What It’s Like to Live in the Presidio

Aug 19 at 6am

When I get off the bus at the end of the day, I pause, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. In most parts of San Francisco this might make me gag, but where I live, it’s cathartic bliss. That’s because my bus stop is surrounded on three sides by forests of eucalyptus, cypress, and pine. The fourth side? That would be the Pacific Ocean. I live in the Presidio – yes, people actually live inside the park – and I love it here.

I grew up close to nature. I’m from Santa Rosa, which is 60 miles north of here and home to Snoopy, Pliny the Elder, and lots of vineyards. My particular neighborhood was nestled against rolling hills and played host to raccoons, owls, foxes, and the occasional mountain lion. Although I’ve only lived a small number of places, I’ve learned that I was never meant for urban life. So when a spot opened up in the Baker Beach apartments during my week of frantic San Francisco house hunting, I snapped it up.

To greater San Francisco, my neighborhood is the Presidio, but to the 3,000 of us who live in the park, I have to get a little more specific. The Presidio of San Francisco is 1,491 acres with 21 distinct neighborhoods, all converted buildings left over from its days as a military post. Each of these areas has its own unique look. Some people live in luxury apartments that were formerly the U.S. Marine Hospital, others reside in stately Colonial Revivals that once housed officers. The more budget-restricted, like many college students and me, spend our days in less outwardly impressive apartments, such as those at MacArthur Avenue, West Washington, and Baker Beach (which a Lyft driver once told me reminded him of “the projects”). 

Their exteriors vary but every building has been skillfully restored and comes with perks uncommon to other parts of the city: access to community gardens and playgrounds, beautiful views of nature, low crime rates, and plenty of parking. Plus, from the moment we leave our front doors, we can hike, run, and bike alongside the beach, to Golden Gate Bridge, or through the woods.

There is a lot to like about the Presidio. It’s downright gorgeous and offers an adventure at your doorstep each day. But every neighborhood has its downside and my beloved park’s best feature is also its most problematic: It’s in the middle of nowhere. Growing up, I’d visited SF dozens of times over the years but I mostly stuck to the touristy stuff, convinced that 19th Avenue was the edge of the city and that all the cool stuff was located downtown. For that reason, I didn’t have a very clear concept of just how far in the boonies I was sticking myself when I moved to Baker Beach. There is only one bus within a 15-minute walk of me, and while I am thankful the 29 line exists, it doesn’t get me very far. Want to hang out in the Mission? Okay, I’ll be there in an hour. North Beach? About 45 minutes. The Haight? Somehow also 45 minutes.

The east side of the Presidio, which borders Cow Hollow and the Marina, has much better access to the city, which is probably why rooms in those apartments are rarely rented through anything beyond word of mouth. This edge of the park lets out on Lombard Street, so residents here can easily walk to the stores, bars, and restaurants of Union and Chestnut Streets. They’re also neighbors with Liverpool Lil’s, a beloved pub-style restaurant with a cozy, laid-back atmosphere and delicious, filling food. Walk through this side of the park and you will see the expansive Letterman Digital Arts Center, a former hospital campus reimagined in cooperation with George Lucas. This area now contains Lucasfilm Ltd., Industrial Light and Magic, LucasArts, and the George Lucas Educational Foundation. There is even a quirky fountain featuring a life-size Yoda. Hidden within the campus is also a rather large Starbucks, where teleworkers and freelancers can plug in and caffeine up while enjoying views of hilly gardens, a lagoon, and the Palace of Fine Arts.

The central hub of the Presidio is Main Post. This is where Off the Grid does Thursday night campfires in the summer and Sunday afternoon picnics. Main Post also has the Walt Disney Family Museum, Presidio Bowl, a post office, and, just recently, The Commissary, an upscale restaurant featuring Spanish-influenced California cuisine. This is also where the Presidio Transit Center sits. It’s a tiny building but it has clean bathrooms – in case you’re at Off the Grid and need a port-a-potty alternative – and the Transit Café, which makes a killer hot chocolate. This is the home base for the PresidiGo Shuttle, a group of free minibuses that take visitors and residents around the park and downtown. For residents, these buses are free at all times, so they are a commuter favorite. Once it leaves the park, the downtown shuttle stops only at Van Ness and Union, Davis and California, and the Transbay Terminal, so it’s about as fast as driving. Although I have to take one bus to the transit center and another from there to downtown, the PresidiGo is one of my favorite bragging points about where I live. It’s rarely crowded, always clean, and budget-friendly.

Even people who haven’t ventured into the depths of the park know that the Presidio is home to the Golden Gate Bridge. For the most part, the bridge is another reminder of the unique beauty of the area, but there are times when our proximity to the most recognizable landmark in San Francisco is rather inconvenient. Everyone here expects a daily bustle of painters, photogs, cyclists, and GoCars – and that’s pretty innocuous. The real problem comes in the form of unpredictable traffic jams that create a stagnant line of cars from the bridge to the park’s 25th Avenue entrance. This often happens on weekends, but not every weekend. So far, my only hypothesis is that Google Maps feels mischievous some days and sends everyone the same way to the freeway, causing backups long enough to overheat several cars along the stretch. On the upside, this gridlock occurs right along the ocean cliffs. So, yes, you may be broken down but it sure is pretty.

Crissy Field is another well-known landmark in the Presidio. It has beachfront and nature walks as well as Sports Basement, Planet Granite, and House of Air, a former airplane hangar now filled with trampolines. This is also where the city has decided to reclaim 10 acres of land, moving the western connection to the Golden Gate and reuniting Crissy Field with Main Post. A lot of debate over future use of this space has made the news recently; in particular, our loss of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art to Chicago. For now, it’s a bit complicated to get to Crissy Field, and in my experience residents of the Presidio go there about as often as anyone else in the city.

Perhaps I have spent so much time defending the Presidio as a legitimate neighborhood that I’ve convinced myself to be more enamored with it than it deserves. It’s way out of the way, it’s on the foggy side of town, and it’s a 20-minute walk each way for me to get to a tiny corner market. It’s lovely to visit but living here isn’t for everyone; it probably isn’t for most people. Yet, if you’re willing to walk a little further or ride a little longer, life in the Presidio can offer you days of history and wildlife and nights falling asleep to the yips of coyotes and the smell of the Pacific.

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