The Transformation of Bernal Heights into a Creative Class Enclave

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The issue of gentrification in Bernal Heights is a delicate subject that’s often framed as a tension between  Bernal oldtimers vs. newer arrivistes — with the latter frequently  derided as techie “masters of the universe” who don’t fully appreciate the funky, ragtag diversity that has done so much to nurture the Bernal we now know and love.

I’ve always chafed at that stereotype… and not just because my day job would nominally mark me as one of those techie douchebags. More empirically, I’ve gotten to know a lot of Bernal newcomers while working on Bernalwood during the last few years, and I have yet to meet one who really matches the techie caricature.

Instead, if I had to generalize, I’d say the common denominator among newer Bernalistas is that most are “makers” — dynamic people who create clever products or cultural objects that are well-suited to the economic realities of 21st century American capitalism. Some work for big companies, and some are self-employed, but most conform to the (admittedly somewhat squishy) “creative class” archetype proposed by social theorist Richard Florida.

Now, as it turns out, Richard Florida has created a map which shows how thoroughly the creative class has settled in Bernal. Using data from the 2010 Census, Florida’s map compares density of service workers and creative class-types around San Francisco:

The creative class includes people who work in science and technology, business and management, arts, culture media and entertainment, law and healthcare professions. All told its ranks make up 39.4 percent of the [San Francisco] metro’s workers, substantially better than the national average of 32.6 percent and has the 16th largest share among the nation’s metros. These creative class positions are high-skilled, highly-educated, and high-paying where workers average $91,361 per year in wages and salaries, almost 30 percent more than the national average of $70,890 and second only to the nearby San Jose (Silicon Valley) metro.

When you zoom in to Bernal Heights in Florida’s map, the geography of gentrification becomes easy to see, with Bernal’s creative class dominating the purple census tracts, and service workers in the red:


So if at times Bernal Heights seems a bit divided on itself, well… that’s because in some ways it is, with the northeastern portion dominated by creative class-types, while service-sector employment prevails in the southwest. The dichotomy can be delicate to navigate, but I remain convinced that our shared Bernalnicity shall prevail.

20 thoughts on “The Transformation of Bernal Heights into a Creative Class Enclave

  1. Thanks for this great post, literally visualizing who our neighbors are by occupation/professional identity. The economic subtext is also clear. This is a space we need to watch…

  2. I think you have mixed up your southwest and southeast.

    I see a purple chunk described by Cortland to the North, ~Andover to the *west*, Crescent to the south, and Alemany/Bornte to the *east*. That’s southeast, no? It is the red chunk to the left (or west) of that chunk that is in the southwest.

  3. The idea that as a lawyer I’m a member of the “creative class” made me LOL. Would that I had even the tiniest creative bone in my body! Sigh.

  4. The “creative class” moniker seems truly inapt. “[P]eople who work in science and technology, business and management, arts, culture media and entertainment, law and healthcare professions” is squishing together what formerly would be known as professional jobs with actual creatives, but for what purpose is unclear. When you add in the dubious distinction between “Service Class” and “Working Class” jobs, I wonder whether this map tells us anything of real value.

  5. Agree with Brandon. It’s so broad a cherry-picky, it’s a totally meaningless distinction. I’m sure if I have neighbors that practice the Financial Arts or the ancient discipline of Healthcare Administration, they may or may not disagree.

  6. The map is more about income than anything. The “creative class” label is academic auto-fellatio to self-justify income inequality. By self-identifying an income bracket as “dynamic and creative!” the implication is that those in the service and working sectors are decidedly not and are just resources to be exploited… in which case old time Bernal neighbors are completely correct to identify the newcomers as a bunch of self-important d-bags.

    • I love the way you ascribe these attributes to your neighbors based on some random divisions dreamed up by someone who doesn’t even live here.

  7. No blue areas left in the City or on the Hill? No working class? And the white areas? Would that be the underclass? What is the average income of the service class sector that we “creative types” share the hill with? I read this map as showing the lamentable trend in our city and our country toward the extremes of wealth and poverty. The disappearance of decent-paying jobs for the working class and the through-the-roof cost of housing has “created” a city of the very rich and the very poor. Very sad. I hope that together we have enough creativity to turn this situation around.

  8. My mom just told me about this article. I grew up in Bernal Heights, my parents have owned their house since the 70’s. Most of my friends and their families left Bernal and the rich came in. I find it somewhat sad when I walk around my old neighborhood. Property prices have definitely increased, but it’s almost like Bernal turned into a Noe Valley. I miss the original neighborhood, and the original mural on the library.

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  10. St Mary’s Park is slowly getting its share of educated, white collar professionals w/$$ to spend – A 2bd/2ba home recently sold for $1Million; went so fast there was no need for an open house. And now the new owners are gutting/renovating it.

  11. Stencil,

    You took the words right out of my mouth. Bernal Heights originally was a village made up of blue collar, very low educated immigrant families that moved here because they could not afford to live in many other areas of the city. I bared witness to such because my parents were of this class as many of their neighbors also were.

    The last time I checked, a home in this neighborhood sold for one-million dollars. This must have made my father roll over in his grave. No home on the hill was ever of such extreme value during the sixties up here. As a matter of fact, it was quite the opposite considering that the hill was a wasteland of debris due to the fact that many San Franciscans would use it as place to dumb old odd size household goods such as mattresses, ceramics tubs, toilets, and wooden furniture.

    So rugged a hill it once was, that I as a young boy learned to ride a motorcycle; a honda 50cc that my father bought me one christmas “motorcross” style on many of the trails still visible today! Yes, you read rightly, one once was able to ride a motorcross cycle on that hill.

    Todd, I am curious to ask you when was the last time you met a low income non-english speaking family move in recently? I believe you have met many of the original dwellers moving out since this is one of the overall goals of this recent gentrification that is popular for real estate values.

    After all, is it not true that before such a movement (when bernal was predominantly made up of these uneducated, non-english speaking middle class families) the prices of homes were indeed affordable to someone whose job was to clean upper middle class homes or work as a baggage handler at SFO?

    This is hardly the case when a home on the same property sells for one million dollars. The same block of land ten times more the costs simply because folks that clean houses or work as baggage handlers have recently moved away so that these creative scientist, lawyers, and managers can move in. Who by the way, are not likely to be of negro or hispanic ethnicity.

    I only ask that if you truly cannot see this Todd, that the next time you meet the new family on the block, you check off my list to see if this new family fits the bernal enclave that it once was for many, many generations. Myself included.

    • The text above seems to be mostly intended to convince the reader of the changes toward gentrification going on in Bernal. Is there anyone out there, from any vantage point who needs convincing? The only thing controversial here, is the statement that it is a “goal” of “gentrification” to move out low income people. Seems like the market functions without needing that “gaol”. It must be acknowledged that long time residents selling the houses for huge sums are part of the equation. We have several low-income households remaining on our block who have been our neighbors for 25 years and I will be sad to see them go. Though everyone (low income older residents included) on our block celebrated when the gangsters in the “crack house” across the street (handling guns on the front porch, cars blocking the street, intimidating comments, unleashed pit-bulls wandering the street, cars speakers so loud it vibrated us even way back in our backyard). I won’t miss them.

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