Bernal Heights lies to the south of San Francisco's Mission District. Its most prominent feature is the open parkland and radio tower on its large rocky hill, Bernal Heights Summit. Bernal is bounded by Cesar Chavez Street to the north, San Jose Avenue to the west, US 101 to the east, and I-280 to the south.
In the 1980s Bernal Heights had a reputation as a dangerous place to venture, notorious as a place to dodge crackheads or at least get your car radio stolen. Cortland started to be cleaned up in the early '90s, when the Good Life Grocery moved in, followed by restaurants like the Liberty Café, as well as other small businesses.
During the dot-com boom, the community feared that Bernal Heights would be "discovered" and its affordable, offbeat charm ruined by gentrification. However, while local real estate prices were undeniably affected during the late '90s, the area has nevertheless weathered yet another sweeping change relatively unscathed and retains its homey, bohemian atmosphere.
Many San Franciscans never travel to Bernal Heights, located as it is at the southern edge of the Mission valley, served by only a few city bus lines and perched atop a steep hill, to boot. Those who do wander up the incline may be surprised by this quaint urban village that seems forgotten by time. The main shopping strip of Cortland Avenue is populated by small markets, cafes, fruit stands and barber shops, and the residential streets are a cluster of diminutive bungalows and community gardens. However, Bernal Heights bears the influence of city sophistication, with trendy boutiques and innovative restaurants scattered among its homely storefronts.
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The neighborhood is primarily residential, with a commercial strip along Cortland Avenue featuring restaurants, bakeries, a fish and butchery shop, multiple salons, the second Good Life natural grocery store (the first is on Potrero Hill), a wine and beer store, restaurants, and bars. The local branch of the San Francisco Public Library at 500 Cortland was built by Frederick H. Meyer with funding from the Works Progress Administration and dedicated in 1940. After closing for nearly two years for renovations and after much long-standing contention over the murals that adorn the library's exterior, the library reopened in January 2010. There is also a collection of restaurants and cafés at the bottom of the northern slope, near the Cesar Chavez Avenue border. They center around the newly renovated rectangular Precita Park. Also notable in that area is Precita Eyes, a mural art center.
A strong tradition of neighborhood activism led to the establishment of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center in 1979. It works to promote community organizing, affordable housing services, senior services, and youth services. Additionally, the neighborhood center hosts "Fiesta on the Hill," one of the last street fairs of the summer festival season. The fair is billed as a "community-building event," and takes place on the third Sunday in October.
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