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Boom loop: San Francisco’s Hayes Valley is riding arts to recovery

Hayes Valley is recovering from the pandemic by positioning itself as a hub for the arts, dining and public gathering. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

When the pandemic shuttered storefronts across San Francisco, things looked particularly bleak in Hayes Valley, where 80% of the businesses were small and individually owned. 

“We fell harder and faster than any other commercial corridor in the city,” said Lloyd Silverstein, president of the Hayes Valley Merchants Association.

Yet the neighborhood today is bustling and thriving—thanks, in no small part, to the arts. 

“We definitely depend on them,” Jennifer Laska, president of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, said of the many arts institutions in Hayes Valley—including the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Symphony, SFJAZZ and the African-American Shakespeare Company

Pedestrians pass by graffiti art in Linden Alley in San Francisco's Hayes Valley Neighborhood. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

“Likewise, the performing arts depend upon the infrastructure of Hayes Valley to provide a really nice experience for their patrons,” Laska added, referring to the inviting public spaces, fine dining options and overall atmosphere that draw energy—and people—into Hayes Valley. 

This connection is nothing new, according to Silverstein, who noted that the neighborhood has a long history of businesses and arts groups supporting one another. Nor is this moment unique. In the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake and the subsequent demolition of the Central Freeway, Hayes Valley fell on hard times but ultimately rebuilt itself around a thriving cultural core.

In mounting yet another comeback founded upon the arts, cuisine and community, Hayes Valley is demonstrating how a vibrant cultural scene is not merely a path forward for itself but may be for San Francisco as a whole. 

Post-Pandemic Resurgence 

The arts organizations in Hayes Valley—which rely on large indoor gatherings—suffered from the pandemic just as much as retail did. 

Ticket sales for the San Francisco Symphony’s first season after the pandemic were 75% of what they were pre-pandemic, said Taryn Lott, director of public relations for the organization. During the shutdown, the San Francisco Opera lost 20% of its subscribers—a key and reliable revenue stream—according to Matthew Shilvock, the opera’s general director. 

An audience member looks around the seating area before the San Francisco Symphony’s first post-Covid indoor performance at Davies Symphony Hall on May 6, 2021. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle via Getty

Yet the neighborhood took what could have been a death blow and turned it into a comeback story, thanks to invigorated public art spaces and innovation within its cultural organizations. 

When they couldn’t perform onstage, musicians from the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera entertained pedestrians on Hayes Street, which had begun closing to traffic on the weekends in August 2020 to make room for outdoor activities.

“The busking was just incredible,” Laska said. “It gave people hope and brought them to the neighborhood and made everything super vibrant.” 

The public art space Proxy began curating outdoor film festivals and collaborating with SFJAZZ, the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Symphony and the African-American Shakespeare Company. 

“We did a lot of work with them during the pandemic to make sure that we kept Hayes Valley alive,” Laska said. “This is one of the reasons that Hayes Valley has done so well.” 

The fastest downward trajectory soon became the steepest uphill climb, as vacancies were snapped up by online retailers who wanted physical outposts for their rapidly growing businesses, according to Silverstein. Soon, the neighborhood was fully leased by “clicks to bricks” stores. 

“We came back faster and stronger than any other neighborhood,” Silverstein said. 

Retail and restaurants bounced back—or transformed—and so did the cultural institutions. Ticket sales at the San Francisco Symphony are up to 83% of what they were pre-pandemic, Lott said.

Across the way, at the Asian Art Museum, things are also looking up. The museum’s "Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk" exhibition in October broke previous records for day-on-day visitation, according to Zac Rose, associate director of communications. 

Homeless people congregate outside the Asian Art Museum on May 11, 2023. Despite such issues, the museum has been breaking records for day-on-day visitation. | Jason Henry for The Standard

SFJAZZ has added 14,000 digital subscribers to its fold because of Covid—and plans to continue digital programming in a post-pandemic world.  

“We’re selling out at the restaurant before the show, we’re selling out in the show, and it’s fantastic to see full houses again,” said Greg Stern, CEO of SFJAZZ. “We have come out of it [the pandemic] a much stronger organization, because it forced a lot of introspection.” 

The pandemic also spurred the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to become the largest classical music management company in the world, according to its president, David Stull. 

The Dolby family program at the San Francisco Opera offers $10 tickets in good seats for patrons who haven’t bought tickets in the past three years. So far, the initiative has been a blazing success. The program has already sold 9,000 tickets—70% of which were to new patrons. 

“They are selling out within hours,” Shilvock said. 

SF Opera’s summer season is now 76% sold—and there are still three weeks to go. The New York Times recently recognized the city as a world-class opera destination.  

From Eyesore to Heartbeat

At sunset, string lights illuminate Hayes Street, bathing the sidewalks in a cozy incandescent glow, adding charm to an already pleasant stroll. The lights were recently expanded to stretch all the way to the San Francisco Symphony on Van Ness Avenue—underscoring the link between Hayes Valley’s commercial corridor and the celebrated classical music institution.

The hanging lights are also a prime example of the aesthetic flourishes that encourage people to spend time—and money—in Hayes Valley.

At sunset, string lights illuminate Hayes Street, forming a literal and metaphorical connection between the neighborhood and nearby arts institutions. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

The public art in Patricia’s Green—a grassy open space in the middle of the neighborhood—is another example. Back in 2005, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom kick-started the tradition of displaying large artworks in the park after a story in the newspaper caught his eye. 

“He had seen an article in the Chronicle about a beautiful temple by a Burning Man artist named David Best,” said Jill Manton, director of public art trust and special initiatives for the San Francisco Arts Commission that curates the space. “The message he conveyed [to us] is, I want that brought to San Francisco.” 

The arts commission made it happen—with a new temple by the same artist—and what has since become a beloved gathering area was born. Yet the space almost didn’t exist at all. 

Children play at the "Cathenge" installation in Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley in San Francisco. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake badly damaged the Central Freeway that ran through the middle of Hayes Valley, the overpass was removed—creating an open space that led not only to the creation of Patricia’s Green but also to Proxy, another well-loved public art space that opened in 2011. 

“It can be a lot of different uses simultaneously, there can be a gym, and later, there can be a performance and the layered uses make it interesting,” said Douglas Burnham, an architect and founding partner of Proxy. “We saw it as a community benefit and an experiment in teaching people what public space can be.” 

Proxy was meant to be a temporary project, and Burnham and his collaborators never thought it would be going strong 11 years later—the area is supposed to be developed into affordable housing, but the city doesn’t have a plan or the money to build it, Burnham said.

People work out at LuxFit SF in Proxy in San Francisco's Hayes Valley. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

“The Hayes Valley community was the only community that requested funds specifically for an annual public art program,” Manton said. “It is very significant and indicative of their belief that the arts can be a very positive and engaging factor in the community.”

The insanely popular "Cathenge" by artist David Normal, currently on display at Patricia’s Green, is a multisensory portal of giant, standing cats with pinwheel eyes, Day-Glo colors and interstellar sounds. On a recent Tuesday night, it had an array of spectators: teenagers laughing with bloodshot eyes, parents with young children, an elderly couple taking a stroll. 

“Patricia’s Green and Proxy are the heart of Hayes Valley,” Burnham said. “People come out to be together, to be seen, to enjoy this.” 

Dining Destination

When you sit down for dinner at a restaurant in Hayes Valley, there’s a question your server will typically ask you: Are you going to a show tonight?

It’s another example of how deeply the Civic Center-adjacent neighborhood and the arts are interwoven, each feeding off the other to form a closed loop—a boom loop—that creates its own economic ecosystem. 

People spend time at Proxy in Hayes Valley in San Francisco. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

You could liken them to falafel, but that would vastly undersell them—the crispy chickpea fritters at Uccello Lounge are pillowy soft on the inside with a crisp crunch on the outside, served on a smear of carrot tahini. 

Making the familiar new again is something the restaurant does well, like with its tiki-inspired Jungle Bird cocktail that somehow incorporates bitters with sweetness and rum to emerge divine. Students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music—many of whom live in the dorms above the restaurant—entertain the crowd of diners who ebb and flow with opera performances. 

The airy, glass-paned restaurant is part of the brand-new Bowes Center, a $200 million facility completed in 2021, and 95% of the organization's concerts are free. 

The interconnection between food and the arts is not new—Hayes Valley in part became a destination to linger thanks to food when the new symphony hall was completed in 1980. 

“People didn’t have somewhere to eat in the neighborhood,” Silverstein said. “Some very early prognosticators decided it would be smart to build some restaurants.” 

Hayes Street Grill helped create the dining scene in Hayes Valley. | Craig Lee/The Chronicle via Getty

Hayes Valley, with a freeway running through it, hadn’t attracted much in the way of fine dining previously, and people typically went elsewhere to eat before shows, according to Silverstein. 

Those groundbreaking restaurants—Ivy’s, which has since become Absinthe, and Hayes Street Grill, modeled off of classic fish restaurants like Sam’s Grill—are still around today. 

Restaurants like Uccello Lounge, and the recently opened casual café at the Asian Art Museum helmed by the former chef de cuisine at Slanted Door, demonstrate how tightly interwoven the arts are with food, each feeding into each other.   

Sherri Young, founder and executive director of the African-American Shakespeare Company,  recently found a new home for her company that’s directly in the heart of Hayes Valley at 460 Gough St. It’s a move that has strengthened the connections between local arts organizations. It’s also made it harder to get dinner. 

“It’s been hustling and bustling,” Young said. “You have to wait until 9 to go out to eat.” 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at