The Evolution of the Portola District
November 17th, 2016, marked the grand opening of the Portola’s Grocery Outlet. As neighbors strolled into the store some talked about the great deals they just received on their groceries, while others diverted their attention to the free tacos waiting for them outside. Across the store, a group of elderly women diligently inspected ears of corn and eggplants as they chatted away.
The opening of this full service grocery store was an event that Portola residents have long awaited. Its establishment is emblematic of the growth the Portola community has watched develop over the past decade, which is the most recent chapter of a century full of momentous change. From the Portola's legacy as the horticultural hub of San Francisco’s in the early 20th century, to the thriving days of the Avenue Theater before the introduction of the 101 freeway, and the more recent efforts to promote sustainable development -- the Portola continues to change and build on its historical identity. While new features are introduced to the community however, memories of the Portola's rich past dwindles as the neighborhood's older population grows thin.
It was on the day of the Grocery Outlet's grand opening that we had the pleasure of speaking with longtime resident and community activist, Barbara Fenech. Barbara remembers the Portola as a destination for immigrant families, including her own. Over the decades, the Portola has welcomed many culturally unique communities, which grew to serve recent transplants to San Francisco. Speaking of her own Maltese heritage, Barbara remembered, “We had a Maltese church and Maltese priests." She chuckled recounting "I think my parents might have even met at the Maltese picnic.” She showed us a black and white photo of a group of young people posing for a photo in her living room, distinguishing her parents. “It was supposed to be casual, but everyone dressed up!”
The establishment of small businesses run by immigrant families marked a milestone in the Portola’s development. In addition to the commercial nurseries, many other industries, storefronts and service providers thrived along San Bruno Avenue. Barbara’s father played an important role as a small business owner in the Portola. After working for several years with San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (today’s MUNI) as a painter and upholster, he established a small upholstery and appliance store in the 1940s.
“Where the Round Table Pizza is today was once my father’s furniture store, called Melita -- that’s the Venetian name for the island of Malta. If you go in the back of the Avenue Theater, that’s where furniture used to be delivered, from Burrows down DeLong. They eventually ended up selling appliances more than upholstery, but he couldn’t get any until after the war because everything was being sent over there.”
Growing up, Barbara recognized the role the greenhouses played in the economic vitality of the neighborhood, and the importance of horticulture within the community during the war. While the Fenech family didn't operate a commercial nursery themselves, Barbara saw the significance of agriculture within her own day-to-day life. As a child, Barbara watered crops in the victory gardens around her elementary school during the war and fondly remembers the fresh crops she could harvest (and eat) herself.
From a young age Barbara was exposed to the onset of change in the neighborhood that would follow World War II and the building of the 101 and 280 freeways in the mid 20th century. “The Portola was like a little city,” says Barbara. “We had three shoemakers and department stores. Everything was right here and we didn’t have to go downtown for anything. But when the freeways came, it cut us off from everything.” The freeways, in combination with changes in zipcodes and a downsurgence of the horticulture industry in the 1970s, isolated the Portola from San Francisco’s larger urban form.
Today, efforts to gain neighborhood cohesion and revitalize the Portola are lead by community activists such as Barbara. Her involvement in the Portola Neighborhood Association has distinguished her as a guardian of the community. “I’d really like to see a variety of shops on San Bruno Avenue”, she says, “instead of all the nail shops and restaurants.” Though many families have come and gone from the neighborhood in the past century, those who have stayed throughout the years serve as a reminder of the love residents can have for their community. A quote from Barbara perfectly sums up her devotion:
“All of my friends are here, so why would I want to move? It’s crazy here, but I love it.”
by Daniela Solis
Special thanks to Barbara Fenech for her insight into the history of the Portola and for generously sharing it with us!