At 475 feet in height, Bernal Hill is taller than every point in the state of Florida. Scarred from its years as a chert quarry — the reddish rock was allegedly used for fill during the construction of Highway 101 — it’s home to rare California native plants like hummingbird sage, along with the occasional coyote. In the 1920s, decades before the neighborhood became fully built up, its north slope had a sign reading “MAXWELL,” a Hollywood Sign-style ad for a long-gone automobile company. Green in winter and scorched-yellow in summer, it’s an indicator of the seasons like few other hillsides inside the city proper, and if you look beyond the “spaghetti bowl” interchange of 101 and Interstate 280, you can see just how heavily industrialized the city’s eastern third remains. The one and only green flash this writer has ever witnessed was from its summit immediately after a breezy December sunset in 2008.
Along with Glen Park and West Portal, Bernal Heights is one of San Francisco’s urban villages: residential, self-contained neighborhoods with comparatively few out-of-town visitors and lots of secret charms. It’s the only one with its own mountain, although unlike Twin Peaks or Telegraph Hill, Bernal Hill’s vistas are virtually tourist-free, rising from the flat expanse of the Mission almost as dramatically as Edward Scissorhands’ mansion from the surrounding suburbia. A walk around reveals its subsections, from the affluent northwest slope to the flat tongue of land around Mitchell’s Ice Cream known as “La Lengua” to the Sunset-esque area once occupied by St. Mary’s College.
Consequently, it’s inaccurate to think of Bernal as simply one hill. There are several, all folded together, with a small section of Bradford Street ranking as the steepest grade of any street in San Francisco. The four lengthy blocks of Elsie Street alone contain a roller-coaster’s worth of ups and downs, and a remarkable intersection where Virginia branches off, downhill and to the west. Cortland Avenue, the main commercial drag, becomes almost canyon-like as it dives toward Bayshore Boulevard, one of the ugliest thoroughfares in all of San Francisco. Bernal is cut off on three sides by ugly roads, in fact — and the fourth is an old railroad right-of-way blasted through the hill (the Bernal Cut, today’s J-Church line running down San Jose Avenue).
Bayshore is all fast-food and automotive shops, plus the 150-year-old Old Clam House and the inimitably weird Silver Crest Diner. Even rehabilitated, the expressway-scale section of Cesar Chavez Street is built to maximize automotive through-put, and 280 is both loud and hard to traverse underneath on foot — all the more so if you’re laden with bags of citrus from the Alemany Farmers Market, the oldest in the state. Urban renewal like this ripped so many cities apart, and Bernal should have asphyxiated, yet it thrived. Ask yourself: Have you ever met someone who didn’t love Bernal Heights?
Bernal’s hills hold many charms, from the Gaudi-esque Breger Art House at 80 Bronte St. to the statuary-filled garden behind (and beneath) longtime lesbian bar Wild Side West to the brick-paved section of Winfield Street to the Sunday morning bagel pop-up at PizzaHacker. Separated into at least five or six discrete chunks, Peralta Street might be the most discontinuous thoroughfare in the city. A roughly triangular boulder on Folsom Street near the top of the hill has been painted over many times, most notably as a poop emoji, and the hilltop has a somewhat forbidding tower that cartophile nerd-blogger and La Lengua resident Burrito Justice dubbed “Sutrito.” It looks nothing like Sutro Tower, but its fenced-off base looks like the bunker Han Solo blew up in Return of the Jedi. From there, you can stare almost straight down to San Francisco’s mod-est Safeway.
Not even Clement Street’s variety of restaurants can match the strip along Mission Street from Cesar Chavez to Cortland — and from Old Devil Moon to Barebottle Brewing, Bernal is a beer destination in its own right. Parking is hard, though, and you have to be neighborly to live here, since most of the streets are too narrow for two drivers to pass without slowing to a crawl. It’s prime Banana Belt territory, almost as sunny as the Mission and more dramatic when it isn’t.
Once known as Red Hill for all the anti-Vietnam War activists who lived there, Bernal can be almost aggressively strange. Five years ago, an art installation at Queen’s Nails Projects — a now-defunct gallery space — involved the setting ablaze of 50,000 matches mounted to the wall in the shape of the United States. Once set alight for the benefit of dozens of art-goers with their iPhones ready, the flames surged out of control and the resulting smoke drove everyone out of the building. SFFD arrived, and the gallery didn’t last long after that. Fire of a different stripe might be more pernicious, though: The neighborhood had the hottest real estate in America in 2014 and again last year. No one disputes that housing is exorbitant, but Bernal has retained its personality. And as a result, everybody loves Bernal Heights.
Read more from SF Weekly’s Bernal Heights issue:
From Bikini Joggers to Dead Cats: Bernalwood’s Tales of a Neighborhood
For eight years, the “community-powered news magazine” Bernalwood has carried the heart of Bernal Heights.
The Thrillpeddler: How Bernal Heights’ Punk Record Shop Keeps It Real
The volunteer-run Thrillhouse Records encourages people to come by with a beer and hang out.
The Mosque on Crescent Street
Bernal Heights is home to the Bay Area’s oldest mosque, one that historically attracted Muslims in the region but which retains its neighborhood feel.
Co-founder Angela Wilson on the challenges of running Bernal Heights’ beloved butcher shop.