There are many other urban parks to stroll about. Any map of the densely populated city will show you these little patches of green. They are always worthwhile. Many are not much more than a block square, often located on the top of a hill. Buena Vista Park, which separates the Haight from the Castro, is one of the largest. It’s a helluva climb, but there are many dappled pathways through this generous if not overgrown clump of nature. Also check out tiny, prim and manicured elegant Huntington Park on Nob Hill for the ultimate “civilized” stroll. Other parks include Alamo Square (for a view of the famous “painted ladies),” Lafayette Park, Alta Plaza, Washington Park (in the shadow of the huge St. Peter and Paul Cathedral), and the beautiful Delores Park at the edge of the Mission.
Not all neighborhoods have parks and not all parks have neighborhoods. But the city is rich in places that have developed characters of their own. Here is a sampling of the lesser-known neighborhoods — in no particular order:
NOPA: The letters stand for North of the Panhandle. The intention was to separate the area from the bruised reputation of the words its designation as the Western Addition.” NOPA was to be SOHO or in San Francisco SOMA. The main street here is definitely Divisadero, which is in mid-gentrification. Curious and interesting new shops mingle with the old for an interesting walk.
Little Saigon: This is a neighborhood being settled by Vietnamese immigrants who are turning some of these tough, run-down blocks of the Tenderloin into a more family-friendly area with a number of good, inexpensive restaurants. Apparently names mean a lot. One street over, Polk Street, with its tawdry history and nicknames of Polk Strasse and Polk Gulch, is attempting a new identity — “Polk Village.”
Bernal Heights: A visitor could almost be anywhere in the country. There’s very little San Francisco here, and in a way that’s its charm as a get away. This hilltop community has character, though there has been no attempt to cutify it. Bernal Heights is self-contained and self-sustaining with less expensive homes, parks and a several blocks of a business district blessedly without chain stores.
Potrero Hill: This is a smaller, more boutiqued version of Bernal Heights. But you know you are in San Francisco because a casual walk down its main street will provide spectacular daytime and nighttime views of San Francisco’s dramatic skyline below.
Hayes Valley: This newly blossoming neighborhood appears regularly in The New York Times as the location of the new and the trendy. Its remarkable renewal occurred when the overpasses were torn down and light allowed into an area that rivaled New York’s Needle Park.
The Fillmore: There are two, possibly three Fillmore neighborhoods, all interesting. Lower Fillmore is the home of a revived jazz district. Middle Fillmore is an upscale neighborhood with expensive shops and sidewalk cafes. Where Fillmore descends again, this time north toward the Bay, it crosses Union Street, another upscale shopping area that serves the luxurious homes in Cow Hollow.
Dog Patch: Down Potrero Hill is this area where small Victorian homes survived the 1906 earthquake. Across Third Street and its abandoned dry docks and steel mills is a small neighborhood with interesting one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants, not to mention the San Francisco Chapter of the Hell’s Angels.
Noe Valley: Often called “In Vitro Valley” because of the number of blond twins wheeled about 24th Street in doublewide strollers. This is a charming neighborhood of young, upwardly mobile (used to be called yuppies) folks and the places they frequent.
Lower Haight: Two of my favorite names for business are in this part of Haight Street — O’Loony’s Market and Molotov’s Cocktails. Unlike the Hippie haven up over the hill, Lower Haight has a kind of anarchist feel about it. A very distinctive neighborhood and well worth a stroll. There’s a great stroll from here to Duboce Park and onto the Castro.
The Richmond and The Sunset: These two neighborhoods, which straddle Golden Gate Park, are in large part settled by Asians, but offer an incredible selection of small, inexpensive restaurants of every ethnic variety. They may seem exotic to the average American, yet these are very practical, working-class neighborhoods designed to serve the community. In the Richmond, Clement is the main street. In the Sunset, it is Irving. Both have an Inner and Outer designations. Inner is closer into the city. Outer gets foggy as the streets stretch out toward Ocean Beach.
West Portal: This full-service neighborhood is a transportation hub. Much like Bernal Heights, strangers could be dropped in the middle of the neighborhood and they would have no clue about what part of the country they were in. However Bernal Heights has a distinctive character unlike the West Portal neighborhood, which, though it has at least one of everything — a bookstore, banks, restaurants, real estate offices, etc. — has a strangely generic feel. It is Small Town, Anywhere, USA.
The Marina: Still another upscale neighborhood, this time with winding streets and Mediterranean-styled homes, eventually edges up against the Bay. Golden Gate Bridge views, yachts and parks. The main thoroughfare, Chestnut Street, has many shops and restaurants, busy all day long.
SOMA (South of Market): This term covers a huge area of the city that was once heavy-duty industrial. The rise of technology and the birth of Silicon Valley saw these old warehouses turned into lofts and offices for computer wizards and venture capitalist to live and work. The mix is still a little rough in places, but it is a great place to walk and find the unexpected.
CAPTION: (Top) An unmarked art gallery discovered in a non-descript alley in Little Saigon. (Bottom) An abandoned steel mill in Dog Patch no doubt waiting for the right developer. Other photographs of San Francisco neighborhoods are here.