Rafael Hernandez is a busy man. He’s the owner of Double Play Bar & Grill on 16th and Bryant Streets, and he’s been in the neighborhood for decades. Above the bar is an old baseball bat, a nod to the long-since-razed Seals Stadium that once sat across the street. Dusty mitts are affixed to the walls. Hernandez laughs when asked if the neighborhood has changed in the last decade.
“I used to serve older crowds; now, they are younger and younger.”
He gestures around the room, as if to prove his point. Indeed, the few customers sipping drinks, eating chips, and watching the Giants game are all under 40.
Hernandez is on to something. His neighborhood in the northeast Mission is more like the Warriors than the Giants. It’s getting younger, not older.
In fact, while the number of people in the Mission 25- to 34-years old increased by only 1 percent between 2010 and 2017, their numbers rose by 15 percent here in Census tract 177, a realm of 2,000-odd residents bordered by South Van Ness, 17th Street and the northeastern contours of Highway 101.
Home to Mission Bowling Club and the newest Dandelion Chocolate Factory, this tract is now the Mission’s youngest niche neighborhood. In 2010, one-fifth of its denizens were between the ages of 25 and 34. By 2017, that percentage had grown to a whopping 34 percent.
And locals have noticed.
The Bay Area franchise Sports Basement has had a sprawling, red-brick location at 1590 Bryant St., a short toss from Double Play, for the past 11 years. And for much of that time, the general manager, Brian Nevinger, outfitted a lot of families in the Mission who were interested in camping or exercising together.
“But I can’t remember the last time I helped a family,” Nevinger said.
Sports Basement’s typical customers, he said, are now exactly who you’d think they’d be: young professionals, tech industry workers and San Francisco newcomers. The store’s shelves are lined with down-filled Patagonia jackets and sleek ski boots; there are backpacking tents and, curiously, air-filled, rainbow-patterned unicorn pool floats.
“Everything we sell here is nothing anybody needs,” said Nevinger. “It is stuff for adults to play with; it’s all purely for fun.”
Much the same could potentially be said for the new businesses popping up in Census Tract No. 177.
In May of this year, Dandelion Chocolate opened a gleaming factory and tasting room at 16th and Harrison streets, out of a transformed 28,105-square-foot factory that used to house the Howard Quinn Printing Company. The family-owned printing press called the Mission home for 51 years, producing newsletters for the Black Panthers, regular editions of the Berkeley Barb, comics by R. Crumb, and the Spectator magazine, which printed news for sex workers.
Now, instead of ink and paper news, the factory processes cocoa beans from 25 countries, and small, delicious batches of luxury chocolate. To be sure, chocolate factories are far from alien to the Mission and, in a sense, Dandelion continues a tradition that began in the mid-1990s with the Joseph Schmidt chocolate factory, which ran nearby at 17th and Folsom. It closed in 2009.
Such production companies mean that it has long been – and remains – one of the Mission’s least populated districts, thanks to its sprawling warehouses. Some of those structures have been converted into apartment buildings, artist lofts, and public storage. There are also businesses that have recently shuttered for good — like Jim Georgie’s Chinese Food & Donuts, which closed after a car ran into the cafe.
In fact, the only place on 16th Street between Folsom and Harrison that is still open for business is King’s Refrigeration, a tiny shop filled to the brim with towering, second-hand refrigerators that sell for around $200 a pop.
King’s Refrigeration has been in the Mission for 40 years.
“It was the first second-hand store in the Mission!” said Owner Martin Gomez. The original location was Valencia Street, but he moved the shop to 16th Street 20 years ago because rent was cheaper here: $3,500 instead of $6,000 per month.
Since the move, Gomez says he hasn’t noticed too many changes in the neighborhood – except more people sleeping on the streets. He’s not sure if his neighbors appear any younger. Some of his customers have been coming here for 20 years.
Above the door hangs a small net bag filled with garlic to keep evil spirits away. Gomez says that although making rent each month is a challenge, he hopes to stay in the Mission for a long time.
Patrick Carlisle, a market analyst for Compass, a real estate tech company in the Bay Area, analyzed San Francisco’s population shifts. He found the 25-to-34 year segment dramatically dominant.
“Millennials – people in the 25 to 34 years of age range – are now, by far, the biggest 10-year age segment in the city,” he said. “No place in the Bay Area has even close to this ratio, and it’s changing the city, and changing the Mission.”
For some business owners in the Mission, this is a good thing. Gus’s Community Market on Harrison and 17th Streets is bustling with millennials in the late afternoon in the middle of the week. They browse the aisles of curated rosé, bouquets of sunflowers, fresh produce, and many types of brie.
According to the store’s sign out front, Gus’s Market is many things: fresh seafood monger, friendly local butcher shop, purveyors of fresh produce, full service delicatessen. But perhaps, above all else, it is a mecca for millennials.
Mission resident Chris Miller, 27, has a cart filled with goodies. He lingers in the produce section, carefully selecting carrots for a salad he is making later this afternoon. Miller, who moved to San Francisco a year ago from the East Coast, lives just down the street from Gus’s, and commutes daily to his music-tech job in SoMa.
“Gus’s is like a local, delicious Whole Foods,” he says with a shrug, tucking his headphones back into their case. “It’s the best produce in the area, and the prices aren’t bad, considering.”
Miller moved to the Mission because of its proximity to work, slightly lower rent, and vibrant nightlife.
“I loved the Mission the moment I arrived,” he said, examining a turnip. “It had life to it.”
Livy Low, a pediatrician-in-training, grew up in Oakland, but has been living down the street from Gus’s for a year now. She’s currently completing her residency at the University of California San Francisco and at General Hospital. Sitting in the sun at a picnic table near Gus’s Market, Low sips a “blueberry buzz” smoothie — her favorite.
“In high school, I used to hang out in the Mission,” she said. “But growing up, I didn’t get the impression that this neighborhood was somewhere people wanted to live.”
Other reasons Low chose to live here: Her coworkers at General Hospital live in the neighborhood, and it’s quiet, with great access to restaurants. Her favorite places to go are Anchor Brewing down the street, and the Potrero branch of the public library.
Ben Malone has a job in the Financial District, at Gartner, a research firm. But when he got the job four years ago, he never considered living in the same neighborhood where he worked.
“There’s nothing going on there [in the Financial District] after work,” he explained. “I mean, it’s pretty, in terms of the skyline, but there’s no arts scene, or places to eat.”
Malone is also a DJ at Best Frequencies Forever (BFF.FM), a community radio station on Capp Street in the Mission District. He cited the warm weather, the creativity of the neighborhood, and the affordability of the apartment he found in 2015 as reasons for moving here.
A few blocks down the street, between rows of peace lilies and spiky succulents, Michelle Reed, 58, is explaining how to keep a plant alive.
“It needs roots to hold onto,” she said, encouraging a young woman to purchase the correct pot for a small plant with long green and red tendrils. Reed’s graying hair is tucked into a neat bun, her gold eyeshadow sparkles. She’s lived in the Mission her whole life, and has owned Roots plant nursery on South Van Ness Avenue for the last eight years. “Oh, girl,” she said when asked if the neighborhood has changed in the last decade.
“I miss the old San Francisco,” she said. “The lowriders, the artists, the soul — all gone,” she says, explaining that the relentless pursuit of profit and the accumulation of wealth has transformed the city she loved into a place she can hardly recognize.
Reed worked in radio advertising for 20 years, but then, when that work became less sustainable, she decided to open a plant store.
“Why not,” she said. “I was too old to work for a tech company, and there weren’t a lot of plant stores in San Francisco,” she said.
Reed added that one sliver of silver lining of a changing city is that the millennials seem to love plants. Many of her customers are young and she enjoys their youthful energy, and their keen interest in filling their apartments with houseplants.
“I think it’s because [millennials] are obsessed with the 1970s,” she said, smiling. “Plants used be something just old people loved.”
On her way out, a youthful customer thanked Reed for her help and expertise, smiling widely.
“I always feel so much better after coming here,” she said.