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Digital painting/collage of afternoon tea in Polk Gulch

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, each with its unique set of characters, cafés, dress codes, and amenities. Noe Valley is filled with young families and tech boomers just a little more conservative than the Mission set, but tons more Bohemian than the Pac Heights folks. And within larger neighborhoods, such as the Mission and the Sunset, there also exist a number of distinct microhoods, often complete with a full set of neighborhood resources.

Look at a tourist map of San Francisco and you’ll see labels for well-known neighborhoods such as North Beach or Russian Hill. But you’ll rarely see delineations for the districts that wedge in between them, such as the hipster area that locals call the Tendernob (in between the Tenderloin and Nob Hill). One of the more mercurial in-betweens is the microhood that some call “Polk Gulch.”  If you search for it now on Google Maps, you might see a lone marker at Sacramento and Polk Streets. But if you physically stand at that corner, you’ll likely be underwhelmed. Polk Gulch isn’t a tourist destination spot. Selfishly, Jeff and I sincerely hope it stays this way.

Wedged between the Tenderloin, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and the Van Ness corridor, it turns out that Polk Gulch reveals its charms as you get to know the merchants. They consist of a diverse group of local business owners connected through their not-so-lyrically named “Polk District Merchants Association.” 

 Facing north in the middle of the un-touristy microhood of Polk Gulch.

Though at first you might only notice the bars, bodegas and tobacco shops, this is a neighborhood where you can actually run a bunch of errands fairly efficiently. Get your clocks fixed at Clock World, donate your clothes to Out of the Closet, pick up anything you might need at Brownie’s Hardware, see some lovely affordable local art at STUDIO Gallery, and end with a great cup of tea at Leland Tea Company. Parking isn’t awful, and there’s fairly good access via Muni buses (Polk 19, California 1, Van Ness 49 & 47). You can even get here via the “California and Van Ness”  cable car.

For efficiency-sake, Jeff and I usually walk up on one side of the street, then come back on the other side. There are dozens of small independent businesses along this portion of Polk Street, but because the storefronts aren’t fancied-up for the tourist trade, it’s easy to pass right by something interesting. You’ll find your own discoveries along the way, but I’ll point out of few of our favorite spots. For this first stroll [map], start on the east side of Polk Street, at Bush Street, heading north (away from downtown). North of Bush, on the 1400 block you’ll find the first two of the neighborhood’s three thrift stores. We’ve both bought and sold clothes at the Fashion Exchange, which is fairly well packed with merchandise. The less-discriminating  Out of the Closet  is a local charity serving the AIDS community-great when you are looking for a place to make clothing donations (they have a loading dock behind the store).

Continuing north on Polk,cross California Street, then keep an eye out for the easy-to-miss City Discount  (1542 Polk). This small store is a fun and reasonably priced kitchen supply store, with a hand-picked selection of Italian food products. On an early trip there we found an organic Italian farro pasta (spelt) recommended by the owner’s mom. It’s so super-delicious that we’ve since ordered it by the case.

 If you didn’t know to look out for it, you could easily walk by City Discount, directly across the street from Brownie’s Hardware.

Continue north and poke around in the stores on the next couple of blocks. At the corner of Jackson Street you’ll find the third and probably the most “selective”  of the Polk Gulch used clothing stores. Town School Clothes Closet  (1850 Polk Street) is a medium-sized, well-organized store, with good quality items. I’ve gotten a couple of great bargains here, somehow wandering by twice while they were having a 50% off EVERYTHING sale.

When you cross the street at Jackson, you’ll notice that this is the first block from which you can  see the Bay over the crest of the hill. Instead of continuing north where the neighborhood slowly gentrifies, Jeff and I usually cross here and start to head back toward downtown. You’ll find several small businesses on this block between Jackson and Washington, including the small STUDIO Gallery  (1815 Polk). When Jeff and I first meandered in, we were very impressed by the quality of the local work being curated by owners Jennifer and Rab. I’ve now had the pleasure of being included in three of their group shows: their annual  Tiny show (works 6” x6”  or smaller and under $400); and two of their themed San Francisco shows entitled Delicious: work inspired by food & drink. Running through April 1, 2012, the current Delicious show includes a few of my “digital paintings with traditional collage and watercolor pencil” ; three of the pieces are actually adapted from images made for Untapped Cities’ Good Food in the Microhood  (one for an upcoming article).

 Three of my digital paintings with watercolor pencil (mounted on board) included in the STUDIO Gallery exhibit Delicious: work inspired by food & drink, through April 1, 2012
click here for a selection of works from the STUDIO Gallery Delicious show

As you continue heading south on Polk Street, on the corner of Sacramento and Polk, stop at Brownie’s Hardware, in business since 1905. The staff is super helpful, and even if you don’t need anything inside, the storefront windows always have installations of reading material on little-known San Francisco history-assembled by Brownie’s owner, Stephen Cornell (the unofficial neighborhood historian).

If you have any shopping energy left, stop in at Leftovers furniture consignment shop. Even though it recently moved around the corner from Polk Street, it’s still just a few steps away. At 1414 Van Ness, between Austin and Bush, Leftovers is one of those chock-a-block consignment places, perfect for finding that affordable tag-sale-type item and  easier than trolling Craigslist.

The Leland Tea Company (in the Leland Building), an urban oasis in Polk Gulch

A visit to this neck of the woods never feels complete without a stop at the Leland Tea Company. Here at 1416 Bush Street, with Tony Bennett or Edith Piaf wafting gently in the background, you’ll see photos and mementos of both old San Francisco and Paris. Though it feels like Leland Tea has been there forever, owner Will and his artist friends apparently created the illusion in just a few weeks on a tight budget. As if the space were a theater set, the artistic touches include copper paint coating ugly pipes and textured wallpaper creating a faux pressed-tin ceiling. What looks like an antique floor mosaic was created from old magazine pages covered with coats of varnish. In this charming neighborhood spot, patrons feel at home. Locals stay as long as they want, sipping the endless pots of house-blend, highly caffeinated tea. Will’s mom makes the butterscotch scones that Jeff craves. But at Leland Tea, it is mostly about the teas. At the café, we  drink the house blend, but there’s a very large selection of custom-blended teas in canisters (discount for refills), all sniffable, and for sale at very reasonable prices. I’m particularly fond of the “Bogart blend”  on cold afternoons at home when the fog blows in. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to stop in at Leland on a day when Will’s mom is making soup. Will says he has to trick her into using the vegan instead of the chicken stock. He knows she can’t wear her glasses when she cooks, so he swaps the boxes on the shelf at her eye level. One time it was our good fortune to be there on a day when Will was serving his mom’s killer super-rich vegan  Puerto Rican vegetable-soup-with-a-kick. “You like my soup?”  she asked. I don’t remember what she called it, but she smiled as we went on and on about how good it was. It was one of the most memorable soups either of us have ever had.

So many meals, so little time.

Polk Gulch Stroll [Map]

View Polk Gulch errands, art, and tea (Good Food in the Microhood) in a larger map

P.S. If reading about delicious food inspires you to help those needing basic nutritional support, please consider making a donation to the Polk Street’s own Project Open Hand, an organization who’s mission is to serve “meals with love”  to neighbors in need every day.

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