Transmopolis » Wild Reports » San Francisco’s Irrepressible Hayes Valley

San Francisco’s Irrepressible Hayes Valley

by Michael Jack Lawlor | 8 April 2010 |

At first glance the Hayes Valley area of San Francisco feels like a small town overflowing with hipsters, cafes, trendy boutiques, and art galleries. The atmosphere is breezy and fun, a welcome change from the congestion of Union Square, which is only seven streetcar minutes away.

Boutiques like Timbuk2 where people participate in the design of their messenger bags and True Sake, which specializes in the Japanese drink, lend the old school San Francisco neighborhood a contemporary edge.

Just a few blocks away is the United Nations Plaza; home of the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet, the War Memorial Opera House, and the Asian Art Museum. Hayes Valley restaurants such as Absinthe and Cafe Delle Stelle are popular pre-show dining destinations for those who appreciate classical music, opera, and ballet. Hayes Valley has not always enjoyed such a close connection to San Francisco’s cultural life.

For many years the elevated Central Freeway cut Hayes Valley in two, creating a dark urban space that attracted men driving around looking for sex workers and people buying and selling drugs on the street.

Hayes Valley social life, however, was transformed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that destroyed parts of the freeway, including the ramps at Franklin and Gough.

After the City decided to tear down what was left of the freeway, people realized that automotive blight was not returning and they started opening cafes and shops in the Valley. The transformation of the neighborhood shows how governments and creative citizens, with the help of natural disaster, can recover from poor urban planning.

Octavia Boulevard, which is like a freeway with traffic lights, emerged from the ruins in the middle of the neighborhood. Hayes Green, a park shared by hipsters drinking soy lattes and hardcore homeless people, completes the redesign of the area.

People line up in the morning fog at the Blue Bottle Coffee Company kiosk on Linden Street. Blue Bottle describes it’s approach to coffee as “artisanal microroasting”. This means that they practice small-batch coffee bean roasting, which is considered impractical in the coffee business, but essential by Blue Bottle and their customers if the ‘chi’ of the coffee is to survive the roast. Blue Bootle is at the cutting edge of the coffee bean roast movement in San Francisco and a must visit for coffee drinkers.

Next to the Blue Bottle is the Dark Garden, a boutique that specializes in fetish and bridal corsets for men and women. For relationships in need of an S&M injection, this is the place to go.

Hayes Valley is named after Colonel Michael Hayes, a pro-slavery Irish immigrant known to solve conflicts by dueling with pistols in 19th century San Francisco. Hayes is responsible for the Victorian building on the corner of Hayes and Laguna that Erich von Stroheim used as a primary location in Greed, his 1923 film. The building is now the home of the popular La Boulange de Hayes, a Parisian-style cafe that opens at 7AM and serves steaming bowls of coffee and milk in the French tradition, as well as freshly baked pastries and breads.

At the heart of the transformation of the area is the Hayes Valley Inn, which was once a run down tenement and drug shooting gallery. Owner Dawn Wiggins renovated the Inn and now it is one of San Francisco’s best kept secrets. The rooms are small and the paper thin walls reveal the sounds of tourists fighting and having sex, an echo perhaps, of the Inn’s earlier days as a tenement and drug den.

People carry luggage up two or three flights of stairs because the building does not have an elevator. Many of the rooms overlook a rumbling air conditioning system that can make getting to sleep before eleven PM difficult. Breezy, the owners dog, adds a friendly touch to the Inn experience. Social media websites report that the dog has deficated on the carpet in the hallways, an act for which the staff do not apologize.

The Inn has Victorian charm and offers a decent breakfast enjoyed by people as morning sunlight pours through bay windows overlooking the street.

Across the street from the Inn is Absinthe, a pricey bistro that is favored by the San Francisco cultural elite prior to performances of the Symphony. At night the lurid green neon Absinthe sign glows on the corner of Hayes and Gough and serves as a landmark for weary travellers making their way back to the Inn after a long day of adventure in the City. For under a hundred dollars a night the Hayes Valley Inn is a great place to crash after a day exploring San Francisco.

Across the street from the Hayes Valley Inn is the Cafe Della Stella, an Italian restaurant in a prime location that gets consistently bad reviews on  “I went to this place thinking it had to be good, located in the heart of an area that has so many wonderful options. I left wondering how the heck they could stay in business,” writes Eric G.

The location of the Cafe Della Stella is very significant in the history of San Francisco. Minutes after the deadly earthquake on the morning of April 8, 1906 a woman was cooking breakfast for her family at 95 Hayes Street. The chimney in the home had been damaged and the earthquake and sparks from the pan set the home on the fire. The fire spread for miles destroying churchs and colleges and government buildings before joining other fires to create the greatest urban conflagration in the world,  only to be surpassed by the bombing of Dresden during the second World War. Today this famous San Francisco fire is known as the “ham and eggs fire.”

Hayes Valley is an exciting San Francisco neighborhood with a vivid history and lots of cultural attractions.

Hayes Valley Inn
417 Gough St
San Francisco

Dark Garden
321 Linden St.

True Sake
560 Hayes St
San Francisco

Caffe Delle Stelle
395 Hayes St

Blue Bottle Coffee Company
315 Linden Street

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar
398 Hayes St

506 Hayes Street

San Francisco Symphony
Davis Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Ave

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Ave

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Ave

Asian Art Musuem
200 Larkin St


  • Gregg Max said:

    Michael, This is a great article. I love the imagery and that way that you capture the essence of the valley. I am so pleased that the city decided to cart the old freeway to the dump. Poor urban planning did a loto to distroy cities including S.F.
    The next time I go to the City, I will check the Valley out.
    Thanks for this look, G

  • Chess said:

    I love your no-truths-barred style of writing, especially about the Inn for example. It’s very important that potential tourists to this area know exactly what they’re in for–both the good and the bad. Honesty in any area review is a precious commodity. Thanks!

  • Shirley said:

    Amazing post, truly!

  • mary johnson said:

    Hi – I’ve found this article very interesting reading. I’m sure you know all about the
    neighborhood, but my not realizing Hayes Valley was nearly in the center of the San Francisco’s
    downtown city complex was quite an education for me. I visualized Hayes Valley as an
    outlying country side community outside of San Francisco. Looks like and sounds like a very
    unique and interesting area of the city. I don’t know if this email message is accompanied
    by Mr Lawlor’s article – if not you can go to google under Hayes Valley, CA and find it.


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