a century, a huge sign stating with poetic opacity ’17 Reasons Why’ in cutout metal letters towered above the southwest corner of Mission and Seventeenth streets. In 2002, it was replaced by a depressingly ordinary commercial billboard, but its memory and fragments live on nearby.”
– Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
My Treasure Map project directed me to a sign for 17 reasons as treasure #31 in the San Francisco Atlas, but this iconic Mission Neighborhood sign resides in some guy’s backyard. I’m adventurous, but not that adventurous to climb over fences to grab a picture of the sign.
What I am adventurous in my search for San Francisco treasures is visit the 18 Reasons Community Center and meet with director Rosie Anne Browne. I wanted to find out more about this particular San Francisco treasure, which is named after the sign, but added one more reason because they are on 18th street and “why not?”
18 Reasons is a new type community center – one that connects the San Francisco community to food and food to community. Run by the Bi-Rite organization in the heart of foodie central between Valencia and Geurrero, 18 Reasons offers classes like Carving a Turkey and Making Jam. Those less inclined towards butchery and canning can enjoy community dinners called Soup for Supper. At its heart, according to Rosie, 18 Reasons teaches San Franciscans how to cook and eat.
Wait a second, cook and eat? Don’t we all know how to do that?
Well, not so much. Americans eat packaged food filled with nutrient claims on the front of the package when the ingredients list reads like a science project. Hot Pockets and Velveeta exist nowhere in nature and were grown of lab work instead of hand and plow work. 18 Reasons is a space where on can go back to the whole foods from whence dinner once came. Either through cooking, gardening, or art classes, 18 Reasons strives to connect neighbors to our food and greater community.
“When we cook, we feed.” Rosie explained. “You feed yourself and you feed others.” The act of eating involves a consciousness that Americans have moved away from – ask anyone who scarfs lunch down at a desk or who grabs food out of the bag after a drive thru visit. Do we even know what we just ate or what it took to get the food to our mouth? “When you cook and feed, you take into account others, we don’t think about the chain that gets us the food,” Rosie explains.
This awareness of eating and cooking ties us to those who grow the food and shows the true value of food. America’s food policy subsidizes corn, sugar beet, soy and cotton. Nuts, vegetables, and fruit – “The foundation of the food pyramid” according to Rosie – are considered “specialty food” and not incentivized to grow. As a farmer, which crops do you chose? The one that you’re paid to grow – never mind the unsustainability and pesticides. In San Francisco, urban farming, which strives for whole food gardens among cement, competes with land values of millions of dollars.
18 Reasons builds this awareness and connection, deliciously so, with events like the community dinner Soup for Supper. “San Francisco is transitory,” Rosie explains. “Most people are immigrants, recent college grads, or from someplace else.” Their need for community, for an urban family is what 18 Reasons tries to foster.
At a recent Soup for Supper event, I met Toby from Boston; he’d just moved here and was crashing at his uncle’s house, piecing together an apartment from Craigslist. “My friend Monique told me about this [event],” he shared between mouthfuls of red bean and lentil soup. My sister and I sat across from Tony and Monique on long wood tables, which take up about half the space at 18 Reasons. We swapped childhood stories and our adventures of settling down in San Francisco.
The tables were full of twenty and thirty somethings and some families, all scarfing soup into their mouths while enjoying bluegrass music. The hosts brought over baskets of bread, covered with napkins to keep in the heat.
Soup for Supper at 18 Reasons felt warm and homey, friendly and full. I finished and looked down the table, the empty bowls were almost as clean as before they were ladled with soup. The only remnants sopped up with the fresh bread.
Connection is one of the reasons for 18 Reasons. “When we find a place that people care for, we stay for longer, we become involved and invested,” Rosie shares. Through eating and through 18 Reasons, we create a San Francisco family. “It’s a new type of community, one you choose, and that makes it a treasure trove.”
And for this reason, among about 17 others and a hearty vegan soup, 18 Reasons Community Center is a treasure of San Francisco.
This article is one in a series from my Treasure Map project, a way to locally travel through San Francisco one gem at a time.