San Francisco Apartment Association


If You Rename It, Will They Come?

by Emily Landes

“Polk Gulch was a bucket of blood,” says John Malloy, referring to the notorious saloon that used to reside on the corner of Polk and Post streets, until Malloy managed to get it—and a number of other troublesome bars in the neighborhood that bears the same name as the seedy transsexual bar—shut down. The Gulch has been replaced by the Lush Lounge—a more upscale, but still gay-friendly, drinking establishment.

Just as the grubby Gulch became the luscious Lounge, Malloy also hopes to transform the once down-and-dirty Polk Gulch neighborhood into a cleaner, safer, more family-friendly version of its former self. And a key part of that transformation, Malloy believes, is a new name—Polk Village. As the Executive Director of the Polk Corridor Business Association, Malloy is starting a PR campaign to get people used to the idea of Polk Village and hopefully the new identity that comes with it. “People don’t like living in Polk Gulch; it’s got one of the worst connotations there is. It’s a place where the homeless go to hide, where the drunks who can’t afford more than a dollar a drink go to slop up their beer,” he claims. Polk Village, by contrast, is “a cute little place to come live and shop.”

The most obvious element of this marketing campaign is the new signs that line Polk Street between California and Post streets declaring “Polk Village—a great place to shop, work and live.” The signs were sponsored by local merchants, ranging from chiropractors to bars, and even a pot club. These merchants have been the biggest proponents of the name change, says Malloy, who adds that he had to turn away about half of the vendors who wanted to sponsor the signs because there just weren’t enough to go around.

But while merchants can’t wait to be part of Polk Village, many residents have been saying this name change is another sign of the “G” word most feared by some segments of the San Francisco population: gentrification. As soon as Malloy announced the proposed name change, he heard from tenants concerned that their rents would go up as the neighborhood took on more prestige. Malloy, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years, understands the concerns, but hopes that when people see the other improvements that come along with Polk Village—cleaner, greener streets and a safer living environment—they’ll want to pay more to live there. “You pay what your neighborhood is worth and if we can improve the neighborhood, you’re going to pay more, unless you’re under rent control,” he contends. “But I’ll take gentrification over what it was 10 years ago.”

Interestingly, the people who would most benefit from rent increases—property owners—have been the least involved. Malloy says property owners and managers don’t return his calls or come to neighborhood meetings. In his mind, there is no underestimating the importance of more owner involvement. “We could make the street as good as Fillmore if they would just cooperate,” he pleads.

The Polk Gulch-Polk Village debate is just one of many controversial name changes that have occurred in San Francisco over its long and storied history. Our city is littered with old neighborhood names that have been lost to time, either through aggressive marketing campaigns like Malloy’s or through more organic means, and the new names that have sprung up in their stead often mark a change in the neighborhood—usually for the better. But, to figure out why neighborhood name changing is such an attractive and oft-repeated force for everyone from real-estate agents to neighborhood activists, we must ask ourselves that age-old question: what’s in a name?

What Happened to the Western Addition?
There was a time when a large swath of the area west of Van Ness Avenue and east of Golden Gate Park was considered the “Western Addition, ” a nod to the fact that most of San Francisco’s population density was in the northeastern-most portion of the city. When people began filling in these western areas in the early twentieth century, there was a natural reaction to break this neighborhood down into smaller segments, explains Zephyr Realtor Bonnie Spindler. “As places get more dense, they get broken up,” she says. Among the many neighborhoods to spring from what was once the Western Addition, two are particularly interesting: the Fillmore and Anza Vista. These two neighborhoods both came into their own in the 1930s and 1940s, but ended up representing very different living environments by the late 1980s.

The Fillmore attracted many ethnic groups who couldn’t afford land in the eastern neighborhoods, particularly the Japanese population who moved to the area after the 1906 quake destroyed Chinatown. When hundreds of these families were put in internment camps during World War II, their “vacant” homes were taken up by African-Americans who came to the Bay Area to work in the shipyards and other wartime industries. The neighborhood soon became the epicenter of the city’s jazz scene, but by the 1950s it started a long decline with the wholesale demolition of hundreds of homes in the name of “urban renewal.” By the time community activists stepped in to prevent further displacement, the damage had been done.

While Fillmore Street was always a center of commerce, Anza Vista didn’t exist until San Francisco began moving its cemeteries in the 1930s. But once the old bones from the San Francisco Calvary Cemetery were transferred to Colma, the neighborhood quickly filled up with more lively residents, mainly families. Unlike many San Francisco neighborhoods, it was developed with little overhead wiring, contributing to a quiet, suburban feel. Even as more stores and restaurants came to the area over time, Anza Vista never quite lost its reputation as a slightly “dead” neighborhood.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, escalating housing prices made both of these areas became more attractive to a younger, trendier demographic who decided the old neighborhood names did not represent the areas they now called home. Part of the Fillmore became the Upper Fillmore when new restaurants and stores opened along Fillmore Street between Geary and California streets. In fact, in the June 16, 1988, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, the newspaper ran an article entitled “Fashion Freedom in the Fillmore” and gushed about the formerly rundown neighborhood’s “chic new shops and restaurants,” showing pictures of happy, young shoppers walking down the newly hot strip.

These new residents clearly didn’t even like the idea of living in the Upper Fillmore, and instead used their proximity to San Francisco’s toniest neighborhood—Pacific Heights—to make the neighborhood sound even more appealing. “Name changes notify the buyer of a gentrification or a change in status,” says Spindler. “When part of Western Addition changed to Lower Pacific Heights, it’s a notification that it’s coming up in value. It’s more like Pacific Heights now.” It’s not surprising that that glowing Chronicle article ran the first year that Lower Pacific Heights got its own section in the open houses listings of the paper’s real-estate section. Just one year previous, homes in that neighborhood were simply grouped in with Pacific Heights and called “Pacific Heights (lower),” while some realtors went with that old throwback: Western Addition.

Over in Anza Vista, a different change was taking place. An area that once stretched from Geary and Divisadero streets down to the Stanyan entrance to Golden Gate Park, was becoming more condensed and a new neighborhood was springing up. Residents in this neighborhood (between Divisadero and Stanyan streets and Fell and Turk streets) tended to be younger and less likely to have a family than those who had traditionally lived in Anza Vista. They wanted to have a neighborhood that connoted a proximity to the lively Haight, not sleepy Anza Vista. In the June 28, 1992, Chronicle open house section, a home at Broderick and Fulton is listed as Anza Vista. By 1994, there is a “Panhandle (North of)” listing amidst nine Anza Vista listings and by 1997 there are four listing for “Panhandle (N)” and only one for Anza Vista.

By the early 2000s, there was a marketing tussle over what to call this new neighborhood, with three listings for North Panhandle and three for Panhandle North in the June 25, 2000, Chronicle open house listings. In 2002 and 2003, there are a few mentions of “Park North” as well (though this moniker seems to have been used only by realtors, as it appears in the listings and on the San Francisco Association of Realtors district map from this period, but no nonrealtor San Franciscans recall Park North’s existence). By June 2006, a clear winner had emerged with 18 listings for North Panhandle and zero for Park North or Panhandle North. (As always, there were a few listings for Anza Vista, but the neighborhood had clearly come to be considered only the area north of Turk Street.)

Those in the know may have heard that recently the North Panhandle has been reanointed as NoPa—with its own neighborhood association (NOPNA) and, even more important to solidifying the growing cache of a new neighborhood, a trendy restaurant on Divisidero and Hayes streets that bears its name. As an SF Weekly review of the new restaurant asks, “Could Nopa be the new SOMA?”

From No-Man’s Land to a Neighborhood
Of course, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when SoMa didn’t even exist. People have long lived in the area Jack London called “South of the Slot,” but it was largely commercial until the rampant development of the past two decades. As recently as 1991, an ad for an apartment building at Third and Folsom streets makes no mention of the neighborhood, instead citing that it is “an easy walking distance to the Financial District and Union Square” and emphasizing the building’s “tastefully marbled lobby and uniformed doormen,” rather than the area’s amenities.

But, as the population density increased and more retail stores, restaurants and clubs opened, the formerly nameless neighborhood grew an identity. As with other new neighborhoods, this identity was formed not only by the people who lived and worked there, but also by how it was publicized. On June 28, 1992, the Chronicle ran an article all about the benefits of living in these new things called lofts–a “concept that’s definitely here to stay.” The article particularly discussed the recently built Clocktower lofts on Second and Harrison streets and the new restaurants, bars and clubs that were sprouting up around it. The area has “decidedly more neighborhood appeal than it had five years ago,” the article declared. Building marketers, of course, also jumped on the burgeoning neighborhood’s bandwagon, in one ad asking homebuyers to “take a moment for a closer look” at this new “live/work district.”

Of course, this fabulous new neighborhood still didn’t have a name and as Spindler explains, that’s not something most people can stand for very long. “As areas that weren’t residential become residential, we had to have a name for them. We had to call them something. It’s definitely a socialization thing,” she contends. The area’s denizens were clearly desperate for something, anything, as they decided to just simply name the neighborhood after its location—South of Market. In that 1992 Chronicle, there is only one South of Market listing (for the Clocktower) in the open houses section; in 1993 there are 11 and by 1994 there are 17 South of Market listings. By 1996, South of Market is gone; replaced by the SoHoish SoMa, another step toward a definitive identity.

Of course, just as with the Western Addition, as more people moved to SoMa, more new neighborhoods evolved. In 1998, we get the first South Beach listings, despite the fact that this Southeastern-most section of SoMa has no sand to speak of. Jeff Mishkin, regional manager of Marcus & Millichap, imagines that the name was supposed to relate the neighborhood to charismatic North Beach while also implying water views. He remembers the elements that brought about the new neighborhood. “It started with the construction of three major buildings in the 1980s and then Loma Prieta brought down the central freeway and started the new Embarcadero. Then there was talk of a ballpark,” he recalls. “They added the Caltrain station and most recently tech companies started coming in.” Soon after, South Beach was born.

What Comes First?
The question of what comes first—the change to the neighborhood or the name change—is a classic chicken-and-the-egg-type conundrum. Certainly, some change must already be occurring for people to be invested enough in the neighborhood to care what its name is. The Fillmore and Anza Vista areas had already begun attracting new types of residents before its names were changed, but there can be no doubt that changing Western Addition to the Fillmore to the Upper Fillmore to Lower Pacific Heights had a psychological effect on those who were debating calling the neighborhood home. Real-estate marketing and publicity in newspaper articles can often contribute to solidifying a new neighborhood’s name; yet, if the change is all marketing and no meaning, as with Park North, it will be a hard sell to get regular San Franciscans to adopt the change.

Like many before him, John Malloy hopes that his top-down approach to renaming will spur on more substantial changes in his Polk neighborhood. “I can’t raise a dime on Polk Gulch. I can’t raise a dime on Outer Tenderloin. I can’t raise a dime on Lower Nob Hill, which everybody laughs at,” he says, listing off some of the Polk Village alternatives from the past. “Polk Village sounds like a good idea.” Mishkin points out that even if changing Polk Gulch to Polk Village is just “spin,” it builds on the changes that have already happened there. “In my experience, names don’t really get changed unless the character does,” he adds.

Malloy supports that belief and says that a name change is the least of what he and other activists are doing in the neighborhood. He has gotten an agreement from city hall to assign one person from the Department of Public Works to work fulltime cleaning the neighborhood’s streets, checking for and removing graffiti, and seeing that businesses keep their awnings in good repair, using tickets and fines if necessary. Plus, this year, the area will decorate for the winter holidays with wreaths, lights and storefront decorating contests (they may even have a Santa) and will host its first-ever street fair next fall. Malloy hopes these efforts will bring new people into the neighborhood and prove to naysayers once and for all that “Polk Village is not a dream.” Further into the future, he predicts, “when everyone gets used to Polk Village, it will be Polk Village.”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of SFAA or San Francisco Apartment Magazine. Emily Landes is the managing editor of the San Francisco Apartment Magazine and Rental Housing. Copyright © 2006 by San Francisco Apartment Magazine. All rights reserved.