S.F.’s Hayes Valley: From seedy to snooty?

SAN FRANCISCO She walks down Hayes Street, briskly and hyper-aware of her surroundings. She greets acquaintances on the move, comments on the unique design of a clothing store constructed from shipping containers, coos over the cute window display of $400 Chie Mihara pumps at Gimme Shoes, raves about a custom messenger-bag store, Timbuk2, down a block.

But when she reaches the corner of Hayes and Octavia streets, northern edge of an expanse of verdant park space, Patricia Unterman stops and performs a sweeping arm gesture.

“When the freeway came down,” she said, “it kind of liberated the whole neighborhood. Look at how open and inviting this is.”

If this had been 1979, when Unterman opened the Hayes Street Grill to give patrons a place to dine before a performance at nearby War Memorial Opera House, she would have been walking briskly along Hayes Street and remaining hyper-aware for entirely different reasons. She would have been trying to avoid looking at the crack houses, stepping around the prostitutes in high heels, moving fast, with head down, through the seedy shadows of a freeway underpass.

“Back then, anything beyond the freeway, which went over Octavia, was a real walk on the wild side,” Unterman said. “Even in my block, it was dicey. After the earthquake, it was like a psychological barrier that came down and then all of Hayes Valley blossomed.”

True, the tragedy of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake resulted in 63 deaths and $6 billion in property damages. But, as the old macabre joke goes about natural disasters befalling blighted areas, it actually caused millions in improvements to a sector of San Francisco that once rivaled the notorious Tenderloin as areas to avoid. Once the intrusive commuter artery known as the Central Freeway came down and the rubble cleared, up sprouted a real neighborhood – Hayes Valley.

The urban rehabilitation came gradually, starting with upscale restaurants and bars joining the Hayes Street Grill to serve opera and symphony goers, continuing with a steady procession of local stores and boutiques, buoyed by city legislation that banned chain stores from the area, augmented by SoHo-style galleries and artisan craftworks, and lastly centered in 1999 by the greenbelt park that took the space where the Fell Street offramp once stood.

Now, Hayes Valley has evolved into one of San Francisco’s trendiest neighborhoods – not as well known, perhaps, as outwardly affluent Nob Hill or Pacific Heights, or with the major hipster street cred of the Mission District, but emerging as the hot (haute?) spot to shop and sup for city dwellers and tourists weary of the throngs at Union Square. In fact, you know that Hayes Valley has arrived when it starts getting derided. In this case, the glossy magazine Travel + Leisure chose San Francisco as America’s snobbiest city, citing Hayes Valley as Exhibit A.

To some, of course, gentrification is just another word for demolition, the razing of an established neighborhood and the raising of rent well beyond reach of those longtime residents with limited means. In the post-earthquake decades, Hayes Valley has priced out many working-class residents and mom-and-pop businesses in favor of high-income techies and the high-end, luxury goods stores that cater to them.

No where is the intersection of old and new Hayes more evident than at the intersection of Hayes and Octavia, the north end of the park, named Patricia’s Green for a deceased neighborhood activist.

“This place is a weird dichotomy,” said Christine Cooley, tucking in to lunch from a nearby taco truck. “I remember when this place was just dirt. Yes, it’s pretty now. But look around. There’s homeless all around this fancy neighborhood.”

Not 15 feet from where an assemblage of homeless residents nursed Steel Reserve 40 ouncers and sucked on cigarettes, parents of young children watched their brood cavort on a playground structure and spoon designer ice cream from Smitten ($4.50 for four ounces).

Garett Dworman, 49, who moved to Hayes Valley seven years ago with his wife and toddler daughter, said he cherishes the neighborhood, especially fine-dining restaurants such as Absinthe, Suppenküche and Biergarten and the original Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk (major San Francisco hipster hangout).

“It’s a neighborhood I recommend to people,” Dworman said. “Some people don’t know much about it, but we actually get more San Francisco people coming here to shop than tourists. (But) I do worry it’s moving much too rapidly to becoming another Union Square. I hope that doesn’t happen. I moved in when it was already a nice neighborhood, but it is getting over-gentrified. It’s crazy. I don’t mind a few of those (luxury) stores, but it’s getting to be almost all of them.”

Across the way, hanging out at a wooden table on the green, Jackie Thomas put it bluntly.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes, none of them good,” she said. “They don’t have anything to accommodate people who don’t got the income for ‘trendy’ Hayes Valley. I don’t want to play the race card, but for black folks and Latinos and Asians, too, it’s hard. If you’re not some www-dot-whatever-wannabe-yahoo, you can’t get by.”

‘Snobby,’ or just upscale?

For those who can afford it – or more frugal tourists who just like to window shop and splurge on an expensive dinner – the Hayes Valley is an ideal day trip to see real-live newly wealthy young San Franciscans in their natural habitat.

You can find them browsing the imported sake selections at True Sake, the first specialty sake store in America, getting fitted for a four-figure custom-made leather jacket at Lava 9, dining on Coffee-Crusted Liberty Duck Breast ($32) and sipping a Ginger Rogers ($9; gin, fresh mint, ginger syrup, lemon juice, ginger beer) at street-side tables at Absinthe, and purchasing an adorable Hannah Heart onesie ($95, pure merino wool) at Fiddlesticks.

Tempting as it may be, many denizens say you cannot paint Hayes Valley all in gilt. Many of the stores are decidedly upscale, but that’s the price people must pay, apparently, for locally sourced, artisan goods, but don’t hate them for it, they say. Most won’t cop to being snobs, no matter what Travel + Leisure says.

“OK, yeah, it may be a little true,” said Tobey Bramble, working behind the counter of Flight 001, a quirky travel store shaped like the fuselage of a 747 and selling items such as the Rimowa Topas anodized aluminum-magnesium carry-on bag ($930). “But, really, San Francisco in general can be a little snobby. I don’t take it personally.”

Elizabeth Leu, a longtime Hayes Valley merchant who opened boutique Lavish a decade ago and now owns the children’s store Fiddlesticks, says it’s a misconception to brand the neighborhood snob-central.

“I think that, sometimes, price tags down here, people perceive that as (being) snobby?” she said. “I also think there are a few stores here that don’t give the greatest customer service. But that’s changed over the years. Some people around here are sensitive to price tags. We hear it when they pick up an expensive onesie and judge the store based on that, not knowing that you can get out of here with any price tag. You just have to ask. You can say, ‘I need a $10 gift’ and we can do that for you. The reason the prices are sometimes higher than other stores is that it’s made local.”

Chain stores would certainly lower price tags in Hayes Valley, but at the expense of the neighborhood’s character, supporters say. In 2004, an ordinance passed the board of supervisors banning chain stores from a four-block stretch of Hayes Valley. A chain was defined as a retail store with “more than 11 outlets nationally and two or more of the following standardized qualities: array of merchandise, facade, decor and color scheme, uniforms, signage and trademark.”

When, in 2012, the European clothing giant Gant Rugger opened a store on Hayes Street, bypassing the ordinance because it does not have more than 11 stores in the United States, the Hayes Street Merchants Association complained and Supervisor London Breed, who represents Hayes Valley, has sought to amend the ordinance to exclude foreign retail behemoths.

As board President David Chiu told the San Francisco Chronicle last summer, “Our city has some unique and special commercial neighborhoods ... that have done well with boutiques and ‘only in San Francisco’ merchants. I don’t think shoppers want to come to a commercial corridor that looks like Main Street, U.S.A.”

Grilling for 35 years

You certainly won’t find generic Main Street touches under the familiar green awning of the Hayes Street Grill, now in its 35th year and still packing in the lunch crowd even on a weekday.

Lining the walls are framed photos from greats who have performed a mere shout away at the opera house of Davies Symphony – everyone from opera divas to homeboy conductor Michael Tilson Thomas – and listed on the menu is the type of fresh “California grill style” fare, specializing in seafood, that once seemed so out-of-place in Hayes Valley. Unterman said she took a chance on the “sketchy” neighborhood but did it out of desperation.

“We were in Berkeley and coming to the opera and there was no place to eat before the performance,” said Unterman, the co-owner with Richard Sander. “Simple as that. We thought, ‘We have to have something. This is crazy.’ We opened Hayes Street with the idea of cooking something quickly that’s fresh and have it before the performance. This (space) used to be a photo store, with a violin shop in the back. No other restaurants anywhere near here. Things have changed.”

Now, there may be more restaurants in Hayes Valley per square foot than at any place in the foodie-mad Bay Area, including Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Certainly, there is ethnic diversity in its cuisine choices. Within a few blocks, you could go German (Suppenküche), French (Chantal Guillon and Chez Mamon), Brazilian (Canto Do Brasil), Japanese (Domo and Nojo) and Thai (Lers Ros).

Not every dining spot has been able to withstand the dizzying changes gentrification has wrought in Hayes Valley. For every new pop-up store and eatery, a longtime spot has gone belly up to rising rent and more sophisticated palates.

“We had Powell’s, a great soul food restaurant, that went out of business,” Unterman said. “Very sad. The prices of everything here has gone up.”

Then again, gentrification has made the streets safe to walk and window shop, even if the other side of the window is as close as you’ll ever get to those $400 Chie Mihara pumps.