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March 16, 2016

Bernal Heights

Many San Franciscans never travel to Bernal Heights, located as it is at the southern edge of the Mission valley, served by only a few city bus lines and perched atop a steep hill, to boot. Those who do wander up the incline may be surprised by this quaint urban village that seems forgotten by time. The main shopping strip of Cortland Avenue is populated by small markets, cafés, fruit stands and barber shops, and the residential streets are a cluster of diminutive bungalows and community gardens. However, Bernal Heights bears the influence of city sophistication, with trendy boutiques and innovative restaurants scattered among its homely storefronts.

The neighborhood is a bastion of artists and progressives, popular with the lesbian community and attractive to young families looking for a first home and quiet streets (the neighborhood is also affectionately referred to as “Maternal Heights”). It is also a mecca for dog owners, thanks to a high concentration of single-family houses with yards and the nearby haven of Bernal Park, a canine free-for-all of off-leash frolicking.

Originally, Bernal Heights was part of the Rancho de las Salinas y Potrero Nuevo, and owes its name to Jose Cornelio de Bernal, to whom the land was granted in 1839 by the Mexican government. In the 1860s the rancho was subdivided into small lots, and was first populated primarily by Irish immigrants who farmed the land and ran dairy ranches. According to legend, a mini gold rush was triggered in 1876 when con artists planted the hilltop with traces of gold.

The district survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, thanks to the hill’s bedrock foundation, and some ramshackle houses still remain that were constructed out of timber salvaged from the wreckage. Several small cottages on Shotwell Street were originally built as “bonus plan” dwellings, provided to people who had lost their homes in the disaster but still had jobs. For these reasons, more people moved to Bernal Heights following the earthquake. World War II brought another influx, this time of people who came to work in the naval shipyards of nearby China Basin.

In the 1980s Bernal Heights had a reputation as a dangerous place to venture, notorious as a place to dodge crackheads or at least get your car radio stolen. Cortland started to be cleaned up in the early ’90s, when the Good Life Grocery moved in, followed by restaurants like the Liberty Café, as well as other small businesses.

During the dot-com boom, the community feared that Bernal Heights would be “discovered” and its affordable, offbeat charm ruined by gentrification. However, while local real estate prices were undeniably affected during the late ’90s, the area has nevertheless weathered yet another sweeping change relatively unscathed and retains its homey, bohemian atmosphere.

Courtesy of SFGate.com

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