West Portal’s Birth and Renewal Are Coupled to Its Streetcars

Albert Poon
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Muni light rail train rolls past CineArts Empire with West Portal Station in the background. Compare to the scene from the same location in 1927 shown below.

In the West Portal neighborhood in southwest San Francisco, you will likely not encounter tourists—either from the other side of the world or other side of town. But, for the locals that live on the west side and rely on Muni’s K, L and M lines, West Portal, with its cozy, unassuming personality and small town charm, is the essential, do-everything, go-to hub for many of their daily needs.

After the discovery of gold in the 19th century, San Francisco exploded with meteoric growth, mostly in the eastern, bay-facing side of the city. The western half, isolated beyond the hilly spine of the peninsula was foggy, wind-swept, and populated by sand dunes and indigenous scrub—in practical terms, inaccessible for development.

In the late nineteenth century, the area that is now West Portal was purchased by mining magnate Adolph Sutro. After Sutro’s death, the land was divided into new residential districts, including Forest Hill, St. Francis Wood, Ingleside, Terraces, Miraloma and Westwood Park. Development lagged, however; there was simply no practical way for would-be residents to get to their jobs downtown.

That all changed in 1918 with the launch of Muni’s K-line streetcar service between the neighborhood and downtown through the Twin Peaks Tunnel. The tunnel was an engineering achievement at 2.27 miles in length, and was the longest streetcar tunnel of its time. With fast, direct streetcar service to Market St on the eastern side of Twin Peaks, a new neighborhood was born. The tunnel’s western portal—aptly named West Portal—gave the neighborhood and the street at the mouth of the tunnel its name.

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West Portal as seen on Jan 20, 1927 between Ulloa and Vicente Streets. K-line MUNI streetcar #105 in the foreground. (Photo sourced at OpenSFHistory.org)

At its birth, West Portal’s banks, grocers, shops, restaurants, candy shops, drug stores, a public library and movie theater met the commercial and entertainment needs for its well-to-do residents. Like its surrounding residential neighborhoods, West Portal was unlike the older city districts: It was designed with City Beautiful principles of generous greenery, curving streets, and public architectural embellishments. Commercial and multi-unit buildings, prohibited in the residential tracts, were concentrated in a distinct commercial area built along West Portal Avenue.

In the 1960s, streetcar-based urban neighborhoods fell out of favor as Americans flocked to car-based suburbs, and West Portal’s prosperity began to fade. San Francisco’s population fell for the first time since its founding. To revitalize the city and plan for the long term growth of San Francisco, voters in 1962 decided to fund the Muni Metro, a new, fully underground train service. As part of the project, the original western facade of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which had anchored the neighborhood since its completion in 1917, was demolished and replaced by West Portal Station. From there, travel times were as fast as 15 minutes between West Portal and downtown. The Muni Metro renewed the appeal of the city’s original streetcar suburbs and revitalized the neighborhood.

Today, West Portal Station continues to stand sentinel at the foot of a neighborhood that is stubbornly defying the trend of diminishing retail. Shops, salons, workout studios, banks, pubs and restaurants populate most of the storefronts. And at the heart of the district is the familiar, regular rumble of the Muni streetcars that brought the district to life to begin with. The appeal of the streetcar service, if judged by its lively sidewalks and nearby property values, has never been higher.

If you find yourself on the K, L or M trains heading toward West Portal Station, check out the following neighborhood landmarks:

WPA-built West Portal Branch Library

West Portal Branch Library: The San Francisco Public Library first operated a branch in the neighborhood in 1936. The current building on the corner of Lenox and Ulloa was opened in 1939, built by the Works Progress Administration and extensively renovated in 2007.

CineArts @ Empire: This movie house debuted as the Portal Theatre in 1925. Designed by local architect Irving Morrow, it has been reconfigured several times. Today, it’s a 3-screen multiplex showing first-run movies.

The main entrance of Stern Grove at the corner of 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard

Stern Grove: This large, wooded park is best known for hosting the Stern Grove Festival, an annual, free Sunday music festival series that runs every summer with performers including Janelle Monáe, Ziggy Marley, Pink Martini, and George Clinton. On off-concert days, enjoy a quiet walk through the park’s towering eucalyptus grove.

Papenhausen Hardware: This family-owned store has been a West Portal mainstay since 1936 (almost as long as the neighborhood’s streetcars!). In addition to tools and hardware, Papenhausen offers all the variety of an old-fashioned five and dime; while there you can shop for handmade ceramics, woven bags, and scented candles, too. Ask the knowledgeable, friendly staff your home improvement or repair questions.

If you’re hungry on the street or want to taste the diverse neighborhood variety, check these restaurants:

  • Calibur: Their name is a portmanteau of California and burger. Founded and operated by 2 local guys, their signature burgers are organic and California-sourced.
  • Bullshead: Occupying a choice location 10 feet from West Portal Station, this local favorite has been operating since 1979. Check out the in-house ground beef and leaner bison burgers. If you go, say hello to the bull’s head. There is an actual bull’s head.
  • Submarine Center: I always get the Hot Pastrami. The pastrami, cheese and roll gets toasted when ordered. The greens and veggies get added afterwards. The result is a sandwich that is warm, crisp, and soft. Ridiculous. If you visit, check out the decoration featuring local sports memorabilia stretching back to their opening in 1981. Dynasty 49er photos and autographs. The 3-time series champions get lots of love. The newest additions are the Hamptons 5 Warriors.
  • Orexi: Family-owned, focused on traditional Greek and Mediterranean dishes
  • Clay Oven: Large menu of Indian dishes. Specialized in tandoori—clay oven—dishes
  • Spiazzo: Local Italian favorite operating since 1997.
  • Roti: Contemporary North Indian
  • Trattoria da Vittorio: A relatively newcomer at 8 years on the street, this Italian spot has gained a loyal following for it’s Southern Italian dishes.
  • Tsing’s Chinese: Classic neighborhood Chinese restaurant with Cantonese-style favorites
  • Easy Breezy Yogurt: West Portal location of this SF and North Bay 4-store chain is perfect for your sweet snack needs. Check out their weekly dairy and vegan flavors.
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