Exploring San Francisco’s Mysterious Outer Richmond

By Chris Deliso (2001)

“If you blindfolded me and spun me around,” says Greg, a native of San Francisco’s foggy, desolate Outer Richmond, “I wouldn’t have a clue what avenue I was on. They all look exactly the same.”

There’s no arguing the essential uniformity of the Outer Richmond, a residential neighborhood bordered by Golden Gate Park on one side, and the wooded Sutro Cliffs on the other. Crisscrossed by little avenues of quiet, pastel-colored houses, smooth-plastered and sloping in a vaguely Spanish design, the Outer Richmond begins somewhere in the mid-teens of the avenues and culminates in the steely-grey surf of Ocean Beach. In short, it is a placid stretch of identical, interlocking houses far removed from the bustle of downtown San Francisco. On the surface, this modest neighborhood seems to boast little that would warrant a second glance. With just a bit more exploring, however, one discovers the remarkable cultural richness and ethnic variety of this, the coldest and foggiest neighborhood in San Francisco.

Even through the peaks of dot-com prosperity in the late nineties, the Outer Richmond changed little. Being overwhelmingly residential, it has little space for new businesses to be built- as if anyone would have wanted to invest in this cold, wet enclave- and the most significant changes have been demographic. Most conspicuous has been the growth of the Russian community. The Russian Orthodox church (at Geary Boulevard and 27th Avenue), with its immense gold onion-dome spires, is perhaps the neighborhood’s most visible landmark. Along this main thoroughfare, signs are written in Russian, over groceries, liquor stores and restaurants, and handwritten flyers in Russian are posted on the outside walls of the shops. Elderly Russian women haggle with their younger counterparts, the shop attendants, while middle-aged Russian men smoke and look sporting in their teal and azure Adidas track suits. Strangest of all, given the chilling weather and the informality of American culture, are the teenage Russian girls, all made-up and strutting in leather miniskirts and low-cut leopard-skin print tops.

I accompany Greg down to the neighborhood’s commercial heart, crowded Geary Boulevard. This barrier-divided street stretches all the way from the ocean to downtown, and has more daily traffic than any other street in San Francisco. The bulk of Geary’s shops in the Outer Richmond are to be found in the ten-block range between 17th Avenue and 27th Avenue. These blocks are filled with run-down little stores: hairdressers, a stationers, a few delis and bakeries. Pedestrians fill the sidewalk and cars circle like sharks, dodging the double-parked cars and diving into the rare open space. After a few fruitless minutes of circling, I drive around the block and park on a quieter sidestreet. We back to find that, just as Greg had promised, the old Chinese men at Donut World (Geary and 17th) were sitting around formica tabletops, laughing and drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups. Down the street, Russian grandmothers in floral bonnets and shawls judgmentally squeeze tomatoes at the sidewalk grocer’s. A throng of people wait restlessly nearby for the workhorse of the public bus system, the 38 Geary. Just another typical, mundane day in the Outer Richmond.

The neighborhood’s diversity is most successfully apparent in its cuisine. Tommy’s (on Geary and 24th Avenue), is a bustling Mexican restaurant which features the West Coast’s most extensive selection of tequilas. Khan Toke nearby is an acclaimed Thai restaurant where you must take off your shoes to enter. Russian food is to be found at Traktir, far out on Balboa Street, and even Egyptian fare, complete with belly dancers, is represented at the colorful Al-Mazri nearby.

The overwhelmingly residential nature of the Outer Richmond means that it will always be roughly the same- wonderful if you like it, a bore if you don’t. Through the dot-com boom of the nineties, when gentrification was changing the face of other parts of San Francisco, the Richmond District survived relatively unscathed. To this day, unique elements of the old neighborhood remain: bait-and-tackle shops, a 50 year-old Japanese ice cream parlor, the eight-dollar-haircut, and even several movie theaters. The Alexandria (on Geary and 18th) shows new releases, while the Balboa Theater (Balboa and 37th) show cult classics and second-run movies for the bargain price of seven dollars for a doubleheader. You can also take in the latest Chinese gangster films on Clement Street?s Asian-oriented theater (near 23rd Avenue).

The Outer Richmond is also a land of laundromats. Inconspicuous, permeated with strange blueish light and packed with community noticeboards, washers whirring in the doldrums of routine, nowhere is the sheer residential nature of the Outer Richmond seen more clearly than here. They are subdued, unstaffed, sparsely patronized. Throughout the night, long after the last quarter has pulled the day’s last wash, the picture windows flood the avenues with that eery blue light, and starkly illuminate the hulking white appliances sleeping within. Like the fog, the laundromats quietly seep into one’s consciousness. Unlike washing-houses in trendier parts of the city, they don’t feature coffee bars, and don’t seem to be likely places to meet that special someone, either. For such purposes Richmonders have a few bars (like the Polynesian-style Trader Sam’s, at Geary and 27th), and some coffee shops, such as Simple Pleasures (36th and Balboa), and Café Bazaar on California and 21st.

At the former, old wooden tabletops are marred with rivulets, scratches and gashes, running like small rivers, Martian channels on the smooth face of a planet. Graced with these marks of writers and knives, the tabletops of Café Bazaar attest to a long history of conversation, intellect, eating and relaxation. The café also has a reputation for putting on great shows, from folk to jazz to poetry readings. Trombones and other brass instruments hang in the big picture windows, which are overgrown with the trailing vines of plants. Rows of Torani syrup gleam behind a bar painted in mottled tones of green and gold. On a typical grey Sunday afternoon the café is filled with single men reading, both ponderous tomes and ephemera. In the corner, an unruly and crowded signboard bursts with notices for writing groups, dogwatchers and yoga, for music lessons, apartment rentals, and mysterious offers in Russian.

Walking further up, signs for yet another Irish plastering company cling wetly to a phone pole in the fog at 32nd and Cabrillo. The Irish, once the predominant ethnic group in the Richmond, still retain a presence in the avenues from 30th to the ocean. Some work illegally, and have mastered the art of low-budget advertising on telephone poles. Their ads are inevitably for bricklaying, plastering, or general construction. Yet curiously little work seems to be done out here, given the number of houses; but perhaps that’s for the best. After all, it would be an incongruity out here to see slick black roads and bright houses with orderly lawns. Indeed, the blocks after 30th Avenue- and especially tranquil Cabrillo Street., grey asphalt scrubbed with fog and sea salt, empty, oceanbound- reveal the essential spirit of the lonely Outer Richmond.

After 40th Avenue, things start to disintegrate. The houses are more run-down, the dust and salt settle evenly over everything, and the sea-bleached pavement starts to crack. A van with a cardboard window sleeps beside weathered scaffolding on a building that has yet to be condemned. There is a hesitant breeze, fog, an unclaimed couch thrown on the sidewalk. It is almost as if the utter chaos and formlessness of the sea have persuaded these last eight blocks to give in to the anarchic pull of dissolution. The God-forsaken inhabitants who live above 40th bear the full brunt of the Pacific, its winds, severe fog and chill. There is almost a peat-burning smell, and graywashed smooth walls, reminiscent of Mayo or Clare. And the swimming at frigid Ocean Beach is about as much fun as in Ireland, jokes Greg.

“Look! San Franciscans at the beach!” deadpans Greg. “They look confused. They don’t know if they should take their shirts off, or build a sandcastle, or try to swim, or what.” The sparse crowd of beachgoers waits hopefully for the sun to peek out from behind a cloud. But the clouds only grow thicker, and darker, and the people resign themselves to tossing sticks for their dogs, or flying kites. The dogs yap, skitterish children run into the water and out again. The only ones oblivious to the miserable weather are the surfers.

“Ocean Beach,” says Bryce, a wetsuit-clad young surfer, “is one of the 10 most dangerous places to surf in the world.” He should know. A former professional surfer who went on the surfing world tour circuit, Bryce is lanky and tall, with a wave of bleached blond that attests to too much time in the sun. Having mastered the waves of Hawaii, Australia and Tahiti, Bryce has seen his share of dangerous conditions. The challenge of Ocean Beach, he says, has to do with its tricky cross-currents and riptides, and the unique phenomenon of the nearby San Francisco Bay, which surges water in and swooshes it quickly back out to sea. If a surfer gets caught on the wrong end of the cycle, it’s easy to get swept out for good. I think of this as I watch the bobbing black shapes in the water, which from time to time arise and cruise down the white crest of a wave, before disappearing again in the mercurial water.

Time passes; the sea darkens. Afternoon fades, and the few hardened beachgoers are starting to go home, or up the road to the famous Cliff House, a restaurant and bar built in 1909 with a sweeping view of the Pacific. One of San Francisco’s most durable landmarks, the Cliff House is the culminating attraction of the Outer Richmond. It is the preferred place for Richmonders to have a pint of Anchor Steam and watch the white-capped rollers crash into Ocean Beach. On this cold, foggy Sunday afternoon, we agree.