Travel

Cole Valley: Friendliest neighborhood in San Francisco?

Cole Street is the heart of San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood, which is immediately south of Haight-Ashbury and off the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park.
Cole Street is the heart of San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood, which is immediately south of Haight-Ashbury and off the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

You have heard murmurings, vague yet insistent, about the famous friendliness of Cole Valley’s neighborhood denizens. You are not sure you believe such fanciful talk, accustomed as you are to the smug sophistication that seemingly pervades The City (capitalization mandatory) like so much lingering fog.

Still, you decide to give it a go. You sit in the lush garden patio at Cafe Reverie, sun on your shoulders, iced tea at your lips, the trill of flitting birds mostly drowning out the guy in shorts and Topsiders, sans socks, bleating into his cellphone. You notice a woman nearby, the only other late-morning lingerer at this popular Cole Valley hangout, alternately reading The New York Times’ food section and writing in her journal.

You approach, tentatively. She looks up, smiles. You exhale, relieved. She is pleasant, forthcoming, downright neighborly. She expounds on what she adores about the neighborhood, such as the fact you could dine alone and, more likely than not, engage in an extended conversation with a stranger.

But then you ruin it by asking this question: “Why do you think a lot of people have never heard of the Cole Valley?”

At that point, April Hirschman, life coach, tarot-card reader and native San Franciscan, blanches.

“Uh, it’s usually called Cole Valley, instead of the Cole Valley,” says Hirschman, gently but firmly. “You know, it’s like calling it Frisco or something. So, yeah, we just call it Cole Valley. Same with all the Valleys, like, Noe Valley, et cetera.”

Chastened and corrected, you reel. But Hirschman has politely moved on from your linguistic gaffe and continues to wax effusive. She’s lived all over The City – Haight and Mission districts, mostly – but hadn’t experienced a sector quite like Cole Valley.

“It’s like a small town within San Francisco,” she says.

“The thing is, we’re nestled in this beautiful place. It can become its own world. We have a family-owned pharmacy and grocery store. We have one of the best hardware stores. Literally, you can make it for a long time without leaving Cole Valley. But it’s really just a street, at the end of the day.”

You don’t want to argue, but Cole Valley encompasses much more than the two-block commercial strip on Cole Street, between Frederick Street and Parnassus Avenue, though that commercial stretch certainly is bustling. It features restaurants such as Zazie – one of the hottest Sunday brunch spots in The City, Padrecito (Mexican) and Bambino’s (Italian), quirky shops such as Say Cheese, Tantrum (toy store) and the venerable family-owned Cole Hardware, plus the chill vibe of Cafe Reverie and The Ice Cream Bar.

According to most maps, the area’s boundaries extends to Arguello Boulevard to the west, Clayton Street to the east, Waller Street to the north and Carmel Street to the south. But, depending on whom you ask, Cole Valley includes the Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve behind UC San Francisco and the jutting Tank Hill viewpoint, sort of an appendage of the Twin Peaks area.

These fine distinctions may not mean much to visitors, but to locals, they matter.

You chat up two women killing time after lunch at The Ice Cream Bar, the 1930s-style soda fountain, and they start bickering over boundaries, their inherent Cole Valley friendliness seriously tested.

Jessica Justino, who first came to Cole Valley in 1980 as a UCSF student and never left, makes a case for including Mount Olympus, a small park with an obelisk, east of Clayton. But her friend Joan Downey, treasurer of the Cole Valley Improvement Association, shakes her head.

“That totally is not Cole Valley,” Downey says.

“Really? It’s just on the other side of Clayton?”

“No.”

“OK, but I do notice you claim Sutro Forest for Cole Valley, but you aren’t willing to go the other way?”

“Sutro is Cole Valley, yes.”

“Well,” Justino concludes, “it’s kind of a squishy boundary line.”

You fret that you’ve caused a permanent rift in Cole Valley’s finely woven friendliness fabric, so you try to mend things by bringing up the splendor of the Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve, which, in local shorthand, is simply Sutro Forest (no “the”). That restores amity, pronto.

The women gush over Sutro Forest, an 80-acre wilderness space on a 900-foot hill in UCSF’s backyard, began more than 100 years ago when colorful former Mayor Adolf Sutro planted non-native eucalyptus trees and other foliage near the horse stables that ran along neighboring Stanyan Street. Sutro Forest, owned by the city and UCSF, staved off decades of slavering developers eying the land and is the very definition of urban wilderness.

About 15 years ago, a community group formed to save Sutro Forest, as well as improve the miles of hiking and mountain biking trails and trim back the overly lush ivy and blackberry brambles that threatened to suffocate the native plant species.

“The trails, in some places, were covered with 10 feet of ivy,” Downey says. “When they removed a lot of the ivy, some plants they hadn’t seen in 50 years started coming back. It’s a real success story.”

A morning jaunt through Sutro Forest is ritual for many. Locals speak of the ethereal nature of wandering through the fragrant eucalyptus groves when the fog is heavy, which is about 300 days of the year. But even on a late April morning, under a brilliant sky with nary a gust of wind, you find that Sutro Forest is a sanctuary from the city bustle.

The easiest way to enter is near the west corner of Stanyan and 17th Street. A wooden staircase bisects two handsome multistory houses. You know you’re in the right place when you encounter a green stenciled sign reading, “QUIET up to the forest 125’.” This being Cole Valley, someone has taken a black Sharpie and added, under the admonition for quiet, “please,” in delicate cursive.

No wonder that Cole Valleyites are so willing to annex the forest. It is even more lush than Golden Gate Park. Its 80 acres are home to 45 bird species, visitors on this morning hearing the staccato of woodpeckers and plaintive calls from great horned owls. Peeking out from the dense, viridescent flora are native plants such as the white-flowered morning glory, pink checkerbloom and, of course, the California poppy. Yet, the ivy persists, in some spots climbing halfway up 100-foot eucalyptus and cypress trunks.

Albeit a place for contemplative solo strolls, Sutro Forest dwellers are exceedingly friendly. The scrubs-wearing students from UCSF, who use the paths to get from housing to lecture halls, are quick with a smile and a greeting. Even the trail runners working hard on their downhill sprints take time to wave. Dogs – supposed to be on-leash, but, c’mon, who would be so unfriendly to enforce it? – ramble up to you with tails wagging, not teeth bared.

Bella, the brown Labradoodle belonging to hiker Gretchen Sadler and son Elijah, greets you like a friend. Sadler’s house abuts one of the entrances to Sutro Forest and she says she walks about 3 miles daily.

“It feels like (the forest) used to be hidden and unknown, but ever since the park and rec department has helped maintain it, it seems to get more use,” Sadler says.

She catches herself, adding brightly: “It’s not a bad thing at all. Look, the trails are better maintained. They are very smooth. … I could drive to other beautiful places, but why bother when I can walk out the door and climb from my street?”

One invasive species you aren’t likely to find: tourists.

That’s true for both Sutro Forest and its verdant counterpart, Tank Hill.

Though not more than a javelin throw from the touristic viewpoint known as Twin Peaks, Tank Hill is visited mostly by residents with dogs, local teenagers wanting, ahem, a little privacy and the occasional savvy tourist. This, despite the fact that Tank Hill (so named for a now-excised water tank; all that remains is a concrete floor ringed by eucalyptus) affords views of the financial center with its priapic Transamerica Pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge and, just as significantly, the entirety of Cole Valley.

Seen from above, it truly looks tiny, like a model railroad town, especially when the N-Judah light rail trolley clatters out of the tunnel and heads down Carl Street. But Cole Valley packs a lot into a small space, luring visitors on weekends to wait for two hours to order the “Miracle Pancakes” (made with sour cream and poppy seeds) at Zazie, or shop for vintage and handcrafted children’s toys at the circus-themed Tantrum, or procure a wedge of one of 407 brands at Say Cheese.

“People now are coming from all over the city, and tourists stop in off the N-Judah or from the Haight,” says Amanda Weld, co-owner of Tantrum with husband Richard. “The neighborhood’s changed a little. Seven years ago, it was definitely a dog neighborhood. I’d say now, you’d see either a (baby) bump or a stroller. It’s very young kids, and I think they are finally outnumbering the dogs in the neighborhood.”

Dogs remain a Cole Valley staple – a 60-foot-long, 18-foot-high mural of departed neighborhood dogs adorns a wall of the auto repair shop at 930 Cole.

Cole Valley also holds its hippie heritage dear. Its close proximity to the Haight, the legendary counterculture spot that failed to get the memo that the ’60s are over, has spawned businesses such as Phamaca, an integrative compounding pharmacy, and The Sword & Rose, a metaphysical purveyor of incense, oils and crystals.

Sword owner Patrick Ferry invites you into his lair, dimly lit with a rocking chair near a vintage wood stove, swords of varying sizes and sharpness propped against the walls.

“All our incense are ritually made, so we use the phase of the moon, day of the week, the ingredients that are appropriate to a particular god or goddess within a pantheon or particular purpose of healing. What we’re promoting is the ancient mystical kind of feeling that gets us out of our perception of what this world has to offer. It’s for people going through chemo or dealing with a death or even a break-up, or to answer what to do with my career, which you may need with print journalism’s problems.”

Ferry delivered the quip with a smile. It may be a dig at newspapers, but it’s a friendly one.

You immediately forgive him, just as Hirschman forgave your inexcusable use of “the” when talking about Cole Valley. Stay here long enough, it seems, and you become friendlier.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

San Francisco – Cole Valley

Eat

Zazie: 941 Cole Street. www.zaziesf.com

Padrecito, 901 Cole Street. www.padrecitosf.com

Bambino’s: 945 Cole Street. bambinosristorante.com

Cafe Reverie: 848 Cole Street. (415) 242-0200

The Ice Cream Bar: 815 Cole St., theicecreambarsf.com

Shop

Tantrum: 858 Cole St., shoptantrum.com

Say Cheese: 856 Cole St., saycheesesf.com

Cole Hardware: 956 Cole St., colehardware.com

The Sword & Rose: 85 Carl Street. (415) 681-5434

Explore

Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve: sutroforest.com

Tank Hill: sfparksalliance.org/our-parks/parks/tank-hill

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