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A Moving Target

There’s not much in San Francisco that hasn’t changed in 40 or so years. The city Tony Bennett sang about was one without a financial district, multi-media gulch, tech enterprises and half-million dollar one-room condominiums.


The pace of change continues. A visit to the city at any given time promises a glimpse into neighborhoods unique in geography, but also in time. Some see present day San Francisco as haunted by gentrification. It starts with an old, deteriorating neighborhood with a few scattered businesses and then begins to come alive when new immigrants move in. Artist studios follow and soon so do restaurants and wealthier residents. The streets fill with people enjoying unique book stores, clubs, antique stores and revived theaters showing independent films.

A mural on 16th Street tells of an old culture in a changing neighborhood. Copyright Eric MillerBut the change doesn’t stop there. Soon new condominiums are being built, chain stores are moving in and what had been unique becomes more like anywhere else. But just as one neighborhood gentrifies, the process begins again somewhere else. At any given time, somewhere in San Francisco, there is a neighborhood right at its peak of creativity and individuality. Right now it’s an area centered around 16th and Mission Streets which is being called New Bohemia. Walking South on 16th from Market Street, freshly painted Edwardian homes and apartments slowly give way to small and scattered storefronts.

The first sign of things ahead, a sidewalk stencil declares that Maggie the Cat is alive. It isn’t clear who or what Maggie the cat is. It’s only important to know that what we didn’t know existed a few steps back is significant to somebody. In a few blocks, past Mission Dolores where the city began, the sidewalks begin to fill with a diverse mix of people. Soon a large bagel hovers over a sidewalk cafe and another coffee shop decorated in red and green welcomes you for food that’s good for your pocket, your soul and your politics. At the corner of 16th and Valencia what seems to be the permanent uniqueness associated with San Francisco can start to be seen as a place in time along a line of change.

Columbian-owned café advertises food that is good for your politics. ©Eric Miller Corner grocers run by Mexican and Southeast Asian families line the streets. Burrito shops, taquerias, Vietnamese and Indian restaurants offer some of the best food in the city at unbeatable prices. Then there are more recent establishments offering Spanish food, American "comfort" food and French crepes. Long-established businesses selling books, used furniture and appliances are mixed with newer ones selling glassware, reproductions of 1950s furniture and vintage clothing. Only a few storefronts have been here more than twenty years; a cobbler, laundry, key cutter and printer. Carefully painted murals of desert scenes and waterfalls hang outside an auto body shop, while peeling paint and cracked windows provide a different ambiance for other businesses and still others reassure you that you are in the good hands of a business with a real marketing plan.

The mix of people spans the racial, cultural, economic and psychological spectrum. Some are moving about their work, walking to the subway, contemplating the day over a cup of coffee and the morning paper or sitting on the sidewalk unconcerned about the how and why of it all. Musicians entertain with signs lamenting stolen instruments or the need to travel to Chicago. A man with broken English stands with his daughter selling flowers. One elderly man with a beard concealing his face walks the streets with a pigeon perched on his head. Those who have tried to talk to him come away disappointed. They find a man who can be understood by the bird, has words which make little sense.

New Bohemia, a sign of things to come. ©Eric MillerNew Bohemia is not a permanent part of San Francisco. It is a place in time as much as a place on the map. And while some may try to preserve it, they will be too slow to learn that like all things organic, there are only two states of existence, growth and decay. Breathe in the air, drink the coffee and enjoy the food now because change is the only constant.

More Information

San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau 201 Third Street, Ste. 900, San Francisco, CA 94103 Phone: 415-391-2000 | TDD 415-392-0328 Fax: 415-974-1992