South of Market is a huge district, sprawling from the Embarcadero to Eleventh Street, between Market and Townsend. The neighborhood is a patchwork of warehouses, swanky nightspots, residential hotels, art spaces, loft apartments, furniture showrooms and the tenacious Internet companies that survived the tech market collapse. Although a lot of building has gone on in recent years, it is still not densely developed. You can walk several desolate blocks before suddenly finding a hopping restaurant.
Most of the action can be found in three general areas: by South Park and the Giants ballpark, around the SF MOMA and Yerba Buena gardens, and over by Folsom and Eleventh Street. SoMa, as it’s known, sounds a little like a SoHo wannabe, and it does have a strong downtown vibe. However, the name has its roots in the old nickname “South of the Slot,” referring to its position on the “wrong side” of the Market Street cable car track when it was an industrial district of factories and Gold Rush immigrant workers.
These days the industry most associated with South of Market has to do with that other Gold Rush: the dot com boom. Once buzzing with purple-haired programmers and hobnobbing young executives, South Park is noticeably more subdued since the Internet companies started closing shop, and probably all the more pleasant for it. The grassy square is a nice place to walk your dog or eat a sandwich, and is bordered by several good shops and restaurants. In the summer the area gets more foot traffic as packs of Giants fans head for the ballpark. A handful of new restaurants have also opened to serve this crowd.
The western end of the district is the most industrial, and is dominated by huge wholesale marts and superstores like Costco and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Originally this made it an ideal zone for loud nightclubs, but as SoMa has become more residential some of the clubs have had trouble with noise complaints. However, this hasn’t kept a crop of newcomers like Butter and Wish from opening in the past few years. The stretch along Eleventh and Folsom is the heart of the gay leather and S&M scene, which has its roots in the Folsom Street “Miracle Mile” of gay clubs and bathhouses in the ’70s. This is also the site of the annual fetish bonanza of the Folsom Street Fair.
The area around Market and Third Street is more well heeled, influenced by the nearby Financial District and conventions at the Moscone Center. Several of the city’s arts organizations are located here, including the SF MOMA, the Center for the Arts at Yerba Gardens and the California Historical Society. It has a bohemian undercurrent, with the museums, several independent bookstores, the line of artsy clubbers waiting to get into the gallery and club 111 Minna, and students from the Academy of Art slouching around the Utrecht art supply store on New Montgomery.
The SoMa district is large and spread out, so if you do find yourself South of the Slot, it helps to know where you’re going. The zone around Sixth and Mission can be sketchy if you’re walking alone, and at the very least the unschooled wanderer could come away with an impression of nothing more than highway overpasses and warehouses. Target your exploration in the pockets of culture around Yerba Buena, South Park and Eleventh Street, and you’ll be sure to stumble upon lots of hidden treasures and funky urban charm.