SF’s Most Transitionary Neighborhood
Believe it or not, this ultra-mod, sleek neighborhood, with its swanky high-rises, has been a fluctuating home to blue-collar factory workers, sailors, junkies, and gay leather daddies. However, its current pedigree is a testament to history’s cyclical nature; the area was once home to San Francisco’s uber-wealthy. Though it may seem like SOMA is the traitor neighborhood to San Francisco’s iconic Victorians and charming micro-hoods, Rincon Hill—where many of SOMA’s new gleaming glass buildings are springing up—is actually just returning to its former glory.
It’s easy to look at the neighborhood’s physical characteristics and see the area as very alien to the rest of the city
South of the Slot was the original name given to this neighborhood because of the cable cars that ran along the grooves, or slots, up and down Market Street. First established as a neighborhood in 1848 it was mainly used for heavy and light industrial work, due to its proximity to the piers. After the nearby cable cars (quite literally) drew the wealthy up towards Nob Hill, what remained was a mishmash of working and lower-middle class European immigrants, workers from sweatshops, factories, and power stations, and wanderers staying at cheap hotels. After the 1906 quake came, this area experienced more fatalities and destruction than any other. When it was rebuilt, the streets were widened to accommodate the industrial work that was so common there. As if the quake damage weren’t enough, the construction of the Bay Bridge and US 101 in the 1930s virtually wiped away what was left of Rincon Hill.
SOMA’s industrial trend continued through the 1940s and into the fifties. With lots of late-night workers and transients passing through (who often stayed in old Victorians that lined the alleyways and side streets), the neighborhood developed a sketchy feel to it. However, after the city rejuvenated the Embarcadero’s waterfront, it inspired a new crowd to settle in: the gay and leather communities. This colorful and lively group thrived in SOMA throughout the sixties, but throughout the seventies, they had an uphill battle against the city trying to fend off redevelopment plans. Unfortunately, when the AIDS epidemic developed, they couldn’t do much to stop the city from closing down the bathhouses, bars and sex clubs the area had become known for. In fact, the Folsom Street Fair was launched in 1984 by a coalition of housing activists, as a way for the gay community to maintain their presence in the neighborhood and show City Hall that they were still a formidable force.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, some of the industrial warehouses in the area were repurposed as spaces for underground rave, punk, and independent music to be played. Other lofts were set aside to be used as live-work spaces for artists, but were scooped up by tech miners instead.
Obviously, we’re all currently experiencing the second coming of this last development. Not much changed or developed in the neighborhood in the 1990s; the MOMA was built and a few other museums, but not much else. And even though the arrival of the “dot commies” resulted in the area’s literal growth, it hasn’t resulted in the development of much character. SOMA can’t own much of a characteristic identity, which is interesting considering the layered and organic character it’s had historically. In 2005, after the team behind the Transbay Terminal Replacement Project wanted to raise local height restrictions, a steady slew of high rises were proposed, including the throwback namesake, One Rincon Hill, and the Salesforce Tower.
But, even when SOMA was home to San Francisco’s upper crust in the past, it never stood out (the way it does now) as an area that was so separate from the rest of the city. There’s an interesting convergence happening there now that’s worth mentioning. Much of the change and swell that’s been happening in San Francisco over the last few years stems from tech, and SOMA is the main landing ground—or SF outpost—for a lot of those companies. It’s easy to look at the neighborhood’s physical characteristics and see the area as very alien to the rest of the city; everything going up there is completely devoid of the Victorian architecture, historic feel, and colorful charm that San Francisco is so famous for.
Consider this: if you didn’t live in San Francisco, someone blindfolded you and dropped you off in SOMA, you could open your eyes and easily think you were in Chicago, New York, or maybe even Los Angeles. But, since those cities are filled with large buildings, they have small-town charm strewn throughout the streets. SOMA, on the other hand, is just one neighborhood, yet it resembles the expansive makeup of those major urban scenes. It lacks the warmth and human feel that courses through the rest of San Francisco. It’s ironic that some of the leading innovators and designers in our world are dreaming up so much novelty and brilliance in this area that’s not very colorful or culturally inspiring. But, then again, maybe it’s their tabula rasa. One thing is clear, whatever and whomever it’s home to, SOMA is a neighborhood of fluidity and change, and it’s certainly making waves now.