Historical Overview

For thousands of years today’s southeastern-most San Francisco neighborhood was inhabited by Native Americans who hunted in the hills and fished in the nearby bay. But after the July 2, 1777 “discovery” and naming of Visitacion Valley by Spanish priests and soldiers en route to the Presidio, the land was taken over by the Catholic Church and used to graze herds of livestock. In 1835 the now-Mexican government took back the land and began making grants to prominent Californios. One such grant, the Rancho Cañada de Guadalupe, La Visitacion y Rodeo Viejo, was awarded to Jacob Primer Leese, a trader from Ohio married to a sister of the powerful General Mariano Vallejo.

After 1848 and the American annexation of former Mexican territory acreage began to be sold off. Among the earliest landowners in Visitacion Valley were Francois Pioche, whose “French Gardens” nursery specialized in growing roses for sale, and Henry Schwerin, a German whose extensive acreage supported a dairy farm, a nursery specializing in ferns and tulips, and honey bees. Other Europeans, including numerous Italians and Maltese, established truck farms irrigated by windmills, leading to the area’s nickname of the “Valley of the Windmills.”

Unidentified man working in a garden in Visitacion Valley. n.d. San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, San Francisco Public Library. AAC-1609.

By the 1870s business had come to the Valley – Ralston’s silk ribbon factory; several breweries, including Mission Brewery, noted for its steam beer; two quarries; a gas plant; a fertilizer company; and the Southern Pacific Railroad, which filled in the bay for its tracks and tunnels. Schlage Lock was a major employer between 1925 and 1999, and Silvestri’s statuary has been a business neighbor since the 1960s. The Five, Six and Seven Mile houses offered lodging and recreation. With business came transportation, evolving from the original one-track streetcars that cost 5 cents each way, to the Muni buses that replaced them, to the light rail system’s T-line that has its southern terminus at Bayshore and Sunnydale.

In 1905 the Reis-Paul Tract sold $125 lots throughout the Valley for $1 down and $1 a week. Sunnydale was erected for World War II defense workers, and Joseph Eichler’s 1960s plan for luxury housing in two high-rises evolved into Section 8 housing at Geneva Towers, imploded in 1998. Churches include the Catholic Church of the Visitacion, replacing the six-acre estate of Peter Burnett, California’s first governor, and subsequently the San Francisco Auto Camp; St. James Presbyterian, remodeled by Julia Morgan, the Hearst Castle architect, in 1923; and Valley Baptist on Raymond, erected in 1919. Both the Visitacion Valley Community Center, spearheaded by Florence Friedman, and the John King Senior Center continue to meet a variety of neighborhood needs.

Today’s residents are proud of our new branch library, once consisting of only a few shelves in the drugstore on Leland, and the six greenways that spill down the hillsides on former water department lots. The revitalization of the neighborhood, named in 2000 by the Fannie Mae Foundation as one of the ten “Just Right” urban markets in the entire U.S., continues.