Bernal Heights, San Francisco: A Quaint Urban Village, Once San Francisco’s Best Kept Secret
Bernal Heights is not your run-of-the-mill San Francisco neighborhood. Unique in its history, geographical situation, residential predominance, and demographic make-up, Bernal Heights is often described as a “quaint urban village.”
That description is quite true as far as it goes, but there’s much more to this smallish San Francisco neighborhood than can be captured in a few aphoristic words. Bernal Heights, for example, has been characterized both as a residential, self-contained neighborhood with few tourists and many secret charms and as a bastion of artists and progressives – quite an incongruous clash on the face of it.
Let’s see, then, if we can see what makes this unique neighborhood what it is.
Bernal Heights Broadly
Located in the far southeast corner of San Francisco, Bernal Heights’ most prominent physical features are the tall rocky hill overlooking San Francisco’s skyline (Bernal Heights Summit), ample open parkland, and a microwave transmission tower. Cesar Chavez Street lies to the north, and I-280 forms the southern boundary, with US 101 on the east and San Jose Avenue on the west.
The neighborhood is, as we’ve mentioned, primarily residential, but with a significant commercial strip along Cortland Avenue. This commercial strip boasts a wide variety of businesses, including bars and restaurants, bakeries, a butcher shop, several salons, a natural-foods grocery store, and more.
The neighborhood has a long and strong tradition of activism. The Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, formed in 1979, concentrates on community organizing and works to promote senior services, youth services, and affordable housing services. This organization also hosts Fiesta on the Hill, billed as a community-building event, one of the last of the street fairs to take place during the summer festival season.
When it comes to weather, Bernal Heights has warmer temperatures than most of the San Francisco Bay area and less fog. The north slope is sometimes referred to as one of the San Francisco “banana belts,” owing to the more pleasant and sunnier climate. In addition, you can find a remarkable urban ecosystem on the Bernal Heights hilltop. It is home to a remarkable variety of flora, including many native north-coast wildflowers, and fauna.
Local attractions include Bernal Hill Park, one of the largest parks in San Francisco and a popular spot for dog owners. In addition, Bernal Heights Boulevard circles the hilltop and offers great opportunities for walking and running because it is closed to motor traffic. Precita Park and Holly Park provide open grassy areas north and south (respectively) of the Bernal Heights hill. And there’s the open-air Alemany Farmer’s Market in the southeast corner of the neighborhood, one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country.
A Little History of Bernal Heights
Bernal Heights wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for what it was . . .
Initially, the Bernal Heights area was part of a 4,446-acre plot of land granted by Mexico to Jose Cornello Bernal, the Rancho Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo. It was later acquired, sometime around 1860, by a French financier, Francois Louis Alfred Pioche, who subdivided it into smaller lots. The neighborhood’s streets were laid out by Army engineers during the Civil War. The majority of early residents were Irish immigrants engaged primarily in farming and dairy.
Bernal Heights remained mostly undeveloped until the beginning of the twentieth century – until the 1906 earthquake changed that. The few structures on the hill were built on bedrock and so survived both the quake and subsequent fire. The area then began to look attractive to the many displaced people.
During San Francisco’s rebuilding, the commercial corridor along Eugenia Avenue saw many shops pop up, and the hilltop’s pastureland offered a good area for development, especially the building of homes for workers.
The World War II era witnessed another surge in population. During this period, many African-Americans who worked at the Hunters Point San Francisco Naval Shipyard moved in. And then, during the Vietnam War, a good many anti-war activists (who often shared households) moved in among the many working-class residents. The third wave of change and population influx came in the 1990s, when people were drawn by Bernal Heights’ pleasant microclimate, handy freeway access to the peninsula and Silicon Valley, and the small, often Victorian or Edwardian houses.
Unlike many San Francisco neighborhoods, such as Noe Valley, Bernal Heights has not experienced much gentrification. But it is happening, and property values are increasing. (More on that in a bit.) This phenomenon is driven primarily by the fact that urban professionals have been moving in and replacing the working-class residents.
Character and Personality
In trying to capture the feel and flavor of Bernal Heights, let’s start off with some statistics . . .
Bernal Heights Ratings
Bernal Heights rates an overall niche grade of A. And here’s how it stacks up in various livability categories:
- Public schools – A-
- Housing – C-
- Family suitability – A
- Crime/safety – C+
- Nightlife – A+
- Diversity – A+
Many San Franciscans never visit Bernal Heights. And the reasons for this are both the neighborhood’s strengths and weaknesses . . .
- A location at the southern edge of the Mission valley
- The fact that it has only a few city bus line servicing the area
- Being basically perched on top of a steep hill
These seeming drawbacks are also what make Bernal Heights a “quaint urban village that seems forgotten by time. The main shopping strip of Cortland Avenue is populated by small markets, cafes, fruit stands and barber shops, and the residential streets are a cluster of diminutive bungalows and community gardens. However, Bernal Heights bears the influence of city sophistication, with trendy boutiques and innovative restaurants scattered among its homely storefronts.
“The neighborhood is a bastion of artists and progressives, popular with the lesbian community and attractive to young families looking for a first home and quiet streets (the neighborhood is also affectionately referred to as “Maternal Heights“). It is also a mecca for dog owners, thanks to a high concentration of single-family houses with yards and the nearby haven of Bernal Park, a canine free-for-all of off-leash frolicking.”
SFWeekly describes Bernal Heights as “one of San Francisco’s urban villages” because it is “residential, self-contained” and “with comparatively few out-of-town visitors and lots of secret charms. It’s the only one with its own mountain, although unlike Twin Peaks or Telegraph Hill, Bernal Hill’s vistas are virtually tourist-free, rising from the flat expanse of the Mission . . . A walk around reveals its subsections, from the affluent northwest slope to the flat tongue of land around Mitchell’s Ice Cream known as ‘La Lengua’ to the Sunset-esque area once occupied by St. Mary’s College.”
Property Values – The Bernal Heights Surprise
For a long time “Bernal Heights was the best kept secret in San Francisco real estate. Short commutes into downtown, relatively affordable homes, and panoramic hilltop views made it a desirable place for artists, musicians, and tech workers to settle down.”
But one aspect has since changed .dramatically . . .
Once word got around that Bernal Heights is a desirable “residential enclave,” both popularity and population began to surge. In about a six-year period between 2012 and 2018 home prices in the neighborhood appreciated a whopping 111%. In 2018, the median sales price for a two-bedroom home was $1.58 million.
The north slope of Bernal Heights is today “densely packed with million-dollar homes.” In 2014, Redfin called it “the hottest neighborhood in America based on increases in search traffic to local listings.”
Dining/Drinking in Bernal Heights
You probably wouldn’t think a small urban village perched atop a steep hill and away from the center of things could offer much in the way of drinking and dining. But this is actually one of the areas where Bernal Heights shines. Consider these few examples . . .
Virgil’s Sea Room
Overshadowed by the larger and more well known neighboring eatery El Rio, Virgil’s Sea Room isn’t as popular as it should be, despite the sunny and warm patio. “Good and strong cocktails, many named after local luminaries, are best enjoyed on that back deck area, complete with picnic tables you can rent for events. It’s heated and charmingly lit in the evening, and you can even peer through the fence to the fun next door.”
Hillside Supper Club
Described as a “slow food-driven neighborhood restaurant,” the Hillside Supper Club was opened by two chefs, Tony Ferrari (now gone) and Jonathan Sutton (still there). “The restaurant space – a corner Victorian on the edge of beautiful Precita Park – might be worth the trip alone. But diners will want to linger to enjoy hearty menu items like their meatballs and focaccia.”
Cellarmaker House of Pizza
The second casual brewpub from the top San Francisco brewery Cellarmaker, the Cellarmaker House of Pizza offers not only enticing craft beers, but also great pizza and more. “Juicy IPAs, barrel aged dark beers, and refreshing sour beers are all here, but so is a tight wine list featuring some cool natural wines not to be overlooked. And while square, Detroit-inspired pizza is the big draw, a great mix of sides and small plates built around seasonal produce rounds out the menu.”
Popular with pinball fans – there are nine pinball machines – Outer Orbit features Hawaiian food and tropical-leaning beers. “The vibe is casual and lighthearted, with the after school family crowd giving way to a more mature mix of patrons in the evening.”
Making the Choice
Bernal Heights, then, is a quaint urban village, a self-contained residential enclave, with plenty to choose from in amenities and attractions and with great weather. Different in many ways from other San Francisco neighborhoods, it has a lot to like.
Except for the home prices . . .
But if you can get past those prices, if you have the wherewithal, it just may be for you.