Bernal Heights in San Francisco is located at the southern edge of the Mission valley, served by only a few city bus lines and perched atop a steep hill, to boot. Those who do wander up the incline may be surprised by this quaint urban village that seems forgotten by time. The main shopping strip of Cortland Avenue is populated by small markets, cafés, fruit stands and barber shops, and the residential streets are a cluster of diminutive bungalows and community gardens. However, Bernal Heights bears the influence of city sophistication, with trendy boutiques and innovative restaurants scattered among its homely storefronts.
The neighborhood is a bastion of artists and progressives, popular with the lesbian community and attractive to young families looking for a first home and quiet streets (the neighborhood is also affectionately referred to as “Maternal Heights“). It is also a mecca for dog owners, thanks to a high concentration of single-family houses with yards and the nearby haven of Bernal Park, a canine free-for-all of off-leash frolicking.
Originally, Bernal Heights was part of the Rancho de las Salinas y Potrero Nuevo, and owes its name to Jose Cornelio de Bernal, to whom the land was granted in 1839 by the Mexican government. In the 1860s the rancho was subdivided into small lots, and was first populated primarily by Irish immigrants who farmed the land and ran dairy ranches. According to legend, a mini gold rush was triggered in 1876 when con artists planted the hilltop with traces of gold.
The district survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, thanks to the hill’s bedrock foundation, and some ramshackle houses still remain that were constructed out of timber salvaged from the wreckage. Several small cottages on Shotwell Street were originally built as “bonus plan” dwellings, provided to people who had lost their homes in the disaster but still had jobs. For these reasons, more people moved to Bernal Heights following the earthquake. World War II brought another influx, this time of people who came to work in the naval shipyards of nearby China Basin.
Cortland started to be cleaned up in the early ’90s, when the Good Life Grocery moved in, followed by restaurants like the Liberty Café, Fit Bernal Fit, as well as other small businesses.
Liberty Cafe changed. The original brainchild and part owner passed away 5 years ago, and some of the same folks have changed it over to Bernal Star, a more casual restaurant with high quality ingredients. (free range beef, etc.)
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