Guide / Things to Do in San Francisco’s Mission District
Concerned by gentrification in San Francisco’s downtown Mission District, the city’s government debated an emergency 45-day moratorium on new construction earlier this month. The reason? To give breathing space to decide how to rescue this historic Latino enclave from being engulfed by latte-sipping, tech-working hipsters.
There’s nothing unique about the Mission — from Brooklyn to Brixton gentrification debates are being waged across the world. There is also nothing new about it; the New York Times was writing about “new people, people who have money… moving in [and] altering life for everyone” way back in 1999.
In the Mission, just as in Brooklyn and Brixton, there are two sides to the gentrification debate.
On the one hand, there is genuine concern about the heavy price of rising housing costs on the Mission’s working-class residents (though, with average rents on the peninsula well over $3,000 per month, that concern should not be restricted to the Mission).
On the other hand, there are those who fear that the Mission’s vibrancy and unique cultural heritage will lose out to the bland cultural conformity that, they argue, so often accompanies rich, white, middle class folk.
First settled by Spanish colonialists in the 1770s, and subsequently home to waves of Irish, German, Italian, Asian and, most significantly, Latin American, immigrants the Mission of today is a cultural melting pot.
The splashy murals, plentiful taquerias and Salvadoran groceries mean the area still has a unique edge. But — sitting right above the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and wedged between the two main highways into Silicon Valley — it was inevitable that the Mission would be popular with the city’s latest wave of migrants: techies.
It is impossible to deny that the district is changing. Some of the mural-covered walls are being demolished to make way for new apartments, sleek wine bars have moved in next door to the divey taquerias, and a branch of Whole Foods competes with the traditional Latino grocery stores. Despite these changes, the overriding character of the place remains and the district is a fun and fascinating place to visit.
So — as the second in The Expat Blog’s newest regular feature “Eight Hours In…” — how to spend eight hours in San Francisco’s Mission district?
10 a.m. — Caffeinate at Four Barrel Coffee
Start your day by getting a true experience of gentrification in action by getting some good, strong coffee from Four Barrel Coffee (375, Valencia St.).
Four Barrel is about as trendy and hipster as a coffee house can possibly be. Housed in a former industrial warehouse, with quirky furniture and a commitment to only playing scratchy vinyl, the coffee at Four Barrel’s is literally made bean-to-cup right in front of your eyes by the obligatory trendy coffee house dwelling squadron of bearded and tattooed baristas.
11 a.m. — Visit Mission Dolores
Move from the new, to the old. The Mission San Francisco de Asís (3321, 16th St.) — almost always shortened to Mission Dolores — is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco.
The humble looking building (the mission is on the left in the picture — a newer basilica sits beside the original mission), founded before the city itself, was the seventh of the Californian missions established by the Spanish colonialists in order to spread Christianity among the local Native Americans in the late 1700s.
There is a quick, 20-minute or so, self-guided tour in return for a voluntary donation of $5. Worth it simply for the insight into California’s colonial history.
1 p.m. — Grab Lunch at La Taqueria
Opened just over 42 years ago, family-owned La Taqueria (2889, Mission St., near 25th) opened in the heart of the Mission at a time when there were few other Latin American food outlets in the area. Today it competes with several dozen, but La Taqueria remains among the best.
In fact, according to the data nerds at the FiveThirtyEight blog it is the best, not only in San Francisco, but in all of the United States. Anna Maria Barry-Jester, who has the enviable task of being FiveThirtyEight’s “burrito correspondent” described La Taqueria’s US conquering feast as a “technical marvel with a monumental first bite worthy of a national title”… and who doesn’t want to consume a technical marvel for lunch?
2 p.m. — Check out the Street Art
The Mission is basically an enormous outdoor art gallery, with alleys full of bright, colorful and often highly politicised (see the header image) murals.
Throughout the district hundreds of walls, fences and garages are painted with enormous artworks featuring themes ranging from a bloody Honduran massacre, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the gentrification of inner San Francisco.
You can easily admire the Mission’s murals just by taking a walk around, particularly the alleys between Mission and Valencia Streets. However, if you want to learn more, then the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Centre (2981, 24th St.) runs casual, yet informative, tours.
3 p.m. — Relax in Dolores Park
Despite being only around 49 square miles, San Francisco has several microclimates. While out in the western districts the fog can linger for days, the Mission — thanks to it being surrounded by fog-blocking hills — is often the sunniest spot in the city.
In San Francisco it is best to enjoy the sunshine while you can, so why not relax on the freshly-laid grass of Dolores Park (between 19th and Dolores St.). Located on a hillside towards the west of the Mission (towards the Castro), the park, which has some pretty awesome views of the downtown skyline, is great spot to relax.
Due to reopen fully on 18 June, the city’s park authorities are so keen to keep the park looking beautiful that they have released a frankly bizarre promotional video featuring some atrocious fake English accents… only in San Francisco.
5 p.m. — Enjoy a Drink at Shotwell’s Bar
Freshly sunburned, what better way to end a day in the Mission than with a very expensive beer? Sadly, reasonably priced alcohol doesn’t really exist anywhere in San Francisco, but it is especially nonexistent in the Mission’s trendy bars. So, if you’re going to pay $9, it may as well be somewhere interesting.
Shotwell’s bar (3349, 20th St.) is among the oldest bars in the city, claiming to have first opened — as the Schlichtmann & Bredhofy Grocery Saloon — in 1891. Inside, Shotwell’s features the original wooden back bar, complete with gunshot holes from an unknown incident in the late 19th century. It has happy hour between 4 and 7 p.m. every day except Saturday.
The most shrill of the anti-gentrifiers argue that the Mission is on the brink of a fundamental change that will permanently destroy it’s unique character. Spend time in the Mission, however, and while change is obviously underway you’ll also quickly realise that the over-the-top rhetoric — comparing wealthy tech-working migrants, as “Prussian invaders” and “insects”, for example — is overblown.
As with San Francisco’s previous waves of migration, in all likelihood communities will merge and mesh. Areas like the Mission will change, sure, but they’ll likely remain diverse, vibrant and interesting.*
*Note that the optimistic conclusion is entirely dependent on the resolution of the housing crisis…