The Mission

Summary: The Mission is a traditionally Latino neighborhood whose low rents first drew artists and hipsters and then, with the advent of the dot.com economy, start-ups looking for a lower cost alternative to high priced Silicon Valley. Now the neighborhood is one of the most diverse and energetic in all of San Francisco. It has an eclectic mix of clothing stores, a vibrant art scene, and a smorgasbord of multi-cultural treats—both new and old. These changes have not come seamlessly, however, and the Mission is currently trying to break away from its crime-ridden past.

The Mission (or simply “Mission”) is the Wild West of San Francisco. It’s where mavericks and adventurers go to reinvent themselves and live by their own rules. And like the Wild West, it’s where those who already lived there find themselves displaced. Mission has been undergoing a turf battle for the last couple of decades. The Latino residents—largely immigrants and ancestors of immigrants from Central America and Mexico--who long occupied this area of the city, have found their traditional stomping grounds encroached by first hipsters and then, more recently, dotcom’s and entrepreneurs. This heterogeneous mix of South American flavor, cutting edge sensibility, entrepreneurial spirit and gentrification has produced perhaps the most vital and energetic neighborhood in all of SF.

Although these artistic and commercial newcomers have established several beachheads in the neighborhood, the underlying Latino flavor is evident throughout Mission. You see this in the high quantity of taquerias and Spanish owned businesses that still dominate the Mission generally. Even in highly gentrified areas like those in the Mission Dolores area or at the edges of the Potrero Hill neighborhood, you can still find several South American and Mexican establishments. You can arguably say that the least affected area of the Mission, the area that remains closest to its Latino heritage, is along 24th street and to its south.

24th street itself—a narrow tree lined street in the southern third of the neighborhood—is known as the “heart of the Mission,” not only because of its ethnic restaurants and businesses but because of the high density of Diego Rivera/Freda Kahlo inspired murals that decorate its storefronts. You will come across such murals throughout the Mission, but at Balmy Alley off 24th Street[B1], you will find 30+ murals side to side (a second site inspired by Balmy Alley can be found at Clarion Alley[B2] off Mission Street Near 17th—although this second site is much less frequented). Daily tours describe the history of these murals and the little known artists who created them.

Some of the earliest invaders into this neighborhood were hipsters, artists, and college students, who as early as the 1980’s were looking for lower rents than they could find north of Market. Wanting to remain close to the Haight and the activity in the city, they tended to settle in the northwest portion of Mission where old Mission Dolores[B3]—the oldest building in SF, stands. Thus, the northwest portion of the Mission, from 20th street to the north between Valencia and Church Streets, we might roughly call the “hipster” portion of the Mission. This section of the Mission has the most cosmopolitan feel in terms of restaurants. You can find everything from French bistros, to Ethiopian restaurants, to gimmicky eateries like the Foreign Cinema[B4], which plays foreign films against its wall while you eat.

Valencia Street offers one of the most electric commercial spots in the city, not just in terms of clothing or food, but intellectually as well. The vast majority of bookstores in the neighborhood—and there are several—call Valencia Street home. You can find everything from the politically oriented Socialist Action Bookstore[B5] to Borderlands[B6], a bookstore specializing in Sci-Fi. This is also where you will find such hipster projects as the good-hearted 826 Valencia Street Project[B7], a writing center created by local author Dave Eggers to help Mission kids through tutoring and writing classes. (For adults, you also have the Writing Salon[B8] to the east, which offers a variety of writing classes at relatively affordable rates.)

Beautiful Dolores Street, with its palm-lined center meridian, is not only home to Mission Dolores, but to Dolores Park[B9], a sunbathing Mecca for local residents. The Mission’s reputation for having the best weather in the city draws gay residents from the adjacent Castro, hipsters and college students from nearby apartments, and Latino families who barbecue there on the weekends. This patchwork tapestry makes Dolores Park one of the best places to experience San Francisco’s harmony of diversity. The park also hosts several local events, as on the Friday before Gay Pride Weekend when it is home to a well-established lesbian pride celebration.

To the northeast of the Mission, you come upon what we might call the entrepreneurial area of the Mission. Established companies like the real estate website Trulia.com[B10] and startups like Small Batch[B11] (creators of WikiRank) and Crowd Flower[B12] (a crowd-sourcing facilitator) have recently moved in to take advantage of the Mission’s low rents, good transportation, and proximity to the financial district. The influx of capital here has also meant an influx of restaurants and nightspots. You will find clubs like Casanova[B13], Elbo Room[B14], and Delirium[B15] in this section—the kind of trendy clubs that fill to capacity every weekend. This section of the Mission is also home to the Roxie[B16], one of the better-known independent film houses in the city.

In contrast, the quietest part of the neighborhood is the eastern portion that centers on SF General Hospital[B17]. As you approach Portrero Hill, there are fewer trendy restaurants or unique boutiques. The buildings are slightly more staid, though nicely kept. This is because many of the residents looking for the quieter living that Portrero Hill offers have spilled over into the eastern Mission and somewhat remade it in Portrero’s image. Young couples and start-up families tend to dominate this area.

Rents throughout most of the Mission remain relatively low compared to SF as a whole. One can still find the occasional one bedroom for around $1,000 per month with some persistence and luck. However, once the real-estate market recovers, the gentrifying forces may soon make such low rents a thing of the past.

As in many adjacent areas, parking is scarce and expensive. Residential parking permits are a must for long-term parking. Thus, the majority of Mission residents prefer the BART (with its station at Mission and 24th), the plentiful MUNI lines, or the bicycle to the automobile for daytime errands. Automobiles are also a problem because they make easy targets for local gang members who know space restrictions usually force owners to park their cars at a distance from the protective vigilance of their homes.

Until recently, the Mission was also one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in the city. In 2007 and 2008, the neighborhood averaged about a dozen homicides a year—over 10% of all murders in the city. This number sharply dropped in 2009 when police focused their efforts more successfully on abating the neighborhood’s longstanding problems. Despite this, assault and property crimes such as car thefts, continue to remain high, especially relative to the numbers for the city as a whole. In addition, despite the fewer murders, the Mission has seen a rise in the number of non-fatal shootings—suggesting that luck may have had more to do with the reduced homicide rate than policing. Put simply, Mission residents accept these dangers as the necessary evils of living in the Wild West neighborhood of the Bay Area.