24th Street: San Francisco’s Most Resilient Neighborhood

The 20 or so blocks between San Jose Avenue and the 101 are one of San Francisco’s treasures.

Art by Sophia Valdes

Is there an auto-repair shop anywhere that’s more beautiful than the House of Brakes on the corner of Folsom and 24th streets?

Even on the typographical level, the sign’s kerning is arresting. But the real joy about it is the framing: allegorical murals on two sides, some of the best in the whole city, exploding with the spirit of an indefatigable neighborhood, including dancers, a trompe l’oeil Victorian home, and landmarks like the York Theatre, which closed in 1993 and became the Brava Women’s Theatre Arts eight years later. To some people, 24th Street in the Mission is beleaguered, a last redoubt of Latinx culture that will go full Valencia in no time without constant vigilance. But in reality, it might be San Francisco’s most resilient neighborhood.

24th starts all the way at the Bay — at Warm Water Cove, technically. Once known as “Tire Beach,” it was a relatively uncontroversial part of the increasingly hot-button redevelopment of the city’s southeast waterfront. Crossing Third Street into the Dogpatch, 24th Street disappears under Potrero Hill’s public housing before re-emerging for two blocks west of Starr King open space, a quiet stretch crowned by the Purple House, a rambling lilac Edwardian home with lots of stained glass and tropical plants that abuts a block of Rhode Island Street that’s paved with cobblestones.

But the best-known segment of 24th picks up at the Highway 101 embankment in the southeast corner of the Mission, one of the very few places in the neighborhood where parking is occasionally plentiful. It goes on to bisect Noe Valley before terminating at another elevated thoroughfare, uppermost Market Street’s hulking viaduct. There’s a spring up there, visible from the thick growth of riparian vegetation, that leads into the now-culverted Islais Creek.

That subterranean watercourse is as determined as the neighborhood above it. Filled in and paved over decades ago, it never stopped flowing. Above, at street level, the canopy of Chinese ficus trees that partially obscure the procession of signs of Latin American and Caribbean countries may soon give way — over some vociferous neighborhood objections. San Francisco is in tumult, the Mission is in flux, but 24th Street hangs onto its soul better than anywhere else.

Discolandia became Pig & Pie and then Top Round Roast Beef — a chain! — but the long-gone record shop’s sign is still there. So is the ghost sign for Teddy Wong’s Hand Laundry. La Victoria Bakery shuttered last year after seven decades and an unfortunate internecine family dispute, and Modern Times Bookstore said goodbye in November 2016 after 45 years of awaiting the revolution — but the 65-year-old La Palma Mexicatessen is thriving, as is the cooperative Adobe Books. Forced out of its longtime home, Chicano art gallery Galería de la Raza is set to reopen permanently on Folsom Street. And Almanac Beer Co.’s taproom closed after its owners parted ways.

Elsewhere, new and old Dynamo Donut’s jalapeño-lime flavor coexists with the glazed crullers at The Jelly Donut. Vintage diner St. Francis Fountain (established 1918) and Roosevelt Tamale Parlor (originally opened in 1922, closed only briefly starting in 2015) stand cheek-by-jowl and on the same block as La Torta Gorda, serving giant sandwiches from the Mexican state of Puebla since 2002. Meanwhile, the equally gigantic portions at Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen have come with your choice of toast (or a bialy) since 5771.

There is no Starbucks, but there is Scandinavian-minimalist Third Wave coffee joint Haus, along with Philz, San Francisco’s pre-eminent Second Wave mini-chain. Walk uphill, and there’s another Philz in Noe Valley — not far from a Whole Foods. Downhill, the 24th Street corridor went almost a decade between full-service grocery stores, but the 2017 arrival of Grocery Outlet doesn’t seem to have driven the family-run shops out of business.

And there are those murals, from the House of Brakes corn growing near Aztec pyramids on the side of La Palma to the political palimpsest outside the former Galería de la Raza space to the entire courtyard of Casa Sanchez. Juana Alicia’s deep-blue La Llorona’s Sacred Waters guards the intersection of 24th and York, while nearly every surface of Balmy and Lucky alleys is covered. Even an exterior wall of a laundromat called Mr. Burbujas says, “Protect the Sacred.” Water runs below 24th Street, giving life to the resilient city above.

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