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San Francisco: South of Market (SoMa)

by Cyndy Ainsworth

In the last thirty years the area now known as SoMa, or "south of Market," has undergone a dramatic change from a grimy, rundown, industrial district to a dynamic and diverse neighborhood with museums, nightclubs, shops, offices, artists studios, and a convention center. To appreciate the transformation it helps to know a little SoMa history.

In the mid to late 1800's many foundries and factories were built in the area south of Market Street to take advantage of easy access to the Bay for transportation. The area was also home to many of the city's leading citizens, who built grand mansions on sunny Rincon Hill. With the development of the cable car in 1873 Nob Hill became the desirable place to live, and the upper class began to move away from the south of Market area. They were replaced by new immigrants, who converted the fancy homes into boarding houses. These new immigrants provided a ready pool of employees for local businesses, and industry came to dominate the area. The area suffered substantial damage in the 1906 earthquake, and for the first half of this century the feel of the area slowly declined.

In the 1960s the city decided it was time to do something to improve the neighborhood and began developing a grand urban renewal plan that called for the construction of a convention center, an arts complex, and new apartment and office buildings. In the 1970s, with city officials still just making plans, artists began moving into the area, attracted by big industrial spaces and low rents; restaurants and nightclubs sprang up to cater to these new residents, and other businesses followed. Many of the city's plans have now come to fruition, and this combination of government-sponsored development and private initiative has made SoMa into a dynamic mixed-used neighborhood that hums with energy.

The most visible symbol of the "new" SoMa is the Yerba Buena Gardens project. It encompasses an entire city block and includes the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third St. between Mission and Howard, 357-4000) in a marvelous new building designed by Italian architect Mario Botta; the Center for the Arts with display space for exhibits that showcase the Bay Area's cultural diversity; the Center for the Arts Theater used for ballets, concerts and plays; and an open garden called the Esplanade. The highlight of the Esplanade is the waterfall fountain, a two-story 60-foot-wide cascade of water that is dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.. Yerba Buena Gardens may have taken thirty years from conception to delivery, but the end result is marvelous.

SFMoMA and the Center for the Arts are not the only museums in the YBG area. The nearby Ansel Adams Center for Photography exhibits the best of both contemporary and historical photography, including Ansel Adams and many others. The Cartoon Art Museum, one of the YBG pioneers, just moved into larger quarters, the better to accommodate a 10,000-piece collection of cartoon art from the 1700s to the present. This is a great place to discover some weird and wonderful comics that you'll never see in the funny papers.

The California Historical Society (678 Mission St., 357-1848) recently moved into a newly-renovated turn of the century building on Mission Street. The Mexican Museum, currently located at Fort Mason, will also be moving into the area.

One of the least visible elements of SoMa development is the Moscone Convention Center. You would never know it from the outside but Yerba Buena Gardens sits on the roof of this underground convention facility, the largest in Northern California. Moscone Center was the first building in the Yerba Buena complex to be completed, and the people that it attracts to the area are a key factor in the thriving hotel and restaurant scene.

Several blocks south of YBG is the area know as South Park. In the 1850's and '60s this tiny oval park, tucked away between Second, Third, Bryant, and Brannan Streets, was circled with elegant Georgian townhouses. Like the rest of SoMa, the area declined when the wealthy folk moved to Nob Hill, and the stately homes were turned into rooming houses. The area was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

South Park was rebuilt during the first half of this century, and in the early 1980's architects and designers began to move into the area, attracted by the parkside setting. In recent years they have been joined by so many people working for multimedia companies that the area is sometimes called "Multimedia Gulch." The park is now surrounded by apartments, offices, shops, and cafes, and the park itself is often filled with people, sipping a cappuccino from Caffe Centro or having a meeting at one of the park's picnic tables. There's even a playground for the neighborhood kids.

SoMa has also developed a reputation as a good place to go shopping. Bargains hunters find good prices on clothing, linens, and other goodies at the many factory outlets and discount stores scattered throughout the area; two good guides to shopping in the SoMa area are Sally Socolich's "Bargain Hunting in the Bay Area" and "Best Bay Area Bargains," published by San Francisco Focus Magazine.

Even though it's primarily a wholesale market, retail customers can get good prices on flowers, houseplants, ribbons, holiday decorations and such at the California Flower Market on Sixth Street. The market opens at 2 a.m., but retail customers are more welcome after about 9 a.m.

No discussion of SoMa would be complete without a mention of the restaurants and nightclubs that make the area come alive. The only problem is that there are so many good ones, it's hard to choose. Some of the best (and most popular) restaurants are Hawthorne Lane (22 Hawthorne Street, 777-9779), opened by Anne and David Gingrass, the husband and wife team who put Postrio on the map; LuLu and LuLu Cafe (816 Folsom St. near Fourth, 495-5775), Reed Hearon's family of Mediterranean restaurants; and Fringale (570 Fourth St. between Bryant and Brannan, 543-0573) and Bizou (598 Fourth St., 543-2222), both charming French bistros. You'll also find casual fare at Caffe Centro (102 South Park between Second and Third, 882-1500) on South Park; pizza and pasta at Pazzia (337 Third St., 512-1693) near Moscone Center; California/French food at South Park Cafe (108 South Park between Second and Third, 495-7275); dim sum at Canton (655 Folsom St., 495-3064); classic San Francisco spcialties at The Fly Trap (606 Folsom St., 243-0580); Indian food at Appam (1259 Folsom, 626-2798); and old fashioned barbecue at Big Nate's (1665 Folsom, 861-4242), owned by former basketball star Nate Archibald.

Among the many music and dance clubs catering to the 20s to 30s crowd are DNA Lounge (375 Eleventh St., 626-1409), Club DV 8 (55 Natoma St., 957-1730), Brain Wash (1122 Folsom St., 861-3663), Paradise Lounge (1501 Folsom St., 861-6906), Trocadero (520 Fourth St., 495-6620), and the Up & Down Club (1151 Folsom St., 626-2388). At all of them the music is loud, and the people watching is worth the price of admission (be prepared for a cover charge). You'll find a slightly older crowd and an eclectic mix of rock, blues, and world music at Slim's (333 Eleventh St., 255-0333), where Boz Scaggs is one of the owners. For a quieter, more sophisticated evening Eleven (374 11th St. between Harrison and Fulton, 431-3337) serves up live jazz along with a full restaurant menu.

SoMa Details

Cartoon Art Museum
814 Mission St. Suite 200
(415) 227-8666
Open Wednesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $3.50, $2.50 students and seniors, $1.50 children ages 6 to 12

Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens
701 Mission St. at Third
(415) 978-2700
Galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $4, $2 seniors and students; free on Thursdays from 11 a.m to 3 p.m.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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