20th Street: From Industry to Party Time

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Jim Attard, who owns and works at Attard Upholstering, emerged from the cool, shadowy interior of the cement block on Florida near 20th Street that houses his business to describe the Mission as he knew it when he arrived in 1991: A quiet neighborhood where cars got stolen and condoms and needles littered the sidewalk, somewhere you should probably be careful at night.

In the last three years, it has been transformed. On any day, the stretch on 20th Street between Bryant and Harrison can feel sleepy, but behind the walls of what used to be mostly light industrial buildings, hundreds of restaurant workers, techies, freelancers, nonprofit workers and entrepreneurs are going about their business

Today, change will be palpable when more than 10,000 San Franciscans stream into the 20th street Block Party from around the city to check out the bands NoisePop has lined up and the food local vendors are offering.

While most of those interviewed were happy with the changes and offered differing accounts of their experiences with the change, a thriving commercial sector also has its downside.

“When we first got here, you could leave and come back four hours later and the same parking spot would still be there,” Attard said. “Now, you back out and there are three other cars lining up to get the space.”

That’s what Candace Combs, President of the Mission Creek Merchants’ Association, remembers too.

“The neighborhood has just exploded. I just can’t believe that it’s only been two and a half years, not even 3, how much it has blown up,” she said.  In the 80s, when Combs first checked out the area, it was less appealing, “a pretty intense neighborhood,” she recalled.

Warehouses defined these blocks then, and though you can still catch glimpses of the area’s history of light manufacturing in Heath Ceramics (actually a new branch of an older institution) and places like Attard’s, the first tech boom together with the arrival of artists seeking affordable studio spaces transformed the area.

Bill Stone opened Atlas Cafe in the late ‘90s in a space his friend had been using to work on his motorbikes. Back then, he wasn’t sure how a cafe would be received in such an industrial neighborhood. But artists and young people ostensibly love cafes, and they were just starting to arrive and bring with them photography and video studios, silkscreening shops, and other creative enterprises. These newcomers, along with the first tech startups, earned the area the name “Media Gulch.”

A decade later, the arrival of the modern “techies” and elegant eateries like Flour + Water again redefined the street that will host the Block Party today. When David Steele founded Flour + Water with David White and chef Thomas McNaughton, he found a run-down, graffitied, boarded-up shell of a house and turned it into an award-winning restaurant. He says his goal is and was to foster artisanship in an area with diverse history.

This painting shows what the building that Flour + Water, with its elegant grey facade, used to look like.

This painting shows what the building that Flour + Water, with its elegant grey facade, used to look like. Photo by Laura Wenus.

Now the trio, known as the Ne Timeas restaurant group, keeps pushing forward with fresh artisanal ventures. They’re part of the old guard, which includes Atlas cafe, Blowfish Sushi, Slow Club, and Asiento, but they’ve also opened new places including the Salumeria and Central Kitchen, and more recently the bar Trick Dog.

New businesses like a neighborhood branch of Sightglass Coffee and a restaurant and bar called The Tradesman have grown around them, bolstered by the success of their new neighbors.

“We don’t see other businesses as competition, we see them as part of an ecosystem,” Steele said. “For us it’s all about celebrating people, celebrating authenticity.”

That “ecosystem” is still surprisingly diverse. Though the Block Party’s streets stand out because of its handsome collection of food and drink establishments, dozens of different kinds of undertakings are packed into just a few blocks. Educational and arts nonprofits, startup companies, flower and book shops, a philosophical society, and a martial arts studio are just a few species that flourish here. Southern Exposure, born of one of the neighborhood’s oldest arts collectives at Project Artaud, has also seen the neighborhood evolve.

Though a thriving restaurant and bar scene certainly brings curious newcomers to SoEx’s doors, Communications Director Sarah Hotchkiss joked the nonprofit has considered putting up a sign saying “Southern Exposure. Not A Bar.”

This year, SoEx is joining the party with a booth dedicated to artist Jennie Ottinger’s ode to the US Postal Service. This collaboration with the Wonderment Consortium includes letter-writing help, inter-block-party mail services, and a tongue-in-cheek $14 billion fundraiser to save the postal service.

Steele, who is also a partner in NoisePop, was part of the driving force behind the Block Party, which he wants to make sure is shaped by the businesses of a neighborhood rather than parachuted in from an outside organization.

Atlas’ owner Stone says he was a little skeptical last year of yet another street festival in the neighborhood, but that when he actually saw it, he was impressed by the truly local offerings.

The street vendors here all seem to have a sense of loyalty to their small tucked-away corner of the Mission, but each expresses it in a different way.

Zarin Gollogly, a lifelong restaurant worker who at some point took a detour into woodworking, started his newly opened bar and restaurant The Tradesman with business partner Spencer Murray-Lafrenz. With help from family and friends, and neighborly support from the Flour + Water folks, the two designed and built their space from the ground up. Their rich wooden bar and elegant chairs, tables, and countertops were all handcrafted by the founders at a woodshop on 18th and Harrison.

Perhaps it’s this enthusiasm for handcrafting that inform’s Gollogly’s view that it’s important to keep light manufacturing alive in the area. He says it’s key to keeping a mix of blue and white collar workers in the area, but that it’s also important because people respond to seeing things being made rather than outsourced.

Sightglass Coffee, which already exists as a large warehouse-style space on 7th street, is intended to be a more intimate space on 20th according to Marketing Director Ashton Goggans.

“Regulars come in and talk to the baristas, who know their dogs names and know their kids’ names and when they’re going back to school,” he said.

It’s the second annual Block Party, but already Goggans called it a community event where everyone feels included. It can, however, be difficult to please everybody in a corner of the Mission with so many newcomers that is changing at a dizzying pace.

Timothy Benetti is a San Francisco native and has lived on 20th street, across from what is now the Salumeria, for almost 15 years. Though he says the neighborhood has changed mostly for the better, Benetti is considering moving. Parking is impossible, he said, and the density of businesses has increased dramatically. When he first moved in, Benetti says he saw a quiet neighborhood with lots of Latino families.

“I felt more a part of that community, to be honest,” Benetti said. Mission Creek is now a cluster of vibrant businesses and his neighbors are younger people without families. “I just don think I want to grow much older here, and that’s fine. I guess that’s what a city’s all about, it’s ever-changing,” he says.

Though art remains an important part of the area, few artists are lucky enough to have the generous landlords often required to keep a space in the city’s turbulent real estate climate.

Pete Belkin, who works at the arts nonprofit and museum Kadist, said he knows art spaces have been forced to shut down and move.  “We’re seeing new faces all the time. The neighborhood is changing so fast we’re trying to get a sense of what it is,” Belkin said.

Atlas Cafe has been on the block for 15 years, opening at a time when the neighborhood looked very different. Photo by Laura Wenus

Atlas Cafe has been on the block for 15 years, opening at a time when the neighborhood looked very different. Photo by Laura Wenus

“It’s not as rock-n-roll as it used to be,” said Berkeley Baker, a little sadly. Baker has been an assistant manager at Atlas cafe for almost seven years. “The clientele has gotten a lot more fussy,” she said. People used to at least have shame about ordering a meal while on the phone, but now it’s the norm. Baker says the area has been taking off, and that the bubble is just going to keep growing. Atlas’ owner Stone, only partially serious, worried about this too.

“People are going to get sick of us, because we’re not the newest most sustainable organic fresh-radishes-we-just-bought-yesterday-at-the-farmers’-market type of place,” he said. But for now, business is doing well

“Sometimes people get mad about it, like, ‘those goddamn techies,’ but I don’t know what you would do about it,” Stone added. “It’s just sort of inevitable that the neighborhood is changing.”

Flour + Water’s Steele echoed his business neighbor. “I can’t stop change, but I’ve chosen to fight for bringing artisanship to the neighborhood,” he said. “We do what we do because we value creativity and culture”

Both of which, it seems, will be in ample supply at the Block Party today.

The event is free and open to the public from noon to 6 p.m., with a main entrance at 20th and Harrison streets and $10 parking available behind John O’Connell High School.

21 Comments

  1. Maria

    Wasn’t there a block party and music/foodie thing just last weekend? Jeebus, the entitled, narcissistic foody crowd is as annoying as the techie crown, and they are messier and their garbage attracts rats…. btw as is too often the case with Mission L@co, about half the story is flat out wrong. The area in question was settled by SOMA leather gays, artists and artisans in the 70’s. By the 90’s the neighborhood was very tame (as it was in the 80’s), but quiet, meaning it was a good place for a hooker to take her John, or a stolen car to be dumped. But crime was and remains vastly lower than, for instance, 18th and Castro. AIDS hit the neighborhod especially hard. Today, arts spaces are still abundant in the neighborhood and openings come and go with the times, but mostly the problem is that they remain live-work, so the artists are in many cases quite old and no longer producing as much or as dialed in to the hipsters, but very few have been displaced. The net quantity of studios has been an increase actually with spaces like ActiveSpace. Heath is an extremely expensive retail store with a highly automated tile production facility and employs mostly retail clerks. The downtown galleries are migrating to nearby (across Potrero to either side of 16th) and Atlas, while still pleasant enough, has been populated with crabby staff and techies since the 1st dot.com boom back in 98-2001. Oh, and rich trustafarians bought the organ factory, Burning Man HQ just moved in, and rumors abound about what’s next. Its a hot mess.

    • Maria: Fascinating earlier history in the 70s, which I did not know so thank you. We’ll look into it more. We do see arts organizations moving out, but we’ll follow up on your lead. We’ve written about Burning Man’s office sand the organ factory’s new tenants, but the latter may have changed again since Feb. Up until then it was The Other Machine Company. http://missionlocal.org/2014/02/pipe-organ-factory-again-houses-manufacturing/ . It sounds like you know the Mission well so if you would like to have coffee sometime, let us know at missionlocal@gmail.com. Best, Lydia

    • Beto

      Techies, foodies, hipsters, trustafarians, burners. @maria is there anyone you do like?

    • BigV

      The Organ Factory actually houses a really innovative research lab, where they are pushing the future of robotics, solar power, manufacturing, and much more. They are called OtherLab
      https://otherlab.com/

      The othermachine company that Lydia mentioned is one of their spin-offs.

      They are smart people doing good things for the world, and are very creative and artistic all at the same time.

      Where did you get the idea that it was a bunch of “rich trustafarians” ??? They work very very hard in there.

    • Fabrizio

      I also look forward to learning more about the neighborhood in the 70s and 80s. I’ve lived and worked in the Mission over for 30 years, some of that time in and around those blocks. A smattering of artistes and activists always, but I remember it as mainly warehouse and Latino working class. Don’t know what went on in the warehouses. I knew some “squats” once; sweat shop rumors, but a leather gay scene?! 20th and Alabama?! do tell! I specifically remember the neighborhood being not very friendly to gays at the time, leather or not, often violently unfriendly. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the late 70s and 80s most gay men would have felt more comfortable at night around 18th and Castro than 18th and Harrison. Which is surprising given how tranquil you say it was back then. I worked swing shift a few blocks south in the early 80s and remember all kinds of muggings, break-ins, related and unrelated gang activity. Who knows? Maybe empty dark streets and the empty dark warehouses made me perceive certain blocks as sketchier than they actually were. Could be. It was a long time ago.

  2. Sam

    The transformation of 20th Street in the last 15-20 years has been stunning. Crime and blight has plummeted while the range of places to eat and drink is starting to compete with Valencia, which of course is a good distance from 20th and Bryant, so local high-class choices are very desirable.

    The article forgets to mention Blowfish, which has anchored 20th and Bryant for at least 15 years now. They and Atlas really paved the way for the progress we now delight in seeing.

    As the mid-point between 16th and 24th, it is crucial that this street flourishes, and the signs are very very good.

    • tony

      Atlas was a good fit. I always wished there was a something going on around down here for 25 or so years. The ….operations that have opened up are not a plus, aspiring to be a wing of Valencia is pretty pedestrian and sad.

      “We” would be your fellow what?

      • Backtotheburbs

        We = property owners checking their appreciation like a stock ticker
        We = ‘developers’ looking to swoop in and make their next killing
        We = people waiting in line for a 15$ sandwich Monday at 2pm

  3. 94103er

    I find it really embarrassing how in article after article about changes in SF, people just won’t shut up about the ‘lack of parking.’ Oh noes, you mean it’s not like Kansas City in these parts anymore? Do people really think it’s a sign of a healthy neighborhood if everyone can store as many cars as they want on the street? Come on. Can we all finally accept that this is a real city now and that parking costs *everyone* money, whether it’s “free” or not?

    • Zig

      It’s a “real” city now implying it wasn’t in the past. What an embarrassing comment from you

      • Gary

        I think you misinterpreted 94013er’s comment. He/she said implied San Francisco always been an urban, crowded city, but that people tried to pretend that it wasn’t by complaining about parking. Complaining about parking in Walnut Creek makes sense because it’s clearly an suburban place where you expect there to be a lot of parking. Complaining about parking in SF is offbase, because there shouldn’t be an expectation of parking in such a dense urban area.

    • Sam

      94103, the point is that the area around 20th was always easy for parking, so this is definitely a change. Many of the long blocks around there contained little or not housing and so, particularly on evenings and at week-ends, parking was plentiful.

      More generally, SF has pulled off a desirable blend of being both transit-rich and car-friendly. I can drive most places in the city from the Mission in about 10-20 minutes and, with the exception of the north-east of the city, parking is generally OK.

      So yes, what is happening on 20th Street is great but there hasn’t been much investment in parking capacity to match the development and progress. And it’s a good distance from BART so needs to have good vehicular access.

  4. Mister Big

    I love the self-absorbed wanky comments about “ecosystems”, bringing “artisanship to the neighborhood”. Self important much?

    • t

      A yuppie/hipster place I would never set foot in across town isn’t any better when it is two blocks from me.

  5. Kenny

    You left out the key factor to this neighborhood’s transformation. That would be the SFPD gang injunction which put so many Norteno and Sureno OGs behind bars. 20th st used to be a dividing line, and that’s why it was so problematic throughout the 80s , 90s and into the 2000s.

    • vecina

      Finally someone is talking the point.
      The whole lower mission are from 16th to 24th changed right after that gang injunction.

  6. SFrentier

    It’s so predictable that some old fogies/I was here when it was good crowd would bitch, and “correct” details that don’t really matter. Looks like some long time alt-tattooed-genX are getting old ass might quick, when it comes to 20th st/eastern mission. I’m digging the change, and quite enjoyed the 20th st block party. Kinda fun seeing the young and rich crowd play! Like Sam said, being midway between 16 and 20, it’s nice having retail/commercial grow in that artery. Another convenient stomping ground for me.

  7. Runforthehills

    Wish I knew about this before it happened. Oh well, sounds like it was a good time…

  8. Kate

    “The area in question …was settled in the 70s.” What was my mother doing there in the 1930s? Camping?

Comments are closed.