Valencia Street: San Francisco’s Cultural Barometer

These 17 blocks arguably represent the city more than simply the Mission.

Photo by Andrew Delaney

If the map-reading part of your brain has atrophied since you got your first smartphone, Ulrike Palmbach’s Mission and Surrounding Neighborhoods Before Human Settlement might be hard to decipher. Her color-coded contour map, on a wall of 899 Valencia St., is tough to comprehend in full. You could be forgiven for failing to realize it’s San Francisco you’re looking at. (Did the city’s marshy shoreline once extend practically to what is now South Van Ness Avenue? Apparently, yes.)

The geological record isn’t much in doubt. Valencia’s central corridor, running from 16th to 20th streets, was once water — Laguna Dolores, to be exact. It’s partly why the Franciscans built Mission Dolores where they did. A quarter-millennium and a filled-in lagoon later, Valencia Street is one of the city’s stunning successes, if one that also has the potential to germinate the nucleus of failure as we asphyxiate on our own prosperity. Always churning but never fully able to erase its past, Valencia is San Francisco’s barometer.

Designed sometime around World War II as an arterial on the scale of South Van Ness Avenue, it’s undergone fitful adjustments to make it more pedestrian-friendly, but Las Ramblas it most certainly is not. A decade after the last 26-Valencia bus chugged off to Muni heaven — can you imagine the ride-shares, already crowding out the bikes, vying for space with the transit agency’s New Flyer XT40s? — the streetscape remains caught in limbo, neither truly car-centric nor Vision Zero-compliant, just like San Francisco.

The sidewalk widening between 15th and 19th streets — and the subsequent bike lane rejiggering — have made a difference, but what cyclist hasn’t narrowly evaded a dooring? Even the white bollards installed to deter idling Ubers have essentially created cozy little ride-share cubbies. On Friday and Saturday nights, Valencia is practically un-bikeable for all but the most fearless. Until the city scrapes the entire thoroughfare to install fully protected bike lanes, the priorities will be free car storage and frictionless vehicular right turns. So: Folsom it is.

Fortunately, Valencia escaped the haphazard superblock-rezoning that scarred Mission Street with that forbidding US Bank tower on the corner of 22nd Street or the eight-story beige nightmare at 25th and Capp streets. At the pedestrian level, though, the trendlines are clearly toward a homogenization of high-end flagships that may or may not be loss leaders for their parent brands. (RIP wig-and-vintage shop Retro Fit, felled by a landlord in pursuit of something flashier, who tripled the rent.)

Nowhere else in San Francisco will you find this many parklets, with the slatted urban treehouses outside Four Barrel almost certainly the best-known and most-used. While there are commercial vacancies — especially in some of the smaller retail spaces on the numbered side streets — the situation isn’t remotely as dire as hollowed-out Church Street three blocks west.

The restaurant scene, though, has experienced an accelerated boom-and-bust cycle that never seems to relent. San Francisco eats on Valencia — but Valencia eats its own. Once upon a time, there was a lesbian bar scene, including a stand-up club called Valencia Rose, and a Pepsi bottling plant where the current Mission police station stands now. The allure hasn’t dimmed, even after wave after wave of closures: St. Vincent, Spork, Loló Cevicheria, Tawla, Pauline’s Pizza. Hopefully, the Nepalese restaurant Dancing Yak can make a go in a space that proved inhospitable to Babu Ji, Nostra Spaghetteria, Plin, Another Monkey, and Conduit. For every plucky comeback (MAU, Boogaloo’s, Sunflower) there’s an aborted one (La Rondalla) or an aching loss (the beloved Elbo Room, and, shortly, Lucca Ravioli). But some stalwarts remain. Not even Smitten could crowd out Xanath Ice Cream, just as not even Ritual Coffee could kill off Muddy Waters, possibly because it’s open so late.

The price of dynamism is instability, but the high end is making out all right, from Michelin-starred AL’s Place to Bon Voyage to The Beehive. So, too, is that eternally excellent trio of Indian-Pakistani restaurants: Dosa, Udupi Palace, and Aslam’s Rasoi. Beyond the culinary domain, the neighborhood soldiers on, with SROs like the Hotel Royan not far from Cherin’s Appliances or Community Thrift (which own their buildings). Casa Bonampak was irreplaceable, but there are definitely more storefront churches than you think.

Clothes Contact is gone, as is Room 4. Modern Times bookstore relocated to 24th Street before its eventual demise, although Dog Eared Books lives on. So does Betabrand, outfitting the Bay to Breakers crowd in metallic silver hoodies. The always weird and typewriter-filled Viracocha went away in 2015, and Lost Weekend Video and its basement Cinecave soon followed, but a virtually soundproof venue, The Chapel, has thrived. As gentrification spills onto Mission Street proper, the once-wide chasm between those two streets has started to close.

Flavorless condos are the apex predator, of course, with their ground-level banks and urgent care clinics and residents prone to UberEats, but the corpse of a 76 station still somehow sits at the northwest corner of Valencia and 24th. (Two architects have a three-story studio-residence in the works there.) Although no one can dispute the scope of gentrification, compared with Upper Market, Valencia has condo-ized fairly slowly.

Photo by Andrew Delaney

 

How long can that last? At one end of the street is Martuni’s, that nominally gay piano bar with cocktail servers helping the musical-theater crowd wind down, along with the vintage mall Stuff, a former Bahai temple that’s going to become the new home of the Gay Men’s Chorus, and the punk bar where obeying the rules is paramount, Zeitgeist. That’s the scruffy end, with an amputated freeway stub overhead.

The foot of the street is emptier, more like a big alley with a random raised bike lane — plus a hospital and a Burger King and a long-gone Sears and a Planned Parenthood where scuffles aren’t unheard of, all leading onto Mission Street and the most variegated restaurant row in town. Streets like Cortland or Clement condense the surrounding neighborhoods into comprehensible packages, but Valencia operates differently. It’s a jumble of electrified loose ends, a partly domesticated rat king who performs on command. Somehow, Valencia distills San Francisco better than it distills the Mission. And even if the new construction is featureless, five floors high, and home to sunny failures of imagination called Gourmonade, everything’s better than surface parking lots.

View Comments