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Mission accomplished? The commodification of Valencia Street

On Valencia Street on a recent weekday, the neighborhood’s creative melange that led The Chronicle to dub it “the new bohemia” in 1995 seems very much intact. Longtime Latino businesses, coffeehouses and bookstores, along with record and gift shops, dot the corridor from 14th Street to 24th Street. New stores are mixed in — some shiny, modern white boxes, but many wearing that worn-paint, hipster aesthetic that has been associated with the neighborhood for at least 20 years.

But look closer, and it’s clear the Mission aesthetic is now sleekly minimalist. Many storefronts that once housed accidentally kitschy junk shops are carefully curated affairs now; the wooden fruit crates displaying merchandise are part of a well-crafted scheme instead of genuine found objects.

The once new bohemia is now one of an ever-growing list of “fauxhemias.”

The twentysomethings out on the street midday in many ways resemble their twentysomething counterparts from back then, too: Women favor slip dresses or printed maxis with cut-off denim vests or baggy military jackets; the men wear flannel, hoodies or workman-style shirts over jeans. The look draws heavily from the thrift chic that “Valencia” author Michelle Tea says defined the era she wrote about in her 2000 novel.

“I didn’t buy a new piece of clothing the entire decade of the ’90s,” says Tea, who now lives in Los Angeles with her wife and son. “I got all my clothes at Thrift Town or at Clothes Contact by the Pound,” both closed in the past two years.

“Even though the Mission was rough in the ’90s, there were so many bars and cafes hosting poetry events and art shows,” says Tea. “Rents were cheap. It’s where you lived to focus on your activism and art.”

“The people that were attracted to S.F. were part of various countercultures like skateboarding, punk or street art,” retailer Benny Gold wrote in an essay for website Hypebeast last year, as he prepared to move from his 6-year old location on 16th between Valencia and Guerrero to a new location on Valencia.

But while the area continues to attract young urbanites, their demographics — and the businesses attracting them — have changed. The longtime working-class families and artists have been largely replaced by prosperous Millennial and Generation X creatives who can afford the neighborhood’s apartments and new condos. A 2014 Chronicle story put retail rents on Valencia at more than $5 a square foot, about equal to rents in Union Square; prices have only gone up in the past three years.

And even though the Mission’s indie spirit seems to have been preserved, at least outwardly, that DIY ethos is now a commodity, as easy to purchase and consume as a $10 juice in a mason jar.

Nowhere is this more visible than on Valencia Street. A 10-block stretch is increasingly home to trendy businesses and Instagrammable boutiques, which invite browsing and photos.

“I try my best to not judge people, but you can definitely spot a new S.F. resident from the back of any line at a hip Mission coffee spot,” Gold wrote. “We’ve since traded in our band T-shirts and well-worn jeans for Google and Dropbox tees and a pleated pair of Dockers.”

The news that San Francisco’s ultra-popular online retailer Everlane, a Millennial favorite known for its unadorned wardrobe basics and price transparency, plans to open a full-fledged brick-and-mortar shop later this year at 461 Valencia St. underlines just how much the corridor is transforming, yet again. It’s a move that would have been unthinkable in the nondigital, indie designer age of 10 years ago.

The story isn’t unique to San Francisco: As with Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Ore., the Mission’s idiosyncratic aesthetic has evolved into a commercially viable, exportable lifestyle.

The surging tech industry in San Francisco has contributed to the neighborhood’s ever-climbing residential and retail rents. The 2008 closure of New College of California (which occupied a trio of buildings on the street between 18th and 19th streets) and the rise of million-dollar corner-condo complexes have changed up the urban fabric, bringing in more ground-level services like mini-health clinics and banks. The pedestrian-friendly widened sidewalks and arty parklets, the recently renovated Dolores Park (the city’s picnicking mecca) and, most recently, the Ford GoBike stations have all contributed to making the Mission even more popular, and some would say overrun, for locals and tourists alike.

Some pockets of the neighborhood can feel like a Millennial-oriented Neverland. Fast-casual dining options, with the boisterous noise-levels of dorm cafeterias, are packed most nights. Galleries and gift shops peddle twee wares like unicorn embroideries, ironic piñatas and appropriated holy candles bearing the images of pop culture icons instead of religious ones. Seemingly every other store sells some variation on the techie bro messenger bag, and there are so many ice cream spots that one wonders why the lines at Smitten and Bi-Rite are longer than ever.

Retailer and fashion designer Julienne Weston, who operated the Weston Wear boutique on Valencia between 16th and 17th streets for 12 years, has watched the neighborhood’s transition up close.

“When we first opened here it was more of the smaller businesses like Dema and smaller dress places like BellJar, all the little boutiques,” Weston says. “I still see things along those lines emerging like Voyager and Mira Mira, but it’s a new generation. People shop differently; they’re all (shopping) on websites.”

Weston recently announced that after 36 years in business she would be closing her Weston Wear line and the boutique at the end of September, not long after she expanded her boutique’s inventory to include a high-end vintage clothing pop-up curated by Torso Vintages’ John Hadeed.

But for every store that closes, there’s another retailer waiting in the wings.

Representative of a new breed of Valencia merchants is Catherine Chow. Chow, who owns two Azalea boutiques in the Bay Area, plus men’s and women’s designer boutiques, opened a third Azalea on Valencia in 2015. She took over a corner location from a vintage furniture store and is paying substantially more rent on what had been a relatively quiet block with many independent retailers.

The biggest surprise, she said, was how many customers were coming not from the neighborhood but from nearby Noe Valley — and looking for higher-end merchandise. “We were expecting price points to be a lot lower than what we had in Hayes Valley,” she says. Instead, she added designer apparel and denim, and a line of fine jewelry with diamonds that starts at $500, to meet the demands of an affluent clientele.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more young families visiting, younger professionals in (their) late 20s and 30s … trying to buy denim that they can wear to work, on weekends, outfits that they can wear from day to night,” Chow says.

It’s not just about selling a lifestyle, but also about selling an “experience,” to these new Valencia shoppers. In fact, retailers are finding it an essential element of bringing customers into the stores.

Customers “want things that are in the moment now,” Chow says. The store has hosted events with nail artists, and with jewelry designers who created different color tassel earrings on the spot; other mini-workshops planned. Chow says the store’s busiest time is between 6 and 7 p.m., as customers kill time waiting for restaurant reservations in the neighborhood.

Three years ago, Irene Hernandez-Feiks moved her gallery and boutique Wonderland SF from 24th Street near York to her present location on Valencia between 23rd and 24th streets. At first, she thought the rent would be out of reach “given the difference even then in rents between 24th and Valencia.” But her landlord worked with her “because he wanted a local, not a big corporation, coming in here, and for the first three years he didn’t start me at the highest rent, he gradually adjusted it.”

But even with this support, she worries about Wonderland’s future. Wonderland SF straddles a line between old and new neighborhood businesses. Although it’s not corporately backed or operating more than one location, the selection of limited clothing and jewelry by small-batch artists is in keeping with the perceived ethos of the new shoppers.

Still, Hernandez-Feiks is concerned that the new residents are “not as much into fashion or buying things made by local artists. It’s so easy for them to go to Amazon and not have that human connection.”

She adds: “I have to adjust how we bring people in the store. We started to barbecue on Fridays when it’s sunny and bring in DJs. You have to be creative. The 21-, 22-year-olds shop online but will come in for a DJ or window installation with live models.”

Benny Gold tweaked his formula after moving his store. Faced with a big rent hike after six years on 16th Street, he considered various options before deciding to take out a “substantial” loan and move into the former Mission Creek Cafe space on Valencia Street.

“It’s important for the soul of our brand to have a physical space for people to gather and get excited about a new release or special event,” Gold wrote in his Hypebeast essay.

The new Benny Gold flagship store at 986 Valencia St. opened in February 2017, adding coffee and tea to its offerings. Gold’s design studio is in the back, and he holds “office hours” where customers can run ideas by him.

Amid the changes, there has been tension as many longtime businesses are pressured by rising rents and shifting neighborhood demographics.

Steven LeMay, owner of the Retrofit vintage clothing boutique, has been at his location between 20th and 21st streets for 15 years. In the past two years, he’s struggled with two different landlords to come to terms on a new lease on the space.

“It’s not a unique situation,” says LeMay, whose store is known as a destination for performers and Burning Man revelers. “The Mission was full of secondhand stores and was a haven for my type of business because of the old-hood demographics. All the vintage stores had longer leases now up for renewal, and now the buildings aren’t owned by individuals who will work with us; they’re owned by corporations who aren’t based here.”

Landlords are more interested in turning over older leases and bringing in newer businesses like his year-old neighbor Reformation, which “bought their way into the neighborhood,” LeMay says. The Los Angeles company, which replaced the former Freewheel Bike Shop on Valencia, is a sustainably focused clothing brand that started online but now has eight other stores.

Businesses’ migration to the Mission shows no sign of slowing down, says Chow. “It was interesting to see our (Hayes Valley) neighbors like Smitten and Souvla and competitors like Reformation all move in close to us,” Chow says. “Us being there at that location made everyone feel there would be a demand.”

Once a neighborhood where trends were created, the Mission is now a destination for the trendy.

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