The SOMA (South Of MArket) district in San Francisco may be the most diverse neighborhood in a diverse city. You can find practically anything you want in SoMa, except maybe an affordable apartment—it is still San Francisco after all.
Once known as ‘South of the Slot,’ in reference to the cable car line down the center of Market Street, this ‘wrong side of the tracks’ San Francisco neighborhood is a still evolving, often contradictory collection of urban spaces and experiences. The neighborhood is, for instance, home to the many family oriented and kid friendly Yerba Buena Gardens spaces and amusements including play areas, an ice skating rink, bowling alley and historic carousel. Conversely SoMa also hosts the Folsom Street Fair and somewhat smaller preview Dore Alley Up Your Alley Fair, both of which celebrate San Francisco’s Gay community and focus on leather subculture, bondage & rubber fetishes and BDSM activities not far from world class museums and other bastions of culture and respectability.
Rincon Hill was once home to wealthy residents in San Francisco before the cable cars made Nob Hill and Pacific Heights accessible. Later it was lowered to serve as the south anchorage of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge but SoMa history repeats as new high rise residential buildings brings those who can afford to live there back to the Rincon Hill Neighborhood.
Further southwest in SoMa many of the remaining industrial buildings and warehouses that once dominated the area have been converted to lofts—no longer affordable to the artists who repurposed them—while the faded Victorian houses originally built for Gold Rush immigrants have been mostly torn down and replaced with parks, museums and a convention center thanks to urban redevelopment. The San Francisco Giants AT&T Park (formerly Pac Bell Park) in the adjacent South Beach neighborhood has helped spur development.
The bust following the late 1990’s dot-com boom which had turned SoMa’s South Park into Multimedia Gulch has brought some calm to the area but technology survivors and new start-ups keep the area interesting. Wired, Twitter, CNET Networks, Sega of America Inc., BitTorrent Inc. and Advent Software are a few of the most recognized names in the neighborhood.
Moscone Center opened South of Market in stages with Moscone South first in 1981, expanded with Moscone North in 1992 and Moscone West in 2003. Moscone Center is a convention center housing major exhibits, trade shows and conventions including annual IDG World Expo offerings such as MacWorld and Apple’s WWDC. Yerba Buena Gardens is a five and a half acre urban oasis. There is an Ice Skating and Bowling Center, children’s play areas, carousel and more on top of Moscone Center North and South. The Esplanade incorporates a large central grassy meadow with a small woodland grove, Ohlone Indian Memorial, butterfly garden, Sister City gardens and a waterfall.
The twenty foot high waterfall is fed by a terrace fountain containing 120,000 gallons of non potable water (don’t drink it). The falling water provides an audio accompaniment to the MLK memorial. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial behind the fifty foot wide waterfall is always moist from the splashes of the falling water. Back lit photos and twelve glass panels inscribed with Dr. King‘s poems in African and Arabic dialects and the languages of thirteen of San Francisco’s international sister cities (the number keeps growing).
Zeum, formerly known as the Studio for Technology and the Arts, was founded as a not-for-profit organization in 1992. Zeum on the rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens is a place where young people, artists, and educators can work together in a hands-on creative environment. The Zeum Carousel — also on the rooftop at Yerba Buena Gardens, above Moscone Convention Center (South)— was sidetracked to Seattle because of the 1906 earthquake but eventually made it to San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach where it operated for 58 years. After moving to Long Beach in 1984 the Zeum Carousel returned to SF in 1988.
SFMOMA The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened a new museum facility , designed by renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta, at 151 Third Street in 1995.
Visitors to SFMOMA also enjoy docent led tours, the Koret Visitor Education Center, Café Museo and the Museum Store. The first museum on the west coast dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the San Francisco Museum of Art was founded in 1935. The Contemporary Jewish Museum opened in SoMa more recently.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, founded in 1984, moved into Daniel Libeskind‘s dramatically transformed historic 1907 Willis Polk power station in June of 2008. Exhibitions (the museum doesn’t collect objects) focus on the Jewish experience featuring the internationally famous—Chagall, Gertrude Stein, the local community—”Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait, and history/humor—Jews on Vinal. Interactive programs are ongoing and targeted to all ages. Cafe on the Square is available for lunch.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum sits at the back of Jessie Square, which opened at the same time as the museum and feels like an extension of Yerba Buena Gardens on the other side of Mission Street. Open space in front of the museum connects Jessie Square with San Francisco’s newest street; Yerba Buena Lane which opened in 2002 to provide easier pedestrian access to Yerba Buena Gardens from Union Square.
Historic St. Patrick Church—San Francisco Landmark No. 4, founded 1851, dedicated 1872—is situated between Yerba Buena Lane and Jessie Square on Mission Street.
The Mexican Museum now at Fort Mason is also developing a space on Jessie Square.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is a multidisciplinary art center featuring visual arts, performing arts, film/video and education programs. YBAC is on 3rd street between Howard and Mission.
The California Historical Society at 678 Mission, half a block from Yerba Buena Gardens and SFMOMA, has museum galleries, a museum store and the North Baker research library. The Society had resided in the Whittier Mansion in Pacific Heights from 1956 until 1993. The California Historical Society Photography Collection has works by Ansel Adams and Eadweard Muybridge among its 500,000+ images.
The Museum of the African Diaspora is at 685 Mission Street across the street from the California Historical Society. The Museum of the African Diaspora mission is to connect all people through the celebration and exploration of the art, culture and history of the African Diaspora. MoAD is a repository of information and a collection of stories to be shared.
The Cartoon Art Museum is another fun place to visit in San Francisco’s SoMa. The Cartoon Art Museum is located at 655 Mission Street and is the only museum in the United States dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of cartoon art in all its forms.
SoMa is also home to many of San Francisco’s best dance clubs and lounges from 1015 to End Up (which essentially does not close on the weekend so it’s where people ‘end up’).
Further away from the bay, beyond the more recent development in the center of SoMa, there are a number of big box stores—Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond—and wholesale marketplaces.
San Francisco Flower Mart—The origins of the San Francisco Flower Mart at Sixth and Brannen Streets in SoMa go back to the late 1800’s when local growers sold their flowers three days a week at Lotta’s fountain in downtown San Francisco.
There are a number of good San Francisco Hotels in the SoMa neighborhood. The View Lounge at the top of The San Francisco Marriott Hotel provides diners with panoramic views of Yerba Buena Gardens, most of the South of Market Area, downtown San Francisco and even small sections of both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. The 1,500 room San Francisco Marriott Hotel was opened in 1987 and is located across the street from the Moscone Convention Center, next to the Contemporary Jewish Museum and short stroll from the Financial District and minutes from Union Square.