Located in west central San Francisco and on the coast of California, lies the Inner and Outer Sunset Districts.
The Sunset District is the largest and most populous neighborhood in the city. Some areas experience gradual growth. Others experience a burst of development that quickly plateaus. The history of the Sunset, however, seems to suggest that the neighborhood is evolving exponentially. You may want to get your own piece of this incredible district while you still can.
Before the 1900s, the area was mostly windswept sand dunes. It was undeveloped, mostly unreachable, and considered by most to be uninhabitable. It wasn’t even included in the border when California became a state, making it part of “The Outside Lands.” Some maps even referred to it as the "Great Sand Waste."
San Francisco, however, was quickly growing and knew it would need to expand to any land available. It petitioned to have the land added to the city, which it was in 1866. A map in 1868 established the grid of streets and avenues that would eventually shape the Sunset and Richmond Districts (which is why they are nicknamed “the Avenues”), but it would be a few decades before people moved into the area in earnest.
The area didn’t house much more than a few dairies, ranches, and dynamite factories that kept exploding. There were a few early settlers, of course.
George Greene started homesteading a lot of land no one else wanted as early as 1946. His swath of land stretched from 19th Avenue nearly all the way to the beach. As the land slowly became valuable, though, he ended up losing most of it in a 1887 lawsuit, and was only allowed to keep the blocks between Wawona and Sloat, from Nineteenth to about Twenty-fifth Avenues. George Greene Jr. built the Trocadero Inn in 1892. He ran it as a roadhouse for more than 20 years, but shut it down when Prohibition was passed because he “did not want a bootlegger situation there." In the early 1930 the land was purchased by Rosalie Stern, widow of civic leader Sigmund Stern, and made into the Sigmund Stern Grove and Pine Lake Park. The Trocadero was restored by architect Bernard Maybeck (best known for the Palace of Fine Arts) and is now rented out to the public for parties.
Carl Larsen owned a restaurant downtown called the Tivoli Café, on Eddy Street. In 1888 he started buying large tracts of the dunes and established a sizable chicken farm. Eggs would be carried by horse-drawn carriage every morning from his ranch to his café along Central Ocean Road, the only road through Sunset at the time. Larsen never married and ended up donating a lot of land to the city, including what is now Golden Gate Heights Park and Larsen's Peak.
The land in Sunset was so undervalued that when the city started bringing in electric streetcars, they simply dumped a lot of the old horse-drawn cars on the beach there. Squatters converted them into houses, sometimes stacking them on top of eachother to create two-story structures, and often arranging 3 in a U shape to create a courtyard shielded from the wind. The community grew to about 50 families and included a church and a café. At least 2 houses still standing today are known to be built around these old streetcars.
It wasn’t until 1906 that people started pouring into the area. The earthquake and fire that year left about 2/3rds of San Francisco's population homeless. 5,610 tiny cottages were built in rows in parks all over the city. They were paid for mostly by donations to a relief fund and rented out for $1 or $2 per month. After the rubble was cleaned up, the city encouraged people to find an open lot and move their earthquake cottage there. They even incentivized the process by refunding all rent paid on the shack to anyone to move by a certain date. The shacks were small (14 by 18 feet) so people often cobbled 3 or 4 together to build a new home. The Western Neighborhoods Project has discovered 5 such houses still standing and is working to preserve them and make them available for public viewing.
In the span of about 50 years the area went from a wide expanse of sand dune to being so packed with houses that there is often little free space between them. Now about 100,000 people live in the area.
The Sunset is also considered the foggiest (though MWS team member Hannah will strongly debate this now that she's a resident on the corner of La Playa and Kirkham streets). The Pacific Ocean keeps it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than other parts of Northern California, even compared to downtown. When the sun is shining, you can find hundreds out and about enjoying all that Ocean Beach has to offer. Surfers often have to wear wetsuits, though, because currents bring cold water down from Alaska.
With Golden Gate Park just a hop, skip and a jump away, the possibilities for outdoor activities and leisure are truly endless. The North Dutch Windmill can be seen from the Sunset and according to GGP's website is, "situated next to the Beach Chalet and stands tall at about 75 feet into the air.” Although the windmill was originally constructed to pump water, after a round of restoration, the arms were able to move once again on the structure, but water no longer pumped through". During the spring, colorful tulips surround the base of the windmill and draw crowds of admirers from all over the city. Also found near the windmill, is the 45th Avenue Playground, called the "Boat Park" by local families draws hundreds of children weekly and is an ideal place to celebrate a birthday or get together with neighboring families.
For a bite to eat, stop by the Beach Chalet and Park Chalet for a brew out on the lawn, enjoy a sando from Java Beach Cafe, or a fresh catch burrito at Hook Fish Co. Check out a semi-secret spot in the Sunset (Turtle Hill), visit the San Francisco Zoo, and more!