Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west, Golden Gate Park on the south, and Mountain Lake Park, Lincoln Park, Land's End, and the Presidio to the north, the Richmond district is well known because of its relation to these areas.
The Richmond District is a wonderfully diverse part of San Francisco, and it always has been. Its rich history tells a fascinating story of how the city became the way it is today.
The land that is now the Richmond District was once just an expanse of rolling sand dunes. The Yelamu Tribe of the Ohlone Nation frequented the coastal sites and even had a village in the area, but most of the land was undeveloped. In the late 18th century Spanish explorers arrived and began setting up missions with the intent of converting and displacing the Ohlone people. They were fairly successful at this and the land was owned by Mexico for half a century.
In 1848 the area was annexed by the United States of America. The region of modern day Richmond, however, was known as part of “the Outerlands” because it fell outside of the original city boundaries when California became a state in 1850. During the 1850s and 1860s the only residents of the area were the bodies buried in cemeteries there, since the land was not seen as particularly desirable to live on. In 1863 Cliff House was built on the coast (and the Point Lobos Toll Road was built to bring people there) and traveling west on the weekend to see the sea lions on Seal Rocks became a popular pastime. The increased traffic through the area brought some roadhouses, racetracks, and dairymen to the region.
In 1866, Congress passed the Outside Lands Act, which officially added the western half of the peninsula to the City of San Francisco and led to the creation of Golden Gate Park. This further increased the number of weekend visitors, but only slightly increased the number of permanent residents.
One of the first large-scale developers of the area was Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro was a German-American engineer, politician and philanthropist. He purchased the Cliff House in the early 1880s and in 1896 he built the Sutro Baths on the western end. The baths were a public saltwater swimming complex that was a popular attraction. It burned down in 1966 but the ruins remain. Sutro also served as the 24th mayor of San Francisco from 1895 to 1897.
During this time a residential neighborhood was forming along Clement Street from Arguello to 6th Avenue. Feeling that they were being stigmatized by being called “the Outlands,” residents and real estate agents began referring to the area as the Richmond District. The most popular story behind the name’s origin is that an early settler, George Turner Marsh, called his large home and estate the “Richmond House” because the area’s landscape reminded him of his hometown of Richmond, Australia, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.
The name would, however, create some confusion between the Richmond District and the city of Richmond, right across the bay. The district was legally named "Park-Presidio District" in 1917 in order to mitigate this problem. This is how the area is designated in city records and newspapers throughout the 1920s, but the name Richmond stuck with residents. In January 2009 newly elected Supervisor Eric Mar officially renamed the area the Richmond District.
Despite all the new attractions and the new cable and electric streetcar lines constructed to bring people there, the growth in the district was slow except for a few hospitals and orphanages built there because the land was cheap. This all changed after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Thousands of residents were displaced from downtown and a refugee camp along today’s Park-Presidio Boulevard brought many of them into the area, where they quickly built permanent residencies.
Most of these new dwellings were humble working-class cottages filling the rolling sand dunes, but some industrious developers created a couple of San Francisco’s most prestigious neighborhoods at this time. Baldwin & Howell made Presidio Terrace off Arguello Boulevard starting in 1905, and a number of firms worked with the John Brickell Company to make Sea Cliff beginning in 1913. Between them is the most upscale section of the Richmond District; Lake Street. (That’s right, Lake Street is actually part of the Richmond District.)
In fact, the Richmond District is popularly divided into 4 sections. Below Lake Street is Outer Richmond to the west, Inner Richmond to the east, and Central Richmond exactly where it sounds like it’d be. It is very large compared to other San Francisco neighborhoods, comprising a 50 block stretch sandwiched between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio. It also includes the Farallon Islands, which are about 30 miles to the west of the mainland.
A common architectural style was the “marina style” house, which included a sunroom (which had windows on 3 sides and was accessed through a bedroom), a split bathroom where the bathtub and sink is in a separate room from the toilet, and a large unfinished basement. Basements are rare in California because the climate allows for shallow foundations, but was included to lure home buyers with large houses while keeping costs low. Many of these basements were converted into garages, sometimes with an in-law apartment in the back.
The residents in the early 1900s were mostly Irish (many families immigrated to San Francisco during the Irish Potato Famine), German, and Jewish. The Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war brought so many Russian immigrants to the Richmond that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia briefly made its headquarters at Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary Boulevard. Beginning in the 1950s, but really picking up steam after the lifting of the Chinese Exclusion Act (which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers) in 1965, Chinese immigrants poured into the district and now make up over half the population of the Richmond District. This is especially centralized in Inner Richmond, which has been dubbed the “New Chinatown” of San Francisco.
This diverse history has created a vibrant community in the Richmond District. This is never more apparent than then you are looking for something exciting to eat. There are many “undiscovered” eateries in the Richmond district, such as pizza at Pizzetta 211, the best fresh croissants in the city (sorry Tartine) at Arsicault Bakery, approachable Italian fine dining at Fiorella, and more!
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