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Mission San Francisco de Asis: The Center of the City
James Wigdel

Mission San Francisco de Asis
photo: James T. Wigdel
Located at the corner of 16th and Dolores Streets in the Mission District, Mission San Francisco de Asís is known by most San Franciscans and tourists simply as Mission Dolores. Built in 1791, Mission San Francisco de Asís is the oldest intact building in San Francisco. However, the story begins even earlier that that. Almost 230 years ago, while the founding fathers were putting the final touches on the Declaration of Independence, Padre Francisco Palóu, under the direction of Father Junipero Serra, was in the process of founding the sixth of 21 missions in California. A nondescript historical marker outside of an apartment building is the only reminder that on June 29, 1776, at the corners of Albion and Camp Streets, the good Padre celebrated the first mass in what would become Mission San Francisco de Asís. Built of makeshift materials, the original mission did not last long. However, the building that replaced it survives to this day. This is the building now known as Mission Dolores. June 29 is also, not surprisingly, celebrated as San Francisco’s birthday.

Stained Glass Window
photo: James T. Wigdel
A Brief History of Time
The community that surrounds Mission Dolores is in one of the original sections of the city and has grown to be a snapshot of the diversity that is San Francisco. The area is largely Hispanic, a throwback to its mission roots. With its shops, restaurants, schools, parks and murals, connected in the rich history of Mission Dolores, it is a great place to explore, shop, eat, go to the theater or spend hours browsing one of its many bookstores. The Mission is one of the most underrated sections of the city, often overshadowed by more popular San Francisco destinations. The cheap burrito juxtaposed against some of the most expensive housing in the city makes the Mission a paradox; but that’s part of the fun. Sure, it has its share of drugs, prostitution, and the homeless, but it’s also home to some of the best restaurants, and most amazing murals and quirky theater to be found. Anyone who wants to get to know the Mission District should begin with a short primer on Mission Dolores and the surrounding neighborhood. Knowing how the character of the Mission developed will give a greater appreciation of the many facets that make up this colorful district.

Mission San Francisco de Asís was built so solidly that, unlike its stately Basilica neighbor, it survived the 1906 earthquake. The neighborhood has survived equally tumultuous times and has a very colorful history. It is amazing to think about what the landscape might have been like compared to today; gentle hills, lakes, streams, crops in the fields, and the indigenous Ohlone Indians. It was the Ohlonies that greeted the mission founders and later, having “converted” to Christianity, helped build Mission Dolores. The mission was named such because the original mission was built next to a long-gone lake called Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores or Lake of Our Lady of Sorrows. The ancient lake, named by Juan Bautista de Anza, was located near present day Dolores Park.

Although not the reason the lake was named for sorrows, there is a sad tale as part of the story. For eons before the arrival of the missionaries, tribes of coastal inhabitants, collectively known as the Ohlone Indians, lived a tranquil and abundant life hunting and fishing off the plentiful land and sea. These were the native ‘San Franciscans’ who numbered about 10,000 when the missionaries arrived. With their arrival, disease and a change in lifestyle from hunter-gatherer to domesticated farmer caused the population of the Ohlone to rapidly decline. Today, although descendants have survived, it is difficult to find remnants of the indigenous people of San Francisco except in the graveyard bordering the Mission, where roughly 5,000 Ohlone Indians are buried.

In 1833, the Mexican government took over the management of the missions and they soon fell into ruin because of a lack of funding to support their upkeep. This was the period known as secularization. In 1834, Mission Dolores almost met its demise when the Mexican government decided to end the mission system and sell the land. However, in 1857, Mission Dolores was returned to the Catholic Church and then in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln enacted legislation that returned all 21 California missions to the Catholic Church, where they remain to this day. In the intervening years, between secularization and the return to the Catholic Church, and fueled by the arrival of the gold digging forty-niners, Mission Dolores was home to saloons, horse-racing tracks, bull fighting rings, and other equally colorful establishments.

Mariachis on Mission Street
photo: James T. Wigdel
The Gold Rush of 1849 and California's statehood in September 1850 resulted in a tremendous influx of people to San Francisco. Around this time, a road was built between the Mission and what is now known as downtown, speeding population growth in the area. The Mission was no longer an isolated hamlet and thus its growth and development blossomed. For the next several decades, the Mission District was home to working class laborers and farmers. This mix of people fueled the union movement and the Mission became a hub of organized labor in the city.

On April 18, 1906, San Franciscans awoke to a violent shaking of the earth that lasted for almost a minute. When the shaking stopped, 700 people were dead, the city was devastated, and there were fires everywhere. For an earthquake that was felt as far away as Nevada, miraculously, the Mission District was mostly spared. Following the earthquake, temporary shelters were built in the Mission to house a good portion of the population while the rest of the city was being rebuilt. As a result, people from many parts of San Francisco, with diverse ethnic backgrounds, flocked to the Mission. Formerly fog-shrouded west side folks quickly realized that the Mission was the sunny side of the city and began settling there.

Beginning in the 1950s, there was a large influx of immigrants to the Mission. Prompted by political and economic events in Latin America, the new arrivals were largely from Mexico but were also a blend of Cubans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Bolivians, Chileans and Nicaraguans. The Latino population flourished, as did the many connections to home. Taquerias, pupuserias, and markets selling everything from produce to piñatas all added a touch of home to the new arrivals. To this day, campanas roam the Mission selling ice cream, mariachis are a common sight in festive Mission restaurants, and roadside taco stands still serve tasty treats.

The Mission continued to evolve and was not unaffected by the dot-com boom (and subsequent bust). In the mid 1990s, the Mission began a gentrification process. Up to this time, the Mission had been an economically depressed area, but with dot-com dollars there was a demographic shift from the Latino spectrum to quasi-yuppie and generation X-ers. "Media Gulch" was developed and housing prices skyrocketed. The area quickly became unaffordable to many of the people that made the Mission what it was for more than 200 years. At the same time, many of the older buildings were renovated to accommodate the dot-com start-ups. With the bust, the once-affordable buildings were emptied; however, the prices generally didn’t drop. Fortunately, the Mission never fully went over to the dark side and retains a pleasant mix of Latin character and upscale latté shops.

El Capitan Theatre
photo: James T. Wigdel
What to See Today
Mission Dolores is a great jumping-off point, but what next? The first stop should be next door at the Basilica. It was destroyed in 1906 by the earthquake, and rebuilt and reopened in 1918. In 1952, Pope Pius XII gave Mission Dolores the honor of becoming the first Basilica west of the Mississippi. In contemporary times, Basilicas are special churches designated for use by a visiting Pope. On September 17, 1987, Pope John Paul II became the first reigning Roman Pontiff to visit San Francisco and pray at the Basilica.

Moving on from there, to get a hands-on flavor of the Mission District, a walking tour from 16th & Mission to 24th & Mission gives a great perspective. Incidentally, these are the locations of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations within the Mission, making getting in and out easy. Beginning at 16th Street, you will pass produce markets, taquerias, furniture shops, and discount stores. Along the way, you may run into mariachi
singers, who, for a couple of bucks, will serenade you with a Mexican favorite. If you’re thirsty or hungry, there are myriad coffee shops and restaurants to choose from.

Between 19th and 22nd Streets, you will pass by the remnants of a once thriving theater district. The El Capitan, the Tower, the New Mission, Cine Latino, and the Grand have either been boarded up or turned into discount stores selling imports from around the world. But, there is another reason for noticing these relics. The art deco facades are magnificent to see and one can only wish that these entertainment centers might once again flourish.

Fortunately there are some classic theaters that have survived. The Roxie Cinema ( located at 3117 16th Street b/w Valencia and Guerrero is San Francisco’s oldest operating movie theater. It is well known for showing independent films, cult classics, and documentaries, among others. At 2961 16th you’ll find The (Red) Victoria Theater ( Built in 1908 and restored in the late 1970s, it is the oldest operating theater in San Francisco. It is home to plays and concerts, as well as film festivals and other kinds of performances. The Mission District is home to another theater superlative—Theater Rhinoceros ( at 2926 16th Street is the nation’s longest-running lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender theater

While you’re out and about, continue the walking tour by strolling down 24th Street toward Harrison Street. This stretch of the Mission will give you a feel for the gentrification and Latin mix. One block before Harrison you will come across Balmy Alley. This is the epicenter of San Francisco’s murals. No trip to the Mission District would be complete without seeing these murals, made famous by the stories they tell. Murals are a large part of Latin culture so it’s no surprise that with almost 600 murals in San Francisco, the largest concentration of them is in the Mission District. Balmy Alley is home to about 30 murals, some dating from as early as 1971. It is located between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street, near 24th Street. For an in depth exploration of the murals, visit the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center ( at 2981 24th Street. For a nominal fee, the center offers guided tours. Check the website for times and prices.

There are many other sections of the Mission District worth exploring. Valencia Street is home to several used bookstores, covering a variety of genres. There are also a number of small art galleries and quaint boutique-like shops. It’s also the location of New College of California, an alternative educational setting that emphasizes the integration of education and social change. New College ( is located at 777 Valencia Street & 17th Street. The centerpiece is of course 826 Valencia (, a brilliant non-profit writing center and “pirate supply store” run by Dave Eggers and the fabulous folks at McSweeney’s.

Taco Stand Vendor on 24th Street
photo: James T. Wigdel
Of course, if you’re going exploring, you’re going to get hungry, so what better place than the Mission to enjoy a world-class burrito or taco? There are about 150 taquerias in San Francisco and about a third of them are located in the Mission. With all these choices, it could get confusing as to where to find a decent burrito, however the folks at have done the legwork for you. Their recommendation for best burrito, not only in the Mission, but also in the city, can be found at San Francisco Taqueria, 2794 24th Street & York Street. For all things burrito, and ratings of other burritos, be sure to check out the website. For a quick meal other than a burrito, try Valencia Pizza & Pasta at 801 Valencia Street. Perhaps not the fanciest place in town, but its food and prices are hard to beat.

Spiritually, the Mission is not strictly steeped in its Catholic origins because it has grown to welcome many different faiths and traditions. A great example of this is the very intersection where Mission Dolores is located. On the other three corners of the same intersection as Mission San Francisco de Asís are St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Holy Family Day Care and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav Jewish Synagogue. Not far from this spot you can find Buddhist temples, and many other places of worship and celebration, all contributing to the welcoming nature of this section of the city.

There are enough interesting things about the Mission District of San Francisco to fill a book. This overview should at least give you a taste and appreciation for the rich culture of the Mission, born 230 years ago and continuing to this day. Whatever your ethnicity, your faith (or not), your gender, your sexual orientation, or your taste in art, theater or food, there is a slice of life for you in the Mission. Explore it, enjoy it, and have fun with it.

Listings associated with this Feature:

826 Valencia Mission Dolores