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The Comprehensive Guide to San Francisco's Alleys - July 5, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The Comprehensive Guide to San Francisco’s Alleys

The Most Photogenic

Like many hideaways in Nob Hill, Kimball Place is a two-block jaunt lined with redwoods and cottages, like the nearby Golden Court and Leroy Place. Although its name suggests otherwise, hilly Pleasant Street is more functional (but with a great view of the Transamerica Pyramid). Just off the famous block of Lombard Street is Montclair Terrace, lush and redolent of rose and jasmine. It gets a tiny fraction of the tourist traffic of its notorious neighbor, something its inhabitants almost certainly relish — and its northern end is accessible via public stairs.

Citywide, other quirks abound. In the Tenderloin, Isadora Duncan Lane is best viewed from Shannon Street because of the way its pastel-colored buildings align from that vantage. Is Chula Lane angled to respect Mission Dolores’ cemetery? Could Noe Valley’s Juri Street be more snugly placed nexts to a former railroad right-of-way that’s now a small park? In the Castro, the mossy lane that is the Vulcan Stairs are a romantic must, while nearby Ord Court is another urban-forest aerie. Tales of the City fans eager to find Barbary Lane might be disappointed to hear it’s fictional — but Armistead Maupin based it on Russian Hill’s Macondray Lane.

Jack Kerouac Alley, like Saroyan Place across Columbus Avenue, gets most of its Instagram-happy visitors owing to the picturesque Vesuvio’s and the enduring appeal of the Beats. Photogenic doesn’t have to mean pretty, as in the hyper-urban South of Market intersection of Heron Street and Berwick Place, a pair that could be straight out of London’s Camden Town. If you want murals, you got ’em: The Tenderloin’s Veterans Alley — technically Shannon Street — harbors poignant political messages that pertain to American bellicosity. Most obscure is the art along Boswell Street, formerly known as Avery (if one industrial building’s exterior is to be believed), an industrial alley behind the Boom Boom Room.

But beautiful streets are hidden everywhere. The random Imperial Avenue in the Marina is full of gardens cordoned off by white-picket fences, while White Street is a study in how treelessness can be a boon to good architecture. Redfield Alley is among the most wonderful finds, a staircase that turns into a gravel path with sagging retaining walls and finally a garden that feels almost illicit until you turn left and climbup Marion Street through Molinari Mana Park.

Shannon Alley

The Ugliest

More than a few San Francisco alleys are just plain hideous. They’re glorified parking lots and driveways — except “glorified” oversells a dung-encrusted row of garbage cans that never see direct sunlight — as with Bedford Place in Chinatown, or the two dead-end sections of Union Square-adjacent Derby Street that never meet. Many alleys are simply locked away behind gates. Emery Lane runs alongside a police station in North Beach with tiny windows, guaranteeing that extra bit of surveillance-state paranoia. Emery makes a hard right onto Card Street, which would almost be charming if it weren’t an access way to a Bank of America parking lot.

Very nearby but in Chinatown, the former Churchill Street is now known as Turk Murphy, after the trombonist and bandleader who once ran a club with the magnificent name of Earthquake McGoons. In spite of that history, it’s a barren block with a lot of unnecessary surface parking. Although more properly classified as a side street, the two long blocks of Bernard Street might be the ugliest such thoroughfare in San Francisco relative to their tony precincts. But for a single lime-green garage, Bernard is almost entirely bereft of charm or color, and could somebody please plant something? You just know at least someone who lives there pronounces it BURN-erd, too. There are plenty of other lost opportunities, though: SoMa’s curving Kissling Street suffers from its proximity to a parking garage, while Lafayette Street ends at commercial dead zones on both sides.

Its name is all business, but Security Pacific Place feels like a jail of a street behind the Museum of Ice Cream, perhaps a waiting zone for armored cars during its previous life as a bank. And Stark Street? Yeah: indeed.

Derby Alley

The Functional and the Ordinary

Short streets serve a purpose: getting you from A to B. Close to the Central Freeway, both Bernice and Isis are block-long streets with just enough of a curve to create visual appeal, while Trainor Street exists to help Rainbow Grocery patrons park. Cut in half by a freeway ramp, Erie Street now has a dead end that makes it ideal for large-scale events at Public Works, and shrewd drivers know how useful a shortcut Plum Street can be for getting off the freeway and onto South Van Ness.

Like Natoma Street, there are a number of blocks-long, discontinuous alleys in SoMa — Stevenson, Minna, Jessie, Tehama, Clementina — with Edwardian apartments cheek-by-jowl against machinists and auto-body shops. Ringold Alley used to have a fetish fair that later moved to nearby Dore Alley, a curio that runs for a block-and-a-half before picking up again under an on-ramp. Grace and Washburn streets are mural-lined turnarounds for your Lyft.

Many narrow, one-block streets are largely residential on one side with blank industrial facades opposite, ideal for murals — one block of Langton Street in SoMa is a great example of this. Others in SoMa are entirely residential, such as Moss or Rausch streets, as are Mission District examples such as Julian Avenue, Ramona Street, Brosnan Street, or the more fabulous Elgin Park and Clinton Park streets in the Mission. (Their toponymous green spaces are long-gone now.) At the T-intersection with Albion Street, nearby Camp Street has a plaque honoring the original location of Mission Dolores on its vanished lagoon, while Woodward Street was the home of a 19th-century pleasure garden. Lapidge Street is for lovers — or so its annual party claims — while parallel Linda Street has a jog that surely enhances its houses’ curb appeal.

Elsewhere in the Mission, back alleys like Osage, Orange, Poplar, Caledonia, Virgil, Horace, and Lucky largely flank the commercial corridors, although some have grown to become thick with Precita Eyes art.

In the Castro, Thorp Lane mostly allows back-door entrance to a few dozen houses, while Romain lets you cross over Market Street without getting hit by a car. To feel like a real urban-exploration pro, get lost in and around Kite Hill Open Space’s tiny web of thoroughfares, like the utilitarian Short Street, the semipaved Grand View Terrace, or the secluded Mono Street and Acme Alley. Even the Sunset gets in on the game, with the theoretically easy-to-find 20 1/2 Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets (and between exactly the two numbered avenues you’d expect), along with the proletarian-sounding Dirt Alley a couple blocks northwest.

Completely Pointless

This category contains almost too many alleys to count, from the eternally locked Colin Place to the filthy Fisher Alley, with its view of Chinatown’s crime-riddled Ping Yuen housing complex. Spookily dark from its ficus canopy, Ada Court in the Tenderloin could use a little purpose, as could the dirtier Dodge Place behind Harry Harrington’s Pub. San Francisco’s namesake deserves a more dignified right-of-way, but St. Francis Place in SoMa is essentially a parking lot entrance. And in spite of its bucolic name, SoMa’s Oak Grove Street is home to little more than shadows from the freeway and the Community Division of the Sheriff’s Department.

Industrial SoMa has a ton of dead-ends, in fact — Julia, McLea, Converse, Laskie, Kate, Decatur, Sumner, Lucerne, Butte, the sinister Juniper — most of which certainly had railroad sidings on them to facilitate commerce and shipping.

Enterprise Street in the Mission sounds like it has a starship factory, but it’s just a dead-end off of Folsom, while Mistral Street connects Folsom to a section of Treat Avenue near Southern Pacific Brewing. Dehon and Harlow streets in the Castro were clearly truncated by the construction of schools, but tiny Adair Street serves no discernible purpose and Rondel Street isn’t far behind. SoMa’s Malden and Vassar streets are essentially parking lots, but possibly the most inexplicable street in San Francisco is Decker Alley in SoMa, which is barely a driveway. If it were delisted from the roster altogether, no one would notice.

Colin Alley

Mostly Worth Noting Because They’re Next to Something

Named for the late power broker, Rose Pak’s Way abuts Chinese Hospital, as does Stone Street. Ecker Street in SoMa is familiar to anyone who’s eaten at Yank Sing, while Helen Street just off California runs alongside Zeki’s bar. It might be a dead end, but sloping Acorn Alley is worth a visit just so you can be jealous of whoever lives in that adorable house at the bottom.

Over in Lower Pac Heights, Wilmot Street runs near St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, the only Gothic Revival house of worship with flying buttresses in town. Alongisde the 60-year-old Motel Capri and gastronomic temple Atelier Crenn, one-way Pixley Street runs for several blocks, and you can’t drive down it all at once, since its traffic flow changes mid-stream. Moulton Street, essentially a service road for Lombard Street, does the same.

Ross Alley gets a lot of pedestrian traffic from people waiting to enter the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, but it still has plenty of Chinatown pizzazz, while Kenneth Rexroth Place lets you into Eight Tables. Behind the Palace Hotel is Annie Street, while highbrow Maiden Lane is well-known to Grant Avenue shoppers and anyone lucky enough to get inside the Frank Lloyd Wright’s only building in San Francisco, the V.C. Morris shop at no. 140.

Dutch for “the tree,” De Boom Street is a dead-end SoMa alley onto which 21st Amendment Brewing sometimes drops watermelons, while The Stud has all but annexed Gordon Street. Rincon Street on the hill of the same name has a noirish quality owing to its steep grade and the adjacent factory that seems to sink into the slope. Between Davies Symphony Hall and Bill Graham is Dr. Tom Waddell Place, renamed from Lech Walesa when that lion of Polish liberation’s homophobia became too awkward. (It was originally a part of Ivy Street.)

Maiden Lane

Plenty Charming

The north-south lanes off 23rd Street in Noe Valley — Quane, Mersey, Severn, Nellie, Blanche, Ames — are always worth a stroll, especially to see how alley-fronting garages maximize their utility. Same goes for the east-west Comerford Street several blocks south. Breaking up the rectilinearity of the Western Addition are a handful of streets, like Seymour, Beideman, and Farren, that survived Justin Herman’s mid-century program of urban renewal; Friendship Court is a relic of it, and also happens to be right next to the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Telegraph Hill and North Beach each hold plenty of worthwhile alleys, from Verdi Place to Bartol Street with its steps, but clues to where the city’s shoreline once was can be found in both Water and Vandewater (“from the water”) streets. Romolo Place and the much-larger Fresno Street both contain plenty of places to get a drink, while an excursion through the neighborhood all but requires a stroll along the horseshoe-shaped Medau Place or up to the summit via Child Street and Telegraph Place. The boundary between Russian Hill and Chinatown never feels so acute as via the flowery walk to Himmelmann Place, just above the much-uglier Salmon Street.

Running a full four-and-a-half blocks near the Hall of Justice in SoMa, Harriet Street has lots of random homes and aged factories, plus that ne plus ultra of postindustrial charm: disused railroad tracks embedded in cobblestones. Nearby Gilbert and Boardman streets might start out in the bail bond district (so to speak) but they’re hardly bereft of photogenic angles — once your eyes adjust to the level of decay.

Fresno St.

The Weirdest

Looked at in Google Maps, it’s hard not to think that Eastman Street and the lanes around it don’t form a swastika shape, but the Hyde Street cable car is audible from this odd little Russian Hill warren, along with Allen Street (near Zarzuela), Rockland Street, and Russell Street. In spite of their narrowness, they’re mostly two-way. While Lurmont Terrace might look unremarkable, it terminates in an unnecessarily large parking plaza for all the garages of the upscale buildings around it to use. (Very convenient.)

Like the hillside Chilean city of the same name, one of Valparaiso Street’s two blocks runs downhill and ends in a stairway, although vehicular traffic turns north to the unfortunately named Roach Street. Not quite pretty, Cyrus Place sits atop the Broadway Tunnel, starting out like a claustrophobic driveway and opening onto a mini-park.

Infrastructure can be unkind: In the Bayview, busted-up Selby Street stands directly beneath I-280. In SoMa, never-see-the-light-of-day Perry Street has to suffer the indignity of Interstate 80 coursing directly on top of it, while parallel Stillman Street at least gets a little more sun as it points you toward the Clock Tower Building. Meanwhile, SoMa’s magical-sounding Merlin Street reconciles itself to elaborate murals visible through barbed-wire fences, although the equally magical Aladdin Place is just a dead end with some sidewalk plants. On what remains of Rincon Hill, Sterling Street and Essex Street have been totally subsumed into freeway entrances, while the bizarre Zeno Place — seemingly the easternmost extant alley in San Francisco — abuts the poured-concrete dinosaur that is the E. M. O’Donnell Copper Works and terminates in a patch of fake turf.

Is Alert Street so named because the mid-century apartment building at one end has a seismically unsafe soft story? Probably not. Quarterpipe-shaped Waldo Street precedes the literary character of the same name by decades but somebody loves it enough to deck out its street sign in red-and-white stripes, like a barber pole. The streets near South Park have a Bostonian feel, although Jack London Alley’s biggest attribute is the pale-pink Gran Oriente Filipino Masonic Temple, crowning that ethnic community’s historical ties to the neighborhood. Farther west, Lapu Lapu, its community garden, and its feeder lanes — Bonifacio, Rizal, Mabini — will anchor the SoMa Pilipinas District no matter how much the surrounding blocks get upzoned.

If you like alleys that pick up from other alleys, SoMa’s noirish Hallam Street and Brush Place are for you, especially with their wonderfully bizarre architecture — ditto for Colton Street and Colusa Place in that otherwise horrid nether-vortex at the foot of Gough Street. Same goes for the much lovelier Bird Street, a short dead end branching off crooked Dearborn Street by the former Farina. Over by Potrero Avenue and Highway 101, a tiny section of Serpentine Avenue is all that remains of a semi-legal, 19th-century street that blogger Burrito Justice determined used to include the southernmost section of Capp Street, half a mile west. And does creepy Elwood Street form an L shape because it alliterates with its name?

 

See more of SF Weekly‘s alleys issue:

San Francisco Is a City of Alleys — But What Qualifies, Exactly?
Staunchly opposed to highways and relatively free of grand boulevards, San Francisco is a city of narrow streets.

Behind Clarion Alley Hides the Lesser-Known Balmy Alley
This block off 24th Street has stayed true to its artistic values, even as the neighborhood changed around it.