San Francisco’s Mission District is the city’s oldest neighbourhood and its culture is part-Latino, part-punk, part-hipster.
Once a working-class neighbourhood sheltering immigrants fleeing from oppression in Central America, the 1990s saw an influx of young professional people seeking cheaper rents in what was fast becoming one of America’s most expensive cities. Today the area is trying hard to hold on to its edginess and working-class roots and is resisting the gentrification of its culture.
The Latin American influence can still be seen in the stores and restaurants in the area, while the bohemian subculture is reflected in the street art and murals that can be found throughout the neighbourhood. Urban Adventures’ new Flavours and Murals of the Mission tour sets out to explore both aspects.
Having been strongly advised not to have breakfast, we met our guide Claire, an art major, outside Dynamo Donut early on a fine Sunday morning in May. Claire was ready for us with a box of artisan donuts cut into quarters, so we could sample a couple of different varieties. Flavours included spiced chocolate, maple bacon, lemon thyme and vanilla bean. I’m not normally a big fan of donuts, but these were nice and light and more like a cake rather than being heavy and oily.
On our way to our next stop, Claire explained about the history of the area and pointed out some of the murals along the way, explaining their backgrounds and meanings. We then arrived at a Mexican bakery, whose shop window was full of all different kinds of pastries. This is the point at which reality diverged from my expectations. I was expecting a sample at each stop. Here we were told to pick any pastry from the window. Any whole pastry! There seemed to be about 30 or 40 different types to choose from, and making a selection was definitely the most difficult part of the day!
As we ate our pastries we walked up the street to Balmy Alley, which is again full of murals, many of which reflect the artists’ Central American upbringings and their concerns over both local and Central American issues.
The murals are constantly changing, and are managed by a local community-based organisation. One of my favourites, ‘Indigenous Eyes’, is a pair of eyes painted on a garage door, with a dove reflected in one eye and a soldier in the other.
Time for more food. This time it was a famous local pie shop where we had the choice between sweet or savoury – apple pie or quiche. And again, a whole piece. It was at this point that I started to feel full and wondered how I was going to get through the rest of the tour, as we were only at the halfway point!
From here we continued walking and saw some more art, including the murals of Clarion Alley, before catching a bus up to a taqueria for some tacos. Some of the hardier members of the group also had a beer (it’s 5 o’clock somewhere right!) while the rest of us limped through our overstuffed and very delicious tacos.
We finished up the tour by walking through Mission Dolores Park and ended outside the Mission Dolores – the oldest building in San Francisco. Here we were handed one last food item – a hazelnut cake from one of the upmarket patisseries in the area. This item was fortunately handed out to us in a paper bag and so I was able to tuck it away for later.
The Urban Adventures tour took about 2.5 – 3 hours all up and for the amount of food we got, plus the incredible knowledge and insights of our local guide, seemed amazing value. It was a really great way to get to know this gritty and eclectic part of San Francisco, and discover some of the great food from places I probably would have overlooked had I been on my own.
Feature image c/o Claire Baxter.