South Beach: Part 1

southbeach2In 2010, when the San Francisco Association of Realtors re-drew their city district map, it split what had been one massive district (SoMa) into three more manageable ones (SoMa, Yerba Buena and South Beach). In the wake of this decision, some self-labeled “purists” cried “foul,” suggesting that the “new” neighborhoods were “made up.”

In the case of South Beach, they couldn’t have been more wrong. No one with a sense of local history would have blamed the SFAR if they’d take their task a step further, splitting the new District 9H into at least three separate mini-districts: the South End, South Park and Rincon. If these names sound familiar, they should; each played a role in early San Francisco history.

There was a time when a South Park or Rincon Hill address meant more than one on Nob Hill or Pacific Heights. Long before “little cable cars climb(ed) halfway to the stars” San Francisco’s elite built their mansions “south of the slot,” on Rincon Hill, located in the northeast quadrant of today’s South Beach and in South Park, a gated development located on Rincon’s southern slope, modeled after a neighborhood in London, England. South Park featured San Francisco’s first paved streets, along with mansions and elegant row homes.

Rincon Hill was the Pacific Heights of its day. During the 1850s and 60s, says historian Charles Lockwood, “dozens of large, comfortable homes were built (on Rincon Hill) that reflected the era’s popular architectural styles: Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate and Second Empire.” Unfortunately, its reign atop the San Francisco class heap was short. In 1869, the neighborhood was literally cut in half by the Second Street cut (an effort to make it easier for wagons to get from downtown to the southern waterfront). By the 1880s, author Robert Louis Stevenson was referring to Rincon as “a new slum.” The transition of Rincon/South Beach from wealthy to working-class had begun.

It’s difficult now to imagine Rincon Hill not only as a residential neighborhood of free-standing mansions but also as an actual hill. In fact, it was once 120 feet tall. The Second Street cut started a process that eventually leveled it.

Following this, Rincon, South Beach and the South End (which was from conception a waterfront neighborhood of warehouses and docks) spent the next century as blue-collar places of work. The latter neighborhood, bounded by Harrison and Townsend Streets, The Embarcadero and Fourth Street, is now a Historic District boasting “an extraordinary concentration of buildings from almost every period of San Francisco maritime history.”

The Southern end of South Beach also contains a game-changer for the entire district: AT & T Park. After several years of flirting with other sites, including the railroad yards at Seventh and Townsend Streets, the San Francisco Giants broke ground for their new stadium at King and Third Streets in 1997, transforming sleepy South Beach into a vibrant neighborhood of middle- and high-end apartments and condos, restaurants, bars and shops. On game days, Second and Third Streets teem with baseball fans. Hot spots like MoMos and Pete’s Tavern overflow with patrons wearing black and orange.

This end of South Beach was created in a manageable scale, mixing mid- and high-rise blocks with The Embarcadero’s open space and breathtaking bay and bridge views. Not so the rebirth of Rincon Hill. The northern sector of South Beach, was developed after the southern end and chose a flashier approach more in keeping with its proximity to San Francisco’s Financial District. The new Rincon features spectacular residential towers, world-class restaurants, street-level buzz and a seemingly non-stop appetite for growth and action.

In some ways, Rincon seems an outgrowth of neighboring Yerba Buena, with an emphasis on full-service residential communities and a “live here/work here” ethos. It features high-end and boutique hotels and has a subtle ace up its sleeve – easy access to San Francisco’s ferry building and ferry docks. Other than Yerba Buena it’s difficult to imagine a more Manhattan-like neighborhood in San Francisco – or one presently showing more obvious signs of future growth. Two corners of the intersection at Folsom and Beale Streets, for example, sport large-scale construction efforts in their early stages.

But South Beach is more than Rincon, its towers and its cranes. South Beach is also South Park’s quiet central park, King Street’s exciting commercial strip, The Embarcadero and everything in-between. The signature One Rincon towers, visible from all over the city, make Rincon hard to ignore, though. To be certain, the San Francisco Association of Realtors knew what they were doing when they gave South Beach its own designation. The only question is if they went far enough.