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.

Todd Lappin has had the same ZIP code for 28 years: 94110. It encompasses much of the Mission, from Dolores Street at the western border all the way eastward to Highway 101, and from 16th Street at the north to its bottom, Bernal Heights. That’s where Lappin has resided for the last 13 years, a fateful move that led to the creation of Bernalwood, a neighborhood-focused news site.

“It was the classic ‘There’s a story here, but no one’s telling it,’ ” Lappin tells SF Weekly, about what motivated him to start Bernalwood. While larger publications focused on the happenings of the Haight, the Mission, and elsewhere, Bernal Heights was being left behind.

“It’s not a neighborhood that you pass through by accident,” he explains. But, “that has a lot to do with its character. It’s a big hill with winding streets, and it’s surrounded by big arteries that help you not go through it. It’s always had this weird isolation, this quietness and set-apartness and self-containedness that is unique, especially when you consider that it’s not that far from things.”

The photoshop skills of Bernalwood creator Todd Lappin are on point.

Lappin, who has a background as a magazine editor, hopped on the task of telling Bernal’s stories as a hobby. In the eight years since, Bernalwood has become a vital source of news for the small hilly neighborhood, and even beyond.

“There were early controversies where having a mouthpiece ended up being useful,” he says. At the same time, “it was a lot of exploring the characters, the texture of the neighborhood, and it was great.”

As Lappin broke story after story, other, larger publications began to take notice, and his readership grew to be more citywide in scope. In part, that’s because Bernalwood has never solely focused on hard local news. Yes, there are the breaking Muni crashes and the steep rise in home prices, but also posts dedicated to the demise of a popular neighborhood cat and the quirky, unexplainable mysteries that plague every neighborhood.

Perhaps the best example of this was the “Bikini Jogger,” a woman who sprinted around the largely-residential neighborhood clad only in a bikini and flip-flops. Lappin got photos of her (always from the back, because people only pulled out their phones after she had passed) emailed to him for months. While he posted frequently about those incidents, he never tried to uncover her identity.

“There are things like that that are supposed to remain mysterious,” Lappin says. “They’re the character of your neighborhood.”

Lappin’s vision of what Bernal Hill would be like as a ski resort.

The diversity of stories that emerged from Bernal Heights forced Lappin to acquire skills more commonly found in breaking-news reporters: calling police to follow up on crimes and running to the scene of a fire. 

“I was trying to capture everything,” he says. “I spent years — in the best sense — on the beat. Everything was interesting. There were funny characters that came up, recurring themes — once every year or so there was some kind of nasty assault, but not really more than once a year. I had never been a beat reporter. I never had to deal with death or some awful things that happened.”

And some particularly awful things have taken place in the neighborhood since Lappin launched Bernalwood: A woman was critically injured earlier this year in a hit-and-run that was captured on video, and a mother was killed in Holly Park when a Parks Department vehicle ran over her while she sunbathed on the grass.

But despite the sadness that comes with reporting on such incidents, Lappin says he’s “loved every second” of writing Bernalwood and exploring his neighborhood. Along the way, he’s met people he describes as Bernal’s “anchors” — Darcy Lee, proprietor of Cortland Avenue’s gift shop Heartfelt, Eden Stein of Secession Art & Design on Mission Street, and Ken Shelf at plant-shop Succulence. While there’s been turnover in the neighborhood, savvy business owners have also changed with the times. Shelf ran a video rental business for years, but when that started crashing, he transitioned to selling succulent plants.

“He’s always been ahead of the curve,” Lappin says. “It’s a great story of how you adapt. There’s been no better way to get to know the people in your neighborhood, and it’s pretty terrific.”

Regular readers may notice that no new stories have been posted to Bernalwood since April — but Lappin says it’s not dead, simply on hiatus.

“We’ll see what happens,” he says.

In the meantime, Bernalwood’s archives are still live, so you can read all about Lappin’s fictional microhoods, the emergence of La Lengua, and what would happen if Bernal Hill was turned into a ski resort.


Read more from SF Weekly’s Bernal Heights issue:

Everybody Loves Bernal Heights!
But the beauty and charm of San Francisco’s preeminent urban village may not be fully appreciated.

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.

Andiamo, Avedano’s!
Co-founder Angela Wilson on the challenges of running Bernal Heights’ beloved butcher shop.

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