A Brief History of the Lower Haight

The urban story of one of San Francisco’s central neighborhoods.

It is the year 1886 and you’re riding the cable car on the Haight Street line. Your car veers off Market St onto Haight, uphill and to the west. This line runs all the way out to the new Golden Gate Park, but you’re destined for the suburb that’s just recently sprung up near Haight and Fillmore Streets.

Your car lurches uphill past Octavia Street, and you soon pass the imposing brick Protestant Orphan Asylum at the corner of Buchanan Street. The Asylum has been educating and housing orphan children at that location since 1854, but you can easily recall the days when it was isolated on the hill, seeming to mark the farthest outskirts of San Francisco. There hadn’t been much beyond it except undeveloped hills, sand dunes, and some ranches.

It all changed quickly. Now San Francisco has 250,000 people living in it. The Van Ness Ordinance and related legislation in the mid 1850s settled land rights and expanded the boundaries of San Francisco, adding the so-called Western Addition which includes the land your car is now traveling through.

As Haight Street flattens out, you wobble past Webster Street toward Fillmore and enter a district of scattered new homes, shops, and various commercial enterprises. The Market Street Cable Railway began service on this route just three years ago in 1883, replacing an earlier horse-drawn streetcar line. The effect of more convenient, mechanized transit was immediate: prices of speculative land near Haight Street started rising and construction flourished. By the end of that decade, nearly every lot in the area will be built upon.

You step off the cable car near Pierce Street. The roads here are already paved with crushed stone. Houses, flats, and shops are built in the trendy styles of the day. The neighborhood is a middle-class streetcar suburb, Anglo-Saxon in its demographics, and home to ship captains, merchants, cigar manufacturers, skilled carpenters, and at least one saloon-keeper. You watch the cable car continue west, passing Scott Street and the Jury family’s old milk ranch, as Haight Street begins its climb uphill and away, marking the end of this stretch of town.

The district that is today called the Lower Haight, along and around Haight Street, between Laguna and Scott, has always been a below-the-radar neighborhood. Long considered an appendage of Hayes Valley, or the Fillmore, or the Haight-Ashbury (depending on the era), the area was sometimes called Haight-Fillmore, when it was referred to at all. The name and identity of the “Lower Haight” finally caught on in the 1980s.

Some of the city’s most consistent surviving Victorian architecture is on display here, because the district developed quickly within a specific period, then largely survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Stick style of the Victorian era was in its heyday when the Lower Haight filled out, and is identifiable by its squared bay windows and “sticking” details: ornamental horizontal and vertical details that suggest exposed structural work.

As with most development in the city, buildings were put up by a combination of anonymous builders and trained architects. Two of the more prolific designers associated with this area in the 1880s were John Marquis and Absolom Barnett, both of whose work is still in evidence. Marquis’ rental property for John Nightingale at the corner of Waller and Buchanan Streets is unusually fine, and a city landmark.

By the turn of the 20th century, most Victorian styles had fallen dramatically out of favor across the city, and replacement buildings in the Lower Haight were typically of a vernacular classical revival style (sometimes locally called “Edwardian”). In the 1920s, some new larger projects brought visible changes to the built environment. The earthquake-damaged Protestant Orphan Asylum had been demolished in 1919 and was finally replaced by the San Francisco State Teachers College complex. Portions of its Spanish Colonial revival façade are still present at the southeast corner of Haight and Buchanan Streets. This was also an era when large corner-lot mansions were being sold off by heirs of Victorian wealth, razed, and replaced by apartments.

Meanwhile, existing buildings were undergoing a consequential change that was barely noticeable from the outside: the subdivision of aging 19th-century houses into apartments and flats. The population of San Francisco was growing again, doubling to over 700,000 from 1900 to 1950, and what had once seemed a remote suburb became central. The Victoriana for which the neighborhood is often celebrated today was not considered precious and was made useful in San Francisco’s acute housing crunch at the time of the Second World War.

This wartime period is the starting point of San Francisco’s modern social history. The city’s African-American population was small until the War, when men and families from the southern US relocated here to work in the shipyards and other parts of the war effort. Constrained by racial-exclusionary housing policies, these families tended to reside in a small set of neighborhoods. The Western Addition’s legendary Fillmore district just north of here became known as the Harlem of the West. Nearby Hayes Valley and the Lower Haight were also home for black families in this era.

The postwar period ushered in complex and tragic changes in the Western Addition and the Lower Haight. Sudden suburban outmigration trends that afflicted many American cities concerned leaders in San Francisco; federal programs for redevelopment offered dollars for slum clearance. Apparent “overcrowding” in the now-distasteful Victorian housing stock, seen through the eyes of institutional racism, resulted in the Fillmore and other parts of San Francisco being declared “blighted”. The first wave of redevelopment was completed by 1960, widening Geary St into the current expressway. In the process thousands of African-American residents were displaced; many migrated south to the Lower Haight and Hayes Valley where vacated housing was now available.

Increasingly destructive urban renewal happened over the subsequent decades. Most of it was centered around the once-vibrant Fillmore district, but two blocks located further south were demolished for the construction of public housing. The north side of Haight Street between Buchanan and Webster had featured John Nightingale’s large corner mansion and “Oriel Row”: 13 heavily ornamented common-wall houses designed by Absolom Barnett, built by Nightingale in 1887, and later subdivided into apartments. That whole stretch went under the bulldozer in 1960 along with most of the rest of the block. The imposing “Hayes Valley Apartments South” block went up in its place, designed by William Mooser II. (Those structures were replaced in the 1990s by the mixed-income townhomes present today.)

Ongoing city disinvestment and a declining population left the Lower Haight area poor, and rather dangerous, through the 1960s and into the 1970s. The block of Haight near Fillmore Street was widely infamous for drug trafficking and violent crime. By the mid-1970s, renewed interest in Victorian architecture drew outsiders attracted to the worn but inexpensive housing stock, including a notable contingent from the nearby Castro’s gay community. Rehabilitation and investment brought a reduction in crime and an increase in prices. The social forces of gentrification that are challenging San Francisco today were already playing out then, putting newcomers in tension with longtime residents who did not always experience the upside of improvements.

In the 1980s, Americans were again choosing city life over suburbia and San Francisco’s population ticked upwards for the first time since 1950. Architect Donald MacDonald posited that small-footprint cottages and rowhouses were an ideal entry-level urban housing form. MacDonald built upwards of 60 in the city, and a collection of these can be found sprinkled around the Lower Haight.

By the 1990s, the sometime-Haight-Fillmore district had firmly become the Lower Haight, with its own sense of neighborhood boundaries and its own low-key bohemian feel. The turn of the 21st century saw the opening of the Upper Playground shop on Fillmore St, a record-store-turned-creative-lifestyle-brand that amplified the work of neighborhood-associated artists like Jeremy Fish, Sam Flores and others.

Today, the Lower Haight features murals, a regular Art Walk, and eclectic food and small business retail. It is still home to a share of the city’s shrinking African-American population. There are fewer children here than average for the city, and more transit-riders and cyclists. The popular Wiggle bicycle route between Market Street and Golden Gate Park zigzags across Waller and Haight Streets. The annual San Francisco Marathon sends thousands of runners eastbound down Haight and Waller every summer. The city has committed to a substantial set of streetscape improvements along Haight in the coming years.

Remember that Haight Street cable car line we rode in on back in 1886? It operated until the 1906 earthquake, after which it was converted to electrified streetcar, running until 1948. At that time, buses took over the route; today, Muni’s 7-Haight still shuttles commuters and visitors between downtown San Francisco and the richly-historied Lower Haight.

This article was researched and written as a historical backgrounder for the San Francisco Victorian Alliance’s 2018 House Tour. It appeared in their guidebook in a modified form.

Text is copyright © 2018 by Ben Zotto. Historical images are licensed from their respective sources. Contemporary photos by Ben Zotto. All rights reserved.

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