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Political Landscapes: In District One, Home is Where the Fog is

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BETSEY CULP/INGLESIDE-EXCELSIOR LIGHT

For two hundred years, the story goes, European ships traveled up and down the coast of California, seeking a safe harbor. For two hundred years, they sailed past the entrance to San Francisco without the foggiest notion that it was there.

The pun was intended.

The residents of the Richmond — District One — would get it. About half the area lies west of the Golden Gate Bridge, where cold winds and dense fog are familiar visitors. Guidebooks invariably warn tourists about the “unpredictable” weather. And locals know that their neighborhood will be several degrees warmer if they move east from 35th Avenue to 5th.

There must be something addictive about chilly fog, because people who live here rarely want to leave. Ever since the late 19th century, families have flocked to the area’s unique blend of urban convenience and suburban peace. This year’s candidates for supervisor are no exception — most of them have called the Richmond home for decades.

From the very beginning, the good people of San Francisco were drawn to the western reaches of their peninsula, to the long expanse of sandy beach and the warm hospitality of the Cliff House. In the summer of 1864, young Samuel Clemens decided to see what all the excitement was about. He regretted the decision. It was so foggy, he wrote in the Golden Era, that “we could scarcely see the sportive seals out on the rocks, writhing and squirming like exaggerated maggots, and there was nothing soothing in their discordant barking, to a spirit so depressed as mine was.”

His murky excursion also took him into legal limbo. The federal government, the City of San Francisco and a passel of private parties had been fighting for years over who owned the land west of present-day Divisadero. It wasn’t until the Outside Lands Act of 1866 that the disputes began to be settled. (To mark the 150th anniversary, this year’s issues of SF West History examine some of the tortuous turns of events surrounding the Congressional “Act to Quiet the Title to Certain Lands within the Corporate Limit of the City of San Francisco.”)

The chaos must have been incredible! To aid the quieting process, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors commissioned City and County Surveyors William P. Humphreys and George C. Potter to make a map. Not just any map, but one that included a grid for future streets as well as sites for public squares, hospitals, schools and “a grand park, similar in purpose and design to those established in Eastern cities and in Europe.” And so the Richmond was created, a pleasant place to live, adjacent to “primitive sublimity and majestic grandeur… unequaled in the world.”

A few people moved in. According to the Planning Department, a development of typical Richmond homes — rows of single-family or two-unit flat buildings — was laid out in 1878 between Geary Boulevard and Anza Street and 7th and 8th avenues. At the same time street railway lines appeared on Geary and California Street, connecting the area to downtown, providing a little urban spice to enliven the majestic grandeur.

But despite Humphreys and Potter’s map with its optimistic gridlines, for the next several decades the actual landscape was filled with uninviting scrub and dunes. Until 1906, that is, when the San Francisco’s fault lines opened up and its buildings came tumbling down, sending 250,000 homeless people out into the city. The Richmond had its own share of losses, but the wide open spaces of Golden Gate Park and today’s Park-Presidio Boulevard quickly became refugee camps, filled with row upon row of tiny cottages.

Eventually the camps closed. Their occupants poured out into the nearby area, seeking permanent housing. Before long, the never-ending waves of east-flowing fog were running headlong into competing waves of construction, heading west. The Richmond became a neighborhood.

At first the residents were mainly Irish, with a goodly number of Russians and Jews. The roster of San Francisco’s public servants in the 20th century is studded with names of men who grew up in the Richmond, graduated from St. Ignatius High in the nearby Sunset and raised families… in the Richmond.

After World War II, many of these longtime fog lovers left for the sunnier suburbs, replaced by Chinese families. Today the district is 42 percent Asian, compared to a citywide population of 33 percent. It’s still a good place to settle down and raise kids: 50 percent of the households are families, compared to 44 percent citywide.

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But a report by the Planning Department and sitting Supervisor Eric Mar’s office suggests that, like those early sailing ships, the outside world is passing the Richmond by. Its flexible zoning regulations and underutilized sites make it an ideal place for development, but the district managed to add only 12 percent to its population between 1980 and 2010, in a city that grew by 22 percent. Its present housing production amounts to just one percent of the city’s total. Housing prices have soared — Zillow estimates a range of $889,000 to $1.7 million for single-family houses. But most residents — 64 percent — are renters, and 44 percent of them are “rent-burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent.

Most employed Richmond residents — 97 percent — work outside the district, yet this is the only district in the city with no rail service. About 48 percent travel to work by car; another 34 percent take the bus. More than 53,000 people ride a 38-Geary bus every day — sometimes it must feel like they’ve all taken the same one.

This fall 10 people are running for supervisor. Their approaches differ, but they all talk about the same things: housing, safety, transit and infrastructure — essential elements for a comfortable home in San Francisco. Despite 16 years of progressive supervisors, the field is wide open. Citywide political lines are forming to endorse one candidate or another, but the voters of District 1 — like its weather — can be unpredictable. In an era of ranked-choice voting, the results might be surprising.

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