I witness a constant drama when I paint in the Mission District. There is a cast of thousands all of whom have riveting stories about themselves and about the locations where I'm painting. They are wonderful stories - though I sometimes doubt if some of them are true. But stories, true or untrue, tell us a lot about the neighborhood.
When a fire ripped through the enormous, three story corner building at 22nd and Mission Streets on January 28th, 2015 it had a huge impact on the community. The building was home to a number of businesses including the New Mission Market as well as sixty-two tenants, one of whom died in the conflagration. Coinciding closely with the release of locally filmed " The Other Barrio" a " neo-noir " which dealt with the issues of gentrification and landlord sponsored arson, the Mission was rife with anger and speculation.
The abandoned building experienced two more fires before it was bulldozed early in 2016 leaving an adjacent, fire scarred building standing forlornly above a gaping hole. This scene was, I observed to my painter friend John Paul Marcelo, an excellent illustration of the gentrification that was ravaging the Mission District. He promptly painted a small canvas that beautifully conveyed this sentiment.
Though always in the back of my mind, it took me much longer to get around to painting the scene. I noticed, In the intervening months, the imposing black iron fence that rose around the abandoned site, but I hadn't stopped to gaze through it. When I did I was amazed. The gaping hole had become a calm reflecting pool surrounded by clumps of flowers. And large scale graffiti had blossomed on the side of the forlorn building above the pond.
Immediately I started painting, people were asking me if I'd heard the frogs.
"Frogs!" I exclaimed " In the middle of the Mission?"
"Yes, you can hear them at night." a young man responded.
His friend indicated an official sign posted further down the black fence titled "The Mission Memorial Frog Sanctuary". I was in a hurry to return to my painting so I scanned the notice until I reached the key paragraph "After 235 years, the hibernating Mission Frogs finally emerged from the foundation of the fallen framework, producing a profound presence in the present pasture and pond."
I was astonished. That evening I pondered the possibility that frogs could hibernate for 235 years. The next evening my wife, Beryl Landau, and I walked to the Alamo Drafthouse Movie Theater to pick up a DVD. On our way back we stopped at the pond. We heard no frogs, but we took a closer look at the sign. It's purple prose as well as the dedication, 'Donated to the community by the Haus of GWERT', was a giveaway that this was an elaborate prank. Going online I found cell phone recordings of the "Frogs" except to me they sounded like one solitary bullfrog.
So, some joker introduced a bull frog into a muddy hole and another put up a sign and now the whole neighborhood was buzzing about the renewal of nature at "Mission Lake". Of course, since I was painting this "miracle" I got swept up in the story . My painting and I were popping up on social media.
Chewy Marzolo. owner of Escape from New York Pizza, posted the photo to the left.
Did the rapid growth of this urban legend alarm the property owner? Did he fear a mass movement to dedicate Mission Lake as a public park?
Whatever the reason, the Mission Memorial Frog Sanctuary sign disappeared from the fence, and I arrived, one day towards the end of my second painting, to discover the the "Lake" dry. A woman informed me that it hadn't evaporated as I initially supposed. It had been pumped dry. A worker in a red shirt was busily painting over the graffiti on the house. Of the "miracle", only the flowers remained. Flowers that I realized, early on, where not wildflowers.
"You're right about that." a tall man observed who turned out to be Chewy Marzolo, proprietor of Escape from New York Pizza.
" The cat is out of the bag, so I can confess. I scattered seeds from the roof when it was wet and rainy. I think that it really improved the site."