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Take a walk on the Ingleside: One of SF’s most diverse neighborhoods is on the rise

Ingleside is full of quirky landmarks, not-so-hidden history and hopeful residents. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Take a walk on the Ingleside: One of SF’s most diverse neighborhoods is on the rise

Ingleside’s Ocean Avenue has one of the city’s last sewing machine repair stores (Serge a Lot), one of its best hamburger stands (Beep’s Burgers), a sprawling pet store in a former bank (Expert Pet) and a recently expanded plant store (The Plant Lady SF) that was filled to capacity on a recent Wednesday.

It has a buzzy upscale Italian restaurant (Ofena), down the street in Lakeside Village that serves sandwiches for lunch on warm Rize Up Bakery bread. There’s live music in a homey brewery (Ocean Ale House) and one of the city’s only Laotian joints (Champa Garden)—which is across the way from a hot yoga studio in a former Masonic temple (Yoga Flow). There’s dim sum and homestyle Cantonese, the best garlic fries in the city and a Black-owned bar (The Ave Bar) with an all-Nor-Cal beer menu.

So why is a neighborhood with so much great stuff so often forgotten by people in the city? “For a lot of San Franciscans,” said Woody LaBounty, president of the nonprofit SF Heritage, “it’s terra incognito.” 

Ingleside is the city’s ultimate IYKYK neighborhood (if you know you know), a place where people remember your pet’s name and your drink order, where single-family homes with actual lawns hug the hills. History is not forgotten in Ingleside.

It’s embedded into the landscape, like with the oval shape of Urbano Drive that outlines the racetrack that stood there from 1895 to 1905, or like the spot on Cedro Avenue where the first Black resident of Ingleside Terraces, the former District Attorney Cecil Poole, had a cross burned in his yard

Aerial view of a dense residential area with rows of houses and intersecting streets.
Houses line the Westwood Park neighborhood off of Ocean Avenue in San Francisco. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

But the area is not stuck in the past; it’s got new businesses, clean streets and successful expansions to tout. 

Local artist Neil Ballard just unveiled a 100-foot-long mural on the side of the Walgreens at Ocean and Faxon avenues, including three quirky beacons of the neighborhood: the Soviet-inspired neon rocket ship of Beep’s Burgers, the tall spire of the former El Rey Theatre and one of the world’s largest sundials. 

In a neighborhood fragmented by residential communities, these visual emblems are more than just symbols—they tie Ingleside together, give a visual lexicon to a community trying to put itself on the map.

“Everybody here wants to be better,” said Miles Escobedo, the owner of Ocean Ale House, which recently expanded, adding a larger, improved stage for the live music it hosts five nights a week. 

A band performing indoors with a saxophonist in focus; audience watching in the background.
The band the Fury Brothers plays a set at Ocean Ale House on Saturday. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

‘Hey, big dog’

Rare in San Francisco, many of Ingleside’s local businesses are run by actual Ingleside residents. 

The owner of That’s Amore pizzeria, Ahmad Murad, lives only a few blocks away from where he twirls pies. Business has been good for him, despite opening three years ago in the midst of the pandemic. He’s expanded the hours to include lunch and recently purchased a pizza oven trailer to do events. 

“The strip has actually been cleaner since Covid,” he said, citing the help of the Ocean Avenue Association, the community benefit district that handles safety, maintenance and marketing for the area. 

Pet store owner Michael Sorrels also lives just two blocks from his store. Business has been booming for Sorrels—Expert Pet has only been open for under three years, yet the store has expanded from 1,200 square feet to 7,500 square feet, going from $200,000 to $1 million in annual sales. “The neighborhood needed a pet store,” Sorrels said. 

Left: Urban street with a bakery in the foreground, houses on a hill in the background. Right: People queued at an outdoor fast-food counter at night.
A man leaves Cherry Blossom Bakery on Ocean Avenue, while customers wait in line to order at Beep's Burgers, left, one of San Francisco's iconic burger joints. | Source: Noah Berger & Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

The coffee shop Java on Ocean is a key community gathering place, and on Wednesday, the cafe had the vibe of a study hall, every one of the tables occupied by a human and a laptop. It’s the kind of place where people leave their bags unattended at tables and don’t think twice.   

A barista at Java Ocean Cafe who gave only her first name, Sarah, was born and raised in the neighborhood and still lives there. She’s watched many of her friends leave, but she said there’s no other place she’d rather be. For her, the cafe feels like an extension of the neighborhood. “I love it because of the customers,” she said. “There’s so many regulars—working people, students, all kinds of people.” 

Ocean Ale House owner Escobedo also grew up in Ingleside and still lives nearby.

“Hey, big dog,” he calls out to the next thirsty customer coming through the doors. He doesn’t know every patron by name, but his larger-than-life demeanor makes it feel as if he went to college with everyone. 

Urban street corner with a man walking, shops, traffic lights, and a palm tree, viewed through a window with plant silhouettes.
For many locals, Java on Ocean Coffee House is the main gathering place in Ingleside. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

“Ninety percent of the people that come through that door are either City College students or were once City College students,” he said. 

In addition to taking over a neighboring electronics store to expand the bar’s stage, Escobedo has plans to create a parklet and a backyard space to make the bar into a true community hub. “We want to be a star in the Ingleside community,” he said. 

Racial covenants meet a Black haven 

Ingleside was once considered a Black neighborhood, having grown its Black population when longshoremen moved into the city on the north side of Ocean Avenue. Yet the area is simultaneously known for its gated communities like Westwood Park and Mount Davidson Manor, which used to keep Black residents out through racial covenants.

Both of those histories, combined with a growing Asian American population, converge to make Ingleside one of the most diverse neighborhoods in San Francisco.

A joyful man raises his arms in a room covered with numerous historical photos and memorabilia.
The Rev. Roland Gordon of the Ingleside Presbyterian Church reads the word "joy" from an excerpt of the peace affirmations attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

Sometimes, you have to peek behind closed doors to understand where San Francisco’s true treasures are—and such is the case at the Ingleside Presbyterian Church, which has been under the steady hand of the Rev. Roland Gordon since 1978. Gordon, or “Rev. G,” single-handedly built up a withering congregation from four members to over 100, a seeming miracle in itself. 

While those numbers have been hit significantly by Covid (only around 20 parishioners show up in person for Sunday services these days; the rest are on Zoom), the church has been building up a different place of worship: the basketball court. 

A former college basketball player, Gordon was first impressed by the gym when he visited the church as a seminary student. “As soon as I saw it, I knew I was meant to be here,” he said. While the congregation is shrinking, the youth basketball teams are growing—going from one to four in only three years. 

Gordon has added thousands of pictures to the walls of the basketball court since he put up the first image of Muhammad Ali in 1980. Now a city landmark, the collage mural “The Great Cloud of Witnesses” is intended to show Black youth—and everyone—what they’re capable of. “They might not read their Black history books,” he said. “But they’ll see these walls.” 

A smiling man sits in a sunlit church, amidst wooden pews and stained-glass windows.
The Rev. Roland Gordon, 80, sits inside the historic African American Presbyterian church in Ingleside on Saturday. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

Just down the street in the Ave Bar, another legacy business, you are greeted by something uncommon in San Francisco watering holes: a majority Black crowd. Like the Ocean Ale House and Java on Ocean, the Ave is the kind of bar where customers feel seen. It sells Northern California beers nearly exclusively, with a majority of the spirits on offer from California, too. One exception is Uncle Nearest, a whiskey named for the first known African American master distiller. 

Owned by a San Francisco-born firefighter from Station 7, the Ave Bar has pictures from Aptos Middle School and Riordan High School embedded in the bar top. The carved wooden sign hanging on the wall reads, “A neighborhood bar, San Francisco style.”

When asked what he thought Ingleside was all about, one patron’s response was particularly telling. “So that’s what this neighborhood is called?” he said.

The enemy within 

While Ingleside has the reputation of being more affordable and family-oriented, there’s a lurking threat to the neighborhood, according to real estate agent and Ingleside resident Peter Tham.

The neighborhood has a lot of vacant anchor tenant spaces—including five storefronts alone in the former El Rey Theatre, a problem compounded by absentee landlords. Business owners want to move into the vacant storefronts on Ocean Avenue—but the landlords have no intention to rent out the spaces. Tham pointed to an entire block on Ocean Avenue, all under the control of one owner who lives in China and won’t respond to rental requests.

Other eyesores appear in the form of massive spaces that are difficult to lease. There’s the 15,000-square-foot empty former CVS and an even larger space, a 17,000-square-foot commercial lease available that was once San Francisco’s first city Target. 

There are other problems, too—the lack of public parks, the need for a community gathering space, the seemingly constant struggles of City College of San Francisco. 

Tham, like many others, cited Ingleside’s diversity as one of its hallmark features, with large Asian, Black and Latino populations in addition to white residents. Which is the biggest group? 

“It depends which block you’re standing on,” he said. 

As you travel down Ocean Avenue in Ingleside, empty storefronts and hopeful residents abound. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

In truth, Ingleside can seem like it’s in search of its identity. It’s a group of disparate elements that are as odd-fitting as the beacons that demarcate it—longstanding home-owners alongside transient students, a free-for-all college standing next to one of the city’s most expensive private high schools, a Black congregation beside a strip of Asian restaurants and groceries.

Yet just like the many pictures in the Rev. Gordon’s “The Great Cloud of Witnesses” or Ballard’s mural that took the place of a graffiti-covered Walgreens wall, all the pieces somehow fit together, rendering the neighborhood not just a side dish but a main attraction.

“It’s an often forgotten neighborhood,” pet store owner Michael Sorrels said about Ingleside. “But it’s coming up.”