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Making the Mission

Planning and Ethnicity in San Francisco

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

In the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, residents of the city’s iconic Mission District bucked the city-wide development plan, defiantly announcing that in their neighborhood, they would be calling the shots. Ever since, the Mission has become known as a city within a city, and a place where residents have, over the last century, organized and reorganized themselves to make the neighborhood in their own image.

In Making the Mission, Ocean Howell tells the story of how residents of the Mission District organized to claim the right to plan their own neighborhood and how they mobilized a politics of place and ethnicity to create a strong, often racialized identity—a pattern that would repeat itself again and again throughout the twentieth century. Surveying the perspectives of formal and informal groups, city officials and district residents, local and federal agencies, Howell articulates how these actors worked with and against one another to establish the very ideas of the public and the public interest, as well as to negotiate and renegotiate what the neighborhood wanted. In the process, he shows that national narratives about how cities grow and change are fundamentally insufficient; everything is always shaped by local actors and concerns.

400 pages | 8 color plates, 60 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Historical Studies of Urban America

Culture Studies

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography, Urban Geography

History: American History, Urban History


“Howell reminds us what can be gained by zooming in on the map. Making the Mission is, in some ways, a classic neighborhood study, documenting change over time in one of San Francisco’s most famous districts. But the book is less a study of the Mission itself and more an examination of its unusual influence over neighborhood (and even citywide) planning. . . . [Howell] succeeds in challenging urban historians to go back to the neighborhood.”

Pacific Historical Review

“A deeply researched, beautifully written and illustrated, and timely account of how the people and institutions of the Mission district have influenced the long-term development of the city of San Francisco. Howell has made a major contribution to both American urban history and California urban studies with his highly original addition to the increasingly sophisticated bibliography of San Francisco history. Everyone interested in the City by the Golden Gate from the early twentieth century to the present will want a copy of this book.”

William Issel | author of San Francisco, 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development

“Howell recounts a rapid transformation of the district that seemed to surround Mission Dolores and then almost swallow it. Highly recommended.”


“The Mission’s pre-1960’s history has rarely been chronicled and Howell makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this period. He shows how strongly the Mission identified as a working-class community, seeing itself as almost a separate city from the rest of San Francisco (a spirit that hasn’t changed).”


"An important study about the nature of neighborhoods"

Southern California Quarterly

“San Francisco’s Mission district deserves this sophisticated and fascinating history. Howell offers a rare frame for seeing an entire city through the lens of a single neighborhood. Making the Mission remaps the dynamics of power, planning, center and periphery, for U.S. cities in the twentieth century.”

Alison Isenberg, author of Downtown America: A History of Place and the People Who Made It

Making the Mission offers a provocative history of neighborhood power and urban planning. This elegantly written and beautifully illustrated book reveals that modern-day fights against gentrification are rooted in neighborhood ideas and institutions stretching back to the early twentieth century. Howell’s sweeping narrative shows that neighborhoods often shaped and even directed the planning policies of city hall and the federal government. The neighborhood was a central ‘actor’ in the development of space and formation of race. Howell’s history leaves us with important lessons about the opportunities and obstacles facing today's campaigns for neighborhood self-governance.”

Christopher Agee | author of The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics

“Do cities make neighborhoods or do neighborhoods make cities? In this masterful synthesis of politics, culture and the built environment, Howell makes a powerful case for the role of small-scale social formations in the making of the civic whole. As San Francisco’s Mission District emerges as the latest symbol of gentrification and its discontents, this study should not be missed.”

Eric Avila, University of California, Los Angeles

“Using the neighborhood-oriented approach that he champions, Howell has been able to approach the issues of local power, planning, class, and race with a contextual sensitivity that is often missing in more macro studies. This allows him to make important nuanced observations that will force readers to rethink how they approach their subsequent teaching and research. Making the Mission will challenge readers’ assumptions about the complex relationships that shape neighborhoods, cities, and metropolitan areas; ethnic and racial relations; urban planning and governmental and citizen involvement in it; and the historical narratives that have come to dominate each of these.”

Janice L. Reiff, University of California, Los Angeles

"The book provides an important historical perspective on the exceptional ability of the Mission to meet externally directed development pressures with locally organized resistance. . .Planning historians will draw
valuable insights."

Planning Perspectives

Table of Contents

ONE / Neighborhood Power in Twentieth-Century San Francisco


TWO / Make No Big Plans: The City Beautiful Meets Improvement Clubs
THREE / Neighborhood Capitalism: Urban Planning, Municipal Government, and the Mission Promotion Association
FOUR / The Mission and the Spatial Imagination: Discourse, Ethnicity, and Architecture


FIVE / A New Population, Not a New Public: Latino Diversity in San Francisco and the Mission District
SIX / Economic Equality, Racial Erasure: The Spatial and Cultural Interventions of Federal Public Works Agencies
SEVEN / “No- Lining” and Neighborhood Erasure: Washington, D.C., and Downtown San Francisco Come to the Mission


EIGHT / The Motoring Public and Neighborhood Erasure: The Culture and Practice of Postwar Transportation Planning
NINE / Latino as Worker: The Changing Politics of Race in the City and the Neighborhood


TEN / A “Salvable Neighborhood”: Urban Renewal, Model Cities, and the Rise of a Social Planning Regime
ELEVEN / Who Holds Final Authority? The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and the Mission Council on Redevelopment
TWELVE / The Return to the City within a City: The Mission Coalition Organization and the Devolution of Planning Power

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