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Bernal Heights Is the Hottest Neighborhood in America
Scott Lucas | Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons | January 15, 2014
That sound you hear is David Talbot wailing.
Way back in the innocent days of October of 2012, Salon founder David Talbot asked in this magazine, "How much tech can one city take?" Exhibit A in his treatise was the steady rise of housing prices in his own neighborhood, Bernal Heights. He warned that the once funky and blue collar neighborhood was in danger of pricing out the very residents that made it great.
Fast forward to today. Talbot, it seems, was absolutely correct.
According to real estate site Redfin, Bernal Heights isn't just the hottest neighborhood in San Francisco. Not even in the Bay Area. It's the hottest hood in the entire United States. And that demand has sent prices there through the roof. The median sale price of a house there has risen 196% in the last year to $982,500. As local blog Bernalwood asks, "is there a word for the emotion that combines a deep sense of pride with a profound sense of ambivalence?"
So is Bernal in danger of losing its soul? Will it turn into the next Eagle Rock (#2), Upper Chevy Chase (#4), or Portland's Concordia (#8)? Stay tuned.
"I’m sitting at a table outside the new Precita Park café in Bernal Heights, a gourmet sandwich shop that’s one sign of the changing times. When I moved to this neighborhood in 1993, just before the first dot-com boom, I avoided taking my two toddlers to the playground across the street from the café, because local gangs sometimes stashed their guns in the sand. And yet, despite gunfire from the old Army Street projects that often shattered the neighborhood’s sleep, Bernal Heights in those years was a glorious urban mix of deeply rooted blue-collar families, underground artists, radical activists, and lesbian settlers. The neighborhood had a funky character as well as a history. The famed cartoonist R. Crumb once hung his hat there, and his old Zap Comics sidekick, the brilliant Spain Rodriguez, still does.
But at some point the new tech boom began to make its presence felt in Bernal Heights, whose sunny hills are close to not only SoMa startups but also the Highway 101 shuttle line to Silicon Valley. Nowadays, you see Lexus SUVs parked in the driveways on Precita Avenue. Young masters of the universe in Ivy League sweatshirts buy yogurt and organic peaches at the corner stores where Cuervo flasks and cans of Colt 45 were once the most popular items.
“We cleaned up this neighborhood—stopped the violence in the projects—but now we can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Buck Bagot who has been a Bernal Heights community organizer and housing activist since 1976. “When I moved here, every house on my block had a different ethnicity. There were Latinos, blacks, American Indians, Samoans, Filipinos. They had good union jobs, and they could raise their families here. Now they’re all gone.” These days Bagot fights to block home foreclosures as the cofounder of Occupy Bernal, engaged in a battle to preserve the neighborhood’s diverse character that he admits often feels futile.
Sitting outside the café, I’m joined by another longtime Bernal resident, a 47-year-old San Francisco public school librarian. She moved to the neighborhood in 1994 with her partner, a public school teacher, when many of their lesbian friends were settling here, attracted by the relatively cheap rents. “There were a lot of us—we were young, politically active, and underpaid, but we could afford to live here in those days,” she says. “But now that we have kids, we’re being priced out.” The librarian—who asks that her name not be used because she’s concerned that any notoriety will hurt her chances of entering the tight housing market—says that she and her partner have bid on five houses this year. But they lost each time to buyers who could afford to put up tens of thousands of dollars over the sellers’ asking price—and all in cash. “Who are these people, with that kind of money?” she asks."