5 blocks in San Francisco's Mission District

On days I don’t ride my bicycle to downtown San Francisco, I take BART from my neighborhood, the Eastern Mission. It takes 8 minutes and 5 blocks to walk from my home to the 16th and Mission BART station - exactly 0.4 miles according to Google. I alternate my routes but because of the street grid, it always takes about the same time unless I pause to have a closer look at what is around me - like I did the other day. I thought I knew everything inside out after having walked this stretch of 5 blocks for years. Yet I came to realize that not only have a lot of things changed – streetscapes, buildings, stores, trees, plazas – but these 5 blocks truly illustrate what the Mission is all about. At least outside of the fancier Valencia Street corridor, which has seen significant transformation in recent years with new and expensive stores, cafés, and restaurants sprouting up at every corner, mainly catering to a new generation of of tech workers.

Block 1: Adaption
This seemingly ordinary manufacturing building now houses several small businesses and has become a canvas for art. It’s non-descript character causes no hesitation to touch it, which means it can change and adapt over time. Several themes and colors coexist but the best of all was Digipop’s decidedly 1980s time machine. Clearly, the message is that this web company has known computers since Atari, and every time I walked by it made me smile because I have the honor of personally remembering that era, and my first Atari. Unfortunately, the company's name has changed, but they kept the color scheme.

Two façade bays over from (formely) Digipop is this art piece:


One can call the number listed at the bottom and listen to the poet… but I never did. Why not?

Block 2: A world of possibilities Part 1
Have a close look at this parking lot. No, you’re not gazing upon a back corner of Los Angeles, this empty lot (at least on the weekends) accommodates two city car share pods, a slew of skateboarders and amateur bike riders, and not to mention, quite a nice waterfall on the sidewalks during rainstorms.

This seemingly unnoticed monochromatic landscape houses a whole host of opportunities- a lush garden with hummingbirds, kids playing, and vegetables growing, and housing – fortunately, imagination might become a reality in the near future. I attended a workshop that was held to collect ideas for a new park, and like many other participating neighbors, I got very excited about the prospect of having park the next block over, and not just Mission Dolores Park some ten blocks away. The planning department has already secured funding and is finalizing the planning for the new park, which is really great news in dire times.

Block 3: A world of possibilities Part 2
Only a few years ago, this street was frequented by representatives of the oldest profession of the world, now neighborhood improvement projects have made all the difference in the world in transforming this stretch of the mission. Greening projects - like this strip of grass pavers or parking lots turned pocket parks- are often lovingly cared for by residents and neighborhood groups.

Stretching along hidden alley ways and sidewalks to major neighborhood corridors like Guerrero and Valencia, streetscape greening is growing and is evidence not only that grass pavers do work in California but that communities are coming together to collaboratively work for positive change.

Just a few steps away on the other side of the street is the new ODC Dance Theater. Designed by Mark Cavagnero Associates, it is a renovation and extension of the existing building. Making an appropriate reference to its industrial past and present, the building was the first to introduce COR-TEN Steel as a façade material to this part of the Mission.


Overlooking the parking lot turned soon-to-be-park, the ODC Dance Theater, together with a gallery, youth center and the new ODC Dance Commons building down the street, has already transformed the area into a cultural destination.

Old and new is a constant theme in the Mission and that is why the neighborhood feels like the real thing – urban. Would a new neighborhood plan ever allow for something like this?


Block 4: Juxtaposition
Adjacencies like this let you check on current gas prices with a glimpse out of the window and you never run out of food or beer late at night. And which suburban gas station can call a backdrop like this its own? This is why a movie like Bullitt with Steve McQueen was filmed in San Francisco. Only trees and people who love a good night’s sleep might not like it so much here.

The Mission is, among other things, about food. Countless grocery stores, restaurants and food carts line Mission and Valencia Street. Fruits, cuisines, and people are from all over the world but the neighborhood keeps up its traditional California flavor. The abundance of fruits at any time of the year always reminds me why California is called “America’s fruit basket” for a reason. The best food I have ever tasted was here and I realize how spoiled I am once I travel to the north-east. Despite two large grocery markets nearby, the plethora of these small neighborhood serving markets seem to survive -  where else can you get Cacto and sǔn jiān in the same isle?
Block 5: California Flavor
I arrived at the 16th and Mission BART station. This is the place I sometimes dread coming back home to because the smell is… well, “organic”. Unless it’s raining. Some years ago, the plaza received a 3 million dollar make-over, which turned it from a bleak, utilitarian place into an urban meeting spot- people rest, wait for the bus, play music, give speeches, preach, and eat (food cart provided).

Final Destination: Food, Music, (B)ART
The artwork on one end of the plaza changes on regular basis, while the modular art incorporated into the station in the 1970s however does not. Somehow though, the precast concrete wall panels have a strange appeal. Perhaps it’s the random, even out of place nature of the art work now that makes it feel oddly at home here?



These precast concrete wall panels offer a clear indication of station’s erection date and draw connections to the stark (and presumably disliked) Vaillancourt Fountain at Justin Herman Plaza designed by Landscape Architect Lawrence Halprin. This harsh Béton Brut architectural language can sometimes offer a respite to the eye amidst the bustle of the street and the cracked stucco façades of the buildings. Personally, I prefer the honesty of buildings in reference to the era they were built even though some of the architecture in the 1970s was an experiment in bold, sometimes inhumane forms. Yet, as this station space shows, it’s the musicians and street characters who use it as their stage every day that prove people, not just buildings or artwork, make a lively neighborhood.

H.S.