As San Francisco's night club hub and host to the all-things-go Folsom Street Fair, South of Market has an unmistakable left-of-center atmosphere about it.
Today, of course, SoMa is also a posh, upper-middle-class borough and tech central—thanks to a startup culture that began so quaint in South Park and has now gone bananas with the rise of the Transbay Terminal and Salesforce Tower—but it wasn't always so. Though now you can easily drop 20 bucks on a sandwich and a craft kombucha at the local street food cart, the history of the neighborhood is, shall we say, more down to earth, where industrial pioneers mingled with starving artist types.
Historically speaking, SoMa is essentially a byproduct of California's Gold Rush: a tent city erected with literal sticks and stones for the purpose of sheltering thousands of would-be gold miners. Throughout much of the mid-19th century, SoMa remained a home for refugees, albeit evolving into a more permanent pioneer community made up of spacious residential buildings to house the mostly Western European immigrants, primarily displaced Jews. Like the miners before them, they were rich in optimism but short on cash, and so settled in the 'hood that boasted a low cost of living (which is hardly the case today).
By the end of the 19th century, the advent of cable cars showered shouldering Market Street and Nob Hill with newfound opulence but SoMa, meanwhile, became a heavily industrial development due to its proximity to the docks of the bay. The neighborhood clung to its atavistic European roots, becoming a communal touchstone for the city's working-class communities. At the time, the 'hood was known as South of the Slots, referring to the area south of Market Street's cable cars; the name South of Market wasn't popularized until the mid-1950s.
Then the Big One of 1906 brought SF to its knees and SoMa, among the city's hardest hit neighborhoods, was completely leveled. Hundreds of people died, and the various cultural institutions and residential buildings that fostered SoMa's communal, inviting spirit were reduced to rubble in just 50 seconds.
But like a Phoenix rising, SoMa came roaring back in the latter parts of the 20th century. The neighborhood's remaining inhabitants, along with engineers and city planners, championed the preservation of the area's industrial and creative heritage. The SoMa we see today is a melting pot for the arts (home to SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Museum of the African Diaspora), gay culture, tech, and more. (Never mind the overpriced lunchtime fare.)
Take our slideshow tour of some of the most prominent street art in SoMa, and at the neighborhood's edges, that reflect its diverse, imaginative, and communal history.
James Baldwin and Company, by Mel Waters, at Tabor Alley and 3rd Street.
(Courtesy of Street Art SF)