Cartography, Part II - San Francisco

For a city surrounded on three sides by water, San Francisco seems to be an expansive place with breathtaking vistas, a dynamic culture, and an ever evolving sense of place. But as in many cities in the 21st century, urban planners have seen some significant changes in San Francisco over the past two decades: the tallest tower west of the Mississippi now tops our skyline, tech industry giants fill our office towers and commercial corridors, and a massive influx of people and money have changed the culture of the city.

These changes have placed significant strains on the city’s limited housing stock, which has sent housing and rental prices soaring and has had a lasting effects on the make-up and character of the city. This story of change is not unique to San Francisco, but the issues here are among the most contentious in our culture as residents struggle to hold onto the things that have made San Francisco a place of diversity and acceptance while also looking to urban planners and designers to help embrace the future and position the city as a national and international symbol of prosperity.

In this second part of a series on cities in which Page offices are located, we explore how the issue of housing has been the driver of change in three different neighborhoods, and what those changes mean for the city.

The Castro neighborhood was originally called Eureka Valley and was home to working class immigrant families of Italian and Irish origins. During World War II, thousands of gay men were dishonorably discharged from the armed forces and many of them decided to stay in San Francisco instead of returning to their small town homes where they would likely face discrimination. While Polk Gulch and the Tenderloin were the city’s original centers for gay life from the 19050s through the 1970s, many gay men and lesbians started moving to the Castro as its stock of historic Victorian homes became available and affordable due to the middle-class migration to the suburbs during the 1960’s and 1970’s. This coalescence of gay culture in the Castro coincided with the rise of the gay rights movement and the neighborhood suddenly became the epicenter for gay activism in San Francisco. Bars, retail stores, and service providers soon began popping up all throughout the Castro and the neighborhood gained its identity as San Francisco’s premier ‘gayborhood’, which it still holds to this day.

The Mission neighborhood has been home to many different cultures throughout its history. It was originally home to the native Ohlone people who settled two villages on a creek running through the area. The arrival of Spanish Missionaries marked the beginning of the downfall for the Ohlone people, but also gave the area its name as the Spanish founded the Mission San Francisco se Asis in 1776. In the early 19th century, the area was inhabited by Spanish-Mexican families whose names live on as major streets like Guerrero, Dolores, and Noé.  The decades following the gold rush saw an influx of Irish, German, and other European immigrants, a trend which solidified after the 1906 earthquake as people moved into the area to rebuild after the devastation wrought upon the city. The neighborhood’s population changed again in the 1940s and 50s as people of Mexican descent moved into the Mission after being displaced from other neighborhoods in the city. This move marked the beginning of an influx of Central and South American migrants that gave the Mission its Latino culture with shops, restaurants, and institutions serving the immigrant communities. By the 1990s and early 2000s, the Mission began changing again as affordable housing prices enticed young professionals to move into the area during the first dot-com boom. While there is still a strong Latino population and identity in the area, this change sparked much debate about the effects of gentrification on the culture and identity of a neighborhood.

The Tenderloin neighborhood was originally called Downtown in the mid-19th century, alive with hotels, restaurants, theaters, and nightlife attractions including bars, brothels, and burlesque houses. The area was almost completely destroyed in the earthquake of 1906, but was quickly rebuilt with hotels and studio apartment buildings. With the start of Prohibition and the passage of the Red Light Abatement Act in the 1920s, the neighborhood saw an influx of gambling establishments, speakeasies, and houses of prostitution. These attractions gave rise to crime, vice, and graft, which some say is where the name Tenderloin came from, referring to the neighborhood as “the soft underbelly” of the city. The post-war era gave way to a great decline in the city’s population, leaving many of the Tenderloin’s hotels and apartment buildings vacant or abandoned. These small, inexpensive, and vacant units became attractive housing opportunities for migrants and refugees from Southeast Asia fleeing the chaos of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The neighborhood has long resisted gentrification, and with its history of speakeasies, prostitution, and crime, it has become one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. As many other parts of San Francisco experience the changes associated with gentrification, there remains a great debate about the social costs of removing the Tenderloin’s single room occupancy and studio apartments and displacing a population of largely poor and underserved people. 

*Much of the historical information contained in this article was sourced from Wikipedia articles of the neighborhoods described herein.

Page Strategic Consultant Allan Donnelly has developed a series of maps of the US cities in which Page is located. This is the second of six that will be posted on