It’s telling that San Francisco’s most reliable moniker has for decades remained “the city by the bay”. That the northern California city of just under a million residents is bound on its western edge by a lengthy stretch of the Pacific seems to evade most visitors to the Bay Area and, occasionally, its own residents. The city’s Outer Sunset district, which runs along the rugged stretch of Ocean Beach, has for years been immune to the interest of many San Franciscans owing to the area’s remoteness and the persistent fog that entraps the neighbourhood in midsummer. However, as the city grapples with soaring property costs amid an ongoing technology boom, the Sunset’s onetime detractions are being dismissed. A new wave of investment and a growing sense of community are breathing fresh life into an area once deemed almost uninhabitable.
As San Francisco’s central neighbourhoods were rapidly developing at the close of the 19th century, the city’s western coastline remained a dogged patch of weather-beaten dunes unaccustomed to human residents. Irish immigrants first called the area home in the early 20th century and during the 1970s, Chinese arrivals located here. Now it’s become a destination for residents moving from eastern districts such as the Mission who are in search of a more relaxed pace of life. “People moving into town now say they want to be in the Outer Sunset,” says furniture designer Josh Duthie. “Previously no one would have ever said that.”
Indeed, the area has long been considered a distant coastal enclave on the outskirts of town, though it’s quickly becoming one of San Francisco’s best destinations for independent retailers and restaurateurs as well as young families looking for a bit of room to breathe. Duthie is among a group of artisans who have set up their studios in the district. He shares a high-ceilinged industrial space along a buzzing stretch of Noriega with a small community of artists and designers. Known as Woodshop, Duthie’s workspace is shared with a sign painter, a luthier, a surfboard maker and a furniture designer, and has become a kind of communal hub for Sunset creatives. The availability of functional working spaces such as Woodshop have only increased the appeal of the area.
A pioneering spirit pervades the district and there’s a palpable feeling of civic pride rarely seen in more trafficked sections of the city. There’s occasionally a sense that the new breed of independent businesses are out of step with the Sunset’s historical blue-collar ethos, though there’s an overwhelming commitment among newcomers to help build relations with the area’s long-term residents.
“It seems that all the small businesses help each other and it’s a really tight-knit community here,” says Jacob Aranda, a guitar maker who recently moved from Chicago.
A few blocks off Ocean Beach along a busy corner of Judah Street, Outerlands has become the Sunset’s busiest restaurant and was recently expanded to accommodate a growing number of visitors from outside the neighbourhood. Owners Dave Muller and Lana Porcello opened the restaurant in 2009 on an inkling that they could benefit from a fresh offering focused on locally sourced seasonal ingredients. Having set up in an area once dominated by noodle shops and the odd seafood restaurant, Outerlands has become a destination for visitors to the district, though it was built to serve the community.
Muller grew up in southern California and spent a number of years elsewhere in the city, though the Sunset has had its draws. “The ocean was the main pull,” he says, “but we came here primarily because it was a blank canvas for a really pioneering group of people living out here, starting their lives somewhat off the radar.”
Whether the Sunset is still off the radar is disputable and the present rate of home sales in the area suggests the district’s secret is fading. Property deals in the Sunset have outpaced San Francisco’s more popular eastern neighbourhoods in recent months, owing in part to the relative affordability of the district. An abundance of single-family homes, stable beautification efforts by the city and the area’s low rate of crime have further piqued the interest of would-be homeowners.
There’s a tendency among San Franciscans to castigate the area for its landscape, which is far from typical of the city. Whereas older sections of the city are dominated by grand beaux-arts civic structures and charming Victorian homes, the Sunset’s precisely gridded streets are populated by an abundance of two and three-level 1950s townhomes rendered in varying shades of bright coastal colours. “The area has not been glamorised in the way so many coastal California towns are,” says Luke Bartels, a long-time resident of the Sunset. “Rather, it’s a rugged, weather-beaten end-of-the-world feel.”
But for residents both old and new, that’s much of the attraction. Born in the Sunset, 30-year-old Katy Tang now represents the district on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. She admits other parts of the city have their appeal in the way of culture and entertainment but it seems the Sunset will always be home. “At the end of the day, I love being able to spend time on the road to decompress,” says Tang, referring to the half-hour commute from City Hall. “On the weekends it’s not completely bustling with people and I’ve always enjoyed that.It’s a little more low-key but the people that love it really embrace it.”