Small but mighty, Hayes Valley is a mecca for shopping, dining, arts and culture.
Located somewhere between historical districts Alamo Square and Civic Center, Hayes Valley is an up and coming neighborhood in the Western Addition district. Although its exact boundaries are somewhat of a gray area, Hayes Valley is considered to be north and south of Hayes Street between Franklin (near the Civic Center) and Webster (near Alamo Square). But that depends on who you ask.
The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association considers the neighborhood to be bound by Webster Street in the west, Van Ness Avenue in the east, Fulton Street in the north, and Hermann Street and Market Street in the south, but contend that it has extensions as far west as Fillmore (between Haight Street and Hermann Street), as far north as McAllister Street (Franklin Street and Van Ness Avenue), and as far south as Market Street (between Buchanan Street and Laguna Street).
The San Francisco Association of Realtors defines the Hayes Valley as extending from McAllister Street in the north, to Market Street and Duboce Avenue in the south, Franklin Street in the east, and Webster Street (north of Fell Street) and Divisadero Street (south of Fell Street) to the west. Both of these definitions, however, overlap considerably with the Lower Haight neighborhood.
No matter how the Hayes Valley is officially defined, though, it is undeniable that it is one of San Francisco's ultra-chic corridors. It wasn’t always this way, however, and the district’s current status as San Francisco's haven for haute couture is the result of several happy accidents.
The land was originally only seasonally inhabited by bands of the Ohlone tribe who gathered food while a winter-running creek flowed through the wildflower-covered area. This water source (Hayes Creek) is now underground year-round.
After the 1849 Gold Rush the land was settled by Italian emigrants (mostly from around Genoa) who knew how to farm the sandy soil. The second half of the 19th century saw the expansion of The Western Addition, spreading the city west of Van Ness Avenue. Michael Hayes was on the committee of naming streets and was probably responsible for naming Hayes Street after his brother, Thomas Hayes, who was county clerk at the time and owned a lot of land in the neighborhood. The Valley was structured in such a way that the primary streets were populated with grand Victorian residences and named after prominent citizens and families (such as Hayes, Gough, and McAllister). The less prominent streets, on the other hand, were filled with the considerably smaller houses inhabited by the working class people who worked on and serviced the large estates. These lesser streets were given botanical names (such as Lily, Ivy, Linden, and Hickory). Ivy street is home to one of San Francisco's most quaint wine bars and dispensaries, Fig & Thistle.
Following the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, Hayes Valley was spared and with some influence from the Fillmore District, it blossomed. This meant, however, that the financial disparity was also preserved. While other neighborhoods were wiped clean and mostly rebuilt anew, Hayes Valley continued to exhibit the highs and lows of the city side by side.
This paradox is exemplified when comparing the version of the neighborhood depicted in the 1924 epic "Greed" versus the reality of the area at that time. Film director Erich von Stroheim chose the corner of Hayes and Laguna for filming because of the beauty of a 19th-century Victorian that had been built in the early 1880s by Col. Michael Hayes as an amusement pavilion in order to lure an extension of the streetcar line to the valley. In actuality, though, the building was empty except for the main floor which housed a French laundry and the Hayes Valley Pharmacy. The film crew had to make fake signs for a dentist's office and a photographer's office so it wasn’t obvious that the rest of the building was vacant. Apparently, some locals were fooled by the signs and tried to patronize the fictitious stores.
Over the course of the 20th century the multi-ethnic neighborhood slowly deteriorated until it was considered one of the most dangerous places in the Bay Area. It was akin to the gritty days of pre-Giuliani Times Square. Right next to the performing-arts district of Van Ness, it was the seedy part of town pich people had to nervously walk through after enjoying the ballet, symphony, or opera. It’s a wonder the area was never the location of a Batman-esque origin story.
After some tumultuous, crime-ridden years, however, city-wide gentrification trends led to reduction in crime statistics for the area and Hayes Valley is now considered affluent. This is a direct silver-lining of the 1989 earthquake. The Central Freeway (which had entrance ramps on Franklin and Gough streets) was an eyesore and created noise pollution that kept businesses and foot traffic away, but was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Activists succeeded in having the collapsed freeway replaced by public space. A section of the freeway was rebuilt to end at Market Street, with a new tree-lined Octavia Boulevard running north through the valley. A neighborhood green (named Patricia's Green for local activist Patricia Walkup) terminates at the boulevard, providing seating, green space, a play structure for children, and a changing exhibition of public art. The previous Central Freeway on- and off-ramps for Highway 101 were transformed into Hayes Valley Farm, an education and research project with a focus on urban permaculture.
Hayes Valley has become a hotbed for the hottest and trendiest restaurants, bars, and shops. The restaurants trend toward extremely tiny, highly specific hybrids that often add a Californian twist to classic cuisine. The shops are likewise extremely specialized (like custom corset shops) but also feature local designers. Somehow most of these businesses have found a way to maintain the neighborhood’s character by selling cheap local favorites alongside nationally revered luxury items.
The perfect evening is complete with a show at SF Jazz followed by dinner at one of the best restaurants SF has to offer, like Rich Table or Nightbird. The central plaza between Hayes and Fell is always a sight to see with public art installations year round.