On August 21, 2002, Victor Miller, publisher of the New Mission News
and the voice and conscience of San Francisco’s Mission District, died of a heart attack at age 54. Miller’s goal of “Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable” was expressed on the paper’s masthead from the paper’s start in 1980. Miller was a rarity in a neighborhood often viewed as highly polarized: he was as trusted by Mission Anti-Displacement activists as the Mission Merchants, as all sides understood that Miller’s only agenda was what he felt was best for the Mission. On the 10th anniversary of his death it is worth recalling Miller’s vision for the Mission and how it has played out since 2002; his wisdom remains a guide for all those who care about San Francisco’s future.
I met Victor Miller in either 1979 or 1980 when he was working for Operation Upgrade, which became the North Mission Association. Victor’s efforts to publish a newsletter there led to his creation of the New Mission News
, which became his sole proprietorship when the NMA ended in the early 1990’s.
I still vividly recall getting a phone call from an SF Weekly
reporter in August 2002 telling me that Victor had died of a heart attack the preceding day. It proved a wrenching loss for everyone who appreciated his piercing wit and vision, and his great love – above all else – for San Francisco’s Mission District.
Ten years later, no publication has emerged to provide the type of incisive, insider coverage of Mission District happenings formerly found each month in the New Mission News
. Victor Miller’s contributions have truly proved irreplaceable.
Miller’s 25 years of living in the Mission enabled him to build unique relationships with sources that underlined the paper’s success and credibility. Its economic viability was primarily attributable to Victor’s willingness to live on a low income that reflected the paper’s never achieving a lucrative advertising or donor base.
For Victor Miller, the New Mission News
was a labor of love. Nobody cared more about the Mission’s future than Victor, which is why he thought so deeply and so brilliantly about the changes occurring in the community particularly in the five years prior to his death.
Promoting Tenants and Small Business
Victor promoted tenants rights, and was the leading newspaper demanding improved Mission housing code enforcement. He gave me what became almost a regular monthly column to address tenant issues, and news about tenants facing eviction or bad living conditions were often headline stories.
Victor was equally passionate about helping small businesses in the Mission. He saw himself as a small businessperson and used the New Mission News
to promote their interests.
But he recognized that the Mission’s small business universe was changing. I was walking with him down Valencia Street in the spring of 2001 looking for a place to eat when we passed Luna Park. Victor mentioned how “pricey” it was and had an attitude of “who would believe that a restaurant like that could be thriving here.”
Victor’s attitude of bemusement reflected Valencia Street’s history as a very uninteresting stretch with few quality restaurants that sold more than burritos, tacos and other Mexican food. Unfortunately, we never got to read his assessments of post-2002 Valencia Street, now the city’s new restaurant hub.
Victor’s sympathy for small businesses led him to lead efforts to address the public drug sales and trash at the southwest corner of the 16th Street BART station. Few neighborhood problems angered Victor more than this. He did not live to see the completion of the long-delayed renovation of that space, nor the shift of such business-hurting activities to the northeast corner.
Every time I see that unfortunate BART station scene, I think that if Victor were alive that problem would not exist. He would have used the New Mission News
to sufficiently embarrass BART officials that they would feel compelled to act.
Bridging Diverse Constituencies
Victor had a unique ability to bridge the often-warring constituencies battling over the Mission’s future.
On issues like dot-com development and the mass eviction of nonprofits at the former Bayview Federal Savings building at 22nd and Mission, Victor was in the forefront highlighting these legal and political outrages. He consistently promoted tenants rights and offered what was often the only media coverage of key Mission tenant-landlord disputes.
But unlike some on the Mission’s left, Victor also saw protecting and enhancing the area’s small businesses as crucial to a successful neighborhood. He was sympathetic to business concerns about problem street behavior and what they viewed as excessive city taxation/regulation, believing that too many burdens would replace independent small businesses with chain stores and less positive retail uses.
Victor was writing before the Mission District was a “hot spot” covered by upscale publications, and in the pre-Internet era the New Mission News
was often the only source of neighborhood news. Despite learning his craft in the typewriter age, Victor loved the Internet and had he not died I have no doubt he would have transformed the paper into a great online news site while keeping the print version going if economics allowed.
Many write about the Mission today, but few have the sources or recent historical background that made Victor Miller’s articles so valuable. Today’s media coverage of the Mission is ridiculously predictable, with reporters lacking the time and experience to go beyond the standard framing.
Victor Miller never accepted mainstream media frames, nor the framing of the Bay Guardian
and the “alternative press.” He was a guy who actually interviewed lots of people, did his own research, and utilized other writers willing to do the same. Victor brought a vision of the Mission grounded in his relationships with residents, merchants and nonprofits, and from his own experience organizing and living in the community.
If I had a wish granted that would allow Victor to see any one part of today’s Mission, it would be the Valencia bike lanes. Victor relied entirely on his bike and would have loved seeing the crowds riding down that very flat street.
Victor Miller has been gone for a decade, but his spirit lives on. For more on his life, see the story I wrote
on the second anniversary of his death.