I came to the Mission District fairly shortly after editing and writing my last article on street art from Asheville (link here). Asheville was small, but it packed a punch with all of its urban murals. That article had definitely raised the bar for me. I was pretty blown away by how much amazing street art was packed into one tiny space.
And then I came to the Mission District.
But before I go any further, let’s pause and talk about what the Mission District is…
A Brief Introduction to The Mission District
The Mission District, colloquially referred to as “The Mission,” is a predominantly hispanic neighborhood of San Francisco. Its name dates back an actual Spanish mission that originally settled the area in the 1770s. In fact, the oldest structure in the whole city of San Francisco can be found in this neighborhood: a church from the original mission dating back to 1776. This is fairly close to the dawn of time for the San Francisco Bay from a European perspective. The first white people showed up here less than 10 years earlier, in 1769. After a lifetime on EST, this really surprised me! I forget that the history of the western half of the U.S. is totally different than the eastern half. Did you know that all of California used to belong to Mexico?
Anyway, cue my segue back into demographics. I could talk about the history of San Francisco for ages, but this article is about what has been happening much more recently. Historically, the Mission had been home to a large part of SF’s Chicano/Latino population, but starting as early as the late 1960s, the LBGTQ community began to play a much more defining role in the neighborhood’s identity. You are probably already familiar with San Francisco’s reputation for being the gay capital of the U.S., but what you might not know is that much of this reputation was built right here in the Mission.
However, by the late 1970s, the Mission had become a much more multidimensional haven for fringe culture. It actually developed a thriving punk rock scene, and helped produced such bands as the Dead Kennedys, Jawbreaker, Rancid, and Green Day! Even today, you’ll see remnants of this scene walking around the streets of the Mission with colorful mohawks and studded belts.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the neighborhood saw a wave of immigrants / migrants / refugees, predominantly from Central America, South America, and the Middle East. This wave of new residents reaffirmed the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity and prompted a wave of foreign investment from their respective countries. Today many Latin banks and companies have offices and even regional headquarters in this neighborhood. And can you guess what happened next?
With the 2000s came the dot come boom and—YOU GUESSED IT—our good friend Mr. Gentrification. With housing prices on the rise, the Latino population of this neighborhood dropped by 20% by 2011. Nevertheless, the Mission remains the epicenter of SF's Mexican community, as well as (to a slightly lesser extent) the Bay Area's Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities. AND it’s still got a prominent LGBQT community, AND it’s still considered to be a major hub for the city’s art scene. There’s a lot going on here. Take a look at the map for some context:
When I first arrived in San Francisco, the Mission was described to me in passing as “the still-gentrifying neighborhood that’s edgy and cool but a little out-of-the-way.” And during my first few visits to the Mission, I didn’t really understand where I was. They were mostly late at night for food with friends. During my next few times here, I started to get it. Dinner at a Cuban restaurant, drinks in a Senegalese bar, my first legal purchase of marijuana in the U.S. from a hole-in-the-wall dispensary where we got chewed out by a lady in sweatpants for no reason; that’s when I understood. This is for sure my first choice for a night out in SF now.
However, on one of those nights, out the window of an Uber, I caught a glimpse of an incredible mural down a little alley, and that’s when I knew what I had to do. There was clearly an incredible street art post just waiting to be written here. And in order to write it, I would have to come back during daylight hours. So that’s exactly what I did, and it did NOT disappoint. In fact, this neighborhood set a new standard for what passes as street art.
Check this out…
WHEW! That’s the longest one of these articles yet!
What really pushed this neighborhood over the top was Clarion Alley, a long alley running between Mission Street and Valencia Street, every inch of which is covered in vibrant murals. The brain child of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, this little urban corridor has become a B-list tourist attraction in San Francisco. But I didn’t know that when I first stumbled onto it. I was pretty floored by what I found. However, this represents just a tiny piece of the vast array of murals that can be found in the Mission. I like to attempt to give the artists credit if I can find them—this time around, the talented humans responsible for the works above (the few of them that I was able to track down) include Zio Ziegler, Mel Waters, Girl Mobb, Mario Cid, Cameron Moberg, Mark Bode, Paul Mavrides, Kenshin Tomoshima, and Jake Merten. Follow them on Instagram. 🤙
So there was obviously a TON of art. But, honestly, my biggest takeaways from my explorations of this neighborhood didn’t have much to do with street art. The Mission was one of the most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting! On every corner, the swirl of cultures, languages, styles, and demographics was just so SO diverse. It was endlessly fascinating to explore. Clearly the forces of gentrification are at work here, but it was still ghetto enough to be genuine. There was definitely a colorful cast of characters that we ended up interacting with as we walked down the streets here, but it was never anything that made me feel uncomfortable. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I’m a dude and I’m 6-4. I’d be interested to hear a lady’s take on the Mission, but for now, you’ll have to make do with me.
If—or at this point, maybe I should just be saying WHEN—I move to San Francisco, I’m not sure if I would want to live in this neighborhood yet… but I would definitely hang out here all the time.
Up next, we’ll take drive up to wine country, but first, here’s a fresh take on an old track that I love.