San Francisco's Mission District, Updated

Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Travel Writer

I remember my first visit to San Francisco’s Mission District.

It was in the mid-1990s, and while the commercial boulevards teemed with shoppers and families by day, much of the area felt run-down and seedy.

There was terrific Mexican food to be had, absurdly cheap, at hole-in-the-wall storefronts. (The Mission is ground zero for the famous Cal-Mex burrito.) Dusty thrift shops yielded unexpected treasures for those willing to paw through piles of old porcelain, screw-back earrings and faded polyester. Votive candles embellished with the  Virgin of Guadalupe flickered from doorways. Gang members roamed the streets at night.

Strolling recently amid the boutiques, retro furniture stores and Mediterranean wine bars along Mission and Valencia Streets, I could hardly believe it was the same neighborhood. In a city radically transformed by economic gentrification, perhaps no district has been so thoroughly upscaled as the Mission (which stretches roughly from Dolores Park east to Potrero Avenue, from 14th Street south to 30th Street).

You can still find terrific, cheap tacos and the occasional storefront shrine. The neighborhood’s famous building-side murals, inspired by the public art projects of the Mexican muralista movement, are as colorful as ever. But the homely thrift stores and dollar marts have been replaced by boutiques featuring $300 dresses, artisanal bakeries, and colorful tapas bars. Some longtime San Franciscans bemoan the displacement of working-class Mexican families by affluent, mostly white newcomers — but there’s no denying that where visitors are concerned, the Mission is now a destination in a way it never was before.

Shoppers, and foodies in particular, are in paradise in the new Mission. Long lines wind down Guerrero Street outside Tartine Bakery and Cafe, whose croissants and pastries have won national renown. On sunny afternoons — of which there are more in the microclimate-blessed Mission than elsewhere in this notoriously foggy, chilly city — a similar line stretches down 18th Street across from Dolores Park, where Bi-Rite Creamery serves homemade, organic ice cream in flavors like salted caramel, balsamic strawberry and toasted coconut. (Bi-Rite is part of a new wave of artisanal ice-cream shops flourishing throughout the city.)

The park itself is one of the city’s most scenic destinations. Picnickers, dog-walkers, Frisbee-throwers and social groups fan out along the lush green slope, surrounded by shady trees, picturesque Victorian row houses and views of downtown San Francisco. Nearby on 16th Street is the park’s namesake: Mission Dolores, the oldest building in San Francisco, a circa-1776 Spanish mission whose graceful stucco walls and peaceful garden are worth a visit.

The modern-day Mission is typified by Valencia Street, a browser’s delight lined with independent boutiques and chichi wine bars. But Mission Street is still the area’s heart; while certain blocks feel a little dodgy, it is home to many of the hippest new cafés, bars and hybrid nightclubs. Early in the evening, couples come to Little Baobab, just off the main drag on 19th Street, for vaguely African food and tamarind cocktails; later on, the tables are pushed aside and dancers of all races bop to a world music mix on the tiny dance floor.

Further north on Mission Street is the 2-year-old, Daniel Libeskind-designed Contemporary Jewish Museum, where through November visitors can participate in the oral history project StoryCorps. You may have heard StoryCorps broadcasts on National Public Radio: short interviews whose aim is to capture the diverse stories of ordinary Americans. The CJM is the first museum in the country to host a StoryBooth, where visitors can record a conversation, take home a copy and leave a record for the archive.

On view at the museum through Oct. 3 is “Reinventing Ritual: Jewish Art and Design for Contemporary Life,” an exhibition of art from a variety of media that take Jewish ritual as a starting point for artistic exploration. On view are a chessboard whose pieces evoke yarmulkes; a new-style sukkah; and a reinvented wedding cup in silver and silicone. Together the artworks offer a look at the way Jewish ritual and art can inspire each other, with a strong emphasis on designs for everyday use.

Jewish history is particularly significant in the neighboring Castro district, whose narrow streets and energetic nightlife are found on the west side of Dolores Park. If San Francisco has America’s largest urban gay community, the Castro is its epicenter, sharing a history of social activism and minority consciousness with the Mission.

It was here that a Jewish New Yorker, Harvey Milk, rose to notoriety as California’s first openly gay person elected to public office (as a city supervisor). A plaque at 575 Castro St., where Milk once ran a camera shop, was unveiled last month during the state’s first Harvey Milk Day, which honored the man who inspired a generation of gay and neighborhood activists. The colorful rainbow flags that hang in neat rows outside the Castro’s pretty Victorian houses are a further testimony to an enduring local legacy.  

A singularly San Francisco night out is a movie at the Castro Theatre, a ’20s-era palace with bygone glamour. Built for $300,000, the Theatre was conceived as a temple to a new art form, with a Mexican-colonial facade and a lavish, winding-staircase interior that’s equal parts Spanish palace and Orientalist fantasy.

This living landmark showcases fare ranging from “Sex and the City 2” to the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, timed for this month’s Gay Pride Month. Coming up in late July is the 30th Annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, with viewings at the Castro Theatre and other locations around the Bay Area through early August.

 

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The Daniel Libeskind-designed Contemporary Jewish Museum is part of the Mission District’s new resurgence.

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