Sixth Street: S.F.’s Innercity Home

The city’s singular thoroughfare is alive at all hours — and much longer and more varied than you might think.

Is there a more misunderstood urbanist term than “inner city”?

The early-21st-century rush back to American metropolitan cores nationwide has brought displacement and gentrification to neighborhoods that had been blighted and abandoned only a few years earlier. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many older suburbs became new centers of poverty, while inner cities began to repopulate — undoing some of the damage of 20th-century deindustrialization, but also inflicting much more. Yet the term retains its connotation of poverty and decay, with an unfortunate racialized cast.

Sixth Street is San Francisco’s most hyper-urban place, more Tenderloin than the Tenderloin. By far the worst thing about it is that it’s a connector, a way to get into or out of Downtown via the anachronistic Interstate 280 — that elevated and rather underused freeway from which you can see Rigo 23’s giant shield-shaped mural, Innercity Home, proudly inverting the term. Whether from fear or impatience, non-residents drive like maniacs down Sixth Street, most of them hoping to spend as little time there as possible. It and its inhabitants are looked down upon and dismissed, particularly on the two remarkable blocks between Howard and Market streets.

Too many people treat it like an undifferentiated slum. But where else in San Francisco can you find so much? Vietnamese greasy-spoon Tu Lan is there next to Happy Donuts, as is Dottie’s True Blue Cafe, and that arch-dive, Rumpus Room. The lovely Pentacle Coffee abuts the skateboarder-apparel flagship Thrasher at 66 Sixth St., plus Split Pea Seduction’s “crostatas” are right there, too. There’s even a burgeoning Jewish microhood, anchored by kosher cafe Frena and the Hasidic synagogue Positively 6th Street (undoubtedly a reference to Bob Dylan). Newcomers Falafelland (serving Yemeni food) and Bini’s Kitchen (Nepalese) have joined or will soon join them.

Three thriving clubs — Monarch, OMG, and Club Six — are all within a few hundred feet of one another, with The EndUp not far down. A block away is 1 AM SF, a street-art gallery dedicated to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression — not to the late-night hour — which is in turn across the street from Bindlestiff Studio, the only venue in America dedicated to Filipino-American and Pilipino performing arts.

Sixth Street is really several Sixth Streets, alive at different hours of the day — a phenomenon that S.F. graphic artist Wendy MacNaughton once famously catalogued. Painfully banal banners advertise Babson College and Zuckerberg General Hospital — does a trauma center really need to drum up business? — near a Muay Thai studio and the SF Puppy Prep dog-training place.

The forthcoming Compton’s TLGB District, though centered in the Tenderloin, encompasses Sixth Street’s two northernmost blocks. There are two abandoned car washes and a defunct gas station near the operational Chevron, a “Rite By Grocery” that sounds as if it lost a trademark dispute with better-known market, and a prosaically bizarre shop called Murphy & Simi that keeps the purse-lipped hours of 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. on weekdays only and might best be described as a wheel store.

(Peter Lawrence Kane)

There are plenty of do-gooders, and occasional clergy. A harm-reduction clinic offers services for intravenous drug users, while Launderland Coin Op’s signage sternly threatens anyone who brings in a friend. At dusk, you see Sixth Street mostly by its gates: As businesses shutter for the day, more murals come out — like David Puck’s gorgeous homage to the slain genderfuck icon Bubbles, which graces a beauty-supply store called Werk. For every heap of maybe-stolen junk, someone has arranged an entire set of cutlery on a clean cloth.

People are everywhere, hanging out, setting up sidewalk merchandise of various degrees of quality, doing what they need to to make it. Many are old, queer, disabled, non-English-speaking, glad to be alive. They live in SROs with barely any space to call their own, some of them undoubtedly in the trouble-prone Henry Hotel whose north-facing wall blares “WHY” in day-glo orange lettering. A curbside mobile bathroom offers dignity and a place to wash your hands. Some folks are clearly hurting badly, while others seem to say, “Thank God we have each other.”

Sixth Street doesn’t entirely understand itself, a consequence of San Francisco’s weird “grid.” Folsom Street seems to course through SoMa and the Mission and end at Bernal Hill — when it actually picks up again beyond the summit, terminating at Alemany Boulevard by I-280. Castro Street appears to end in Noe Valley — but an orphaned segment runs for two blocks near Glen Park BART. Similarly, Sixth Street is much longer than it looks. A section of it runs as a path underneath the 280 on-ramp to Townsend Street, then resumes its course across Mission Creek among the hospitals. But most of Sixth Street is a conduit, loud and fast and still putting cars b before people in spite of 12 years of safety improvements, its intersections killing cyclists even now. It may be deadly, but it is always, unfailingly, riotously alive. Sixth Street, our innercity home.


Find more stories from our March 14 cover story on Sixth Street below:

Sixth Street’s 2020 Redesign Prioritizes Pedestrians The SFMTA’s plan to improve pedestrian safety on Sixth Street brings the needs of a diverse community — low-income, disabled, and people of color — front and center.

Planning Department Allows a New Building to Shadow This SoMa Park SoMa youth have just a few places — like Victoria Manolo Draves Park on Folsom Street — to run free in as it is.

Bini’s Kitchen: Mo’ Momos, No Problems La Cocina alum Binitha Pradhan is poised to open her largest restaurant yet on Sixth Street, across the street from a Nepalese SRO she didn’t even know existed.

That Lucky Bite, at Falafelland on Sixth Street The determined husband-and-wife team behind six-week-old Yemeni restaurant stake a claim to a difficult corner of San Francisco.

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