Posts Tagged ‘The Mission San Francisco’

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.

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I’ve taken pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, on two previous occasions on this blog to bemoan the demise of “high street” bookshops, both in principle and in my adopted city of San Francisco. In the first, I lamented the closure of the large branches of Border’s in Union Square, replaced now by a DSW shoe emporium, which, to add insult to injury, my wife loves, and 2nd and King opposite the ballpark. I consoled myself at the time with the knowledge that the Barnes and Noble branch in Fisherman’s Wharf was still carrying the flag, only to discover, shortly afterwards, that it too had made way for an expanded Cost Plus World Market.


But, in one sense, that has been a blessing as it has forced me to seek out San Francisco’s rich family of neighbourhood bookstores. As a result, I’m no longer sure that I miss the big chains as much as I did three years ago.

On my recent trip I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the independent stores – some new to me, others old friends – and discovered a very different story to the one that confronted me when the giants (no, not those) were collapsing around me a couple of years ago.  Phoenix Books on 24th Street  in Noe Valley was my local store where, on the first morning of my vacation, I picked up a discounted copy of Comeback Kings, a book on the Giants’ (yes, those) 2012 World Series victory.


A Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia Street in the Mission unveiled the dual delights of Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, though the latter’s sole focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery is not to my taste. But the painstakingly prepared coffee was! A happy birthday to Dog Eared Books, a partner of the aforementioned Phoenix Books, Badger Books (of which more below) and alley cat books, which turns 21 this very week! On the evidence of these two thriving outlets, the declaration on its website that ‘reports concerning “The Death of the Bookstore” have been greatly exaggerated’ rings resoundingly and joyfully true.


What struck me most about all of the bookstores I visited was the sheer number of people frequenting them, not just browsing the shelves but writing their own blogs and engaging in social media on their laptops, drinking every conceivable coffee permutation and interrogating the community noticeboards for apartment lettings or reiki classes and, in some instances, all three.


Badger Books on the corner of Cortland Avenue and Bennington Street in urbane Bernal Heights, displayed a particularly fine secondhand selection and boasted a lovely children’s section complete with multi-coloured stools.

Needless to say, City Lights in North Beach afforded me several opportunities to part with my dollars and the Book Passage in the Ferry Building, though relatively small, always contains an interesting and eclectic collection. Besides, there are few better places to sit and read than outside with a cup of Peet’s coffee from the adjoining concession.


Aardvark Books on Church Street near Market, where I bought a set of vintage San Francisco postcards at just fifteen cents each, The Booksmith (another regular haunt) and Browser Books on Fillmore between California and Sacramento are also fine places to stay awhile.

I may, to the purists, be about to join the dark side with my purchase of an Amazon Kindle, but I will never lose my love for plunging into bookstores (preferably those with adjoining cafes and a place to park the laptop), and divesting them of their stock. I expect that I only scratched the surface with San Francisco’s independent bookstores this time, but if the above branches are typical, their future is bright.

I dearly hope so.

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After an all too brief week in the area last year, we landed back in the southern San Francisco neighbourhood of Noe Valley yesterday. Well, we didn’t actually land here – that was further south still at San Francisco International Airport, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

After the frustrations of recent flight delays to both San Francisco and Las Vegas, our journey went astonishingly well. But it started ominously as, alone of all flights out of Heathrow that morning, we were delayed by an accident on the M25 motorway which halted the progress of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew. Which begs the question: why was no other airline company affected?

But never mind. We took off fifty minutes late, but with a remarkably short flight time, touched down at San Francisco International Airport fifteen minutes early. The twenty minute wait to collect our luggage afforded us ample time to contemplate, fresh from stories of friends experiencing hours in line at other American airports, the anticipated horrors of actually getting into the country through U.S. Immigration, especially, as there had been significant cuts to staffing in the service in recent months.  

We needn’t have worried. The entire process – waiting in line, one last, frantic check of our customs declaration form, having our photographs and hand prints taken, and explaining what we planned to do whilst in the country – took less than ten minutes!

And the Eurasian guy who saw us was chatty, friendly and intrigued by both our love affair with SF and also the fact that we waited 30 years before getting married, and then doing it in Vegas! I think the story would have been repeated over a beer with his mates later that evening.

A short taxi ride brought us to our spacious apartment an hour and a half after landing, and we were quaffing Sierra Nevada Pale Ales and Coors Lights in the Valley Tavern on 24th Street less than an hour after that. A typical American sports bar – voluminously stacked shelves behind the bar and lighting provided by around a dozen TV sets all showing the (Indiana) Pacers and (Miami) Heat NBA play-off game. After a shop for essentials at the 24th Street Wholefoods market we settled down for a plate of pasta and bottle of wine, followed by some mellow Jerry Garcia licks on the ipod as we struggled to stay awake (no reflection on Jerry, mind).
It was a little too cool by now to take advantage of our outside deck with views of Bernal Heights to the east and Diamond Heights to the west. Forecast is for bright, largely sunny weather for the duration with temperatures varying between the lower sixties and early eighties.
Despite, as ever, gaining minimal sleep on the plane, I needed only six hours sleep before rising at 4.30am to await the sunrise over Bernal Heights – and sate my craving for peanut butter granola and sourdough toast (though not at the same time). The cloud cover, however, and the fact that the sun was hidden by the hillside anyway, rendered this an uninspiring event. But I’m sure there will be more spectacular mornings to come. 

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Last year my wife and I rented an apartment in the San Francisco neighbourhood of Noe Valley, bordered to the north by the Castro and the Mission, and Bernal Heights and Twin Peaks to the east and west respectively. We only spent a week there, much of which was spent elsewhere in the city, but enjoyed the atmosphere so much that we are staying there for the whole of the month of June this year.

Here are a handful of the photos I took of the district. I hope to do much better this year!


The view from our apartment on Dolores Street looking towards Bernal Heights


It may be a valley but there are still plenty of hills! It’s still San Francisco!


Oh to be able to afford something like this!


Overlooked by Twin Peaks


The faithful J Church MUNI Metro

P1020117 (2)

Leafy, civilised 24th Street for all your shopping needs

P1010916Another view from the apartment


Classy, colourful (and expensive!) homes


Eclectic 24th Street 

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