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Recovering from tragedy, a neighborhood adapts to a new identity–and fights for an old one

The once-sleepy West Portal grapples with becoming both a destination and a symbol of loss.

West Portal welcomes new businesses alongside legacy ones, creating its unique blend of new and old in a condensed commercial strip. | Source: Jungho Kim/The Standard

Recovering from tragedy, a neighborhood adapts to a new identity–and fights for an old one

The once-sleepy West Portal grapples with becoming both a destination and a symbol of loss.

On a recent Thursday, the line to get into Elena’s was already seven-deep 20 minutes before the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m. Diners from across the city and as far away as Chicago filled the restaurant until every dark brown leather banquette and tawny wicker chair was occupied. 

If there were a face to West Portal’s resurgence, it would be this four-month-old Mexican-American restaurant. Elena’s opened its elegant, light-filled dining room in early February to a stream of positive press that’s nearly as constant as the customers. 

Yet at the other end of West Portal Avenue, there’s evidence of a much sadder story. At the site of a horrific car accident in March that wiped out a young family of four, a bus stop has been removed, but the scars of the incident remain. And now many locals are irked by what they see as the co-opting of the tragedy for a particular agenda. 

That’s not the only issue that’s roiling this once-quiet corner of the city. Merchants also worry that the idyllic, family-oriented neighborhood is becoming less safe, plagued by an outbreak of car break-ins, graffiti and robberies. “There’s more crime,” said Deidre Von Rock, the president of the West Portal Merchants’ Association and the owner of Von Rock Law. “And more vandalism.” 

Children and adults socialize outside McCarthy's Irish Bar. Bright decor, a blue fence with benches, and colorful storefronts add vibrant energy to the street scene.
From tots to teens, children are everywhere on West Portal Avenue. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Yet Elena’s popularity has been inarguably infectious, with a trickle-down effect coursing through the rest of the neighborhood. Lisa Moore, the owner of Siren boutique across the street from the new outpost from the Original Joe’s family, said she’s seen an uptick in business since the restaurant opened. “People leave their friends waiting in line and come to look around and shop,” Moore said.  

Elena’s is not the only new addition people are talking about in West Portal. A brand-new boba and ice cream spot opened down from the Walgreens. A buzzy Thai pop-up established its first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Khao Tiew, in March on Claremont Boulevard. The Lemonade chain restaurant has moved out, and real estate rumors have it that a new, more exciting food outfit may move in. And George’s, a gourmet donut shop where you will soon be able to eat fried dough at marble tables and under 30-foot ceilings, is set to open in August.   

A man stands outside a restaurant named "Elena's," with a white facade, blue windows, and string lights. Two people wait nearby, next to a tree with red flowers.
The line for Elena's begins before it even opens. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
The image shows a street with parked cars along the side, tree-lined sidewalks, and a visible cafe. Overhead power lines stretch across the scene, and a tall broadcast tower can be seen in the background.
West Portal is a transit hub, yet also feels removed from the rest of the city. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

The newcomers are warmly welcomed in West Portal, say many longtime residents and merchants. Yet to focus only on the new and noteworthy would be to overlook what has drawn business owners to the neighborhood to begin with: A community that cares deeply about investing in small businesses. 

This goes double for the neighborhood’s many owner-operated businesses, with the owners living right next to where they work. “They care more,” said Karl Aguilar, the co-owner of Papenhausen Hardware, of his fellow West Portal proprietors. He noted that the owner of Squat and Gobble across the street is in his restaurant every day (so too is Aguilar). 

A person with light purple hair stands in a comic book store next to a shelf filled with books, with vibrant decor and organized displays around them.
Kris Politopoulos left a job in tech to pursue her dream of opening a comics store, Invisible Jet Comics, which opened in September. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
The image shows a shop window displaying an array of ornate, vintage-style table lamps and decorative vases, featuring intricate floral designs and vibrant colors.
New and old happily live alongside each other in West Portal. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

This loyalty has allowed for the survival of decades-long businesses, like Shaws, the last remaining example of a candy shop empire that used to be sprinkled all over the city. 

The combination of businesses that have been there 100 years and for six months is part of what makes West Portal’s commercial strip so appealing, say those who do business there. It is both exciting and reliable, accessible and removed. 

“It’s the combination of new and old so close together that makes it unique,” Von Rock said. 

‘Convenient, but out of the way’

It’s easy to accomplish all your everyday tasks along West Portal Avenue: From hair salons to banks, gyms to bakeries, the highly condensed commercial strip is a Main Street of the old school. You can pick up your groceries at Eezy Freezy (not to be confused with fro-yo chain Easy Breezy across the street), have a drink at the Philosopher’s Club (we all become contemplative after a couple shots) and get your shoes resoled and your vacuum repaired at the same time. 

Of course, there are losses residents still mourn—particularly the anchor of the Empire Theater, which closed during the pandemic and has been aging in place ever since. “You can get your palm read, but you can’t go to the movies,” said one passerby in acknowledgment of the neon sign blazing Palm and Tarot Card Reader beside the garbage-accumulating cinema. 

Yet the bigger story of the neighborhood, which first arose in the 1920s, is that of resiliency. According to boutique owner Moore, who also sits on the board of the West Portal Merchants’ Association Board, the neighborhood bounced back faster than others after the pandemic because it didn’t rely as much on tourism. Moore previously ran businesses in Hayes Valley and the Haight over her decades of experience in the fashion industry, and she said those neighborhoods never welcomed her the way West Portal did. 

A person in a green cap and denim jacket is kneeling in the aisle of a well-stocked hardware store, surrounded by cleaning supplies, tools, and fire starters.
Papenhausen Hardware has been in business for over 100 years, yet could be threatened with closure if it doesn't pull in more income. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
A neon sign advertises "Palm & Tarot Card Reader" with tarot cards, a star, and a crescent moon. The text "Past, Present, Future" and a phone number are also visible.
The Empire Theater closed during the pandemic, but a nearby tarot card reader is still in business. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“This neighborhood really cares about small businesses and rallies to support them,” she said. “I feel so blessed I’m here.” 

She recounted experiences of residents showing up at seven in the morning to help clean graffiti off the storefront. “I’m like, who are you people?” she said. “I never had that experience before.” 

West Portal Spa owner Karen Nguyen feels the same way. “I would not open a business anywhere else,” she said. In business since 2003, she’s seen neighborhood children grow up, go to college, and get married. “She’s so successful because she’s so wonderful,” interrupted Jerry Lynn Sullivan, a customer who comes to Nguyen’s nail salon every other week. 

Down the street, Shelby Ash’s The Music Store is one of the last remaining places where you can pick up used movies and CDs, which Ash peddles along with used vinyl out of his West Portal storefront. He’s been in business a quarter of a century. 

“It’s convenient to get to, but out of the way,” he said of the neighborhood. 

Small business, big heart 

Perhaps no business represents the dualities of West Portal better than the forthcoming George’s Donuts. It’s named in honor of one of the owner’s grandfathers—a 93-year-old dry cleaner owner who dubbed himself a king in the style of San Francisco’s most famous eccentric, Emperor Norton. As the self-proclaimed “Shirt King” of Oakland, he’d pass out business cards of himself in regalia. 

Co-owner Lea Dudum imagines that when it opens in July, George’s will blend the highbrow with the everyday. The juxtaposition of an accomplished pastry chef (Janina O’Leary, who previously oversaw numerous Michelin-starred restaurants) and elevated donuts certainly embodies the dichotomy of the “royal” family member who inspired the spot. “It’s about the extravagance and silliness of eating a donut off of marble,” Dudum said. 

The image shows two women walking past posters of a man dressed as a king, advertising George's Donuts & Merriment. Each woman is holding a drink in her hand.
Opening in July, George's intends to mix the highbrow (marble) with the everyday (donuts) in honor of its namesake. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
A comic book store with yellow walls features bookshelves, posters, and a large Iron Man statue. Near the entrance, there’s a sign saying, "It All Starts Here."
The owner of Invisible Jet Comics was thrilled that the space it moved into already had yellow walls. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Dudum lives in West Portal along with her husband and co-owner, Andrew Dudum, and their two children. You can find them having breakfast on the weekends at Toast or pizza on Fridays at Little Original Joe’s. “It’s a kindness neighborhood,” Dudum said. “There’s so many schools and churches.” 

Indeed, across the street from George’s, girls in Catholic school plaid swarm tables at Easy Breezy on most school days. It’s hard to ignore how many children—from tots to teens—fill the sidewalks of the neighborhood. While Noe Valley has the reputation of being one of the most family-filled neighborhoods, only 17% of households have children there—as opposed to nearly 30% in West Portal. Dogs are everywhere, too, whether it’s in the rows of portraits of them in the BookShop West Portal or at West Portal Spa, where bernedoodles Nala and Zula run in and out of the door wearing matching polka dot sweaters. 

“This is the nexus of 22 schools,” said Kris Politopoulos, the owner of Invisible Jet Comics, estimating the number of schools in the larger area. What’s more, the nine-month-old store serves as a gathering place for students from City College of San Francisco, which has a certificate in comics, and San Francisco State, which has a graphic novel program. The former tech worker said that business has been brisk since she opened in September. “Every day, someone thanks me for being here,” she said. 

Politopoulos lives in Mission Terrace and grew up in San Francisco—she’d often see movies with her friends at that now-closed Empire Theater. The comic books she stocks in her bright yellow shop represent a lot of different voices, an intentional choice for the new business owner. “Reading about other people cultivates empathy,” she said. “And empathy is going to be the thing that saves us all.” 

Trouble in paradise 

Robby McDonough, who grew up in West Portal, remembers playing on the street and taking the bus to 49ers games at Kezar Stadium with packs of other kids. “It was safe and clean,” he said. Some business owners today worry that could be changing. 

“We have very strong quality of life issues,” Von Rock said. She noted an uptick in graffiti, something she said started during the pandemic as well as an increased presence of people having mental health crises on the street. The Walgreen’s is a frequent target for theft, Von Rock said, and impacts smaller stores along the strip (there’s a viral video of the West Portal Walgreen’s being robbed). 

West Portal Spa owner Karen Nguyen said that after a 2021 break-in to her business, she hasn’t felt as safe. “Now I lock the door after seven,” she said. “It has changed quite a bit.” 

The image shows a red brick wall with two large windows. One window has a "for sale" sign and the other has black graffiti. The reflections show building facades.
West Portal has become a target for graffiti since the pandemic, according to some merchants. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
A group of people stand solemnly, many wearing dark clothing and sunglasses. Two individuals are embracing, and flowers in the foreground are slightly out of focus.
The car crash that killed a family of four in March still casts a pall over West Portal. | Source: Loren Elliott for The Standard

Merchants also remain frustrated by what they see as the co-opting of the March vehicle crash that killed a family of three. “The accident was driver-caused and not because of traffic,” Von Rock said. “It was very opportunistically jumped upon by anti-car advocates, who used it to try to ram through major changes which could have far-reaching, unintended consequences.” 

Siren Boutique owner Lisa Moore agreed, saying the neighborhood did not want to suffer through another construction project. “Anything that makes it harder to get here and reduces parking affects the merchant corridor,” she said. 

And not all businesses have been as successful as Siren or Elena’s in keeping a steady flow of customers. Aguilar, the co-owner of the more than 100-year-old Papenhausen Hardware, estimates he’s been down 30% on business since the pandemic. “We’re extremely at risk,” he said. 

Aguilar added that he’s noticed fewer pedestrians in general, a trend that’s never rebounded since the pandemic changed people’s habits: they got used to buying online, don’t use public transit to commute Downtown and some moved away to second homes. 

The image shows a row of charming, multi-story houses with various architectural styles, adorned with red-tiled roofs. Greenery and a banner for a high school are visible.
Many merchants in West Portal live close to the businesses they operate. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

The most common phrase people use to describe West Portal is “hidden gem.” But what happens when a gem is no longer hidden—when it’s a shiny jewel everyone wants to gaze at? While new and upcoming businesses like Elena’s and George’s promise more attention, Aguilar points out that a neighborhood can’t live on restaurants alone. Essential to West Portal’s charm is the diversity and utility of its shops, something that could be thrown into jeopardy if the area becomes a destination dining spot for people outside the neighborhood

“If the community changes so much, it doesn’t have a soul anymore,” he said.