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Mission District: SF’s Fun Neighborhood

Mission Dolores Park, Mission District
Mission Dolores Park overlooks the Mission District

The Mission District is a very well-known neighborhood in San Francisco. It’s popular for a number of reasons: it has some of the best restaurants in the city (it was the birthplace of the Mission Burrito after all), it’s a Mecca for clubbers and others wanting to have fun, it’s home to one of the best green spaces in SF, Mission Dolores Park, and it has a lot of fantastic murals. Not only that but the area is also one of the most historic here, the Mission San Francisco de Asís is the oldest building in the city and the neighborhood’s Victorian houses are some of its most impressive. So, for Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to take you on a deep dive of the Mission District, spiritual center of the Latino community in San Francisco.

In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of the Mission, and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink there.

Early History of the Mission District

For at least a thousand years the First Americans known as the Yalamu lived in the area which is now occupied by the Mission. They were a tribe of the Ohlone people, a wider group who lived on the land from the Bay Area down to Monterrey. The Yalamu lived a semi-nomadic life, rotating through different settlements on the peninsula, depending on the season.

Their main village was on the edge of what the Spanish named Laguna de los Dolores (because it was the Friday of Sorrows when they first came across it), a salt-water lagoon that used to stretch from the bay to what’s now Valencia Street. For that reason, when the Spanish arrived in 1769 on the Portola Expedition, they settled on the spot as being perfect for the mission that they would establish. The missions were central to the colonizing project of the Spanish, which was to convert the First Americans to Catholicism and put them to work on the church’s lands.

On June 29, 1776, the Mission San Francisco de Asís was dedicated with its first service, and it’s considered the founding date of San Francisco. The church itself was a simple, small, wooden structure (and no one’s a hundred percent sure of where it was), but in 1791 a new, larger, adobe building was opened about a quarter of a mile to the West. Although much of the complex has been altered or demolished, the present-day chapel’s façade is original and therefore it’s the oldest structure in San Francisco. The Mission was named after the founder of the Franciscan Order, St Francis of Assisi, but it quickly also became known as Mission Dolores, after the nearby lagoon.

The arrival of the Spanish was incredibly bad news for the Ohlone, and all First Americans in California. Their labor was central to the creation and maintenance of the missions. The neophytes (newly converted First Americans) would do all the manual labor, build the missions, plant the crops and tend to the livestock. For no pay, of course. In this way, over a hopefully short period, the missions could develop a healthy surplus to sell and trade, ensuring they could continue their work. Understandably the Ohlone weren’t so keen on this proposition, so compulsion was crucial.

As soon as a First American was baptized they became, essentially, a slave on the Mission. Forbidden from speaking their own language or following their own customs, forced to live on the Mission (with separate quarters for men and women) and to listen to the padres’ sermons and compelled to do back-breaking work six days a week. How to get them to convert? Force, bribery, trickery – anything was allowed. A fur trapper that passed through the Bay Area at the time observed:

The greater part of the Indians were brought from their native mountains against their own inclinations, and by compulsion, and then baptised; which act was as little voluntary on their part, as the former had been. After these preliminaries, they had been put to work, as converted Indians.

There was an unseen, but deadly, menace to the Ohlone that was brought by the Spaniards too, disease. Numerous epidemics swept through the original people of the region. Arguably the worst one of the Californian Spanish era was in 1806, when a quarter of the Mission’s First American population died of the measles, or related complications, just between March and May of that year. Over 5,000 Ohlone are thought to be buried in the Mission Dolores cemetery.

By 1810, the height of the mission era, over a thousand First Americans, overwhelmingly Ohlone, were living at Mission Dolores. Its lands stretched all the way down to San Mateo, nearly twenty miles away, and included Bay Farm Island, on the other side of the bay. The circumference of the mission’s land was an incredible 125 miles. On the property were literally tens of thousands of cows, sheep, mules, goats and pigs. Horses were corralled on Potrero Hill, about half a mile from the Mission, and the milking sheds for the cows were on Dolores Creek, where Mission High School is now.

However, with Mexican Independence the Mission fell into decline, along with all the missions in California, and in 1834 they were secularized by the Mexican Government. This left Mission Dolores with little more than the church and priest’s quarters, along with a relatively small amount of land in the area (today’s Mission Dolores neighborhood), for use as gardens. By the late 1840’s the population of the Mission had shrunk to less than fifty people, including priests and laborers.

A New Era

The Gold Rush brought renewed activity to the Mission though and it became a popular San Francisco entertainment district, with a zoo, baseball ground and horse-racing at Pioneer Race Course. By the 1870’s, as San Francisco rapidly grew, land was being subdivided and housing built, mostly for working-class European immigrants, with large percentages from Germany, Ireland and Italy. In the 1890’s the area was connected to downtown by several streetcar lines.

Much of the neighborhood survived the Great Fire of 1906 intact (because the famous Golden Hydrant in the Mission was one of few that still worked), and development intensified in the years afterwards. From the 1930’s onward the Mission District began to take on the Latino character that it’s kept to this day, as Mexican immigrants began to move into the area.

Much like neighboring Castro the area developed a strong LGBTQ+ identity in the 1970’s too – in the case of the Mission it was focused on lesbians. The Women’s Building, on 18th Street, is an example of the ongoing work of that community.

Nowadays there are arguments about gentrification, as the Latino population of the district has fallen by about 20% over the last two decades. Tech workers – and others – have moved into the area, drawn by its proximity to downtown and the lively restaurant and bar scene. Nevertheless, the Mission does remain the cultural center of San Francisco’s Hispanic population.

Our Recommendations

Another interesting point to note about the Mission is that it has its own micro-climate (part of the reason that the Yalamu chose it as the site of their main village). This means that even when it’s cold and windy in other parts of SF, the neighborhood – and particularly Mission Dolores Park – is sunny and warm. For this, and many other, reasons, it’s a great place to visit.

MISSION SAN FRANCISCO DE ASIS / MISSION DOLORES

The Mission is on the corner of Dolores and 16th Streets and the church there has regular services, when you can go into the Mission Dolores Basilica. The old Mission building contains a small museum.

MISSION DOLORES PARK

A lovely park that is often warm and sunny, even when the rest of San Francisco isn’t, it draws locals to its green slopes to bask in the sun and admire the fantastic views of the city. There are several cafés and bars surrounding the park too, such as Dolores Park Café and Woods Cerveceria.

VALENCIA STREET AND MISSION STREET

Valencia and Mission Streets have an abundance of great cafés and restaurants and cool independent shops. You could easily spend a couple of hours, or more, just wandering up and down them, grabbing a drink or a bite to eat and popping into fun. interesting stores.

THE ROXIE THEATER

The Roxie is one of the oldest continuously operating movie theatres in the U.S., opening in 1912. It was renovated in 1933, when the current marquee was added. The Roxie has a great program of new releases, retrospectives, film festivals and Spanish-language films.

THE WOMEN’S BUILDING

The San Francisco Women’s Center purchased the building in 1979. It’s a non-profit arts and education community center for – and you probably guessed this – women. It serves over 20,000 females every year and it has some magnificent murals on the outside of the building.

CLARION ALLEY MURAL PROJECT

Clarion Alley runs between Valencia and Mission Streets and, beginning in 1992, it has had a series of different murals created along its entire length. The organization’s aims are to promote social engagement with their work, furthering racial, social, economic and environmental justice. There are also some anti-drug abuse murals too.

BALMY ALLEY

Another Mission alley with a ton of amazing murals, this one dating back to 1972. Like Clarion Alley the emphasis is on political themes, including racial, economic and social issues that particularly affect Mexican-Americans, also known as Chicanos. The nearby Precita Eyes Muralists are the main organization involved with creating the artworks.

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

Our SF: Food + History + Art tour, which runs every Sunday at midday, begins by Mission Dolores and takes in Valencia Street, the Clarion Alley Mural Project and Dolores Park, as well as stopping in some of the best local eating spots.

If you have any feedback on Mission District: SF’s Fun Neighborhood please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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