Sacred Places of San Francisco: an escape from time

In the midst of packing my possessions in San Francisco and moving back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon, I didn’t find the time to finish my Sacred Places of San Francisco series. Excuse the fact that I am no longer living in the beloved city of San Francisco as I write these last two entries.

For my last location-specific post about San Francisco (for now!), I have chosen to focus on one neighborhood, a neighborhood that I lived adjacent to for nine months. One of the most overlooked, diverse, and quirky neighborhoods in the city, it is a haven for artists, creatives, dog walkers, nature-appreciators, gardeners, and those desiring good views and old houses. This neighborhood is called Bernal Heights.

Bernal Hill from Sanchez

I already wrote about Bernal Hill in a previous post, one of the most navigating landmarks in the city. You can see it from most of the areas of San Francisco east of Twin Peaks and south of the downtown skyscrapers. It sits there, exposed, looking different from every angle. But what some people may not know is that it sits smack in the middle of a fascinating, beautiful neighborhood. Or, should I say, a beautiful neighborhood sprang up around it. Bungalows, quaint artist retreats, bay windows, community gardens, ramshackle fences, hidden stairs, surprising city views, colorful row houses ringing the hill- all of these touches seem to have risen out of the bedrock itself, out of the vision and imagination of a stunning but hidden natural setting.

The Bernal Heights neighborhood was originally part of the Rancho de las Salinas y Potrero Nuevo, and owes its name to Jose Cornelio de Bernal, to whom the land was granted in 1839 by the Mexican government. In the 1860s, the rancho was subdivided into small lots, and was first populated primarily by Irish immigrants who farmed the land and ran dairy ranches. According to legend, a mini gold rush was triggered in 1876 when con artists planted the hilltop with traces of gold. The neighborhood survived the 1906 earthquake and fire thanks to its strong bedrock foundation and some houses still remain from this era- constructed out of salvaged timber from the fire. Because of its higher elevation and strong foundation, many people moved here following the earthquake. The 1940s and WWII brought more people to the area, mostly because of work in the naval shipyards in China Basin, just east of the hill. After a brief stint as a “dangerous place” for “seedy people” in the 1980s, Bernal Heights’ Cortland Avenue began to be cleaned up in the ’90s and is now groomed as the main thoroughfare of the district just south of the hill (for history cite: SF Gate). Though some would argue that the Good Life Grocery, boutique children’s ware shops, quaint bookshops and hip restaurants are a sign of gentrification, Bernal Heights remains surprisingly modest and homey. I would say this is because of its location surrounding a hill, tucked away in meandering streets and constantly changing geography, but it may also be that the area is relatively small and real estate prices remained fairly constant in the ’90s dot com boom (cite: SF Gate).