For most of the past 20 years, the Inner Mission has been a flashpoint. Since the first early 1990s dot-com start-up set up shop in the neighborhood, the debate has raged over who “owns” the large swath of central-eastern San Francisco bounded by Market Street (north), Cesar Chavez Street (south), Potrero Avenue (east) and Valencia Street (west). Today, skyrocketing real estate prices and high-visibility corporate shuttle buses have emotions running higher than ever, with local activists calling for a “return” to the Inner Mission of the past.
Anyone familiar with this vibrant district’s history, however, might want to ask the latest round of protesters this: to which “past” are you referring? The Mission of 2014 resembles the Mission of 1994 no more than the Mission of 1994 resembles the Mission of 1974 or 1954 and so on. This is a place defined by change.
Because it looms so large in the imaginations of San Franciscans (and those beyond), the Inner Mission is too often characterized by brief glances, which is unfortunate. There is far more to this physically large district than cool restaurants, hip bars and bearded young tech workers. They’re there, of course, and they earn the Inner Mission, especially along Valencia Street and to a lesser but growing degree, Mission Street, its cache as San Francisco’s most exciting nightlife district. Some of the city’s most notable restaurants – like Flour + Water, one of Travel & Leisure’s “Best Restaurants in the U.S.” – are in the Inner Mission, as are a number of creatively dynamic theaters and art galleries and, of course, an abundance of cutting-edge startup businesses.
But this place is more than a cool address. Away from the hubbub of Mission and Valencia there are tree-shaded streets, remnants of a time when the Inner Mission was a desirable address for San Francisco’s upper class. Drawn by its sunny weather than recent streetcar proximity to downtown, they built ornate Victorians on the narrow streets between Mission and South Van Ness, Folsom and Harrison. Many of them still stand; few have been restored to their former glory.
Today they are homes to a working-class population that has been in the neighborhood for close to a century. Though it’s a place of constant change, the Inner Mission has always made room for long-time residents and families, the sort of locals that become the fabric of any vital neighborhood.
The Inner Mission has a long history of diversity, stretching back to its days as a neighborhood of Irish, Polish and German immigrants and into the post-World War II emigration of Central and South Americans that gave the district its present-day Latino flavor. Anyone looking for evidence of the Inner Mission’s constant change need only to stroll down Mission Street, where in some spots Spanish is spoken exclusively, then note, only a few blocks away, the Polish Club of San Francisco, at its present 22nd Street location since 1926, or stop at any of the neighborhood’s many Irish bars, in place for decades.
Or they can explore the Inner Mission’s northeastern quadrant, where they’ll find warehouses and small factories, commercial buildings that have served a myriad of purposes during their long histories. On Alabama and Florida Streets, furniture refinishing shops abut galleries, body shops call vegan cafes “neighbor.” Landmark buildings like the San Francisco Armory recall colorful histories that include serving as the city’s primary sports arena (it hosted, among other things, several heavyweight bouts during the 1920s, 30s and 40s), a soundstage for the original Star Wars, and, most recently, an internet concern that makes adult films.
The Inner Mission was once where professional baseball happened in San Francisco. No fewer than three ballparks called the district home, including, famously, Seals Stadium on 16th Street. The longtime home of the Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals (at one time one of two Mission-based PCL teams, the other being the Mission Reds) was also where the newly-relocated Giants played their first few seasons in San Francisco, beginning in 1957.
Factories, ballparks, amusement parks (Woodward Gardens, 1866-1891), mansions and even a native accent – people speaking the “Mission dialect” were said to “talk like Brooklynites – adds up to an unavoidable fact: that there is far more to San Francisco’s Inner Mission than restaurants, bars and hipsters.