Photograph by Peter Linenthal

Photograph by Peter Linenthal

The 11th annual Potrero Hill History Night was held last month at International Studies Academy. Roughly 150 audience members braved the rain, and missed the San Francisco Giants clinching the pennant, to hear interviews with long-time Hill residents: (left to right) Thomas Terrell, “Butchie” Alabanza, Donald Minor, Villy Wang, Gregory Bryant, George Brown and “Jackie” Smith. The guys - known as “The Unique Ones” - grew up mid-century last in the Potrero Annex-Terrace complex, and have been close friends all their lives. Wang is president of BAYCAT, a nonprofit that teaches media skills to underserved youth, whose video, Public Housing on Potrero Hill, premiered, and is available at Lorraine Vinson, who helped create the community garden at 20th and San Bruno in 1969, was interviewed by Phillip De Andrade. Andie Grace showed slides of the Burning Man party that takes place each October in Dogpatch. Thee Parkside, Chat’s Coffee and Bottom of the Hill offered a tasty barbeque. History Night is co-sponsored by the Potrero Hill Archives Project and the Potrero Hill Association of Merchants and Businesses.

November 2010

Newest S.F. Neighborhood Searching for an Identity

By Bill Slatkin

Growing over the past decade from a few homeless inhabitants to upwards of 600 residents, the neighborhood just south of Dogpatch is struggling to develop its own identity.  But there’s no place at the civic table yet for the people living or doing business south of 22nd Street, north of Cesar Chavez, in the area bordered by the T-line and CalTrain tracks.  “We got left out of the planning process,” said Glenn McNulty, co-owner with wife Alexis of Oyster Bed, a Tennessee Street manufacturer of contemporary storage beds and other space-saving furniture.   “When the rezoning was done for the Central Waterfront, this area was completely ignored. Like we don’t exist. We need to find a way to have a voice.”

The area used to serve as the hub for small enterprises that served companies in the meatpacking industry to the south, and the shipbuilding industry along the eastern waterfront.  Until mid-century last, the Tubbs Cordage Company – a now-forgotten manufacturer of rope and marine cordage – was a major San Francisco employer, located on land now used to park dozens of Muni buses.  The waves of development that intermittently rolled through the City over the past sixty years mostly left untouched the vacant industrial buildings and empty lots that extended to what used to be called Army Street.  It wasn’t until the boom and the creation of a loophole in San Francisco’s building regulations – which enabled live-work lofts to be fast-tracked towards development – that the area began to come back to life.

“This was a place where you didn’t want to be at night,” said Rich Lawson, whose roofing company has hugged the corner of 25th and Tennessee streets since 1984.  According to Lawson, the first round of development, which starting roughly twelve years ago, was the “loft boom.  It did change the area. More people here, that improved our personal safety.”

The trend toward gentrification, including newly-erected loft projects wired with fiber-optic cable, BMWs parked curbside next to pick-up trucks, and the delivery of trendy sofas and entertainment centers from South-of-Market furniture boutiques, signaled the neighborhood’s transformation, a process Lawson refers to as the “natural progression.”  But that progression has stalled. A snapshot taken today would reveal the same scene, the identical mash-up of residences and diverse small businesses, which comprised the area before the start of the Great Recession.

“We feel sorry for people in that area; they still don’t have services,” said Janet Carpinelli, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association president.  A decade ago Carpinelli presciently predicted that the area south of 23rd Street “will be an island.”  With the exception of the Phoenix Café on Indiana Street, run by nonprofit Hireability,  no new services have opened in the neighborhood for the past five years.  Meanwhile, the four-blocks north of 23rd have sprouted a number of food, beverage and other businesses.

According to Ken Watson, co-owner of Sports Graphics, the progress hoped-for by local residents came to a halt in 2008, with the sudden and severe drop in both housing demand and the availability of funds needed to continue the area’s expansion.  Watson and partner Pat McCune moved their company – a producer of silk-screen and digital printing on T-shirts and other items for a nation-wide clientele – to its current Minnesota Street space from Bryant Street roughly eight years ago, seeking room for expansion and parking for their now 45 employees.  “We want to see more changes,” said Watson. “I’d like to have a convenience store. More commercial space and more services would be good for the people who work here and who live here.”

Scott Wilkinson, a six-year resident and director of the homeowner’s association (HOA) at a 30-unit loft project down the street from Graphic Sportswear, would also like to see more neighborhood-serving services.  According to Wilkinson, “If natural progression calls for additional residential development…the City should not impede that development by trying to maintain PDR [production, distribution, repair] areas that are underutilized as a result of the City’s treatment of employers.  I’d maintain buildings and areas with historic significance, but also recognize that change must come to pockets within our district that are not only under-used, but that constitute a dangerous condition for the neighborhood.”

Scott Klassen, co-owner of Dekko a Salon on Indiana Street, prefers less growth and a more creative set of businesses and residents.  “We ought to have more artists and different kinds of businesses; specialized businesses.” Klassen said. “There could be a little grocery store here with unique products. But I wouldn’t like a big store and 400 more condo buildings. I want to know the name of the store’s bagboy.”  He noted that when Dekko was established in 2002 – the first tenant and the only business – in the 48-unit condo project on Indiana Street near 25th, “This was an empty industrial area.  I’m glad the area doesn’t feel like that as much as it did. There is less crime than there was. And it’s cleaner.”  Klassen believes that his business benefits by its location. “I’d say ‘hip’ is the word to describe this. Not like the downtown salons where you pay $30 to park. And they’re all pretty much the same.  Customers like coming here to the loft. It’s not like other places; it’s got a distinct, artistic feel.”

One change Klassen applauded is the transformation of an empty California Department of Transportation lot across the street to a multi-use community space, to be called Progress Park.  The park will, according to Bruce Kin Huie – who serves on the HOA board for the condominium development at the corner of 23rd and Indiana streets – “help turn our area into a real neighborhood.  We aren’t exactly Dogpatch. We’re our own unique area, and I think the park is important in building our ‘brand.’”  Last month the park received a Community Challenge Grant and a San Francisco Parks Trust Innovator Award.  Carpinelli agreed that creation of the park is a step in the right direction. “You should have a contest to name the neighborhood,” she recommended.

According to Huie, developing Progress Park has helped bring the neighborhood together.  “Working together on this project as a community,” he said, “has helped us get to know one another.  It’s a critical step in building a neighborhood with our own unique identity.”  The plan for the park includes installation of a cistern to collect rainwater from the freeway and nearby rooftops. Harvested water would be used to irrigate the ground cover and plants.  “The PUC [San Francisco Public Utility Commission] is very interested in what we’re doing. They see it as a model for other public spaces. And it’s exactly the kind of innovation we want identified with our neighborhood as it evolves.”  Progress Park is envisioned as the “anchor to a string of green spaces – a necklace, if you will – stretching all the way down to Warm Water Cove at the shores of the bay,” he said.

Walking along Indiana, where railroad tracks brought loads of equipment and supplies for the busy companies that have long vanished from the area, Huie looks at the fenced-in empty lot that will ultimately be developed as condominiums, and at the broad expanse of soil destined to become a park.  “We know this area will grow, and as it does, it will take on some kind of personality,” he said.  “It’s our responsibility to be pro-active, not just sit back and watch what happens. If we want our neighborhood to be recognized at City Hall, if we want to enjoy where we live, and to have a neighborhood we’re proud of, we need to be involved in managing that growth.”

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