A little art, a little wine, maybe a vintage carousel ride—welcome to the perfect urban escape south of Market Street.
Jack London's San Francisco of a century ago was divided by "the Slot," a clanking cable car line that ran up and down Market Street. "North of the Slot were the theaters, hotels, and shopping district, the banks and the staid, respectable business houses," London wrote in a 1909 short story. "South of the Slot were the factories, slums, laundries, machineshops, boiler works, and the abodes of the working class." The southern area bustled, but not with tourists, art lovers, or shoppers.
Today, you can still catch a vintage streetcar on Market, but the museum and garden district now known as Yerba Buena (roughly Market to Harrison streets between Second Street and Fifth) has been transformed. Hipsters from nearby art schools peer into their laptops at cafes. Families picnic on the grassy plaza near a waterfall or clamber onto the 1906 carousel.
Since London's day, machine shops and saloons have given way to galleries and winetasting bars, restaurants and upscale hotels. The "boiler works" are long gone, replaced by an ice-skating rink and an Imax-equipped cineplex. Even a former power plant—Pacific Gas and Electric's old Jessie Street Substation—now houses star architect Daniel Libeskind's Contemporary Jewish Museum, which opened in June 2008. It's just one of nearly a dozen arts institutions that have now planted roots here—part of a four-decade-long redevelopment effort to bring art to the city's heart.
"This neighborhood is a cultural crossroads for San Francisco and California," says Linda Lucero, executive and artistic director of Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. "We take the mandate to showcase and celebrate the diversity of the Bay Area very seriously."
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) anchors the scene. The marquee exhibit of summer 2009 juxtaposed more than 100 photos and paintings by two of the West's visionaries, Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe.
Meanwhile, just across Third Street, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts gives voice to living artists whose works in multiple media are at times spiked with an ironic twist on politics. A monthly film series highlights documentary and experimental works.
At the Museum of the African Diaspora down the street, one gallery plays haunting slave narratives from around the world while another shows a short film about Howard Thurman, a San Francisco pastor, civil rights pioneer, and advocate of nonviolent protest in the 1940s and 1950s who greatly influenced Martin Luther King Jr.
Across the street, the research library of the California Historical Society is open to the public and boasts not only fascinating exhibits and digital records but also an old-fashioned card catalog listing books, manuscripts, and photos that are available for gentle handling (with white cotton gloves).
To view history through a pop culture lens, hit the nearby Cartoon Art Museum, where original hand-drawn strips of Dennis the Menace hang alongside panels by various comic artists. Come for the exhibits and stay for a screening or a class. (Reservations are required for most classes.)
Many of the neighborhood's museums host workshops and lectures that invite interaction. The Children's Creativity Museum, an art and technology museum near the carousel, is a giant multimedia playhouse. Kids (and grown-ups) can learn to produce music videos, make Claymation movies, and create digital art—all in the same day.
But get outside, too. Summer afternoons are the best time to explore Yerba Buena, when the fog moves "North of the Slot." Free outdoor performances, part of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, keep things hopping from May through October. In any week you might hear Celtic harp or Cajun fiddle, opera or samba.
Yerba Buena is still reinventing itself. The Metreon, a high-tech mall at Mission and Fourth, is undergoing a redesign, planning a Target store and a 470-seat food court. SFMOMA added a rooftop sculpture garden. So far, though, no plans for a neighborhood boiler works.
Photography by Tom Bross/courtesy San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau
Check out the rest of our San Francisco package:
China Basin: Gourmet burgers and a handsome ballpark
Chinatown/North Beach: History, ambience, and cappuccinos
Civic Center: Cultural hub near City Hall
Union Street: Boutiques and bistros
This article was first published in July 2009 and updated in October 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.