For years we had avoided San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.
On our second trip we had walked from 17th Street along Mission to 5th where, leg weary, deafened by traffic noise and not a little relieved that we’d survived the ordeal, we slumped into Lori’s Diner on Powell and Geary. All I can really recall from that morning was a wary wander down Balmy Alley, home to the largest collection of murals in the city.
And for several trips after that, we kept away from the area, spending our time in the northern and western parts of the city, with only occasional forays into the adjoining Castro district and Dolores Park.
It was not as if we did not like the culture or food of the area – indeed, burritos, enchiladas and margaritas might just be our favourite culinary combination.
No, our reluctance to set foot east / south of Market stemmed from an anxiety that we might not be as safe, especially after dark, as in other parts of the city. Violent gangs and gun crime were – and remain (a man was killed near 16th and Guerrero only three days ago) – a constant feature of life in the Mission.
So we stayed away.
We actually considered renting an apartment on Valencia three years ago, because apart from being edgy, the neighborhood was also meant to be “hip”, San Francisco’s party capital. But, once again, we were deterred by its negative reputation.
So we stayed away.
But this continuing omission on our San Francisco CV was no longer tenable, especially as we have rented apartments in the adjacent neighborhoods of Noe Valley and Bernal Heights in recent years.
How could we convince ourselves, and others, that we were locals in spirit if we did not embrace the Latino and Hispanic heart of the city on our doorstep?
So, finally a year ago, we ventured tentatively into the area again by taking a delightful sunny Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia from 24th Street, crossing to Mission at 16th and walking back up to 28th Street and our apartment.
A political demonstration outside the BART station on 24th Street was winning the battle for the attention of passers by with a handful of religious preachers on the opposite corner, but the atmosphere was restrained rather than confrontational. Cafes and restaurants were overflowing and Latin rhythms abounded. Coffee at the Borderlands bookstore was followed by a margarita at West of Pecos, where we were tempted to reconsider our plans for dinner that evening. A mariachi band serenaded the sidewalk diners.
We marveled at the murals on Clarion Alley, many of which reflected the current tensions in the city over gentrification (not least in the Mission), sky-rocketing housing prices and the closure of public parks at night.
We repeated the expedition again this year, starting with a hike over Bernal Heights Hill, descending Alabama Street to the vibrant Precita Park Café for a Mitchell’s ice cream before crossing Cesar Chavez Street and into the neighborhood.
Next year, we will be staying in the same Bernal Heights cottage for a total of six weeks, and look forward to renewing acquaintance with the Mission district regularly. Several restaurants, including Taqueria La Cuembre and Cha Cha Cha, have taken our fancy.
We might even eat there after dark too.
And it is time we met the Tamale Lady.