SoMa: An evolution in progress…


Change is afoot in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) district, but then, isn’t it always? Since it was first platted in 1847, SoMa’s only constant has been change. During its long life it’s been an exclusive residential neighborhood, a district of light industry and warehouses, a convenient landing spot for transient workers, a hub of nightlife activity, a place where local artists set themselves up in inexpensive warehouse space and early tech workers powwowed in brand-new live-work spaces…

The latest change to hit SoMa came during the last decade. In 2010, the San Francisco Association of Realtors made official what had been obvious to savvy observers for years: that what we’d been calling SoMa had actually become three distinct neighborhoods, one wedged between downtown and Mission Bay called South Beach (Third Street to San Francisco Bay), one boasting a critical mass of luxury high-rise buildings called Yerba Buena (Fifth Street to Third) and funky, quirky SoMa (Fifth Street to the 101 Freeway).

SoMa’s rich history is long and unique. It spent its earliest years as a residential neighborhood – one of the city’s finest – until the introduction of reliable streetcars pushed the district’s wealthy residents to the top of Nob Hill. In their place came working-class residents, dock and shipyard workers whose presence in SoMa dominated the next several decades.

Whatever growth SoMa was undergoing 100 years ago was abruptly interrupted by the total devastation of the 1906 earthquake. The ‘quake and ensuing fire leveled the entire neighborhood. When it came time to rebuild, city leaders decided to emphasize light industry and simple housing. They widened SoMa’s main streets and lined them with multi-unit low-rise Edwardian buildings, which attracted the aforementioned transient workers. Many of these buildings remain and now stand cheek-to-jowl with converted warehouses, lofts from the 1990s and mid-rise condo buildings from the last decade.

Modern SoMa is defined by its industrial past (from the exterior, the warehouses and apartment buildings on Howard, Folsom and Harrison Streets seem unchanged from the early 20th century) and by its forward-looking present (anything you can imagine fitting into a warehouse is inside these buildings: bars, restaurants, non-profit charities, art studios, tech start-ups). Its transition from “skid row” to the present was long and controversial, beginning with Benjamin Swig’s failed “San Francisco Prosperity Plan” in 1954. Swig’s hope was to make SoMa an extension of downtown, with high-rise office and residential buildings, but it was ultimately defeated by neighborhood resistance. Eventually, redevelopment came in a more organic, piecemeal fashion. Rather than start over, the neighborhood simply continued to evolve.

As a result, despite its wide streets and commercial buildings, modern SOMA is a colorful functioning city neighborhood, with rec centers, parks, schools, grocery stores (Harvest Urban Market, at 191 8th Street, is a stellar new addition), bars and some of San Francisco’s most notable restaurants, along with decades-old mom and pop businesses and younger ones, like the combination Laundromat/café/performance space Brain Wash, which, after almost 30 years in business has become a decades-old mom and pop business.

SoMa wears its past and present simultaneously. Whether it’s the constantly changing roster of night spots radiating out from the intersection of 11th Street and Folsom, the latter street’s scattered leather emporia (evidence of its 1960s and 70s run as the center of San Francisco’s nascent gay community) or in the gleaming steel barrels of the Cellar Maker Brewing on Howard Street, SoMa keeps parts of its past alive while simultaneously forging ahead.

But what makes the neighborhood so special is that hidden just around the corner from its busy main thoroughfares are SoMa’s treasured alleyways, one-lane residential streets offering warm contrast to wide, noisy streets like Howard and Harrison. It’s here that you’ll find so many of the small, two- to 10-unit residential buildings that eventually became SoMa’s 1990s and after redevelopment. They’re pressed in among small warehouses (most of them converted into artists’ studios or live-work lofts but some still actively commercial) and Edwardian flats, creating small, quiet pockets of intimacy in the midst of arguably San Francisco’s most urban neighborhood.

One of the best of these is the block of Harriet Street between Howard and Folsom. Here you’ll see contrasting architectural styles coming together not in chaos but in complement, all overlooking the playground and park of the Gene Friend Recreation Center. This street was described in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book,  “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” as a “poor, forgotten block.” It is forgotten no more.

What comes next for SoMa? Part of the answer lies in the construction going on at its northwest corner. Here, emboldened by the success of Mission Street’s SOMA Grand building and the arrival of tech firms like Twitter, is a riot of new residential construction, four high-rise buildings hugging the Market Street border and boasting of amenities equal to those found in Yerba Buena’s standard-bearers. 37 stories at its tallest, just-opened NEMA adds 754 for lease residential units to SOMA, joining the massive Trinity Place complex one block away to emphatically declare that SoMa’s next step is directly up.

NEMA and Trinity may be the future, but there will always be room in SoMa for the quirky, the small-scale and the past. That these can live side-by-side is what makes SoMa one of San Francisco’s most vibrant and interesting neighborhoods.

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