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.
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 informs 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’t 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.
“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.