Start at the corner of Mission and 16th streets, which is convenient if you're arriving on a BART train. Unfortunately, this busy intersection seems to be getting more depressing with each year, as the immediate area becomes the end of the line for a growing number of junkies and prostitutes. Walk a block east on 16th and you'll reach the Redstone Building, at No. 2926. This building, also called the "Temple of Labor," is a meeting hall for labor unions. During business hours, enter to view the murals that cover every inch of wall space in the lobby and hallways. The murals, including works by Barry McGee, Rigo, Aaron Noble, John Fadeff, and Sebastiana Pastor, were unveiled in 1997. Many of the works here echo the styles of the Depression-era artists who contributed pro-labor murals in Coit Tower and elsewhere in the city. The artists who worked on the Redstone Building are all associated with the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), and we'll see more of their works on the next stop of this tour.
Return to Mission St. and, after crossing, turn left on Mission and right onto narrow Clarion Alley. This open-air gallery, which covers nearly every building between Mission and Valencia Sts., is an ongoing project that was started in the early 1990s by the Clarion Alley Mural Project. Two of CAMP's original members, Aaron Noble and Rigo, lived in an artists' warehouse near the Valencia St. end of the alley until the building was demolished in 2001. Along with the building, some terrific art was lost, but the new townhouse on the site is already covered with murals. The works here are of varying styles, ranging from traditional Mexican techniques to more contemporary comic-book and graffiti styles.
At Valencia turn right and then turn left at 17th St. Make a left at Dearborn St. As you approach 18th St., the spectacular Women's Building comes into view. An enormous mural, called Maestrapeace, wraps like vines around two sides of the building. It was painted in 1994 by seven women artists, and thematically the painting celebrates women of all cultures. Walk a little ways up Lapidge St. to see the artwork on the building's east side.
Return to 18th St. and turn right. The building on the corner of 18th and Lexington streets (on the Lex side) is covered with one of the neighborhood's more intriguing works. It's called Generator, and the artists are Andrew Schoultz and Aaron Noble. It's a finely crafted and unusual work, with cross-hatch shading and images of strange, intertwined birdhouses lurching skyward. It looks like something Dr. Seuss might have conjured up in one of his more harrowing tales. Note the way the artists incorporated the building's ventilation pipes and the power lines that cross in front of the painting. It's fun, intricate, and thought-provoking.
Follow Lexington to 19th St. and turn left. Turn right onto Mission St., one of San Francisco's liveliest and most interesting streets. Amid the taquerías and tiendas you'll see signs of the street's pre-Latino past, when this was a largely Irish neighborhood. Some blocks are dominated by the faded and rusted beacons of grand old movie palaces that closed down decades ago. To get a real feel for the street, have a veggie burrito at Taquería Can-Cun (between 18th and 19th streets) or a carnitas taco at La Taquería (between 24th and 25th streets). Also, duck into Mission Market, a smorgasbord of spices, salsas, and produce for the Mexican American kitchen. The market opens up into a small indoor mall, where tables are set in the middle and food stalls sell plate lunches and raspados. On a busy day, it has the spirit and atmosphere of a market in Mexico.
Turn left onto shady 24th St., lined with shops, restaurants, and cantinas, almost all catering to the Latin American community. A few blocks down, turn right onto Balmy Alley, the Mecca of the Mission District's mural arts scene. It's your classic back alley lined with garage doors and backyard fences, but just about the entire length of it is covered with colorful murals in a great variety of styles. The oldest works are from the 1970s and tend to address social issues in Latin America and in the local community. The influence of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco is strongly evident. Georgia O'Keefe appears to have inspired some of the artists as well. Some of the more contemporary works are by artists cut from the Clarion Alley cloth, and while not necessarily apolitical, are stylistically less tied to the traditions of the Latin American left. Some works make use of stencils, while others are inspired by cinema and comics. New murals appear all the time. Walk to the end of the block and back, taking in the art along both sides of the alley, and continue down 24th St.
Half a block down, at No. 2981, is the Precita Eyes Art Store and Visitors Center, which is a great place for learning about the local mural arts scene. Founded in 1977 by muralist Susan Cervantes, Precita Eyes has overseen many important commissions throughout the neighborhood, including along Balmy Alley, and the center's educational wing has produced many of the Mission's artists. The shop sells postcard photos of murals and T-shirts with murals on them. Anyone wishing to delve deeper into the culture can gather books and information here.
Across the street, past Alabama St., are a couple of very traditional Latino markets. Casa Lucas, at No. 2934, is a colorful shop that's useful if you're in need of a piñata or a bottle of guava juice. On the corner of Florida St., at No. 2884, La Palma Mexica-tessen is a no-nonsense purveyor of over-the-counter snacks, including excellent tamales and tacos. Grab a pack of hand-patted corn tortillas for an authentic treat. Sometimes, you can spot women making them in the back of the shop.
At the corner of 24th and Bryant streets, Galería de la Raza is a neighborhood institution that was founded in 1970 by artists involved in the Chicano civil rights movement. The gallery is an interdisciplinary space where art is exhibited and performances are staged. The gallery often showcases provocative and controversial art that usually casts perspective on topical issues such as illegal immigration.
A block down 24th St., we can end our tour over a milkshake at St. Francis Fountain, a classic ice cream shop that hasn't bothered to maintain Smithsonian-quality decor but is more comfortable for it. You can also get a burger or B.L.T. if you haven't already filled up on Mexican food.
POINTS OF INTEREST:
Redstone Building 2926 16th St.
Women's Building 3543 18th St., 415-431-1180
Mission Market Fish & Poultry 2590 Mission St., 415-282-3331
Taquería Can-Cun 2288 Mission St., 415-252-9560
La Taquería 2889 Mission St., 415-285-7117
Precita Eyes Art Store & Visitors Center 2981 24th St., 415-285-2287
Casa Lucas Market 2934 24th St., 415-593-0785
La Palma Mexica-tessen 2884 24th St., 415-647-1500
Galería de la Raza 2857 24th St., 415-826-8009
St. Francis Fountain 2801 24th St., 415-826-4200
1.Start at the corner of Mission and 16th streets.
2.Head east on 16th St., cross Capp St., and enter the Redstone Building.
3.Return via 16th St. to Mission St., cross Mission St., and turn left.
4.Turn left off Mission onto Clarion Alley.
5.Turn right on Valencia St.
6.Turn left on 17th St.
7.Turn left on Dearborn St.
8.Turn left on 18th St.
9.Turn right on Lexington St.
10.Turn left on 19th St.
11.Turn right on Mission St.
12.Turn left on 24th St.
13.Turn right on Balmy Alley, walk a block up and back, returning to 24th St.
14.Continue on 24th St. and stop at York St.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication