Bernal Heights: Part 1


There are still some in San Francisco who don’t know much about Bernal Heights, some who don’t even know where it is. Simply put, they need to get with the program. While Bernal has been around since the 1860s, three decades have passed since it was “discovered.” In that time it’s gone from being forgotten to being one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods, real estate-wise.

Some of that change you can trace back to the opening of a single grocery store. In 1991, the owners of the Good Life grocery store on Potrero Hill shrugged off Bernal’s then-iffy reputation, choosing Cortland Street for their second location. At the time, Cortland, which had been Bernal’s “Main Street” for well over 100 years, was full of shuttered stores and dodgy foot traffic. So far had Bernal fallen that the venerable Bank of America branch on Cortland had considered pulling out of the neighborhood just a few years prior.

But Good Life owner Lester Zeidman received a letter from a customer, begging him to open a branch in Bernal Heights. When he did, almost immediately other businesses turned toward Cortland Street and Bernal Heights. The Liberty Café followed three years later, opening up Cortland to destination restaurants.

Many would say that by then Bernal was already on an upward arc. The neighborhood, a working-class enclave for more than a century, had begun attracting artists and activists years before. Some spent years fighting with those who sought to compromise Bernal’s abundant open space in the name of growth. The Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center was borne out of this type of effort in the 1970s.

Whatever travails Bernal has endured during its 150-plus-years history, today it is squarely in the sites of homebuyers and, beginning with its location, it’s easy to see why. Bernal is accessible to downtown San Francisco by bus and train. Nearby on-ramps to both major freeways offer easy entrée to South San Francisco’s biotech hub and to Silicon Valley. The shops and restaurants of Mission Street, Noe Valley and Glen Park are all within walking distance, but thanks to the movement begun 20 years ago by The Good Life and The Liberty Café, Bernal residents can find all they need within their own neighborhood.

Bernal is a large district with numerous personalities. Its defining feature is Bernal Hill, 500 feet tall and unpopulated at its peak. Bernal’s parade of cottages and bungalows climbs about halfway up Bernal Hill on all sides (“north,” “south,” “east” and “west” slopes). Above that is a huge park, popular with dog walkers, joggers and those enraptured by panoramic San Francisco views, i.e. almost everyone. In Bernal’s early days, residents used the hilltop for cattle grazing. Back then, almost everyone in the neighborhood had their own cows.

But it was almost not so; in the late 1960s, the City of San Francisco set its sights on Bernal Hill, imagining a Diamond Heights-style redevelopment project. Calling on their long history of activism (Bernal Heights residents played large roles in the San Francisco labor wars during the 1930s and earlier), Bernal locals worked to have the hill made into an official park, then created the Bernal Hilltop Restoration Project to restore it to its original state.

Barbara Pitschel, a long-time Bernal Heights resident who, with her husband Roland, spearheaded the effort, referred to Bernal as “a piece of country inside the city.” Though it’s grown and changed, it remains so today. What other San Francisco neighborhood still has dirt roads?

Bernal Heights is built on a section of the former Rancho Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo, granted to Jose Cornelio Bernal by the governor of Alta California in 1839. For several years, Bernal’s homestead, near the site of today’s St. Luke’s Hospital, was the only residence in the area, until the 1863 completion of the San Francisco to San Jose rail line made it feasible to come to Bernal Heights. Photos of Bernal from that era show open fields and farms, plus the faint outline of Holly Park and the fledgling campus of St. Mary’s College, located in today’s St. Mary’s Park neighborhood. The college moved to Oakland in 1889 and then to Moraga years later.

Bernal’s next population bump came after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. The flames stopped at 20th Street, leaving Bernal mostly unharmed. Refugees took shelter in 250 earthquake shacks set up in Precita Park. Many stayed. Some simply towed their shacks to nearby lots. Today, Bernal Heights has the city’s largest collection of extant shacks.

Bernal also has one of the city’s largest inventories of Victorian cottages, built by early Irish, Scandinavian, Italian and German settlers. In recent years, these homes have become very popular, especially on Bernal’s north slope. Here you can get not only Victorian charm but also unsurpassed views of the San Francisco skyline.

Views are common on Bernal Hill. Those on Bernal’s eastern slope – also a hot spot for Victorians – are treated to western-facing views of Twin Peaks; from the east the views are of San Francisco Bay and from the south Bernalites face San Bruno Mountain. These are the advantages of living on a hill.

Earlier this year, the real estate web site Redfin named Bernal Heights the “hottest neighborhood in the U.S.” based on buyer trends, which means that of all the neighborhoods in San Francisco – all red hot and getting hotter – Bernal stands above them. Wherever Bernal Heights stands on the pecking order of “hot” neighborhoods, though, its character remains unchanged; it is in many ways quintessentially San Franciscan, full of colorful homes and equally colorful characters.

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