Alley Oop!
Neighborhood changes are part of home life on Natoma Street
San Francisco Chronicle
April 10, 2002


When someone asks me what it's like to live on Natoma Street, I always have to start out with "Well, on my block . . ." because this narrow back alley is as varied a street as you'll find in San Francisco. From downtown through superhip South Park, past Sixth Street, to its last two blocks in the Mission, Natoma ranges from dot-com to factory to snazzy lofts to skid row. My block has a little of each of those -- and much more.

When I first moved to 11th and Natoma in 1994 it was a largely industrial area, with two print shops, a snowshoe factory, a plastics shop and a few small apartment buildings. My girlfriend and I moved in, despite my qualms, right next door to where she had lived for the past several years. She was devoted to staying in the neighborhood. I struggled to adjust to the busy, truck rumble and power tool days and the too quiet, abandoned nights when the working people went home. The street seemed too dirty and not enough of a neighborhood. I'd moved from a very friendly block of the Mission, and from Park Slope in Brooklyn before that.

Soon, though, I began to identify new kinds of neighbors and slowly became more comfortable. There were the adults from the Arc center for the developmentally disabled around the corner. Every morning they would come around with a big cart full of brooms and sweep the street. "Where's your wife?" one young man in a hockey helmet would always ask loudly, or "Where's your dog?"
I got to know Mike at the plastics shop, the post-college kids at the snowshoe factory, the staff at the Filipino market and at Ted's deli around the corner. These were the day neighbors.

After dark, I got to know some of the residents, among them an artist, a cop, a woodworker and a social worker -- our dogs would come out and play in the vacant lot after the working people went home. Then there was Raymond, a homeless man in his 50s who pretty much served as town crier, five-and-dime store and neighborhood watch. Raymond, who had been around as long as anyone could remember, was the de facto mayor of Natoma Street, and was paid accordingly.

After a while we managed to get friends to move in upstairs and next door. My building is one of two side-by-side 1920s Victorians. The households share a garden with some sun and a fig tree, and we'd all get together at least once a week to have dinner or watch "NYPD Blue" or play cards, our own little "Melrose Place." We all pitched in for a used hot tub and the communal feeling grew. I had settled in, found a neighborhood where one hadn't been immediately apparent.

"Is it safe?" is a common question about Natoma, as visions of Sixth Street dance in people's heads. My block is a far cry from Sixth and Natoma, but it's also a far cry from Cole Valley. Although I don't know of any violent crime since I moved here, there are homeless people who come and go daily. There are sometimes people huddled in doorways at night, lighters flickering as they smoke out of clear glass pipes, but they usually move along quickly. The only major crimes are frustrating car break-ins which you have to expect you'll fall victim to at least once every few years.

Twice recently, drastic changes have come to the block. About three years ago, during the dot-com boom, familiar faces started disappearing, young Audi drivers moved into their apartments and businesses, and lofts sprang up seemingly overnight. Hip "new economy" companies like Razorfish renovated extravagantly and moved into commercial properties. The plastics shop was evicted, sold, leveled, and a grand set of loft apartments were built on the corner, completely blocking out six of my friends' windows. The scenario was repeated for another set of lofts.

Around the corner, the Filipino grocery and the kooky Marilyn Monroe Memorial Theater faced huge rent hikes and were forced to close. Ted's market, around the corner on Howard, where I used to go for a fresh turkey sandwich at least three times a week, suddenly had a deli line out the door from noon until two. The usual Carharts-wearing clientele were replaced by eager young men and women in Diesel and Old Navy gear, what my best friend back in New York calls the "wacky hair and glasses" crowd. Other regulars and I gave up on Ted's. Our unassuming little block had become fast-paced and cutting-edge, but to us it had become overcrowded and obnoxious.

The new residents were rarely seen on the street aside from the occasional loud party; they'd just slip into and out of their garages. The former snowshoe factory, right across the street, moved away. Its warehouse building was elaborately renovated and turned into the offices of multimedia design firm Medius IV, which rented part of its space to the enterprise of future 9/11 hero Mark Bingham.

In the midst of all this, Raymond moved to Oakland, to an apartment with his brother, and potentially to a job. He is still missed. Although the block had never felt exactly dangerous, Ray made it feel safe.

Through the rapid growth, our little neighborhood, although threatened, held fast. Some people left our little complex, but we kept bringing in friends, and many of our old neighbors stayed steady and friendly, saying hello, playing with dogs, going to each others' parties.

An enduring landmark through all the changes has been Stanley Saitowitz's steel, corrugated metal-and-glass building that houses his architecture firm and other live/work residences.

Built in 1990, one of the first of what some people like to call "toaster" buildings, 1022 Natoma still stands out, and attracts gawking architecture students. Peter Lloyd's "San Francisco: A Guide to Recent Architecture" describes the building as being in "one of the grittier parts of the South of Market area" and refers to the rest of the block's inhabitants as "its tatty neighbours."

To its credit, the building doesn't feel heavy, doesn't bully us tatty folks, and actually fits well with our eclectic vista.

I like to think of Natoma as a kind of B or, OK, a maybe C movie Tribeca, bustling during the day, quietly urbane at night, a good place to live if you want to feel like you really live in a city, but with a little back-alley escapism built in.

With the crash of the dot-com economy, the street is going through more big changes. The wacky hair and glasses kids have just about disappeared like some kind of itinerant tribe, and the old regulars and shorter lines have returned to Ted's. The new lofts remain occupied -- the large windows still glow at night. And the landlord who evicted the Filipino grocery spent a year too long renovating it into a spare, white, gallery-like space that now sits unfinished and unoccupied.

David Zouzounis, son of the late Ted Zouzounis who opened Ted's Market in the Summer of Love, told me that the neighborhood has gone through many changes since he's been there, from a mostly Filipino community in the late '60s to a gay influx in the '70s and '80s right up to the boom and bust of the past few years.

The only new element I've noticed besides the departures is a high school kid who spends all his free moments riding around the block on a loud, motorized scooter. And while I wonder what's next, I'm confident that enough familiar people and property will remain to keep Natoma Street between 11th and Lafayette as aesthetically, socially and economically diverse as any block I've lived on; that is, it'll still feel like home.


© 2006 Jamie Berger