In the 1700s, Spanish missionaries named the hill overlooking the new village of Yerba Buena “Potrero Nuevo,” in English “new pasture.” At the time, that’s what Potrero Hill was: a pasture, untouched except for the cattle using it as grazing ground. Plenty has changed about Potrero Hill since then.
The cattle are gone and Yerba Buena is now San Francisco, but clues as to Potrero’s past – the 150 years it spent as a working-class neighborhood, its stretch as the favored neighborhood of the 1990s dotcom boom, its continued bohemian bent – are everywhere. Change may be constant in Potrero Hill, but its roots are always showing.
From the start, the neighborhood locals like to call “The Hill” gained popularity because of two things: first, it’s one of the sunniest neighborhoods in San Francisco. The view from the hill’s western slope is not only of Twin Peaks; it is also of the fog, rolling in from the ocean but never reaching Potrero. Second, Potrero Hill is conveniently located. In the 1800s it was convenient for workers on San Francisco’s waterfront – ship-builders, longshoremen, laborers. Each evening they’d climb Potrero’s western slope, to their boarding houses and the ramshackle cottages some had built, often using plans from a Sears catalog.
Eventually, the work moved inland, to the warehouses and factories “South of the Slot,” and in the flatlands just north of the hill. Several of the Potrero buildings still exist. A few still house traditional businesses but most have evolved, becoming design studios (Showplace Square, the hub of San Francisco’s design and furniture scene, is nearby), artists’ studios, a few restaurants and, significantly, tech firms.
Between 1860 and World War II, Potrero welcomed waves of Scottish, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Mexican and African-American arrivals. Each group left its imprint on the Hill, as did the counter-culture generation that followed in the 1960s.
The 1990s tech boom permanently changed Potrero Hill. Suddenly, developers found the neighborhood. They built lofts and condominium buildings in the flats and on the north and south slopes, all the way to where Potrero meets the Bayview at Cesar Chavez Street. Property values skyrocketed and they’ve yet to lose momentum. World-class restaurants began popping up on sleepy 18th Street, the district’s commercial core. Today you can find more than a dozen eateries in a three-block stretch, including favorites like Chez Papa and Chez Maman, Rocket Fish, Aperto and longtime neighborhood favorite Goat Hill Pizza, along with specialty shops and coffee shops. On warm days it seems like everyone’s dining al fresco on Eighteenth Street.
Potrero is not what it once was but its bohemian core is intact. It’s not just that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beat poet and founder of City Lights Bookstore, has lived in the neighborhood for 60 years or that in the 1970s the Pickle Family Circus used an old church at 400 Missouri Street as their headquarters; Potrero is where free spirits are constantly creating, be they artists, writers, programmers working out of a garage near the Anchor Steam Brewery or musicians playing at Thee Parkside or The Bottom of the Hill.
All of this creating keeps Potrero vibrant, but the neighborhood’s true heart comes from its residents. Locals on “The Hill” care deeply about community. They attend neighborhood association meetings and festivals, donate time and resources to neighborhood schools and make a habit out of patronizing local businesses, be they unique galleries like Collage or old-time watering holes like Bloom’s. Many are like Ferlinghetti – long-time residents who’ve seen plenty of change during their tenure, and almost all come to 20th Street every October for the Potrero Hill Festival, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Still, little reminders of Potrero Hill’s past keep poking through, like the Double Play, a corner restaurant and bar that once sat across the street from Seal’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco Seals (and later the San Francisco Giants) until it was razed and replaced with a shopping center; or the circa-1920s gym at the Portrero Rec Center, where local legend turned pariah O.J. Simpson spent much of his childhood. All around are homes from the Victorian and Edwardian era, some brilliantly restored, others still in original condition.
Mixed in among these relics are dazzling new homes, built by visionaries looking to take advantage of Potrero Hill’s incredible views. Potrero residents enjoy some of the finest views in the city – downtown, San Francisco Bay, Twin Peaks and, from the south slope, Candlestick Point and Bernal Heights. They also enjoy excellent cardio workouts, thanks to their neighborhood’s steep streets. A walk through Potrero Hill is an exercise in… exercise.
It adds up to a unique neighborhood that, while no longer exclusively working class, has sacrificed none of its color in becoming desirable to all manner of San Franciscans.