Near Pier 70 on the eastern waterfront of San Francisco, stray dogs used to roam in search of discarded bits from the area’s meatpacking facilities. The canine scavengers were so numerous at the turn of the 20th century that the neighborhood became known as Dogpatch.
But today, the only pooch I see is a perfectly groomed golden Lab panting next to his owner, who’s biting into a beignet at a sidewalk cafe. And the only purveyor of meat around here is Olivier Cordier, a Frenchman whose gourmet butchery has found a cultlike following among foodies and restaurant owners.
Every scrap of land is precious in this seven-by-seven-mile city, but Dogpatch somehow managed to stay under the radar until recently. The nine blocks of warehouses and Victorian homes has perpetually been the little neighborhood that could. I, too, used to be guilty of neglect — I never bothered to come out here until the Museum of Craft and Design opened the doors to its new home in the neighborhood in April.
“This neighborhood has been simmering for a while,” says JoAnn Edwards, the museum’s executive director, who tells me that her organization’s new location was a deliberate choice. “Behind every locked door there’s some sort of creative thing going on.”
The museum shares a former car factory with some 300 other enterprises. A quick look at the complex’s directory reveals what San Franciscan entrepreneurs aspire to today, from filmmaking to cheesemaking, tech start-ups to a climbing gym, a microbrewery to even a winery.
I stroll down the block to Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous, touted by some as the city’s best ice cream parlor, where the lanky workers flex their tattooed biceps to scoop up such curious flavors as black sesame and Anchor Porter. Across the street is Serpentine, a bustling eatery inside a soaring industrial space decked out in concrete columns and exposed pipes. I settle at the bar and dive into an oven-baked savory bread pudding. The cuisine is supposed to be seasonal comfort food, but with Gruyere, nettles, sage and succulent asparagus, it’s definitely fancier than anything I’d make at home. Not that I’m complaining.
Appropriately for its origins, the layout of Dogpatch resembles a steak that a stray dog would dream about, with the T-shaped juncture of 22nd and Third streets providing the backbone to this flat district of hulking warehouses, pastel-colored 19th-century homes and modest workers’ cottages.
Mother Nature’s fickleness saved this time capsule from the 1906 earthquake and the subsequent fire that obliterated much of the city; the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake left no mark here, either. But gentrification spares nothing. I can’t help rolling my eyes when I walk past a large billboard touting a new “urban loft” — as opposed to, I wonder, a rural loft in the middle of the city?
Ambling around, it’s easy to see that this perennial up-and-comer has come of age at last. In addition to the sleek new museum, a flurry of new businesses has revitalized the largely industrial neighborhood.
Chocolate Lab, local celeb confectioner Michael Recchiuti’s 2012 restaurant, dishes out such savory fare as bay shrimp tartine and desserts made with honey from the rooftop. At 4 o’clock, Sow, a pop-up that sells fresh juices, transforms into a wine bar called Yield, whose sidewalk tables remain occupied throughout the evening.
Magnolia Brewing Co., which has called the counterculture hotbed of the Haight home for 15 years, is moving its brewing facilities to Third Street later this year, with a gastropub to boot. Even the Dogpatch Saloon, the neighborhood dive, has temporarily closed its doors for renovation. The word on the street is that it has been taken over by businessmen who run a number of successful establishments in the Castro.
“In San Francisco real estate, restaurants open first, then residential units follow,” says Margherita Stewart Sagan, who opened one of the neighborhood’s first restaurants, Piccino, in 2006. “Most San Franciscans still don’t know what Dogpatch is.”
When the Tuscan-style eatery expanded in 2011, it took over a dilapidated 1876 coal repository with unrepaired horse-and-buggy doors. I’m incredulous that there was a barn with dirt floors in space-scarce San Francisco as recently as two years ago. What other architectural artifacts remain hidden around here?
Catty-corner from the restaurant, in what used to be the public bus depot, Rickshaw Bagworks makes customized messenger bags from recycled materials. I chat with a friendly shopkeeper, who tells me that even though she’s new to her job, she has noticed a change in the neighborhood in her two short months here: “Parking’s gotten impossible!” she says. Parking here was never an issue. In fact, so plentiful was the space that there used to be a car towing lot. It closed in May, making way for, I suppose, more urban lofts.
Ambitious plans are proposed for Pier 70, a 65-acre shipyard from the Gold Rush era that stands abandoned between Dogpatch and the bay. In the coming decades, a thousand housing units and 2.2 million square feet of workspace are supposed to be carved out of these waterfront depots. For now, I have to content myself with standing behind the wire fences, gazing at the rusty cranes and the leaky warehouses missing most of their windows. I suppose that revitalization is a good thing; still, I can’t help feeling a little sad that these last stretches of melancholy, too, might become just as sleek as the rest of San Francisco.
The sun sets, and things become eerily quiet as the designers and entrepreneurs who commute to their jobs here hop on the light rail that rumbles down Third Street toward downtown. I plunk down for a beer at the Goat, a narrow, unassuming bar. A dozen or so people sip as a female duo with the decidedly wholesome name of Some Good Music strums guitars and sings folksy numbers. After their set, the singers walk around the bar, greeting the listeners by name and thanking them with a hug.
Dogpatch may be the newest hip epicenter, and great things are in store for its future. But for now, it’s still a neighborhood where in a bar, everybody just might know your name.
Kwak is a writer based in San Francisco and Berlin. His Web site is kwak.in/motion.
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