Sunset District

The Wild West of San Francisco – A Look at the Outer Noriega Neighborhood

By Erin M. Bank

In a city infamous for its astronomical rent and high cost of living, it is rare to hear a San Francisco neighborhood described as being reminiscent of a small Midwestern town. But that is how Mike Melanz, a store manager of Noriega Produce, describes the far reaches of the Noriega Street business corridor between 43rd and 48th avenues in San Francisco.

Melanz grew up in Wisconsin, and he said the Outer Sunset reminds him of home.

“The neighborhood reminds me of those small towns where everyone knows your name,” he said.

Indeed, he greets the regular customers by name, filling up their shopping baskets with the perfectly arranged produce set out on the sidewalk, laughing with them about how this is the best spot to shop. (It is the only place to shop in the neighborhood.)

This sense of community is one of the first descriptions on the tongues of businesses and residents alike. Keeping a community feel is important to Noriega Produce, which has been a foundation of the neighborhood since it opened in its current location in 1985.

“We’re a place where people can just walk in to pick up a few things,” Melanz said. “But we also supply The Pizza Place down the street with their produce and Devil’s Teeth gets their avocados from us.” Melanz waved across the street to the flagship bakery.

What started out as a family-owned produce market has plans to expand into a full-service – but still family-owned – grocery store in the spring of 2020. They will occupy a larger space just up the block, so they will remain the local grocery. Its closest competition is a Safeway 15 blocks up the hill to the east.

Perhaps part of the tight-knit aspect of this corridor comes from its history as always being on the fringe of the city of San Francisco.

According to outsidelands.org, a non-profit organization “dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of western San Francisco neighborhoods,” the Outer Sunset was labeled as the “Great Sand Waste” on maps in the late 1800s. The sand dunes and scrub were hospitable only to “a few dairies, ranches, roadhouses, dynamite factories (that kept exploding), and an early elementary school.”

The weather is cool and foggy, not exactly a beach paradise; locals have a hunch that the Sunset must be one of the few examples of beachfront property being less expensive than the rest of the city.

Or perhaps it is logistics: railroad lines gave access to the beach at the end of Lincoln Way to the north of Noriega in 1883, and developments began to spring up along Taraval Street to the south of Noriega in the same time frame (outsidelands.org).

Now, the N-Judah and L-Taraval Muni lines serve these two other Outer Sunset neighborhoods, whereas the end of Noriega is accessible only by bus. Accordingly, the businesses here cater mostly to locals.

One notable exception is evident by the weekend line snaking down the block from Devil’s Teeth Baking Company. Even there, the vibe remains local, with young families pushing strollers on their way to Ocean Beach, hung-over college kids splayed across the parklet outside and childless couples with unkempt surfer hair under their beanies and unkempt mutts pulling on their leashes.

Even the non-locals are often accompanied by their local guide, who patiently explains the menu but how there really isn’t any decision to be made since the breakfast sandwich is why they came (unless it’s Sunday, then it’s a breakfast sandwich with a side of beignets).

Prime time is late weekend mornings, but even at 3:30 p.m. on a blustery Saturday afternoon there is a slow trickle of customers taking away coffee and an afternoon pastry sugar rush.

The regulars also include birds and two pigeons keep trying to sneak in as Kate, who has worked here for two years, describes the camaraderie she has with her co-workers (“we hang out all the time”) and the neighborhood (“definitely a sense of community”).

When Kate was looking for a job a few years ago, she had been a fan of the bakery and just walked in and asked for a job. Not only was that easier than going through a formal job search, but it was also important for her to work somewhere in the community. It is true that the character of businesses can define a neighborhood. But they only exist in the context of the residents they serve.

San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar captured this relationship, saying, “Our small businesses are not only central to our local commerce, they’re core parts of the community and culture in the Sunset. Whether it’s shopping at Noriega Produce to prepare dinner for your family, or grabbing a Sunday beignet at Devil’s Teeth bakery, our local businesses are where we meet our neighbors and build a deeper connection to our neighborhood.”

Locals agree that this sense of community is a big part of what brought them to the neighborhood and what they fear losing most, even as they adapt to the challenges faced by the rest of San Francisco, which seem to be encroaching ever-closer to their fog-protected neighborhood. According to Zillow’s March 2019 data, in the 94122 zip code, the median price per square foot to buy a house ($852) and the median monthly rent price ($3,895) are lower than the City’s median prices ($1,068 and $4,500).

But these prices have been rising, just like everywhere else. In January, 2012, the median monthly rental price was $2,780.

“We were able to afford a house without leaving the city, so it was an easy decision (to move to the neighborhood),” explains Melissa Lehman, who recently moved with her husband, Evan Doyle, from the Panhandle neighborhood.

They miss the neighbors they had gotten to know and the central location of their old apartment, but now that they are out here by the beach, the safety (“packages can be left outside,” says Doyle), and the collection of retail makes their house feel like a home.

“I also recognize I’m part of a wave of younger couples buying homes in a neighborhood that still has many families who have lived there for decades. I want to be conscious of gentrification and what impact that could have on those who have called the neighborhood home for so long, but I also wouldn’t mind more commerce and young families, as it would create more opportunities to connect with neighbors who are in a similar life stage,” Lehman wrote in an email. Doyle agrees. He said he “would like more block events to get to know neighbors. I want the family friendly vibe to remain.”

Mei Chang has lived in the Sunset off and on since 1988. Chang said that she appreciates that it is “a great neighborhood to build a family,” with “low crime rates … made possible by a community that cares about safety and good community outreach.”

Chang worries that the neighborhood doesn’t feel as clean or safe as it used to, and is hopeful that strong community watch groups and a focus on public health can keep the neighborhood community together and prospering.

Is this small-town community strong enough to keep at bay the forces at work elsewhere in the city: the rent hikes, the gentrification, the tech bros?

Where is the line between adapting and selling out?

Chase Davenport has worked at Sunset Shapers, a surfboard retailer, repair shop and shaper space, for three years.

“Out here is still kind of the Wild West of San Francisco,” Davenport said as he leaned across a large wooden table with a custom surfboard ready to be picked up.

Unlike surf shops who cater to a rental market or sell overpriced t-shirts, “we see ourselves as a local resource,” which is a tough gig when the overall prices of surfboards are going down, and clients want a surfboard now rather than in the four to six weeks it takes them to build a surfboard from scratch.

“We’re about the process,” Davenport says proudly, gesturing to the dazzling array of surfboards lining the walls.

Their regular customers are locals, who come in for shaping lessons and “get hooked.” Due to the extreme conditions of Ocean Beach for surfing, local regulars have to be committed to the sport and to the process of building their boards. They’ll pay for the process because it saves them money in the long run, but when they do spend money, it flows into a local business.

But Davenport admits, “We couldn’t exist without tech.” They get orders called in from tech companies, willing to pay double for a rush order. Orders also come from temporary or new-to-SF tech workers, wanting an “authentic San Francisco experience.”

So, even here, in these foggy outreaches of the city, built on sand dunes, the Catch 22 of the tech culture rages on. There is a delicate balance between the new customers with money to spend but who scoff at a 20-minute wait for a breakfast sandwich or a month for a surfboard and the seasoned locals chatting with their grocer and who define the character of the neighborhood.

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