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An insider’s guide to Noe Valley from J.K. Dineen

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“I’d love to see an affordable housing project built on the site of the Real Foods on 24th Street”

Photo by torbakhopper

The People’s Guide is a series examining the Bay Area’s many neighborhoods, led by our most loyal readers, favorite writers, and other notables of our choosing. Have something to say about your neighborhood? We’ll be happy to give you a voice.

This time around, we welcome J.K. Dineen, whip-smart reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle (with a focus on Bay Area real estate and development). He is also the author of two books: “Here Tomorrow,” about historic preservation in California, and “High Spirits,” a neighborhood-by-neighborhood guide of the city’s legacy bars and nightspots.

How long have you lived in Noe Valley?

We moved to 30th and Noe in August of 2004 from North Beach.

What brought you to the neighborhood?

We had a one-year-old kid and another on the way. Our sublet in North Beach was tenuous. The housing market in San Francisco was soft at the time and we had just sold our co-op in Brooklyn at a nice profit. That gave us a big chunk of a down payment.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Why did you stay?

We’re on the 24 bus line and we are two blocks from the J-Church. We are a quick walk to Bernal, Glen Park, the Mission, and 24th Street. We are one block away from the Upper Noe Recreation Center, where we have spent countless days hanging out and playing tennis, basketball, baseball, soccer, ping pong, et cetera.

Our little Upper Noe commercial cluster has a great produce market (Church Produce), a butcher (Barons, formerly Drewes), restaurants (Henry’s Hunan, La Ciccia, Alice’s, Ardiana), cafes (XO, Martha’s). We are a quick stroll to great burritos (Cancun), fried chicken (Front Porch), sushi (Ichi, Hamano), chicharrones (El Buen Comer).

No neighborhood is perfect. What could be improved?

Our hardware store (Cole Hardware) burned down, as did the 3300 Club, which was a community center as much as it was bar. We could use another corner store and retail on 24th Street is much less interesting than it was when we moved in. I miss Streetlight Records, Phoenix Books, Tuggy’s Hardware, Sam’s Good News, and Noe Valley Music.

It’s too expensive. None of our friends could afford to move here at this point, which sucks. A lot of our friends have moved to cheaper places. We are lucky enough to have a rental unit in our house, which we rent out to friends at well below market rate. We have rented it out to several teachers over the years and currently have a friend from Ecuador living there who is a Ph.D. student.

What’s the neighborhood housing stock like?

Mostly single-family homes and buildings with two to six units. Our little house has rental buildings to the north, south, and east. Most of the tenants are long-timers with low rents. The building to the south seems pretty unusual for Noe these days—a rambling, sagging, pre-earthquake building with a dozen small studio apartments under 400 square feet. It’s a really great building although poorly maintained.

To the west, across the street, is the Mission Education Center. It’s a school for new immigrant families. (Used to be Kate Kennedy School). It is a wonderful school has a lovely school yard open to the public on weekends.

Better for buyers or renters?

That’s a tough question. Houses are ridiculously overpriced. Rents might have softened a little bit, but there is not much supply and hasn’t been any new rental development that I know of.

Do you need a car to get around?

Not really, but it’s nice to have. Muni is super convenient and Glen Park and 24th Street BART stations are not too far away. I bike to work and walk most places on weekends. I usually give my kids a ride to school (in the Mission) because we have a hard time getting going in the morning. Then I jump on the bike or take one of the GoBikes parked at 29th and Church. The kids can take the J home. The car is largely used for taking kids to sports practices/games, cruising to the beach, getting out of town. We don’t have parking space or garage but street parking is not too bad.

Most reliable public transit?

24 bus, J-Church, BART.

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Best grocery store?

Church Produce, Diamond Heights Safeway

Good for kids?

Obviously—it’s Noe Valley.

Best place to get a coffee?

XO, Spin City Launderette & Coffee Bar, Martha’s

Best park?

Upper Noe Rec Center

Beloved neighborhood joint?

Toast or Chloe’s for breakfast. Hamano for sushi. For drinks there is the Peaks, Dolores Corner, Valley Tavern in Noe. Down on Mission there is Front Porch, the Rock Bar, Iron & Gold, and Royal Cuckoo.

What are some hidden gems?

As far as exploring the outdoors there is Billy Goat Hill, the Harry Steps, and the new trail that leads from the top of Billy Goat Hill to Haas Playground. There is some interesting modern architecture on Laidley Street, which has the best Fourth of July parade. Alice’s at 29th and Sanchez is one of the best Chinese restaurants in town. La Ciccia (the Sardinian standout) is hardly hidden at this point, but is still my favorite special-occasion restaurant 10 years after opening.

Stereotypical residents?

Prius-driving baby boomers and Tesla-driving techies with IPO money.

St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
Photo by Christopher

Are the stereotypes true?

Yes and no. The older residents (first wave gentrifiers, old hippies) tend to be teachers, judges, writers, public interest lawyers, public health workers. They bought when Noe was a middle class neighborhood and raised their kids in the neighborhood. Given that a house costs a couple of million dollars most of the young families moving in have made a bundle in tech or have family money. There seems to be a lot of Europeans—we have a French family and German family on our block. A lot of people take the Google bus and the Apple bus, which stop on San Jose and 30th.

But there is plenty of the old neighborhood if you know where to look. The St. Paul’s (school and church) community is a bastion of SF natives. So is Dolores Corner, the former O’Greenberg’s bar at 29th and Dolores. There is Haystack Pizza and Mitchell’s Ice Cream. There are waiters and bartenders and cooks who gather at various eating and drinking establishments after their shifts. Those are the places I gravitate to.

Who wouldn’t be happy here?

Nightlife is limited so it’s not a great neighborhood for young single people. It might be hard to meet people if you don’t have kids, although the dog run at the Upper Noe Rec Center is a hotbed of social activity.

Photo by vincent noel/Shutterstock

Most common sight?

Dad in tech company t-shirt (with some goofy one-word name) pushing stroller with a latte in one hand and a phone in the other. Grandmas decked out in Giants gear waiting for the J-Church on game day. Kids in soccer uniforms and cleats at the farmers market on Saturday mornings.

Nuns from St. Paul’s carrying pictures of Jesus down Church Street. Irish and Mexican construction workers hanging outside of the countless multimillion-dollar remodels going on. The post-work crowd falling out of the J at 24th Street and ducking into the Dubliner. Strollers lined up outside Charlie’s Corner bookstore for story time.

Final word?

I feel lucky to live where I do. My biggest regret is that it’s so expensive and there really are not many “soft sites” where housing can be built. I’d love to see an affordable housing project built on the site of the Real Foods on 24th Street.