I love the high value San Franciscans place on altering reality. I believe it started with the psychedelic drug and music explosion of the ’60s and mutated over the decades into experiences you could really only have in this city. When I think of SF, I think especially of the physical portals into bizarre new worlds. I’m talking about the homes turned into museums, galleries, and floating island restaurants – the whimsical escapes into artists’ inner sanctums.
If you keep an eye on Mission blogs, you may have read about random
gatherings at an underground space called Secret Alley. I’d heard rumors
of a fantastically designed workshop and started an Internet hunt to
track down the owners. Ariel Dovas, one of the friendly folks behind
Secret Alley, got back to me and invited me to check out what he’d
created with his friends.
When I arrive at the second floor walk-up located inside a nondescript
industrial building, the scenery is even more imaginative than I’d
expected. My reality becomes instantly twisted as I witness something
The large room has been transformed into a workspace that looks like a permanent movie set of sorts, with scaled-down models of various urban landscapes. Ariel starts his tour by taking me through a couple offices that have been built to look like ye olde storefronts. They’re filled with stacks of old vinyl albums, and framed images are nailed up along the ceiling – they remind me of elaborate Peter Pan playhouses.
From behind these doors, the Secret Alley crew works on various creative endeavors – film, writing, music. The idea of joining them sounds exciting. Ariel explains that prospective collaborators have to be involved in everything that is done here. I immediately start fantasizing about what sort of special experience we could work on together here.
I am impressed that these guys, all high school friends from Santa
Cruz, aren’t trust fund kids and don’t have high-paying gigs. They work
at cafés and nonprofits, but have made a commitment to feeding off each
other’s artistic energy in an inspiring space. They’ve poured countless
dollars into a place they’re only renting.
Ariel says Secret Alley has been in the works since 2005. The founding mission also fits with my vision of this as San Francisco’s version of Neverland: “We wanted a place where no one tells us what to do, or how to do it, or what time we can do it.”
The Alley is located near a cluster of similar underground spaces
like Engine Works and the (sadly, soon to shutter) Kitsch Gallery. Their
corner is a special microcosm of artistic growth. I’m impressed that in
such an expensive city people continue to build such awesome outposts
with no concern for profit.
I could spend hours noting all the installations housed in Secret Alley, but I'll limit my descriptions to some of my favorites, like the shipwreck Ariel shows me protruding through the wall of a building.
I also love the façade of an old movie theater, a nod to the filmmakers on hand. Another cofounder, Noel Von Joo, tells me he’s working on a feature length movie, The Heart of the City – a “comedic take on the zombie apocalypse.” If the undead ever attack San Francisco, I’d want to tuck into Secret Alley. There are plenty of hiding spots here.
The Alley is populated with full-scale models that look real but aren’t quite authentic: a skate ramp of faux concrete, and ficus and oak trees with bark created from castings of actual trees. Walking around, it’s like being in a quiet, mini San Francisco.
I hang out for a couple hours, meeting more Secret Alley friends who wander in from off the street. Noel leans on the counter of the “diner” and offers me a cup of the most amazing tea (chocolate mint – who knew?). The casual clubhouse feels even cozier.
Ariel and Noel confirm many of my ideas about San Francisco’s legacy – specifically, that people here explore ideas to lengths that folks in other cities don’t.
I leave Secret Alley with my head buzzing. It could’ve been the crazy-flavored tea, or the visual overload of this painstakingly detailed labyrinth. But mainly, I’m excited by the idea that right when you think you’ve hit all the living installations San Francisco has to offer, there’s always a new secret, as it were, around the corner.
If you’re inspired to contribute to or collaborate with Secret Alley in some fashion, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or create your own awesome inner sanctum. Noel suggests getting started by squeezing all the talent you can out of your friends. “Don’t censor yourself,” Ariel adds. “Think like a kid and work like a grown-up. "