Walk down Illinois Street in Dogpatch, and you’ll find a neighborhood revisiting its industrial heritage. Crane Cove Park’s layout embraced its maritime past, RH San Francisco—formerly Restoration Hardware—opened its upscale showroom in a former Bethlehem Steel building and the former tow impound at Pier 70 now hosts large-scale events like the Portola Festival. Then there’s Chase Center, home to the Golden State Warriors and a slew of restaurants.
It’s the very definition of a postindustrial neighborhood, but from the 1850s until just before World War II, hundreds of people lived there, too.
Immediately west of the Pier 70 complex is Irish Hill—what’s left of it, anyway. Formerly a thriving working-class precinct centered on Illinois and 20th streets, some 90% of it was scraped away on the cusp of waterfront’s deindustrialization, leaving parking lots where two distinct clusters of houses once stood.
Like Rincon Hill, whose mansions were destroyed after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and which is now mostly an anchorage for the Bay Bridge, Irish Hill is a ghost of its original topographic self. The half-demolished, fenced-off nub is easily visible, an outcropping of serpentine with a piebald layer of grass on top—as if it were vying to resemble the lush hills of its namesake isle and coming up way short.
During the late 19th century, what’s now known as the Central Waterfront was home to a gasworks, a sugar refinery, the Union Iron Works and Western Pacific freight tracks, giving Irish Hill’s workers very short commutes. The saloon-filled neighborhood and its unpaved streets had a reputation for scrappiness—and as Butchertown’s tanneries and fertilizer plants were immediately to the south, it likely had an enduring stench much of the time. That didn’t stop it from becoming a kind of satellite Barbary Coast, its hotels essentially dens of drinking, bare-knuckle boxing bouts and vice.
“You went up on Irish Hill when you got off work, and you never left it until morning,” recalled one San Francisco sheriff’s deputy who grew up there.
Irish Hill’s 800 or so denizens—largely young, male and single—were essentially evicted by the government as part of a mobilization effort for the Second World War. Bethlehem Steel eventually bulldozed much of it to enlarge a shipyard, and then, like waterfront cities everywhere, it settled into a period of long decline. Decades on, many of the neighborhood’s streets—Georgia, Louisiana, Delaware—exist in tiny fragments, or in name only. The Irish moved to Eureka Valley and into the suburbs.
Now it’s at the periphery of a major revitalization. The Potrero Power Station project, recognizable for the towering smokestack that belched fossil-fuel emissions until the early 2010s, will soon be redeveloped in phases, welcoming thousands of new residents and restoring vanished streets to the grid. An entire neighborhood, built from scratch, will replace the one that stood there for just shy of a century: half-forgotten Irish Hill.
Astrid Kane can be reached at email@example.com