Time Machine: A Survey Tour of Bernal Heights In 1984


Last night your Bernalwood editor spent some time perusing an archive of old back-issues of the Bernal Journal, the Bernal Heights newspaper from the days when news still came on paper.

This isn’t the first time that I have fallen into this archival rabbit-hole, but per usual, my exploration yielded a trove of history, context, and memory. One article in particular  caught my attention: An overview of the social and economic conditions in Bernal Heights as things stood in July of 1984.

Here’s how the article looked. (Don’t worry about trying to read the layout here, because the full text of the article is provided below, for your reading enjoyment.)


A few obvious and fabulous visual details:

  • That hand-drawn Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center ad! Wow.
  • That El Rio ad! With the same logo and “Your dive!” slogan they’re still using today! Hooray!

In the article itself, here are some highlights:

  • Demographically, the article describes Bernal as “predominantly white. Latin Americans, mainly from Mexico, form the second largest group, followed by Asians, particularly Filipinos, and Blacks. In 1979 there were also 59 Samoans, 42 Vietnamese, 27 American Indians, 2 Guanamanians and 2 Aleut Eskimos.”
  • In 1979 Bernal residents earned a median income of $22,300, as compared to $25,672 for San Francisco as a whole. Bernal Heights residents were, on average, four years younger than the rest of the city’s residents.
  • In 1984, a wave of Laotians were moving to the Bernal, along with “the so-
    called ‘new breed of ‘young urban professionals,’ most of whom are white.”
  • Cortland Avenue was struggling at the time, as “the neighborhood’s reputation as a high crime, poorly frequented area [was] very damaging for new businesses.”
  • Speaking of crime, “in 1983 the western slope of the hill, in the area where Cortland Avenue and Mission Street meet, had the highest crime rate in the Ingleside district, while crime figures on the eastern slope of Bernal Heights were some of the lowest in the city.”
  • “The average price of a house in 1979 was $84,300. According to Abbe Stevenson, a Cortland Avenue real estate agent, homes rarely sell for below $100,000, and there is a big discrepancy between the cost of houses at the very top of the hill, many of which are now in the $180,000 range.”
  • There was still room to build new homes in Bernal, which contained “one quarter of San Francisco’s available building lots, with land values
    averaging $20,000.” Building permits, increased 74 percent in San
    Francisco during 1983, and housing starts rose 11.2 percent in February, 1984 to their highest level since 1978.
  • However, Bernalese didn’t much care for new home construction back then either.  The article says, “Keeping speculators away from the hill is an issue that residents here have always rallied around, earning for themselves a reputation for hard-headedness at City Hall.”
  • Ultimately, the article concludes “All city neighborhoods change, as the City’s inhabitants migrate through them. Bernal Heights just seems to have done so a little slower than the rest. For that, most of its residents are grateful.”

Here’s the full text of the article, straight from 1984 to you:

By Abigail Stexling-Vasquez

“Bernal Heights isn’t exactly the go-go market of
real estate,” says Supervisor Bill Maher, who has lived
here for the past eight years. Yet on this San Francisco
hill, where some of the wealthiest residents still live
off of dirt roads, the way things are is just the way
people want them to stay.

On the map Bernal Heights is laid out in standard
grid fashion, like the rest of the city. In reality this
neighborhood’s streets are one of its most unique
features. Walking up Peralta Street, for instance, the
road gives way to a narrow path bordered by thickets of
fennel. Past Montcalm Street it becomes a flight of
stone stairs, interrupted by Rutledge Street, climbing
on up toward Massasoit Street and a sunny April sky
speckled with cumulus clouds like a primitive painting.

The sounds of the city fade into echoes. The air is
thick with bird songs and dog barks. On Mullen Street an
old -blue Datsun won’t start. The dull click of its
ignition breaks the stillness. From up here the fog,
squeezing its way through the Golden Gate Bridge into
the Bay, looks like a thin tongue reaching for a
downtown skyline etched by the afternoon sun.

Rising 400 feet above San Francisco’s Mission
district, bounded by Alemany Boulevard on the South, the
Bayshore Freeway on the East, Army Street on the North
and Mission Street on the West, Bernal Heights is easily
recognized from across the city by Pacific Bell’s
microwave relay tower which sits on its bald summit like
a crooked crown.

Originally developed in 1839 as part of a land
grant belonging to Don Jose Cornelio Bernal, the area
remained a grazing pasture for many decades, surrounded
by the salt marshes of the San Francisco Bay. Since

Bernal Heights wasn’t connected to San Francisco’s gas
or electric lines, it was spared much of the damages
caused by the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire,
and continued to provide fresh milk and produce to city
markets well into the ’60s.

Jeanne Hamer, writing from her home on Elsie. Street
in 1967, described the hill like this: “… There were
trees, wild sweet peas, blackberry bushes. The farm was
on the other side of the hill right up from Stillman and
Manchester. They had cows, goats, ducks and a bull …
whenever anyone got sick enough to go to the hospital ,
the ambulance drivers had to carry the person over the
dirt paths. It was country living just four blocks from
Mission Street.”

The Irish came to live on Bernal Heights first,
followed by second-generation Italians and some Germans.
During World War II many of the shipyard workers from
near-by Hunters Point Naval Shipyard also migrated to
Bernal Heights with their families, along with Latin
American and Asian immigrants from the densely populated
Mission District.

According to 1979 census figures, the tract of land
on which the bulk of the hill stands has remained
predominantly white. Latin Americans, mainly from
Mexico, form the second largest group, followed by
Asians, particularly Filipinos, and Blacks. In 1979 there
were also 59 Samoans, 42 Vietnamese, 27 American
Indians, 2 Guanamanians and 2 Aleut Eskimos, to name but
a few.

According to Maher, Laotians are now moving to the
Hill in the latest wave of migration, along with the so-
called ‘new breed of “young urban professionals,” most of
whom are white. 1979 figures show residents were earning
a median income of $22,300, as compared to $25,672 for
San Francisco as a whole. Bernal Heights residents are
also on average four years younger than the rest of the
city’s residents.

A walk through the neighborhood indicates that
except for the predominantly Latin American northern
foot of the hill, near Precita Park, there are no
cultural ghettos on Bernal Heights. Cortland Avenue,
Bernal Heights’ little downtown, is a melting pot of
culture. Across the street from St. Kevin’s church is
the Samoan O.K. Food Market, its storefront window
stacked with 50-pound bags of rice. Further down the
street is Cicero’s Meat Market and the Cherokee Bar.

Along this eight-block long commercial strip
everyone knows everyone and strangers stand out.
However, business here is far from booming. A study of
Cortland Avenue compiled in 1980 by San Francisco’s
Planning Commission indicates that “with increased
mobility and competition from nearby shopping districts,
Cortland Avenue has suffered a decline in business
activity with accompanying physical deterioration and an
increase in crime.”

Although many of the storefronts are still boarded
up, and many of the new shops that open seem to close
again overnight, merchants here agree that the past four
years have brought a few improvements. Following the
Planning Commission study, the Department of City
Planning allotted $30,000 in Community Development Block
Grant funds to paint Cortland Avenue’s storefronts.
Street lights, garbage cans and trees have also been put
in this year.

According to Bob Andre, manager of the local branch
of Bank of America, the neighborhood’s reputation as a
high crime, poorly frequented area is very damaging for
new businesses. Loans, moreover, are out of the reach of
most Cortland Avenue merchants, 86% of whom rent their
storefronts. The area is considered high risk by many
private lenders, and month-to-month leases prevent the
merchants from being able to apply for federally funded
Small Business Administration loans.

Local improvement is therefore mainly homespun.
Barbara Clements, owner of the newly opened “Bernal
Blossoms” flower shop, decorated her place completely on
her own, arid next door, at the Wild Side West Bar, Pat
Ramseyer is clearing the back yard to start a outdoor
patio extension. She rescued the jasmine bushes she is
planting from a nearby dumpster.

Merchants here agree that the neighborhood’s
reputation as a high crime are is not entirely deserved.
According to .police statistics in 1983 the western slope
of the hill, in the area where Cortland Avenue and
Mission Street meet, had- the highest crime rate in the
Ingleside district, while crime figures on the eastern
slope of Bernal Heights were some of the lowest in the
city. For instance, there were only two assaults on the
eastern side of the hill throughout 1983. On the Mission
side there were 38.

Captain Frank Jordan of the Ingleside police
station attributes the western slope’s high crime
figures to a “spillover” of crime from the Mission
district. The eastern side of the hill is, as he
describes it, “off the beaten path.” Jordan believes
that project SAFE’ (Safety Awareness for Everyone) might
be responsible for at least partially stemming the
spillover of crime from Mission Street.

Although the overall crime rate has declined both
in. Bernal Heights and citywide during the past five
years, there has recently been an increase in burglaries
in the neighborhood which Jordan ascribes to a
concurrent rise in real estate values on the hill . The
average price of a house in 1979 was $84,300. According
to Abbe Stevenson, a Cortland Avenue real estate agent,
homes rarely sell for below $100,000, and there is a big
discrepancy between the cost of houses at the very top
of the hill, many of which are now in the $180,000
range, and those farther down the slopes. Real estate
values on the northern and western sides of the hill are
also comparatively high because of the panora’mic
downtown views many homes there offer , while eastern
and southern slope homes, whose windows face the
Bayshore Freeway, are least expensive.

According to the most recent IRS figures, however,
the median San Francisco income has risen approximately
$10,000 since 1979. Although wealthier residents are to
a certain extent replacing older ones on Bernal Heights,
this doesn’t seem to be happening any more here than
elsewhere in the city.

Probably the best explanation for this is that the
steep topography, the narrow, sometimes unpaved streets
zoned for single family dwellings only, the smaller than
average lots (25 feet by 70 feet, as compared to 25 feet
by 100 feet in other parts of the city) and lack of city
services have over time deterred development here.

This neighborhood contains one quarter of San
Francisco’s available building lots, with land values
averaging $20,000, which is well below city average.
Building permits, moreover, increased 74 percent in San
Francisco during 1983 alone, and housing starts leaped
11.2 percent last February to their highest level since
1978. With its panoramic views, good weather and
convenient location close to downtown San Francisco, the
hill is becoming once again, as it was during the late
’60s and ’70s, an attractive alternative for small scale

Keeping speculators away from the hill is an issue
that residents here have always rallied around, earning
for themselves a reputation for hard-headedness at City
Hall. The story of the North West Bernal Block Club, or
Elsie Street Group, as it later came to be called, is a
case in point. Formed in 1964 by residents on the
northwest slope, in the area of Bernal Heights bounded
by Coso, Elsie, Virginia and Mission Streets, one of the
group’s first achievements was to make the city keep the
top of the hill as an open area- by tranferring it from
the Department of Public Works to the Recreation and
Parks Department .

The Elsie Street Group is probably best knwon for
its “Elsie -Street Plan,” a 1978 survey of the 100 block
of Elsie Street. The project involved the active
participation of over 200 neighborhood residents working
in conjunction with architects and planners, and was the
culmination of a year’s struggle to stop developers from
the Homestead Development Group from being granted
permits to build on ten open lots on the downhill side
of the street.

The “Elsie Street Plan” was mandated by the San
Francisco Planning Commission, which also agreed to
consider the plan’s guidelines before granting any
further permit applications for the block. Although the
Elsie Street Group was unable to prevent three of the
lots from being built upon, the plan itself was a major
victory for residents in that it set the standard for
all future development on the block and on the rest of
the hill as well.

Buildings were required to conform architecturally
with existing structures, and development was also made
conditional to city upgrading of adjacent streets and
sewers. Since this would involve spending city dollars,
and city dollars haven’t been forthcoming, the Homestead
Development Group is still at an impasse on Elsie
Street. As Margaret Randolph, a veteran activist who
lives on Elsie Street, says, “They are just laying low
until we are all dead and gone, and then they ’11. build.”

Most recently, a eucalyptus grove which can be
prominently seen on the northern side of the hill has
become the latest battlefront in Bernal Heights
residents’ war against developers. Tensions this time
are high because the architect, Barry Hansen, is himself
a resident. The fact that he is not, as he describes it,
“a bigshot coming in from Hong Kong to build highrises,”
riles the neighbors even more. Perhaps this is because
his renovated home at the foot of the grove is a
constant reminder.

It all began when Hansen found that he was living
on one of the hill’s “paper” streets, which exist only
on maps, and that half the land under his home belonged
to the city. Hansen sued the family who had sold him the
house and received additional land near the house, on
which he planned, with three partners, to build 18

Jan Botza, a Bonview resident who lives directly
across the street from the proposed site, says there was
a consensus among neighbors that the condominium should
not be built. Enlisting the help of the Bernal Heights
Council, they formed the Bonview Block Club, held
numerous meetings, distributed flyers and attended
Planning Commission hearings in the true Bernal Heights
spirit, arguing that the proposed project would be an
eyesore, cause congestion on the street and be
unaffordable to the average neighborhood resident.
According to Hansen, units would range from $140,000 to

In October of 1983 the Planning Commission finally
approved a reduced version of the project. Before any
building can start, however, Hansen will need to acquire
from the city an additional section of land. This will
require approval by San Francisco’s Board of
Supervisors, which could mean another long wait.
According to Supervisor Maher, the Board is presently
thinking of transferring a section of Bernal Boulevard
immediately above the grove from DPW to the Recreation
and Parks Department. This land transfer would probably
also include the eucalyptus grove. If this is the case
Hansen’s condominium seems likely never to materialize.

“It’s been quite a struggle,” says Hansen. “I think
San Francisco is a difficult place to live in, but
Bernal Heights is definitely a more aggravated
situation.” Frank Mcintosh, principal agent for San
Francisco’s Department of Real Estate, says that
developers on Bernal Heights always get “completely
frustrated by the stubbornness of the Hill people,” as he
calls Bernal Heights residents. “My understanding,” says
Mcintosh, “is that much of this vacant land (on Bernal
Heights) is going to the Recreation and Parks
Department, and that’s where it belongs.”

All city neighborhoods change, as the City’s
inhabitants migrate through them. Bernal Heights just
seems to have done so a little slower than the rest. For
that, most of its residents are grateful.

You can browse or download the entire July/August 1984 edition of the Bernal Journal right here.

2 thoughts on “Time Machine: A Survey Tour of Bernal Heights In 1984

  1. Hey, Cafe Commons! I remember going there in the early 2000s when it was run by a very nice Korean couple.

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