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Project Utopia

Edited by Jenna Scatena | January 3, 2013 | Story Neighborhoods

NOT SO LONG AGO, neighborhoods were almost akin to designer brands—the label you chose defined who you were. Whether you lived in Pac Heights or in the Mission determined if a new acquaintance would keep talking to you or walk away. But as the housing crunch continues to squeeze San Francisco’s cache of affordable dwellings, many no longer have the luxury of choosing a neighborhood based on how it meshes with their persona. Now a neighborhood’s features (a park, a dive, a Trader Joe’s) are the deciding factor for many renters and buyers. “People used to ask me to find them an apartment in, say, the Marina, but now they say, ‘Find me a neighborhood that’s close to BART and has good restaurants and a gourmet grocer,’” says longtime local real estate agent Mary Macpherson.

The good news is that there is no shortage of multidimensional neighborhoods in the Bay Area: In the last year an explosion of microhoods have been upping their cool status. They offer the expected new attractions—restaurants, playground and park upgrades, alfresco caf├ęs—as well as those that transcend the status quo, like creativity laboratories and pop-up galleries.

If you find yourself waffling, it always helps to seek the opinion of strangers, so we polled 200 Bay Areans of various ages and backgrounds to ask: What makes your ideal neighborhood? We broke it down into essentials—affordability, walkability, safety, access to public transportation, and weather—and perks: bars, parks, shops, and culture. Then we asked responders to rank the importance of each quality. The responses were aggregated and then we set out in search of the Bay Area neighborhoods that most closely matched the pollees’ criteria (see the full list below). The answers, naturally, were not formulaic. It turns out that there’s a utopia for everyone—you just have to know where to look.

Two hundred Bay Area residents on what they want in a neighborhood.

Age range: 17 to 69 years
Median age: 29 years

With kids: 21%

Q: Which of these amenities are most important to you?

Yes, please!
Wine bar
Gourmet grocery store
Trader Joe's
Variety of ethnic foods
Hardware store
Clean streets and sidewalks

OK, sure.
Boutique shops
Dive bar
Cocktail bar
Cheese shop
Whole Foods

Day care center
Health clinic/doctor's office
Local festival
A little grit

Q: What qualities matter most to you?
(In order from most important to least important)

1. Affordability
2. Safety
3. Walkability to amenities
4. Public transportation
5. Proximity to work
6. Accesibility of nature
7. Culture (theater, art)
8. Parking
9. Good schools
10. Ethinc and economic diversity

And now, the Bay Area's 10 up-and-coming neighborhoods:
Ocean Beach: For a reminder that this is a beach town
Polk Gulch: For bustling nightlife (just don't call it the next Valencia)
Richmond Annex: For the no-strings-attached white picket fence
NoPa: Because it's the Mission 10 years ago
Uptown Oakland: For a nonstop art orgy
North Beach East: For Little Italy charm without the tourist kitsch
Mission Creek: Because it's the new locavore mecca
Hayes Valley: For a livable MoMA
Dogpatch: Because it's an urban laboratory
Burlingame Terrace: Because maybe Pleasantville isn't lame after all

Marin (an Apologia): Why nothing north of the Golden Gate made the cut

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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