sfsully

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Reviews

3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 2/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"San Francisco’s Granite Canyon"

Standing in the middle of Civic Center Plaza on a clear day, a gravel path underfoot and a blue sky overhead, is not unlike being in the center of a broad, boxed canyon somewhere in the American West. Walls of gray granite loom around you, their sheer faces rising up a hundred feet or so from the flat ground. The constant breeze frequently gathers force, momentarily scattering birds and tearing at the leaves of stubby trees. The feeling is more forlorn than uplifting, especially given the hard angles and the almost complete monotony of color and materials. In short, this urban canyon is more a place to walk through than sit down in for a picnic.

That evocation of a blank, austere space may be what the famous architect and city planner Daniel Burnham had in mind when he laid out the area in the early 1900s. The center of municipal government should inspire awe, he felt, projecting a city’s power over its citizens. After the 1906 earthquake, people needed city government to fulfill that role in an uncertain world. And inspire awe and confidence these buildings do, particularly the centerpiece City Hall, designed by another famous architect, Arthur Brown Jr., who modeled the beaux arts-style building after Les Invalides in Paris, a baroque extravagance that houses Napoleon’s tomb. City Hall’s ornate, gilded dome, fifth largest in the world, encapsulates a spectacular rotunda with a grand staircase often used for state and social functions. Other buildings—the Civic Auditorium (currently named for the late rock promoter Bill Graham), the Asian Art Museum (formerly the Main Library), the California Supreme Court—are in the neoclassical style Burnham’s “City Beautiful” movement favored. The new Main Library, erected in 1995-96, echoes the style of its neighbors on the plaza without exhibiting their detailed ornamentation. In all, these buildings enclose Civic Center Plaza in a classical formation that is much admired for its symmetry and stately grace. In recognition of its historic and architectural importance, the United States conferred both historic landmark status on the district as well as placing its older buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

But what can Civic Center as a neighborhood offer its denizens? The dozen or so gray piles lining the adjacent blocks certainly offer cultural attractions and government services--the district includes the War Memorial Opera House and its twin, the Herbst Theatre, bookended by Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and the California Public Utilities Commission, all fronting Van Ness opposite City Hall, as well as the Orpheum Theatre on Market (home to Broadway touring shows) and a number of other government edifices (notably, the San Francisco Superior Court and the Philip Burton Federal Building). But, in spite of their importance and imposing appearance, they don’t really relate to the surrounding blocks of this curious neighborhood, half of it meticulously maintained government properties with the remainder a sketchy hodgepodge of blocks bordering the Tenderloin District and its single-room-occupancy hotels, run-down apartment houses, and shabby storefronts. Furthering the somewhat contradictory sense of what makes this neighborhood tick is the fact that so near the center of law and order are blocks where lawlessness and disorder are the norm.

That said, the area does have its upside. Every Sunday and Wednesday, the United Nations Plaza (extending from Seventh and Market streets west to Hyde) hosts the Heart of the City farmers market, a cavalcade of inexpensive fresh produce and prepared foods, along with the occasional potted plant or greenhouse oddity. In the northern half, Opera Plaza (on Golden Gate and Van Ness, two blocks north of the Opera House) is a successful “urban village”-style condo development from the 1980s that has attracted a stable population; its residents take advantage of the main level shops, cinema, and restaurants (not to mention the other attractions the district offers, including the recent proliferation of Vietnamese restaurants). Sutter Health is planning a major new hospital on the site of the former Cathedral Hill Hotel (on Van Ness and Geary) that would bring a clean, green employer to the depressed area. In the southern half, the new Argenta apartment tower (at Market and Polk) has 179 units on 20 floors, giving high-rise dwellers an upscale option to Fox Plaza. The latter, occupying the same space as the long-lamented Fox Theatre (demolished in the 1960s) is an unattractive brown slab, an early (and still-struggling) attempt to bring residents into Civic Center. The upper 15 of its 29 floors are rental apartments; the floors below are office space. Many of its apartments have been remodeled recently, however, and the building’s uninspired plaza is soon to be razed and its retail level converted to a mid-rise condo development.

Another bright spot for the area is the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s recent move to the Civic Center area. The conservatory bought and renovated two buildings on Oak Street near Van Ness and together, they give almost 73,000 net square feet of space to the Conservatory for studios, practice rooms and performance spaces, in addition to classrooms, offices and a bigger library. The conservatory’s 400-plus students contribute a much-needed youth-oriented element to the area’s population and herald a rebirth of the Civic Center area as a district friendly to artists and musicians.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Civic Center has roughly 25,000 residents in one of the city’s most densely populated areas. They are a diverse group: 50 percent white, 25 percent Asian, 16 percent African American, and the remainder another race or a mix of two or more races. They tend to be middle class, barely: median annual household income is just $40,000. Overwhelmingly, residents rent (80 percent) rather than own their homes.

Most people who live here walk or ride bikes or rely on public transportation. Muni buses en route from the outlying areas stop here on their way to and from downtown (including the Nos. 5, 19, 31, and 38 going east and west) , and the Nos. 19 and 27 traveling north and south) . BART and Muni both have a dedicated subway stop on Market (dubbed, naturally, “Civic Center”) and the Muni subway also has another stop farther west on Market, at Van Ness. Most on-street parking is regulated by meters, which measure the space in terms of minutes. Thus, residents with cars generally make arrangements to park in a garage (either provided as part of their rental space or negotiated separately); few streets allow long-term parking in a given space. Except for several blocks in the northern part of the district (where the “C” residential permit rules), the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic doesn’t issue such permits for other areas of Civic Center.

Though the area is not known for “name brand” shopping, you can still find interesting objects at any of the unassuming stores that jam the area, particularly along Polk Street, which, along with Van Ness, also offers the most restaurant options as well (the Van Ness/Polk corridor has more restaurants per capita than any other stretch in the city, according to a number of guide books).

There are a couple of private schools in the area, including DeMarillac Academy (a Catholic elementary next to St. Boniface Church aimed at underserved students). But given that there are no public schools in the neighborhood, the few kids who live here are for the most part transported by bus to schools in outlying areas.

Crime in the area is an issue for most residents. In addition to the high number of disturbing-the-peace violations (often caused by the high number of homeless people who drift through), thefts, burglaries and robberies are fairly common here in any three-month period, and vehicle theft and car break-ins are increasingly common, according to the San Francisco Police Department. Though violent crime is not common on side streets, the main thoroughfares see their share of assaults. In the last three years, five murders have been reported.

Real-estate prices are on the rebound after the recent slump, according to Trulia, registering a 16 percent rise in the last year. Condos define the market, with simple one-bed/one-bath homes going for between $480,000 and $530,000; another bed or bath will add $200,000 to the sales price. Rentals here are, predictably, pricey: a large studio and/or small one-bedroom/one bath in a Franklin Street apartment house can range from $1,200 to $1,450 a month. Studios in the aforementioned Fox Plaza begin at $1,800 a month, with one-bed/one-bath units starting at $2,300. At the Argenta, two-bed/two-bath apartments were listed in late 2010 for nearly $3,000.

Living in Civic Center requires a little bit of urban guerrilla skills, but once you get over the fear of walking these streets (not to mention overlooking all those imposing gray granite facades in the Civic Center canyon), life here can be entirely tolerable—and certainly interesting.
Recommended for
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  • Singles
4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 5/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 5/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 1/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 5/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 2/5
  • Childcare 2/5
Just now

"From Gold Rush to Rush Hour"

The grove of high-rise boxes and skyscrapers here seems too modern, too new to have any connection to the tumult of Gold Rush Days, yet this is exactly where it all began. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill a hundred miles east of here in 1848, the small harbor and few acres along San Francisco Bay that served as home to a scant thousand people were transformed in the span of a few months into the quintessential western boomtown, full of dubious characters and fortune-seekers and profiteers and even a few noble souls, all of whom had the right mix of courage and risk-taking and sheer naiveté to simply follow their dreams. The vessels the Forty-niners (or Argonauts, as they were also called) sailed in on were abandoned one by one and soon clotted the bay (and were later sunk to form landfill as the city expanded), as newcomers who sought to strike it rich poured into California--300,000 of them in about six years.

Most did not get wealthy, but the ones who stayed in San Francisco transformed it from a sleepy outpost into a bustling metropolis. The Financial District (though it wasn’t called that then) was the hub of the new city, home to a roster of banks, many founded during the Gold Rush, the legacy of which survives in the number of financial institutions that make up the core of the district today. Those early banks begat other businesses, funding manufacturing and warehouses and the myriad services such enterprises require. The slapdash town that sprang up endured at least a dozen major fires in the early years, until brick replaced wood as the city pushed outward in all directions over the next several decades. Then it all came tumbling down in the earthquake of 1906. Built and rebuilt, the Financial District retains elements from its various incarnations, from the 1851 Belli Building, 1853 Ghirardelli Building, and the 1866 Hotaling Building (all in the Jackson Square Historic District), to the 1889 Audiffred Building on Mission, the 1890 Mills Building on Montgomery, and the 1898 Ferry Building at Embarcadero and Market.

Dozens of other architecturally and culturally significant piles have risen in this district in the last hundred years, associated with names familiar (Charles Crocker, A.P. Giannini, Henry Wells, William Fargo, William Randolph Hearst, et al.) and not-so-familiar (Andrew Hallidie, Lewis Parsons Hobart, Frederick H. Meyer, and many others). With the building boom of the 1970s and ’80s, the area’s narrow streets became overshadowed by skyscrapers, such as the Transamerica Pyramid and 555 California, both of which were criticized as emblematic of the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco, but which may also soon be eclipsed by newer, higher buildings that are slated in the South Beach and South of Market areas. They all contribute to the draw this neighborhood holds not only for businesses, financial institutions, and law firms, but to historians, tourists, and the people who work here as well.

Nowadays, three to four hundred thousand people swarm into the Financial District every weekday morning: office workers and executives and janitors and service people and hundreds of security guards and thousands of people who come on some mission or another, either tourists or traveling businesspeople or simple street performers and panhandlers. Not only is the district home to the largest concentration of landmark buildings west of Chicago (declared so by federal, state, and municipal designation), but it also contains priceless sculptures and murals and artwork inside the lobbies of the grand buildings (e.g., Diego Rivera’s mural in the City Club, Refregier’s wall paintings in the Rincon Annex) as well as on the streets (like the Mechanic’s Monument on Market and Battery, an ode in bronze by the famed sculptor Douglas Tilden to the machinists it powerfully depicts, and the 1930s Ralph Stackpole granite statues outside the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange).

Monday through Friday, the Financial District fairly hums with human activity, from early morning till late evening. Commuters jump on and off buses or cable cars (the California Street line terminates at Drumm and Market) or emerge from the subway (BART and Muni trains run under Market), snag a sandwich or coffee, then dash into the lobbies of any number of towers. Tourists and businesspeople stream from the hotels (there are at least a dozen hotels in the area, from the 800-plus guestroom Hyatt Regency to the boutique Griffon with 62 rooms and suites), stroll through plazas (like the one in front of 101 California) and shopping malls (e.g., the Embarcadero Center, located on the first two levels of its namesake four towers; the Ferry Building, with its emphasis on local foods and wines; and Crocker Galleria, noted for high-end boutiques) and have lunch in any of a number of restaurants, from the Tadich Grill (serving its classic fish dishes since 1849) and Sam’s (another seafood grill that dates from the 19th century) to Yank Sing (dim sum) and Café Bastille (French bistro fare). The “people flow” reverses itself in the late afternoon, when the commuters pour out of the high-rises and head to the subway or buses and streetcars that take them home, or to the area’s bars and cafes and restaurants, mingling with tourists and out-of-towners. Though the rush hour defines the morning and late afternoon, weeknights slow noticeably here, as the area’s denizens take a breather from the daily grind.

Though it seems to be all about work, the Financial District is also a place to live. One of the largest apartment complexes is the Gateway, a set of four towers (two rectangular, two square, each oriented for maximum views) and 58 townhouses arrayed on two square blocks bounded by Washington, Jackson, Battery, and Drumm. Some commercial buildings have been renovated as tenants-in-common residences (the Royal on Sansome, for instance), and a number of new high-rise condos have sprouted in the last decade, bringing not only businesspeople but also retirees. Joining them are residents of a number of low-rise apartments and condominiums that front Sidney Walton Park, a grassy square that offers dog-walkers and people alike a much-needed patch of green and a few trees.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Financial District is home to about 10,000 people, the majority white (65 percent), with Asians (27 percent) as well as a lesser number of African Americans (5 percent) and people of two or more races (3 percent) composing the population. Typically, they are middle class (median annual household income is $70,000), with roughly a quarter owning their homes and the others renting.

In addition to Sidney Walton Park, the Financial District lays claim to Sue Bierman Park, a complex of greens and open space that adjoins the Embarcadero Plaza in front of the Ferry Building. The Vaillancourt Fountain (first named by its eponymous creator as “Québec Libre!”) is located here; though many have criticized the boxy tangle of rectangular concrete tubes, the fountain and surrounding plaza offer a respite on sunny days from the congested canyons of the area. The Golden Gateway Tennis and Swim Club, across from the park, offers locals and office workers alike tennis courts and outdoor pools, as well as exercise and fitness rooms (for a membership fee, of course).

There are no public elementary, middle or high schools in the area, though a few institutes of higher learning have campus buildings throughout the area (Academy of Art University, Heald College, Saybrook University, et al.).

Public transportation here is as good as it gets anywhere in the city. A myriad of Muni buses serving all points in the city crisscross the Financial District, in addition to commuter buses—Golden Gate Transit and SamTrans—taking passengers back and forth to Marin and San Mateo counties, respectively. BART runs underground along Market, bringing workers from the East Bay and the Peninsula, and Muni streetcars (J, K, L, M, and N) also follow the same underground trajectory. The California Street cable car (much less touristy than the Powell and Hyde line in Union Square) services the area as well, going all the way to Van Ness. Ferries from the East Bay, Marin, and Vallejo—all operating from the Ferry Building—round out the public transit picture.

Because most streets in this area have metered parking or do not permit street parking at all (except for loading), there is no need for residential parking permits. If you drive, you generally park in a garage or lot—and pay the (high) price.

Crime in the area is moderate, much of it robbery and theft related (grand and petty). And car break-ins and vehicle thefts are on the rise here, too, as they are in many neighborhoods. In addition to disturbing-the-peace violations, assaults are fairly common during any given month (perhaps due to the area’s proliferation of bars). There have been two homicides in the last three years.

Residential real estate in the district has remained high priced, even as prices were trimmed elsewhere in San Francisco during the recent downturn: a two-bedroom/two-bathroom penthouse on Montgomery was recently going for $3.1 million, with a two-bed/two-bath condo in Jackson Square asking $1 million. Even a modest one-bed/one-bath on Front Street was selling lately for $480,000. Apartment rentals are likewise expensive: studios and one-bed/one-bath units generally go from $1,600 to $2,600, with two-bedrooms fetching as much as $3,500 a month. Pricey, yes. But these housing choices come with walk-to-work proximity, an almost inexhaustible selection of shops and restaurants, and the built-in high energy of a cosmopolitan urban environment. Not for everyone, but not everyone is meant to afford life in the Financial District, either.
Recommended for
  • Professionals
  • Singles
  • Retirees
4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 5/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now
Editors Choice

"A Bevy of Bungalows"

This clean and neat neighborhood seems to have taken a page from its more hoity-toity neighbor, Ingleside Terrace, especially in the racetrack-shape of its streets. The curved and rounded drives and avenues are about the only similarities between the two areas, however. While both neighborhoods grew out of the housing boom after the 1906 earthquake and fire, they developed along different lines, with Westwood Park marketed to “the family of average means”—despite its grandiose entry gates at Miramar and Monterey. This “down-scaling” resulted in the district’s modest bungalows (which could be purchased for $35 a month in the 1920s when they were built), rather than the mini-mansions and anything-goes architecture of Ingleside Terrace.

Today, the 700 or so dwellings in Westwood Park have taken a prominent place as San Francisco’s only intact collection of nearly all the bungalow styles of the early 20th century. Though the city is customarily touted for its preponderance of Victorian and Edwardian residences, Westwood Park is the only place where you can see example after example of Mission, Craftsman, Prairie, Colonial Revival, English Cottage and Spanish Revival bungalows, all with their own distinct detailing, as architect Charles F. Strothoff intended. Strothoff designed 500 of the houses here, most of them built from 1918 through 1923. Some of the architectural elements (at the time considered standard in an average home) include: oak floors with mahogany trim, built-in dining room buffets, wainscoting, French doors with beveled glass, cove ceilings, tiled fireplaces, sunrooms and multiple windows throughout. On the exterior, tile roofs were de rigueur, as were enclosed entryways and columned porches. And nearly every house has its own yard, front and back.The unique character of the neighborhood prompted the Westwood Park Association, formed in 1917 and still active today, to work with area residents in the last decades to ensure that this enclave of historic bungalows would be preserved by becoming San Francisco’s first residential character district.

The area’s 3,000 or so residents are, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a diverse group, composed as follows: 55 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 5 percent African American, and the remaining 10 percent of some other race or a mix of two or more races. The family of “average means” envisioned when the neighborhood was built has evolved over the last 80 years into one of “upper middle class” standing, the median annual household income hovering at $90,000. Nearly everyone (85 percent) owns his or her home.

As with the other neighborhoods fronting Ocean Avenue, the few stores Westwood Park claims are lined up along this diagonal thoroughfare—i.e., Westwood Beauty Supply, a Walgreens, and a few boutiques (including one of the city’s last remaining hat shops). For groceries, residents generally travel outside the neighborhood: a short walk to the Safeway on Monterey Boulevard in next-door Sunnyside or a one-mile drive to Trader Joe’s in Stonestown. Though the stretch of Ocean Avenue adjacent to Westwood Park is fairly vibrant (with a coffeehouse, a couple of restaurants—including one for Chinese food and an Italian sandwich shop—a gas station/garage, and a newly built branch of the public library), the avenue’s commercial scene suffers from a surfeit of tired storefronts and businesses in need of some sprucing up, beyond the city’s recent replacement of the old streetlights with vintage reproductions.

Public transportation options skirt the neighborhood rather than run directly through it, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The K streetcar runs along Ocean Avenue, providing access to points in other neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks before trekking downtown via the subway tunnel at West Portal. The No. 23 bus runs along Monterey Avenue before heading west to the Pacific Ocean or east to the Bayview District. The No. 43 likewise runs north and south along Phelan Avenue to both the Crocker/Amazon neighborhood to the south as well as the Presidio to the north. The Balboa Park station of BART is a few blocks away, giving a fast option to downtown, the East Bay, and SFO.

Although parking is generally fairly easy throughout the neighborhood, on-street spots fill up on weekdays in the blocks around the City College Campus. That’s why the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic issues “V” parking permits to residents in the southern half of the neighborhood, enabling them to ignore the areas marked with hourly limits.

Westwood Park has no public schools within its borders, although one Catholic high school lies at its eastern edge: Riordan High, an all-boys 9-12 with a college-prep curriculum and a strong athletics program. Adjacent neighborhoods host the area’s public schools, such as Aptos Middle School, which got a 7 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools, in Balboa Terrace.

Crime in the area, especially along the residential streets, is light and of the relatively unserious disturbing the peace/vandalism variety, according to San Francisco Police Department stats, with the more serious car break-in or vehicle theft occurring occasionally as well (though not at the fast pace as elsewhere in San Francisco). But along the commercial corridor of Ocean Avenue, there are a small number of robberies and assaults in any three-month period. Otherwise, there is little violence, and there have been no homicides reported in the last three years.

Real estate in Westwood Park has rebounded modestly from the slump of the recent downturn, registering an 18 percent increase in home prices from late 2009 to late 2010. Though there are never a lot of homes for sale in any given period, they generally sell from $670,000 for a modest two-bedroom, one bath on Plymouth Avenue to $899,000 for a two-story, four-bed/four-bath home on Miramar. Rentals are not any more plentiful than homes for sale, and they are always single-family homes. A three-bedroom, one-bathroom house near Riordan High recently listed for $2,400 a month, while a five bedroom/four-bathroom split level house was asking $8,000 a month.

Westwood Park, though offering no exclusive amenities, does retain its early 20th century charm, and that, coupled with the quiet streets, active neighborhood association, and involved parents’ group, makes this an ideal location to raise a family—if you can get your hands on one of those historic bungalows.
Recommended for
  • Professionals
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  • Retirees
5/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 5/5
  • Safe & Sound 5/5
  • Clean & Green 5/5
  • Pest Free 5/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 5/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now
Editors Choice

"Town and Country, San Francisco-style"

What can be said for a neighborhood that is a museum of fine homes designed by some of the most notable architects of the 20th century? Where the blocks reflect the handiwork of Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Henry Hill, the leafy streets and entries and stairways a legacy of landscape architect Mark Daniels? If “exclusive” comes to mind, that’s certainly apt. But it’s also somewhat misleading. Though Forest Hill may once have touted its exclusivity as a selling point, today it plays up its more embracing nature, open to the city in general, much like an urban park. Among the lucky residents of its curved streets and country-like lanes are an increasingly diverse population of homeowners eager to preserve the neighborhood as a unique example of what the idealism of the City Beautiful movement produced in a city rebuilding from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake.

As with many of the residential parks west of Twin Peaks, Forest Hill had a checkered past. Much of the area was part of a manmade forest, planted by the late 19th-century entrepreneur Adolph Sutro. When the streets and first homes were being constructed in 1913, the developers advertised the district as a place where residents could have a “country home within the city,” a neighborhood graced by mature trees, decorative stairways, benches, and flower urns. It would be a development exclusively of single-family homes, with no apartments or “double”-flat units (as in the rest of the city), with houses set back from the street and separated from each other by a mandated number of feet. Moreover (this being the early 20th century), there would be, to quote a promotional brochure, “no Mongols, Africans or ‘shack builders’ allowed.”

Nearly a century later, most of the ideals promoted by the early developer still hold. Many of the neighborhood’s homes are among the most beautiful and historically significant in San Francisco, representing a cross-section of early- to mid-20th century architecture, as well as distinctive examples of regional design as practiced by, among others, Bernard Maybeck (who designed the iconic neighborhood clubhouse) and Frank Lloyd Wright (one of his “Usonian”-style houses is on San Marcos Avenue). The trees and landscaping have matured beautifully with age, with the street furniture and pedestrian steps, especially the main ones rising from Magellan Avenue to Path Street , still tastefully maintained. (One local historian called the stairway "by far the most elegant in San Francisco," noting how it imparts “a dreamlike, rococo quality to the setting.”) And the question of who is allowed to live here has been settled for decades, not only in the courts, but also in the attitude of the residents. (Willie Mays moved into Forest Hill in 1963; the neighborhood hosts the Arab Cultural and Community Center; and the Forest Hill Association boasts that it “long ago abandoned its founders' restrictive covenants, and today is proud to count … families representing all the ethnic, social and cultural groups which make up 21st century San Francisco.”)

Among the least densely populated places in San Francisco (there are some 650 homes on about a third square mile), Forest Hill is home to 3,000 or so residents, who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are mature (median age is 42-plus) and generally either white (55 percent) or Asian (38 percent), with African Americans and people of another or mixed race making up the remaining 7 percent. They tend to be upper middle class (median annual household income is $90,000) and overwhelmingly own their homes (80 percent).

Because the area was intended to have the feel of the country, there is limited commercial activity here, beyond a few restaurants and storefront shops at the intersection of Dewey, Woodside, and Laguna Honda. (There are also a number of shops along Taraval east of 14th Avenue, although many do not consider this Forest Hill, thinking of it more as West Portal.) Although the city assumed responsibility for maintaining the streets and sidewalks in the district in the late 1970s, homeowners within the Forest Hill limits pay an association fee annually for maintenance of the landscaping and street furnishings.

As for parks, the neighborhood—in addition to its manmade forest, grassy medians, stairways, and landscaping features—has a playground (J. P. Murphy) with several tennis courts, a basketball court, children’s swings and climbing equipment, and a clubhouse. Hawk Hill Park, another of San Francisco’s designated “natural areas” located next to Forest Hill’s boundaries, is a steep, sandy incline with great views to the southwest. Although there is a nominal path going through the “park,” it is not recommended that visitors stray far from it, for both safety and ecological reasons.

For such a seemingly “countrified” area, public transportation is quite good in Forest Hill, beginning with the elegant, Italianate Muni subway stop (the oldest underground train stop west of Chicago). Though the frieze above the highly ornamented doors proclaims that this is the “Laguna Honda Station/Twin Peaks Tunnel”—likely because when it was built in 1916 the so-named hospital was the more prominent feature of the area—today’s Forest Hill Station serves the K, L, M, and T streetcars, with their quick access to Civic Center and the Financial District. The No. 6 bus skirts the neighborhood’s western edge en route to points along Haight Street, while three buses—the Nos. 36, 43, and 44—run along Laguna Honda Boulevard on the eastern side, bound for points in the northern half of San Francisco.

Although parking is not difficult to find here, it can be limited, owing to the narrow, steep streets and the overflow from neighboring districts. For that reason, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic issues “T” residential parking permits, which enable those who live on certain streets with hourly parking limits to ignore the restrictions.

Schools in the neighborhood are, predictably, nonexistent, none having been planned into the original residential-only scheme of the district. But a couple of good schools are nearby—West Portal Elementary, with its campus-like setting off the Kensington Way roundabout, received a 9 out of 10 GreatSchools rating and has a parent-run daycare program and a Chinese immersion bilingual program; and the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, a magnet alternative high school for the performing arts and sciences, on Portola Drive, which received an 8 out of 10 GreatSchools rating.

Forest Hill, while not crime-free, is among the safest places to live in the city. There are occasional burglaries in any three-month period, along with spotty noise nuisances and the even rarer vandalism or graffiti. Though car break-ins and vehicle thefts are reported, these are also rare. Assaults are so infrequent as to be negligible, and there have been no homicides reported in the last three years.

Real estate prices have maintained their value after the downturn, edging up slightly over the last two years, according to Trulia. A simple two-bedroom, one-bathroom home on Dewey Boulevard listed recently at $899,000, while a palatial, four-bed/four-bath home on Sotelo Avenue was asking $1.8 million. Although home rentals are rare to nonexistant, the average monthly asking price for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in or around the neighborhood is $2,300 to $3,000 a month.

Forest Hill is not for everyone—it was designed specifically not to be. But over the years, it has evolved into a quiet, peaceful, elegant neighborhood whose close-knit residents look out for not only themselves but their little piece of town and country as well.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 1/5
  • Nightlife 1/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 1/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 5/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 4/5
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Editors Choice

"Life at the Top"

They say San Francisco (like Rome and Moscow and many other cities) was built on seven hills. If that’s the case, then Twin Peaks taken together are among the official seven (although modern geographers protest that the city is built on dozens more). These rounded mounts (the highest of the two measuring 910 feet above sea level, second only to nearby Mount Davidson, the loftiest in the city at 925 feet), offer the kind of views you’d think people would have fought for since the Gold Rush days.

But to look at the neighborhood today, you’d never think of it as having the same historic cachet as, say, Telegraph or Nob or Russian hills. In fact, much of the housing is from the mid- to late-20th century, hardly historic given the city’s 160-year history (though a few turn-of-the-last-century abodes dot Corbett Avenue). And even if the area lies at the geographic center of San Francisco (and commands 360-degree views of the bay on the east and the ocean toward the west, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County to the north, with the hills and coastal mountains of the Peninsula to the south), many of its streets feel decidedly apart from the city they overlook, like some impermanent collection of homes that are about to be moved and narrow streets about to be widened to accommodate the encroaching urban behemoth edging toward it.

Still, the record shows that Twin Peaks occupies its place in the history of the city, though not quite as dramatically as its sister hills. Once part of the Rancho San Miguel, the sprawling Mexican land grant from which much of San Francisco was carved in the mid-1800s, Twin Peaks (called “Los Pechos de la Choca”—Spanish for “breasts of the Indian maiden”) presented a formidable barrier between the eastern and western halves of the young city. Hence, for much of the late 19th century, it remained pasture, farmland, and pristine meadow (much as it appeared when the native Ohlones used it for hunting/gathering). By the 1860s, with the western side of San Francisco attracting visitors with beaches, wildflower fields, and a racetrack, entrepreneurs built a toll road along what is today Corbett Avenue and another along Portola Drive, offering access to the broad stretches that lie beyond the peaks. These roads, in turn, encouraged dairy and vegetable farmers to come and work the land on the eastern slopes, followed soon enough by real-estate developers. By the time a streetcar tunnel was built under Twin Peaks in 1918, the slopes were studded with homes and residences, many of them perched on stilts at the edge of narrow dirt roads.

It is this pattern of homes and apartment buildings built on extremely steep grades that has come to typify Twin Peaks today. Much of the land was so steep that it had to be terraced before it could be developed—hence the names of roads: Graystone Terrace, Villa Terrace, Perego Terrace. Building on such inclines required expensive new technology and materials (the back ends of some homes drop three and four stories from the street, necessitating some sturdy foundation work), but it also gave those who could afford the expensive construction wide-open views of the city. In time (especially after Twin Peaks Boulevard was completed in the mid-1930s, offering paved access to the summit of the peaks, and with the Market Street extension in place), Twin Peaks became a hotbed for residential development, much of it in the form of 1950s and ’60s boxy-concrete apartment complexes along the hillsides’ upper reaches (such as those on Gardenside and Crestline Drives). Though these buildings may lack the charm of their Victorian and even Deco counterparts elsewhere in the city, they claim unparalleled views—the top reason many choose to live here. Another reason is that much of Twin Peaks is now open space, off limits to further development—a state of affairs the Twin Peaks Improvement Association works to keep in place.

Because the neighborhood has a number of the city’s steepest inclines between its curving streets, it consequently has a number of its longest pedestrian stairways. The Pemberton Place Steps is one such walkway, much of it brick-paved, running from Clayton up to Crown Terrace. Adjoining homeowners have added landscaping; in spots it is even meticulously maintained. Not far away, near Corbett Avenue and Iron Alley, are the Iron Steps—a bit of a misnomer, as they are among the last remaining wooden steps in the city—and treacherous to boot, frequently closed after heavy rains when the slippery struts and rotting rails make using them dangerous. Farther south on Corbett, the Argent Alley stairway descends to Market Street; similar steps and spiral stairways link Corbett with streets on the other side of Market, in Noe Valley. Others run between Gardenside and Crestline, continuing (in one case) as a dirth path up to the Twin Peaks summit.

In all, about 10,000 people call the residential area of Twin Peaks home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, they are overwhelmingly middle-aged (median age is 40) and white (75 percent), with about 10 percent Asian and the remaining 15 percent either African American or a mix of two or more races. Their median annual household income is $80,000, and they tend to rent (60 percent) rather than own their homes (40 percent).

Though there are no parks per se in the neighborhood (beyond small, private enclosures where residents have come together to plant flowers and tend the landscape), there is all that open space on Twin Peaks, which can be awash in wildflowers in the spring or cloaked in nippy fog during the summer. Fall and early winter are best times for driving up Twin Peaks Boulevard or hiking up the hills. It is then that the generally clear air affords the best views of not only the city on all sides but also the East Bay and the Marin hills. Most San Franciscans and countless visitors make this vista stop at least once during their time in the city.

For all its views and other high-life amenities, however, Twin Peaks is no place to go shopping—for anything. Perhaps the absence of commerce is because the streets are, for the most part, narrow, winding, and steep. Perhaps it’s owing to the fact that parking in some places is tight. Or that the city (heeding the improvement association's wishes) has not granted any business permits. But there’s not a café or shop to be found in the whole of the neighborhood, meaning residents have to drive or take a hike to buy groceries, grab a cappuccino, or find a piece of hardware for repair jobs around the house. As a result, many people drive—to the Safeway in Diamond Heights, to the numerous coffeehouses and shops in the Castro, the Haight, or Noe Valley, and to the suburbs for big-ticket items like appliances.

Because this is a car-oriented district, there is but a single option for public transportation: the No. 37 bus, which snakes up and over the hills and cramped, curving streets and connects with the crosstown No.48 on Portola Drive and with the subway along Market Street.

Parking, while difficult to manage on the steep streets of the area, is generally not difficult to find during the day, though it can be another story in the evening, when all the residents return home and are looking for a spot. In spite of these difficulties, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has not issued residential parking permits for the area.

Twin Peaks is known for one of the most desirable public schools in San Francisco: Rooftop Alternative on Corbett Avenue. This K-8 elementary emphasizes self-learning and incorporates art, music, and drama in the curriculum. It was rated 8 out of 10 by GreatSchools.

Although crime is generally light overall and in the quality-of-life category (noise nuisances and graffiti), there are occasional burglaries and robberies in any three-month period. Two criminal activities—vehicle theft and car break-ins—are becoming more common (following a trend in San Francisco), particularly along quiet streets. Though violent crime is not unheard of (with one or two a month), there have been no homicides reported in the last three years.

Real estate prices in Twin Peaks have weathered the recent downturn and are edging back up, with a 9 percent increase from mid-2009 to mid-2010, according to Trulia. Most of what’s for sale is condominiums and tenants-in-common units, which range from the low $400,000s for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom to $850,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom unit. Single-family homes come onto the market occasionally, and they can range from $850,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom on Corbett Avenue to $2.4 million for a four-bedroom, four-bathroom designer home on Market. Rentals are fairly numerous and reasonable, with one-bed/bath apartments going for $1,200 to $1,700 a month, and two-bedroom/two-bath units listing for $2,000 and up. The price can go up depending on the view—which is, after all, what Twin Peaks is all about. Life at the top should generally include a panorama.
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5/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 5/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 5/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
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Editors Choice

"What the Jesuits Have Wrought"

Twin monuments to Jesuit faith and education stand but a few blocks apart in San Francisco. One, a massive church that looks as if might have been moved here from a Roman square, sits near the northeastern edge of Golden Gate Park. The other, a neo-Gothic/Mediterranean monolith with an imposing tower, rises above a campus situated on a hill misnamed Lone Mountain (it is actually about 450 feet high, more “mount” than “mountain”). Together, St. Ignatius and the University of San Francisco form a kind of village, being the spiritual and intellectual hubs of a neighborhood that comes as close as it gets to the look and feel of a traditional private-college town in San Francisco. Here, the Jesuits have held sway for the better part of the 20th century and into the 21st, with a classical liberalism at once embraced by the city and at times scorned by the Catholic Church of which it is so intrinsically a part.

Not that Lone Mountain’s link to one religion has rendered it an isolated area. For decades it was a burial ground, home from the mid-18th century on to at least three distinct cemeteries—Odd Fellows, Calvary, and Masonic, the graves of which were relocated south, to the town of Colma on the Peninsula, after the city enacted a law prohibiting burials within San Francisco’s municipal boundaries. Such a restriction enabled both the Catholic church and college (then both known as St. Ignatius) to relocate to the hilltop after settling in various locations of central San Francisco, the church in 1914 and the college (now university) in 1927. Since then, they have both exercised a decidedly benevolent hand on the area, making it one of San Francisco’s most desirable neighborhoods.

Today, Lone Mountain is a clean, well-ordered place, its streets (a number called “terraces”) lined with tidy homes and apartment buildings, many of them inhabited by university students and faculty. San Francisco University (with almost 9,000 students and 500 staff) should not be confused with the nearby University of California at San Francisco (the state university system’s school of medicine) or San Francisco State (one of the state college system’s liberal-arts universities, located near Lake Merced, in the city’s southwest quadrant). SFU, as it is known, is a private liberal-arts university run by the Jesuits (or Society of Jesus, as they are known in Catholic circles), with respectable schools of business, law, nursing, and education. Its main buildings are arrayed on two campuses (one a former women’s college—Lone Mountain College) a few blocks apart. Though the main campus is on Fulton Street, the other, the former women’s college that is now called the Lone Mountain Campus, is on Turk, and most people now think of this as the university proper, though it’s really just a northern extension of it.

St. Ignatius Church lies on the southwestern edge of both the main campus and the neighborhood, at Fulton and Parker, and it serves both the university and surrounding community. Because its spires rise 200 feet above the street on a fairly elevated block that can be seen from many points in the city, many mistake this church as San Francisco’s Catholic cathedral (which it is not; St. Mary’s—the modern, white marble structure on Geary and Gough, whose unusual shape prompted newspaper columnist Herb Caen to call it “Our Lady of Maytag”—claims the title). Nevertheless, St. Ignatius, designed by architect Charles J. I. Devlin in 1909, is a marvelous example of Italian Renaissance/Baroque architecture (though the numerous ornamental elements it incorporates have prompted many observers to call it “eclectic” or “Jesuit Baroque” and leave it at that). Still, the church has a traditional cruciform nave and semicircular sanctuary (the dome of the exterior being decorative, and not carried forth on the interior). A Venetian-style campanile abuts the church’s northeast side, from which the original St. Ignatius Church bell (purchased in 1863) peals at noon and 6 p.m. daily. Lit at night, the main towers can be observed from as far away as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Across Parker from St. Ignatius is a Carmelite Monastery—essentially, it’s a cloister for nuns, with a hushed and lovely chapel open at certain hours to the public for prayers and meditation in an exquisite neo-classical sanctuary.

The neighborhood, though made up of a changing population of students, faculty, and longtime residents, is fairly diverse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 10,000 residents of the area are 60 percent white, 20 percent Asian, 10 percent African American, and the remainder of two or mixed races. Though they are all solidly middle class (with a median annual household income of $65,000), only a little more than 25 percent own their homes.

The main attraction here is the university, with its many halls, classroom buildings, student housing complexes, and related structures, so don’t expect to find a commercial district teeming with shops and businesses. The stretch of Geary Boulevard on the neighborhood’s northern perimeter is pretty much what there is: it has a number of shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, services, and a post office, though it feels apart from the neighborhood, mostly because it lies geographically at the base of Lone Mountain. The area also lacks a park per se, though green space abounds (especially the artistically landscaped Lone Mountain campus) and Golden Gate Park lies literally at the entrance to the neighborhood. Koret Health and Recreation Center (on Stanyan and Turk) is open to both USF students and residents of the neighborhood.

Public transportation is by bus, with Muni buses Nos. 31 and 5 running along Turk and Fulton, respectively, and the No. 43 running up and down Masonic Avenue on its way to points east and west. Because of the number of day students who drive to the area to attend classes, and also because of St. Mary’s Medical Center, which fronts Fulton Street, parking can be difficult during business hours during the week. Residential parking permits “BB” and “L” are issued for this neighborhood so locals can shun the hourly parking limits.

Because of the predominant influence of the university, with all of its buildings and dedicated housing, there is no room for public schools. Parents can send their kids to any number of preschools, elementary schools, and middle schools in the surrounding area, including the private Marin Day Preschool in Laurel Heights (off California Street), as well as the public alternative elementary, New Traditions (on Grove Street), which rated 6 out of 10 by GreatSchools, and Roosevelt Middle School on Arguello and Geary. This award-winning school in an impressive red-brick building with three-story tower was rated 9 out of 10 by GreatSchools.

Crime in the area, according to San Francisco Police Department figures, is generally confined to noise nuisances such as car alarms and rowdy revelers, with an occasional robbery, burglary, and assault in any three-month period. Car theft and auto break-ins, however, are becoming more commonplace, in line with an upward trend throughout the city. Though the neighborhood is rarely the scene of violent crime, a double homicide in 2008 shocked the residents of this generally tranquil enclave; police investigators are still searching for a suspect and motive.

Real estate here is expensive, even as the neighborhood struggles to recover from the recent economic downturn. The other element is that because USF owns many of the properties adjacent to its campuses, there is not a big selection available. The median sales price of single-family homes is about 17 percent below where it stood before the recent downturn, according to Trulia, and sales have lagged even at the lower prices. Much of the available properties are condos, with three bedrooms/one bathroom going for close to $1 million and modest one bedroom, one bathroom units in the mid-$600,000 range. Apartments are reasonable (and large, in terms of square footage): a one-bedroom/one-bath apartment on Fulton recently listed for $1,300, while a five-bedroom, three-bath apartment with 2,000 square feet listed for $5,150 a month.

The quiet, buttoned-down feel of the neighborhood reflects the sedate university. This is a good area for students as well as couples getting through a graduate program. Longtime families and even retirees will also find the place a tranquil district, worth living in for its proximity to major attractions of the city while affording a peaceful refuge from what ails San Francisco in other grittier neighborhoods.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 5/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now

"In the Middle of the City, the Model Suburb"

Laurel Heights on a sunny day suggests the kind of place urban planners had in mind for the ideal suburban neighborhood: clean, orderly streets and homes fronted by lawns and a variety of trees and shrubs, the blocks bordered on one side by a shopping center and on the other by more shops and transportation options, with a park in the middle and good schools (primary and secondary) and other amenities within the district or accessible a short distance away. It’s a compact, easily navigated area, and it has just the right amount of cafes and restaurants and even a movie theater. In short, suburban bliss in the midst of urban hubbub.

To paint Laurel Heights as a peaceful, tidy island surrounded by a sea of city noise and nuisances, while more or less accurate, doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Laurel Heights has always been peaceful and restful, but in a different sense. What few know (or care to know) about the neighborhood is that it once served as a final resting place, a vast burial ground. Laurel Hill Cemetery (formerly Lone Mountain Cemetery, established in the 1850s) once spread over the area, with hundreds of marble monuments lining up on the hilly terrain between Geary Boulevard and California Street. Among the first underground denizens of the area were Andrew Hallidie (inventor of San Francisco’s ingenious cable cars) and numerous U.S. senators. Their graves were visited by thousands of city residents, who for decades treated the cemetery as a park, wandering its groomed footpaths and enjoying picnics amid the tombstones and trees. (This practice of using a cemetery as a park continued until the development of Golden Gate Park in the 1890s. Indeed, having a home near such a pretty cemetery helps explain the proliferation of grand homes on the west side of the neighborhood in the early 1900s.) Finally, when the land became more and more valuable for potential development, the cemetery was closed, and some 35,000 graves were removed to Colma in 1941. The neighborhood’s newer homes, along with Laurel Village shopping center, quickly filled the space.

Today, Laurel Heights can be divided into two parts: the older, more stately western half (typified by the houses along Commonwealth Avenue) as contrasted with its more modern, somewhat sterile-looking eastern half (roughly defined by the area adjacent to the Laurel Village shopping center). Though there are some nice examples of late moderne style buildings in the eastern half, the western half, especially Palm, Jordan, and Commonwealth avenues, hosts some of the finest residential architecture in the city (rivaling Pacific Heights for the beauty of design and materials), with large, single-family homes predominating. St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church on Commonwealth is among the neighborhood’s architectural highlights, a Byzantine-style structure with a tile roof and dome built in 1966. As for centrally located parks, the Laurel Hill Playground, located on a terraced hill in the geographic middle of the neighborhood at Euclid and Collins, has a baseball diamond, tennis and basketball courts, and swings and play equipment for children.

The neighborhood is made up of 9,000 or so residents, about 65 percent white, 25 percent Asian, and the remainder either African American or a mix of two or more races. They are solidly middle class, with a median annual household income of $70,000. Curiously, however, only about a third of the neighbors own their homes, with the great majority renting.

Because the neighborhood is bordered on the north (California Street) and south (Geary Boulevard) by stores, cafes, and restaurants (not to mention one of the area’s biggest and best-staffed hospitals, California Pacific Medical Center’s California Campus), virtually everything one could need is a short walk away. The main shopping strip is between Spruce and Laurel on California Street (the appropriately named Laurel Village). Here are two grocers, one high-end (Bryan’s, noted for its fish and meats) the other less so (Cal-Mart, though it has a much-lauded produce department), plus the usual array of boutiques and chains that cater to the area’s middle- and upper-middle class: The Gap, Chico’s, Starbucks, Pasta Pomodoro, Walgreen’s, Standard 5&10 Ace Hardware. On-street metered parking here can be difficult, though a small lot on the back side of Laurel Village on Mayfair Drive is available to shoppers. The stretch of Geary Boulevard from Masonic to Arguello hosts a number of specialty stores as well (one with pet goods, another for tires, two for mattresses), along with an array of ethnic and American restaurants. The Bridge Theatre (at Blake) shows first-run movies, many of them independent- and foreign-produced. Finally, there’s a Trader Joe’s grocery (one of four in San Francisco) just off Geary on Masonic.

The two main shopping streets are also transportation corridors, with Muni buses Nos. 1 and running along California to the Financial Distric and back, and the Nos. 31 and 38 running along Geary, again toward downtown and Union Square. The No. 33 runs north and south along Arguello, while the No. 43 travels on Masonic before heading to the Presidio and points east. Golden Gate Transit operates buses bound for Marin County along Geary Boulevard as well. Though parking is generally not difficult away from California Street’s shops and the hospital, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic does issue “F” and “L” residential parking permits to allow those who live in the neighborhood to ignore the posted two-hour limits on most streets.

An award-winning public school is located within the neighborhood: Roosevelt Middle School on Arguello and Geary, in an impressive red-brick building with three-story tower. The middle school was rated 9 out of 10 by GreatSchools. There’s a small preschool (One Fifty Parker Avenue School) and the large, private Marin Day Schools operates its Laurel Heights preschool on the Laurel Heights campus of the University of California at San Francisco (on California at Walnut).

Crime here is infrequent and characterized mostly by noise nuisances and a few thefts in a recent three-month period, according to San Francisco Police Department statistics. Car theft and auto break-ins are increasingly common, particularly in the neighborhood’s eastern sector and along Geary and California, with these corridors experiencing the same rise in these crimes as elsewhere in the city. The occasional assault takes place along Geary (where bars and other night-time business may explain the altercations). There have been no homicides reported here in the last three years.

Real estate prices in Laurel Heights have recently rebounded from the slump of 2008-2009, showing a jump since April 2010 of as much as 25 percent in the last year, according to Trulia. Still, prices remain volatile, as potential buyers sniff out the best deals. Prices range from about $3 million for a seven-bedroom, six-bathroom single family home on Euclid in the neighborhood’s tony west section to about $900,000 for a two-bedroom, one-bath single family house near Geary in the area’s eastern half. Apartments range from about $1,500 a month for a simple one-bedroom, one bathroom unit near the UCSF campus to a renovated three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo for $3,800 near Laurel Hill Playground.

Take it all around, this neighborhood would suit established families looking to move up to a bigger home, couples looking to begin a family, and students seeking safety and easy access to the area’s college campuses.
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5/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 5/5
  • Clean & Green 5/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 5/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 5/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
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Editors Choice

"A ‘Secret’ in Plain View"

This is one of those San Francisco neighborhoods built on a slope so steep that many residents of one street have never bothered to check out what’s on the street above them. But the sheer, uphill quality of the place actually works to its benefit: here is a peaceful, quiet neighborhood with tidy historic homes, a nice park, and views all around. The lack of tourists and even curious city dwellers has earned this district the honor of being “San Francisco’s Best Kept Secret,” as the neighborhood association calls it. But how has Corona Heights managed to keep such a low profile?

The first answer is part of the place’s name: “heights” here means several hundred feet above sea level, with the summit of the hill in Corona Heights Park at more than 500 feet. Considering that the area rises sharply from Market Street on the south and Castro from the east, it is no wonder that, while people can see the neighborhood from these busy venues, few outsiders scale its sidewalks or even drive up its pitched roads. That’s good news for those who live here, as little traffic interrupts the calm that prevails in spite of being smack dab between the busy Haight-Ashbury District and the bustling Castro.

The second reason for this neighborhood’s relative obscurity is the fact that home prices are high, as in $1 million-plus. Because elevation in San Francisco generally equates to higher real-estate prices, the area is considered out of the range of average home-buyers and renters. As with the steep streets, the steep prices suit those fortunate enough to live here.

But Corona Heights was not always such a pleasant place. It had a rocky past—literally—and to this day suffers from problems associated with one of its prime assets, Corona Heights Park. In the late 19th century, this area, referred to variously as Rocky Hill, Rock Hill, and the Fist, was the scene of a rubble-strewn quarry and brick-works kiln operated by George and Harry Gray, two brothers of dubious business standards who were frequently in court for ill treatment of their laborers and to face liability suits from damage caused by flying rocks as they blasted into the hill. Their operations ceased in the 1920s, although the streets that by then snaked around the promontory remained, soon to be exploited by developers as choice home sites with spectacular views.

The best of these homes are, predictably, those situated highest up, generally along Roosevelt Way and Lower Terrace today, although a number of beautiful Victorian cottages and Stick homes are found on Ord and Douglass streets as well as along Corbett Avenue. Elsewhere, the flat facades and unadorned fronts of many buildings—single family units and apartment buildings alike—are built right up against the sidewalk, hinting at short lots and little garden space behind (though most have views of at least the park, if not a drop-dead panorama of some portion of San Francisco). Vulcan Stairway is one of the city’s many sets of steps providing pedestrian connections between parallel streets (in this case, Levant and Ord). One of several in this hilly part of town, it is treasured for its beautiful landscaping and canopy of mature trees.

Of the 8,000 people living in Corona Heights, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 80 percent are white, with about 10 percent Asian and the remaining 10 percent a mix of African American or people of two races. The residents tend to be upper middle class (median annual household income is about $90,000), although only about 45 percent own their homes; the rest rent.

One of the peculiarities of Corona Heights is its lack of a true commercial district. A small grocery or market can be found here and there (particularly along 17th Street), but there is hardly a coffee shop or laundromat to be found otherwise. Most residents drive or walk to the Castro or the Haight (or beyond) for retail needs. The neighborhood is located adjacent to California Pacific Medical Center's Davies Campus, with its good emergency care and specialists in infectious diseases and gastro-intestinal issues. The area's two main attractions—Corona Heights Park and the Randall Museum—are located adjacent to each other more or less dead center in the middle of the neighborhood.

The park is among the city’s designated “natural areas,” providing habitat for a range of native and non-native plants and animals–poppies, of course, but also johnny jump-ups and a range of grasses, most of them introduced. There are also lizards, garter snakes, and raccoons, as well as birds such as the scrub jay and western goldfinch along with butterflies, some (like the Mission Blue) endangered while others (including the anise swallowtail) thrive on the invasive sweet anise introduced to the city a hundred years ago. Among the park’s features are a sheer wall of rock near 15th Street (called a slip’n’side for its shiny, glossy appearance), an enclosed dog run around which a whole community of dogs and their guardians has formed, and the summit of the hill itself, whose rocky outcroppings give the appearance of a crown from below—hence the park’s name (“corona” is Spanish for crown). Although the hilltop is visible from many points in the city, few people know how to get to it, making the park an undiscovered gem to the few who know of its main entrance off Roosevelt Way (there are other, unmarked entries off 15th Street and States Street). It is along the wild, overgrown side off 15th Street that homeless people have established encampments, sometimes quite large and often bringing unwelcome activities and their aftermath (drug use, noise and sanitation violations, and habitat destruction). Periodically, the city brings in teams of police and, one year, goats to clear out the encampments (the goats ate all the “cover” vegetation and made hiding tents amid the overgrowth difficult). For the time being, the homeless issue has subsided.

The Randall Museum, named for Josephine D. Randall, San Francisco’s first superintendent of recreation who waged a long campaign to have it built, opened in 1951 at 199 Museum Way (just below the park on the south side). Over the years, it has become a community resource, focusing on the culture and environment of the Bay Area, offering arts and sciences classes, a California native animals room, and workshops for children and teens, along with their families. The Golden Gate Model Railroad Club has its headquarters here, and maintains for public viewing a large layout of trains in various California terrains. At the Outdoor Learning Environment are gardens (including one for native plants) and an observation deck, with wide-ranging views of San Francisco, the Bay and East Bay hills, and, when the air is clear, the peaks of the South Bay.

The No. 37 bus is pretty much it for public transportation around the serpentine streets of this neighborhood, entering on the south side and then making a circuitous amble along Corbett Avenue through Twin Peaks, then re-entering on its northern side and traveling along Roosevelt Way before ending in the Haight. Though parking can be difficult (and even hazardous on some of the steep inclines), it is generally not too difficult (with the exception of streets bordering the crowded Castro district, especially on weekends). Over much of the area, residential parking permit “S” is in effect, enabling those who live here to park for longer than the posted hourly limits.

Schools on Corona Heights are limited to a single public K-5, McKinley Elementary on Castro and 14th. It was rated 6 out of 10 by GreatSchools.

Crime in the neighborhood is light, according to figures from the San Francisco Police Department, and it falls in the quality-of-life (noise nuisance or vandalism) and property category (occasional robberies or car thefts), with a rare assault occurring in any three-month period. There have been no homicides reported in the last three years.

Real estate prices in Corona Heights tend to be high, as mentioned earlier, though there has been some softness in prices lately after a mid-recession rebound earlier in 2010, according to Zephyr Real Estate. The area has a number of single-family homes in the $1.2 to $2 million range (depending on amenities and views), although there are also a number of condos, including one studio that listed recently for $279,000 (though most are one- or two-bedroom units that range from $450,000 to $800,000). Rentals are also on the high side, with a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment going for about $1,500, a two-bedroom cottage with yard asking $3,000, and a three-bedroom house listing at $3,900 a month.

The question of whether these high prices and geographic isolation make Corona Heights a somewhat exclusive and “aloof” neighborhood aside, the area is slowly becoming one of San Francisco’s most desirable. It may not be long before Corona Heights takes its place among other “hill” districts as a place of high stature in more ways than just elevation.
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Editors Choice

"On the Lookout for a Better Outlook"

Despite its panorama-promising name, Oceanview really doesn’t have one. It’s hard to see much besides surrounding hills from most vantage points in this neighborhood, which sits in a kind of valley bounded on the north by Lakeview, on the south by Sagamore, and on the west by Orizaba. In fact, the neighborhood gets its name from a station on the defunct railroad line that once linked San Francisco and San Jose in the mid-1800s. The old “Ocean View” station itself likely referred to what the train passed a mile or so to the southwest, on what is now Junipero Serra Boulevard, beyond the confines of today’s neighborhood. Though there’s no trace of the station today, the intersection where it stood—the crossroads of Alemany, Sagamore, Plymouth, and Sickles—is a reminder of what was once a kind of town square for the self-contained community that sprung up around the station, complete with a fountain in the middle (now long gone).

In the 1880s, when the railroad still carried San Franciscans out to what was then considered “the country”—to picnic, take a stagecoach to the beach, or to gamble in one of many of the area’s notorious “road houses”—the little community that grew up around the train station had its own post office, police station, firehouse, bakery, market, and more than a couple of bars. Early settlers—Italian, Irish, and German—came here to live a simple, countrified life amid dairy and vegetable farms. The Railroad Homestead Association had already laid out its wide streets and long rectangular blocks that ran in a straight east/west line—a grid that holds today. By the time the other neighborhoods were developed around Oceanview in the early 1900s, they had to conform to the streets already in place here, resulting in an interrupted street pattern, particularly along Orizaba. This also meant that Oceanview had a large number of older homes, many of them good examples of Victorian architecture that stand out among the low-slung houses built from the 1920s through the 1950s, as the rest of the city engulfed the area. It was perhaps because of these older homes that Oceanview was among the few neighborhoods where African Americans could buy property without facing discrimination in the post-World War II era, as urban renewal in the Fillmore District prompted them to seek housing elsewhere.

But over time, the absorbing of Oceanview into the rest of San Francisco did not bode well for the little community. When passenger service ended on the train line in 1904, and commercial development shifted to the electric train line along Mission Street, the area’s businesses declined. By the time the Southern Freeway (I-280) was built along the neighborhood’s southern fringe in the 1960s, Oceanview was deteriorating fast. By the 1980s, drug dealers and gangs made it their home, further stifling the district. Were it not for the efforts of a neighborhood group, Neighbors in Action, Oceanview might still be a forbidding place.

But thanks to neighborhood activism, the area is on the rebound today. Though some streets still have boarded-up homes and graffiti-covered walls, there is a new community center on Montana Street between Capitol and Plymouth—the Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Center, a considerably refurbished park with a new playground and four handsomely designed buildings connected by a loggia, including a freestanding gymnasium, community room, and teen building for use by participants in the city’s Safe Haven Program. Kitty-corner from the park is Sheridan Elementary School, a K-5 elementary that was totally renovated in the late 1990s and received a 5 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools.

Elsewhere, the old Engine Co. No. 33 Firehouse on Broad Street has been restored and now offers tours of the site as well as sites throughout San Francisco in an old fire engine. The firehouse is situated in the middle of an up-and-coming commercial area centered around Broad and Plymouth. Though it’s far from quaint, the intersection features a number of shops and businesses (including a holdout barber shop, Furlough’s Tonsorial Parlor) that beckon pedestrians and commuters using the “M” streetcar, which has stops along Broad Street. (The area’s tiny library has moved a few blocks away to new, bigger, and much-improved quarters on Randolph Street.) There are also a number of houses of worship in the area, along with St. Michael’s Korean Catholic Church, a large complex near this new center of activity, with services in English and Korean.

Oceanview, like its immediate neighbors, is a prime candidate for undergrounding utilities. Overhead on most streets is a dark tangle of wires and poles, eyesores that block views and add to the area's unkempt look. The city has begun replacing the modern “cobra” streetlights with a classic “teardrop” more in keeping with the era in which the neighborhood flourished, but lack of funds has stymied a full-speed ahead approach on burying utility wires.

The 15,000 or so people who live in Oceanview are, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, a diverse mix: 40 percent Asian, 30 percent African American, 18 percent white, and the remaining 12 percent of two or more races. (Almost 20 percent identify themselves as Latino of any race.) They are by and large middle class, with a median annual household income of $60,000, and 75 percent own their homes.

Outside of the budding commercial stretch near Broad and Plymouth, there is little in the way of mercantile activity elsewhere in the neighborhood. A few storefronts, a gas station, and a car repair garage sit at the eastern end of Sagamore, and an isolated corner market or two are scattered elsewhere in the neighborhood. But for the most part, people travel outside the area, to Ocean View Village in adjacent Ingleside Heights or beyond, for major shopping.

Public transportation here is fairly limited here. The “M” streetcar runs east and west along Broad Street, on the way either downtown or to the Balboa Park BART station. The local No. 54 bus runs along Sagamore and up and down Plymouth, bound for the Balboa Park BART station. The scant business activity in the area means that parking is fairly easy, and there are few on-street parking restrictions, save along a small section of San Jose Avenue, where the “V” residential permit enables holders to disregard time limits.

Crime is moderately high in the neighborhood, led by disturbing the peace (in the form of noise nuisances), robberies and burglaries, as well as vehicle thefts and auto break-ins. Assaults are also common in a three-month period, and there have been four homicides in the last three years, including one reported in late August of 2010.

Real estate here is gradually staging a comeback from the doldrums of 2008-2009, with a 12 percent overall increase in median home prices during 2010. Many of the homes for sale are considered low- to bargain-priced, with a two-bedroom, one-bath home on Plymouth listing for $419,000 and a handyman’s special of similar dimensions on Majestic going for $315,000. Rentals here are hard to find, but are generally multi-bedroom homes, such as the four-bedroom, two-bath across from the new recreation center that listed for $3,000 a month.

Although the deterioration of Oceanview has slowed (if not halted altogether), the revitalization has been fairly slow. Nevertheless, the neighborhood has the potential to become a good choice for those who need easy access to I-280 for commuting, for young families looking for a starter home, and for couples seeking to downsize in a district with distinct possibilities.
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Gonzousa
Gonzousa Good piece. One point I would add: Most Oceanview homes have views. The neighborhood sits mostly on hills, not a valley. If you go to any of the homes on the top slopes you get these magnificent views (I have one myself): East - Bay views and East Bay hills, plus Mt. Diablo, West: Pacific Ocean with unobstructed views of the Farallon Islands, North: Marin Headlands and Twin Peaks, South: San Bruno Mountain and parks.
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Editors Choice

"Parkmerced: The Rebirth of a Notion"

It looked so good on paper: a planned community with a variety of building styles and heights, the whole of it set in a park-like environment of greenswards and trees, with streets radiating from oval parks and private courtyards serving clusters of apartments and townhouses. Not only would the area appeal to people seeking a respite from the cramped conditions of the rowhouses of San Francisco, it might also tempt those considering a move to the suburbs to remain in the city. Finally, the development would be under the benign management of a large corporation, whose efficient management would ensure that all tenants—for this would be a development exclusively for renters—got the best apartment for their money.

And so, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company—which had already built such rental-housing ventures in The Bronx and Los Angeles—decided to bring its plan to San Francisco, buying nearly 200 acres of land on the east side of Lake Merced in 1941. Though the company faced delays caused by material shortages during World War II, it profited from the postwar building boom and by the late 1940s was filling hundreds of apartments with tenants, some of them in low-slung “neo-colonial” duplex apartments, others in 13-story towers rising above Lake Merced and, later, near 19th Avenue. Parkmerced was a popular place to live, and Met Life’s urban experiment was apparently paying off.

But the early success of this new neighborhood hit a few snags in its first decades. Although there were no official regulations barring racial minorities from renting here, de-facto discrimination took the form of delaying applications and then manipulating waiting lists to keep African Americans from becoming tenants. In time, Parkmerced came to be seen, oddly enough, as a ghetto for white people. One such tenant sued Met Life in the 1960s for its practices, claiming he had been deprived the advantages of an integrated community and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court found in his favor. Met Life settled out of court, and the formerly closed community—known colloquially as Stonestown Apartments—opened its rental units to all races.

By then, however, the lawsuit had taken its toll, and before it was settled, Met Life had sold the complex to another buyer. A few more buyers—including Leona Helmsley, the imperious heiress and real-estate investor from New York—took over an increasingly declining property. By the mid-1980s, the community imagined by landscape architect Thomas Dolliver Church was looking shabby, its supposedly pristine lawns choked with weeds and the communal spaces strewn with trash, the shrubbery in need of pruning. The decades-old buildings were beginning to show the effects of fog and wind and rain, their exteriors cracked and chipped or, worse, defaced by graffiti.

Today, however, a new owner has taken over Parkmerced, remodeled and updated its units, and repainted most of the formerly dull gray and beige buildings in appealing earth tones. The lawns are mowed and kept green, and new trees have been planted and old ones trimmed. It’s a renewed space, and even if its tenants don’t necessarily have cookouts every night in their semi-private courtyards (as the developer mused), the place doesn’t feel as grim as it did formerly (it had been described as a military base at one point). Though thick fog and merciless winds still roll through the neighborhood, the colors of the refurbished facades work to blunt the graying effect, offering a less forlorn aspect to those who call this home.

The 8,000 or so who live here, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, are a diverse mix: white (48 percent); Asian (36 percent); African American (7 percent); and the remainder of two or mixed races. Owing to the fact that many are students (the complex borders San Francisco State University on the north), the population fits into a mostly lower-middle class category (annual median household income is about $50,000), and nearly everyone rents his or her home (Parkmerced is made up entirely of rental apartments).

As for shopping, residents can take advantage of the few services at the Parkmerced shopping center, a strip of rather bland storefronts along Cambon Drive that includes a bank, a pizzeria, a cleaners, and a supermarket. But for the most part, anyone who lives here is likely going to head to nearby Stonestown Galleria, about a half mile north on 19th Avenue, where they can find outlets of the popular Trader Joe’s grocery, two major department stores (Macy’s and Nordstrom), a Borders bookstore, a Williams-Sonoma, and a number of other specialty stores.

Because Parkmerced is an apartment complex operated by a single company, one advantage of living here is the list of communal services tenants can access: there are fitness centers and business rooms with wi-fi in every tower, with laundry facilities also provided. There is also a clubhouse available to tenants for parties, meetings, and other affairs.

Another unusual aspect of Parkmerced is the collection of churches along Brotherhood Way, just south of the development. Here, lined up along the gently curving street (fashioned from Stanley Drive after the I-280 freeway was built in the 1960s), are six religious institutions (including a synagogue, a Catholic church, a Greek Orthodox temple, and sanctuaries for other Christian faiths), sectarian schools, and a Masonic Temple—all built on land that was more or less donated by the city. Though there have been a number of rumbles from residents over who should pay for the landscaping of the open space that borders Brotherhood Way (church or state?) as well as a controversy over recent development plans, this street remains an only-in-San Francisco fixture.

Public transportation is by bus or streetcar. The No. 17 bus makes a loop through Parkmerced; the No. 28 travels up and down 19th Avenue; and the No. 29 begins and ends its east/west crosstown trek at Crespi Drive. The “M” streetcar—and its fast access to downtown—is accessible at the SFSU Station on Holloway and 19th Avenue.

Because of the influx of students during the day, on-street parking can be difficult; as a result, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic issues “E” parking permits for residents, enabling them to avoid abiding by the hourly parking limits.

Schools in the area are all private (excluding SFSU, part of the state’s public university system). Within the Parkmerced complex grounds is the Montessori Children’s Center, a preschool practicing the teaching and learning philosophy of Maria Montessori. Along Brotherhood Way, a number of sectarian schools offer K-8 education, including Brandeis-Hillel Day School (associated with Congregation Beth Israel), the Holy Trinity Orthodox School (associated with the Greek church by the same name), and St. Thomas More School (part of the Catholic archdiocesan schools).

According to the San Francisco Police Department, disturbing the peace violations are the most common crime, with noise nuisances from revelers and intoxicated persons occurring regularly. Vandalism and petty theft are also fairly common, and burglaries are reported frequently. As with most of the city in the last 10 years, car break-ins and auto thefts are also on the rise. Petty theft is fairly common, and burglaries are too. Though assaults occur occasionally, no homicides have been reported in the last three years.

Real estate in Parkmerced is a straightforward affair: you either rent or you rent. Given that San Francisco State University lies just to the north, many of the units are occupied by students, who keep the market fairly tight. Hence, prices tend to be moderate, with few bargains. Open-plan studios and one-bedroom units go for around $1,800 a month, while two-bedroom, two-bath apartments start at $2,600, and three-bedroom units start at $3,400 a month. Most of the higher floors in the towers have views of either the ocean and Lake Merced or Mount Davidson, Twin Peaks and San Bruno Mountain.

Although it has weathered a decline, Parkmerced in its new and improved version offers an alternative to students and other people seeking a highrise apartment life in a community defined by mini-parks and green spaces.
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Editors Choice

"North of Panhandle (NoPa): What’s in a Name?"

Nothing excites San Franciscans more than place names of their fair city. “Don’t call it Frisco!” was newspaperman Herb Caen’s rallying cry, and a host of other off-limits monikers have since made the list: “San Fran” is a no-no for natives, as is “Tendernob” (as a conjunction for Tenderloin/Lower Nob Hill). Many locals eschew “SOMA” (preferring the longer “South of Market” or, if they’re certifiable old-timers, “South of the Slot”). Same goes for the various districts (the Sunset, the Richmond ) of the “Outside Lands” (that is, anything west of Twin Peaks): these are, simply, “The Avenues.” In a city that redefines itself every decade or so, traditionalists hew to their nomenclature.

So it is understandable that debate has erupted over the proper name of this former section of the Western Addition. The area is, accurately enough, north of The Panhandle—the eight-block-long/one-block-wide sliver of green that extends from Golden Gate Park to the east, a reminder of graceful 19th-century urban landscaping (built as a kind of testing ground for the trees in the huge park). But of late, as attention has turned to the mix of Victorian houses, wide streets, and historic former schools and hospitals here, the question of the renaming has surfaced—specifically, whether the new label was simply an invention of real-estate agents eager to distance this up-and-coming place from the grittier Western Addition, with which it had long been associated, or (having always had the distinguishing features and history to stand as a neighborhood) whether it deserves a name unto itself. North of Panhandle (or NoPa)—formerly Northern Park, but that’s another story—does indeed have qualities that make it look and feel largely different and distinct from its larger neighbor, just as subdivisions of sprawling districts like the Sunset and Richmond have theirs.

But the argument here centers on more than geography. Some claim that the new name demonstrates revisionist history at work, highlighting the present gentrification at the expense of years of preservation. Others maintain the name switch is an example of subtle racism, ignoring many of the traditional working-class African-American residents who gave this part of the Western Addition its character and strived to save their old homes from the same urban-renewal wrecking ball that leveled much of the area to the east in the 1950s, resulting in the “modern blight” of that district’s ugly, characterless housing projects.

But however the naming issue is resolved, the fact remains that this neighborhood is the focus of renewed development and the kind of changes that bring new residents and businesses. The transition may be somewhat rocky, but as with so many other neighborhoods in San Francisco that have been through a similar transformation, the results are always interesting.

As a neighborhood, it’s one of the more architecturally intact in the city. Like the adjoining Haight-Ashbury District, NoPa was spared devastation in the post-quake fire of 1906, so many of the homes here are prime examples of the exuberant Victorian and early Edwardian architecture emblematic of those periods (the ornamented piles lining the north side of Fell, across the street from The Panhandle, attest to this somewhat excessive tendency). The same holds on Lyon Street, with its polychromed turrets and bulbous bay windows; along Broderick north of Fulton, with the heavily gewgawed facades; and even on Hayes, where, though less grand, the houses stand as a veritable catalog of style, from Italianate to Stick to Queen Anne.

But NoPa is much more than a stand-in for Disneyland’s Main Street. The neighborhood also claims an interesting mix of horticultural history (the trees on The Panhandle are among the oldest in San Francisco) and offbeat pop history (the apartment house at 1827 Golden Gate, between Broderick and Baker, is where Patty Hearst was held for eight weeks in 1974 as a hostage of the Symbionese Liberation Army). Among its most prominent features are the Mercy Terrace Apartments (formerly the Southern Pacific Hospital, an impressive beaux arts structure with four wings that is now converted into a senior living/care facility); the original red-brick Lowell High School (now the John Adams Campus of City College of San Francisco); and one of the trendiest streets in the city, the “new” Divisadero (aka “Diviz”). The latter thoroughfare, long a dingy stretch with little to recommend it besides being a straight shot from Pacific Heights to the Castro, has been spiffed up as a hip boulevard, with drought-tolerant shrubs and trees down the median and “parklets” with benches and planter boxes gracing the sidewalks.

As may be expected with an everything-old-is-new neighborhood, the demographics here are in flux. The 20,000 or so residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are a mix of 60 percent white, 15 percent Asian, 15 percent African American, and about 10 percent mixed race. They are middle class (median annual household income is $60,000), with about 75 percent of all residents renting their homes.

Today, NoPa seems to wear its past with pride while flaunting its new chic, especially along the refurbished Divisadero. At Grove Street, Da Pitt (called, variously, Lilly’s, Brother-in-Law’s, or Johnson’s in the recent past) is a holdover from the days when this was the Western Addition and the food was soulful barbecue. A number of other eateries (Eddie’s Café, with its all-day breakfast, and BlueJay Café, with its chicken feed, catfish and gumbo—not to mention the Popeye’s outlet at Hayes) echo the days not so far in the past when Southern cooking was the standard here. Today, everyone’s hot on Nopa (an “urban rustic” restaurant specializing in wood-fired meats and vegetables), Bar Crudo (the latest take on a seafood bar), Ziryab (Middle Eastern cuisine) and Club Waziema (Ethiopian food and drink). The Independent is a live-music hot spot between Grove and Hayes that is also drawing crowds from all over. Add to this a number of cafes (including Mojo, a bicycle shop/coffeehouse, Café Abir, and the Bean Bag Café), and it’s easy to see how this stretch of Divisadero deserves the attention.

Shops and markets are also dotted here and there on corners throughout the neigborhood, and one stretch of Fulton between Masonic and Central has an up-to-date supermarket in Petrini Plaza Shopping Center (serving the modern Village at Petrini Place condo/townhouse complex), a couple of restaurants and a Starbucks, along with a bank and a cleaners.

Although the Southern Pacific Hospital has been transformed into elderly housing, St.Mary’s Medical Center, known for podiatry, cardiology, and oncology, along with orthopedics and emergency care, is one of the bulwarks of Catholic Healthcare West and the oldest hospital still operating in San Francisco (it opened in the 1850s). Its main campus, comprising a few blocks bounded by Stanyan and Fulton on the northwest and Schrader and Hayes on the southeast, serves not only the neighborhood but also clients from throughout northern California.

Clearly, it’s easy to walk (or, as many do, ride a bike) to most stores and services in this compact neighborhood. But NoPa is also served by two east/west bus lines—the No. 5, which goes from Ocean Beach to Civic Center along Fulton and McAllister, and the No. 21, which travels a shorter circuit along Hayes from City Hall to Golden Gate Park—as well as the north/south No. 24, which goes from the Bayview to Pacific Heights via Divisadero, and the No. 43, which treks from Crocker-Amazon Park to the Marina District, using Masonic Avenue for a portion of its route. Although many buildings have garages, the high-density population of the neighborhood makes parking difficult, particularly during school hours Monday through Friday. Thus two-hour parking restrictions are generally enforced. For this reason, the Department of Parking and Traffic issues “L,” “BB,” and “P” permits for residents (depending on what street they live on).

The only public school in the area is New Traditions, an alternative K-5 that was rated 6 out of 10 by GreatSchools. Among the private choices are the San Francisco Day School at Masonic and Golden Gate (which caters to upper-crusty kids as well as those with learning differences) and Pacific Primary, a preschool/kindergarten at Grove and Baker. The University of San Francisco occupies a number of blocks in the northwestern corner of the area, forming its own sub-neighborhood, with offices, classrooms, and housing.

For all of its gentrification and inflow of educated, upper-middle-class people, crime remains something of a scourge here, according to San Francisco Police Department stats, particularly in terms of property theft and quality-of-life violations, such as disturbing the peace (which leads all crimes in NoPa) and vandalism (graffiti and damage to cars, mostly). Burglaries are regular throughout the neighborhood, and the incidence of car break-ins and vehicle theft is quite high. Assault is fairly common in a given three-month period, particularly along The Panhandle. Two homicides have been reported in the last three years.

Real-estate prices here are predictably on the rebound from the latest downturn, up 17 percent a year after their low point in 2009. Though single-family homes are rare, a number of two-flat buildings have gone on the market for $900,000 to $1.2 million, some of which at recently raised asking prices. That said, it’s still possible to find flats and condominiums for around $500,000 (as a remodeled two-bedroom/one-bath unit on Grove listed for recently). Bargain rentals here are difficult to find in any economic climate, owing to the built-in demand from students attending any one of the nearby universities. A 300-square-foot studio on Fulton recently listed for $1,000, a one-bedroom on Golden Gate listed for $1,500, and a two-bedroom on Lyon was asking $2,300 a month.

Although many longtime residents in this changing neighborhood are resisting calling their home “NoPa,” they appear to be benefitting from the renewal as well as the variety the newcomers bring. NoPa may not have a special ring to it, but it’s drawing the curious and creating just the right sort of buzz for this oft-overlooked corner of town.
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"A Hill That Became a Haven"

Sometimes, all it takes to make a neighborhood is the crest of a hill. That’s certainly the case with Merced Heights, a small, compact area comprised of 22 rectangular blocks bounded by Holloway and Shields on the north and south (respectively) and by Orizaba and Junipero Serra Boulevard to the east and west. The dividing line is the ridge along Shields Street on whose moderate southern slope lies Ingleside Heights; on the steeper northern side is Merced Heights.

To the casual observer, the two areas are virtually indistinguishable from each other. But residents here point out distinct characteristics in both the population and the housing stock that make Merced Heights different from the surrounding neighborhoods, including a wide variety of architectural styles that bespeak the different periods in which it was developed. Rather than being built in one fell swoop (as was Ingleside Terrace, for instance), Merced Heights evolved over the decades, something that shows in the area’s houses.

Historically, however, the area was among the last of the great tracts of land west of Twin Peaks to “fill in”—which, in developer parlance, meant laying out the streets to conform to the grid and then putting in predesigned homes, side by side. But because there were a number of existing homes already here, the monotony of such a scheme is broken by the appearance of a late Victorian or a big farmhouse.

Today, the area fans out in mostly well-maintained rowhouses that have a distinctly working-class look. Though many structures suggest a pre-World War I genesis, much of the neighborhood was built during the housing boom after World War II, in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the houses resemble many homes in the Sunset District (garage below/living quarters above). Exceptions are common, however: On Garfield near Ramsell, there’s a small house, odd because it’s set back and down from the street. Though it’s not on the official list of such buildings, it has the appearance of a 1906 earthquake refugee cottage, similar to more than 5,000 put up in many areas of San Francisco after the quake and fire of 1906. (There’s another halfway up the architecturally rich Byxbee Street, between Garfield and Shields, and possibly two more side by side on Vernon, between Holloway and Garfield.) How many of these refugee cottages remain is an open guessing game in San Francisco, but the often quirky-looking homes in neighborhoods such as Merced Heights have frequently proved to be a good source for examples of these rarities (albeit in an altered form).

As one of the first newly developed neighborhoods in San Francisco that allowed African Americans (even liberal San Francisco had neighborhoods, such as Ingleside Terrace and Presidio Terrace, with covenants that limited ownership or occupation to Caucasians), Merced Heights ultimately became a haven for middle-class blacks by the mid-1950s—as contrasted with the traditionally African American neighborhoods like the Fillmore District, where underprivileged blacks converged. Today, they are still a significant presence among the neighborhood’s roughly 6,000 residents (30 percent), according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, though having been exceeded by Asians (43 percent). Whites (19 percent) and people of two or more races (8 percent) comprise the other racial categories. The residents are middle class (median annual household income is $55,000) and almost 80 percent own their homes.

There is no commercial district or even a convenience store in Merced Heights. Because of the compact dimensions of the neighborhood and the fact that it borders Ingleside Terrace (which was designed specifically without a commercial strip), the residents here have to travel outside the area for groceries or even a cup of coffee—though there is a small market at Holloway and Ashton, just beyond the neighborhood’s northeast corner. Most people go to the markets and shops in adjacent Ingleside Heights or Parkmerced, or the larger Stonestown Galleria mall.

Residents also share parks and playgrounds with Ingleside Heights (the Merced Heights Playground and Brooks Parks, both just south of Shields Street). Brooks Park is a “natural area,” meaning it has few landscaped areas beyond a few trails, some raised beds for community gardeners, and a picnic table and benches. Merced Heights Playground has a couple of tennis courts, a basketball court, and a children’s play area with climbing equipment. Another of the neighborhood’s curiosities—Shields Orizaba Rocky Outcrop—has been described as “not quite a park,” and it’s fairly easy to see why: this odd promontory of serpentine and schist interrupts the normal grid, making dead-ends of both streets after which it takes its name (they continue on the other side). Local hikers and dog-walkers frequent it, enjoying its views and lax leash rules.

As for public transportation, the No. 29 bus is it, traveling along Garfield Street, east to connect with the “M” streetcar on 19th Avenue or going west all the way to the Bayview. Merced Heights is roughly a mile away from either the Balboa Park or Daly City BART stations.

Though many residents have cars, most houses also have garages, so on-street parking is generally hassle-free. Only the western third or so of the neighborhood is under 2-hour parking limits (owing to its proximity to San Francisco State University), and the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic issues “H” permits exempting residents from the time restriction.

The only public school nearby is Jose Ortega Elementary, on Sargent Street in adjacent Ingleside Heights, at the south end of Brooks Park. This K-5 was rated 6 out of 10 by GreatSchools.

Crime here is relatively light, according to data from the San Francisco Police Department. Over a recent three-month period, the most common violation was disturbing the peace, followed by a few instances of burglary and petty theft. Though vehicle thefts and car break-ins have hounded other districts in the city, they are uncommon here. And assaults are merely occasional in the area, with no homicides reported in the last three years.

Real-estate prices in Merced Heights are still struggling to recover from the recent economic downturn, remaining 22 percent below in 2010 what they were in 2009, according to Trulia. Still, the market is heavy with foreclosures, and there are bargains to be found. A two-bedroom, one-bathroom single-family home on Byxbee Street was asking $529,000, and many other such homes were listed in the low to mid-$400,000 range. Rentals are fairly rare (being snatched up by SFSU students); a three-bedroom, two-bath home lists in the $2,800 to $3,000 a month range. As it turns out, students from SFSU and City College have given this neighborhood’s rocky housing market some stability, readily renting properties that would have otherwise stood vacant during the slump.
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3/5 rating details
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  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 3/5
  • Eating Out 2/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 2/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
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"Betwixt and Between"

Ingleside Heights is one of those neither here-nor-there neighborhoods that takes its cues from what lies around it: the sprawling suburban anonymity of Daly City to the south; the somewhat tired look of the blocks to the east and north; and the clean and modern (though somewhat sterile) Parkmerced to the west. Though it lies within the city limits, it has the look of numerous other communities that stretch up and down the Peninsula. Many first-time visitors to the area get here by taking a wrong turn off I-280, and it’s not uncommon for them to stop a local and ask “How do you get back to San Francisco?”

But this subdistrict of the area known overall as Ingleside (or, depending on where you live, Oceanview) is not without features that distinguish it from its neighboring districts. For one, it’s a bit safer in terms of crime. For another, it’s somewhat cleaner, with homes of a more recent vintage (and thus, more rectilinear in design, with less detailing to paint). Considering that it’s for the most part situated on a hill, there’s a more open feel to this neighborhood as well, sloping down as it does toward Brotherhood Way from Shields Street and Brooks Park, each house with its own postage-stamp front yard and individual landscaping (bushes and shrubs, generally—trees tend to be scarce here). Homes near Shields Street can even claim partial views of the Pacific.

The area was once rolling vegetable and dairy farms, then the nexus of a rail line that cut through the hills en route from the San Francisco waterfront to San Jose. Irish, German, and other immigrants from Europe moved here, encouraged by the easy access to jobs in the city. During the early part of the 20th century, however, the railroad abandoned the area for a more direct route via the Bayshore cut, and this once thriving place declined. Fueled by the World War II boom of the 1940s and ’50s, however, it began to be filled in with economical homes (of the style typical in the Sunset). Because there were no racial restrictions, African Americans and other minorities barred from home-ownership elsewhere in San Francisco could move here. The neighborhood quickly became one of the most diverse in the city.

Today, that diversity is still evident. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the neighborhood’s roughly 10,000 residents are about 45 percent Asian, 30 percent African American, 20 percent white, and the remaining 5 percent of mixed or two races; about 8 percent of all groups identify themselves as Latino. This is a lower middle-class area, with a median annual household income of about $55,000. About 75 percent of all residents own their homes. The proximity of San Francisco State University explains a large short-term population here, as many students are attracted to the area’s reasonable rents and the rooms and granny-unit accommodations that many homes offer.

Ingleside Heights can easily be divided into two distinct sections, with Brotherhood Way serving as the demarcation line; neighborhoods north and south have two different characters.

North of Brotherhood Way (a gently curving parkway carved in the 1960s from Stanley Drive), houses look minimally well-maintained, with a few sad cases of neglect and oddities thrown in. In the 100 block of Arch Street, for instance, visitors can easily spot a bizarre trio of homes on the east side of the street: one cheesy moderne, the next ersatz Yosemite, the final one Stone Age primitive. It is an amazing display of bad taste, and yet it fits in somehow with this street and its other crazy-colored adobe homes, from lime-meringue green to mustard yellow.

Many have criticized these tightly packed streets for being too car-centric, the homeowners (or renters) too obsessed with their cars and not enough with the upkeep of their dwellings. But there is nothing to suggest urban decay or blight, and most houses, while perhaps not imaginatively painted and decorated, are at least neat and clean. The presence of bars across most first-floor windows and entryways, however, suggests a frequency, or at least fear, of burglary, but the mostly graffiti-free neighborhood also attests to a certain pride of ownership as well.

On the south side of Brotherhood Way, the area takes on a different, less oppressive feel, with newly constructed apartment buildings (in particular, OceanView Village, a huge complex of renovated, reasonably priced apartments), a revamped shopping center (also part of OceanView Village, with a franchise drugstore and a large supermarket), and more trees, most of them young but a few quite old. This gives the streets in this flatter, more modern section of Ingleside Heights an appeal to younger residents, who like the easy access to the highway and BART. Older residents like the access to three nearby golf courses.

A couple of parks and playgrounds serve the neighborhood, both of them on the north side. Brooks Park on Shields Street is a “natural area,” meaning it has few landscaped areas beyond a few trails, some raised beds for community gardeners, and a picnic table and benches. Merced Heights Playground, also on Shields, has a couple of tennis courts, a basketball court, and a children’s play area with climbing equipment. Another of the neighborhood’s curiosities—Shields Orizaba Rocky Outcrop—has been described as “not quite a park,” and it’s fairly easy to see why: this bizarre promontory of serpentine and schist temporarily interrupts the normal grid, making dead-ends of both streets after which it takes its name. Local hikers and dog-walkers frequent it most, enjoying its views and lax leash rules.

The area is a prime candidate for undergrounding utilities. Look overhead on most of the streets, and it’s a tangle of wires and poles, eyesores that block views and add to the messy look of the streets. The city has begun replacing the modern “cobra” streetlights with a classic “teardrop” more in keeping with the era in which this area was developed, but lack of funds has stymied a full-speed ahead approach.

In addition to the aforementioned OceanView Village shopping center, many smaller shops, services, and businesses cluster along Randolph. Though it’s a main drag, with the “M” streetcar running down the middle, the street has a forlorn aspect, with only a shop here and there between somewhat seedy rental units and small homes. The Oceanview Branch of the public library (at Ramsell) is the one bright spot along this dreary stretch.

The “M” streetcar line cuts through the neighborhood’s middle, offering access to points north (Stonestown Mall, West Portal, downtown) as well as to BART at the Balboa Park station. The No. 54 bus traverses the area’s southern half, on the other side of Brotherhood Way, terminating at the BART Daly City Station. (A large parking lot for BART patrons lies just off St. Charles Avenue, just before it crosses over I-280.) Though parking is generally easy, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic have issued “CC” and “B” permits for certain streets near schools or the BART station.

The lone school in the neighborhood—Jose Ortega Elementary, on Sargent Street, at the south end of Brooks Park—was rated 6 out of 10 by GreatSchools.

This is a marginally safe neighborhood, according to San Francisco Police Department figures, with a certain reputation for burglaries, robberies, and assaults. In any three month period, occasional vandalism (mostly graffiti) and disturbing the peace violations are committed as well. There have been three homicides in the last three years (all of them committed in 2007).

Real estate here is struggling to recover from the economic doldrums of the 2009/2010 period, with home prices suffering a 12 percent decline in the last year alone, according to Trulia. Many single-family homes with multiple bedrooms and baths sell for well under $500,000, with one three-bedroom fixer on Chester Avenue going for $392,000. Rentals, many of them in the OceanView Village complex, are also reasonable, with prices for a one-bedrooms starting at about $1,200 a month. As with apartments in adjoining areas, the student population from City College and SFSU drives the market here.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 2/5
  • Childcare 2/5
Just now

"Dogpatch: To Hell and Back"

So, how did Dogpatch, the town made famous in the “L’il Abner” comic strip, come to denote a small rectangle of ragtag blocks and buildings in the Central Waterfront just below Potrero Hill? Could it be the down-and-out look of so many abandoned factories? The rust-encrusted reminders of what was, a hundred years ago, a booming shipbuilding hub? The “dogged” perseverance of its longtime residents and businesses, who have stuck it out here for longer than most of their counterparts in the city? Or is it something else altogether, not at all related to Al Capp’s hillbilly characters—the packs of dogs who used to roam the area and its meatpacking plants, looking for scraps?

Whatever its origins, it’s an irresistible name for such an overlooked place. This agglomeration of 19th-century brick warehouses, defunct factory buildings, and historic working-class homes that served the once-busy Central Waterfront is one of those formerly forgotten neighborhoods that, thanks to urban pioneers, is getting a makeover. Though many locals and their preservation-minded supporters are skeptical, Dogpatch today is becoming an oddly desirable place to live. Not for everyone, certainly, but everyone who has visited finds it interesting in one way or another.

Originally called “Potrero Point,” then “Dutchman’s Flat,” and cut off from the city by Mission Bay (which was a shallow, fetid marsh in the late-19th century), the area came into its own after a railroad bridge across Mission Bay linked it to the post-Gold Rush downtown of still-booming San Francisco. In the decades of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, this compact area was among the largest manufacturing centers on the West Coast, with ironworks and light industry supplying a growing city and state with the tools of commerce. Because of its isolated location, workers needed housing nearby, so dozens of homes and flats went up within short walking distance of the factories, creating one of San Francisco’s first (and one of its few remaining) mixed industrial/residential neighborhoods.

The neighborhood was spared the fire that followed the earthquake of 1906, and its importance to rebuilding San Francisco was pivotal. But over time (and particularly after World War II ended, presaging the decline of the robust shipbuilding industry), Dogpatch lost its industrial base, as businesses either moved or shut down. The Central Waterfront (as the larger area is known) was then isolated a second time from the rest of the city by the construction of the elevated Southern Embarcadero Freeway (I-280) and deteriorated into an out-and-out eyesore, more reminiscent of post-industrial Milwaukee than Baghdad by the Bay. At one point in the early 1960s, the city considered bulldozing it for redevelopment.

But a resurgence in light industry came in the 1970s, in the form of a clothing manufacturer (Esprit), which took over an old, rambling, brick wine warehouse. Other businesses followed, giving the district a new hold on life. That led to a number of entrepreneurs, artists, and young professionals moving here as well. They transformed the rundown Victorian and Edwardian cottages and modest working-class homes, bringing a sort of rough charm to the neighborhood. Today, sections of Tennessee and Minnesota streets between 19th and 22nd are showcases of their handiwork, with brightly colored, restored wooden facades proudly facing the street. A number of these homes were built in the late 1800s by the residents themselves, working from plans by populist architect Jon Cotter Pelton Jr. that were published free for anyone to use in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. They are among the reasons Dogpatch was named a historic district by the city in 2003.

By the mid-1990s, development fervor gripped the area, as dozens of live/work lofts had gone up, with dozens more planned. The rapid gentrification spawned a watchdog group, the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, which works with various city and private organizations to preserve and protect the area and plan for its future. Another neighborhood group has cooperated with the city’s Recreation and Park Department to secure Esprit Park, a two-square-block green at 20th and Minnesota that formerly belonged to Esprit (the aforementioned clothing company) and was transferred to city jurisdiction in 2001. The Omega Boys Club, a social/educational outreach to at-risk youth in the greater Potrero Hill area, occupies the oldest standing schoolhouse in San Francisco, the Irving M. Scott School, built in 1895 at 1060 Tennessee. The Hells Angels even have a clubhouse here (at Tennessee and 23rd).

Though barely 1,000 people occupy Dogpatch today, the neighborhood is expected to absorb twice that in the next decade as the hospital/medical/university projects in adjoining Mission Bay are completed—to say nothing of the thousands more who might arrive with the proposed redevelopment of Pier 70, the 69-acre expanse of Central Waterfront brownfields that the Port of San Francisco plans to transform into a mixed-use area of shoreline parks and open space as well as offices and business parks for high-tech companies.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the neighborhood is comprised 70 percent by whites, 15 percent by Asians, and the remaining 15 percent by African Americans and people of two or more races. They are for the most part upper middle class (median household annual income is about $90,000), although the majority (60 percent) rent their homes.

Though commercial establishments dot this mixed-use area, 22nd Street is the neighborhood’s center of retail attention: a number of cafes (including the popular Piccino), bars (Dogpatch Saloon), and restaurants (Serpentine, Hard Knox Café) cluster on or near the intersection of 22nd and Third. There’s also a salsa nightclub (Café Cocomo) and a sushi restaurant (Moshi Moshi) near the 18th Street end of the neighborhood.

Public transportation includes the increasingly popular “T” streetcar, which travels north and south along Third Street, linking the neighborhood to Mission Bay, the AT&T ballpark, and downtown office buildings. Two east/west crosstown buses, the Nos. 22 and 48, terminate at 20th Street and Third. There is also a Caltrain commuter station at 22nd and Pennsylvania.

Parking is relatively easy and available, although the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has designated some four-hour limits on certain streets. Residents can obtain “X” parking permits for use in the central area (Minnesota, Indiana, and Tennessee between 18th and 23rd).

The area has no public or private schools, though children can either walk or take the bus to public schools on Potrero Hill: Starr King on the south side and Daniel Webster on the north (both got a 2 out of 10 GreatSchools rating). There’s also an alternative junior high/high school on DeHaro Street, International Studies Academy (which earned a 3 out of 10 GreatSchools rating). Additionally, Live Oak School (K-8) is an independent elementary school on Mariposa, near Arkansas Street.

Crime here is moderate and centers mostly on property (burglary and vehicle theft) and quality of life (disturbing the peace, much of it from the area’s nightclubs and bars, and graffiti). Car break-ins are becoming a serious issue, with occurrences highest around the Café Cocomo salsa nightclub near 18th Street. There are occasional assaults in any three-month period, and there have been two homicides reported in the last three years.

Real-estate prices remain somewhat depressed after the recent economic downturn, with condos and live/work lofts experiencing the greatness softness. A historic, two-bedroom/one-bathroom home on Minnesota Street recently listed for $800,000, while a new one-bedroom, 1.5 bathroom condo was going for $455,000. Rentals, though rare, are considered a good deal; studios are virtually nonexistent, but a two-bedroom/two-bathroom condo off 22nd Street was recently listed for $3,000 a month.

Even though it is becoming a hot place to live (figuratively and literally—the neighborhood has the sunniest weather in San Francisco, with less fog than any other spot in San Francisco, according to U.S. Weather Service data), Dogpatch clings to its working-class past. It is a neighborhood where artists and police officers, delivery and bus drivers, engine makers and winemakers, young singles and families all call home. Besides, as a local café’s website asks, “Where else can Baptist ministers rub elbows with Hells Angels?”
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5/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 5/5
  • Clean & Green 5/5
  • Pest Free 5/5
  • Peace & Quiet 5/5
  • Eating Out 2/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 2/5
  • Gym & Fitness 5/5
  • Internet Access 5/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 1/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
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Editors Choice

"If You Lived Here, You’d Be Happy Now"

What is it about the ideal neighborhood that makes everyone content? The pleasant arrangement of the houses? The design of the homes? Clean streets and sidewalks, bordered by well-tended trees and flowers and patches of greenery? Or is it the neighbors themselves, who go about their daily lives being generally pleasant and polite, helping out when asked but disappearing into their own lives when privacy is called for? A poll taken in 1998 for the San Francisco Examiner reported that residents of St. Francis Wood were the among the city’s most satisfied. All things being equal over the last dozen years, there’s no reason to believe they still aren’t: Their neighborhood is a model of tranquility and natural beauty and residential splendor unlike any other in San Francisco.

Born of the City Beautiful movement from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, St. Francis Wood retains to a great degree its distinction as one of the nation’s finest “residence parks.” Planned by the ambitious developer Duncan McDuffie a few years after the quake and fire of 1906, it occupies 175 acres on the western flank of Mount Davidson. Its contoured street plan (devised by the renowned Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, whose masterpiece was New York’s Central Park) features a grand St. Francis Boulevard running down the middle, with a Roman Beaux-Arts entryway at Junipero Serra Boulevard, a circular fountain midway, and a terraced plaza and fountain at its end.

Of the more than 600 architect-designed homes on larger-than-average lots, many are superior examples of Italian Renaissance revival style favored in the first decades of the 20th century. (Over the years, other styles slipped in, including French Renaissance, Spanish-Moorish eclectic, Tudor, and English cottage.) The Italian theme was also chosen to reinforce the link to the birthplace of the city’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who was invoked for this development as well. All home plans had to be approved by the supervising architect for St. Francis Wood, the famed architect Henry Gutterson (himself a follower of Bernard Maybeck)—all in order to achieve the aesthetic balance McDuffie envisioned, which included a minimum required setback from the street, harmonious color schemes, even mandated fence heights and landscaping. Gutterson is credited with designing more than 80 of the homes, many of which stand, unaltered, today.

Because McDuffie was so insistent on his vision, and Gutterson so adept at maintaining it through the decades he served as its supervising architect, St. Francis Wood appears much as it did 50 or 60 years ago: stately homes set back graciously from the street; tall trees looming over well-groomed lawns; utility lines buried out of sight underground. If you buy a home in St. Francis Wood, you become a member of the home owners association and agree to adhere to the strict “covenants, conditions, and restrictions” (adopted in 1917, and renegotiated in 1950) that regulate work done on house exteriors, including landscaping, paint colors, windows, additions, fences, building materials, and any remodeling that can be seen by neighbors.

The only unregulated concessions to modern times—large, expensive vehicles—are for the most part tucked discreetly into carports, driveways, and garages, with the rare visitor parking on the narrow streets. As might be assumed, on-street parking is not an issue here, although the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has curiously assigned most streets two-hour time limits, with “O” permits available to residents (perhaps to keep intruders from other neighborhoods from harvesting the ample street parking here).

McDuffie wanted no commercial concerns to intrude on this environment, and so the neighborhood lacks so much as a convenience store or even a coffee shop. Residents do their socializing, restaurant-hopping, shopping, and errands in the adjoining West Portal, across Portola Drive, or at the Lakeshore Plaza on Sloat Boulevard, or even farther afield, at Stonestown Mall on 19th Avenue.

And who are the residents of St. Francis Wood? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the roughly 5,000 residents are predominantly white (60 percent), with a considerable number of Asians (30 percent) and people of African American and mixed race included. They are definitely upper class (median annual household income exceeds $120,000). Nearly everyone (85 percent) owns his or her home.

Public transportation is limited in the neighborhood to the No. 23 bus, which runs east and west along St. Francis Boulevard. Though most residents prefer to drive to their destinations around town, a number commute to downtown jobs via the subway lines (K, L, and M) at West Portal.

The only park in this park-like neighborhood (not including the parkway that is St. Francis Boulevard) is at Santa Clara Avenue and Terrace Drive, where the neighborhood association maintains a playground, tennis and basketball courts, and an inviting green. There are no schools within the neighborhood boundaries, meaning most kids here are driven or bused to public (or, more commonly) private schools elsewhere.

Crime here is light and mostly property related. Over a recent three-month period, there were a few incidents of vandalism and petty theft, in addition to a couple of burglaries. Vehicle thefts and car break-ins are on the rise, however. But there were no homicides in the last three years.

Real estate prices here have tended to remain stable, even during the recent economic downturn, according to Trulia. Granted, many homes are selling for tens of thousands less than asking price, but in percentage terms, it’s relatively low, with a 25 percent increase recorded at the low point of the recession and the 2010 asking prices. Most homes feature multiple bedroom/bathroom combinations. Those along the neighborhood’s less “exclusive” end (along Monterey Boulevard) list for close to $2 million, while the bigger, more grandiose homes (five to eight bedrooms, with four or five bathrooms) up the hillside toward West Portal command asking prices in the $3 million to $4.5 million range. Rentals are strictly controlled, and so monthly prices for even small houses are not readily available.

If you are lucky enough to live (and own) here, St. Francis Wood provides a comforting environment. The punishing wet fog of summer can dampen spirits for a couple of months, but for the most part, an Italian Renaissance revival home on a quiet street is as good a definition of (sub)urban bliss as can be imagined.
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3/5 rating details
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  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 3/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 2/5
  • Shopping Options 2/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 2/5
  • Childcare 2/5
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"Cheap, But Don't Look for College Town Ambiance"

Even though the largest campus of City College of San Francisco borders its northern end, Ingleside lacks the tree-lined streets, charming houses, and quaint main street typical of many college towns. (Granted, City College doesn’t have the ivy-draped buildings and acres of park-like landscaping of many such institutions of higher learning, either.) Instead, the neighborhood sits to the west of a major freeway (Interstate 280); its main road, Ocean Avenue, is an often deserted, sterile stretch (especially at its eastern end) with a streetcar line running down the middle and only a couple of shops, fast-food franchises, mom-and-pop eateries, and automotive services offering any commercial interest. Worse yet, the vast parking lots of the college lie inertly to one side, imparting the aspect of a huge factory rather than a place of academic activity. If the adjoining neighborhoods of Ingleside Terrace and Westwood Park look like twin sisters of spruce suburban order and cleanliness, Ingleside itself seems much like their older, dowdier sibling: showing its age, with more blemishes and a disheveled look overall.

These initial visual impressions could be a holdover from Ingleside’s somewhat dubious past: the area served in the late 19th century and early 20th as a collection of shadowy pursuits on the fringes of the law, including boxing rings, shooting ranges, tawdry saloons, and, at the east end of what was then called Ocean Road, a jail to deal with all the miscreants, while on the west end, a popular roadhouse (the Ingleside Inn) did a roaring business and ultimately lent the neighborhood its name. The land, once a vast prairie sweeping up the side of a hill and covered with wildflowers many months of the year, attracted few people other than farmers. Early developers (including Adolph Sutro) trumpeted its views (you can stand at certain points here and see both the ocean and the bay) and went so far as to try to rename today’s Ocean Avenue “Grand Ocean Boulevard.”

Yet Ingleside was never fully settled until after World War I, when improved transportation and the increased demand for housing at last attracted residents, who built modest homes or moved into blocks where developers had anticipated their eventual arrival. The card rooms and gaming saloons on Ocean Avenue gave way to more sedate shops, stores, and gas stations and garages. The jail was transformed into City College, and entertainment venues featured more innocent fare such as ice cream and movies. The area also experienced the white flight to the suburbs in the late 1950s and early ’60s that changed it from predominantly white to a mix of races.

Ingleside is today a neighborhood in transition. Many of its properties, which had become slightly unkempt, are being bought up by first-time homeowners and given needed repairs and facelifts. This explains the somewhat hodgepodge look of the houses, comprised of a number of architectural styles as development proceeded through the decades, only to be updated with faux surfaces and facades (stone, stucco, half-timber, even streamline moderne). In spite of all the renovation and modernization, a few of the area’s old cottages and more substantial single-family homes still stand, and these have been in many cases appropriately restored (notable examples lie along Grafton Avenue). Young people (many of them students of either City College or nearby San Francisco State University) occupy the marginally legal “granny” or “in-law” units that have been attached to the houses (or built from existing structures, such as storage rooms off a garage) over the years.

The population of Ingleside—roughly 11,000—is a mix, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with nearly 50 percent Asian, 20 percent white, 20 percent African American, and the remaining 10 percent a mix of two or more races. The people are middle class (median annual household income is $60,000), and most of them (about 65 percent) own their homes.

Ocean Avenue harbors most of the area’s shops and stores, which are more prevalent the farther west you travel, especially beginning at Granada Avenue and continuing on till Faxon Avenue, where there is an attractive collection of shops centered around the former branch of the public library. The new Ingleside Branch of the SFPL, a sleek and modern facility noted for its teen and children’s sections and a good collection of Chinese-language books, opened in 2009 at Ocean and Plymouth avenues and is one of the bright spots along this somewhat depressing, outdated commercial strip. The city has in the last few years undertaken some street improvements here, installing vintage streetlamps and planting more trees, but the old storefronts have a tired rather than appealingly old-fashioned look and are prime candidates for some sprucing up. There are a few businesses, markets, and shops that cluster along Holloway Avenue, but most residents go to the nearby Stonestown Mall or even farther afield to do their major shopping.

Public transportation consists of the “K” streetcar along Ocean Avenue and a bus line (the No. 29) that goes east and west along Grafton Avenue. The No. 54 bus also cuts a circuitous path through the neighborhood’s eastern section. The area is also served by BART (at the Balboa Park station on the area’s eastern fringe) as well as by numerous connections to the city’s Muni streetcars and buses at that same Balboa Park transit hub.

Although parking close to City College can be difficult during the day (explaining why the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has issued “V” residential stickers and established two-hour time limits on streets ), finding a space in the rest of the neighborhood is generally a snap, owing to the fact that most homes have garages.

Schools are, curiously enough, private. Two—one sectarian, the other not—are located near City College: San Francisco Adventist School (a K-8 elementary on Geneva Avenue) and Lick-Wilmerding High School, a nonsectarian college prep that shares some athletic facilities with City College. Stratford School is a private K-8 housed in the former St. Emydius Grade School building (next to the twin-spired Mission revival Catholic Church of the same name on De Montfort Avenue).

Crime here is moderate to high, with burglary, robbery, and assaults leading the way in a recent three-month period, according to San Francisco Police Department records. (Iron bars on windows and across entryways attest to the prevalence of property theft.) Graffiti vandalism and disturbing the peace are also fairly common, and the neighborhood suffers as well from the rash of vehicle thefts and auto break-ins that have plagued most of San Francisco over the last couple of years. There has been one homicide in the last three years.

The real estate boom that swept the city in the last ten years missed Ingleside to a great degree, which has meant that the area never faced a big slide in the recent economic downturn. Still, according to Trulia, home prices in the neighborhood have jumped 26 percent in the 2009-2010 period, owing to recent characterizations of the area as a bargain-hunter’s trove—which was a function of the number of foreclosed homes and bank repossessions. Many single-family homes, which predominate in the area, sell in the $400,000 to $500,000 range (a refurbished three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Capitol Avenue recently listed for $399,000). Rentals, driven to a degree by students and young families, are reasonable if somewhat rare: a simple studio can go for under $1,000, while one- and two-bedroom apartments start at $1,200 to $1,500 a month.

Although Ingleside provides few amenities in the way of parks or first-rate shopping, it is considered affordable for students, young families, and first-time homeowners—all of whom can overlook its paltry features and lack of “college town” charm for the appealing bottom line: in an increasingly expensive city, it’s a cheap place to hang your hat.
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MMCASTRO
MMCASTRO I'd like to cite the census data you included in your post about Ingleside - could you please let me know your source? And was it from the 2000 or 2010 numbers? Thank you!
2yrs+
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Just now

"What Leonard Hath Wrought"

Sandwiched between the campuses of a state university on the left and a city college on the right, Ingleside Terrace would seem to be teeming with students. Both places of higher education (San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco) bring a combined student body of tens of thousands to the area a day. Yet this place, though claiming a student resident here and there, is more a traditional neighborhood, with neatly maintained (and often grand-scale) single-family homes instead of dormitories and cramped apartments.

Ingleside Terrace has a history that belies its quiet, almost suburban aspect. These tranquil, upper-crusty blocks with wide, landscaped yards, palm trees, and grassy public spaces were once home to makeshift gambling operations, a shooting range, and a certain seedy element in the late 19th century. Then, the Pacific Coast Jockey Club opened the Ingleside Racetrack across the way from a well-frequented roadhouse and toned things up a bit with a fancy clubhouse and even a rail line to transport horserace enthusiasts to the site.

The new track was not all that successful (the dense fog that often visits the area in the summer obscured the action at inopportune moments), and after the owners attempted to bring other types of races to the track (including autos), they gave up and sold the place to a competitor in 1905. But the city’s other racetracks were declining at the time, and when the 1906 earthquake struck, the track was converted to a camp for quake and fire refugees and the clubhouse served as a temporary home to the residents of the Laguna Honda Hospital, which needed extensive repairs.

By 1910, sensing an opportunity, developer Joseph A. Leonard bought the racetrack and its surrounding land (for $2,500 an acre) and began building the neighborhood seen today—a community of broad streets, curved drives, grand entries off Ocean Avenue, and tastefully landscaped small parks with unique ornamental touches and landmarks. Urbano Drive itself follows the oval contours of the original racetrack, and the irregular-sized lots are in keeping with his vision of creating a semi-rural retreat in the midst of a growing metropolis.

Perhaps the most enduring reference to Leonard’s vision is Entrada Court, which is actually two streets leading at 45-degree angles to a circular drive, in the middle of which sits a massive sundial (which Leonard marketed with great fanfare), surrounded by curlicue walkways, benches, and low-profile trees, shrubs, and pedestals topped with plants. It imparts a stately, tasteful aspect to the western end of the old racetrack, a reminder to those who gaze upon it that time is indeed fleeting.

Leonard’s plan for the neighborhood is also evident in the styles of homes arrayed on the curved street plan. These pastel-hued domiciles—a Craftsman here, a Mission revival there, punctuated occasionally by a two-story Tuscan villa—comprise a vision of an early 20th century “residence park.” Many of the area’s homes follow this eclectic architectural pattern, giving it the feel of Southern California—or at least Monterey.

One pernicious effect of Leonard’s grand plan was the shutting out of minorities, especially African Americans. Then, in 1957, Cecil F. Poole, a black lawyer (and Harvard grad) arrived, the first non-Caucasian to buy a home in Ingleside Terrace—one of Leonard’s former residences to boot. Poole, president of the San Francisco Urban League and an assistant district attorney, would one day become a federal judge. Still, that did not spare him the indignity of having a cross burned on his front lawn. Despite such overt expressions of hate, Poole and his family remained in the neighborhood until the 1980s, by which time most barriers to home ownership based on race had been challenged, if not removed altogether.

Today the enclave’s population of 4,500 is more diverse than ever, if still somewhat dominated by whites (about 60 percent, according to U.S. Census figures). Asians have a strong presence (30 percent), and African Americans and those of two or more races make up the remaining 10 percent. The mostly upper-middle class residents (median annual household income is above $100,000) overwhelmingly own their homes (90 percent).

Shopping is along Ocean Avenue, with its array of service stores (dry cleaners, hair salons, nail parlors) along with an assortment of shops, from Ocean Cyclery and Golden Gate Wine Cellars to Aquatic Central (for rare aquarium fish) and the Comic Outpost (“We have issues” is the store’s slogan). A number of mom-and-pop cafes (King’s Coffee et al.), restaurants (like Emmy’s), and baked-goods stores (e.g., Zanze’s Cheesecake) also line Ocean Avenue as it curves gently around the neighborhood’s northeastern perimeter. Residents can also take advantage of the big department stores and specialty shops at the nearby Stonestown Mall on 19th Avenue.

The small neighborhood has no schools, private or public, within its bounds, although a number of options (Aptos Middle School, Mercy High School, Lick Wilmerding High) are nearby.

Public transportation is limited for the most part to the “K” streetcar line, which travels regularly along Ocean Avenue en route to the West Portal stations and downtown destinations beyond or to the Balboa Park station, where it connects with BART. Many residents here choose to drive, however, and with so many homes having garages, onstreet parking is never difficult, except near the neighborhood’s western edge, where competition for spaces increases with the daily influx of SFSU students. For this reason, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has issued the “H” residential parking permit, enabling those who live in those western blocks affected to park their cars longer than for two hours. The only other restrictions to parking on the street elsewhere are the weekly street-sweeping times and the usual (if rarely enforced) 72-hour limit on occupying any one spot.

There is not much crime here: an instance of vandalism or disturbing the peace, an occasional burglar, the rare assault or even sex crime. Vehicle theft and car break-ins are also infrequent, contradicting a trend that San Francisco police are increasingly at a loss to prevent in other neighborhoods. No murders have been reported in the last three years.

Real estate is predictably pricey, even as the neighborhood suffered one of the biggest drops (26 percent) in median sales price in the economic downturn, according to Trulia.com. A four-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home recently listed for $1.2 million, while a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home was advertised at $860,000. Rentals, driven by the student market to a great degree, are reasonable: a small three-bedroom, one-bath in-law unit off Estero Avenue recently listed for $1,900 a month, while a three-bedroom, two-bath single-family home was asking $2,800 a month. In spite of the slide in the market, homes and apartments in Ingleside Terrace remain in demand, as more residents seek to “move up” to this earliest of San Francisco’s planned residential communities.
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tz3
tz3 Ingleside Terraces is the hottest real estate investment in San Francisco. It has numerous great restaurants, close to every freeway to Silicon Valley and San Francisco, huge front and backyards, but not yet built up like other neighborhoods in SF - hence you will not only make money simply buying SF real estate, but you will be getting into a neighborhood ready to skyrocket! It is adjacent to the sunset and forest hill neighborhoods - ranked the hottest 2016 neighborhoods. 2017/2018 will see Ingleside Terraces jump up even higher - get in!
Nov 25, 2016
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Just now

"A Disorienting Journey into Past, Present, and Future"

A neighborhood can exist on many levels: its actual streets and buildings; the people who live there today, as well as those who inhabited its past; the defining businesses and activities that bring order and purpose; and the underlying “culture of place” that holds it all together. Chinatown is all these things and then some: a somewhat trite tourist destination; a shopping district hawking every consumer electronic imaginable; and a living museum of gaudily painted storefronts and historic relics and brand-new high-rises housing the layers of residents who enliven it today. It is as old as the city’s Barbary Coast, and yet as modern in some respects as the latest Financial District skyscraper. It is as crass as a cheap souvenir and as inscrutable as a street sign rendered in calligraphic characters. It can be as cold as a merchant’s shrug or as warm and alluring as the smell of some savory dim sum recently set out on a counter display. It is at once a place looked back on, tolerated in its current chaos, and seen as the great hope for a community as it seeks to define itself as well as its legacy to San Francisco.

Much has been written about Chinatown’s history, but the most succinct thing one can say today is summed up in one sentence: The old Chinatown of the 19th century was completely obliterated by the great fire following the 1906 earthquake that devastated most of San Francisco. In rebuilding, property owners used brick and steel to create the substantial buildings of today’s neighborhood, many of them adorned with a kind of Americanized chinoiserie that features pagoda trim at the roofline and doorways sculpted with dragons and other iconic symbols. The elaborate Chinatown Gate at Bush Street and Grant Avenue is a fairly recent addition, having been unveiled in 1970, but its green-tiled roofs, sculpted tiers, and animal shapes are inspired by the architectural detailing up and down Grant and throughout the area, notably the old telephone exchange building on Washington Street and the buildings housing the Chinese Six Companies and Charity Cultural Services Center on Stockton.

Nevertheless, what exists today is but an echo of a completely different place, a complex of streets and passageways alive with both the mundane and exotic. The neighborhood’s small lanes and alleys were once filthy places, rife with opium dens and gambling parlors, prostitution, bribes, chicanery, and all the vice you might find in a penny dreadful novel of the late 19th century. Today, they are surprisingly clean and peaceful, pleasant respites from the hustle-bustle of the sidewalks lining Grant and Stockton. But the influence of the Chinatown of the past on what the area has become today cannot be dismissed: In Chinatown, things were and likely always will be done differently.

What sets Chinatown apart from the rest of the city and what makes it seem so foreign today is rooted in history. The first wave of Chinese immigrants that poured into San Francisco between 1852 and 1882 (invariably male laborers) worked hard to establish economic bases of power, and they formed associations, or tongs, that helped them interface with the English-speaking world. These associations became even more powerful as anti-Chinese sentiment in San Francisco (and nationally) manifested in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively halted immigration from China until its repeal in 1943. A union of tongs—the so-called Chinese Six Companies—kept tight control over the Chinese community until the mid-20th century, when immigration rules were relaxed and Chinese-Americans became more assimilated into mainstream society.

One thing Chinatown is and always has been: busy. The neighborhood hums with human activity, people earning a living, spending their money, trying to improve their lot, get ahead, and then move on. To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of Chinatown is business. Hundreds of them, from shops that sell roots and herbs (essentials in Chinese medicine) or hawk live animals (a trade that continues, despite being banned in early 2010, under the counter at many of the neighborhood’s fish and meat markets) to the dim sum kitchens and the factory that supplies hundreds of local Chinese eateries with fortune cookies to the banks that finance the purchase of an apartment or building or an entire city lot. Much of this business is conducted by merchants who use an abacus rather than a cash register, and many shop owners accept unorthodox payment methods (bartering is common, as are IOUs), contributing to the distinctly foreign feel of the place.

Chinatown remains San Francisco’s most densely populated neighborhood, and among the most densely populated places in the entire United States. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates its population at more than 100,000 residents—about two-thirds of the ethnic Chinese population overall in the city—although not everyone is ethnic Chinese. (About 30 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Asians of a different ethnicity or white, African American, or of mixed race.) Chinatown also harbors one of the poorer middle class enclaves, with a median household income of $42,153. Pretty much everyone here rents.

To say that Grant Avenue is Chinatown’s heart is accurate, though it leaves out the neighborhood’s soul. True, the avenue houses many of the shops and eateries (Empress of China, Canton Bazaar, Buddha Lounge) that tourists can’t resist, along with the bulk of the chinoiserie-festooned buildings and the landmark (if somewhat gaudy) streetlamps and red-and-gold lanterns strung overhead. But the real neighborhood action is along the soul of Chinatown, Stockton Street, where locals shop for produce and fish and meat (including those live specimens that are supposedly banned). Most merchants don’t bother to translate their signs, and the regulars all hew to their version of who has the best produce or chicken or fish. To find yourself here on a Saturday morning is to experience the singular pleasure of being in a true Chinese market, the crush of people and merchandise and smells and sights almost overwhelming. But to miss this scene in favor of the more polite shops and restaurants along Grant is to miss the essence of Chinatown.

Portsmouth Square is another among Chinatown’s essentials. This landmark park situated on the neighborhood’s eastern extremity (and above an underground parking garage), near where the towers of the Financial District begin to loom upward, was formerly the city’s hub, a cluster of buildings surrounding Yerba Buena Cove on what used to be the edge of the bay (a line that by the late 1800s was pushed, via landfill and civil engineering, a half-mile east). In the 1840s and ’50s, the first San Franciscans gathered here to hear the news from incoming ships and perform civic functions (such as a memorial service for President Zachary Taylor). It was the site of the first public school in California, and where San Franciscans learned of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. Later, the area became the center of a notorious red-light district, then it was gradually subsumed into Chinatown proper. By the late 20th-century, the park had acquired its current look and feel, with recent additions of childrens’ play equipment, tables for Chinese chess, and a pedestrian walkway over Kearny Street that connects to the Hilton Chinese Culture Center. Across from the square, a block away, is the site of the old I-Hotel, a nexus for the Filipino community in the years before the old residence building was demolished. Today, a modern version of the hotel sits on Kearny and Jackson.

Among the many other monuments that add cultural significance and depth to the neighborhood is Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, whose cornerstone was laid in 1853. The church began as the seat of the Catholic faith in the Far West, but a new locale was chosen for the cathedral several decades later, when the Old Chinatown’s vice and corruption repelled many would-be parishioners. The church persevered, however, and was spared much damage in the 1906 quake, only to be gutted by the subsequent fire a day or so later. It was rebuilt by 1909 and began its outreach to the Chinese community shortly after. It is now home to one of the largest communities of Asian Catholics in the United States.

The Chinese Hospital is here, too, on Jackson between Powell and Stockton (in a modern 54-bed acute-care facility, next door to the historic building that served the Chinese community during the period when few other hospitals would) as well as the Chinatown YWCA on Clay Street, designed by the renowned architect Julia Morgan in 1932; it now houses the Chinese Historical Society of America.

You’d expect that such a densely populated area would be well-served by public transportation, and San Francisco’s MUNI system generally fills the bill. Though buses are the norm for most transit users, the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde cable cars skirt the neighborhood’s western edge, both lines offering good access to Union Square at one end and Fisherman’s Wharf at the other. The Nos. 30 and 45 buses travel along Stockton to Union Square and the Caltrain Depot going south and to the Presidio and the Marina heading north. The Nos. 1, 10, and 12 cover the area on various streets going east and west. The proposed subway line here—the so-called Central Subway, an extension of the recently completed “T” line—would travel underground from just south of the I-80 viaduct to a station at Stockton and Washington streets, with various other stops along the way.

So much commerce and other human activity create congestion on Chinatown streets most of the day from dawn till well into the evening. Though Grant, Stockton, and other streets nearest the heaviest business traffic have parking meters, finding a spot can be difficult if not impossible, especially during early morning delivery periods. Even in the outlying areas (the equally congested North Beach, Jackson Square, and lower Nob and Russian Hills), attempting to secure on-street parking can be an exercise in frustration, if not futility. For those who live in the area, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has issued the “C” residential parking permit to alleviate the problem, though this only works if you’re able to find a spot and stay on it for longer than the normal one- or two-hour max (you still need to feed the meter if you’re parked in front of one).

Schools here are varied. Gordon J. Lau Elementary School on Clay Street is the obvious public school option here for K-5 (having earned a 7 out of 10 GreatSchools rating). Notre Dame des Victoires offers a K-8 private elementary school in the Catholic vein, and Central Chinese High School, the oldest Chinese school in the United States, has been turning out students bound for college or the trades since 1908. Otherwise, Gold Mountain Sagely Monastery offers instruction in Buddhist theology and meditation, as do a number of the temples on Waverly Place and elsewhere throughout the neighborhood.

Crime here is property centered, meaning there are fewer acts of violence compared to vandalism, thefts, burglaries, and robberies—all of which occur frequently, as do incidents of disturbing the peace—noise nuisances like rowdy bar and restaurant patrons and too-early/too-late deliveries. This being an urban environment, assaults do occur occasionall. Cyhinatown is also one neighborhood where the pernicious trend of car break-ins and auto thefts is on the rise, with numerous incidents occurring in any recent three-month period. But the area has escaped one inner-city scourge: There have been no homicides in the last three years.

Though Chinatown proper has engulfed it, a remnant of the city’s once considerable French community persists in Notre Dame des Victoires church, which, along with its K-8 school, still serves a predominantly French-speaking congregation and student body. St. Mary’s Square is a pleasant park that sits atop a parking garage just across California Street, one of those urban oases that, like Willie Woo Woo Wong Playground on Sacramento Street, give the neighborhood a little breathing room. This area also includes the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a splendid neoclassical pile that was once the headquarters of an insurance company. To say that the inn lives up to its name is evident in the exquisite, beautifully maintained façade: a study in classical architecture (and excellent good taste), complete with a statue-encrusted tympanum over the entry.

One down side: Real estate is still suffering in Chinatown—one of the Bay Area’s hardest hit in the economic downturn, with a 25 percent drop in the 2009-2010 period, according to Trulia. The area’s tightly controlled market (a holdover from the tong system) means that what is available is not often readily visible from the street. Condos are generally what sells, ranging from a small one bed/one bath at about $500,000 to a two-bedroom/two-bathroom with partial view on Powell for $1.5 million. Rentals, when available, are considered a deal: a studio on California and Joice was asking $1,100 a month, while a one-bedroom, one-bathroom on Sacramento and Waverly was going for $1,500 recently.

San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the largest in the country and the biggest in the Bay Area, draws many people for many reasons. Whether they stay simply to have a meal and a shopping spree, to work, or to live is entirely a question of just how much intense urbanity and Chinese culture they’re looking for. It’s not for everyone, and those who do live here are happy as a result.
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Just now

"There’s Some There There"

To those just passing through on Portola Drive, Clipper, or O'Shaunessy Boulevard, Diamond Heights seems like an uninviting place: windswept and foggy, its modern condos and apartments looking like Anywhereseville, U.S.A. This first impression is seconded by longtime San Franciscans, who often shudder at the mention of the name: “They have terrible weather up there.”

Yet looks can be deceiving, as any longtime resident of the neighborhood will also say. Yes, it’s windy. Yes, it can be foggy. But the cool, ocean- and pine-scented air is invigorating in its own right. And once you have settled in, the “marine layer” (as people often call the misty, breeze-buffeted fog as it spreads inland over the crests of nearby Mount Davidson and Twin Peaks) seems less an issue after a while. Like other parts of the city situated west of the fog line, it becomes a given, something expected—and when absent, people are pleasantly surprised (though always reassured when it returns).

And because it is one of the city’s highest-elevation neighborhoods, sitting on the eastern edge of the Mount Davidson/Twin Peaks ridge, the views can be spectacular, particularly if oriented northeast, toward downtown and the East Bay. Not everyone is lucky enough to enjoy such a perspective, but even those whose windows face west, toward the broad expanse of the Sunset District and the Pacific beyond, look out upon a vista that can be just as jaw-dropping.

Though there were some homes in the area before the 1950s (including one built in 1895 on Gold Mine Drive, just below the Avalon apartment complex) Diamond Heights is a distinctly modern neighborhood—“modern” being a loose term to denote architecture from the mid-20th century that emphasized clean, rectilinear forms with little ornamentation. The area began as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association’s premiere project, intended to deploy the California Redevelopment Law of 1951 by utilizing land on the hills in the city’s geographic center by working with, rather than against, the topography. This meant breaking away from the city’s existing grid, where blocks run straight up and down the hills, in favor of curved streets that follow a hill’s perimeter. Because the forbidding terrain of Diamond Heights had few existing residents (who would have required relocating), the redevelopment program represented an ambitious, large-scale master plan for a neighborhood, encompassing housing for all income levels, churches and schools, parks and greenspace, along with a sizable shopping/commercial area.

A feature of many homes in Diamond Heights, built as they are along countoured hillsides (some of them quite steep), is that they are oriented front-to-back, with the living room and other areas of the home facing the backyard or on the downside of the hill, rather than the front, to take advantage of views and the relative quiet such an orientation affords. (The houses on the western side of Turquoise Way illustrate this well). Consequently, many streets look like a collection of garage doors, with living areas either above (as in the neighboring Miraloma Park) or hidden from view toward the rear of the house, similar to homes found along seaside cliffs in coastal communities, where all one perceives from the street is a carport or garage and an unassuming entryway. Many complain that this imparts a deserted or impersonal air at best (or the look of an alley at worst), though others appreciate the privacy and sense of being above it all these homes possess. For still others, the advantage of communal life is embodied in places like Diamond Heights Village, a complex of 14 residential buildings divided into 396 privately-owned units, from studios to two-bedrooms. The association maintains the grounds, a pool, and a clubhouse with gym and library.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Diamond Heights is today home to about 10,000 middle-aged San Franciscans (the median age is 43), the great majority of them white (65 percent), with Asians (20 percent) and African Americans or persons of two or more races making up the rest. They tend to own (65 percent) rather than rent, and are comfortably middle class, with an annual median household income of $80,000.

Being situated between Noe Valley on one end and Glen Park on the other is a big plus. Though the Diamond Heights Shopping Center includes a well-stocked Safeway, a Walgreens drugstore, and some essential service stores, the village square that is Glen Park’s main commercial area beckons for those seeking a good book to read, a nice dinner, or just a stroll around some appealing storefronts and shop windows. The same goes for even-closer 24th Street in Noe Valley: a good plate of pasta, a cozy tavern, and more boutiques await those willing to make a short walk (or drive) down the hill.

Adjacency to Glen Park also offers another exceptional amenity: the wilds of Glen Canyon Park, a ravine cut into the serpentine rock and drained by one of the remaining uncovered streams in San Francisco: Islais Creek. Much of the park remains in the same state as when the native Ohlones came here to gather food, which included the wild cherries (“islay,” after which the creek is named). Though hiking trails cut through the park’s steep slopes and there are other concessions to human activity like a recreation center, a day camp, benches, and restrooms, most of the park is classified a natural-resource area, which means it appears and feels a lot different from the manicured lawns and gardens that define places like Golden Gate Park. The open grasslands and sharp cliffs of the canyon, made of chert and serpentine common throughout the area’s geology, offer habitat for birds (notably raptors, including red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls) along with mammals from coyotes and raccoons to rats and mice (the latter a favorite foodstuff of the raptors and coyotes) as well as rare flying insects, including the damselfly and mission blue butterfly.

In addition to Glen Canyon Park, the neighborhood also has the tidily groomed George Christopher Playground, which features some up-to-date swings and jungle-gym equipment for children as well as a baseball diamond and tennis courts, plus a paved path that leads down to a series of steps that go into Glen Canyon itself. The neighborhood also borders Douglass Playground, a Noe Valley park that extends up the steep hill to its border with Diamond Heights.

Schools include a day care center/preschool at the landmark St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (an imposing, domed church on Diamond Heights Boulevard) as well as the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, a magnet alternative high school for the performing arts and sciences whose alumni include comedian Margaret Cho and actor Sam Rockwell. (Miraloma Elementary School, on the other side of O’Shaughnessy Boulegard in nearby Miraloma Park, is the option for K-5 public school children; it received an 8 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools.)

Getting around Diamond Heights via public transportation is easier than it looks at first, thanks to one workhouse bus: the No. 52, which swings through en route to Glen Park (and its vital BART station) and terminates at its northern end at the Forest Hills station, for connections with the downtown-bound subway lines. The No. 48 bus also travels up and down Portola Drive to destinations on both the east and west sides of town. Though many residents have cars (and drive rather than use public transportation), and owing to the number of garages in both homes and apartment buildings, on-street parking is generally quite a simple matter, with few time limits or restrictions other than street-sweeping every week or two a month.

Crime in Diamond Heights is infrequent (it helps that the San Francisco Police Academy is located here, on Amber Drive), led in a three-moth period by noise nuisances (car alarms going off at night for the most part) and the occasional burglary or armed robbery. As with the rest of the city, however, vehicle theft and auto break-ins are on the rise. Assaults are rare, however, and there have been no homicides reported in the last three years.

Real-estate prices have held their own through the recent economic downturn, showing an uptick of about 7 percent in the last year, according to Trulia. Though many are forced sales due to foreclosures, condos here are deemed affordable (with one-bedrooms on Ora Way going for a hair under $300,000, a studio in Diamond Heights Village asking $350,000, and a two-bedroom, two-bath around the corner asking $475,000), single-family homes can fetch anywhere from $900,000 to $1 million or more (a three-bedroom, two-bath on Amethyst Way listed for $1.125 million recently). Rentals are moderate, and some bargains are to be had considering the amount of square footage. A studio goes for about $1,300, with one bedrooms starting at about $1,600 and going to $1,850 (at the aforementioned Avalon). A four-bedroom, two-bath townhouse recently listed for $4,500.

Though Diamond Heights may not look or feel like a typical San Francisco neighborhood (its modern architecture and amenities like heated pools seemingly more suited to Southern California), it has an appeal for those who wish to come home to a clean, up-to-date area with few parking hassles, little crime, and a glimpse of the big city below.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 5/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now
Editors Choice

"A View (and Room) of One’s Own"

They say you never really feel as though you live in San Francisco until you can look at it. If that’s the case, then this neighborhood on a hill by the same name satisfies that requirement—as long as you live on its relatively clear northern half. That side faces downtown, with its skyscrapers jabbing the fog and the waters of the bay floating the scene on a cerulean backdrop. As views go, it’s up there with the best in the city—Twin Peaks, Buena Vista Park, even the one looking back from the Marin Headlands, near Golden Gate Bridge.

But views aren’t all Potrero Hill has to offer--and, truth be told, not all parts of the hill offer a drop-dead perspective of the skyline or the bay or San Bruno Mountain to the south. You come here for the sense of neighborhood, the everyone-knows-someone-else vibe. It is a straightforward place, nothing fancy, but with just enough exclusivity—separated by highways on east and west, warehouses to the north and south—to make it feel as if it were its own little town. Even the big chains that have moved in—the Whole Foods on Rhode Island Street, World Gym on De Haro—make concessions to fit in. No one wants to make a big splash here, and that understated character is what gives Potrero Hill its one-of-a-kind charm.

Today, live-and-let-live is part of the area’s ethos. But this was not always your average feel-good neighborhood. The look and feel of Potrero Hill as a place where everybody gets along are contradicted by a past where race (and its concomitant, racism) were a force in daily life. It started out in the late 1800s less pastoral (as its name—“potrero” means “pasture” in Spanish—would imply) and more plebeian: a jumble of segregated working-class hotels, boarding houses, and ultimately small homes. Heavily masculine, it was populated by European laborers who scaled dozens of wooden steps down the eastern flank of the hill to horse-drawn rail cars that delivered them to back-breaking jobs in iron works and steel mills, where they toiled for 10 or 12 hours a day, six days a week. By the 1880s, San Francisco’s heavy industries had gradually relocated south of Mission Creek, the former bay now filled in and becoming the industrial center of the West. The Spreckels moved their sugar refinery here in 1884. By the early 20th century, Del Monte Fruit had constructed canneries and warehouses with railroad tracks to offload boats bearing tropical fruits that came into San Francisco Bay directly onto railroad cars. Starting with German workers, the Central Waterfront hosted businesses friendly to Irish, Chinese, Russians, and Mexicans. Each group separated into its own subdistrict on the hill; mixing of the different ethnicities and races was rare. When World War II broke out, the waterfront hummed with boatbuilding for the Navy, and hundreds of African Americans from the Southern states settled in, changing the neighborhood’s makeup once again. During the unrest of the 1960s, the neighborhood was the scene of disturbances and unruly crowds protesting police brutality or the insensitivity of the mayor’s office to the neighborhood’s racial minority.

Flash forward, past the dotcom and tech booms of the last decades, which effectively changed the face of the neighborhood again. Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Potrero Hill is a relatively diverse mix of about 15,000 people, 60 percent of whom are white, 20 percent African American, 10 percent Asian, and the remainder of two races. The residents are on the young side (median age is around 36), and solidly middle class (with a median household income of roughly $70,000 annually). About 40 percent of all residents own their homes, with the remaining opting to rent.

A drive or stroll around the neighborhood reveals a number of activity centers, each influenced by geography, population, and the surrounding businesses. On the northern side, the walls of warehouses along 16th and 17th streets offer a busy medley of cafes, bars, clubs (especially the rock-’n’-roll seven-nights-a-week Bottom of the Hill) nonprofits, outlets, and a gallery or two, including the California College for the Arts’ Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (a bit off 16th, at Eighth and Irwin). Two landmark businesses—Anchor Brewing Co. (maker of the now-famous steam beer) and the San Francisco Bay Guardian (the area’s first alternative weekly newspaper)—make their homes in this somewhat scruffy area.

As the streets climb up Potrero Hill from 16th, the residential character of the neighborhood becomes apparent, as lofts and workspaces give way to condos and homes built anywhere from 5 to 50 to 100 years ago (the farther uphill, the newer and more modern the architecture, though there remain some impressive 1800s period pieces). Victoria Mews is an example of the changing neighborhood; it’s a square-block condo complex (between 19th and 20th and Carolina and Wisconsin) made up of townhouse units that are frequently rented out.

The blocks around 18th and Connecticut form a vortex of sorts for the area, serving as a kind of town center, with restaurants (Aperto, Goat Hill Pizza), shops (including Christopher’s Books), bars (Blooms Saloon), and coffeehouses (Farley’s is a longtime fixture, noted for its community-centered events) clustering in the few blocks here, most of them serving a hip, laid-back clientele. The trend repeats on 20th Street, with a couple of groceries, a deli, and a branch of the public library centered around Connecticut. Not far from here is the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a landmark building designed by Julia Morgan (of San Simeon Hearst Castle fame) that serves as a community center, with programs geared toward disadvantaged youth and seniors.

The character of the area changes abruptly after the crest of the hill, however, with the southern slope dominated by anonymous housing developments (much built recently and classified “affordable”) and blocks of declining public housing (the Terrace-Annex projects, on the hill’s southeast flank). Built in 1941, their facades are today uninviting, the yards devoid of vegetation other than dried grass, the balconies a forbidding collection of peeling paint and boarded-up windows. The projects are slated to be rebuilt by 2013 as part of city hall’s Hope SF program.

The parks of Potrero Hill are geared toward residents who enjoy team sports. Jackson Park in particular is committed to baseball (with two diamonds), but also has tennis and basketball courts and a sand-filled kids’ playground. The Potrero Hill Recreation Center (built mainly for the residents of the nearby Terrace-Annex projects) has a baseball diamond, basketball and tennis courts, and a children’s play area with swings and other equipment. The center also has an indoor basketball court and hosts a number of afterschool activities. McKinley Square is small park with particularly pleasant, newly constructed play areas for children and some steep trails on its western side. The stretch of Vermont Street that snakes down from McKinley Square—with its six sharp curves (two less than the more famous one on Lombard in Russian Hill)—is an off-the-beaten-path jewel. Though skinnier and steeper than its more famous relative, it is fun and much less frequented (except for the annual Big Wheel tricycle race in the spring).

Two public elementary schools (K-5) serve neighborhood kids: Starr King on the south side and Daniel Webster on the north; both got a 2 out of 10 GreatSchools rating. There’s also an alternative junior high/high school on DeHaro Street, International Studies Academy (which earned a 3 out of 10 GreatSchools rating). Additionally, Live Oak School (K-8) is an independent elementary school on Mariposa. Adults so inclined can seek out an interesting assortment of places to go for higher learning of all types: California Culinary Academy (where chefs go to get a degree); San Francisco Center for the Book (all about printing and binding books); California College of the Arts; and the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

As for public transportation, four bus lines crawl up and down and all around the hill: the No. 10 skirts the southern and eastern sides; the No. 19 goes pretty much right up the middle; the No. 22 works the northern edge; and the No. 48 goes along the southern base. For quick access to downtown, many residents walk down the hill to Dogpatch and take the “T” streetcar on Third Street.

Because many (if not most) houses have garages (which require curb-diminishing entries), and owing to the steep streets, residents often prefer to drive, so parking can be difficult, even on the most vertically inclined streets. As the neighborhood has become more crowded, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has issued “X” and “W” residential parking permits, though the streets on which they are valid vary widely.

Crime on Potrero Hill is moderate and tends to be localized: frequent disturbing the peace and noise violations around bars and clubs; less common are assaults and vandalism near parks and empty lots; occasional robberies on deserted streets, with burglaries in secluded areas with poor lighting. The most common crime in any three-month period in the last years has been car break-in and vehicle theft, with a high number here, particularly on the hilltop and south side. Though the neighborhood is generally considered safe, there have been at least six homicides committed in the last three years.

As for real estate, the area has bounced back from the 2009 slump by about 12 percent, according to Trulia. Single-family homes range from $849,000 (two bedroom/one bath) to more than $1 million for multiple bedrooms/baths. Lofts are generally priced in the $550,000 to $625,000 range, with condos starting from $400,000, especially on the south side of the hill. Rentals, commonly thought of as a bargain here, have been creeping up lately, too: a rare studio can fetch about $1,000, while one-bedrooms start for $1,600 a month and two bedrooms ask $2,200 and up. As for the coveted view, that will cost: expect to add $200 to $500 a month for such an “amenity.” But apartments here generally have a bit more square footage than elsewhere in the city, so you get a little room with your view on Potrero Hill.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 2/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 2/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 2/5
  • Medical Facilities 5/5
  • Schools 2/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"Brave New World"

The future is here, and (in San Francisco at least) it is called Mission Bay. As one of the largest tracts of remaining open land in the city, it has been designated a kind of modern city-within-a-city, a vast space to be occupied by a university medical campus, a hospital complex, bio- and genetic-research organizations and firms, plus commercial offices and housing for all the employees and students and researchers the various concerns will attract. Little except the land and the bay remain from the area’s human history, and in keeping with the notion of a blank slate, the place will ultimately have an ultra-modern look, with sleek architecture and avant-garde urban parks and public places. As much of San Francisco looks back, to preserve and restore its past, Mission Bay looks forward, to create a new world that embraces science and technology and possibilities unexplored.

But this vision of the future is yet unrealized, most of it still on paper or in the mind of architects and builders. (What has been built has that haunted, where-did-the-people-go feel of modern architecture, with rectilinear utilitarian buildings looming over promenades and “village greens,” the palms and evergreen bushes planted at all-too-predictable intervals.) And as with most utopian dreams, the one on which Mission Bay is based has yet to be tested by the living, breathing, chaotic crush of human beings who will come here and alter the place as they occupy it. Whether it matches in reality what it promises in planners’ presentations remains very much to be seen.

What is obvious at first glance is that Mission Bay is a work in progress. These 300 acres were at various points in the last 150 years a true bay, bordered by marsh and tideland, then divided into parcels by San Francisco’s land-hungry 19th-century entrepreneurs, who sold “waterlots” (later filled with sand, garbage, trash—whatever they could get their hands on) on which they built ironworks and steel mills. The area was then crisscrossed with railroad tracks, maintenance sheds, and warehouses, handling as many as 2,000 freight-train cars a day. After the interstate highway system surpassed railroads as the preferred mode of moving the nation’s goods, the area slid into a peaceful if unproductive somnolence.

Today, the tracks and most of the historic rail buildings are gone. There’s hardly an old shack or building to remind you of what was one of the largest railyards between Los Angeles and Seattle. (The newly completed “T” line does carry train-like streetcars on tracks up Third Street and has three platform stations here, though that’s it for rails today.) But there’s plenty to tell you that this is something else: under the 1998 Mission Bay Redevelopment Plans, agreed to by the City of San Francisco and the primary developer Catellus, one of the largest biotech/biomedical centers (6 million square feet) in the United States is taking shape, with hundreds of people working in sleek new buildings to find new solutions to human diseases. About 6,000 housing units (1,700 of them affordable to moderate, low- and very low-income households) are slated, along with 800,000 square feet of retail space and a 500-room hotel. Forty-nine acres have been committed to public open space, including parks along Mission Creek and along the bay. A new public school, as well as a police station and firehouse, are also on the drawing board.

Between the vacant lots and empty streets, the pieces of the grand plan are starting to fit together. The University of California at San Francisco has established a second campus here (its original home still dominates the Inner Sunset); ultimately this biomedical research center will occupy 43 acres (most of it on land donated by the city and the primary developer, Catellus), including housing for students. Adjacent to the campus on 14 acres will be a new medical center, with a focus on children, family, and women’s health. A state-of-the-art research facility, the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, is up and running, to be joined by the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, scheduled to open in 2014 at Mariposa and Fourth.

The Gladstone Institutes, a nonprofit research facility for the life sciences associated with UCSF, comprising almost 200,000 square feet, opened in 2005, and QB3, a consortium of scientists and researchers from three UC campuses (Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz), has moved into its new building here. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a pro-stem-cell research advocacy organization that was in many ways responsible for San Francisco’s early lead in biotech research, sits on the edge of Mission Bay, at King and Third streets. Old Navy, (a spinoff of The Gap clothing brand), moved its headquarters into a curved, steel-and-glass edifice it is leasing along Terry à François Boulevard. And in 2004, Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a nationally known developer of private biotechnology research buildings, bought up much of the property in Mission Bay South set aside for commercial development and finished its first lab building on Owens Street.

So far, only about 2,000 people actually live in Mission Bay, according to U.S. Census Bureau data; 60 percent are white, 25 percent are Asian, with the rest a mix of African Americans and people of two or more races. They are young (median age is 35) and economically comfortable: median annual income is in the $80,000 range. Overwhelmingly (80 percent), they rent their homes. Interestingly, men (60 percent) outnumber women (40 percent) as a portion of the total population.

The waterfront here was long a home to dive bars and restaurants, the survivors of which along Terry à François Boulevard have gussied up a bit in anticipation of a new clientele: the Ramp with its funky patio; Mission Rock, a live-music club by night and restaurant by day serving lunch on weekdays and weekend brunch; and Jelly’s, a popular dance club (whose fate hangs in the balance after a recent fatal shooting in the parking lot). Otherwise, there’s little in the neighborhood besides chains (Subway on the UCSF campus) and franchise operations (Panera, on Fourth and King; Tsunami Mission Bay, on Fourth and Berry), though Peasant Pies on UCSF’s Campus Way gets high marks for its portable savory pies and reasonable prices and Philz Coffee on Berry Street draws crowds for its one-cup-at-a-time brew philosophy. It will take a while for the neighborhood to settle in with only-in-Mission-Bay spots. Meanwhile, residents venture west, to Potrero Hill (where there’s a Safeway and Office Depot in the Potrero Center, as well as a new Whole Foods on Rhode Island near 17th Street), or to the shops and stores of the Mission, or south, to the funky area known as Dogpatch (also commonly called the Central Waterfront).

For an interesting look at the area’s recent history, the curious can walk along Channel Street to check out the 20 houseboats moored in Mission Creek. These colorfully painted and outfitted floating homes were once considered an eyesore by the city’s port administration, but the 50 or so residents banded together and finally won a lease extension that permits them to live here until 2055. Nearby, just across the Fourth Street Bridge, sits the Mission Bay branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Opened in 2006, its collection highlights local interests like baseball and the city’s maritime history.

Because the area is so sparsely populated and children relatively few, there are no public schools in the Mission Bay neighborhood. But UCSF offers child care on its campus (just off Sixth and Owens streets) for kids ages 3 months to 5 years. The city’s redevelopment plan calls for an elementary school at some point in the future; meanwhile, Bessie Carmichael Elementary in South of Market is the closest public option.

Public transportation here is confined to the “T” streetcar that travels along Third Street headed for South of Market and the Financial District on its northerly trek and Bayview and other points as it heads south; three platform stops serve passengers as the streetcar line traverses Mission Bay. Students and faculty frequently use the shuttle buses provided by UCSF to get back and forth between the university’s main campus on Parnassus. For commuters, Caltrain offers daily service down the Peninsula from its terminal at Fourth and Townsend streets.

Crime is moderate, especially on the area’s peripheries, mostly because these are easy pickings for car break-ins and theft, which indicate the trend for property crime in San Francisco. Other quality-of-life violations, like disturbing the peace and vandalism, are also frequent. Assaults are not uncommon, especially around the ballpark and in the parking lots of bars and clubs. There have been four homicides in the last three years.

Real estate is not as inexpensive as might be expected, with many of the recently built condos here fetching up to $2.5 million (Berry and Fourth streets), and only a few in the $650,000 range (Radiance, on China Basin Street). Of course, with bay views and amenities like wide balconies, these homes could appreciate quickly. (The only development living up to the promise of “affordable housing” is Mission Walk on Berry Street, offering 131 condos—with some two-bedrooms starting as low as $200,000.) Rentals are likewise not cheap; a studio in one of the new buildings can fetch up to $1,900 (Avalon at Mission Bay North), with one-bedrooms on the neighborhood’s peripheries going for $2,300 a month, and two-bedroom condos fetching up to $3,200 and more.

Because this neighborhood promises to become desirable quickly (its proximity to the bay and downtown attractions like the ballpark and South of Market restaurants and clubs ensure a higher level of interest), it is hard to say how the expected influx of residents will alter what is essentially a planned community, not much different from similar developments (Park Merced in southwest San Francisco or The Gateway adjacent to the Financial District). That these places have become the latest to be frowned on, rife with the mistakes of their eras (1970s and ’80s uniformity and utilitarianism), should be lesson enough for this brave new world that calls itself Mission Bay.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 2/5
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  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 1/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 2/5
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Just now

"Everything Old Is New Again"

Talk about transition. Of all city neighborhoods over the last decade, the one that has undergone the most change—and is poised for even more transformation—is South Beach, the area south of Market Street nearest the bay. Where there were once old homes that fell to warehouses and light industry, today there stand skyscraper condos and commercial buildings. In spots, it is not so much a neighborhood as the promise of one, its vast empty lots and highway ramps slated for more high-rise condos and acres of urban parks and landscaped “commons.” Once this latest round of changes takes effect, few will recognize the area from its former incarnations. To many who remember South Beach for its forlorn alleys, rundown storefronts, and seedy bars, that is a good thing. To others, the gritty character of these thriving blocks will be sanitized, replaced by a sleek, overly designed vision of the city of the future.

Yet, in South Beach—and particularly its sub-district, Rincon Hill—change has always been a constant. It started out as a bona-fide neighborhood in the 1850s, one of San Francisco’s first, with large fashionable homes dotting the flanks of the gently sloping hill (Rincon) after which the area was named. But then, with the rapid growth convulsing the young city, the area went into rapid decline, its once gracious streets and neat yards derided by none other than Robert Louis Stevenson, who in 1880 described it as "a new slum, a place of precarious sandy cliffs . . . solitary ancient houses and butt ends of streets." The area’s fate was sealed by the 1906 quake and fire, which reduced it to a smoldering heap. It was rebuilt in the early 20th century as a warehouse district with light industry mixed in, and it remained so for the next 75 years, especially after being bisected by the elevated approaches to the Bay Bridge and later the I-80 freeway. Many of the blocks north of the freeway between the Embarcadero and Second Street were razed during the city’s unenlightened urban renewal in the late 1950s through the ’60s, with anonymous towers and developments (such as those around Folsom and Second) filling in the gaps over the years. It’s a somewhat different story south of the freeway, where many post-1906 quake buildings remain (including the ClockTower building on Second) along with the historic South Park, an oval greensward (copied after one in London) lined with sycamores and surrounded by low-slung buildings that form a cohesive enclave even in our disjointed 21st century.

The northern and southern halves of South Beach today can still be considered in terms of new and old, with the half north of I-80 (a.k.a. Rincon Hill) where most of the new skyscrapers are slated (including the massive Transbay Transit Center redevelopment, with its Cesar Pelli-designed tower and adjoining Renzo Piano-designed high-rises), and the half south of I-80 where much of the redevelopment of historic older structures has already taken place. Because most of the northern half is still on the drawing board as a “transit-friendly” development (Folsom Street, for instance, is scheduled to become the main drag of a new neighborhood of low- and high-rise housing), the part of South Beach that currently has the most street life, businesses, restaurants, and other attractions is the southern half, particularly around South Park, Bayside Village and South Beach Marina (the latter two modern apartment complexes off the Embarcadero), the Delancey Street Foundation’s award-winning retail/residential complex, and the recently built AT&T ballpark, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. With the new ballpark and the office campuses mushrooming in Mission Bay next door, a number of new apartment and condo buildings have sprung up along King and Townsend streets, many designed to fit in with the brick-warehouse look of the historic neighborhood.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, South Beach has about 8,000 residents, the great majority of them white (70 percent) or Asian (18 percent), with the remaining 12 percent either African American or of mixed race. Many are young adults (median age here is 35). Most earn about $70,000 annually. They tend to rent (69 percent) rather than own their homes.

Though a few attractions exist in the northern half of South Beach (such as Palomino restaurant and Gordon Biersch Brewery in the landmark Hills Bros. Coffee building—not to mention One Rincon Hill South Tower, at 60 stories San Francisco’s tallest residential building), most of the action, both day and night, is in the southern half. By day, the area is buzzing with Web 2.0 employees, the old dotcom boom of the late ’90s having been replaced by a multimedia-invigorated wave of Internet entrepreneurs and their established businesses and start-ups (MySpace, Buzzlogic, Slide.com, Macworld, Technorati, Wired, and Twitter, to name a few). By night, they join locals and sports fans at any of the numerous restaurants and clubs that serve both the ballpark crowd (MoMo’s, Pete’s Tavern, O’Neill’s Irish Pub), as well as trend-seekers (Tres Agaves, Paragon Restaurant and Bar, Nova). A number of eateries with a long history here continue doing business as well (South Park Café on the high end, Zeke’s Sports Bar and Grill on the low).

With the newly renovated small parks and promenades along the Embarcadero, the bay feels open and accessible to all, albeit in the form of boat slips and refurbished wharves. Though there are no beaches, there’s nothing to stop people from picnics and al fresco rendezvous along the paved walks and benches that line the newly opened waterfront.

Public transportation has the area covered. The “T” and “N” streetcars run along King Street and the Embarcadero before joining other lines underground at Market near the Ferry Building. Most bus routes drop off and pick up passengers at the Caltrain Depot en route to or returning from the Financial District, some specifically designed to do so. Express buses (Nos. 80, 81, and 82) go from the Caltrain terminal at Fourth and King to the Financial District and back, as do the No. 10 local, traveling along Townsend and then Second, and the Nos. 30 and 45, which make the circuit between Caltrain and Union Square. The No. 12 goes up and down Folsom Street and also Second Street. AC Transit brings commuters over the Bay Bridge and back from Oakland and other points in the East Bay.

Due to the number of businesses with many employees, the presence of the ballpark, and the dense population, parking here can be fairly described as difficult to nerve-wracking, with one- or two-hour limits on streets that don’t have coin-depleting meters (25 cents for five minutes). The city’s Department of Parking and Traffic issues “U” and “Y” residential parking permits for tenants of buildings on particularly congested streets.

Because there are so few children in the area, no public schools are located in South Beach. Marin Day Schools has a preschool/day-care center on Harrison Street, and there is a sand playground with swings and climbing equipment in South Park. But for the most part, the few kids here travel outside of the neighborhood to go to school and for outdoor recreation.
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This is an inner-city neighborhood, so crime here is moderately high, according to the San Francisco Police Department. In addition to vandalism (graffiti, broken windows, etc.) and disturbing the peace (noise outside of bars and clubs), assaults were frequent in a recent three-month period, as were robberies. Burglaries were also common. This is a hot spot for stolen vehicles and car break-ins as well, indicative of a trend in San Francisco. Additionally, there have been five homicides reported in the last three years.

Real estate is a fairly pricey proposition here, even after a 30 percent slide in the recent recession. Though a few lofts and condos (small one- and two-bedrooms, with one bathroom) can be found for under $500,000, the norm throughout the neighborhood is high range: $800,000 to more than $1.5 million, according to Trulia.com. If you’re looking for views, the just-completed One Rincon Hill South Tower has one-, two-, and three-bedroom condos from $600,000 to $2.9 million. Rentals are likewise expensive: Studios in Bayside Village are $1,600 a month, with other complexes asking up to $2,000 for a studio, $2,200 for a one-bedroom, and from $3,000 to $5,000 for two-bedroom, two-bath condo rentals.

This is not necessarily an area that will please everyone. The traffic, noise, street bustle, and urban edge may prove to be too much for certain prospective residents, but just right for those who don’t need to get away from the city to enjoy it.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 2/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 2/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 2/5
Just now

"One Place, Many Faces"

Though San Francisco today seems one of the most diverse and open cities in the United States, it was not always that way. The various ethnic groups who now share streets and neighborhoods as if it were second nature did not always do so as readily. They tended to “stick to their own” not only in business and social matters but also in terms of where they lived. If, in the late 1800s, the Italians claimed North Beach, the Chinese had Chinatown, the Irish had the Mission District, and Germans and Scandinavians had Eureka and Noe Valleys, then the city’s Jewish population by 1900 could be said to cluster along Geary, west of Van Ness, in what became known as the Western Addition but might also have been called “Bowery West” because it had a lot in common with New York’s Lower East Side.

Here, the largest community of Jews west of the Mississippi erected temples (Keneseth Israel, Anshey Sfard, and Beth Israel—all demolished), a Central Hebrew School (today a Korean cultural center), and a hospital (Mount Zion, now a campus of UCSF Medical Center), and they also maintained a home for newly arrived central European Jewish girls (the Emanu-El Sisterhood for Personal Service, today a beautifully restored B&B on Steiner and Golden Gate Avenue). Though the area was never a ghetto strictly speaking (with many Latinos, Hungarians, and Japanese here as well), it had a distinctly Jewish flavor, with kosher bakeries and delis and meat markets.

The neighborhood was spared the worst of the 1906 quake and fire, and it became the focal point of commerce and government as the city rebuilt. Ultimately, many Jews moved west, to the area adjacent to the Presidio, near where Temple Emanu-El stands today. They were replaced in this neighborhood by Japanese, then (during and after World War II, when the Japanese were forcibly displaced by government policies) by African Americans pouring into California during the Great Migration of Southern blacks, attracted to defense-industry jobs in the booming port of San Francisco. At this point, another flowering of the Western Addition occurred, especially in the sub-district known as the Fillmore—the street itself, as well as the surrounding blocks—this time as “Harlem of the West.” Jazz clubs proliferated during the war years and afterward, when a rising black middle class sought its own brand of entertainment and the city overall followed the great outpouring of swing.

But that heyday was short-lived. By the late 1950s, the Fillmore District and the whole of the Western Addition became ridden with vice and petty crime, particularly the side streets, where the housing stock had suffered years of neglect. The inevitable decline of this marginalized area (except for its clubs and music venues) heralded calls for a cleanup, and another movement took hold—urban “renewal,” which here meant razing and rebuilding. With breathtaking efficiency, the area was bulldozed, block by block; legendary venues such as Bop City—where Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Lionel Hampton had all played—disappeared. Huge empty lots filled slowly with uninspired, low-rise buildings (some of these lots remain empty, and many of the structures are cheaply constructed public housing). Though new and “modern” (in the strictly utilitarian sense), the unsophisticated dwellings attracted few of the displaced denizens of the once-thriving neighborhood, who elected not to return. Thus, blocks of anonymous housing with little connection to the old neighborhood dominate the area today, a lingering reminder of the failure of an overreaching urban-planning policy.

Still, there are bright spots. An enlightened new movement toward a more felicitous urban landscape is emerging, easing (if not erasing) the ugly remnants of 1960s urban renewal and its cookie-cutter approach to housing and public spaces. The Western Addition today boasts a number of interesting (if not award-winning) high-rises, centers that keep alive the memory of the area’s jazz age and its African American and Jewish histories, the “San Francisco sound” both in jazz and rock-‘n’-roll (Yoshi’s and the Fillmore—home of the iconic early Grateful Dead concerts—respectively) as well as the area’s Japanese heritage (evidenced in the adjacent Japantown, another sub-district across Geary Street from the Fillmore). The parks—particularly Jefferson Square Playground and James P. Lang Field, on Turk between Laguna and Gough, along with Kimbell Playground, on Steiner between Ellis and Geary—offer blocks of grassy open space, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds to all from this packed urban area who seek respite in the open outdoors.

The 25,000 residents here are predominantly African American (40 percent), with whites (30 percent) and Asians (25 percent) each making up the rest. The population is on the young side (median age is 33), and the median annual household income is about $35,000. Most (75 percent) rent rather than own their homes.

The commercial strip (such as it is) exists largely along Fillmore, in “resurrected” storefronts in modern buildings, their old-sounding names summoning the feel of the area in its jazz-age glory (Sheba Lounge, St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church) while sharing the street with Asian restaurants and small coffeehouses. A Safeway at O’Farrell and Webster serves the neighborhood as all-purpose grocery store, with small specialty stores along Divisadero filling in the gaps.

As for educating the area’s youth, public schools in particular offer local options for kindergarten through grade 12 education, including Rosa Parks Elementary (K-5) on O’Farrell (which received a 3 out of 10 GreatSchools rating), the Creative Arts Charter School (an alternative K-8) on Turk Street (which received a 5 out of 10 GreatSchools rating), and Gateway High School (an alternative high school on Scott Street that scored an 8 out of 10 rating from GreatSchools). Jewish Community High School of the Bay, on Ellis Street, caters to a Jewish-faith student body and emphasizes arts, athletics, and community outreach.

Muni buses have the area covered in terms of public transportation, including the Nos. 5, 31, and 38, which travel east/west along McCallister, Eddy, and Geary, respectively. The Nos. 22 and 24 go across the neighborhood on a north/south axis, traveling up and down Fillmore and Divisadero, respectively. Though parking is relatively easy (many of the public housing units have garages), the city nonetheless has issued “R” and “P” parking permits for the streets where two-hour time limits are in effect for non-residents.

Crime here is an issue for newcomers, even as it’s a fact of life for old-timers. Disturbing the peace—noise nuisances, mostly—vandalism, and robberies are most common during a three-month period, followed by burglaries and assaults. Car break-ins and vehicle thefts are common, particularly in neighborhoods with a prevalence of public housing. Assaults are also frequent. There have been more than a dozen homicides in the last three years.

The real-estate market here has been in flux, especially since prices dropped during the recent recession. For the most part, prices have yet to recover, showing a 20 percent drop in the last year. In a bright spot, condos are what drives the market, with most two-bedroom/one-bath units in the $330,000 range. Some larger units are available in modern buildings for upward of $600,000. As for rentals, one-bedrooms can be found for $1,300, with two bedrooms or more ranging from $1,995 to $3,500, depending on location, traffic (the more, the better—at least in terms of security), and building amenities.

Though its promise has been tarnished by the legacy of a scorched-earth urban renewal policy, the Western Addition holds promise by virtue of its numerous revitalized streets and the potential contained in its easily rebuilt, reconfigured, or repurposed modern blocks. With a renewed nightlife center and the ancillary street traffic it generates, the neighborhood has the potential to be born again.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now

"A Classier Class of Upper Class"

You may not have heard of this somewhat exclusive district, or if you have, you can’t think of exactly how to get there or a good reason to go in the first place—which is exactly the way the people who live here want it. Presidio Heights is home to many of San Francisco’s “quiet” millionaires, people who don’t wish to flaunt their fame and (especially) fortune in the same manner as those who live in Pacific Heights or even the Marina do. Many of the homes here equal those found in Sea Cliff for sheer grandeur (and many exceed the standard for good taste as well). Yet they all exude a certain style indicative of their owners’ good breeding—a classic “classiness” not always found in much of the rich and well-to-do.

The demographics here also differ from those of other “upper class” enclaves in San Francisco. First of all, this is a more diverse population. Of the neighborhood’s 6,000 residents, about 85 percent are white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 8 percent are Asian, with the remaining 7 percent African American or of two or more races. They are approaching midlife (median age is 38), and all share a certain financial ease (median annual household income is $145,000) and about 45 percent own their homes, while the rest rent.

One thing they all share is well-built domiciles. This being an area built primarily after the 1906 earthquake that tumbled much of San Francisco, the housing is of sturdy construction, much of it brick (reinforced since the Loma Prieta quake in 1989). Most prominent single-family homes (found generally along Washington, Jackson, and Pacific) are set back from the street, with imposing facades. Two Georgian-revival piles stand on opposing northern corners at Laurel and Jackson, their red-brick exteriors seemingly challenging the other for dominance. There are other examples of extraordinary architecture as well: Temple Emanu-El, designed by noted local architect Arthur Brown Jr. and completed in 1926, is inspired by the Haggia Sophia in Istanbul and has gathered many an admiring glance, perfectly sited on a rise at Lake and Arguello. And the Swedenborgian Church, at Washington and Lyon streets, is a registered national historic landmark famous for its founder’s desire to achieve a “poetry of architecture”—which in this case is a wonder of eclectic design, melding elements of Romanesque, mission revival, and arts-and-crafts styles. (Its small congregation maintains the chapel mainly by renting it out for weddings.) The Russell House, at 3788 Washington, was designed by the famous German-Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn, one of the Bay Area’s prime proponents of streamline-moderne style. It occupies the site of the childhood home of Madeline Haas-Russell, who had the newer home built between 1947 and 1952.

But for the real-deal mansions here, have a gander at Presidio Terrace, a strange and beautiful development within Presidio Heights, a “gated” community (the iron-and-stone entrance is not staffed, meaning the uninvited can drive around for a look). The fine homes are an oddly harmonious mix of Tudor revival, mission revival, beaux arts and other styles, built to entice wealthy San Franciscans to stay in the city after the devastation of the 1906 quake and fire. The development includes a circular drive (also called Presidio Terrace), with palm-tree “islands” spaced appealingly around it. The place harks back to an age when racial covenants were common; its 1915 advertisements reflect the less-than subtle prejudices of the day: "There is only one spot in San Francisco where only Caucasians are permitted to buy or lease real estate or where they may reside. That place is Presidio Terrace." Homeowners here had to sign a contract stipulating that they would re-sell only to whites; in some cases, those restrictions weren’t removed until decades later. Today, when these homes come on the market, they are priced in the millions—a beaux-arts mansion designed by famed architect George Applegarth in 1911 listed recently at $10 million. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein once had a home here (which she sold in favor of another mansion with a view on the Lyons Street Steps in Pacific Heights).

The newly accessible Presidio, on the other side of Pacific Street in the neighborhood’s northern end, is likely the most favored public park, its golf course within easy reach (at the Arguello entry) and the Julius Kahn Playground right off Pacific Avenue at Locust Street.

The main shopping strip of Presidio Heights is along California, between Spruce and Laurel (in the appropriately named Laurel Village). Here, there are two grocers, one high-end (Bryan’s, noted for its fish and meats) the other more everyday (Cal-Mart, with a much lauded produce department), plus the usual array of boutiques, specialty stores, restaurants and chains that cater to the area’s middle-class clientele: Gap, Chico’s, Starbucks, Pasta Pomodoro, Walgreen’s, Standard 5&10 Ace Hardware. On-street parking here can be difficult, though a small lot on the back side of Laurel Village on Mayfair Drive alleviates the situation.

A separate, less-congested shopping district also lines Sacramento west of Lyon Street. It is home to a number of small, cozy, and somewhat expensive restaurants (Sociale, Magic Flute, Osteria, Spruce) and shops (Threshold, Ark Toy Store, Nicolette, Waterlillies), along with a dozen or so salons and spas that cater to the area’s more affluent residents. It also hosts the Vogue Theater, a small, nearly 100-year-old single-screen moviehouse owned by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. Again, on-street parking can be difficult, depending on the time of day. Many residents in this fairly congested neighborhood have cars (but no garage space), utilizing the “F”- and “G”-coded residential parking permits that enable them to occupy a space on the street beyond the two- or three-hour limit.

One of this neighborhood’s big assets is the Jewish Community Center on California Street and Presidio Avenue. This large, modern building, designed by architect Kevin Hart and dedicated in 2004, houses a fitness center, space for performances and lectures, art gallery, teen center, and rooms for classes and programs. It was created to be a “Jewish square” in scope, emphasizing Jewish religion and culture, but is ecumenical in spirit, open to all and featuring activities that appeal not only to the Jewish community but to all civic-minded and arts-minded people in the Bay Area.

Though a great many residents drive cars to get around, public transit buses are available as well, primarily along California Street, where options include the Nos. 1 and 2 (along with an express version of the No. 1). The No. 43 skirts the neighborhood along Presidio Avenue, while the No. 33 makes a small rectangle on the southern edge of the district before heading back down Arguello Boulevard. Likewise, the No. 3 circles the Jewish Community Center before turning back to Union Square.

As for public schools, there is a campus of the award-winning Claire Lilienthal Elementary School (which got a 10 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools) on Sacramento Street. But if you own a home here, you probably have enough ready assets to send your kids to private school, and a number of them exist in the neighborhood (or nearby) for that very reason. Presidio Hill School (K-8) on Washington; Marin Day Schools Laurel Heights (on the border of the neighborhood, off Laurel and California); Town School for Boys (in Pacific Heights)—the list goes on.

The California Campus of Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center occupies a full block bounded by California, Sacramento, Maple, and Cherry. The facility, which includes more than 400 beds, is rated at or above average in the seven primary service categories evaluated by HealthGrades.

The area is relatively safe, with a generally low crime rate. As with many commercial areas, the blocks fronting Laurel Village on California as well as along Sacramento have frequent noise nuisance violations, as well as the once-in-a-while intoxicated person and assault. Because of the wealth concentrated here, strong-arm robberies and burglaries in any three-month period are occasional, with vehicle theft and break-in on the rise, emulating a pernicious trend in the city. But no homicides have been committed in the last three years.

According to Trulia, the neighborhood never really slipped in the latest downturn, unless you count “slip” in terms of tens of thousands of dollars. Given that median prices here are in the $1.6 to $2 million range, the status quo means that you won’t be able to find any bargains. Otherwise, it’s location, location, location: If you want something on the southern side of the district (i.e., Clay or Sacramento streets, or Arguello Boulevard), you can still find homes and condos under $1 million. Elsewhere, it’ll cost you: upward of $3 million for a six-bedroom, four-bath single-family home on Laurel Street. Rentals are likewise pricey, with studios starting at about $1,500, one bedroom apartments going for around $2,100, and a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo fetching more than $5,000 a month. As with many areas where exterior image is a factor, you pay not only for your inside walls but for the outside ones as well.
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5/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 5/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 5/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 5/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 5/5
Just now

"It Makes a Village"

Stand at the corner of Bosworth and Diamond streets at evening rush hour—BART riders venturing out onto the sidewalks from the station, cars and buses and bicycles ambling past—and you'll feel as if you’ve left San Francisco. Though the city’s hubbub lies just over Billy Goat Hill, in the congestion of Noe Valley and the Mission and the skyscraper grove beyond, things slow perceptibly here. On these four corners, there’s a small grocery, a bank, a café, and a flower shop, reminiscent of a town square on the East Coast, one near the end of a commuter railroad line. Perhaps the village feeling comes from the fact that the city’s usual grid disappears here, the circular streets and avenues and lanes tracing the contours of the surrounding hills and canyon rather than going straight up and down them. Perhaps it’s that everything about this confluence of storefronts and transit and homes suggests “small town”: mature trees, low-slung buildings, modest businesses (there’s another grocer farther up Diamond Street whose name trades on the village theme).

Whatever the human reasons for its village atmosphere, Glen Park is what it is largely owing to its topography. The neighborhood takes its name from Glen Canyon Park, a steep and rugged ravine about a mile long that runs along the neighborhood’s western edge and drains Islais Creek (one of four remaining free-running, above-ground creeks in San Francisco, whose flow has been diminished over the years by surrounding urban development). Much of this park’s land remains as it was when the native Ohlones used it to gather food, including the wild cherries (“islay,” hence the name of the creek). Though there are hiking trails and some concessions to human activity like a recreation center, a day camp, benches, and restrooms, most of the park is considered a natural-resource area, meaning it is quite different from the manicured lawns and gardens found in places like Golden Gate Park and elsewhere. The open grasslands and steep cliffs of the canyon, made of chert and serpentine common in the area, offer habitat for birds (notably raptors, including red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls) and coyotes, as well as rare flying insects, including the damselfly and mission blue butterfly.

Extending on either side of the canyon are blunt hills that proved daunting to urban developers until the late 19th century, when the fields mostly held pastures for dairies run by Swiss farmers, giving the area its moniker of “Little Switzerland.” In the 1890s, three German brothers by the name of Joost (a local street is named for them) laid the tracks for a train linking the area to the Mission District and downtown to the northeast, as well as to San Mateo to the south. This brought the initial wave of home development to the area, augmented significantly after 1906, when refugees from the quake and fire streamed into the neighborhood. Largely Irish and German immigrants, with a few Scandinavians in the mix, they settled into modest cottages that dotted the dirt roads winding along the slopes of the hills. By the 1920s, with the increasing popularity of automobiles, the city began grading and paving the local streets, bringing in more developers, who put up houses in the arts-and-crafts or Mission revival style.

Today, Glen Park is an enclave that still showcases many of these old dwellings, most of them restored and maintained as single-family homes. As with other hilly neighborhoods, the higher up you go, the more recent the development and the more modern the architecture. Hence, you’ll find a row of Queen Annes on the lower part of Surrey Street, arts-and-crafts dwellings on the upper part. Finally, all the way up on Diamond and Moffitt, you’ll find late-20th century construction in the form of condos and small multi-unit buildings.

As its homes might suggest, the neighborhood is inhabited by a mix of people (roughly 9,000 of them), classified according to the U.S. Census Bureau as 65 percent white, 15 percent Asian, and the remainder either African American (5 percent) or mixed/more than one race (15 percent)—with about 14 percent of all races also identifying as Latino. They tend to be approaching middle age (with 39 the median age here) and solidly middle class (with median household income of $80,000 annually). Roughly half own their homes, the other half rent.

Though not known as a shopping or dining destination per se, Glen Park offers its residents (and the curious from adjoining areas as well), a perfectly acceptable array of eateries (ethnic and domestic), cafes, and shops, most of them clustered in the “U” formed by Bosworth, Diamond, and Chenery streets. Bird and Beckett is a beloved independent bookstore on Chenery known for its collection of new and used books as well as used jazz recordings, along with a host of in-store readings and musical performances. Gialina Pizzeria on Diamond is much more than what its name implies, an Italian restaurant that serves a nightly special in addition to a panoply of pies with intriguing ingredients. Tyger’s Diner is known for its large breakfast and brunch offerings, and Chenery Park goes for American classic (with nouvelle touches) at dinner. Modernpast has arty home furnishings, while Glen Park Hardware sticks to the basics. A number of coffeehouses (Higher Grounds, Pebbles, Café Bello) and Canyon Market, a self-described “urban hybrid” grocery with traditional and natural goods, rounds out this village center. Though parking in this commercial district can be tight on weekends, there’s usually plenty of (free) space in the adjoining blocks. To make parking easier for locals who don’t have a garage, the city issues a “D” residential parking permit (at $96 a year), allowing cars with the decal to disregard the two-hour time limits on certain blocks.

The Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library has a new home on Diamond in a recently built, well-lit, roomy building, with amenities like comfortable seating areas, free wi-fi, and a movie collection that includes many Asian films.

Because of the accessibility to area highways (I-280 and US 101), many residents drive to work and to do errands. But easy public transportation is among the pluses of life here. Union Square and Financial District commuters have two options: The centrally located Glen Park BART station (for trips downtown and to the airport) is a short walk from any point in the neighborhood, as is the MUNI “J” streetcar, situated in a median on San Jose Avenue. The No. 44 bus runs up and down Bosworth and then along Glen Canyon Park, and three small lines—the Nos. 35, 36, and 52—serve the area’s hill-clinging streets and lanes, the latter two connecting with BART.

Schools in the area serve a number of groups and needs. Several nurseries and preschools cater to the burgeoning population of Baby Boomer offspring, including the Waldorf-based Neighborhood Play Garden/Preschool/Kindergarten, Glen-Ridge Co-op Nursery, A Child’s Garden Preschool, and Glen Park Montessori. Glen Park Elementary, a public K-5 grade school off Bosworth and Lippard Avenue, rated 5 out of 10 by GreatSchools. St. John’s School on Chenery is a Catholic K-8 elementary that promotes its technology-leaning instruction of math and the sciences.

Criminal activity in Glen Park is light given the population density and proximity to more rough-and-tumble neighborhoods to the south and west, and most crimes here fall in the property categories of vandalism, robbery, and burglary, with the area not immune to the rash of car break-ins and auto thefts experienced elsewhere in San Francisco, according to police stats. Disturbing-the-peace violations are common, especially around bars and near outdoor-drinking spots such as Walter Haas Playground and Billy Goat Hill Park, with the accompanying drunk-driving and intoxicated-person arrests. Finally, assaults are not unheard of, with at least four having occurred in a recent three-month period. There has been only one homicide reported in the last three years.

Real estate here is considered desirable, especially as Noe Valley becomes more crowded and buyers seek options in adjoining districts. The market in the area has recovered somewhat after having slumped in the recent recession, with median sales prices up by about 4 percent in the last year, according to Trulia. A two-bedroom, one-bathroom single-family home can go for anywhere between $650,000 and $720,000, with prices reaching over $1 million for more bedrooms and bathrooms. A two-bedroom, two-bath condo generally goes for $700,000. Rentals are reasonable if difficult to find: Studios (when available) can be had for $1,000; one bedrooms average about $1,800; while a two-bedroom, one-bath single-family home rents for $3,200 a month.

Many longtime residents worry that, with gentrification, their sleepy little “village” of Glen Park will give way to a crowded, busy vortex of “must-list” restaurants and trendy shops. Others welcome the revitalized commercial district as an omen of smart growth. The answer here, as so many other in-demand neighborhoods in San Francisco have witnessed, lies is balancing progress with planning.
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5/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 5/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 5/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 5/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 5/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now

"La Jolla North"

The defining character of a neighborhood is sometimes the sum of its many houses. Merced Manor fits right in to that category, having a collection of homes that suggest a resort town somewhere along the coast in Southern California. This picturesque neighborhood, barely a quarter-mile square, could in fact be mistaken for a mini version of La Jolla were it not for the frequent fog and easy parking.

Most of the tiled-roof, stucco homes come in preposterous shades of pink, café au lait, heather gray, cream, and chiffon green, their picture windows framed in beveled plaster or carved wood or cast-iron grillwork. Many are the work of Ray F. Galli, a developer with a reputation in a number of western San Francisco neighborhoods who purchased lots here in the 1930s, ignoring the Great Depression and building residences with highly stylized elements such as arched porches, half-timbered facades, turrets, and faux bell towers that imparted a home-is-an-owner’s-castle look. Most of these houses were built between the early 1930s and late 1950s, so even the more modern examples have exterior decoration that gives them historic charm, such as moderne’s linear symmetry and labyrinthine grates around porches and terraces. The neighborhood is also known for its alleys, a rarity in San Francisco. This permits owners to access garages from behind, preserving the integrity and beauty of the home’s façade.

In addition to its historic domiciles, the neighborhood has one exceptional public building. On the area’s northern border, bounded by Ocean Avenue, Sloat Boulevard, and 22nd and 23rd avenues, is the Merced Manor Reservoir, a concrete structure built in 1936 (as the sign on its faintly deco stairway proclaims). The contained reservoir has approximately 70,000 square feet of roof area (which is locally rumored to be transformed into tennis courts, though the city’s Recreation and Park Department cannot provide any confirmation) and is sub-divided into two basins. During its recent seismic upgrade (completed in 2006), the entire monumental structure and ornamental stairways were restored and repainted.

Also on the north side of this square block, facing Sloat Boulevard, sits a large, windowless building. This is the Central Pump Station, built in 1915. It has an imposing look, its wide, columned door surmounted by the following inscription from the Bible: "LET THY FOUNTAINS BE DISPERSED ABROAD AND RIVERS OF WATERS IN THE STREETS." (Proverbs, 5:16). Above this, along the frieze, is another biblical quotatition: “BUT THE LAND WHITHER YE GO TO POSSESS IT IS A LAND OF HILLS AND VALLEYS AND DRINKETH WATER OF THE RAIN OF HEAVEN.” (Deuteronomy, 11:11) There are representations of human-faced fish on each corner, their twisted tails ending in a red trident, with a vase spilling water from above. In the center of the facade, above the frieze, is a cartouche, surmounted by the face of an old man and flanked on either side by a draped female figure and an eagle. Little is known about the architect or the significance of the religious inscriptions, other than to remind San Franciscans of the precious gift of water.

The neighborhood is obviously desirable, its detached, single-family homes a plus so close to both Stonestown and University Park North (the former Stonestown Apartments). There are a little more than 1,000 residents here, more than half white, a little more than a third Asian, with the remaining mixed race. The median age is 46, and the residents are comfortable if not well to do, with a median household income of $120,000 annually.

Amenities include the Stonestown Family YMCA (one of the city’s largest, at 20th Avenue and Eucalyptus Drive, offering a pool, workout gym, cycling studio, and a senior center, with programs and classes for kids, teens, and young adults) and St. Stephen Extension Center (on Eucalyptus Drive at Melba Avenue), which hosts adult sports and games, an over-50 club, and Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

The Stonestown Galleria shopping mall serves as this neighborhood’s commercial district, with an array of stores anchored by Macy’s and Nordstrom. There’s a Borders bookstore, a Trader Joe’s grocery, a twin cinema, and a number of chain restaurants and fast-food eateries. The indoor mall is enveloped by a huge parking lot, perhaps its one unsightly feature, with few trees and pedestrian medians, signaling that it was built in the age when the automobile was the paramount mode of transportation.

Public transportation is straightforward: the No. 23 bus goes east/west along Sloat Boulevard (the neighborhood’s northern limit), and the No. 28 travels north and south along 19th Avenue. The “M” streetcar is an option for downtown commuters, traveling along 19th Avenue (there’s a stop at Stonestown Mall) before veering northeast through the West Portal tunnel to Civic Center, Union Square, and the Financial District in about half an hour.

Parking is not an issue if you own a home here, as most residences have garages (many, as noted, tucked in the alley). It’s also generally fairly easy to park on the streets, though near Lowell High during school hours, the influx of cars can make finding a spot difficult; likely for that reason, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has issued residential parking permit “H” for certain streets between Ocean and Eucalyptus avenues.
Bordering Merced Manor are the campuses of two of San Francisco’s best schools (which themselves lie side by side on Eucalyptus): Lowell High and Lakeshore Alternative Elementary. Lowell High, which got a coveted 10 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools and was rated 28th in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report, is known for attracting college-bound students, with an almost 100 percent graduation rate, as well as the largest number of graduates entering the University of California system, primarily at Berkeley and Davis. Lakeshore Alternative Elementary, rated 7 out of 10 by GreatSchools, is noted for its strong parental participation and art enrichment programs. St. Stephen School, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Parish of the same name, is a K-8 elementary on Eucalyptus Drive at 22nd Avenue.
What little crime occurs here is generally indicative of the pernicious trend in San Francisco: car break-ins (though only three were committed in a recent three-month period). According to San Francisco Police Department statistics, there are occasional disturbing the peace, vandalism, and intoxicated-person violations as well, though these are all infrequent. No homicides have been reported here in the last three years.

Because of its desirability as a place to live, raise a family, and even retire, home values here have stayed constantly high, even during the recent economic downturn. Median home prices are up 24 percent from a year ago, with the average price of $955,000, according to Trulia. A four-bedroom/three-bathroom home goes for about $1.3 million, with two-bedroom/two-bathroom homes between $760,000 and $850,000. There are no apartments for rent here, perhaps owing to the zoning of this enclave and the great number of renters in the adjoining University Park North development. That’s just fine with the residents. Even with the fog, they like the peace and quiet of their little piece of La Jolla North just fine.
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Just now

"Lower Haight: A ’Hood Unto Itself"

Just about the time everyone was rediscovering what an interesting neighborhood Haight-Ashbury is, somebody noticed that there was another ’hood to its east that had grown distinct from the original and, in fact, could justifiably be considered the “other” Haight. Although that moniker never stuck, “Lower Haight” did, and today it is an area with its own character, in many ways different (some might even go so far as to say better) than the original (sometimes known as Upper Haight). It’s a bit tidier and quieter, less touristy and more indicative of what a San Francisco neighborhood is like than its progenitor on the other side of Buena Vista hill, but with its own urban grit and maverick culture that make it stand out from the increasingly gentrified neighborhoods around it.

And just as it was peeling off from Upper Haight, it was also coming to terms with its connections to Hayes Valley. For many years, Lower Haight had to contend with the crime and drug activity associated with the numerous housing projects on its borders. Though much of that problem has cleared with rebuilt public housing and increased police and resident vigilance, the area remains a sort of crime filter, with small-time drug dealing and theft along its borders as well as residual activity from what’s left of the once-dominant gangs. Physical boundaries are also an issue: Whereas the dividing line between Upper and Lower Haight is generally considered to be Divisadero, the point where Lower Haight ends and Hayes Valley begins has been difficult to define. Some say Webster Street, others Laguna (Waller and Fell streets are the generally accepted south and north boundaries, respectively). Still others say Lower Haight extends all the way to Octavia Boulevard, the highly successful reconfiguration of the surface street that ran under the late and little-lamented Central Freeway. The latter would put not only the U.S. Mint but also the recently built LGBT Community Center within the neighborhood limits (something much of its diverse population would likely approve).

Lower Haight has the advantage among a very few of San Francisco’s neighborhoods of harboring a number of historic buildings from the 19th century spared not just the great quake and subsequent fire of 1906, but also the mutilation that many architectural survivors faced as they were updated or “renovated.” Indeed, a number of notable Victorian buildings, many in the ornate Italianate or later Stick styles popular at the time, line the streets, some of them intact as single-family residences. For a fine example, see the Nightingale House at the corner of Waller and Buchanan; this landmark home was built using Stick, Eastlake, and Chalet ornamentation in 1882 for the president of the California Pioneers, who arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Numerous others sit shoulder to shoulder on Page between Fillmore and Webster, including the Daniel Einstein home (584 Page), another landmark with an impressive turret. Germania, a narrow, leafy side-street between Webster and Steiner, has an array of modest cottages and two-story houses that, if lacking a cascade of architectural marvels, make a charming splash of their own.

The neighborhood also offers a number of streets of little or no incline between the hills that rise from downtown and South of Market to Golden Gate Park and the neighborhoods near the ocean, and for this reason is a favorite among bicyclists, who have christened a mile-long stretch through the area “The Wiggle” for its zigzag (though flat) route bypassing steep hills.

Who lives here? According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, it’s a fairly diversified population of 15,000 or so made up of 65 percent white, 15 percent black, and the remaining 20 percent divided among Asians, American Indians, and people of two or more races. (About 8 percent of all races identify as Latino or Hispanic.) They are young (median age: 32), educated (65% have a bachelor’s degree or higher), and more or less economically well off (with a median household income of about $60,000 a year). About three-quarters rent their living spaces, with the remaining quarter owning their homes.

Though each street corner seems to have a laundromat or coffeehouse, most businesses and restaurants cluster along Haight Street, particularly in the four blocks between Webster and Pierce. Here is where you’ll find a Walgreeens, a natural foods store, a meat-and-fish market, a few used-and-new record stores (check out Rooky Ricardo’s for its collection of old soul, jazz, gospel, and reggae LPs and a thousands of vintage 45s), a couple of smoke shops, a number of bars (including Toronado, famous for its dozens of beers on tap, and Mad Dog in the Fog, a hub for soccer and rugby fans with its satellite TV), and eateries both ethnic (Indian, Thai, Japanese, French, Mexican, German [Rosamunde Sausage Grill], Ethiopian, and Mideastern) and all-American (Kate’s Kitchen, Memphis Minnie’s Bar-B-Que, Mystic Pizza, and Burger Joint). The street’s also known for its eclectic salons and barbershops, from the Wak Shack Salon and Edo’s to Aquarius Barbershop.

One sore spot amid all of the humming commercial life of late has been the cropping up of medical-marijuana dispensaries; though the city’s planning department sees no link between these storefronts and crime, some merchants object to the fact that “clients” often resell the cannabis on the street, attracting a criminal element.

Perhaps the densely populated area and its popular restaurants and shops explain why parking can be difficult, particularly midday. Most who live south of Haight Street get the “S” residential parking permit, allowing them to disregard the two-hour parking limits.

The neighborhood has a strong tradition of creative graffiti; the sides of many buildings, especially along Haight, feature fancifully executed, multicolored works (some of which, like the one inhabited by odd creatures on the corner of Haight and Steiner, appear to be commissioned murals). But, despite the fact that there are also a few galleries here showcasing street art, the scourge of impromptu graffiti (the sort of “spray-painting” that defaces facades and irks property owners) is also making ugly inroads on the neighborhood’s homes and storefronts.

Though the area is not known as a particularly kid-friendly place, one public school serves youth in the area, John Muir Elementary (on Webster and Oak), which got a 1 out of 10 rating from GreatSchools. A brighter spot is the Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center, at the west end of Duboce Park (an expanse of lawn bordering the Lower Haight’s southern end), which hosts the San Francisco Park Department’s drama, dance, and music divisions and photography center, offering classes in ethnic-jazz, tap, hula, and ballroom dance; voice and piano; and aerobics. It is home to the Young People’s Teen Musical Theater, the San Francisco Adult Free Civic Theater and the Midnight Music Program.

The area has four major bus lines: the Nos. 6 and 71, which travel back and forth on Haight, and the Nos. 22 and 24, which go mostly north/south on Fillmore and Divisadero, respectively. The “N” streetcar, which emerges from underground near the neighborhood’s southern boundary (behind the Safeway on Market), is popular for commuters with jobs downtown or for those seeking a fairly fast way to get to Ocean Beach. The neighborhood is also a few blocks away from all of MUNI’s subway lines at Church and Market.

The legacy of numerous, nearby rundown housing projects (which have been either razed, rebuilt, or replaced by low-income housing) gives the area a perhaps undeserved reputation as a hotbed for crime. This may still be true in terms of assaults, robberies, and burglaries, which are higher here than elsewhere. And vehicle theft and car break-ins have become common in the area (following a citywide trend). Noise nuisances and vandalism are, as ever, a problem. Otherwise, things have calmed down a lot in the last few years, with only two homicides in the last three years (both committed in 2007).

As for real estate, the neighborhood has rebounded from the recent economic downturn, showing only a slight decline (1.5 percent) in median sales price in the last year, and a significant increase in the last months. Many recent sales have been for condos or flats in multi-unit buildings; these are going from $420,000 to $900,000, depending on number of bedrooms as well as location. Detached, single-family homes (where available) are going from $900,000 to $1.4 million. Rentals, likewise, have been fairly solid for the last year, with studios (if you can find one) starting at $800 and up, one bedrooms going for $1,500 and up, and two- and three-bedrooms going for $2,000 and up—all depending on location and amenities.

Back in 1997, the San Francisco Chronicle referred to Lower Haight as “grungey, post-punk bohemian.” A lot has changed in the last decade, notably the grunge and the post-punk. It’s still not clean, per se, but considerably less trashy and a lot more grown-up, with serious young professionals occupying the apartments and residences and frequenting the trendy restaurants and bars. The bohemian side still exists, though perhaps on an older, wiser level. Just look at the prices for some of the artwork in the area’s galleries, and you’ll see that these are bohemians who have caught on to capitalism, big time.
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Just now

"After Years of Decline, Turnaround Time"

Like Hunters Point, its neighbor to the east, the Bayview District has an image problem. Though by no means as bleak as the area immediately surrounding the abandoned naval shipyard, Bayview nevertheless has pockets of blight, some of its streets forlorn with empty lots and vacant, boarded-up houses. Though it is one of the city’s last predominantly African American enclaves, its makeup and existence are challenged by the harmful legacy of an industrial past in the 20th century and the challenges presented by the compelling development issues it faces in the 21st.

But, also like Hunters Point, it wasn’t always this way. When the area’s economic engine (primarily, the shipyard and the industrial base it attracted) was humming, so was the neighborhood. Many of those who came here in search of opportunity were part of the “Great Migration” of blacks from the Deep South who found work in the Bay Area with the Defense Department. During and after World War II, according to the website Bayview Hunters Point Historical Footprints: “With money in their pockets, African American’s were bringing a unique new vibrancy to the neighborhood. Eateries featured Southern foods. Nightclubs pulsed with jazz and blues, star entertainers, and young people living the life. Homes became centerpieces of family investment. Small businesses and churches grew to serve the newest population. … [T]he breeze carried a collective optimism for racial harmony, the rise of the black middle class, and distance from the history of pain and struggle in this country for people of African descent.”

In the 1960s, many other African Americans settled here, pushed from the Fillmore and the other districts where they had established homes and livelihoods by the wholesale razing of blocks brought on by unenlightened urban “renewal.”

But when the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was unplugged in 1994, the lights started going out around the neighborhood. Many of the locals pulled out and fled to communities around the Bay Area with more jobs. The ones who stayed watched as the life drained from the area, the once-vibrant restaurants and stores and clubs along the Third Street corridor sapped of clients. In the last 20 years, San Francisco has lost almost half of its African American population, according to figures from the mayor’s office of community development, as families and individuals have moved across the Bay, down the Peninsula, and even to the Santa Clara Valley and San Jose.

Furthermore, as a result of its military/industrial past, Bayview has a third of the city’s hazardous waste sites, with the naval shipyard having achieved Superfund site ignominy. The health repercussions of these toxic polluters are being felt to this day: 10 percent of all residents have asthma, with 15 percent of all children under the age of 14 affected, according to a San Francisco Department of Public Health Study, almost twice the rate in the general population. Other health department studies have shown a higher-than-average incidence of infant mortality and birth defects.

The people who live here protest that they are victims of environmental racism, and zoning and various other municipal decisions make it easy to see why: Pollutants are emitted by many of the light industries and depots for numerous chemical companies among the rows of boxy warehouses that line the blocks on the eastern edge of the neighborhood. The city maintains a huge sewage treatment facility on Jerrold Avenue (near Third). Though it is mostly sequestered behind a high brick wall, the massive project is nevertheless a source of pollutants, many aerosol-ized by the churning of waste water. The plant has little visual or street appeal, other than the murals attached to the sides of the brick wall, contributing to the so-called visual pollution of Bayview as well.

You can’t consider Bayview’s overall picture without also taking into account its higher-than-average level of crime, including more than two dozen homicides in the last three years. Although the San Francisco Police Department has made significant progress of late in curbing gang-related crimes, assaults are still common, and the area follows the city trend, with high incidence of vehicle thefts and automobile break-ins. Also significant is the frequency of vandalism as well as disturbing the peace.

In spite of these aggravating circumstances, many people nevertheless call the neighborhood home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Bayview (as separate from the Bayview-Hunters Point agglomeration) has about 25,000 residents: nearly 50 percent of them African American, 22 percent Asian and Pacific Islanders, 27 percent white (with 17 percent of that number claiming Hispanic ethnicity), and a little more than 1 percent American Indian. Income levels are lower here than in the rest of San Francisco, and unemployment rates significantly higher for the community as a whole: More than 30 percent of Bayview residents have annual incomes below $15,000 (only 20 percent of San Francisco’s overall population have incomes that low), and the unemployment rate is upward of more than twice as high as the city as a whole (which could have something to do with the fact that only 60 percent of the residents over age 25 have finished high school). Still, nearly 60 percent of all residents own their homes, a source of pride to many residents who consider home ownership a first step to upward social mobility.

The Third Street “T” streetcar arrived in the Bayview in 2007 to much fanfare: It would bring this isolated community back into the mainstream, its promoters said, and turn the thoroughfare on which it travels from the city’s southern boundary to the Embarcadero into a thriving commercial and commuter zone. Although it has unquestionably brought noticeable changes to Third Street as it cuts through the district (especially in terms of the landscaped medians and neat and tidy elevated platforms that serve as stations for the line), it is debatable whether the new form of transit has transformed the area into a bustling place. For instance, Third Street has yet to attract a major grocery chain or even department store (although markets like Aloudi Abdulsalam—formerly Super Save at McKinnon—and Walgreens in Bayview Plaza at Evans as well as another store on Williams, along with Mazzei Hardware at Thornton) give residents of the area some shopping options. The construction of numerous condos and multi-unit housing along Third has the potential to bring the area’s population density and demographics up to a level to attract more businesses to the area and keep the local economy afloat.

Given the number of establishments with parking lots and the number of homes with garages, parking in the area is fairly easy (though high rates of break-ins and theft make long-term overnight parking on the streets unadvisable).

Bayview has a number of Muni bus lines for transit within the district, including the No. 54, which zigzags from one end to the other; the Nos. 29, 23, and 19, which carry passengers on more or less east-west trajectories as they cross Third Street; and the No. 44, which circles through the north and central part of the neighborhood before continuing west and then north all the way to the Inner Richmond.

The neighborhood is served by two public schools: Bret Harte Elementary (next to the Gilman Playground on Gilman Avenue), which got a 1 out of 10 GreatSchools rating; and Kipp Bayview Academy, on Key Avenue and Third Street, a charter middle school run by the Kipp Foundation that got a 5 out of 10 rating from GreatSchools. A private school—the Muhammad University of Islam, with locations on Third Street and on Kiska Street—gives pre-K through 12th-grade students an alternative to the area’s public schools, with religious instruction and attention to basics in a disciplined environment.

Real-estate prices here have been depressed since before the recent economic downturn. According to Trulia, home prices have dropped by almost 25 percent in the last year, with the average two-bedroom, one-bathroom home going for about $250,000. New-construction condos that will soon come on the market should fetch anywhere from $210,000 to $500,000, depending on size and amenities. Rentals are cheaper than the average elsewhere in San Francisco, with studios starting at $600, multiple-bedroom homes and condos going for as little as $2,000.

In spite of mostly bleak reports about the district, especially during the latest economic downturn, a walk or drive through Bayview reveals many bright spots, including: Quesada Gardens Initiative, a neighborhood pitch-in project that has seen nearby residents plant flowers and shrubs on the median of Quesada Street between Third and Newhall Streets; the Bayview Opera House, which offers after-school and summer arts programs for children as well as a restored performing arts venue for rent; the new Martin Luther King Jr. swimming pool, with its Blue Dolphins youth swim team; and Portola Place, a new single-family housing subdivision across from the Bayview Police Station, built on the site of a former brewery and offering some of the city’s most attractive low-income homes.

On other fronts, the local Bay View newspaper/web site serves its watchdog purpose well, providing reporting on politics and city government as they affect the area, and organizations like Bayview Hunters Point Foundation have numerous programs and initiatives in place to serve the area’s residents. Additionally, Hunters Point Shipyard Artists and Islais Creek Studios now provide inexpensive work studios for artists in the repurposed warehouses and industrial buildings of the defunct shipyard and related businesses.

Finally, a real sign of progress came this year, when PG&E finished dismantling its infamous Hunters Point power plant (at Evans and Innes avenues) and cleaning up the decades of toxic waste that accumulated there. The site, with its restored shoreline and views of the San Francisco Bay, offer a glimpse of how the damage this area has suffered can be reversed
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Just now

"Despair—and Promise—in a Forgotten Part of Town"

Every city has a stepchild, a neighborhood where, for whatever reasons, progress and prosperity have not found a happy home. In San Francisco, Hunters Point is one such area. In decline since the district began losing some of its industrial base in the 1980s and ’90s, and having taken a much bigger hit when the Navy closed the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in 1994, the quarter has suffered the kind of downward trend that makes even longtime residents and local boosters despair.

When Hunters Point was first developed in the late 1800s, San Francisco was booming, and entrepreneurs took full advantage of the deep-water harbor here for iron works and shipbuilding activity, extending the shore of the district into the bay with successive layers of landfill. By the time the United States entered World War II, and it became clear that large naval ships would be a necessity, the Navy purchased the various private operations and undertook a transformation of the docks and surrounding port into the largest shipyard between San Diego and Bremerton, Wash. Hunters Point Naval Shipyard experienced its heyday in World War II and the decades thereafter, attracting a large population of tradespeople and semi-skilled workers who moved to the adjacent neighborhoods. Many of them were African American, but the restrictive (and racist) housing policies of the time prevented them from living in most areas of San Francisco. So they settled here, in adjoining Bayview, and, to a lesser degree, on the south-facing flank of Bernal Heights.

Today, Hunters Point is inhabited by roughly 10,000 residents (according to U.S. Census Bureau figures), predominantly African Americans (60 percent), with Asians (25 percent) and whites, Native Americans and mixed-race individuals (15 percent) composing the remaining populace. They are mainly poor (median household income is less than $30,000 annually) and more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. Only 65 percent have finished high school.

They live amid a landscape of warehouses and open lots, abandoned barracks-style military housing, and the derelict Hunters Point shipyard, so contaminated by decades of industrial waste it has been declared a Superfund cleanup site. Many single-family houses are either boarded up or the windows and doors barricaded with iron bars. The neighborhood is home to some of the city’s worst public housing, including Hunters View, much of which was deemed by the city as uninhabitable. So, beginning late in 2010, it is slated to be rebuilt. Another example, Alice Griffith housing project, shelters about 650 people living in more of the most dilapidated buildings the city oversees. The residents here call it “Double Rock” (after the two rocky outcroppings in the South Basin near Yosemite Slough). Despite a community “opportunity” center initiated in 2005 and sporadic attempts by the mayor’s office to recruit residents in rebuilding and refurbishing the streets and common spaces, the 50-year-old project is showing its age. The 254 units are stacked like barracks (they were originally built for shipyard workers) and rest on concrete slabs atop uneven and seismically unstable landfill. Landscaping mostly takes the form of scruffy trees and the occasional dry patch of grass, with weeds predominating and graffiti prevalent everywhere, in spite of the recent additions of murals to beautify the sides of utility buildings. The housing project is depressing to look at, let alone live in.

Yet there are signs of improvement: In addition to the Hunters View work, colorful new condo developments (intended for low-income artists and other residents) have gone up on Cleo Rand Lane and Jerrod Avenue, overlooking the shipyard and bay, as well as new mixed-use buildings along Innes Avenue, just down the hill from some neglected public housing. Moreover, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently approved Lennar Corp.’s redevelopment plan for the 700-acre site of the long-shuttered Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. It includes housing for some 24,000 residents, parks and open space, and a sprawling industrial/research park that promises to transform the community and bring jobs and new investment to the traditionally down-at-the-heels southeastern quadrant of San Francisco. Lennar Corp., a Miami-based home builder, inked the agreement in July 2010 stipulating that 32 percent of the 10,500 units of housing it plans be classified as affordable along with a unit-for-unit replacement of the Alice Griffith projects. The company will also offer job training for local residents, set goals for hiring local contracting firms to do the work, and will contribute $25 million to a community fund for educational opportunities, scholarships, and upgrades to the Southeast Health Center.

The area already has a number of promising features: a state recreation area (Candlestick Point), the Milton Myer Recreation Center (a playground with a baseball diamond and an indoor gym), even the historic Albion Castle (home of the Albion Ale and Porter Brewing Companies on Innes Avenue, now defunct) with a façade and tower made of hewn stone. No public schools are located within the neighborhood boundaries, however (though there are a couple in the adjacent Bayview area).

Three MUNI bus lines also serve the district: the No. 54, which traces a route from the Third Street “T” light-rail station into the housing projects near the shipyard; the No. 19, which goes back and forth along Innes Avenue; and the No. 23, which travels along Palou Avenue (and also connects with the Third Street “T”). Most residents travel to the adjoining Bayview district to shop for groceries and other goods,

Predictably, the area suffers from high crime. Vehicle theft is at the top of the list, according to San Francisco Police Department records, followed by vandalism and disturbing the peace. Robberies/burglaries are widespread, and assaults are common. There have been seven homicides in the last three years.

In addition to all of its current problems, the neighborhood is struggling to recover from the slide in home prices (up to 60 percent for some properties) since the economic downturn of the last two years. Most of what is for sale is condos in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. The owner of the aforementioned Albion Castle, with its stone façade, underground springs, and restored interiors, is asking about $1.8 million for the historic gem. Rentals (not generally readily available here) include a three-bedrooom, two-bathroom condo with a number of amenities (private garden/patio, video surveillance, solar array) for $2,500 a month.

As it awaits the Lennar Corp.’s redevelopment, Hunters Point feels like a no-man’s land, an area between two worlds—a blighted past on the one hand and a reconfigured future on the other, full of unmet potential and promise. What changes lie in store for this waterside community are a matter of debate, part of the waiting game that has defined this quadrant of the city for the last two decades.
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DisaD
DisaD ...then all the "African AMERICANS" (blacks) will be moved out and the area will bloom with pure whites...happily ever after, just like the rest of the city.
2yrs+
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"Aloft in a Sea of Lofts (and Dreams of an Urban Art Colony)"

The loft—an open, high-ceilinged space with few walls but lots of windows and light—took hold in San Francisco beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, especially South of Market (or SoMa, as it’s known by some real-estate types and city planners). This area, in decline since the mid-20th century departure of the light-industrial base on which it had been built after the earthquake and fire of 1906, had many derelict or underused buildings and warehouses, perfect for transformation into lofts. By attracting young, educated, and hip urban pioneers back to this core city area—or so the enlightened city planning theory of the time went—San Francisco could avoid more of the wholesale razing of block after block in the name of urban renewal (as witnessed in the adjacent Rincon Hill and, farther to the west, the Fillmore). That way, instead of acres of parking lots and paved-over building sites, the old (and, in places, historic) district could be spared the wrecker’s ball. Essential to the plan was the somewhat high-falutin’ ideal that the neighborhood, by allowing so-called live/work housing, would encourage an artists’ community to spring up amid this landscape blighted by SRO hotels, seedy bars, and abandoned buildings.

The plan, as it turns out, has worked only partially, and belatedly at that (due, in part, to the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which caused significant damage to the area for the second time in a century).Yes, South of Market is awash in lofts—many of them luxury homes, really, with no connection to art except for the expensive paintings the owners’ have hung on the walls. True, the live/work development promoted by the city’s planning department and Redevelopment Agency has provided numerous examples of the kind of “artists lofts” one sees commonly in places like New York’s SoHo—old factories reconfigured into drafty, high-ceilinged living spaces where a sculptor or painter or textile artist might work and live behind the same door. But “loft” in San Francisco also came to mean new, multi-unit structures (and recently, high-rises) as well, with several high-tech open-floorspace units, each having floor-to-ceiling windows, custom cabinetry, stainless-steel kitchens, tiled bathrooms with Jacuzzis, and spaces for two cars in the basement garage. They generally sell for prices only highly successful artists can afford.

Meanwhile, these developments have done little to help indigenous artists (indeed, any local residents, including digital-tech workers employed by the various Web 2.0 businesses who have located their offices here) find affordable housing. And, arguably, they have added to the skid-row quality of certain streets by concentrating displaced people along those corridors (like Sixth Street, which, in spite of recent improvements, is a nexus for drug abusers, despondent homeless people, and mentally ill residents of the remaining cheap apartment buildings and rundown hotels).

It’s easy to understand how all this has happened. The notion of an artists’ colony in the middle of a thriving city has fascinated urban planners since the early 20th century, when a backlash swelled against rural art colonies of the 19th century, typically located in some pastoral setting. (New York’s Ashcan School, with its examination of that city’s underbelly, brought a new respectability to artists working in urban environments.) In San Francisco, the goal of setting aside a part of the city for artists and galleries to trigger South of Market’s initial rebirth centered around Moscone Center. Built in 1981, this massive conference center situated on Howard between Third and Fourth streets was the initial phase of the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority’s plan to remake a depressed area adjoining Market that held a number of historically and architecturally significant buildings, including the Old Mint and St. Patrick’s Church. After the convention center came the successful Yerba Buena Gardens (a park situated atop Moscone Center’s northern wing as well as an art museum and performing arts theater that balanced the shopping center/multiplex—Metreon—on the opposite side). So far, this bit of urban renewal has worked: the park draws hundreds of lunchtime crowds; the cinemas and shops have managed to stay afloat (after a stop/start period at first); and the gallery space and performing arts theater draw crowds throughout the year. Moreover, the plan to locate several museums around Yerba Buena (including Mario Botta’s zebra-domed marvel for SFMOMA and Daniel Libeskind’s striking black-cube design for the Contemporary Jewish Museum) has attracted even more people to the area.

But walk a few blocks west down Mission or Howard streets, and the area begins to show a less appealing side: rundown buildings marred with grafitti, ragtag street people, forlorn parking lots surrounded by tawdry bars and liquor stores and shops selling everything from used clothing to discount beauty aids, with trash and litter strewn willy-nilly on sidewalks and gutters at nearly every turn. Even ambitious projects like the new San Francisco Federal Building on Seventh and Mission (a "green" 18-floor high-rise with unique features designed to consume less energy) and the refurbished beaux-arts federal appeals court building across the street have not transformed the area into a model of inner-city renaissance planning, their public spaces devoid of trees and other softening elements like comfortable benches and tables.

The challenge of remaking South of Market into a community of artists (or at least hip young professionals, where it seemed to be going before the dotcom bust in 2000) has always been stymied by the fact that the neighborhood had become home to, during the latter part of the 20th century, an entrenched and largely lower-class agglomeration of transients, recent immigrants, welfare recipients, and garment sweatshop workers, many of whom toiled in the area’s light industry and lived in the cheap hotels nearby. Today, these residents make the neighborhood colorful, but for different reasons than intended. A drive down side streets like Natoma or Tehama reveals, abutting newer loft buildings, some of the post-1906 quake Victorian flats and modern city-subsidized apartment houses they’ve settled into. It’s not quite skid row, but it’s not Nob Hill, either.

So, who lives here now? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the area is fairly diverse, a mix of white (45 percent), Asian (25 percent), African American (12 percent), and people of two or more races (18 percent). (It’s interesting to note that nearly one-fourth of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino of any race.) Most of SoMa’s 15,000 or so residents live north of the I-80 viaduct. They tend to be low-income (median household income is about $35,000), with more than 20 percent of the population living below the poverty level. Not surprisingly, 88 percent of them rent their living space, with the remaining 12 percent occupying lofts they bought during the construction boom of such units in the last 15 years. Though it’s not always immediately evident from the new construction and refurbished storefronts along the main corridors of the neighborhood, this is a lower- to lower-middle-class area at best.

No one lacks for places to eat and drink, however. The neighborhood is home to myriad ethnic restaurants (including Tu Lan, a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese eatery on Sixth Street that earned a nod from the late Julia Child) as well as high-end dining, such as Provence-inspired Restaurant Lulu on Folsom (with its open kitchen and wood-fired oven). Dozens of restaurants and shops, a multiplex, a Bloomingdales, and a Nordstrom are all arranged on multiple floors in the sprawling Westfield San Francisco Centre, an urban mall developed around the bones of the old Emporium department store. Though small grocers do business on nearly every block, a new-ish Whole Foods Market attracts the neighborhood’s upscale residents.

The city’s vibrant pop- and rock-music scene is centered in a number of clubs in South of Market (Slim’s, BrainWash, Hotel Utah, Annie’s Social Club, DNA Lounge, 330 Ritch Street). But the once-dominant gay community along Folsom has largely dispersed, with only a couple of leather shops and Mack Folsom Prison still catering to the gay/bi crowd, with several gay bars on nearby Harrison Street (the Stud, Lone Star Saloon, and The Eagle). The annual (and popular) Folsom Street Fair (and smaller Dore Alley Fair) still remind locals that the area was once a fulcrum of activity for gay and bisexual men, especially those with leather fetishes.

Being close to Union Square and the Financial District means public transportation is multi-faceted. BART and the Muni subway run underground along Market, with a number of bus lines feeding downtown from the outlying neighborhoods running along the surface, along with the historic "F" streetcars. Almost every block has a bus line running a generally north/south or east/west route (the streets parallel the diagonal Market here), with the No. 14 along Mission Street and the No. 12 along Folsom particularly well patronized. Golden Gate Transit and SamTrans (from San Mateo County) also run routes through the area.

The relatively few children in the area are served by Bessie Carmichael/Fec Elementary school, a public K-8 that got a 4 out of 10 GreatSchools rating. The school sits opposite a new and nicely laid-out Victoria Manalo Draves Park, with its basketball courts, baseball diamond, well-placed and spacious children’s play area, and big expanse of lawn, a rarity in this fairly treeless, asphalt-and-concrete desert. Nearby, at Sixth and Folsom, is Gene Friend/SoMa Recreation Center, noted for its large gymnasium as well as programs for preschool- and school-age children, teens, and young adults.

The area also hosts a few social centers for the aging population, including Bayanihan House on Sixth and Mission, along with self-help organizations like Salvation Army (at Fourth and Shipley) and St. Anthony’s Foundation free clothing program at Eighth and Mission.

According to San Francisco Police Department statistics, criminal activity in South of Market tends to run fairly high, not only along the main streets (where assaults and robberies most often occur), but also in the alleys and sidestreets, where car break-ins and auto thefts happen regularly—part of the city’s fastest developing crime epidemic. Burglary, vandalism, public intoxication, and noise nuisances fill out the extended police blotter. Moreover, the department recorded 15 homicides here in the last three years.

For all of its drawbacks, however, South of Market remains a competitive real-estate market, according to Trulia, with prices rising about 10 percent in the last year as the neighborhood recovers from the national economic downturn (sales prices had declined by about 20 percent overall in the last five years). Much of what’s for sale is lofts or condos, however, and these tend to have a median sales price around $550,000, with some units going for as low as $300,000 and others (top floors in the SoMa Grand) going for $725,000 and up. Rentals are reasonable, especially for modern construction, with one-bedrooms starting at $1,500 a month and two-bedrooms starting at $2,000. Studios, admittedly hard to find here, are most often situated in older buildings near Market for as low as $1,000 a month (don’t expect much in the way of amenities, however).

In all, South of Market remains a gritty place to live. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of calling this neighborhood home: There's a certain hard-as-nails glamour to hanging your hat amid all these rough-edged urban streets.
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  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
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  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
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  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
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Editors Choice

"What’s in Store for the Rest of the City"

Few places in San Francisco capture the changes the city is undergoing quite as neatly and succinctly as the Inner Richmond. This is where the city’s flux is most evident: in the revitalized housing, in the new restaurants and businesses, in the makeup of its residents, and in the changing look and feel of a neighborhood in the process of renewal, if not gentrification. Here, old homes are emerging from neglect, with new paint and windows and restored porches. Major thoroughfares like Geary Boulevard have been re-engineered to enable better traffic flow, with new plants and trees to beautify the median. Old commercial streets (like Balboa, Clement, and Geary as well) are taking on renewed luster, as businesses move in and revamp shopfronts that had drifted into decay. The Inner Richmond, long classified as San Francisco’s “second Chinatown,” is moving toward its new definition: the next Noe Valley, with a mix of old-timers and newcomers, singles and families, kids and retirees. If you want a glimpse at what San Francisco’s ever-transforming landscape looks like, look no further than the Inner Richmond.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this formerly all-white enclave has become typical of many San Francisco neighborhoods where no one ethnicity predominates: About 45 percent white (with recent Irish immigrants making up a large part of the total), 40 percent Asian, and the rest a mix of Native American, African American or people of mixed race. They are thirty-somethings (median age is 36), educated (57 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher), and middle class (with a median household income of about $60,000). About 35 percent live in their own homes; the remaining 65 percent rent.

This fairly flat expanse of former sand dunes the current residents inhabit was once part of the city’s vast “Outer Lands,” developed by, among others, the late-19th-century Fernando Nelson and his sons, who were credited with building a house a day for six years after the great quake and fire of 1906. Though many small cottages from the 19th century remain in the area (attesting to the initial development of the land here as vegetable and dairy farms), the primary architecture of the district is Edwardian, with many details and characteristics added to give the homes a one-of-a-kind look: a Tudor façade here, a Moorish arch over the entry there, French grillwork around the windows and false balconies—anything to give the side-by-side homes (many of which were, in fact, based on the same layout) less uniformity (see the rows on Fifth Avenue between Balboa and Cabrillo, those along Third Avenue between Cabrillo and Fulton, and those up and down Twelfth Avenue from Golden Gate Park to Anza for examples of this “individualization”).

Today, many of these homes, suffering from long-deferred maintenance or outright neglect, are being restored and refurbished by their young, eager new owners, intent on raising their families in a solid neighborhood with good housing stock. Area homeowners are also intent on planting more trees on the somewhat barren streets, particularly ones that will thrive in the area’s frequent fog and wind. And for a really great “tree fix,” the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, with all of their natural and manmade attractions, border the neighborhood on the north and south, respectively.

Perhaps the street most indicative of who lives here now is Clement. In addition to hosting Green Apple Books, a beloved used-book store, and Sixth Avenue Aquarium, a quirky aquatic-pet and flower store with an intriguing selection of fresh- and saltwater fish, the 14 blocks stretching westward from Arguello Boulevard amount to a repository of world food and drink: Le Soleil, a refined Vietnamese restaurant; Chapeau, a French bistro; an old-fashioned Schubert’s Bakery (established in 1911); the Plough and the Stars, an Irish pub (and a vortex of live Irish music); Giorgio’s Pizzeria; Burma Superstar, which specializes in spicy Burmese cuisine; Fune Ya Japanese Restaurant; Clement Street Bar and Grill; Good Luck Dim Sum; Pizza Orgasmica and Brewing; Coriya Hot Pot City; Be My Guest Thai Bistro; and Russian Bear. Numerous Asian produce and fish markets line Clement as well, led by Richmond New May Wah Supermarket.

Though Geary between Arguello and Park Presidio (the east and west boundaries of the neighborhood, respectively) remains a utilitarian strip, an automobile and bus corridor lined with gas stations and convenience and specialty stores, it has undergone some re-engineering of late for easier traffic flow as well as some new landscaping of its nondescript median. Small, walk-in restaurants also announce the area’s multi-culti population, from Star of India and Bella Trattoria to Genki Ramen, Five Happiness, and Korean Village Wooden Charcoal House. Add to this a couple of Irish pubs, Abbey Tavern and Ireland’s 32, for a snapshot of the area’s demographics. There are also a number of churches and other landmarks on the street, including Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church and Park Presidio United Methodist Church, both of which raise their handsome white bell towers high above the traffic.

Balboa Street, too, speaks of the neighborhood’s transition: new cafés and restaurants dot the intersections with the avenues: Javaholics, The Richmond Restaurant and Wine Bar, Namu (Korean), Sushi Bistro, Cinderella Bakery and Café, and Thai Noodle Jump.

For public transportation, the area is well served by frequent (if jam-packed) buses. Geary is the main event, with the Nos. 31 and 38 carrying nearly 60,000 riders back and forth on the boulevard between here and downtown, a route paralleled by the No. 1 on California, the No. 31 on Balboa, and the No. 5 along Fulton. The No. 2 takes a more meandering path, traveling along Clement Street before going through Laurel Heights and Japantown en route to Union Square. The No. 44 travels north and south on Sixth Avenue; the No. 33 does the same along Arguello Boulevard. Though much has been made of the need for a faster, more efficient means of public transit along the Geary corridor into downtown, surface streetcars have lately been dismissed as too disruptive and ultimately not fast enough, while a subway under Geary is for the time being financially infeasible. So planners are emphasizing express buses with limited stops.

Local children attend a number of schools, from private (Star of the Sea [Catholic, K-8 and preschool] and Laurel School [nondenominational, for students with “learning differences,” K-8]) to public (George Peabody Elementary and Roosevelt Middle School, both of which rated 9 out of 10 on the GreatSchools scale, as well as Sutro Elementary, which got an 8 GreatSchools rating). All schools and their students take advantage of the newly remodeled Milton Marks Branch Library, which has age-appropriate collections and special rooms for children and teens as well as kid-friendly landscaping with a play structure.

Because of its numerous restaurants and bars, disturbing the peace is the most common criminal offense here, with the occasional assault accompanying the noise. Burglaries and robberies are also not uncommon, and, following the citywide scourge, car break-ins and auto thefts are on the rise. There has been one homicide in the neighborhood in the last three years.

Real estate in the area is considered a bargain (a four-bedroom, one-bath home was listed for $825,000, and numerous two-bedroom, two-bath condos are going for around $500,000, with a one-bedroom condo listed recently at about $330,000). Rentals here are also moderately priced: studios around $1,100, one bedrooms in the $1,200 to $1,600 range, and two bedrooms from $1,700. More than any factor, these examples of “affordable” housing may underpin the resurgence the area is currently enjoying.
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  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 5/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 5/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 5/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"Slower and Less Loud, The Beat Goes On"

The lights never used to go out in North Beach. This small, densely populated, Italian enclave had been, for a number of decades in the last century, the San Francisco equivalent of both Little Italy and Times Square, with restaurants and coffeehouses and nightclubs going till the wee hours, and the notorious “red light” strip along Broadway humming after hours as well. It was bustling not only with tourists who came here to drink and be merry but also the city’s movers and shakers, who made the bars and restaurants their unofficial places of business. To this day, it has a strong air of tradition and adventure and romantic promise.

It began when there still was a “beach” in North Beach—roughly where Bay Street is today, at the neighborhood’s northern end. There, in the late 19th century, Italian fishermen began docking their boats and plying the nearby waters, supplying San Francisco with the bulk of its fresh fish. (Cioppino, a tomato-and-wine-based stew with chunks of crab, other shellfish and local sole or the catch of the day, was invented in San Francisco as a result of these resourceful fishermen seeking to recreate the cooking of Genoa, their old home.) Gradually, more immigrants from Italy followed, turning the valley between Russian and Telegraph Hills into an Italian colony of sorts, with stores and restaurants and small hotels replete with all the colorful and notorious activity and people such a self-contained community engenders. It was then known as San Francisco’s Latin Quarter, but as more Italians came to settle here, it became less “Latin” (that is, less Spanish and Portuguese and French) and more truly characteristic of its majority Italians.

After the quake and fire of 1906 devastated the neighborhood, Italian merchants, tradesmen, laborers, and bankers (especially Amadeo Giannini, whose Bank of Italy ultimately became today’s well-known Bank of America) rebuilt it along with much of San Francisco. In what was a heyday for the area, they formed clubs and self-help organizations. By the 1920s, thousands of Italian immigrants and/or their descendants lived and thrived in North Beach, a fulcrum of their activity the Italian Athletic Club (whose headquarters, built in 1936, still stands at 1630 Stockton Street). Washington Square Park and its expanse of grass and trees was home to their numerous festivities, and an impressive new Saints Peter and Paul Church, its twin spires reaching 191 feet into the air, was its spiritual centerpiece, built in 1924. By the 1930s, San Francisco had an Italian in charge of municipal government, Mayor Angelo Joseph Rossi, who brought North Beach into the mainstream and led the city through tumultuous years of labor unrest and suspicion of Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants as World War II loomed.

But by the end of World War II, North Beach had begun to change. Many of its wealthier Italian denizens had moved to other neighborhoods or the suburbs, and the bars and nightclubs had begun attracting many non-locals, including gay men and lesbians who could enjoy a certain safety and freedom from derision at places like the Black Cat (on Montgomery Street) or Mona’s 440 (on Broadway). Finocchio’s, a drag palace on Broadway that had opened in the 1930s, took the area’s gender-bending to a glitzy level. Such post-war liberty in a time of straitlaced moral standards attracted nonconformist writers, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, who found this particular patch of San Francisco fertile ground for their Beat movement in the 1950s and early ’60s, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and proprietor of the still-standing City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue, serving as a good-natured host to the art and inspired debauchery of these primordial “beatniks” as well as publisher of Ginsberg’s seminal work, “Howl.”

With the counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, more artists, writers, and intellectuals were attracted to the area, living generally peacefully alongside the aging Italian population. But development edged northward in the early 1970s from Chinatown as well as the Financial District (the 48-story Transamerica Pyramid, completed in 1972, now serves as the visual endpoint to the neighborhood, although it is several blocks away), and many of the original Italian business owners and residents found it easier to sell (often to Chinese business owners from adjoining Chinatown) and move away than stay.

Today, the area maintains its Italian veneer: cafes, delis, bakeries, and restaurants line Columbus Avenue, and the Italian Athletic Club still operates on Stockton Street. But residents of the area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are more likely to be Asian (60 percent) than Italian or white (40 percent). For instance, Saints Peter and Paul Church now has Masses in Chinese, as well as in English and Italian. The 12,000 or so residents are also graying, with a median age of 42, and are middle class, with annual average household incomes of about $50,000. The great majority of them—upward of 80 percent—rent their homes and apartments.

The high population density here ensures a lot of street life, and even though the area no longer has the all-nighter reputation and somewhat sleazy thrill of its Beat past (the strip joints on Broadway notwithstanding), it is nevertheless a good bet for a late dinner (the Washington Square Bar and Grill, a haunt of the city’s politicos, serves until 10 p.m., and Cinecitta makes Roman pizzas till midnight in its casual, small space on Union Street) or a nightcap (Gino and Carlo, which draws an unpretentious crowd on Green Street, or Tosca on Columbus, a fave among celebs). Two down-and-dirty bars, Vesuvio’s and Specs, both famous haunts of Beat writers frequented today by their latter-day followers, sit on opposite sides of Columbus from each other. Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Café on Columbus is a longtime favorite among locals for its sandwiches (made with focaccia from nearby Liguria Bakery) and strong espresso, as is Caffe Trieste (on Vallejo), which prides itself as being North Beach’s “original Beat café,” with its own bean-roasting operation and retail outlet. And the Savoy Tivoli, around in one form or another on Grant Avenue for more than 100 years, currently draws crowds for its live jazz on Saturday afternoon. A vaudeville-type revue sending up San Francisco in particular and the national political scene in general, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” continues to be a hit with tourists and locals alike, its over-the-top innuendo and outrageous hats a source of delight for the diverse audience that comes Wednesday through Sunday nights in the old Club Fugazi building. The Asian influence is felt by the increasing number of Chinese and Thai restaurants near Washington Square Park (Dupont Thai and Tuk Tuk Thai, as well as New Sun Hong Kong Restaurant, which serves its noodle-based menu till 3 a.m. at Broadway and Columbus).

Life in the neighborhood can amount to a big-city hassle: parking is frustrating if not impossible (most residents who don’t have a garage space get the “A” residential parking permit and occupy their space for the maximum 72 hours) and noise from all the bars and restaurants takes some getting used to, especially on a weeknight. But the tradeoff in convenience also has rewards: small markets, bakeries, cafes, and cleaners occupy nearly every corner, and regulars become favorites in these family-run establishments.

One plus is the ease of public transportation: six bus routes (the Nos. 30, 45, 8, 39, and 10) plus a cable car (the Powell-Mason line) cut through the neighborhood, offering residents fast access to the Financial District, Union Square, and BART (either the Embarcadero, Montgomery, or Powell Street locations). The intersection of Stockton, Columbus, and Green is a web of overhead electric lines supplying any number of buses, a mini-marvel of engineering with the various buses keeping their “antennae” attached to the appropriate line as they make sweeping turns. Taxis are also generally abundant, especially around Washington Square Park, making cars all but redundant for the inhabitants of the area.

Two schools serve the children in the neighborhood: the Laura Vicuña Preschool (associated with Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Filbert) and Francisco Middle School, which rated a 3 out of 10 by GreatSchools (perhaps owing to its large limited-English student body). In keeping with the bohemian-artist theme of the place, the campus of the San Francisco Art Institute is nearby, on the border of North Beach with the Russian Hill area.

Crime in North Beach follows the trend in other densely populated neighborhoods in San Francisco, according to Police Department reports, mostly due to noise nuisances and disturbing the peace, along with the higher-than-average numbers of intoxicated individuals on the street and the higher rate of assaults here (much of it rooted in alcohol consumption). Vandalism is increasingly a problem, and burglary and robbery in the area trend higher than elsewhere in San Francisco, as do the number of car thefts and break-ins, which are commonest near major streets where overnight parking and little sidewalk traffic is the norm. There have been three homicides in the last three years.

Real estate prices have rebounded somewhat, after dropping by as much as 40 percent during the downturn that began in 2008, according to Trulia. Still, in spite of the lower prices seen elsewhere in San Francisco, North Beach real estate is still pricey. This is owing in part to the solid rental market, which assures building owners of a decent return on their rental properties. A multi-family home on Stockton near Broadway was listed at $4.9 million, and a three-bedroom, 1.5-bath condo farther north on Stockton was asking $699,000. As hinted at above, rentals are pricey: studios average in the $1,200 range, one-bedrooms go for $1,700 to $2,600, and two-bedrooms can be as expensive as $3,500 or more. But, this being North Beach, there’s little room for negotiating; the cachet of a North Beach address still pulls in eager renters from all over the city and the Bay Area as well.
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  • Gym & Fitness 5/5
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Editors Choice

"A Different Kind of Urban Paradise"

No single remark characterizes better what San Francisco means for many people than a quip by Herb Caen, the city’s late chronicler par excellence: “One day if I do go to heaven ... I'll look around and say, 'It ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco .’ ”

That simple statement aptly summarizes the affection and high regard many residents and visitors hold for the City by the Bay. These 49 square miles of hill and valley and shore have commanded the attention not only of the state in which it was for many decades the most important city, but also the imagination of a nation that considers it both a point of departure (people come here looking to reinvent and rediscover themselves) and a point of no return (with the Golden Gate Bridge having the dubious distinction of being the No. 1 place to check out of this old world and into the great beyond).

What gives San Francisco its allure? The 50 or so hills on which it spreads, affording wow-inspiring views not only from the top but also from the bottom looking up? Its mix of low-slung Victorian buildings and modern architectural marvels? The cable cars and streetcars and ferries and other reminders of a more felicitous era in public transit? The area’s quirky sea-induced weather, which can vary by hour from misty to crystal clear to breezy then blustery, with the fog playing hide-and-seek all the while? Or, in spite of that persistent fog, the fact that it still averages 260 sunny days a year, no snow in the winter, and 20 to 22 inches of precipitation annually, 90 percent of which falls between mid-October and mid-April? Perhaps it’s the curiously laid-back yet politically engaged and diverse population, almost 45 percent of whom have college degrees? The fact that 60 percent of San Franciscans are single? The food-obsessed lifestyle, with nearly 3,000 restaurants—the most per capita of any U.S. city? The liberal politics that encourages tolerance of many ways of life? Or, on a more practical note, is it the resilient economy, with its banking and finance industry driving Web 2.0 entrepreneurs as well as biotechnology and biomedical research, bumping the median household income to more than $70,000 a year? Or is the attraction as simple as the beauty of the city’s setting, surrounded by bay and ocean on three sides, with glorious countryside, open space, and mountains beckoning a few miles away?

The People
However you explain its pull, San Francisco indeed induces many to come, most of them to visit (15 million a year, according to the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau) and a smaller number to stay and live here—population in the last decade has hovered near 800,000, with the U.S. Census Bureau estimating a 2009 total of about 815,000, including about 100,000 who moved to the city in the last five years.

Though San Francisco is a densely populated place, it is in fact not even in the top 10 nationwide, at No. 23 among specific areas (some located within municipal boundaries, like Manhattan) with high-density population--but still more packed with people per square mile than Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is the 14th most populous city in the United States, however, and the second most densely populated of U.S. cities among those with more than 200,000 residents ( New York City is first). The large number of foreign-born immigrants (about 36 percent of the total, according to the Census Bureau) gives the city its characteristic diversity; it is often referred to as a “minority-majority” city, with non-Hispanic whites making up less than half of the population. (Latinos—white or of any race—amount to 14 percent of the total.) Asians of any nationality comprise about 31 percent of the population, those born in China or of Chinese descent being the largest single ethnic group in San Francisco, at about 20 percent. But the city’s African-American population has declined for the last 40 years, from 13 percent in 1970 to 7 percent today.

The city contains a lower-than-average number of married people (40 percent) with the lowest percentage of children under 18 of any metropolis in the United States (about 15 percent). San Francisco also counts 15 percent of its total population as gays and lesbians, according to figures from a survey conducted by the UCLA School of Law. That figure—the highest percentage in the nation—helps explain the highest per-capita distribution of same-sex households here as well as the gay-friendly civic government and businesses.

The Politics
Numerous factors in San Francisco’s past—its anything-goes history in the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast days in the 1850s and ’60s; the influx of immigrants in the early- and mid-20th century; the strong unions that organized workers in the Depression and World War II; the cultural foment of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the Summer of Love in 1967; the gay-rights movement of the 1970s; and the environmental and “green” revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s—have resulted in an overall liberal political climate in city governance and a general tolerance exhibited by most of the populace.

San Francisco is constituted as a consolidated city and county. The mayor serves as the county executive and heads other citywide elected and appointed officials, and the 11-member Board of Supervisors acts as both a county delegation as well as the city council. Under the city charter, these two branches are equal, with the mayor in charge of the day-to-day operations of the civic government, and the supervisors, led by a president, responsible for passing laws and budgets. The city is divided into 11 geographic districts, each of which is represented by one member of the board, who in turn reflects the demographics of his or her constituency, with more conservative districts traditionally located in the city’s western and southwestern areas.

The city has been solidly Democratic for the last half-century, with no Republican presidential candidate winning over the city’s electorate since Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. At present, most of the city is represented in Congress by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the first woman to fill the post. This is not to suggest that San Francisco moves in liberal lockstep: the Byzantine nature of politics here, which tends to pit one interest group against another, frequently creates conflicts over development (particularly between downtown corporations and the neighborhoods) and the apportionment of city services (police and fire protection, public transit routes, and health care).

Despite the liberal veneer, many newcomers to the city marvel at apparent contradictions in freedoms. For instance, while some patently illegal activity (smoking marijuana for non-medical purposes) is mostly ignored by the authorities as well as the citizenry, other perfectly legal activity (smoking tobacco) is severely restricted (it’s prohibited indoors in public places, in parks, and in taxis) and frowned upon by the populace. Others, newbies and oldsters alike, also bristle at the enforced recycling policies of the city, where residents are required to sort from their trash such recoverable, renewable resources as paper, glass, aluminum, and plastic, and to place compostable items such as kitchen scraps, soiled paper, and garden waste in green containers. Though detested by some and embraced wholeheartedly by others, the policy has resulted in San Francisco leading the nation with the most waste recycled of any U.S. municipality—nearly 67 percent (according to SustainLane.com).

The embrace of diversity and tolerance is also contradicted by a strong not-in-my-backyard streak among many neighborhood groups, who shun further intrusion into their protected space by opposing most development (including, at times, affordable housing) on the grounds that it will interfere with their area’s historic significance or quality of life. The Board of Supervisors has historically issued strong growth-control laws as well, empowering the Planning Department to limit, curtail, and even refuse developments it considers inharmonious with the city’s planning code.

The Neighborhoods
It is often said that San Francisco is less a big city and more a collection of small ones, and surely its neighborhoods bear that out. They are among the most distinct in any urban area of the United States, reflecting not only the current residents but, thanks to the city’s active historic preservation groups, its past inhabitants and their buildings and cultural landmarks as well.

Many neighborhoods are formed by man-made boundaries—busy streets, a park, a famous monument. Others are delimited by natural boundaries—the crest of a hill or the hill itself, the slope of one of these hills versus its counterpart on the other side, even waterways like lakes and brackish creeks that empty into the bay. In still others, the definition of one place versus another is forever in flux: consider the inability of anyone to say exactly where Hayes Valley ends and the Lower Haight begins.

Fluid boundaries notwithstanding, San Francisco is a mosaic of different neighborhoods, each exhibiting its own flavor and character. Take the Mission District, an area that was settled in the late 19th century by European immigrants, the different groups bringing their commercial and social influences to the pockets where they clustered (trades, restaurants, churches, and clubs). Today, however, it has a decidedly Latino atmosphere, with Mission and Valencia streets crowded with stores and businesses catering to a Spanish-speaking clientele from Mexico as well as Central and South America. Likewise Chinatown: in a dark moment of the city’s 19th-century past, the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively sequestered Chinese residents on Grant Avenue and severely limited their freedoms to move outside the area and conduct business. Today, however, the infamous law receding into the past, the neighborhood has grown beyond the Grant Avenue tourist corridor to include large swaths abutting Nob Hill, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill, its vibrant shops, restaurants, and businesses catering to a new wave of Chinese immigrants.

Although ethnicity defines these two enclaves, most San Francisco neighborhoods are less influenced by race and culture and more by lifestyle. The Castro, for instance, is known worldwide as a gay mecca, while nearby Haight-Ashbury, famous for its 1960s hippie invasion, still attracts a considerable contingent of young people adhering to a similar sex-drugs-rock-’n’-roll philosophy. Noe Valley has its own counterculture family values, with high-tech millionaires pushing baby strollers next to designers, writers, and trades people of all types. And the Marina District pulls in both the young and well-heeled along with moneyed bankers and well-off retirees. From the well-to-do of Pacific Heights and Russian Hill to the down-to-earth of Bernal Heights and Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco still manages to accommodate all levels of the socio-economic stratum.

Newer areas like Mission Bay and older ones that have seen new life like South of Market (or SoMa, in real-estate parlance) are seen as more open to development and new industry. Hence, Mission Bay ’s satellite campus of UCSF and its many biotech firms, along with SoMa’s openness to multi-unit/multi-use housing developments and live/work lofts.

There is considerable cross-pollination among the neighborhoods as well, allowing for transitions and shared traditions (the annual gay parade, for instance, takes place downtown, on Market Street and in Civic Center, far from the Castro, and the yearly Bay to Breakers run cuts through numerous districts). Ethnic eateries dot most neighborhoods, and not always in line with the population: hence, you’ll find a Korean barbecue in Noe Valley, Thai food in the Mission, Chinese in North Beach, and Italian in the Sunset. Needless to say, churches and temples draw worshipers from various neighborhoods as well: Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill brings residents from all over the city, as does Congregation Emanu-El in the Inner Richmond.

Cultural Life
With such an educated population and a concentration of wealthy benefactors, it follows that San Francisco has developed a rich and varied arts and culture scene. Topping the list are its world-class symphony, opera, and ballet companies. Led by music director and principal conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (often said to be the greatest musical educator since Leonard Bernstein), the San Francisco Symphony draws high-caliber musicians, guest artists, and conductors from throughout the world, and its concerts are often sold out. San Francisco Opera also adds international luster to the performing arts, wooing marquee sopranos and tenors for extended runs in its fall and summer seasons. San Francisco Ballet, under Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, has assembled a multinational cast of principals and soloists, as well as corps dancers (many from the company’s school), who perform classical and modern works by a roster of leading choreographers.

Although live theater here suffers because high real-estate prices make venue rentals almost prohibitive, there are still important regional companies based in San Francisco, including the American Conservatory Theater (famous for turning out actors like Annette Bening, Denzel Washington, and Winona Ryder while premiering many new works on the West Coast) and the Magic Theater, which devotes itself to new works by emerging and established playwrights, including Sam Shepard. San Francisco also has its own brand of improv, in which full-evening works and even musicals are performed extemporaneously at various small theaters in town.

Five world-class museums each offer their particular collections—SFMOMA, with its works by 20th-century artists housed in the intriguing Mario Botta-designed “zebra dome” edifice in Yerba Buena and soon to include the collection of GAP Co-Founder Donald Fisher; the deYoung in Golden Gate Park, with its eclectic collection of American, African, and Pacific Island works; the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, which houses fine sculpture and pottery from European antiquity through the 19th century; the Asian Art Museum, designed by Gae Aulenti (famous for her work with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris) to fill the old main library building with an impressive cross-section of works from across Asia over the last 6,000 years; and the California Academy of Sciences, also located in Golden Gate Park, with its new building housing a tropical rainforest as well as an aquarium and planetarium.

There are also numerous community-centered museums and galleries, including the Mexican Museum and Contemporary Jewish Museum opposite Yerba Buena Gardens and exhibit spaces in the neighborhoods themselves (Galería de la Raza in the Mission, the Fine Museum in the Temple Emanu-El ). The Exploratorium, next to the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District, is an interactive science with many programs geared to schoolchildren.

The city’s vibrant pop- and rock-music scene is centered in a number of clubs in South of Market (Slim’s, Brainwash, Hotel Utah, Annie’s Social Club, DNA Lounge, 330 Ritch Street) and in the Mission District (Elbo Room, El Rio, Amnesia, Make-Out Room) with a few venues in the Fillmore (Boom Boom Room, the Fillmore) and on or around Polk Street (Red Devil Lounge, Hemlock Tavern, Great American Music Hall, Edinburgh Castle). Though the musical genres have come a long way since the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane (with DJs rising in popularity, blending everything from disco and house to trance and techno), today’s “San Francisco Sound” is still very much live and in person.

Restaurants and Food
Known as a “foodie” town, San Francisco harbors hundreds of restaurants, many of them ethnic and a number of them ground-breakers in modern culinary trends, from Aziza (classic Moroccan with Mediterranean overtones) to Zuni (nouveau California, with an emphasis on fresh fish and grilled dishes). Because of the number of recent immigrants who now call San Francisco home, the city enjoys a wide variety of culinary styles, including Chinese (dim sum to Peking duck), Indian (tandoori to curries), Thai, Korean, Japanese, Mexican (especially taquerias), South American (from Peruvian to Brazilian), and an array of French and Italian restaurants, many of the latter in the Financial District or concentrated around North Beach, the traditional center of the city’s first Italian immigrants.

As with the eateries they flock to, San Franciscans also take pleasure in the number of groceries and fresh food outlets they can frequent, along with the array of unusual ingredients home chefs can choose from. With its weekly farmer’s markets at Ferry Plaza, United Nations Plaza, and Alemany Boulevard, many residents have taken to their kitchens with a passion, seeking out the best meats and produce along with cheeses, bread, and wines—obliged by small specialty food shops as well as bigger outlets like Real Food, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. It all combines to create a food-oriented culture that is centered on dinner parties or going out to try the latest addition to eateries in the neighborhood, then recreating the experience at home.

Schools
Though San Francisco is not renowned for model public schools (it has struggled in the last decades with budget cuts and a shifting population of students, many of them underprivileged and speaking English as a second language), there are a number of notable exceptions, including Lowell High School (with its national reputation as a magnet for the college-bound) as well as exemplary elementary schools such as Claire Lilienthal, Alice Fong Yu, and Rooftop Academy. GreatSchools gives the city’s public schools overall a 6 out of 10 rating.

And although public schools leave something to be desired, the city is perhaps better represented by its private elementary and high schools, especially those centered on or near Pacific Heights: Town School and Stuart Hall (both for boys); Drew (coed); Sacred Heart (coed, Catholic)—the list goes on. As with most private schools in an environment that is increasingly deprived of government funding, the cost of a primary education can equal or top that of what colleges and universities charge (i.e., $30,000 a year).

Transit and Parking
San Francisco has always been a city that needed to provide its citizens a means to scale the steep hills, and that legacy is evident today in the network of streetcars, buses, and subways that connect the various areas with each other. Though MUNI buses, the most common feature of the city-run public transit system, are often criticized for flouting their schedules and leaving many riders guessing when the next one might arrive, they are fairly consistent and get begrudgingly good marks from the ridership (as a recent MUNI-sponsored survey showed). The subway, which runs primarily along Market Street underground—mimicking BART, the regional train commuter system—is a vital key to attracting the large percentage of city residents who commute to work via public transportation. The historic cable cars (which run via a cable under the street) and streetcars (which run on tracks on the surface, powered by overhead electric lines) round out the transit options within the city proper.

BART, Golden Gate Transit (buses and ferries to Marin and Sonoma counties), and SamTrans (buses to San Mateo County) serve the city's travelers as well as commuters from around the Bay Area. San Francisco International Airport, located in San Mateo County, is the largest of the Bay Area airports, and can be accessed by BART as well as a number of local bus routes.

Because of the high population density and the number of residents who, despite public transportation options, use their cars to get around, parking in San Francisco can be difficult to nightmarish; fines for double-parking, parking in a bus zone, and overtime parking are steep, and can also result in expensive towing (nearly $300 alone, excluding the fine). Because of the difficulties of on-street parking for residents, the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic issues residential permits for $96 a year, enabling neighborhood residents to park their vehicles in time-limited zones without fear of being ticketed.

Crime
Although San Francisco has improved its record on violent crime in the last few years (assaults and sexual attacks are down, near or lower than the national average), homicides remain almost 50 percent higher than the national average, according to FBI crime reports. San Francisco has also seen a considerable uptick in the last few years of vehicle thefts, car break-ins, and burglaries and robberies. As can be expected, the number and frequency of crimes committed varies with the neighborhood and the demographics of its population; poorer areas tend to have a higher incidence of criminal activity.

Real estate:
San Francisco has weathered the recent economic downturn with its real estate market fairly intact. Though price depends to a great degree on the area in which a home is located, median sales prices are up by more than 7 percent since 2009, when the latest recession caused many listings to drop by as much as 20 percent, according to Trulia.com. The median home price in San Francisco, according to the online real-estate service, is still high, at $675,000, for an average two-bedroom, two-bathroom dwelling (both condo and single-family).

The rental market, after a small and short-lived dip, is also showing signs of resuming its recent robust pricing: according to Trulia, the average rent for a studio in San Francisco is $1,300 a month, with one- and two-bedrooms going for upward of $1,800. Again, location determines the bottom line, with units in high-density (and high-crime) areas going for less than more desirable, quiet neighborhoods.

Downsides
Not everything is bliss in San Francisco, of course. Trash is increasingly a problem as the city’s population expands and more residents crowd its streets and public spaces. The city’s Department of Public Works has attempted to alleviate the filth with highly efficient street sweepers and effective trash removal, but much of the problem is owing to increased pedestrian traffic and a commercial culture reliant on easily discarded packaging. The cost of living here is also high, as much as twice the national average, according to Sperling’s Best Places. But it’s a price many seem willing to pay, especially given the returns in higher wages and amenities like good public transit and easy access to recreation. And although everyone complains about the fog, it is true that some areas have it worse than others (travel east on Geary Boulevard from Ocean Beach to Union Square and you’ll get a crash course in the city’s fog zones). Still, for all of its drawbacks, the fog keeps the cool gray city of love air conditioned most days in the summer.

Many residents, native and newcomer alike, engage in the age-old pastime of complaining about how fast things change in this city, how quickly it moves from ideal to less-than-idyllic. That seems to be part of life here as well. As that former Chronicle scribe, Herb Caen, also wrote: “San Francisco isn't what it used to be, and it never was.”
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Just now

"Telegraphing a Quintessential Picture of the City"

The idyllic San Francisco often pictured in the movies or in coffee-table books likely includes at least one image of Telegraph Hill, a pine-topped bulb that sits above the wharves along the city’s rounded northeastern edge. Like so many other neighborhoods in this hilly city, the streets here are steep, often flanked by sidewalks that are actually steps, some of them quite pitched. Because of these inclines, traffic is light, with few drivers using the roads for anything other than accessing their homes, or going and coming from Pioneer Park and Coit Tower, which crowns this rocky outcropping like a kind of blunt-nosed rocket, standing guard, keeping silent watch over the surrounding bay.

Although this hill, one of the original seven that defined San Francisco during its Gold Rush days, is short (275 feet) by comparison to other behemoths farther inland—Mount Davidson (928 feet), Twin Peaks (910 feet), and Mount Sutro (909 feet)—it is perhaps second best known (after Nob Hill). The hill’s name comes from its Barbary Coast past, when its summit was topped by a semaphore (a device with two arms that signaled, in code, what port-bound ships were carrying in their holds). By the 1860s, when the electric telegraph rendered the semaphore obsolete (a storm knocked it over in 1870 and it was never rebuilt), the hill, whose eastern slope had been quarried extensively to provide ballast for ships leaving San Francisco and pavers for streets, began to fill in with modest homes, its higher elevations studded with working-class cottages reached by their owners via winding paths and boardwalk trails. Many of these structures, spared the conflagration that followed the great quake of 1906 owing to their owners’ tenacity, remain intact today, their distinctly simple facades a fitting contrast to the architectural extravagances that line the streets of the more affluent historic neighborhoods, such as Nob and Russian Hills, rebuilt after the disaster. Telegraph Hill thus contains the greatest concentration of pre-quake buildings in the city, many jammed side-by-side right up to the sidewalk. Stroll down any of the older lanes (Varennes, Genoa or Edith, for instance) for a taste of how claustrophobic the neighborhood likely felt in the 1860s and ’70s.

By the 1920s and ’30s, Telegraph Hill’s cheap rents had begun attracting artists and writers seeking access to the bars and coffeehouses of adjacent North Beach, which had become the hotbed of San Francisco bohemian life. Though these newcomers coexisted with their working-class neighbors, it was not long before the area became home to wealthier individuals, many of whom were civic-minded and did much to improve the neighborhood and preserve its character (while also constructing some of its nicer homes and apartment buildings).

Coit Tower is the visual focal point of Telegraph Hill. Built with funds provided by a quirky 19th-century benefactor (Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was fascinated by firemen and often followed them to the scene of a burning building), it has an air of permanence that belies its relatively short life. Erected in 1933 as a tribute to the volunteer fire departments she so admired, its interior adorned with frescoes of Depression-era San Francisco by artists working for the WPA, the tower is often the butt of a number of jokes about firemen and their hoses. Yet it is one of San Francisco’s most recognizable monuments, and one of its most beautiful. It rises, sleek and serene, more than 200 feet from the summit of Pioneer Park. By day, it is a counterpoise in white to the burnt orange of the Golden Gate Bridge; by night, lit from below, it glows with a kind of sacred luminescence, as if to signal the purity of the fire and ashes from which San Francisco rose after its greatest calamity.

Over the decades following its tumultuous 1950s and ’60s heyday as a home to Beat Generation poets and the San Francisco Renaissance their works inspired, Telegraph Hill settled comfortably into a quiet, primarily residential area whose inhabitants guard its integrity from wanton development via such organizations as Telegraph Hill Dwellers. That the neighborhood maintains its friendly, homey feel, with few highrises and intrusive developments—in spite of the fact that it abuts the tumult of North Beach bars and restaurants and is within a short walk of the Financial District—is proof of the coherence of the tight-knit community here.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the area’s 10,000 or so residents are an almost even mix of white and Asian (each with roughly 45 percent of the total, with a mix of races making up the rest), young to middle-aged (38 is the median age), and solidly middle class (median annual household income: $70,000). The great majority (more than 80 percent) rent their homes. There aren’t many kids in residence here, a fact born out in the absence of any school, public or private, in the neighborhood (though there are a couple nearby in North Beach).

Such a large number living within a confined area necessarily means parking is difficult. Some of the mid-20th century homes and apartments have garages, though many residents park on the street (and make use of the “A” residential parking permit). Navigating the area on foot is often best achieved via the pedestrian steps that link one street to another, mid-block. Though the area doesn’t necessarily have the most steps in San Francisco, it has a number of the most notable, including the Vallejo Street Stairway, the Filbert Steps, and the Greenwich Street Stairs. The first cuts up the steep eastern side of the hill starting at Montgomery and is actually comprised of three stairways: narrow, straight ones on either side and a wider, angled staircase in the middle, surrounded by well-kept greenery. The last two sets of steps go up Telegraph Hill proper, from different starting points a block apart on Sansome Street, and cut through gardens and beautifully landscaped plots and courtyards. The trees around the Filbert Steps are the original home of the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill, actually feral red-masked parakeets, immortalized in the book and documentary, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”

For public transit, the No. 39 bus is pretty much the only choice. It wends its way up Telegraph Hill Boulevard to Coit Tower and down to Columbus and Broadway for connections to buses going to Union Square and the Financial District, or to Beach Street, for connections with the F streetcar, which runs along the Embarcadero.

According to San Francisco Police Department reports, the No. 1 crime here is (not surprisingly), disturbing the peace—generally committed by rowdy bar patrons returning to their cars after closing time in North Beach or carousing after hours in the parking lot next to Coit Tower. Burglaries are infrequent though not unheard of, and the area is not immune to car break-ins, either. Assaults are unusual, and no homicides have been committed in the last three years.

Real-estate prices in Telegraph Hill have been adversely affected by the recent downturn, according to Zephyr Real Estate, dropping by as much as one-fifth for certain single-family homes over the last two years (although condos have remained more stable in the same period). A three-bedroom, 2.5-bath single family house on Varennes Street recently listed for $1.4 million, while a two-bedroom, one-bath condo was going for $550,000. Rentals in the neighborhood, when available, tend to be pricier than elsewhere: studios are listed at $1,500, while one-bedroom, one-bath apartments start at $1,700 and can go to $4,000, depending on amenities. Many renters choose to live here for the views, and many dwellings, for sale or rent, have them, often featuring huge picture windows to capture the sweep of downtown, the waterfront and wharves, and the hills of Marin and the East Bay. It’s one of the privileges of life on this particular hill, and people willingly pay the premium.
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Just now

"Melting Pot in a Modern Metropolis"

The recent saga of the 4-Star Cinema tells much about the Central Richmond. This tiny independent moviehouse, a fixture on Clement Street since the 1920s, has screened a mix of Hollywood, European, and Asian films for a generation of filmgoers, reflecting the diverse makeup of its customers, many of whom are from the neighborhood. When the 4-Star was in danger of closing its doors for good a few years ago—victim of a lease dispute—patrons rallied behind the owners, gathered 12,000 signatures, and invoked a San Francisco law protecting historic theaters. Though the fight to save the place was long and a little costly, it ultimately resolved in a compromise that spared the 4-Star and kept a symbol of the area’s polyglot residents and their cultures intact.

The Central Richmond is indeed a neighborhood of many languages and traditions. From its earliest days in the 19th century as pastureland and racetracks formed from the sand dunes that predominated in the so-called Outer Lands, with only a few buildings and makeshift stops on the Point Lobos Toll Road that connected the rest of San Francisco with the Cliff House, it has attracted entrepreneurs and developers of various nationalities. Early on came the Prussian-born land baron Adolph Sutro, who at one time owned nearly a tenth of San Francisco west of Twin Peaks. After Sutro began putting in streetcars, the area witnessed a boom that only increased after the quake and fire of 1906, when settlers moved here seeking new homes. They were obliged by home builder Fernando Nelson and his sons, whose company was credited with constructing a house a day for six years after the disaster, each structure unique in its architectural details.

By the 1950s, the area had become home to Irish, German, Jewish, and Russian immigrants, each group adding its cultural layer to the neighborhood (restaurants, bars, houses of worship, and clubs—with many saying the Russians who moved here mid-century giving the neighborhood its strongest character). Then, Chinese immigrants began moving in, a trend that accelerated after the 1965 Immigration Act. Today, according to U.S. Census Bureau information, the Central Richmond is among the city’s most diversely populated areas, its 25,000 residents about 45 percent Asian, 45 percent white, and the remaining 10 percent mixed race, African American, or some other race. They tend to be middle-aged (40 is the median age, with about 17 percent age 65 and over) and financially secure if not affluent (median annual household income is $65,000). Almost 40 percent own their homes; the remainder rent.

Travel down Clement Street or Geary Boulevard west of Park Presidio Drive and you’ll see the ethnic variety spelled out in the culinary establishments. Geary, which carries the most traffic, has numerous Asian eateries—Japanese (beef fondue at ShaBu House to sushi at Kabuto); Chinese (dim sum at Ton Kiang to seafood at Mayflower); Korean barbecue (Jang Soo); Thai (Khan Toke, the granddad of all the city’s Thai restaurants); and Vietnamese (La Vie, a relative newcomer noted for its superb crab dishes)—as well as European and New World ones, including Moscow and Tblisi Bakery, Russian Renaissance, Tommy’s Mexican, Blarney Stone Bar and Restaurant, and Aziza (Moroccan).

Likewise, Clement Street, which is less trafficked and more residential, hosts a panoply of world-cuisine restaurants: India Clay Oven, Patpong Thai, Layaly Mediterranean, Blue Fin Sushi, Pho Garden, Tia Margarita, Ernesto’s, Grassland Hot Pot, Café Mereb, Golden Gate Dim Sum, Mescolanza. Even California Street has a few: Rumble Fish (sushi), Bazaar Café, Angelina’s.

Some of the city’s most striking places of worship are located along these streets as well: the gold onion domes of Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral (at Geary Boulevard and 26th Avenue); St. Monica’s, with its Mission-style pink and amber stucco façade (at Geary and 23rd); the strikingly modern Congregation Beth Shalom (on 14th Avenue at Clement, on the area’s eastern boundary); and even the more modest St. Peter’s Episcopal on 29th Avenue, a red-brick church in the English style that is being rebuilt after suffering extensive damage in the Loma Prieta quake more than 20 years ago.

The many schools of the Central Richmond attest to the fact that this is a neighborhood in which families settle to raise their children. Among the highly rated public schools, George Washington High (at 600 32nd Avenue, off Geary), which received a 9 out of 10 mention by GreatSchools, attracts a diverse student body with solid basics leavened with numerous artistic and creative options. Presidio Middle School (on 30th Avenue, between Geary and Clement) garnered a 9 GreatSchools rating; Alamo Elementary, on 23rd Avenue, got a 9 GreatSchools rating; and Argonne Elementary, on 18th Avenue, got an 8 GreatSchools rating. Among private schools: Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy (K-12) on 14th Avenue (near Balboa); St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy (K-8, Russian; associated with Holy Virgin Cathedral, see above); St. Monica’s (K-8, Catholic, associated with church of the same name); and Bais Menachim Yeshiva Day School (on 28th Avenue).

The Central Richmond borders Golden Gate Park along Fulton Street, giving residents a number of options for open-space games and frolicking—even in the frequent fog that cloaks the area, especially in the summer. A number of other spaces break up this densely populated area, including the new-ish Richmond Recreation Center (with its programs for toddlers), Richmond Playground, Argonne Playground, Richmond District Neighborhood Center (noted for its after-school and art programs), and Fulton Playground.

With all of this activity, it’s not hard to imagine that parking in the area can be difficult. Fortunately for drivers, many homes have attached garages, and many of the area’s numerous apartment buildings and rentals have parking spaces. Other than the block or so west of Park Presidio—when you’ll need the “N” sticker—the city issues no resident parking permits.

Public transit comes as buses: numerous lines ply the east/west streets (the No. 1 along California; the 38 along Geary; the 31 along Balboa; and the 5 on Fulton). The No. 29 goes up and down 25th Avenue, as does the 28 along Park Presidio, where Golden Gate Transit buses bound for Marin County also stop.

According to San Francisco Police Department stats, disturbing the peace is the most common crime in the Central Richmond (generally, these are noise nuisances from bars and restaurants), followed by car theft/break-in (increasingly commonplace in San Francisco), then burglary, robbery and assault, especially on east/west streets (Geary, Anza, Balboa, Cabrillo, and Fulton). There has been only one homicide in the last three years.

Home prices here remained stable during the recent economic downturn, and they have led the market in rebounding. A three-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home can go from $750,000 to $1.3 million, while condos in the neighborhood go from about $500,000 to $900,000, depending on size, amenities, and location. Rentals are considered affordable here, though that may mean a fairly spartan, modern building with few architectural details; studios fetch from $1,200 to $1,400, with one-bedrooms starting at $1,250, and two bedrooms ranging from $1,600 to $2,500. As with many neighborhoods with a heavy ethnic influence, square footage, light, and proximity to public transportation can make or break a deal.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 5/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 5/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now

"Suburban Rhapsody in a California Key"

Streets so clean they look as if they’d been vacuumed. Manicured lawns. Topiary sculpted to look like a poodle. Ersatz French chateau, Tuscan villa, Spanish colonial, Dutch farmhouse, and faux Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. A garage (sometimes two) with every home. The place is as close as San Francisco gets to a classic suburb. It’s predictable without being cookie-cutter, typical without being uniform.

This is Parkside Panhandle, one of San Francisco’s late-20th century western neighborhoods. It shares the fog, wind, and the zoo with the rest of the city, though it looks very much as if it could belong anywhere up and down the Peninsula—or for that matter, Middle America. And yet, this being California, there’s something totally West Coast about it as well: xeriscaped yards, no telephone poles, the absence of deciduous trees and a plethora of evergreen shrubs and pines. The final attribute is that the Pacific Ocean lies only a few blocks away. Hence the fog and wind, but also clean air and a Mediterranean climate that allows palm and even citrus trees to grow here.

Though this place owes part of its name to the area of the Sunset District directly north from it across Sloat Boulevard (Parkside is a much older development, with some homes dating from the early 1900s), Parkside Panhandle was developed primarily after World War II, when the Sunset had filled in and tracts south of it were opened around Lake Merced, the freshwater lake that had served a century before as one of San Francisco’s primary sources of water. The westernmost section of Parkside Panhandle, separated from its eastern side by Sunset Boulevard as it is indeed shaped like the bulbous end of a pan’s handle. In these semicircular blocks (Lakeshore, Country Club, and Huntington Drives), 1960s modern houses are spaced evenly, each with front, back and side yards, and all with a driveway leading to a garage and a prominent doorway on the ground level, with living space above, mimicking the style of home found elsewhere throughout the neighboring Sunset District.
The area’s residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are a diverse group: about 50 percent white, 40 percent Asian, about 6 percent Latino of any race, and the rest of mixed race. They are middle-aged (median age is 45, with more than a quarter retired), and comfortable if not affluent, with a median household income of $75,000. Nearly everyone owns his or her home.
The area is perhaps best known for bordering the campuses of two of San Francisco’s best schools (which themselves sit side by side on Eucalyptus): Lowell High and Lakeshore Alternative Elementary. Lowell High, which got a coveted 10 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools and was rated 28th in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report, is known for attracting college-bound students, with an almost 100 percent graduation rate, with the largest number of graduates entering the University of California system, primarily at Berkeley and Davis. Lakeshore Alternative Elementary, rated 7 out of 10 by GreatSchools, is noted for its strong parental participation and art enrichment programs.

Lake Merced’s northern finger borders Parkside Panhandle on its southern side, along Lake Merced Boulevard. The lake’s sidewalks and paths present joggers and walkers a fine circuit around the lake’s perimeter, and at many points offer access to the lake as well. Near the parking lot off Lake Merced Boulevard stands the Juan Bautista de Anza statue, removed from in front of Mission Dolores as “offensive” to the community’s sensibilities, but perhaps more appropriate here, as the lake was among one of the first places the Spanish explorer visited in the Bay Area.
Another statue has found a home nearby as well. Though it’s technically not in Parkside Panhandle, one of the last remaining Doggie Diner icons now stands guard nearby on Sloat Boulevard at 45th Avenue, smack dab in the median, surveying westbound traffic. The chain of Doggie Diner restaurants, with their cartoonish Dachshund heads, were common in the western half of San Francisco in the 1960s. The chain was sold in 1979, and the last diner with the name Doggie Diner closed in 1986. The fate of the iconic dogs became a matter of civic pride, and a committee raised awareness and the funds to permanently locate one of the last remaining Doggie Diner heads in a prominent spot. It now welcomes visitors to Ocean Beach from 45th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard, greeting all who come west—and representing the serious silliness of San Francisco.
The only commercial area in the neighborhood is a prosaic shopping center, the Lakeshore Plaza, notable for its banal architecture and outsized parking lot. Here, residents can shop for groceries, sporting goods, discount clothing, and pet supplies, and see a doctor or dentist in one of the smaller storefronts. There are also a couple of owner-operated Asian restaurants mixed in with the chain fast-food outlets. Although not ideal, the center serves a clientele from a wide radius in the neighborhood. It even consults a neighborhood group about changes to the overall center as well as soliciting support for new tenants.
Public transit is a straightforward matter: the No. 23 bus goes east/west along Sloat Boulevard (the neighborhood’s northern limit), and the No. 29 skirts Lake Merced Boulevard along the area’s southern border before turning onto Sunset Boulevard and points north. The L Taraval streetcar is an option for downtown commuters, traveling from its eastern terminus near Sloat Bouvelard and 46th Avenue Parking to Civic Center, Union Square, and the Financial District in about half an hour.

Parking is not an issue if you own a home here, as most residences have one- or two-car garages. It’s also generally fairly easy to park on the streets, though near Lowell High during school hours, the influx of cars can make finding a spot difficult; likely for that reason, the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has issued residential parking permits “DD” for certain streets.

Crime in the area is light, and generally follows a trend for the western half of San Francisco: scattered noise nuisances, graffiti, a car theft or break-in here and there, a few burglaries, and the rare assault. There have been no homicides in three years.

Though the area has seen some foreclosures in the recent economic downturn, prices have stabilized somewhat. Still, the neighborhood is considered something of a bargain for its relatively new housing stock, stability of the area, and proximity of good schools. A three-bedroom/one-bathroom single-family home on Forest View Drive recently listed for $799,000. The rare condo or co-op is generally in the low $400,000 range. There are no apartment buildings (though some homes have “granny” units on the garage level that are rented to college students and young professionals—even as their legality is questionable); one three-bed/two-bath home near Sloat Boulevard was lately advertised at $2,800.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 5/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 5/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now

"Light (and Fog) at the End of the Tunnel"

To acquaint yourself with the best and worst of San Francisco weather (sometimes on the same day), go to West Portal. The neighborhood sits astride one of the city's worst “fog corridors”—gaps in the hills between the bay and the mist machine of the Pacific Ocean. On a summer morning, especially after a calm night, the sky can be a brilliant blue, the sun warm on your neck, the cool air redolent of the sea and pine and eucalyptus. A few hours later, however, in the late afternoon and early evening, with the wind and wet fog blasting through, it can feel like the Arctic. Longtime residents of this neighborhood nestled between Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson have become accustomed to the meteorological flip-flops, and they have even learned to grow some of the most well-tended gardens and lawns in the city here.

“Lawns.” It has a nice, calm, neighborhood sound. And that’s pretty much what West Portal represents: a sedate, quiet area of single-family houses, many with front and back yards and the outward signs of proud ownership: good paint jobs, tidy landscaping, clean sidewalks. It’s not quite “Leave It to Beaver,” but in a 21st-century cosmopolitan city, it’s as close as you’ll likely get.

This is another example of a neighborhood that simply would not be the same without public transportation. Were it not for the tunnel (bored through Twin Peaks in 1918) that now carries the MUNI subway here (where the “trains” exit from more than four miles underground and resume their “streetcar” guise on surface tracks), the area would not have interested historic developer Fernando Nelson and his sons, whose strategy was to buy up land near newly opened transit lines and build homes quickly though with high-quality standards, always in keeping with the City Beautiful principles that inspired planners and enlightened developers a century ago. The enclave owes to the Nelsons its broad, gently curving streets and sidewalks, consonant with the notion of neighborhood as a “residential park” with restrictions on land use and a well-defined commercial area at its center, as well as some of its fanciful home designs (the Nelsons, all carpenters at heart, built homes according to the tastes—and whims—of the owner, adding historic touches, architectural detail, and often storybook-like flourishes such as half-timbered facades and zigzag brickwork). Even post-World War II houses have maintained that imaginative architectural spirit.

Although many have likened West Portal to a village, the streetcar lines (K, L, M, and T) that emerge from the tunnel do cause a bit of clamor, particularly at the morning and evening rush hours. (The 48 bus also disgorges passengers—often, rowdy students—from the Mission and Noe Valley here as well.) So the area feels more like a town, with just enough bustle to keep it vibrant, particularly for the five blocks along West Portal Avenue and at its junction with Ulloa Street near the tunnel opening. Though a few chains have established a foothold here (Starbucks, Round Table Pizza) they are still outnumbered by friendly, unpretentious owner-operated places (including The Music Store, with its collection of old LPs and sheet music; Papenhausen, one of the city’s last independently owned and family operated hardware stores, in business in the same spot since the 1930s; and BookShop West Portal, an independent and locally owned book seller that features readings from noted authors, many from the Bay Area or California, as well as storytime for children and knitting/crocheting classes.

Restaurants range from Indian (Roti Indian Bistro) and Chinese (Xiao Loong) to Mexican (El Toreador) and “nouveau Peruvian” (Fresca) to all-American diner (Village Grill) and family-style pizzeria restaurant (Mozzarella di Bufala) to a classic San Francisco crepe cafe, the Squat and Gobble. Another longtime fixture is CineArts at the Empire, a 1920s moviehouse (now part of a national chain) converted to a duplex cinema that screens foreign and indie films, along with first-run movies and programs for kids. There’s also a fairly large branch of the San Francisco Public Library on Lenox Way across the street from the West Portal Muni station.

Taraval Street, the neighborhood’s northern boundary, is utilitarian and fairly prosaic, though it does provide the surrounding blocks with needed services like a dry cleaners and specialty stores, such as a paint shop and a butcher. Parking throughout the area is generally easy (most houses have garages), though on-street spots are metered on West Portal Avenue, where it can be somewhat more difficult to find one, especially on weekend nights with the restaurants and cinema full. The residential parking permit “O” allows locals to park on non-metered, noncommercial streets without regard for the two-hour limit.

The area’s 3,000 or so residents—almost 70 percent of whom are white, with 25 percent Asian—are well off (median annual household income is well above $100,000). Most (about 80 percent) own their own homes.

The neighborhood’s single park, West Portal Playground, sits atop the tunnel mouth itself. It includes tennis and basketball courts, new swings and climbing equipment for kids, and an expanse of grass wide and long enough for impromptu football and soccer games. The roundabout where Claremont Boulevard, Taraval Street, and Kensington Way meet might be considered a “visual park” for its trimmed ground cover and potted flowers. Likewise, the curious little walkway—a large sidewalk with a median planted with shrubs and bushes—that runs from Dorchester Way to Granville Way mid-block between Claremont and Ulloa might be considered a sort of mini-park as well.

The neighborhood has one public school—West Portal Elementary, with its campus-like setting off the Kensington Way roundabout and adjacent to the West Portal Playground. The school, which received a 9 out of 10 GreatSchools rating, has a parent-run daycare program and a Chinese immersion bilingual program.

The incidence of crime here is—no big surprise—fairly low, with a few car break-ins and vehicle thefts, a few disturbing-the-peace violations, and one or two thefts and robberies every month. Violent crime is rare: assaults are uncommon, and usually outside of bars and restaurants on West Portal Avenue. There have been no homicides in the last three years.

To own a home here is to have a reasonably secure investment, with property increasing in value, even in the latest downturn. A three-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom single-family home with a medium-sized yard can go for as much as $1 million, with larger homes on larger plots going for $1.2 million and up. Studios and apartments are pricey and hard to find; a studio on West Portal Avenue listed recently for $1,400 a month. The relative scarcity of property here to own or rent is a sign of how contented people are: once in the neighborhood, they take their shoes off, settle in, and stay a while.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 5/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 5/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 5/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"Rubble to Riches"

"If you tear it down, they will come.” That paraphrase of the make-it-happen maxim offers a glimpse of the resurgence of Hayes Valley. The neighborhood was, for much of the mid-20th century, a jumble of hand-to-mouth businesses, auto-repair garages, parking lots, and declining apartments adjoining Civic Center. It sat for the most part in the shadow of the notorious Central Freeway, an elevated double-deck roadway that connected US 101 to Van Ness Avenue. Then, one autumn evening in 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake changed everything. The quake rendered the freeway and its multiple on/off ramps unsafe for use. After the initial shock wore off and the city recovered from its latest catastrophic temblor, people began wondering whether the damaged structure, its ugly green underpinnings blighting the surrounding blocks, was even worth rebuilding. What would happen, city planners, politicians, and neighborhood activists wondered, if you simply tore it down?

The answer proved to be a renaissance. Hayes Valley today, a leafy boulevard replacing the hated viaduct, is vibrant and attractive, a good place to live as well as a destination for those attending performances at the nearby halls and theaters. It is proof that neighborhoods can all but die off and then re-emerge as resident- and business-friendly magnets.

Its distinct name aside, Hayes Valley is nevertheless hard to define geographically. Many are the claims over its boundaries, though most people (including the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association) agree that its eastern edge is Franklin Street and that the diagonal Market Street is its southern limit. How far north and west the area extends is an open question, with nothing official. One of either Fulton or McAllister streets, or even Golden Gate Avenue, is commonly named the northern side, with Laguna, Buchanan or Webster streets the preferred western cut-off. No one disagrees that its commercial spine is Hayes Street, from Franklin to at least Laguna, where most of the eclectic shops and restaurants are lined up.

History has been kind to the area architecturally—notably in sparing many of its Victorian buildings from the fire that obliterated so much of the city after the 1906 quake. Development began in the 1850s, when Genovese immigrant farmers cultivated fruits and vegetables on the loamy soil of the “valley” floor—Hayes Creek ran through the area, fed by springs and winter rains. By the 1860s and 1870s, the streets were filling with impressive edifices, many in the ornate Italianate or, later, more linear Stick styles popular at the time. (Some notable examples from the era stand, expertly preserved, on Page Street, from Laguna to Octavia; the block-long apartment building on Laguna between Fell and Linden that houses Momi Toby’s Revolution Café is also an exuberant specimen of a once-common building in San Francisco with French Empire pretensions, complete with bulls-eye windows on its towers). By the turn of the century, the area had a number of well-to-do residents living side-by-side with the tradesmen and workers; all co-existed harmoniously to form a prototype of what might be called the quintessentially diverse San Francisco neighborhood.

That changed with the advent of the Jazz Age and the rise of the nearby Fillmore District as a predominantly African American enclave, when many white residents fled the area. Then, by the mid-20th century, with the highway overpass scarring the district and suburbs beckoning, the remaining old-timers pulled out and Hayes Valley became something of an afterthought—an area of urban decline, perhaps, but also perfect for hippy artists and bohemians who settled in the neglected houses and apartments with cheap rents. They ultimately led the community through the transition from shanty to chic.

Though it didn’t happen overnight, the transformation is remarkable. The centerpiece is Octavia Boulevard, the sweep of palms and greenery that leads north from Market to Hayes Street culminating in an exquisite mini-park, with ingenious play areas, a geodesic jungle gym, and benches framing tidy lawns—just enough for toddlers to learn the joys of turf. It’s hard to believe that this quarter mile or so of successful urban planning, in which motorists and pedestrians and park-goers are all accommodated, was once overhung by a hulking, shadow-casting freeway overpass. Trees seem to be everywhere, with tidy perennial-filled boxes at their bases. Even the neighborhood’s northwestern quadrant, marred by the anonymity of 1970s public housing, is showing signs of renewal, with many renovated exteriors and much new landscaping.

Hayes Street itself is a fast becoming a rival for shoppers attracted to Union Street or other boutique-centric strips of the city: one-of-a-kind home furnishings at Zonal and Propeller and the designer footwear at Gimme Shoes to kids’ clothes and toys at Fiddlesticks to exquisite Mexican art, antiques, and crafts at Polanco.

The restaurants are also a draw, particularly at the crucial pre-curtain time between 5 and 7:30 p.m. on mid-weekday nights and Saturdays. Zuni stands as the progenitor, a longtime success story in the neighborhood, though located away from the main Hayes Street drag on Market and Rose. Zuni began as a tiny café in 1979 (its “kitchen” a Weber grill and an espresso machine) that expanded with its clientele over the years to encompass a multi-tiered dining room with a brick oven and a renowned style of simple, California-European cooking that has spawned not only a cookbook but a cult of acolytes. Hayes Street Grill (near Franklin and the performing arts houses) follows the Zuni formula, but with an emphasis on fresh fish. Yet another star in the culinary firmament is Jardiniere, on Grove and Franklin, a bit fussier than Zuni presentation-wise but with inventive dishes by noted chef Traci Des Jardins. These three establishments have been followed by numerous others, along Hayes (Caffè delle Stelle, Absinthe), Gough (Paul K., Sauce), and Franklin (Bistro Clovis, Canto do Brasil). But just because the area is a hot spot for fine dining doesn’t mean it’s devoid of other eats, such as good pizza (Go-Getters on Gough), Moishe’s Pippic on Hayes (a Chicago-style deli and longtimer in the neighborhood), Flipper’s Burgers, and Powell’s Soul Food, as well as Suppenküche, a casual German restaurant, and Frjtz Gourmet Belgian Fries.

All this storefront activity makes parking challenging, especially considering that many apartments don’t have garage spaces for all tenants. The city’s Department of Parking and Traffic issues resident parking permits “S” and “R” (depending on the area) for locals who need to park on the street; those from outside the neighborhood can take their chances on finding a spot or use any of a number of garages or lots, though with all the activity in the nearby War Memorial Opera House, Herbst Theatre, and Davies Symphony Hall, parking can be a crap shoot.

Luckily, the area is a nexus for much of the city’s public transit. Not only is it served by MUNI buses (Nos. 5, 21, and 71 traverse the area east/west, while Nos. 47 and 49 go north/south on nearby Van Ness), but also the Metro subway for destinations up and down Market Street (all lines), not to mention the Market Street historic F trolleys, as well as Golden Gate Transit (along Van Ness) for Marin and Sonoma destinations and SamTrans for stops in San Mateo County and downtown San Francisco (along nearby Mission Street). The BART Civic Center station is a few blocks away from the Hayes Street shopping district, offering residents and visitors alike access to downtown and regional points beyond.

Though many of today’s residents are more commercially inclined (as opposed to the underground artists and “alternative” types of a generation ago), the area has held on to its roots with numerous galleries and artist studios, along with the Hayes Valley Art Coalition, which promotes artistic endeavors in the neighborhood. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the population in Hayes Valley is still fairly diverse, with roughly 60 percent white, 20 percent African American, and the rest a mix of Asian and dual-race. The median household income of $40,000 explains why almost 90 percent of all residents rent their homes.

Public schools are limited to one: Civic Center Secondary on Golden Gate Avenue (occupying the campus of the former the John Swett Alternative Elementary School), known for its so-called integrated behavior academic program for at-risk students (truants, drop-outs, and other behaviorally challenged kids) as well as young adults attempting to reintegrate into society after long periods in the criminal justice system. Intenational High School—on Oak Street and on a different plane altogether—takes children from mostly privileged backgrounds and gives them a French baccalaureate-level grounding in the basics as well as English and French, Italian, German, or Chinese language skills.

Crime is prevalent mostly along well-traveled corridors such as Franklin, Gough, Fell, and Oak. Car theft and break-ins are common, as is graffiti and other such vandalism. Robberies (including purse snatchings) and burglaries frequently occur before and after theater performances. Noise nuisances are especially frequent at the Hayes/Octavia junction, and assaults have also been committed regularly in a recent three-month period. Over the last three years, there have been four homicides.

Though bargains in this up-and-coming neighborhood are rare, a one-bed/one-bath condo on Buchanan near Fell was asking $475,000, a two-bedroom/two-bath townhouse loft on Fulton near Octavia was listed on Trulia recently for $700,000, and a three-bedroom, two-bath condo in a restored Victorian recently listed for $900,000. Rentals remain in the affordable range (for San Francisco): studios for around $1,000 a month can still be found, a one-bed/bath goes for $1,600 to $1,800, and a four-bedroom, two-bath apartment was recently advertised at $3,750. Taking into consideration the trendy neighborhood, proximity to Civic Center attractions (museums, library, performing arts venues), and ease of public transit, a real-estate agent would likely call these prices “reasonable.” It shows, more than anything, what a difference a demolished freeway makes.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 5/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 4/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 2/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"Towering Above It All"

If you know Miraloma Park at all, you know it as: 1) the home of the Mount Davidson cross, located atop the highest point in San Francisco (928 feet above sea level); and 2) the home of the former Tower Market, one of the city’s first gourmet markets. But for all of the hype surrounding the area’s controversial cement cross, which at present barely peeks above the eucalyptus trees that have grown around it, and the smaller debate over whether Tower Market has changed now that it is part of a chain, Miraloma Park itself remains relatively unknown to even longtime San Franciscans. One of the best things this neighborhood has going for it is that although many can see it, few (tourists and locals alike) have ventured there. And the residents are just fine with that.

Once part of Don José Jesús de Noé’s vast rancho occupying the central portion of San Francisco, Miraloma Park began as one of ubiquitous developer Adolph Sutro’s late 19th-century speculative ventures. Sutro bought the hilltop land in 1881, then did little with it (other than enlist school children to plant trees on its slopes) until 30 years later, when "Blue Mountain," as it was then known, was rechristened "Mount Davidson," for George Davidson, a surveyor for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and a charter member of the Sierra Club who first mapped the mountain in 1852. A. S. "Lucky" Baldwin, Sutro's appraiser, bought Mt. Davidson and the adjoining acres for development in 1909, building paths to the summit of the mount to promote his new subdivision. By the mid-1920s, with development of the mountain looming, Madie Brown, local resident and pioneering activist, worked tirelessly with a number of private organizations to stop development of the mountain and make it a city park, which finally came to pass in 1929, when roughly 20 acres of the summit were purchased by the municipal government from funds raised by the Mount Davidson Conservation Committee. (Donations of land and further purchases have expanded the park to its present-day 39 acres.)

In a long line of developers, the Meyer Brothers finally succeeded in bringing housing to the area starting in the late 1920s, beginning on the lower slopes around Mount Davidson. Employing so-called City Beautiful principles widely admired at the time, they created park-like subdivisions, with tree-lined streets, vistas, and ample space for backyard gardens in mind. Building in the “housing over garage” style that became a feature of this and other western San Francisco neighborhoods, they constructed most homes as low-profile, two-story dwellings with few frills, although a number had fanciful facades, with turrets and storybook details, while others featured late art-deco and moderne touches. These homes were followed by other, more rectilinear-styled houses in the post-World War II period. Though less interesting architecturally, they nonetheless kept the low-slung profile of their older counterparts.

Beginning in 1923, the hilltop became the site of a number of wooden crosses used for various services, some overtly religious, others less so, each replaced by more substantial ones until the present cement monolith was erected in the 1930s. In modern times, numerous lawsuits challenged this religious symbol on city land; ultimately, the dispute was settled when the city decided to auction off the cross and the small parcel of cleared land around it. This third-acre site along with the cross was eventually purchased by the Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California, who have made it a memorial to the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century. Furthermore, according to the council, “The cross honors not only those who perished in the Armenian Genocide, but all victims of injustice, cruelty, and genocide. It also serves as a reminder to remain vigilant against future atrocities.” On Easter Sunday every year for the last 88 years, many from the neighborhood (along with others from around the Bay Area) turn out for the sunrise prayer service, a celebration that has emphasized in the last few years the ideals of rebirth rather than the Christian holy day per se.

Today, Miraloma Park neighborhood lies just southwest of the city’s geographic center, Twin Peaks (the second and third highest points in the city), roughly between the intentionally underveloped Glen Canyon Park and Mount Davidson. Its rougly 2,000 homes line streets that twist and snake around the countours of Mount Davidson, following the slopes of the hill in spiral fashion, much as a path winds around, rather than straight up, a steep hill. Portola Drive borders Miraloma Park to the north, O’Shaughnessy Boulevard to the east, Melrose to the south and the western side of Mount Davidson Park on the west. The area sits at the eastern edge of the city’s fog belt, with chilly winds and low clouds a common feature. (One story has it that it took nine days to film a single scene of the Clint Eastwood movie “Dirty Harry” on Mount Davidson due to fogbound conditions.)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the area’s 5,000 residents are fairly diverse, though predominantly white (63 percent), with a large contingent of Asians (24 percent) and African Americans (6 percent). They tend to be older (with about 20 percent retired) and financially secure (median household income: $90,000). Almost everyone (85 percent) owns his or her home, which tend to hold their value in spite of a small dip during the last recession. A two-bedroom/one bath house can sell upward from $600,000, while a four-bed/two-bath home recently listed for more than $1 million, according to Trulia. Renting here can be difficult, owing to the lack of units; the rare two-bed/one-bath house generally goes for $2,800 and up.

It tends to be a safe, quiet area, with a relatively low incidence of crime. A few noise nuisances and acts of vandalism occur in any three-month period, with a smaller number of car break-ins and thefts. There is little violent crime, and no homicides have been committed in the last three years, although a recent stabbing on a trail in Mount Davidson Park alarmed the neighbors and brought increased scrutiny of the teenagers who use the park as a hangout.

Public transportation is a question of buses: two main lines (44 and 48) and one “community service” (the 36). The 44 skirts the area’s eastern boundary, along O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, on its mostly north/south route; the 48 goes back and forth along Portola Drive, west to the ocean, east to the bay. The 36 wends its way through the area, mostly along Teresita Boulevard, but also up and down Reposa and Myra Way. Though not within the neighborhood boundaries, the Glen Park station of both BART and the MUNI Metro (J line) offers fast transit options for residents commuting downtown or going to the airport. For those who drive, the neighborhood has ample on-street parking, and no permits are required for occupying a spot up to 72 hours.

The main shopping area for the neighborhood is along Portola Drive, where Tower Market (a landmark grocery that opened in 1942 and was recently taken over by the Mollie Stone’s grocery chain) still draws people from around San Francisco for its meat and cheese departments. Though many complain that the market has declined, it still serves as a visual anchor to a stretch of stores and services along Portola (with metered parking lots in front).

In addition to Mount Davidson Park, Miraloma Park has a fine play area for kids (and their care-worn parents). Miraloma Playground fronts Bella Vista Way and Sequoia, adjacent to the Miraloma Elementary (K-5) on Omar Way, the neighborhood’s only school (public or private--it received an 8 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools).

The Miraloma Park Improvement Club was formed in the 1930s and is dedicated, simply enough, to “bringing community information and services to our neighborhood.” The club, located in its knotty-pine headquarters/clubhouse on O’Shaughnessy Boulevard at Del Vale, promotes stewardship of Mount Davidson Park and sensible development of existing properties and the remaining buildable lots within the district according to design guidelines that harmonize with what has historically been a mid-20th century architectural imperative. That the club has endured for more than 70 years, keeping inharmonious development at bay and striving to preserve the residential character of this place is a testament to the spirit of Madie Brown and grassroots activism.
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  • Shopping Options 5/5
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  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
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"From Cloven Hooves to Well-Heeled"

In many respects, Cow Hollow mirrors its counterpart to the north, the Marina District. It’s a gathering spot for the young and well-heeled, with a chic shopping street (Union) paralleling rowdy, dowdy Lombard a few blocks away, in the way Chestnut in the Marina does. But Cow Hollow differs in that it has hills, older homes, and a whiff of old money that the Marina’s air of nouveau riche lacks.

The name is historic, one of those monikers that seems more a misnomer in modern times. But at one point in its history, Cow Hollow did indeed have cows. In the mid-1800s, the area’s springs (earlier on, the place was called Spring Valley) pooled into a small lake, and the surrounding grassy meadows served as pasture for dairy herds that supplied the city’s population. By the 1890s, however, the push outward from central San Francisco, especially by well-to-do merchants, politicians, and influential citizens, had transformed the locale into a prime residential area. The cows were banished in 1891, and some of the neighborhood’s more spectacular Victorian homes filled in the fields. Union Street, once a dirt trail leading to the Presidio, became a paved main road through the area and has, since the resurgence of the district in the 1950s and ’60s, served as a prime shopping and restaurant corridor.

The great quake of 1906 spared many of Cow Hollow’s homes and landmarks: the Vedanta Temple (at Webster and Filbert streets), an extravagance of domed turrets and arched galleries, was built in 1905 and is said to be the first Hindu temple in the Western Hemisphere; St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church (at Union and Steiner streets) where one of the original Cow Hollow springs still flows in the Eternal Fountain; Octagon House (at Gough and Union streets), built in 1861 and one of two such houses remaining in San Francisco (the other in Russian Hill), was acquired and restored in the 1950s by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in California and is today a museum whose unusual collections include decorative arts and furnishings from America’s colonial and federal periods as well as documents from early colonial history, notably the signatures of 54 of the original 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence; and the Sherman House (on Green near Fillmore), among the best examples of San Francisco’s vanishing Italianate Victorians.

Today, Cow Hollow is an area of well-maintained, often opulently restored homes and small apartment houses. U.S. Census Bureau figures show the neighborhood to be overwhelmingly white (86 percent), with a small minority of Asians (9 percent) and other racial groups. Young singles have been attracted to the neighborhood for many years, and many have stayed as they have found mates and begun raising families (the sidewalks outside Union Street cafes are often choked with tandem strollers and toddler-toting parents). Almost everyone here is educated (with more than 75 percent having a bachelor’s degree or better), young-ish (56 percent are between 25 and 44 years old), and financially comfortable (median household income is $150,000), though three-fourths of all residents rent, rather than own, their homes.

Though the boundaries of Cow Hollow are not particularly well defined (and depend on who is doing the defining), Union Street is universally considered both the main commercial drag as well as the dividing line between Cow Hollow’s more upper-crust (and steeper) southern half and its less affluent (flatter, though still trendy) northern half. It is among San Francisco’s more boutique-heavy blocks, with a dizzying assortment of clothing shops (including Armani Exchange, Bebe, Lululemon Athletica, et al.), numerous restaurants and cafes, a number of well-known watering holes (including Perry’s, which longtime owner Perry Butler has nurtured since 1969 as an upscale neighborhood bar, and Bus Stop Saloon, a quintessential sports bar), and several fitness centers. Although the Metro Theatre, built in 1924 and a visual landmark on Union (between Webster and Buchanan streets), has been shuttered as a cinema, it is slated for renovation as a fitness center and its owners plan to keep the marquee and many interior details, including the historic murals. Meters regulate parking on and around busy Union Street; elsewhere, residents get a “K” parking permit and occupy their on-street spaces (when they can be found) religiously.

Filbert Street also has a number of eateries and watering holes, along with a Real Food market, known for its organic produce and gourmet food items. Along with Greenwich Street, it has most of the area’s late 20th-century buildings, blocky apartment units or small single-family houses that look as if they might have been airlifted here from Daly City. This rather treeless, boxy section of Cow Hollow is redeemed somewhat by the presence of two side streets that run three blocks each (between Steiner and Buchanan)—Pixley and Moulton. Along with the charming Charlton Court (off Union between Buchanan and Laguna), these little streets resemble alleys, really: leafy, low-scale, quaint and quiet refuges from the bustle of the surrounding area.

Lombard Street, considered the northern limit of Cow Hollow, is a main off-ramp from the Golden Gate Bridge. With its collection of hotels, motels, fast-food eateries or more established restaurants, along with gas stations, cleaners, and a post office, it provides the neighborhood with services but little visual or esthetic appeal.

As for green spaces in the area, the tiny, picket-fenced Allyne Park on Green Street (behind the Octagon House) is the only park contained entirely within Cow Hollow. But the neighborhood adjoins the hundreds of acres of green space offered by the Presidio directly to the west. The Lyon Street steps, descending from Pacific Heights, also afford residents some topiary and great views of the bay and surrounding city going up or coming down its two-block stairway.

The Cow Hollow Association strives to “protect and preserve the residential character of one of San Francisco's distinctive neighborhoods,” according to its mission statement. In the last decade, that has meant serving as a watchdog over such projects as the Letterman Digital Arts Center and other projects in the adjacent Presidio as well as the realignment of Doyle Drive as it concerns traffic flow in and out of the area. The association has also raised concerns that the inns and motels along Lombard not be redeveloped in such a way as to negatively affect the neighborhood’s character.

Cow Hollow has two sizable grade schools: St. Vincent de Paul (private, K-8, Catholic) and Sherman Elementary School (public, K-5; it got a 9 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools). Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, on Greenwich at Webster, is run by the San Francisco Unified School District and offers preschool kids an art- and recreation-centered program, with an award-winning garden playground. Older children from the area often attend one of the reputation-driven elementary/middle and high schools just up the hill in Pacific Heights.

Public transportation options are good for Cow Hollow residents, especially those who don’t mind commuting via bus to jobs downtown or in the Financial District. The 41 and 45 buses traverse Union Street and then connect to Columbus Avenue for quick trips to Union Square (45) or Embarcadero Center (41). The 22 bus makes its way north and south mostly along Fillmore Street from the Mission District to Marina Green on the bay. And the 76 joins Golden Gate Transit buses going up and down Lombard and then Van Ness for treks to Civic Center.

Most crimes are clustered along main commercial streets like Union and Lombard, where San Francisco Police Department figures show that disturbing the peace and vandalism are fairly common, with occasional burglaries and robberies in a recent three-month period. Assaults, especially along bar-heavy Union Street, occur about once a week, though no homicides have been committed in the last three years.

To live here obviously requires money: single-family homes south of Union Street range from $2.5 million for a modest two-bedroom, two-bath to $4 million-plus for a Spanish colonial four-bedroom, 4-bathroom mini-mansion on an inclined street with views of the bay. Condos (one bed/one bath, and generally in buildings north of Union and near Van Ness or Lombard) go for considerably less, in the $500,000 to $800,000 range. Rentals are comparably pricey: studios go for $1,300 a month, with one-bedroom apartments fetching up to $2,500 and two-bedrooms going for $3,200 and up. True, it’s a lot to pay to rent a roof over one’s head, but given the neighborhood’s amenities, it’s unlikely many people spend much time at home.
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  • Parks & Recreation 5/5
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  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
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"San Francisco’s Final Frontier"

In many ways, the Presidio is where San Francisco ends, an outcropping of cliffs and dunes and rocky coast that form the southern side of the Golden Gate, that thin band of ocean that flows in and out of the bay roughly twice a day. Though these 1,491 acres have been in use for centuries, first by native hunter-gatherers and then primarily by the militaries of Spain, Mexico, and the United States, today the Presidio represents the last of the Bay Area’s great open spaces, much of it undeveloped land with unobstructed views of sea and Marin hills and the Golden Gate Bridge in between, and dozens of historic buildings that are ripe with potential. The fictional “Star Trek” TV series referenced the Presidio as a center of the new federation of planets in the 22nd century, and many people likewise wonder if the place isn’t more about its future than its past.

In its current incarnation as a national park, the Presidio must satisfy a number of needs: provide accessible open space, ensure historic preservation of existing structures, and conserve the natural resources that exist or that can be recovered. But what of the rest? So much real estate is left once all the mandates have been satisfied, isn’t it, in a sense, the last frontier as well?

As with so many land-use issues in San Francisco, that question depends on whom you talk to. The developers say that the Army built up the Presidio for more than 100 years, so they’re only proposing redevelopment of altered land. The conservationists argue that the moment is right to preserve and restore these tracts of undeveloped land as part of the area’s heritage. After all, they say, San Francisco is the second most densely populated urban area in the county (after New York), so why make it worse? Furthermore, social-justice promoters maintain that the Presidio must atone for its decades in America’s military machine by offering space to environmental, labor, and human-rights organizations.

However these matters are settled, perhaps the first thing to know about the Presidio as a neighborhood is that it’s not really a San Francisco neighborhood at all. Rather, it’s a collection of spread-out housing units and assigned-use buildings grouped according to their function within the Army’s master plan for the military base (main parade grounds, barracks, officers’ housing, warehouses, maintenance facilities, etc.). The U.S. Army considered the remaining open spaces reserves, available for development as the defense needs of the nation required. But when the Cold War ended in the late 20th century, and the need to defend San Francisco from attack by conventional means diminished, the Army relinquished the costly base for use as a national park.

Today, despite the fog and gusty winds it at times shares with the rest of San Francisco, the park has the feel of a place separate from the city, a self-contained community with its own telecommunications system; 25 miles of roads; its own water supply (from Los Lobos Creek); a water treatment plant and water distribution system; a high-voltage electricity distribution system; a sanitary sewer system, and a storm sewer system. The Presidio also has its own town square (around Moraga Street), distinct (if tiny) neighborhoods, restaurants, a bowling alley, even a golf course.

Though residents of the Presidio still vote and pay taxes as if they were part of San Francisco, many city ordinances do not apply here (notably rent control). For the most part, the City and County of San Francisco does not govern the Presidio; after the handover to the National Park Service in 1994, Congress created the Presidio Trust to administer the park in a cooperative arrangement with the NPS. That takes some getting used to for people who live here. They vote in municipal elections (for instance, the park lies within the second district of the Board of Supervisors), but they have different police and fire departments. And, because they live in a park, they must also obey rules about what they can and cannot do in their own backyard.

That’s because the Presidio, the oldest continually operating military base in the country, was made a national historic landmark in 1962. Its nearly 1,500 acres have about 870 structures, 470 of which have some historic significance and cannot be altered without authorization. The Presidio’s coastal cliffs, beaches, tidal marsh, and a few historic military edifices are managed by the National Park Service. The Presidio’s interior, including its open spaces and forests as well as the majority of the former post’s buildings, are managed by the Presidio Trust, which is also tasked with making the park self-sustaining by 2013.

Among the park’s increasing roster of commercial tenants is the cornerstone Letterman Digital Arts Center (which houses Lucasfilm, the company founded by George Lucas and most famous for the “Star Wars” franchise, along with Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and LucasArts videogame production firm). Four main buildings designed to harmonize with the Presidio’s historic architecture anchor a 23-acre campus, 17 of which are public space designed by famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The center employs some 1,500 workers, many of whom walk or bicycle to their jobs from homes close by.

A number of other organizations, most of them nonprofit and nongovernmental, make their base of operations in the Presidio’s repurposed buildings, most of which can be found near the Letterman Center in the park’s northeastern quadrant (adjoining the Marina District and Cow Hollow). Among the notable groups are the Friends of the Urban Forest, the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Moore Foundation, the Presidio School of Management, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Rudolf Steiner Foundation, the San Francisco Film Society, the Thoreau Center for Sustainability, the Tides Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund. The Walt Disney Family Museum, which chronicles Disney’s life and works, has a home here, too, on Montgomery off Lincoln Boulevard.

The Presidio counts among its numerous visitors’ attractions its fine beaches: Baker’s (with its famous nude section at the northern end; Marshall’s (also swimwear optional, and predominantly gay); and East Beach at Crissy Field. There is also Fort Point National Historic Site (the red-brick redoubt under the Golden Gate Bridge where the famous scene in “Vertigo” of Kim Novak [or her double] taking a suicide plunge was filmed). Crissy Field (some call it “Prissy Field,” disdaining its many “keep off” and “habitat restoration” signs and the somewhat precious Warming Hut, with its menu created by Alice Waters) is hugely popular for visitors and residents of the Presidio as well as adjacent neighborhoods. Joggers, walkers, cyclists, and strollers jam the paved promenade on most days and especially weekends. Nearby is the 28-acre San Francisco National Cemetery, with its tight rows of short marble headstones, a solemn resting place for almost 30,000 of the fallen in battle, including Civil War generals up to the Vietnam War. (The cemetery was officially closed in 1973 to new interments except in reserved gravesites.)

On the southern side of the Presidio, along its border with the Richmond District, the Public Health Services District, with the long-vacant former marine hospital and doctors’ and nurses’ residences on adjacent Wyman Avenue, have undergone renovation as a cluster of some 150 apartments and more substantial homes. This development, just across Park Presidio from Mountain Lake, is intended to serve as the gateway to the Presidio from the Richmond, with roads and public trails leading to attractions such as Baker Beach, the Presidio Golf Course (18 holes now open to the public, with a new clubhouse and restaurant), and Inspiration Point.

The U.S. Park Police has jurisdiction here, in coordination with the SFPD. (There is also a separate fire department, which also coordinates with its counterpart in San Francisco.) Crime is rare in the Presidio, with noise nuisances the most frequently reported, along with an occasional petty theft, car break-in, or drunken driving. No homicides have been recorded since 2007.

For such a large area, the Presidio is somewhat underserved by public transit (particularly seeing how the Presidio Trust encourages residents not to drive their cars). Only four MUNI bus lines cover the entire five-square mile area: the 28 goes north/south along Veterans Boulevard, then east/west along Doyle Drive; the 76 runs along Doyle Drive out to the Marin Headlands and back downtown; the 43 cuts a spaghetti loop through the Presidio’s southeast corner; and the 29 scoots down Lincoln Boulevard in the Presidio’s southwest corner long enough to turn around and head back to its lengthy trajectory over most of the western and southern parts of the city. Golden Gate Transit, which links Marin and Sonoma counties to San Francisco via bus and ferry, makes only two stops in the Presidio, one just after the bridge, the other just before entering the city proper near Lombard Street.

Most kids who live here are bused to public schools in districts within San Francisco proper, though high school students might attend Bay School of San Francisco, a college prep off Lincoln Boulevard and Keyes Avenue.

More than 2,700 residents make the Presidio home. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, it’s a fairly diverse, educated populace, more than three-quarters white, with Asians and African Americans making up the bulk of the remaining quarter, and 75 percent of all residents having a college degree. For the most part, everyone rents their living space—generally former military housing—some 1,100 residential units in 21 separate neighborhoods around the park, ranging from $2,100 for a no-frills two-bedroom apartment in South Baker Beach to more than $12,000 for a sprawling, amenity-stuffed 7,000-square-foot former general’s home. Pets are strictly controlled (generally, they must be kept indoors or on leash at all times outdoors). Because no rent control laws here restrict rent hikes, people may eventually pay more to live here than elsewhere in San Francisco. But the advantages of a Presidio address are self-evident, with abundant open space, little traffic, access to beaches and trails, and views variously described as “drop dead” and “among the best in the world.” Go see for yourself.
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  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
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Editors Choice

"Beverly Hills North"

If egalitarian San Francisco has one elitist holdout, it is Sea Cliff. This enclave for the wealthy and renown, though by no means terribly rich or even hugely famous, is a solid, substantial parcel barely half-a-mile square. Though it has some impressive mansions, splendid piles perched on cliffs overlooking the Golden Gate, it also has a reputation for privacy and discretion. Most San Franciscans have heard of Sea Cliff, and although they are free to walk its streets and sidewalks, few have the means to live here, so it has become a kind of well-kept secret. And although some of its streets and homes look like Beverly Hills North, with manicured yards and incongruous palm trees swaying in the fog, there is little to suggest that residents here would call the cops simply because you look suspiciously like you don’t actually belong here.

The houses are an eclectic mixed bag, most of them vaguely Spanish colonial revival (orange terra cotta roofs and pastel stucco walls are pretty much the rule here), with a French chateau or Georgian manor thrown in here and there, and a 1960s modern plunked down less felicitously amid the curving blocks. As if to say “look at me,” a few of the more ostentatious homes along El Camino Del Mar and Sea Cliff Avenue have no trees or other greenery blocking them from the street (though this might be for the sake of unobstructed ocean views, too). One or two estates on a couple of blocks sit behind walls that keep curious eyes from prying too much, but there’s a remarkable openness about the neighborhood as well, especially if you’re on foot and simply stroll the various streets, marveling at the diverse architectural styles and materials as well as the sheer engineering feats some of the homes on the steep cliffs above the sea required to be built in the first place.

Part of the peace and quiet is owing to the city law prohibiting tour buses and vans on most streets in the area. Though few people actually come here looking to gawk, a number do come seeking to find out what Sharon Stone’s former mansion looks like, what kind of fancy digs Robin Williams lived in, and how San Francisco native Kirk Hammett of Metallica might have spent his off-tour hours. Few neighbors offer much information beyond a shrug or a smile, so it keeps the curious guessing.

Sea Cliff has a history surprising for this area adjacent to the Richmond District, developed so much later in the 20th century. The first real residents of the neighborhood (after the native peoples, of course) might have been Chinese fishermen, who established a camp at China Beach in the late 19th century. (Today, the site of their activity is a public beach maintained by the National Park Service, with access from the neighborhood’s north side, off Sea Cliff Avenue near El Camino Del Mar—the only way to legally access the protected strand, which sits between two cliff outcroppings and is thus sheltered to a degree from high winds). Mark Daniels, the famed landscape architect who created the 17-mile drive around Pebble Beach, began laying out the neighborhood and designing the landscaping of some of its finer homes in the 1910s, shortly after the earthquake and fire of 1906, when people were looking to get away from the rubble and charred remains of places like Nob Hill. Over the decades, the blocks filled in with houses grand or, grand’s evil stepchild, ostentatious. The result is an agglomeration of exquisite and tacky, much like the rest of the city.

Not all of Sea Cliff properly defined (California Street on the south, 32nd Avenue on the west, Sea Cliff Avenue and El Camino Del Mar on the north, and 24th Avenue on the east) is grandiose. The southeastern quadrant of the neighborhood has a number of modest single-family homes, condo buildings, and apartment houses and looks quite similar to the adjoining Richmond District. But wherever the stone corner markers herald the Sea Cliff name, the houses evoke wealth and class (if not taste).

Sea Cliff has two links to public transit: the 29 bus, which maneuvers along 25th Avenue on the neighborhood’s eastern edge, before ducking into the Presidio, and the 1 bus, which heads back and forth on California Street (the 1AX is an option for downtown commuters). For the most part, the residents of Sea Cliff drive (or are driven) to their destinations. For those wishing to park on the street (not necessary if you live in one of the area’s homes, many of them with three- and four-car garages), there are few limitations, outside of the standard weekly street-sweeping restrictions and the San Francisco prohibition on parking in any one area for more than 72 hours. The city’s Department of Parking and Traffic doesn’t issue any residential parking permits for Sea Cliff.

Crimes committed here are few and far between. Because of its well-guarded houses and garages, burglaries are uncommon as are robberies, according to San Francisco Police Department data. Vandalism and other nuisance crimes, such as disturbing the peace, are not unheard of, however, and the neighborhood follows the city trend of an increasing incidence of car break-ins and vehicle thefts. Assaults are the exception rather than the rule, and there have been no homicides for a number of years.

The Kittredge School (co-ed, K-8) and Katherine Delmar Burke School (girls, K-8; just “Burke’s” for those who attend) are the decidedly exclusive private schools that cater to the area’s pampered youth. No public schools lie within the neighborhood, though an elementary, middle, and high school each lie to the south of California Street, Sea Cliff’s southern border.

Rochambeau Playground on 24th Avenue is the sole “park” (it’s really just that—a playground with swings and gym equipment for kids, a tennis court and some basketball hoops for older denizens). China Beach qualifies as the only other public-access open space in the neighborhood. (With all those private yards, who needs public parks, after all?)

There’s nary a commercial strip in the neighborhood, unless you count the gas station at 25th Avenue and California Street, with Bikram Yoga Seacliff across the way. To get any necessities at all, you’ll have to venture a block south of California, to Clement Street, with its assortment of Asian restaurants, grocery stores, and shops. But then, you’re really in the Richmond District at that point.

The area’s 5,000 or so residents are overwhelmingly white (75 percent), the remaining being predominantly Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Almost 80 percent of all residents own their homes. Pretty much everyone is well off, with median household income ranging from $150,000 upward. As for property holding its value—well, it’s all relative (depending on what you initially paid for that five-bedroom, four-bath, two-story “cottage”), with a big dose of that real-estate truism “location, location, location.” In Sea Cliff, “location” generally means El Camino Del Mar, Sea Cliff Avenue, or Lake Street and the avenues in between. A red-brick mini-mansion (looking straight out of Boston’s Beacon Hill) with four bedrooms, four bathrooms, an entry hall with dramatic staircase, and other upper-crust essentials went on the market recently for $3.9 million. Finding an apartment in the northern half of the neighborhood is well-nigh impossible (unless, of course, you’re talking servant’s quarters); and to rent one of these homes, you’ll need to pack your Vuitton valise with cash. For instance, a seven-bedroom mansion on El Camino Del Mar was recently advertised for $15,000 a month—not including staff, of course. That such a home at such a price even exists shows that the privileged of Sea Cliff are few, and that a few can pay for the privilege.
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PureKrome
PureKrome Awesome writeup about this secret pocket of San Fran :) Now .... how to get into this pocket .....
2yrs+
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
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  • Clean & Green 5/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 2/5
  • Nightlife 1/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 2/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
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"Drop-Dead Views (of Ocean, Greens, and Art)"

Few San Franciscans think of Lincoln Park as much more than an 18-hole golf course and the home of the city’s pre-eminent Old World art museum, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. But it’s more, and the lucky few who live on its borders know it as a place of unparalleled views, great hiking and biking, and a chance to reconnect with what remains of the wild, natural coast of California.

The area that stretches for about 100 acres on San Francisco’s northwest is mostly golf course, laid out as such in 1902 on what had been a cemetery called Potter’s Field, in use by various ethnic communities in San Francisco since the mid 1800s. The original plan, schemed up by local golfers Jack Neville and Vincent Whitney and approved by renowned public parks manager John McLaren, featured a three-hole course on a windswept bluff with few trees. The course, free to the public, proved so popular that by 1909, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to relocate the remaining graves and expand the course by three more holes. In the process, the supervisors renamed the park after President Abraham Lincoln and ultimately approved expansion plans that resulted in the course becoming a full 18 holes by 1917.

In the early 1920s, McLaren enlisted Herbert Fleishacker, another steward of San Francisco’s parks, to help transform the course into a test of a golfer’s ability. Together, the two replotted the course, added dozens of trees (including the park’s signature Monterey cypresses), and oversaw the building of a clubhouse, which opened in 1922 and still operates today, with a pro shop and the Lincoln Park Bar and Grill, with its simple menu and low-priced beers and other drinks. Though many golfers find the greens a bit scruffy, the green fees at this municipally owned and operated course are low and it is still one of those used for the annual San Francisco Golf Championships. Few would complain about the views, which from the various holes give impressive ocean vistas and stunning perspectives of the Golden Gate Bridge and, farther east, downtown, which glistens in the distance, almost seven miles away.

One unusual (if not peculiar) feature of the park is the inclusion of a large hospital, the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center, which was built in 1934 on land acquired in the late 19th century by the federal government for Fort Wiley, a battery/bunker from which to defend the mouth of San Francisco Bay. When the Army needed a site for a major veterans’ hospital in the early 1930s, it chose the land fronting Clement Street between 42nd and 43rd avenues. Though the original hospital consisted of a single main building with two large wings (all featuring art deco motifs), it has been expanded since the 1960s (when it established an affiliation with the University of California, San Francisco). Today, the hospital specializes in treatment of Parkinson’s Disease and movement disorders, as well as mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, hepatitis C, and HIV. It is the Veterans Affairs’ largest research hospital, and among the largest research hospitals in the country.

Fort Miley lies just to the west of the VA Hospital. It’s no longer in use as a military post, its grounds having been transferred to the National Park Service in 1968. But a few structures remain to remind visitors of its importance as a defensive outpost of the bay and Golden Gate (especially during World War II, when San Francisco was vulnerable to attack via the ocean), including the ordnance storehouse (now used as a maintenance facility by the National Park Service) and Battery Chester, a cement fortification (now in disuse) that sits under some towering cypress trees and affords good views of Ocean Beach.

If ocean views are on the agenda, then few better choices exist in the city than the Lands End Trail. This “trail” is actually a series of dirt paths, most of which skirt the cliffs and roughly follow El Camino Del Mar, the main street that cuts an arc across the northern end of Lincoln Park. You can join the trail at many points directly off this roadway, though many choose to begin at the USS San Francisco Memorial, where there’s a sizable parking lot. Many hikers choose the trail to the right (facing the ocean) and walk from there to Mile Rock Beach and the open, flat promontory that faces the Marin Headlands. Here, there’s a labyrinth created of stones by Eduardo Aguilera in 2004 that resembles a maze in a medieval church. Many hikers also plan their visit to see the shipwrecks off Mile Rock overlook. Bike riders can also access the trails, where permitted (some trails are too narrow and/or too steep and the National Park Service, which maintains the trails as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, requires bicyclists to dismount).

Among Lincoln Park’s most valuable manmade assets, at least in terms of art, is the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Dedicated in 1924 as a memorial to California’s fallen in World War I, it is a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris (via the version on display at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition). The museum, bequeathed along with some of its many treasures by the Spreckels family, sits on a grassy rise with a view of the Marin Headlands and surrounding ocean. The circular fountain and classical “U” layout of this Beaux Arts structure give the area a distinctly refined, stately feeling befitting a repository of some of the city’s most precious art treasures, including sculptures by Rodin and other French masters from the Belle Epoque, European painting from the 14th century on, antiquities from Greece, Italy, and the Far East, and a collection of 18th-century English and French porcelain that is the cornerstone of the museum’s European decorative arts collection.

Travel to the park via public transit is via two bus lines, the 18 (a line that runs along the city’s western edge and terminates at the Legion of Honor on its northern end) and the 38 (which travels up and down Geary Boulevard and makes a loop through the VA Medical Center). Driving is another obvious option. Though parking immediately around the museum can be difficult, generally there are spots along El Camino Del Mar, as well as up and down Clement Street along the park’s southern edge. The city issues no residential parking permits for this area.

Crime in the area is infrequent, if not rare. According to San Francisco Police Department statistics, there are occasional car thefts/break-ins, several disturbing the peace complaints, and the odd robbery committed in any three-month period. Assaults are also rare, and there have been no homicides for a number of years.

Though there are no schools within park boundaries (with the exception of art classes and seminars at the Legion of Honor and golf lessons at the municipal golf course), one school—Katherine Delmar Burke School, or “Burke’s” as the girls who go there and their families call it—sits on the park’s eastern edge. Though not in the park or affiliated with it, bordering the park and having access to some of its open spaces is definitely a plus for this school, which caters to upper-crust San Franciscans, many of whom live in the adjacent Sea Cliff neighborhood.

To shop or dine in the park, you have limited choices. There’s the Legion Café, in the Legion of Honor museum, which is open for breakfast (coffee and pastries) and lunch on days when the museum is open to the public. The museum also operates a gift shop, open during visting hours as well, offering not only souvenirs of its collections and traveling exhibits but also interesting related books and curios. If you want San Francisco souvenir shirts and caps, one option is the pro shop at Lincoln Park Clubhouse, which also has the aforementioned bar and grill. But for eating and spending, the best options exist in the adjacent streets and neighborhoods of the Outer and Central Richmond districts. Lincoln Park offers an escape from the city, and that makes this area happily free of a commercial zone. You come here for the air, the art, the greens, and the trees. These alone make it a worthy destination.
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  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
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"Too, Too, Too (But Me, Too)"

Everyone complains about Noe Valley—too expensive, too crowded, too aloof, too trendy–yet everyone seems to want to live here. This distinct, singular neighborhood has had its detractors over the years, and yet it still generates an undeniable (and well nigh irresistible) attraction for most of its residents (and wannabe residents). Who wouldn’t want to live on a street where the arduously restored Victorians are inhabited variously by a novelist, a dotcom millionaire, a documentary filmmaker, a New Age healer, a friendly house painter and his family, a graphics designer, and a rock-band drummer, along with their assorted dogs, cats, birds, fish, and reptiles? Where it’s a short walk to great food, boutique- and essentials-shopping and services, and laid-back bars? Where there’s hardly any out-of-area traffic and nary a major thoroughfare in sight (unless you consider Dolores Parkway with its serene palms sprouting from the median a bad thing).Where public transportation is actually an option for commuters? Where the fog is mostly blocked (or diverted north and south) by the surrounding hilly geography? Where crime is low, neighborhood activism high, and hassles (aside from parking) few? What’s not to like about Noe Valley?

That, of course, is a relative question. It's certainly expensive: housing prices have stayed more or less at bubble highs, even during the recent economic downturn, with a two-bedroom condo near shopping and transit lines fetching as much as $1 million, and single-family abodes hitting the $2 million mark and above. Rents have likewise remained stratospheric (don’t even think about a studio here for less than $1,400, with one- and two-bedroom flats going for $2,000 to $2,600 or more--though lease negotiations have lately been possible, for the first time in years). The area attracts more people than can be accommodated by the limited housing (much of it single-family dwellings, with a short supply of apartments and an unreported number of so-called mother-in-law units hidden from the city’s building department). And yes, it’s perhaps a bit crowded (though that’s a relative term if you’re luxuriating in a top-floor studio with private deck and hot tub, wall-to-wall views, and a garage space to park your Smart car or Mini). Also, it can be somewhat off-putting, especially if you’re trying to find a parking spot after 5 o’clock in the afternoon near 24th Street, when it seems half the city is trying to do the same. And don’t even mention trendy—what with Googleheads complaining that the $300 Cydwoq loafers they’re returning at the upscale shoe store just don’t feel right, and web zillionaires sending back their organic green-tea lattes for tasting too “grassy.”

But, if you live in Noe Valley, you’re a tolerant sort, mindful of the many manifestations of mankind—though the area’s residents are, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, overwhelmingly white (more than 80 percent), zooming in on middle age (median: 38 years old) and well-to-do (annual household income of more than $150,000). Besides, cool rules here; few dare to have temper tantrums, honk their horns in a display of road rage, or sigh too audibly when waiting in line. The stress level drops noticeably from other neighborhoods, aided by the laid-back freelance writers, designers, and web developers who work from home or in any number of free-wifi cafes. And if you do become impatient with that mom or dad strollering their child in zigzag fashion down the sidewalk, you simply detour around them.

The neighborhood has undergone a number of incarnations since the mid-19th century, when it was mostly pastureland, part of a larger land grant given to José de Jesus Noé, the final Mexican mayor to preside over what became San Francisco. The so-named Noe Valley (actually, a basin surrounded on three sides by steep peaks and hills) started being developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century, especially so after the earthquake of 1906 (the ensuing great fire never reached the area), when middle-class workers flocked here from the rest of the devastated city. The neighborhood thus harbors many late-Victorian/Edwardian homes in the gewgaw-tortured style San Francisco is noted for, many built side-by-side, often four to six at a time, in typical row-house fashion (good surviving examples remain on Cesar Chavez Street, between Dolores and Church, and on 23th Street, near Douglass).

By the mid-1950s, the area had retained its solid, working-class base, with many small businesses serving the community, along with churches and schools. But the early ’70s began a transformation, when many families fled to the suburbs and the neighborhood was reinvigorated by hippies and young people, who brought with them a new entrepreneurial spirit. This resulting combination of established businesses and newcomers helped to build Noe Valley’s reputation for cooperation and tolerance. Though a few longtime survivors remain (Twin Peaks Properties, with its window display of a Noe Valley some 50 years ago, is one), the businesses today are generally progressive and innovative, catering to a like-minded clientele.

Curiously for such a large and family-oriented neighborhood, there are few parks: Noe Courts at Douglass and 24th, with its single tennis court and basketball court and patch of grass frequently overrun by dogs (though signs remind owners that the leash law is in effect), is often too crowded for enjoyment. Farther up Douglass Street (at 26th) is the more spacious Douglass Playground. Upper Noe Recreation Center lies down the hill and across the open basin and features a baseball diamond and a couple of tennis courts. Schools, however, offer parents some choices: Alvarado Elementary on Douglass and Alvarado streets (a K-5, with a 6 out of 10 GreatSchools rating) and Edison Charter Academy on 22nd and Dolores streets (a K-5 charter school, with a 5 GreatSchools rating), as well as two Catholic schools: St. Paul’s (K-8, at 29th and Church streets), and St. Philip the Apostle (pre-school through 8th, at Elizabeth and Diamond streets). James Lick Middle School, on Noe and Clipper streets, is known for its diverse student body (65 percent Latino, 15 percent African American, and the remaining 20 percent white or Asian) and community involvement. Finally, Theresa S. Mahler Child Development Center (on Church at Hill Street) is a public, year-round preschool for kids 3 to 6 years old.

Public transit is fairly reliable and frequent in Noe Valley. The J-Church makes a mile-long straight run through the neighborhood, emerging from an alley at 22nd Street and continuing till it hits the area’s southern border with Glen Park. Many residents take it to and from their jobs in Civic Center and the Financial District. Two bus lines—the north/south 24 and east/west 48—literally cross paths at Castro and 24th streets and give riders options for travel to other areas of the city. The BART station at 24th and Mission, though technically not in the neighborhood, is close enough to be an option for many Noe Valley residents who commute downtown or down the Peninsula. For the many who own cars here but have no garage space, street parking is the rule, resulting in a nerve-fraying parking shortage, especially near commercial streets. The city’s Department of Parking and Traffic has attempted to alleviate the situation somewhat by issuing “S” and “Z” residential parking permits for certain congested zones at $96 annually.

As for crime here, San Francisco Police statistics underscore that most common are run-of-the-mill disturbing the peace infractions, or (as witnessed in other neighborhoods where on-street parking is common) car break-ins and thefts (especially along 24th Street, Clipper, and Church). Less often, burglaries, robberies, and vandalism are committed. Though no homicides had been reported since 2004, a 30-year-old neighborhood man was stabbed to death in April in a homicide that shocked the locals—and prompted many residents to wonder if the invisible crime shield sheltering Noe Valley (so close to the gang violence of the Mission District) wasn’t about to shatter.

Though Noe Valley takes great stock in itself as a mom-and-pop-shop kind of place, unfriendly to franchises, a couple of name brands have crept in. There’s a Starbucks on 24th Street, and Whole Foods has recently staked a claim on the strip, occupying the space of the formerly cramped, quaintly downscale Bell Market. Because of the literary-minded population here, a number of choice (and independent) bookstores persevere, including Phoenix Books (a new-and-used shop in business since 1985) and Cover to Cover (relocated to Castro Street from 24th, after a reorganization in which customers pledged to support the “indie” with business and, in some cases, loans), the Mystery Book store on 24th (where the faintly fusty atmosphere belies a fine collection of mysteries, from paperback to first editions), and also Omnivore, on Cesar Chavez Street, where the selection focuses on all things gustatory, with new, antiquarian, and collectors’ editions of cookbooks and references on food.

The neighborhood also prides itself of on the one-of-a-kind: The Noe Valley Ministry, a Presbyterian Church on Sanchez Street, also serves as a kind of performing arts center, featuring a chamber music series, a pop-, folk- and blues-oriented music series, visual art shows in the gallery, performance spaces for Irish and Scottish dancing lessons, and meeting rooms for everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to tai chi. There’s also the much-publicized Lovejoy’s Tea Room, a somewhat prissy fantasy of a British tea parlor, complete with mismatched antiques (tables, chairs, teapots, the works) and fussy little sandwiches, cakes, and cookies.

Even though 24th Street is the main drag for shops, restaurants and bars, a smaller, less dense commercial area has always existed on Church Street, with a number of cafes (including the uber-cute Chloe’s, with its breakfast and lunch standards) and ethnic restaurants (such as Eric’s, an outpost of for Chinese cuisine). Clustered around the 30th Street end of Church are a number of specialty shops (including Drewes Bros. Meats and Church Street Apothecary) and assorted eateries—a noodle shop, a northern Indian restaurant, an all-American burger-and-sandwich joint, and an upscale Italian dining room—that reflect the area’s eclectic palates. They also signal that Noe Valley, though outwardly privileged and comfortable, still has an adventurous, inquisitive spirit.
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  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 5/5
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Editors Choice

"A Hill to Come Home to"

That bald hill with the odd contraption on top is the geographical high point of a neighborhood that plays it close to the vest. Despite the cultural and sociological foment of the Mission District to the north and the goings-on of the Google crowd in Noe Valley to the northwest, Bernal Heights is a sanctuary of folks who go to work and then come home to their families, their partners, their pets, their hobbies, and their artistic pursuits without making a big fuss about it. They eat dinner—from a local take-out Thai place, a taqueria, the corner pub, or their own kitchen from vegetables they grow in their own backyard—and then pursue their private lives quietly. These are not showy people. There’s no cinema, no theater, no fancy shopping district here. What there is looks pretty much like a solid, residential area in an older city on, say, the East Coast, or in Chicago. Were it not for Bernal Hill and the views it gives of San Francisco from many angles, it would be hard to distinguish this area from any number of places in the Bay Area as well.

Yet, that hill and its crowning microwave tower make all the difference, for Bernal Hill not only gives the neighborhood its name but also the elevation necessary to distinguish it from the surrounding areas. Historically part of a large Mexican rancho run by José Cornelio de Bernal, to whom it was deeded, the slopes were cut up after California became a U.S. state into small lots settled by European immigrants, who farmed and operated dairy ranches on them. Their practices kept the top of the hill as communal pasture, free of the cookie-cutter development that befell much of the rest of the city during the 19th century. After the 1906 earthquake and fire (from which the neighborhood was mostly spared, thanks to Bernal hill's serpentine bedrock and the fact that most dwellings weren’t constructed in cheek-by-jowl fashion), people moved to Bernal Heights in increasing numbers, attracted by its curved and winding streets (remnants of the animal trails and footpaths of its farmland past) and patchwork of yards, seeking a respite from the grid and grind of the rest of San Francisco.

During World War II, more blue-collar workers came, attracted by the steady work and good pay offered by the naval shipyards of Hunters Point. By the late 1960s and early ’70s, enough anti-Vietnam War activists had settled here to make the neighborhood a kind of political hotbed, second to the Haight. Then came a decline, as the area succumbed to drug traffickers and related crime. The renewal of the 1990s is still being felt today, as young families, lesbians, artists, and single professionals revive a hodgepodge of homes, some Victorian and impressive, others from the mid-20th century and of modest architectural origins, all of them essential to a close-knit neighborhood where people swap news over backyard fences and across front porches, as they might in any small town.

The town feeling of Bernal Heights is evident in its leafy streets, the care with which people tend the flowers and greenery of their yards, and the fierceness with which they support their parks. Bernal Heights is known as a dog-lover’s haven, to a great degree because canine guardians (they would never call themselves “owners”) have convinced their landlords of their passion (leases often allow dogs of all sizes) and also because they have lobbied City Hall to keep Bernal Heights Park an “off-leash zone” for humankind’s best friends, ensuring that poop bags are available to placate the joggers and walkers and other mammals who use its many trails (which they, in turn, enjoy for marvelous views of downtown, Twin Peaks, and the East Bay). Neighborhood artists, tinkers, activists, and average residents host an annual “illegal” soapbox derby (it has been shut down by police on occasion in the past) in the fall, with the steep Bernal Heights Boulevard transformed into a track for the imaginative vehicles that compete.

Holly Park, which used to be little more than a swingset and slide on top of an oval hillock that rarely got mowed, has been transformed of late into a dream playground, with brightly colored play equipment, benches, and tables. Even Precita Park, a relic from 1894 on the lower northern flank of the Bernal Heights, facing the Mission District, has been cleaned up and made safer, a far cry from its days as a decrepit, depressing place for drug addicts to congegrate. St. Mary’s Playground and Recreation Center, on the south-facing side of Bernal Heights, near Alemany Boulevard, also gets high marks from locals for its tennis courts, capacious gymnasium, and dog walk with grass and paved areas. The large rec center has activities for tots (ages 1 to 3), kid's gym, and peewee sports.

That everybody in this neighborhood of roughly 25,000 gets along and looks at parks as integral to their quality of life—walker, jogger, dog-runner, and parent alike—is a testament to the mellow, cooperative nature of the place. (U.S. Census Bureau figures peg its population at more than 60 percent white, with Asians [20 percent] and African Americans [10 percent] accounting for large segments as well.)

The city’s longest-standing farmer’s market (established in 1947, among the first in California) assembles every Saturday from dawn to dusk in the huge lot at 100 Alemany Blvd. The enormous selection of fresh produce includes standards (beans, tomatoes, aparagus, strawberries, peaches, corn, etc.) as well as Asian veggies (bok choy, daikon, et al.) and has of late tipped toward locally grown (rather than trucked in from far-flung Central Valley farms) and, to a lesser degree, organic. Plus, prepared-food stalls and hot take-away items like pizza, pupusas, and kebabs.

Despite all the improvements in public spaces, crime still visits the area: Vehicle break-ins and auto thefts, robbery, burglary, and disturbing the peace occur every day or so along the main commercial strips of Cortland Avenue, Mission Street, and Cesar Chavez Street, according to San Francisco Police Department stats. There’s a spillover of gang activity from the Mission District to the north, which means that not only vandalism but also assault and other violent crimes are committed here. (The area has counted five homicides in the last three years.)

Though the area is not known for public transit on every corner, buses do crisscross Bernal Hill: the 24 on an east/west path, the 67 north and south. The 23 cuts across its southern half, while the 27 does so on the north. A trolley (the J Church) skirts its western edge, along San Jose Avenue. The 24th Street BART station is within walking distance for many residents on the north side of the hill. Though many residents own cars and drive to work (highway access to downtown and Silicon Valley is good from the neighborhood), parking is generally easy, though steep hills discourage many drivers, so quiet streets prevail.

Elementary schools, both public and private, are spaced strategically around the slopes of Bernal Heights: Paul Revere (public K-8) on the east, and Leonard R. Flynn (public K-5) and St. Anthony’s Immaculate Conception (Catholic, K-8) on the north.

The neighborhood has one hospital within its boundaries—California Pacific Medical Center (formerly St. Luke’s)—and another, San Francisco General Hospital, blocks away, on 24th Street and Potrero Avenue.

Single-family homes have been a considerable bargain here for years; the ones purchased long ago have held their value while newer ones are still lower in price than the rest of the city. A single-family, two-bedroom home on a quiet street can sell for anywhere from $650,000 to $800,000, while a one-bedroom condo might fetch around $350,000. Rents are cheaper here, too: a studio can occasionally be found for under $1,000 a month, and one- and two-bedroom units on main streets are frequently around $1,500 a month.

The main shopping sections are along Mission Street from Cesar Chavez Street south, and also on Cortland, with its hilltop collection of cafes, bars, restaurants and markets (anchored by Good Life Grocery). Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, on Virginia near Mission, caters to the neighborhood’s no-nonsense residents who hunger for big portions and relaxed surroundings, as do a number of other casual venues (Liberty Café on Cortland, Blue Plate on Mission, and Caffe Cozzolino on Precita Avenue). The stretch of Mission from Cesar Chavez to 30th Street offers a number of Latin American restaurants, funky boutiques, a hardware and auto parts store, as well as a Safeway (with parking) at its southern end. Of all streets in Bernal Heights, this is where the melting pot is most in evidence.
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  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
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Editors Choice

"Altitude Equals Attitude"

One of San Francisco’s best-kept secrets is hidden in plain view. It’s quiet (if not serene) yet sophisticated, with an agglomeration of some of the city’s first (and, to this day, finest) high-rise apartment buildings. Unrivaled views—of the East Bay, Alcatraz, Angel Island and Marin County—abound. People keep to themselves, while remaining outwardly cordial and polite. An upper-crust pedigree has endured here for more than 100 years. Its geographic prominence as one of San Francisco’s original “Seven Hills” underscores the fact that it is difficult to access by foot or by car (its steep slopes account for the fact that few main thoroughfares traverse the neighborhood, and parking can be a harrowing experience). But whatever it lacks in terms of convenience, Russian Hill makes up for in terms of cachet.

The neighborhood takes its name from the fact that Gold Rush settlers found a small Russian burial place at the hill’s summit with graves thought to be of traders and military men from Fort Ross, a Russian outpost 60 miles north on the Pacific Coast. But the hill is Russian in name only; few, if any, Russians lived on the hill historically (the Russian émigré enclave today is farther west, in the Richmond District). What most tourists see of the neighborhood they glimpse from the Hyde Street cable car, which stops at the top of the curvy, one-way portion of Lombard Street, where its eight switchbacks have earned it the moniker “the crookedest street in the world.” That, and the several prominent high-rises that crown the hill, are about all many residents of the rest of San Francisco ever see of the area as well, for the steep slopes make it too challenging for many to drive or even walk through (the Broadway Tunnel conducts most of the major traffic underground). A few streets, including Vallejo and Chestnut, simply stop and become pedestrian stairways, the grade too steep for cars. These steps, along with pedestrian-only alleys like Macondray Lane (which Armistead Maupin rechristened as Barbary Lane and used as a setting for his “Tales of the City”) and Fallon Place, only add to the charm of Russian Hill.

High-rise apartment buildings, many of them adorned with art-deco friezes or Spanish-colonial motifs, are clustered around the hill’s crest, in an area bounded roughly by Hyde, Union, Mason, and Vallejo streets. Other landmarks include the San Francisco Art Institute (its Spanish-villa architecture the home of a Diego Rivera mural in the school’s gallery) on Chestnut and Jones, and one of the city’s two surviving 19th-century octagon houses, the Feusier Octagon House at 1067 Green, near Leavenworth. The mid-20th century house at the northwestern corner of Lombard and Jones was Jimmy Stewart’s bachelor pad in “Vertigo.” Though it’s not much to look at today, it served in many pivotal scenes in Hitchcock’s thriller, its blank exterior a perfect backdrop for the tortured love story set in an autumnal San Francisco. Elsewhere, fine Victorian and Edwardian homes, their gardened and well-landscaped lots setting them off pleasantly from the street, hark back to an era when elite businessmen and politicians dominated the neighborhood. Historic San Francisco traces many of its leading figures to this neighborhood.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Russian Hill today remains an outpost of old San Francisco but also a reminder of the multi-culti place it is becoming. Although about 60 percent of its roughly 20,000 residents are white, nearly 25 percent are Asian, making their way into the area from the adjacent (and crowded) Chinatown. The neighborhood also has a number of African American residents, as well as people who claim dual-race heritage. Most are well off, averaging a per-capita income of nearly $100,000 (owing to the number of young lawyers, bankers, and entrepreneurs who make their home here). But a significant percentage of people (almost 20 percent) are 65 and older. Contrary to what these demographic figures might suggest, most residents (85 percent) rent rather than own their dwellings. Either way, they pay some of the highest prices in the city: upward of $750,000 for a two-bedroom condo on the lower flanks of the hill, with the price increasing with the elevation (think views), and as much as $3 million for a single-family dwelling that overlooks Golden Gate Bridge. A studio can fetch as much as $1,300 a month, while one- and two-bedroom apartments start at $1,600 and can easily go to $4,000 or more, again depending on what scenery you look out onto.

As might be expected, this is a neighborhood with few elementary-age kids, so the one major public school is a secondary one: Galileo High (also known as Galileo Academy of Science and Technology), which received an 8 out of 10 GreatSchools rating. Yick Wo Alternative Elementary serves about 250 children from the diverse area near Chinatown. It also received an 8 out of 10 rating from GreatSchools. The only other elementary school is a private one: St. Mary’s Chinese Day School, which offers a K-8 curriculum to kids mainly from Chinatown (which explains why it is building a new school there, on Jackson and Kearny streets).

Two buses—the 41 and the 45—make their way up and down the steep incline of Union Street en route to the Financial District, and cable cars ply both Hyde Street and Mason Street back and forth from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. The 19 bus also lumbers up and down Polk Street. These few choices of speedy public transportation mean that many residents own cars, as witnessed by the numerous garages underlying buildings as well as the difficulty of on-street parking. Residents who don’t have a parking space purchase an “A” residential parking permit from the city for $96 a year.

According to the San Francisco Police Department, vandalism, disturbing the peace, robbery and burglary—pretty much in that order—are the infrequent crimes that affect the area. Although the trend is not as pronounced as elsewhere in the city (perhaps because of the steep streets), car break-ins and outright vehicle thefts are growing in number. There have been no homicides in the last three years.

Green spaces include George Sterling Memorial Park, which sits atop a reservoir and is perhaps best known among area residents for its tennis courts, which offer magnificent panoramas of the city and bay, as well as the East Bay, Marin hills and Golden Gate Bridge. Ina Coolbrith Park is a leafy (if somewhat steep) expanse of trees and paths named for the Mormon renegade and first poet laureate of California who once lived on the hill, and Russian Hill Park is a large, grassy field enclosed by a tree- and shrub-studded mound. Michelangelo Playground is a recent addition to the neighborhood, a pleasantly designed and landscaped space with play equipment for kids, basketball hoops, a community garden, and benches, all tucked in a secluded spot.

What the neighborhood lacks in splashy attractions it makes up for in small, intimate ones. In the two-block stretch along Hyde from Vallejo to Union are neighborhood favorites like Frascati and Luella, both serving Mediterranean-inspired cooking, as well as Zarzuela (noted for its tapas), Sushi Groove, and Za Pizza. For ice cream aficionados, the flagship Swensen’s at Hyde and Union has been going strong since 1948. Farther north on Hyde, at the cable car turnaround, sits the birthplace of the Irish coffee, the Buena Vista Café, which, though flanked by the kitschy Ghirardelli Square, is one bar beloved by guide-toting tourists and locals alike. Numerous other restaurants, cafes and shops line Polk Street between Broadway and Filbert Street, including Real Food (a local chain that offers organic fruit and vegetables and other natural products), Russian Hill Bookstore (offering used books that make it popular with the bohemian crowd that populates this part of Lower Russian Hill), and an array of ethnic restaurants (Chinese, Thai, and Italian). There’s even a Little Paris forming around Green Street, with La Boulange café, La Folie restaurant, and a number of French-themed boutiques selling antiques and housewares. Each place has something to offer a curious mind, and, much like this hill-clinging neighborhood, offers a surprise at every corner.
Recommended for
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 5/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 5/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
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"The Un-San Francisco"

When you’ve tired of hills, of hubbub, of trash and panhandlers and all the other urban irritants that San Francisco can inflict, the Marina District provides an antidote. It has no hills, little traffic outside of Lombard Street, more or less litter-free sidewalks and a code of behavior that discourages unseemly activity like panhandling. In short, it feels a bit anomalous: the neighborhood that doesn’t quite belong to the rest of the city.

Yet it’s very much a part of San Francisco, and its differences explain its appeal: wide streets with Spanish names (Cervantes, Alhambra, Mallorca, Rico, Prado, and Retiro) and houses with terra-cotta tile roofs that conjure towns farther down the map, in Southern California; easy access to the bay, which laps at its northern border; and a swank, upscale commercial street (Chestnut) paralleled by a gritty, downscale one (Lombard).

How this unique neighborhood came to be has an only-in-San-Francisco flavor. Originally a series of bay shallows, sand dunes and tidal lagoons, 19th-century settlers developed it haphazardly, cutting it into a warren of roads and lanes and throwing up wharves, warehouses, and small factories. By the turn of the 20th century, it was a mess of smelly manufactured-gas plants and light industry. And then it all came tumbling down with the great quake and fire of 1906. As the city rebuilt, the marina became a landfill for debris. Then, when the area was chosen as the site for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition, mud and sand from the bay were dredged and deposited over the landfill where the legendary fairgrounds rose. After the exhibition, it was time for another tear-down and rebuild—incredibly, only the signature Palace of Fine Arts and the hall that became the Exploratorium were saved. From the 1920s on, the Marina District grew as an intentionally planned neighborhood, different from anything else in San Francisco, with boulevards and greenspaces and a distinctly Spanish/Moorish/Mission revival architecture and a physical layout that sets it apart from the surrounding areas.

Because it sits on landfill, the neighborhood takes a beating in earthquakes. Images of the area after the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, several rowhouses and apartments pancaked and burning, played across the national media (and contributed to the initial false impression that much of the city was ruined). Today, it’s impossible to discern where the damage occurred and how extensive it was, for the neighborhood merchants and residents rebuilt quickly, reinforcing the stucco buildings with seismic retrofits that have left their exteriors’ architectural details intact.

As one of the city’s newer neighborhoods, trees and other greenery are low-scale and have for the most part not been allowed to grow to heights that obscure streets and homes (the Marina Green is also deliberately devoid of trees). Given the light pastel shades of most exteriors, the vista down many blocks during the day is of sun-bleached facades, etched against the blue sky like the cliffs of a pink-white canyon. There’s a Disneyland quality to it all, as if this area were a set for some video of “California Dreamin’” or “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”

Though generalizations about people are necessarily fraught with pitfalls, it has often been said that many of the denizens of the Marina, particularly the young and restless, also have made-for-movies good looks and demeanor. (U.S. Census Bureau figures bear that out: its 23,000 residents are overwhelmingly white [86 percent], thirtysomething [median age: 35], and affluent [median household income: $130,000 annually].) Stroll down Chestnut Street (the hipper of the neighborhood’s two commercial sectors, the other being Lombard, a block to the south, with its cheesy motels and fast-food joints); the sidewalkers are generally youthful, spirited, upwardly mobile, and self-assured. Men range from Peter Pans wearing their baseball caps backward to Ralph Lauren Polo wannabes; women are thin yet curvy, with expensive ’dos and dye-jobs (enabled by the Pure Beauty franchise in the neighborhood) and tight, clingy clothes. Designer sweats on buffed bods of both sexes are common, too. And nearly everybody looks tan and rested, even if they’ve just run to the foot of Golden Gate Bridge and back (a popular jogging route). There are, of course, older longtime residents (many of whom have let their hair go gray), but they also tend to look sharp in well-tailored clothes and have that fresh-from-a-spa glow.

Unlike many other areas of the city where franchises are disdained, chain stores have found a comfortable home on and around Chestnut Street: Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, the Gap, Urban Outfitters. But there are also one-of-a-kind shops that bespeak San Francisco’s obsession with single-owner small business: City Clothing, Studio on Chestnut, Ocularium, Deleuse Jewelers. The same goes for food: for every Johnny Rockets and Starbucks, there’s a Bechelli’s, Izzy’s Steaks and Chops, Los Hermanos, Marina Meats, or Lucca Delicatessen (not to be confused with that other so-named Italian establishment in the Mission). And of course, even the Safeway here has cachet, made legendary by its prominence in Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” as the place heterosexual “swingles” could find a mate (or just a date) in the produce department. (And speaking of the singles scene, any number of bars caters to the seen-and-be-seen set—Circa, the Tipsy Pig, Monaghan’s, Horseshoe Tavern, Ace Wasabi’s Rock N Roll Sushi—the list goes on.)

Though most residents disdain Lombard (a six-lane strip choked with traffic and lined with motels for tour-bus out-of-towners), the street has a number of good ethnic restaurants (from Alegrias Food from Spain to Zushi Puzzle), Bobo’s, a steak-and-crab emporium, a sushi/karaoke bar called Silver Clouds, and Home Plate, a breakfast/lunch café with a 25-year history in the Marina.

As for public transportation, three buses pretty much cover all the bases (no trolleys or cable cars serve the area): the 30 goes east/west along Chestnut before heading through North Beach en route to Union Square and Moscone Center downtown; the 30X makes an express trip to the Financial District from Chestnut via Broadway; and the 22 cuts a north-south swath through Pacific Heights and the Fillmore before making its way through the Mission District and back. The neighborhood has a number of other options inbound/outbound via Golden Gate Transit (which runs buses down Lombard from and to Marin County). These limited options are understandable given that most residents apparently own cars (garages are a common feature of apartments and single-family units); the “M” residential permit is a necessity for those seeking an on-street parking place in the area.

Crime in the area flows along Lombard and Chestnut streets, in accordance with the businesses: the San Francisco Police Department reports that disturbing the peace violations are common in any three-month period, followed by assaults (both categories fueled no doubt by the alcohol that flows from Chestnut Steet watering holes), followed by robberies and burglaries (especially at the many motels that line Lombard). The residential streets remain relatively unscathed, although vehicle theft and break-ins are increasing, as is property damage from vandalism (tagging by graffiti “artists”) and the aforementioned burglaries. There have been no homicides in the last three years.

For the few children in the neighborhood, the Claire Lilienthal Alternative School offers committed parents who want to play an active role in their child’s schooling an option for grades three through eight. Part of the San Francisco Unified School District. (a sister campus in Presidio Heights caters to children in K-second grades), this elementary school garnered a 10 out of 10 rating from GreatSchools.

As might be expected, real-estate prices are high, both in terms of resale value of owner-occupied homes and average monthly rent. If you want to live here, expect to pay from $600,000 (for a one-bedroom condo) up to $2 million or more for one of the modest single-family houses near Marina Green, according to Trulia. Apartments go from $1,200 a month for a studio (but good luck finding one), to upward of $2,000 for a small one-bedroom and all the way to $6,000 for a three-bedroom single-family home.

The one defining factor of the Marina, which elevates it from all other neighborhoods in a sense, is the presence of the Palace of Fine Arts. This monumental urban sculpture (a dome ringed by classical figures and designed by noted Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915) sits at the western edge of the neighborhood, fronted by a serene pond and grassy park. It is the one remaining remnant from the spectacular exhibition celebrating San Francisco’s ability to rise from the ashes after the 1906 quake, and it serves as a flamboyant reminder that beauty is its own excuse for being. That also explains why it’s a favorite of wedding party portraits, plein-air painters, and all the lovely people from the neighborhood seeking a place to break in their expensive new running shoes while walking their pampered pooch.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 2/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 5/5
  • Shopping Options 5/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 1/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
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Editors Choice

"Summer of Love Meets Generation X"

Mention “Haight Ashbury” and most people over age 45 are likely to nod their heads and drift into a nostalgic reverie of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, drug trips good and bad, long hair, free love, political engagement, and everything else associated with 1967 and the Summer of Love. To those younger by a decade or two, the name evokes more the edgy creativity of a new generation of rebellious youth, all black leather, spiky hair and pout.

The two versions and their variations are not really all that far apart. For Haight-Ashbury (or, as many residents say, simply, “the Haight”) has long worn the badge of nonconformity, of rebellion, of free-to-be-whatever-I-want-to-be. The counterculture feel of the place endures, especially along Haight Street itself, even as the neighborhood gentrifies and its older, more radical denizens move or die off, leaving to younger, wealthier, perhaps less hip but still creative residents the job of taking up the mantle of revolutionary ideals and putting them to work here.

Though the Haight is generalized by many San Franciscans as a place inhabited and frequented by zonked-out kids, from Gen X’ers to the Millennials, the truth is more complex. The neighborhood has always been primarily residential and open to newcomers—explaining why almost 100,000 young people landed here in 1967, when the area’s housing stock was in decline after the flight of old-timers to the suburbs of Marin and San Mateo counties, and many houses were abandoned after years of neglect. These massive homes, with their warrens of parlors and nooks and chambers, date from the district’s first heyday, when it emerged from the farms and sandy expanses of the “outlands” late in the 19th century with the arrival of the Haight Street Cable Railroad. By the mid-1880s, the newly laid-out streets were filling with large, ornate houses, built to entice well-to-do merchants and businessmen and their families to move here from more crowded areas radiating from Market Street. These single-family Victorians are among San Francisco’s oldest, having escaped the fires that devastated much of the city following the 1906 quake. Walk along some of the side streets (Belvedere, for example), and you’ll see relics from the turn-of-the-century era when the neighborhood had the feel of a town in the Midwest, gingerbread homes nestled cheek-by-jowl, with people passing the time knitting or playing cards on wide porches.

Some longtime residents have weathered the changing winds of fortune and fashion, and (especially south of Haight Street) new families and couples have moved in and revitalized the residential area. The renovations have always kept the 1960s in mind, so the palette remains vibrant, to say the least, with bright colors ranging to the psychedelic. With the real-estate boom of the late 20th-century, many of the homes have appreciated in value exponentially; to own here now is to be sitting on a small fortune, depending on square feet. A modest, two-bedroom flat or condo can go for as much as $1 million; detached single-family houses fetch twice that. Renting is thus the norm for almost three-quarters of the population of 25,000 (a portion of whom live at or near the poverty level), according to the U.S. Census Bureau--though it’s difficult to find studios for under $1,000, and one-bedrooms range upward from $1,200, based on recent Trulia listings.

Understandably for an area with so many tourists and transients, the neighborhood experiences moderate crime. As might be expected, drug infractions occur frequently here, probably more so than police statistics reflect, owing to a presumed tolerance of marijuana not only by law enforcement but the general population as well. (Breathe deeply on any corner near Haight Street and you’ll likely catch a whiff of weed from some doorway or window.) Most citations are of the “intoxicated person” variety, which assumes alcohol played a role. Dozens of “disturbing the peace” violations occur in any given three-month period, especially along Haight Street, but also in areas with a concentration of bars and restaurants (and rowdy clientele), like the intersection of Cole and Carl. Assaults are common as well, again along main corridors such as Haight or Oak (which flanks the southern side of the Panhandle) along with Stanyan, which fronts Golden Gate Park. In the last three years, there have been two homicides. Robberies and burglaries are frequent, and (reflecting a citywide trend) vehicle thefts and car break-ins plague the neighborhood, particularly for those who park on the street (residential permit “J” on indicated streets).

But not having a car is also an option (and even advisable given the tight parking), because public transportation serves the area well. The N Judah streetcar stops along Carl Street before disappearing into the Sunset Tunnel and emerging on the other side, in Duboce Triangle, for a quick (and mostly underground) trip downtown and to the Financial District. (Many riders also hop on the N going in the other direction, bound for the Inner and Outer Sunset as well as Ocean Beach.) Buses, including the 6 and 71, amble down Haight Street and then continue on Market for trips downtown as well. The 37, a local that makes a circuitous trip through several neighborhoods, meanders through the Haight, too. Starting from points east and west, the 33 and 43 buses make a mostly north/south trajectory through the area, converging on Haight Street, where, combined with double-parked cars and delivery trucks, they frequently prompt short-lived traffic jams.

In addition to being the main thoroughfare through the neighborhood, Haight Street is itself a destination for shopping, errand-running, and people-watching in general, with a panoply of merchants offering everything from retro fashions to Himalayan and Tibetan handicrafts. Head shops (or, as they’ve become known today, “smoke shops”) dot the street (Pipe Dreams, Goodfellas, Puff Puff Pass, et al.) as do tattoo and piercing parlors (Cold Steel, Soul Patch, Haight Ashbury Tattoo and Piercing), along with bars (pubs like Martin Mack’s and bigger drinking halls like Hobson’s Choice) and new hangouts such as Magnolia (a self-described brewery and gastropub) as well as historic and beloved dives like Murio’s Trophy Room and Gold Cane Cocktail Lounge. Amoeba Music sells thousands of used records from a sprawling former bowling alley, and Haight Ashbury Music Center sells everything necessary to make your own kind of music. FTC Skateboard is a mecca of sorts for the street-boarding crowd. The street’s also a polyglot of ethnic eateries (Cha Cha Cha for Caribbean; Siam Lotus and Ploy II for Thai, both within the same block, and Best of Thai Noodle House farther east; Zona Rosa and Taqueria Balazo for Mexican; and the Blue Front Deli and Café with Mediterranean lunches and dinners, as well as American sandwiches and breakfast selections); there’s even a politically correct Ben and Jerry’s (on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, of course) and an incongruous McDonald’s at the point where the street ends at Golden Gate Park. Then come a number of curiosities: the Persian Aub Zam Zam, a bar named after the well holy to Islam and whose late owner, Bruno Mooshei, used to eject patrons he deemed unworthy of his establishment for ordering the wrong drink or sitting alone in a booth; the Red Victorian, a B&B and self-proclaimed “peace center,” which harks back to the Summer of Love with its color-splashed paisley rooms; the former not to be confused with the Red Vic Movie House, an art cinema whose eclectic programming is matched by the assortment of couches for viewers and organic toppings you can sprinkle on your popcorn.

Cole Street near its intersection with Carl offers a secondary commercial district for residents, one more low key and less crowd-oriented—though popular restaurants such as Eos (a wine lover’s haven) and Zazie (an unfussy French bistro), along with cafes like La Boulange de Cole Valley, draw swarms, especially on weekends. Cole Street also boasts the original Cole Hardware, a handyperson’s delight, with aisles stacked floor to ceiling with all the appurtenances of the do-it-yourself lifestyle. (No wonder this place became a citywide chain.)

Schools in the neighborhood are hit and miss: the former De Avila Elementary (part of it now a branch of the City College system) has become a magnet for those desiring a Chinese bilingual immersion school. Urban School, a private college-prep high school with an innovative bent, makes the neighborhood its home on Page Street. And there’s also Lycée Français La Perouse, an oddity in this otherwise unconventional neighborhood (French standards of education being as strict as they are).

Diversity—especially of lifestyles—is the key to understanding the Haight, even if the demographics (from Census stats) say the area is 75 percent white, with about 10 percent African American, around 8 percent Asian, and the rest of mixed race. One model of service to the community since the late sixties is the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, which started in a storefront on Clayton and now include centers in the city’s neediest areas, notably the Mission and Tenderloin. Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council keeps all the various voices in harmony, serving as not only an interface with City Hall but also a sounding board for residents with issues. Walden House has served men and women in recovery and children with special needs since the early 1970s. And then there are places like St. Agnes Church, a Jesuit-run outpost that welcomes all and among its many outreach programs offers coffee and donuts on Sundays after the 10:30 Mass.

The one blessing everyone here seems to agree on is the proximity of parks: the neighborhood is framed on the east by Buena Vista Park, on the north by the Panhandle, and on the west by Golden Gate Park. All represent the best of late-19th century urban planning, with wide open spaces framed by huge trees and gardens showcasing what thrives in this unique microclimate. When the hubbub of the Haight becomes overwhelming, these green spaces beckon.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 2/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
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"Two Faces of a City"

More than anywhere else (except perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge), Nob Hill is the place outsiders associate with San Francisco. The dizzying views, clanging cable cars, prime hotels, and other landmarks combine with the hurlyburly on major streets to impart a feeling of being smack in the middle of everything exciting and invigorating about the city by the bay.

But the look and feel of Nob Hill from a tourist’s vantage point changes significantly when you examine the area from the perspective of a resident. This compact, busy, often crowded neighborhood, while offering proximity to most of San Francisco’s urbane attractions, also comes with some urban drawbacks: noise, steep streets, expensive housing, and difficult parking. Still, that doesn’t keep a great number of folks, rich and striver alike, from happily calling this place home.

Historically, the neighborhood once drew California’s wealthiest. Gold Rush tycoons and silver magnates, followed by the railroad and land barons who figured prominently in the great canvas of California’s post-statehood history, flocked to the area, 370 feet above the crass, unpaved, and unruly streets of the Barbary Coast that extended from the waterfront. Many built homes not of wood but brick or even stone, impressive sights in a frontier city where most buildings were sheathed in redwood clapboards. With the cable cars in the 1870s, Nob Hill became ever more desirable, and mansions and faux chateaux began to fill in the lots all around the slopes of the steep hill. But the 1906 earthquake tumbled a number of these famous edifices, and the ensuing fire finished off the ones remaining.

In rebuilding, Nob Hill began to take on the character it has today: a destination for tourists at its center (the small Huntington Park at the summit, flanked to the east and south by four high-end hotels—the Fairmont, the Stanford Court, the Mark Hopkins, and the Huntington—and by the monolithic Grace Cathedral to the west, not only a landmark but a significant community resource), with a succession of apartment blocks and smaller single-family residences (which have been carved up into smaller condos today) dropping down the hill’s slopes, especially to the west. Only the Flood Mansion, rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1906 calamity, reminds visitors of the 19th-century character of this hilltop. By the neighborhood’s western extremity (Van Ness), the ritzy feel of the summit deflates into tight rows of rental units, relieved here and there by a high-rise or hospital, such as St. Francis Memorial, on Hyde and Pine, a Catholic facility with a well-used emergency room and a staff of oncology experts known throughout the United States. The hospital also hosts a sports medicine clinic, a burn center, and a wound-healing division.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the neighborhood today is a melting pot of sorts, with middle-aged and retired whites predominating (50 percent) in the population of about 25,000, followed by increasing numbers of Asians (35 percent), and a mix of races and ethnicities comprising the rest of an increasingly young, upwardly mobile populace. As for schools, given the relatively well-heeled population of the neighborhood (parents with the means usually pay for private education) and small population of school-aged kids, the only public school in the neighborhood is Spring Valley Elementary, which offers a science-intensive curriculum and received a 7 out of 10 GreatSchools rating. There are no public middle or high schools here, but the Cathedral School for Boys, associated with Grace Cathedral, has a K-8 curriculum considered one of the city’s best.

Buses grind up and down a third of the neighborhood’s streets. The area is a checkerboard of lines running to the Financial District to the east (the 1, the 12, and the 30X) to North Beach (the 19), and to South of Market (the 27). It has one of the biggest concentrations of the city’s remaining three cable car lines, with about half of the tracks running through the neighborhood, which also houses the Cable Car Museum, a cavernous warehouse that displays the crinkum-crankum gears and pulleys underlying the system, fascinating for its Rube Goldberg ingenuity. Taxis are also an option in the area; because of the swarm of tourists on and around the top of Nob Hill, it’s also possible to hail a cab from the street here.

As with any neighborhood so close to big hotels and tourist venues, parking is difficult. Locals get the “C” resident permit allowing them to park for up to 72 hours in designated areas, and they also learn how to parallel park on steep inclines (wheels turned toward the curb if facing downhill; away from the curb if facing uphill).

Crime can also be an issue, with the great number of people moving through the area at any given moment (either tourists or residents of adjoining areas passing through or frequenting bars and restaurants). According to San Francisco Police Department statistics, the most frequent crimes include car break-ins and vehicle thefts (more than a dozen of each in any three-month period over the last few years), robberies (a dozen or more every three months), and burglaries (several dozen every three months). The incidence of disturbing the peace (noise nuisances caused by car alarms, verbal disputes, and the like) and vandalism (graffiti, for the most part) has climbed recently. Though violent crime is moderate (about 24 assaults in any three-month period), murder has not been an issue in the last three years, with no homicides on record.

Shops and corner stores can be found on most streets, with concentrations of them lining Polk and Van Ness on the western perimeter and California on its southern edge. If you’re looking to stock the larder, the Whole Foods at California and Franklin (just outside the neighborhood limit, across Van Ness) is a good option for high-end produce, meats, and cheese, especially if the standard grocery look and feel of Cala Foods (at California and Hyde) grows wearisome.

Aside from the tourist hotels at the summit, each with its bars and restaurants (i.e., the Fairmont Tonga Room and Laurel Court; the Stanford Court’s Aurea; the Mark Hopkins’ Nob Hill and Top of the Mark, etc.), this neighborhood, particularly on its western side (up and down Hyde and Polk streets), beckons with small restaurants both sophisticated and homey—Hyde Street Bistro, and its Provençale-tinged menu; Hyde Street Seafood House and Raw Bar, with its emphasis on local fish; U Lee, a nook with a few tables that keeps the locals supplied with some of the city’s best Chinese food; and 1550 Hyde, a café/wine bar with a market-oriented menu and large wine list. Polk Street between Broadway and California also harbors a stretch of restaurants, including Swan’s Oyster Depot (a classic raw bar/chowder house) and Hahn’s Hibachi, a Korean barbecue. Nob Hill Café is a pasta-and-pizza bistro on Taylor, near Grace Cathedral, and Rue Lepic is a cozy French restaurant on Pine that sits in the shadow of the Mark Hopkins but offers reliable standards. A couple of the city’s top-rated steakhouses, Harris’s and House of Prime Rib, stand two blocks apart on Van Ness. The area around Polk and California is also the best bet for nightlife (though homeless and panhandlers congregate here as well); locals and visitors alike frequent the Lumiere (a small art-house cinema), numerous ethnic restaurants, and nightclubs like the Red Devil Lounge, as well as a collection of bars, gay and straight, for all ages and tastes.

Given its adjacency to Union Square and the Financial District, housing can be expensive. According to figures from real-estate firm Coldwell Banker, condos sell anywhere from $300,000 to $900,000, while single-family homes go from $1.3 to $2.4 million. With these prices, it’s not difficult to see that almost three-quarters of residents here rent, rather than own, though monthly rentals for a studio range from $900 upward, while a one-bedroom apartment starts at $1,300 and can range up to $2,500. A Nob Hill address can still command a high price, even as the neighborhood transitions from a quiet, somewhat starchy district into a hipper, more diverse, crowded area with a new and young, albeit chaotic, energy.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 4/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 5/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now
Editors Choice

"High Above the Fog, the High Life"

The view from Broadway and Divisadero, more than 350 feet above sea level, can elicit a gasp from even the most jaded San Franciscan. At this elevation, the fog creeping along the low-lying Marina and the outer western reaches of the city seems far away, its white curls and billows unfurling gently, like the smoke from an extinguished candle. On clear, bright days (and there are many of them here, at this particular height in Pacific Heights), the pyramid point of the Transamerica Building thrusts upward on the horizon, like a rocket poised for liftoff. Other Financial District pinnacles are visible in the distance, too, including the monolithic Bank of America, as is the serene cylinder of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower. Turn 45 degrees, and the eye falls on the hills of Marin, standing out against the blue-gray water of the bay. On all four corners of this juncture sit opulent houses, each with a defining style: one a solid manse of red brick so rarely seen in this quake-prone city; another a limestone-colored extravagance of Corinthian columns and triangular lintels and ornate brackets; a third edifice, across the street, a subtler version of this classical arrangement; and the last a modern, high-tech creation of glass and stucco. All the way up Broadway and down Divisadero the stunning buildings contrast the money and taste of the last generation with the money and taste of today.

Wealth is but one of the prerequisites of life in Pacific Heights. Another is the ability to live on some of the steepest inclines in San Francisco (which, conversely, is not an issue if you are wealthy). If money equals elevation, then some of the greatest concentrations of both in terms of opulent dwellings are found in Pacific Heights: The Spreckels Mansion, its colonnaded façade obscured behind a preposterously high hedge—as if the present owner, Danielle Steele, could shut out the world; the Flood Mansion, its Corinthian entry beckoning observers to explore the ornate interior rooms, many available to rent for elite events; Stanwood Hall (aka the Hamlin Mansion, one of three buildings that make up the Hamlin School), also available to rent; the Bourne Mansion, another of those rare brick buildings, this one with multiple chimneys that seem poised to tumble in the next quake; and the consulates general of many nations, including Germany, Italy, Russia, and Greece—all housed in edifices hereabouts.

That this is one of the most desirable addresses in San Francisco is without question. But, as with most of San Francisco’s desirable neighborhoods, that hasn’t always been the case. The Pacific Heights of today was not always the enclave of the rich and famous, or even those who aspire to such. Its first non-indigenous settlers came in the 1870s; they were laborers and tradesmen who built simple homes for about a thousand dollars on small rectangular lots. At first, they didn’t wander far from Van Ness (the Haas-Lilienthal House, today a museum, is a grandiose example from 1886 on a busy stretch of adjoining Franklin Street); then, when a new cable car made the area more accessible, they began settling on the ridge overlooking the pastures of Cow Hollow and the Bay beyond. After the Earthquake and Fire of 1906, the area became a prime spot for relocating “old money” San Franciscans, so the swells of Nob Hill, their homes burned and in ruins, rebuilt on this high ground. Before long, Broadway and its northern flank were chockablock with mansions and mini-chateaus, the facades a cavalcade of architectural styles and grandeur that became known as the city’s Gold Coast. It has remained so, more or less, to this day.

Two parks symbolize the neighborhood’s tasteful elegance: Lafayette and Alta Plaza. Both are fronted by grand houses and apartment buildings, and each has the well-tended grass and understated gardens, with wide paved stairs and paths, that hark back to an age when parks were meant for strolling. Views from each are impressive, particularly so looking north and west. The one concession to modern times are tennis courts at the summits of each park.

Another, different patch of greenery gives the neighborhood a certain cachet, not only for residents but tourists as well. The steps going down Lyon Street from Broadway are perhaps the grandest version of such standard features on other steep inclines throughout the city (like the Filbert Steps and the Vallejo Street Stairway, both in North Beach). Here, the wide stairway is hemmed on either side by well-groomed hedges, and the whole thing ends two blocks below Broadway in a balustrade-bordered garden of flowers and artful topiary.

Not all of Pacific Heights is this upper crust-y, of course, and not all of it is all that high, elevation-wise, either. The slope south of Pacific Avenue drops 50 feet or more with each block, and as the elevation drops, so does the magnificence of the houses (though most of the remaining Victorians are assuredly impressive) along with their frequency: a number of apartment houses and condo buildings have crept in over the years, some architecturally appropriate, others not—particularly the ugly 1960s-era high-rises that pop up in unlikely places, such as those around the western edges of Lafayette Park.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the area’s 25,000 or so inhabitants indeed echo “old money” San Francisco: predominantly white (upward of 80 percent), affluent (with household incomes in most of the area exceeding $100,000 annually), and early middle-aged (late 30s to mid-40s). Most own their homes (60 percent or more) rather than rent. They frequent such places of worship as the sober Calvary Presbyterian (on Fillmore and Jackson streets) or Congregation Sherith Israel (at California and Webster streets). Many of them have medical-care providers in the state-of-the-art California Pacific Medical Center on Buchanan and Clay streets, known for its organ transplants and cancer treatment.

Private schools reflect the neighborhood’s affluent pedigree. Most people who live here wouldn’t think of sending their children (even if they have them) to a public school (even if there were any close by). That is perhaps why the area abounds in exclusive educational venues, primary (Sacred Heart Schools, Waldorf School, Hamlin School, Town School for Boys, Sterne School, and Hillwood Academic Day School) and secondary (San Francisco University High School and Drew School—both college prep, naturally). In mid-afternoon, the neighborhood is crawling with kids in uniforms, traipsing back to a waiting SUV or being escorted to their nearby home by a nanny or even their well-heeled mom, tugging at the family dog on its leash.

Bus lines crisscross these streets—the 22 and 24 run north/south routes less than half a mile apart, and the 1, 3, and 10 lines make various east/west treks downtown and back. Not that anyone takes the bus around here (the neat and clean shelters are all but empty most of the day); people tend to drive themselves (if they’re not chauffeured) or take cabs (this is one area in San Francisco where you can actually hail one, especially along Franklin, Gough, Fillmore and Divisadero). But because this is a high-density residential area, on-street parking is tight. The city’s Department of Parking and Traffic issues permits with the letter “G” or “K” for Pacific Heights, and they are de rigueur if your penthouse doesn’t come with a garage space.

Crime in the neighborhood is comparatively low compared to other high-density neighborhoods, though not altogether nonexistent. There are few assaults off the main thoroughfares, and only one homicide in the last three years. But, as with the rest of San Francisco over the last decade, car theft and break-ins are increasingly common here, as are burglaries and, to a lesser degree, robberies and property theft of all sorts. Also more frequent is the incidence of so-called noise nuisances—car alarms, loud music, and raucous partying on the streets (or even indoors). But for the most part, after dark is usually a quiet period for this residential district.

That doesn’t mean you won’t find places to eat or shop here. The neighborhood’s main commercial drag, Fillmore Street (particularly south of Jackson), is elbow-to-elbow in restaurants (Chouquet’s, Elite Café, Fresca, and other upscale dining places along with less-pricey eateries such as La Boulange, Grove Fillmore, La Mediterranée and Pizzeria Delfina); coffeehouses (Royal Ground Coffees and Bittersweet Café, along with franchises like Tully’s, Peet’s, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and Starbucks); designer boutiques (Blu, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Betsey Johnson, Eileen Fisher—the list goes on); and old-style shops like Kiehls (a branch of the New York apothecary) and Mrs. Dewson’s Hats. And given that many residents spend most of their paycheck on rent or mortgages, a number of vintage/used clothing stores offer fashion at a bargain.

Divisadero also claims a number of lively restaurants, including Frankie’s Bohemian (a classic burger-and-beer joint serving the nabe’s young professionals), as well as a selection of Thai and sushi places. “Diviz,” as its known colloquially, also has a couple of small shops featuring artisan products from the Bay Area, such as Blue Fog Market, for those not inclined to shop at the more impersonal Mollie Stone’s supermarket a few blocks away on California.

As for homes in the neighborhood, there is a huge price range, mostly on the higher end. But modestly priced condos exist (a small one-bedroom on Fillmore recently went on the market for about $600,000). However, expect to pay anywhere from $2 million to $10 million for single-family dwellings—depending, of course, on location (especially north of Pacific Avenue, where a good view can add a million or more to the bottom line).

The rental market is, predictably, also pricey. Studios on the neighborhood’s fringes—the area south of Clay Street, known colloquially as “Baja Pacific Heights,” as well as along the Franklin Street corridor—start at $1,500 a month, with one-bedrooms ranging upward of $2,000 a month. More spacious apartments and those with views loom in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Though it sounds like worn-out counsel, the adage “you get what you pay for” definitely still applies in Pacific Heights. And if it’s a breathtaking view from a two-bedroom, two-bath pad, you’ll pay for what you get. The high life has its advantages, and its high price.
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jessicathompson
jessicathompson Um no, try $4,000 for a one bedroom, with no parking and laundry in the basement.
Dec 22, 2017
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 3/5
  • Eating Out 4/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 3/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 3/5
  • Public Transport 3/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"Where West Meets East"

There’s a spot on most maps of San Francisco showing Land’s End, the point at which there’s no more city and just ocean until China. It’s an illusion, of course, but a poetic one. So much of the California coast at this point appears to drop off into the sea, it’s hard not to abandon the notion of something mysterious and magical out there in all that mist-shrouded water. It’s also not hard to turn back, toward the city, and feel that this outcropping of land has also received gifts from the East: so much of San Francisco owes its character to the Orient, businesses and restaurants and places with Asian names and fragrances and allure. In a sense, the Outer Richmond is a starting point to this influence, if not historically, then at least geographically.

Situated on a rise of land that ultimately ends in the cliffs skirting the bay around the Golden Gate, the Outer Richmond appears similar to the other neighborhoods adjoining Golden Gate Park on its northern and southern flanks. There’s that rectangular grid, marked here and there by a small park or landmark edifice, the whole of it rather unassuming, especially when viewed from above or afar. Historically, the neighborhood owes much of its early growth to the Barnum-and-Bailey circus appeal of Seal Rock (where crowds flocked to see seals haul out of the surf and sun themselves) and its hyped cousin, Cliff House (the original Victorian pile that burned to the ground after a short and colorful history). Then, a long period of slow-but-sure development, followed by the World War II housing boom that made the neighborhood what it is today. Gone are the Sutro Baths (the late 19th-century folly of seawater pools) and Playland-at-the-Beach (the huge amusement park that took up acres of oceanfront from the 1920s to the 1950s). Yet, even though each era offers landmarks and way-we-were nostalgia, there’s something new and vital as well. Get close to the Outer Richmond today, and the neighborhood offers a certain youthful, multi-ethnic appeal, from compact shopping districts to unique restaurants to interesting relics from a time gone by.

First of all, the Outer Richmond is appealing simply because of what it is essentially: a neighborhood of tightly packed homes of varying architectural and temporal pedigree (ranging from turn-of-the-century craftsman to late-sixties modern). The fog doesn’t tiptoe here; it blasts into the short-profiled streets with gale force, permanently bending branches on evergreen shrubs and trees in an eastern angle and leaving property owners with little choice but junipers and hardy camellias as landscaping options. Choose life here and you’ve pretty much decided that you’re going to take a lot of fog and wind along with your easy access to spectacular ocean views.

But that proximity to spectacular parks and trails has its advantages. The Lands End Trail is a not-so-well-kept secret that wows countless visitors with its drop-dead views of the turbulent seas entering and exiting San Francisco Bay as well as old shipwrecks on the treacherous shoals, the Sutro Bath ruins, and access to the old but quite vital Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, with its fine collection of sculpture and porcelain from antiquity through the modern ages and 19th-century European painting as well as decorative art. Because the odd dune or hill protects pockets here and there from the corrosive effects of the sea, you can even spot the occasional redwood or rare oak; elsewehere in the Outer Richmond, there are even examples of imported date palms making a stand on windswept corners.

Because Geary Boulevard is less commercial than residential here (the 38 bus makes it all the way to the end), other streets parallel to it have had an opportunity to nurture their longtime businesses. One such street is Balboa (served by the only other bus line that runs downtown, the 31), where the Balboa Theater, a charming 1920s-era moviehouse, still shows first- and second-run films, quirky singular films and the occasional series, much to the neighborhood’s delight. It’s not the Castro, but it doesn’t need to be. With a panoply of surrounding restaurants and cafes, it forms the vortex of a lively little neighborhood on its own.

That stretch of Balboa neighborhood includes Simple Pleasures Café, a busy coffeehouse that also has its own associated coffee roasting company, and a succession of ethnic restaurants and various oddities, including El Masri (Egyptian restaurant); the San Francisco Fencers Club; Full Life Christian Center; Americana Grill (Italian and Vietnamese food); Balboa Teriyaki; Pappaloni’s sandwiches; the Sweet House (Asian pastries); then further east on Balboa: Jook Time, known for its cheap dim sum; Shanghai Dumpling King, next to a Chinese Herb shop; and one of the neighborhood’s iconic tackle shops (Gus’s Discount Fishing Tackle; the other, Hi’s on Clement, covers whatever needs you might have before taking off on an afternoon fishing excursion on the ocean or bay.)

Clement Street parallels Balboa on the northern side of Geary and offers a similar array of varied restaurants and shops: El Mansour (Moroccan cuisine) next to Oyaji (Japanese), next to Tee Off Bar and Grill (all-American club), which is not far from Pagan (Burmese). The Seal Rock Inn and Restaurant (60s modern, like similar places in and around Monterey) and the Cliff House, the rebuilt 1950s incarnation of the old inn, are what cling to the hairpin turn of Los Lobos Drive as it swings down from Lands End to Ocean Beach. Locals say the food and ambiance at Louis’ Diner are better than at the Cliff House, though you’ll have to wait in line to see for yourself.

This small, compact neighborhood houses one notable elementary school, the public Lafayette School on Anza Street; it garnered an 8 out of 10 rating from GreatSchools.

The architecture of the area appears older than most homes in the Sunset on the opposite side of Golden Gate Park (check out the cottage on 35th and Clement for an example--it appears to be one of those earthquake homes built after the 1906 disaster) and the houses that face Lincoln Park on Clement Street. They are clearly a step above the “up and overs” elsewhere; obviously, some people had some bucks before they moved here in the middle of last century. The tidy Veterans Administration Hospital, with its older main buildings tinged with art deco, is just off Clement at 42nd Avenue; it caters to the considerable retired military population in the Bay Area and beyond.

A big draw to the Outer Richmond is the Safeway on Fulton and La Playa. It wouldn’t be a cliché to say acres of parking, because it’s true: this store literally has a couple of blocks of tarmac. Plus, inside the doors, the wide aisles are well-stocked, including the deli and pharmacy. And people are passionate about this store, really. One online site shows 89 reviews. (OK, folks, let’s get a grip!) Maybe it's because it’s the only grocery that has a big-box feel in this otherwise little-shop neighborhood.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the neighborhood contains roughly 20,000 people, with the not uncommon breakdown in the so-called avenues of about half non-Latino white, half Asian, with small percentages of African Americans and those of mixed race. The mature population (median age of 40) rents (60 percent) rather than owns (40 percent). Crime is relatively low here, according to the San Francisco Police Department. Vandalism (mostly graffiti), car break-ins and a few vehicle thefts are what neighbors worry about mostly. Burglary, robbery, and assaults are rare though not unheard of, and the neighborhood hasn’t had a homicide in two years.

In spite of the unassuming aspect for such a dramatically situated place, the end of land in San Francisco turns out to have the kind of amenities that prove civilization does not end here in the Outer Richmond.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 3/5
  • Nightlife 3/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 3/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 4/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 5/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now

"It Takes an Ocean"

The most remarkable thing about some parts of San Francisco is that they can be so unremarkable. Take the Outer Sunset. Its low-slung homes dating from the mid-20th century don’t have the architectural flourishes one associates with the city’s Victorian-limned blocks. It’s also not as thoroughly commercialized as its counterparts closer to the core, meaning there are fewer big supermarkets and franchise shops to choose from (some would call that an advantage). This two-mile-long, half-mile wide rectangle has the same monotonous grid imposed over former sand dunes found elsewhere in the western third of the city and a paucity of large trees and other leafy greenery, a result of the gusty winds and fog that limit growing conditions in the area for all but two sunny months out of the year.

The otherwise busy N-Judah trolley line terminates here, a large circle at La Playa and Judah Street where the cars swing around and head east, toward the Haight and downtown. The turnaround often feels like an outpost, a place that comes momentarily to life only when the train lumbers in, disgorging its remaining passengers, who often slip quietly into a coffeehouse or shop along Judah, then head back into the fog-locked, numbered avenues where their homes lie.

So what makes this misty, sleepy neighborhood anybody’s idea of a place to live? Ocean Beach, for starters: It’s one of San Francisco’s unsung treasures, the windswept western boundary of the city before it melts into the sand and waves. The wide beach from Sloat Boulevard (and farther south) up to Lincoln Way (and beyond) is accessible to pedestrians via crosswalks on the Great Highway, many with timed streetlights that stop traffic for walkers. (It’s important to note that there are two Great Highways, the two-lane residential street and the actual four-lane highway that runs parallel to it, separated from each other by a wide grassy island with a path winding down the middle.) The mostly clean, broad strand attracts joggers, beachcombers, and even nighttime picnickers, who are allowed to build fires in the rings provided by the National Park Service, which manages Ocean Beach as part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. It’s clear from the number of surfers on any given day (they generally park in the lot off Sloat and the Great Highway) and the cars on the residential side of Great Highway that Ocean Beach attracts a sizable crowd even on gray days. Beach Motel, Days Inn, Great Highway Inn, and Ocean Park Motel (the latter a charmer for its retro kitchenettes and grassy courtyard) attest to the area’s standing as a destination, catering not only to out-of-towners but also the overflow guests of locals.

Second, this is a fairly peaceful area. Many residents say it’s the nearly omnipresent fog that cushions the area in a noise-muffling blanket, others believe it’s the white noise of the waves breaking on the beach. Not only is it one of San Francisco’s least densely populated neighborhoods (roughly 30,000 residents, about half white/half Asian), but according to San Francisco Police Department statistics, violent crime is uncommon, with a handful of assaults in any quarterly period and no homicides in the last three years. As can be expected in a neighborhood with such a high concentration of cars, auto thefts and break-ins are regular occurrences, particularly along transit corridors. Robberies are seldom, though property theft is rising, as is vandalism. And lastly, complaints of disturbing the peace are increasing (one thing the fog can’t muffle is the obnoxiously loud car alarm that, once triggered, won’t turn off). Overall, however, it’s not dangerous by comparison with other parts of the greater Sunset and the rest of San Francisco.

It’s also a draw for its rows of well-maintained (if architecturally lackluster) homes and easy street parking (no permits required for residents and visitors alike). One way the locals doll up their residences is with designer colors: Many edifices are painted bright pastels or deep shades of purple, green, blue and red. Still, don’t go looking for bargains. In spite of their straight lines and few frills, the median home price hovers in the low $600,000 range (though condos, fixers, and older houses in need of rehab are priced up to a third lower). Upward of 60 percent of the neighborhood’s residents own their homes.

Schools, private and public, are a big factor in why families choose this neighborhood and stay here. Because of its strong Irish and Italian roots, Catholic schools still serve the neighborhood (as well as residents citywide). Holy Name and St. Gabriel elementary schools, both attached to churches of the same names, give parents a parochial option to the neighborhood’s public elementary schools: Francis Scott Key (which earned a 9 out of 10 rating from GreatSchools) and Ulloa Elementary (which got a 10 and is often cited for its English Plus bilingual program). The private St. Ignatius College Prep ranks among San Francisco’s top high schools and pulls students in from many communities, often competing with the public Lowell High for the number of university-bound grads. Independence High, an alternative high school within the S.F. United School District, is also situated here. A.P. Giannini Middle School (with a 9 GreatSchools rating and a music program that parents participate in) rounds out the list of public offerings.

With two trolley lines (the aforementioned N-Judah as well as the L-Taraval, which also ends in the Outer Sunset, 12 blocks south), the neighborhood has fairly direct access to downtown, including the 71 bus and the 16X express. The 48 winds its way laterally across town, over Twin Peaks and through the Mission to the bay, and the 18 cuts a north-south route through the area.

Aside from a fairly run-of-the-mill collection of Asian restaurants, organic produce stores, vegan juice joints, and service shops along Judah and Taraval, the Outer Sunset boasts only a few eateries and retail stores that attract visitors. Thanh Long (a Vietnamese restaurant noted for its roast crab) and Cajun Pacific (celebrated for its New Orleans-style food) have earned raves from outside the ’hood. Among the few businesses with a citywide reputation are Free as a Bird, which sells kites and wind-powered devices of all sorts, and Sloat Garden Center, a one-stop emporium for gardeners and landscapers. And certainly well-known to the area's many Irish is the United Irish Cultural Center, with its big restaurant and pub, along with dance, music, and language classes and a weekly toddler group where moms (and nannies) can swap tales while the wee ones run wild.

The Beach Chalet is also a point of interest (albeit technically not in the neighborhood, but at the western extremity of Golden Gate Park, which runs along the northern limit of the Outer Sunset and gives its residents a much-needed greenery fix). This oddly named building looks more like a bank transplanted from Southern California, its tiled roof and stucco exterior evoking anything but a Swiss Alps hut. It does, however, claim a certain architectural pedigree, having been designed by Willis Polk (one of the city’s greatest post-1906 quake architects), and its ground floor houses some extraordinary murals, mosaics and carved wood, executed as WPA projects during the 1930s. Upstairs is a brewpub, and in the back is another restaurant (the Park Chalet) with a huge fireplace and outdoor seating (when weather allows).

The San Francisco Zoo abuts the Outer Sunset at its southern end. Though the zoo itself has been plagued with a couple of feline-on-human attacks in the last few years (a tiger badly mauled a handler in 2006 and a year later broke free and killed a teen before being shot dead by police), the collection of critters has been trimmed and made less ferocious, and so has the feeling of “us versus them” with the addition of a so-called family farm that houses some pet-able domestic animals. The zoo no longer houses elephants (the last of them having been removed to a sanctuary), but it still has an extensive assortment of wild creatures, including giraffes, gorillas, big cats, bears, zebras, and the biggest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins in the world. The presence of all these exotic species in an environment so often foggy, chilly, and wet suggests that the Outer Sunset is habitable in ways that are not immediately obvious to the outsider.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 3/5
  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 5/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 4/5
  • Internet Access 5/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 2/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 5/5
  • Medical Facilities 4/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"I Have a Feeling We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore"

A flag as broad as a rooftop snaps and ripples in the wind, its rainbow-colored bands marking the intersection of Castro and Market streets. The base of the flagpole sits just above Harvey Milk Plaza, and a plaque on it commemorates the gay-rights icon with a list of local lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender politicians who followed in Milk’s footsteps. A block away, at 575 Castro, on the sidewalk outside the storefront that used to house Castro Camera, his business/political headquarters, another bronze plaque honors the slain leader, detailing his achievements and ending with a quote from Milk that both sums up his life and inspires successive generations: “You gotta give ’em hope!”

It’s hard to see Castro Street today as the scene of so much turmoil during Milk’s heyday three decades ago. The character of the place has changed remarkably since 1970s activism clashed with the conservative forces in the area. The blocks from Market to 19th streets now house an array of businesses catering to gay men and women, as do many radiating outward from this backbone of queer culture: bars, coffeehouses, shops, and restaurants have all specialized to serve the niche clientele that defines the many subsets of the LGBT populace. To the uninitiated, unfamiliar, and unknowing, the sight of men holding hands, of women with crewcuts and army boots, of drag queens and daddy bears and lipstick lesbians picking their kids up from school can prompt Dorothy’s line about Oz: “I have a feeling we aren’t in Kansas anymore.” It’s a phrase commonly employed by newcomers and residents alike to denote the surprises inherent in such an intentionally alternative universe.

Yet, these same streets reflect the laid-back, easygoing style of many California habitats, with the old adage “We’re queer, we’re here, get used to it” replaced by one more akin to “Welcome to our town.” The Castro may be a distinctly gay enclave, but its people also understand the importance of being inclusive, of embracing tolerance, and of making small gestures that add up to a big tent of diversity. That’s why, on the same block of Castro as the 1960s-era Sausage Factory restaurant and 1970s Anchor Oyster Bar, you’ll find an erotic art and paraphernalia store, a Himalayan handicrafts gallery, an urban plant nursery, a hardcore DVD emporium, and Under One Roof, a gift shop whose profits go to HIV/AIDS organizations. That’s also why that couple pushing a stroller is likely to be two men, two women, or—not so ironically—a man and a woman.

These outward manifestations notwithstanding, San Francisco’s so-called “Gay Village” started out as neither a village nor gay. It was largely a collection of farms and pastureland until the late 19th century, when the arrival of the Market Street Cable Railway in 1887 brought with it a housing boom that transformed an agrarian outland into one of the city’s first “suburbs”—Eureka Valley. The area’s sunny weather—it is shielded from Pacific fog banks by Twin Peaks, which loom over the valley below like two identical pyramids—was as much a draw to early settlers as it is to today’s denizens. In the early 1900s, the neighborhood was popular among Scandinavian immigrants, whose presence is still noted in the Swedish-American Hall on Market near Sanchez (its basement houses the popular nightclub Café du Nord), and later, among the Irish. As recently as the early 1960s, the area was still an enclave of middle-class and blue-collar families, many of whom worshipped at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, at 18th and Diamond streets, which remains a fulcrum of the community today—albeit with a different ministry more geared to the diverse congregation. Other houses of worship respond to the neighborhood’s residents as well, notably the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, which has served the LGBT community since 1970.

Shortly after Eureka Valley’s longtime residents began flocking away in the 1950s and ’60s to the suburbs of San Mateo and Marin counties, white-collar gay men and couples commenced the next wave of immigration, buying and restoring the Victorian homes, establishing a trend that continues to this day. (The care and attention to detail is particularly evident along 20th Street, on the upper reaches of Eureka and Douglass, and along side streets such as Ford, where rows of cottages seemingly line up to show off.) As these new residents gained a foothold, they renamed the area “The Castro”—and it stuck. It has been evolving ever since, from gay mecca of the late 1970s, to the AIDS-ravaged 1980s and regrouping in the 1990s, to a resurgent nexus of not only gay pride but also newfound political activism centering on same-sex marriage, gender equality, and human rights.

Today, the relatively small neighborhood (a triangle bounded roughly by Church, Market, and 21st streets) has about 35,000 residents, nearly two-thirds of them men, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. People are overwhelmingly white, with small percentages of Asians (8 percent) and African Americans (3 percent)—a distribution that critics of the area have pointed out as being less than truly diverse. The population is nevertheless highly educated, with two-thirds having a bachelor’s degree or better, and affluent, with a per-capita income of almost $60,000. High salaries are a requirement to live here, in fact: An average one-bedroom apartment rents for upwards of $1,600, and the average listing price for homes starts at $1.1 million—a figure that goes a long way in explaining why more than 60 percent of all Castro dwellers rent.

Public schools provide the neighborhood’s small population of children a few good options, including Harvey Milk Civil Rights Elementary (which earned a 5 out of 10 ranking by GreatSchools) and Sanchez Elementary. Everett Middle School and Mission High School, both on the edge of the neighborhood, serve a broad population of students, many from underprivileged homes. A number of private grade schools, both parochial and nonsecular, augment the choices both in the Castro and in adjoining neighborhoods.

Aside from the high number of assaults in the area (a function of the numerous bars), burglary and car theft rank high, followed by robbery and drug/alcohol-related infractions, according to crime data from the San Francisco Police Department. A handful of murders have been committed in the area in the last decade, most of them the result of street fights and/or domestic disputes rather than the gay-bashing episodes that haunted the area in the 1970s and ’80s.

One reason people live here in spite of the high prices is the area’s excellent public transportation: three subway lines—the MUNI K, L, and M—and the J trolley line provide quick access to downtown as well as to BART headed to the East Bay and San Francisco International Airport. And the No. 24 and 33 buses provide easy travel along north/south and east/west axes, along with a means of navigating the steep hills surrounding the main business district. The historic Market Street Railway’s F trolleys have their western terminus at Castro Street, and though they would hardly qualify as rapid, the old cars provide a scenic trip down Market as well as a nostalgic reminder of the Senate cars that once rolled on the trolley tracks, now long gone, of so many American cities.

The ready availability of public transit is good news for those without a car. Those who drive daily, on the other hand, experience a parking situation that ranges from problematic to impossible, as the neighborhood’s attractions draw visitors from far and wide, and many of them come by car. Most streets nearest Market and Castro businesses have meters, and on non-metered streets, resident permit parking is the rule, with the S sticker (available from the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic for $96 a year) an essential for those whose housing doesn’t include a garage. As for weekends and holidays when the attraction factor is highest, many residents simply hunker down rather than contemplate finding another on-street parking space.

And about those attractions: in addition to bars to suit every fancy and age group (most of them clustered in the few blocks between Market and 18th and Collingwood and Sanchez), the Castro, having experienced a restaurant boom in the last ten years, offers the kind of quality and variety that lure diners of all culinary proclivities. From the hip and inexpensive pasta of Fuzio on Castro Street to the fresh, wild-caught seafood at Catch on Market, to the innovative Pacific Rim fusion of Tangerine on 18th Street and the comfort-food reliability of Blue on Market, the Castro is fast becoming a dining destination in its own right.

One longtime destination has been the Castro Theatre, home to numerous film festivals as well as its own ambitious programming, which includes serious documentaries and mainstream movies to sing-along nights with Hollywood musicals. On such occasions, it’s worth the price of admission to arrive early, plop into one of the restored movie palace’s seats, and admire the artistry of the restored interior as well as the artifice of the lively patrons. They come, in work or play drag, bejeweled and coiffed and made up or wearing any ol’ thing they happened to pull from their wardrobe, and constitute a show unto themselves. It is a cross-section of the Castro’s finest, a mirror on this vibrant, dramatic, and ever-changing slice of San Francisco. Kansas never looked so far away.
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 3/5
  • Clean & Green 2/5
  • Pest Free 1/5
  • Peace & Quiet 2/5
  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 5/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 3/5
  • Childcare 3/5
Just now

"La Boheme Meets La Cucaracha"

If the musical “Rent” were set in San Francisco instead of New York, it would have to take place in the Mission. Nowhere else in the City by the Bay do so many young dreamers collide with the old and gritty reality of an urban landscape and make such intriguing and appealing music.

The place fairly hums with life, not only with cars and buses and mopeds zipping around, but also with bicyclists and bipeds, most of them riding and walking purposefully somewhere (to jobs or stores), some meandering aimlessly (panhandling on commercial streets), and still others looking (for odd jobs, to score drugs, or to sell sexual favors). The gamut of clothing styles and demeanors, from button-down young professionals and Carhartt-clad tradesmen to pink-haired punksters and their dark-and-dour Goth cousins, gives a good notion of the cross-section of San Franciscans residing here. Throw into the mix an assortment of grandmas in gray skirts, blue sweaters and sensible shoes shopping for supper as well as a parade of schoolkids (some in plaid uniforms, others in the uniform du jour: baggy jeans and T shirts), and you have a snapshot of the very diverse Mission, population 75,000 and counting, on any given day. (For the record, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the enclave’s documented residents are roughly half white/non-white Hispanic and about one fourth white, with the remaining quarter comprised of Asians and African Americans. And fairly young: the median age is 32.)

The area is densely populated, and looks it: Cars rim the streets and even clog the sidewalks in front of garage doors. Needless to say, parking space is at a premium; the city’s Department of Parking and Traffic issues or “I,” “W,” or “Z” resident parking permits (depending on the zone) for $96 a year that enable you to leave your car in the same spot for up to 72 hours without getting ticketed or towed. Also owing to the sheer numbers of people living in such a confined space, urban grit is evident on pretty much every street: Dust and dirt flies from ubiquitous construction projects as the area undergoes constant renovation and renewal (some would call this gentrification, as older single-family housing is replaced by condos and multi-unit apartment buildings). Cigarette butts litter the sidewalks, and many folks appear to think of the gutter as the best place to discard used coffee cups and fast-food wrappings, freebie newspapers and fliers, and even household garbage (rather than the intended blue and black containers that line door stoops and alleys). Vermin—rats, mice, and cockroaches—thrive in this wasteland.

Not that the occasional oasis doesn’t pop up: take the tree-lined block of Shotwell between 21st and 22nd Streets, its brightly painted bungalows and two-story facades and stairways the picture of quaint tidiness. Even busy Folsom Street has leafy lengths, opening up here and there to one of the neighborhood’s pocket parks (Parque Niños Unidos or Folsom Playground). Houses on these blocks often fetch the highest prices, too: in an area where single-family homes can range from $350,000 to twice that, a restored house on a quiet, green street can go for $1 million or more. Likewise, rents tend to be more the farther away you get from busy streets: A tiny studio in a rundown building on Valencia might go for under $1,000, but you’ll pay upwards of $1,200 the farther west and east of Valencia and Mission streets you go.

Because graffiti is more an art form than a crime in the Mission District, it’s not surprising that the sides of many buildings are tagged, some of them so beautifully so that they rise to the level of mural. Balmy Alley, off 24th Street between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street, features numerous painted garage doors and fences. Precita Eyes, one of only three community mural organizations in the United States, nurtures the form in the Mission and throughout San Francisco with workshops and tours. Visual being the key here, the area also hosts a number of galleries (Galeria de la Raza, Artist X-Change, et al.), studios and spaces for artists, filmmakers, sculptors, and designers of all stripes.

And yet to emphasize what the Mission looks and feels like today is to overlook what it was, a history echoed in the numerous significant landmarks: the many Victorians (now carved into multiple units, some legal, others not) that housed prosperous merchants and businessmen in the 19th century; movie palaces like the El Capitan (now repurposed as a parking garage) that once brought hundreds to watch stars of the silver screen; even the old Irish funeral parlors that hark back to the area’s formerly working-class European immigrants. They serve to remind that the Mission District was and likely always will be a residential area. That so many different people call it home and co-exist more or less peacefully is testament to the power of the melting pot that is San Francisco.

The Mission has always served as a starting point from which people can rebuild their lives, too—hence, the prevalence of public housing. The notorious Valencia Gardens was recently vacated and transformed into a more livable community, and similar transformations are expected for projects elsewhere in the district. People come here not only for the opportunity to get started in the city, but also to stay and raise families, evident in the area’s public schools: four elementary (including George R. Moscone, which earned a 7 out of 10 GreatSchools ranking); a middle school, and a high school. Neither middle school nor high school has received high marks, explaining perhaps why there exists a wide selection of private options, including the innovative Synergy School, offering post-elementary education.

For all of its cramped quarters and car-choked side streets, getting around is, surprisingly, not a problem—particularly if you don’t have to worry about a car (or at least where to park it). BART bisects the neighborhood along Mission Street, underground, giving residents a fast subway route downtown and to the East Bay in one direction and to San Francisco International Airport in the other, with stops at 16th and 24th streets. MUNI buses also run regularly up and down Mission Street (No. 14) and Folsom and Bryant streets (Nos. 12 and 27, respectively), all bound for various points downtown and South of Market. The No. 33 and No. 48 also make swings through the Mission on their circuitous routes across town.

Mission Street is the neighborhood ground zero for shopping, the long succession of shops and markets and stores beginning at 14th Street and stretching for a mile to Cesar Chavez Boulevard and beyond. These blocks (as well as those along much of Valencia Street) are almost too much to take in one pass: explosions of colors and textures and smells to equal that of any Mideast souk. There are apothecaries, bakeries, bookstores, curanderas, delis, electronics shops, fast-food outlets, gold dealers, Indian grocers, jewelers, laundries, meat markets, pet stores, pastry shops, record stores, shoe repairs, TV dealers, used clothing emporiums, vegetable markets, Western wear outlets, yoga studios, and purveyors of zabaglione.

Where to eat is also not an issue. It’s almost a cliché to say you can get whatever you want to eat in the Mission—especially if it’s Mexican. But the truth is not far from that. The area is chockablock with taquerias, especially on main corridors such as Valencia and Mission streets, but also on 16th Street east of Dolores and 24th Street east of Guerrero. Among the heavy-hitters are Taqueria San Jose (near the 24th and Mission BART station), La Cumbre (on Valencia near 16th) and La Taqueria (on Mission near 24th).

But the area’s restaurants, cafes, grocers, produce markets, and specialty food stands bespeak the neighborhood’s diversity as well. Cataloguing the ethnic grocers and eateries is like paging through an encyclopedia of world cuisine; you can find not only good Mexican and Central American food here, but also numerous South American tapas places, Asian noodle houses, sushi bars, a Breton crêperie, Italian restaurants and pizzerias, the odd French/Vietnamese inn, and an assortment of only-in-SF juice joints and a bizarre seafood trap called Weird Fish that has attracted national press attention.

You likely won’t go thirsty here, either. The concentration of bars along Mission and Valencia streets is impressive, as hip hangouts like Bruno’s co-exist on the same stretch as Doc’s Clock, a dive known for its incandescent marquee, which beckons with the words “Cocktail Time.” Beer halls and pubs radiate into the side streets from here, giving meaning to the notion of “neighborhood bar.” Many of these watering holes also feature live music, from a widely diverse roster (jazz, rock, soul, hip-hop, et al.) at the Elbo Room to an eclectic mix of garage bands, folk musicians, DJ, comedy and all the rest at El Rio. In the performing arts category, the neighborhood also boasts The Marsh, a small theater that has developed some big solo shows, and ODC/Dance, a company with a long history in the city and a national reputation for innovation. The Roxie, an arthouse cinema since the 1970s, is home to a number of San Francisco's most popular film festivals.

All the nightlife and entertainment options, coupled with a populace awash in liquor, beg the question of what over-indulgence and its ugly twin, violence and criminal activity, beget in the neighborhood. True to any such confluence of diverse people and cultures, the Mission has some issues with law breakers: it’s among the city’s worst areas for crimes of all sorts, from burglary and larceny to assault and murder. Car break-ins, armed robbery and drug-related larceny account for much of the lawlessness, but gang activity also figures in. In 2007 and 2008, the Mission District witnessed a dozen or more murders each year, with a sharp drop-off in 2009 (widely credited to new policing strategies). The lower trend in 2010 appears to be holding, and enforcement officials are holding their breath as well.

But residents of the Mission don’t seem to mind a little crime, especially since it comes with the neighborhood’s free-wheeling ways and freedom to pursue whatever form of happiness they choose. Add to that the city’s best weather (it’s reported to have the most sunny days versus foggy ones) and the Mission stacks up for many as one neighborhood worth singing about.
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JTB
JTB Great review. I could almost hear the music pouring out on the street and smell the frying chips.
2yrs+
PureKrome
PureKrome What an impressive write up of the Mission District! Awesome work SFSully :)
2yrs+
FlowerGirl
FlowerGirl Cool job summing up a really eclectic, difficult to capsule neighborhood.
2yrs+
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4/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 4/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 3/5
  • Peace & Quiet 3/5
  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 4/5
  • Parks & Recreation 4/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 2/5
  • Cost of Living 4/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 5/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now

"Inner Sunset: There's a Little Shop Around the Corner"

As with many San Francisco neighborhoods, the Inner Sunset is defined by its core, the convergence of two or more thoroughfares where businesses and residents cluster. In this case, that would be Ninth Avenue and Irving Street, a nexus that includes banks, an old-time drugstore, a post office, a number of coffeehouses, bars, and restaurants to satisfy most cravings, with well-maintained apartment buildings and older single-family homes spreading in all directions. The variety of storefronts reflects the people who call this corner of town home: longtime residents who were born and raised here and brought up their families here, too; immigrants from far-flung places across the globe who stayed to make their mark; young people who came to study at the renowned medical center here or work downtown and have simply settled in. The little shops and cafes and restaurants that cater to them give the Inner Sunset the feel of a village or small town. And that seems fitting for this tightly packed neighborhood: at no point are you far from a shop or eatery or small business that feels like home, however you define it.

That small-town feel is all the more remarkable when you consider that the area also hosts one of the most important academic medical centers in the country, if not the world: the University of California at San Francisco, whose hospitals and clinics rank among the top ten anywhere, according to U.S. News and World Report. More than 4,000 students attend classes and labs and perform their internships and resident training here, supported by more than 2,000 faculty doctors and researchers, and many hundreds more rank-and-file staffers.

All the activity in this densely populated area (with more than 35,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau, in the square mile bounded by Lincoln Way, 19th Avenue, Ortega Street, and First Avenue) translates to an on-street parking situation that is challenging at best. To make things a little easier for residents, the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic issues an annual permit ($96) for those who live on the busiest streets in the neighborhood where parking rules apply—meaning that if you reside here and purchase a J sticker for your car’s bumper, you don’t have to obey the two-hour parking limit on streets that are marked and don’t have meters. (Some streets, especially those in the western half of the neighborhood near 19th Avenue, impose no time constraints other than the citywide 72-hour limit.)

For those without a car or who prefer to leave it parked, the Inner Sunset offers a number of good public transportation options, including frequent N trolleys that rumble to the Financial District downtown and back to Ocean Beach. Numerous buses also crisscross the neighborhood, including the 6 and 71 bound for Civic Center and the 44, which cuts through Golden Gate Park en route to the Inner Richmond.

Like the Mission District, its bigger cousin on the other side of Twin Peaks, the Inner Sunset combines a number of influences in melting-pot fashion. That explains the eruption of Asian eateries along Irving Street (Yummy Yummy, Little Bangkok, and Golden Rice Bowl), bakeries (such as Arizmendi on 9th Avenue), stalwart bars (Blackthorn Tavern and the sports bar Mucky Duck) and coffeehouses (the Beanery) all elbow-to-elbow with laundries, shoe repair shops, and longtime establishments like Art’s Café and Le Video, the go-to rental place for rare, indie, cult, and foreign movies on tape and DVD. A big grocery (Andronico’s, part of the small, quality-minded Bay Area chain) offers staples and gourmet items at its location on Irving Street, and numerous other small groceries and produce stores dot the neighborhood and make last-minute convenience shopping a snap.

Architecture-wise, the area falls into what is often called San Francisco eclectic. This is one of the first neighborhoods in the so-called “Outer Lands” to be settled around the same time the city was planning and developing Golden Gate Park, and much of the housing is late Victorian or early Edwardian, with a sizable smattering of Craftsman style thrown in along with more modern (and less eye-appealing) boxy apartment units. Because the neighborhood lies at the edge of the so-called fog belt, it’s not the most conducive environment for a proliferation of trees and shrubs. Still, these are somewhat more common on the streets and sidewalks than farther west in the Sunset, though the view down many blocks is rarely shaded and often stark for lack of greenery. The relative lack of leafy trees may not strike many as such a drawback, however; the neighborhood abuts the grassy meadows and leafy stretches of Golden Gate Park, as well as the mostly undeveloped western flank of Mount Sutro and the Forest Knolls neighborhood. Two other nearby parks—Grand View and Sunset Heights—offer open space and panoramas (though they require a considerable uphill hike to access).

Rising on the slope of Parnassus Street is the UC-San Francisco complex, a combination medical center/children’s hospital, with university classrooms, offices, and student housing radiating from the two main buildings: a blocky, buff-colored highrise on Parnassus and its square, black-windowed sibling across the street. Both are anomalies not only in the neighborhood, but in the whole of San Francisco as well. Sutro Tower looms over it in the distance, as if the ugliest of the city’s ugly landmarks were connected. A considerable number of students from the university spills over into the neighborhood, making cheap apartments a rarity. The presence of the university is considered a mixed blessing for other reasons as well: on the downside, it increases traffic, even on side streets, and limits available parking, especially on side streets. The upside is that all the foot traffic amounts to a generally safe street life, with little violent crime; according to SFPD stats, vandalism, larcency and car thefts are the most common crimes. Even these are relatively infrequent compared with other such densely populated districts, and concentrated along Irving Street and Lincoln Way. Assaults are also generally low; the neighborhood had no murders in 2009.

Schools in this compact neighborhood include Jefferson Elementary, a public elementary that received a 9 out of 10 rating by GreatSchools, and St. Anne’s, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school attached to the Catholic church of the same name. Both are within blocks of each other, and the outpouring of children on the streets in the morning and afternoon (along with cars double-parked to drop them off and pick them up) is a common sight (and, commonly, an aggravation if you’re trying to get by).

Although the area has a large number of whites and Asians, it is typical of San Francisco overall in that no one race predominates. Other groups, including Latinos and African Americans, make up about 15 percent of the area’s population. Almost half of all residents own their home (worth on average from $800,000 to $950,000); the others rent (paying upwards of $1,600 for a one-bedroom flat). And, owing to UCSF, a large number (more than 60 percent) have bachelor’s degrees or better. These young, well-educated newcomers help contribute to a fairly high median annual income: upwards of $70,000, according to census stats. The better to spend in those little shops around the corner that define the Inner Sunset.
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3/5 rating details
  • Neighborly Spirit 3/5
  • Safe & Sound 4/5
  • Clean & Green 3/5
  • Pest Free 2/5
  • Peace & Quiet 4/5
  • Eating Out 5/5
  • Nightlife 2/5
  • Parks & Recreation 3/5
  • Shopping Options 4/5
  • Gym & Fitness 3/5
  • Internet Access 4/5
  • Lack of Traffic 3/5
  • Cost of Living 3/5
  • Resale or Rental Value 4/5
  • Public Transport 4/5
  • Medical Facilities 3/5
  • Schools 4/5
  • Childcare 4/5
Just now
Editors Choice

"Central Sunset: Good Things Come in Well-Ordered Packages"

The Central Sunset is a study in contrasts. This windswept, foggy district is built on a stretch once covered in bleak sand dunes and marshes. And although it is still shrouded in marine layer on many days, on others it can be blindingly clear, its pastel homes brilliant against a blue sky. The linear layout and freedom from steep hills elsewhere in San Francisco make it a welcome refuge for more than 50,000 residents, many of them immigrants.

The neighborhood stretches south from the emerald expanse of Golden Gate Park in arrow-straight rows of low-profile houses that create the illusion, from above, of a colossal circuit board, the uniform grid interrupted here and there by a curved cluster of trees or an oval athletic field. The seeming anonymity of this vast neighborhood derives primarily from the Sunset's boom before and after World War II, when blue-collar workers and returning GIs sought affordable homes for their wives and kids, the Baby Boomers of today. Developers obliged them, plunking down modest stucco houses, one after the other, each floor plan invariably a Model T of efficiency: living room over garage, steps leading to a small covered porch, postage-stamp front yard. The resulting architectural monotony was relieved occasionally by whimsical homes designed by Oliver Rousseau in the 1930s, their facades inspired by storybook cottages and castles. Nearly all the homes came with mini-gardens in front that many owners cultivated ingeniously: sculpted junipers surrounding heirloom roses or exotic camellias, framed by perfectly trimmed knee-high hedges. That this greenery survived the oft-chilly and fogbound patch of ground near the Pacific Ocean and, moreover, that it thrives today, is one of San Francisco’s enduring puzzles.

Get there on a sunny day (not as rare as you may think; based on data from solar monitoring stations placed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the amount of bright sunlight, absent cloud and fog cover, is not far behind sunnier areas of the city); you’ll witness the rectangular symmetry of a neighborhood that seems at first glance neat, tidy, cute--and dull. But a noticeable lack of neon attractions (the area has no cinemas, theaters, or nightclubs to speak of) has its upside: tranquil nights. And there is, of course, more to this sprawling district than boxy two-story houses in shades of sterile white and beige. The well-ordered side streets offer a safe and quiet refuge from busy 19th Avenue. A preponderance of garages means that parking is relatively easy, even near shopping corridors, which harbor numerous owner-operated businesses, restaurants, and shops coveted by a city whose residents frown on franchises.

The area is also well served by numerous MUNI bus routes (including the No. 71, which travels to and from downtown; the No. 29, which traces a rectangle on the edges of the Central Sunset; and the No. 48, which goes from the Pacific Ocean crosstown to the Mission District), as well as two MUNI Metro lines, the L Taraval and the N Judah (both of which run along trolley tracks on those same streets).

Irving Street is the nerve center for most commercial activity, although it is considerably less animated (especially in terms of nightlife) than its antecedent in the Inner Sunset east of 19th Avenue. Here residents can find any number of Asian eateries, along with stalwarts of any San Francisco neighborhood, pubs and taverns (most of which attract a local—and generally friendly and quiet—clientele). Shopping for everything from food to shoes is also a snap; the stretch includes a couple of grocers (including Sunset Supermarket) and produce stores (like 22nd & Irving Market). There’s a U.S. Post Office on 22nd Avenue (near Irving) and a number of banks, domestic and foreign. Two other commercial strips front Noriega and Taraval Streets, which also cut east/west paths across the neighborhood, each offering a smaller selection of the same fare: Asian restaurants, pubs and bars, convenience and liquor stores, the odd bank, a big grocery (Safeway on Noriega), chain drugstores, and an assortment of coffeehouses, donut shops, diners, dry cleaners and specialty stores.

The Central Sunset is not especially known for its parks. Perhaps it is because most homes have a small backyard, perhaps it is because the district abuts Golden Gate Park, a marvel of urban parkland. But one often overlooked gem is Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove, a 33-acre crescent of eucalyptus and pine that fronts Sloat Boulevard at the Central Sunset’s southern edge. Here, a series of summer concerts attract throngs from throughout the Bay Area. A onetime marsh and its surrounding slopes have been transformed into a performing arts amphitheater that rivals many outdoor venues for acoustics and close-up views of performers. Many performances are part of the free Stern Grove Festival series of concerts given on Sunday afternoons in the summer, from ballet to bluegrass and pop to opera. And the adjoining Pine Lake Park offers dog lovers in the neighborhood a chance to run their pups off leash.

The neighborhood schools and childcare centers are among the top reasons many families gravitate to the Central Sunset, especially its primary schools. Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary earned a 10 (out of 10) rating from GreatSchools, and the new Dianne Feinstein Elementary School, built in 2006, got a 9 rating. Private schools, most of them elementary and preschools, both parochial and nonsectarian, complete the educational picture for pre-kindergarten and grade-school students in the Central Sunset. Abraham Lincoln High School, with its Biotechnology Academy, draws students from grades 9 though 12 from throughout the city; it got a 7 rating from GreatSchools.

As the businesses along Irving and other strips imply, the Central Sunset population has a largely Asian component. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, residents of Asian race comprise about 50 percent of the total near Golden Gate Park to a bit more than 60 percent in the blocks farther south. (Non-Hispanic and Hispanic whites make up the rest, for the most part, with African Americans and people of two or more races representing a small percentage.)

Most people rent (54 percent) rather than own their homes (45 percent). Nearly 85 percent are high-school graduates, and the percentage who hold bachelor’s degrees or higher is almost twice the national average. In general, everyone contributes to a healthy economic base: More than 50 percent of Central Sunset residents earn $60,000 or more annually.

With a median home price of more than $700,000 and good resale prospects, as well as average rents below $1,400 for a one-bedroom, the Central Sunset offers all residents an affordable, stable neighborhood with low crime (the area is served by the Taraval Police Station on 24th Avenue; there have been no murders in the last year and assaults are rare, according to San Francisco Police Department statistics), explaining the mix of families, retired people, and single professionals over age 25. It’s an orderly place to live, and those who like a little variety with their order will like the Central Sunset.
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  • Retirees

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