It’s hard to say when any one street in a city begins to regain its former luster or a new life. But if investment in a recession is any indicator, Mission Street is on the move.
In the last three years, at least nine new businesses, mostly restaurants serving everything from fresh pie with organic ingredients to Mexican mole, have appeared in the 10-block stretch of Mission Street from 16th to 26th. Six of those opened in the last four months including The Corner, a California/Italian, small plate café and Specchio, an Italian place with thin pizza and homemade pasta on the menu.
Construction workers are building out at least one more new restaurant, Gracias Madre, an organic and vegan taqueria that will open in late summer, and construction is underway at other storefronts. Investors are not only cooking, they’re building condos as well. One new project at Mission and 18th streets with 23 units is sold out and new owners are moving in this week. Another six units at 2235 Mission St between 18th and 19th streets. has two units left and one block south at 2301 Mission St. is under construction.
“It’s been in fits and starts, but it looks like it’s happening” said Colleen Meharry who has watched those fits and starts for decades. Meharry, the landlord of the 10,000 sq. ft. space occupied by Foreign Cinema since 1999, is also renovating a large space next door.
Many in the working class neighborhood of renters, known for its rich Latin American art and culture scene, resisted the e-fed boom of the late 1990s. This time around, the opposition has been quieter, but so have the developers.
Instead of the earlier frenzied, e-speed transformation in which new owners painted over historic murals, this is slow, almost organic growth bubbling up from recessionary sludge. Many of the new projects are owned by long-term Mission residents. Others are small efforts with a local, sustainable stamp and some do good while trying to eke out a profit.
Take Ivan Lopez for example. With help from his parents, Lopez, who attended the Pratt Institute in New York, opened Artillery Apparel Gallery at 2751 Mission st four weeks ago and will have his official opening on July 2. The young designer offers original tee-shirts, art and, well, other hipsterish products.
But Lopez is Mission grown. Born in Colombia, his parents raised him working at the family’s Elite Sports one block north on Mission Street. Once the young Lopez returned home from Pratt, he took more classes at City College of San Francisco and “met a lot of talented designers I wanted to showcase.”
Artillery is far different than the discount places that line Mission Street, but Lopez is a new generation, not an outsider.
Further north and more than two decades ago, Amanda and Howard Ngo from Vietnam opened Duc Loi Supermarket at 2276 Mission St. between 19th and 18th. They worked there for 10 years and then in 1996 moved to the corner spot at 2220 Mission St. In 2004, when they decided to renovate, their advisers encouraged them to build up.
In February—five years and 23 condominiums later– they reopened Duc Loi Supermarket on the ground floor. “My dream was only to open a better store,” said Amanda Ngo proudly showing a visitor around the wide, well-stocked aisles after she found someone else to take over at the register.
An outsider coming in might have had difficulty getting neighborhood approval, but the Ngos, who work at the store every day, are insiders, part of the Mission Street clan.
“It’s not like places here change ownership, they just get a facelift,” said Timothy Holt, co-owner of nearby Weird Fish and The Corner. With tattoos running up his arm, Holt looks like one of the Mission denizens lined up waiting for breakfast at Boogaloos on Valencia Street.
In fact, he used to work there and then in November 2006 Holt and Peter Hood, the owner of St Francis Fountain on 24th Street leased space from a friend and opened Weird Fish at 2193 between 18th and 17th Streets. It was an instant success—a pescetarian surprise, said Holt. This year, in the midst of the downturn, Holt and Hood opened The Corner two doors down on the corner of 18th.
It’s been tougher going serving Italian/California fare, but Holt expects to survive and last week as an indication of owners who intend to stay, a workman sanded off the acid graffiti on the front window—a remnant left over from the last tenant.
Like others who have opened recently in the Mission, Holt is all about sustainability and neighborhood. Vegetables come from backyard farms, beans from Sonoma, and wine from Sadao Nelson’s vineyard treasure hunts for, of course, bio-dynamically defined fruit.
Mission Pie at the corner of 25th and Mission streets is succeeding with a similar philosophy. It sources ingredients from its farm in San Mateo County and offers customers pies and freshly picked eggs. But even before the bakery, Karen Heisler, one of the owners, became familiar with the neighborhood by assisting with a class to teach Mission High School students about rural farming and sustainability. Now, Mission Pie hires students and graduates.
Like the atmosphere at The Corner, where neighbors drop in for a glass of wine, Mission Pie has become an integral part of its surroundings—a place to hang out and eat good food. Nearby by residents drop off bags of lemons when their trees go into overdrive.
Neighborhood support is something survivors of the dot.com bust know well. Foreign Cinema between 21st and 22nd on Mission Street opened in 1999 when, “it was hard to do anything wrong,” said John Clark, who now owns it with his wife Gayle Pirie. After the crash in 2002, the 10,000 sq. ft. space stayed open thanks to steady clientele from the Mission, Noe, Bernal Heights and Potrero Hill.
That block got another boost in 2004 when Gus Murad opened Medjool Restaurant and the Elements Hotel. And when some in City Hall began to raise questions about his rooftop bar’s lack of a permit, he turned to the neighborhood.
Every third Monday of the month, Murad now opens the rooftop for a non-profit fundraiser. Visitors—this month Mission Learning Center was the beneficiary–donate between $5 and $20 for free wine, beer and a generous serving of appetizers. And, oh, there’s a petition to sign: Save Medjool and the Rooftop bar.
Few, however, are anxious for anyone to close. The 2500 block of Mission between 21st and 22nd streets is a tight knit group that banded together in 2005 to become a business improvement district. Owners pay and extra tax to to keep the block graffiti free and the sidewalks clean.
It’s meant a cleaner, more welcoming block, said Meharry, but she’s aware that others on Mission Street are unlikely to agree to new taxes during a recession. Right now, all she and others want to see are more openings.
And that is happening. Two blocks north, Specchio, with a Venetian chef who spent much of the last decade in North Beach, opened on the same block where Bruno’s, (with DJ nights, not your grandfather’s Burno’s), Charanga, Cha Cha Cha, and Bissap Baobab remain.
Bissap Baobab, which started in 1997 with Little Baobab on 19th Street, and added the Mission site in 2001, recently opened the Bollyhood Café on 19th Street.
Even further north, closer to the 16th Street BART in blocks where vagrants, drug addicts and porn shop visitors walk side-by-side with immigrants and hipsters, new places have appeared including La Oaxaqueña at 2128 Mission St. and Café Prague at 2140.
“We thought this was a good place to capture the Latino market,” said Harry Persaud, the co-owner of La Oaxaqueña with chef Vicente Martinez. “But we’ve started to get more Americans than Latinos.”
In part, Persaud attributed the change to Yelp, but he and other owners said that many in the immigrant Latino population that used to fill the dozen or so taquerias on Mission are unemployed or struggling.
David Kuu, who owns Yucatasia a few doors south, said he opened three years ago after working at nearby Tony’s Grocery and watching Latino workmen buy groceries. He could feed them for less, he said, but nowadays, many of his clients don’t have jobs.
In this atmosphere, no one complains about competition that brings more foot traffic and a sense of energy.
Outside Charanga on a recent afternoon, Gabriela Salas, the owner, was taking out the trash. Small and full of energy, she invited a reporter back into the spotless kitchen where she chopped up yucca and talked about the struggle.
“It’s picking up a little now, but it’s been really hard to keep the doors open,” she said. During the dot-com high, she served three seatings a night. Nowadays it’s one. While she sometimes worries about the street losing its “essence” she also needs more business so she’s delighted that The Corner and Weird Fish are nearby and she looks forward to her Pakistani neighbor’s plans to expand.
On a recent Saturday night, she said, Charanga filled with families, Latinos, Anglos and Italians. “It was beautiful,” she said. “It’s why I moved to the Mission.” That, and a sense of camaraderie with her neighbors keep her going. “Sometimes early in the morning we’ll play soccer in the street, but only for five minutes, then we have to get back to work.”
Related: A Map of Mission Street highlights. mission-mappdf062909
Coming: Vacancies on Mission Street