Salim Nasser, 60, stands behind the counter at the New Star-Ell Liquors, talking up a storm with one of his regular customers – a young woman kitted out in bright yoga tights and a hoodie – who has stopped by to purchase a bottle of Napa Valley cabernet. Nasser is dressed in a blue polo shirt and tan pants, his receding gray hair only serving to highlight his dark eyes that have seen decades of change, and a moustache-adorned smile that springs to life once he gets to know you.
Located on the corner of Divisadero Street and Fell Street, New Star-Ell Liquors has been a neighborhood fixture since the 1950s, although Nasser and his brothers only took over in 1985. The store’s shelves are lined with bottles upon bottles of cabernet sauvignons, pinot noirs, malbecs and zinfandels in a range of prices. These give way to multiple coolers stocked with chardonnays, Belgian ales and California IPAs. “We used to stock baby food and diapers, but we’ve changed along with our clientele,” Nasser reveals. “As a family-run store, that’s easy to do.”
When Nasser and his brothers first started out, this now-thriving stretch between Haight Street and McAllister Street was an unremarkable thoroughfare between the city’s Castro and Lower Pacific Heights neighborhoods, lined mostly with commercial retailers, nail salons and a bevy of barbershops catering to a community of mostly lower-income families. “Back then the surrounding community was filled with a lot of people who’d never even been outside of San Francisco – not even across the bridge to Oakland. And many of them used to shop on credit,” Nasser says.
These days, however, Nasser’s patrons consist more of post-college transplants who have flocked to the Bay Area from like cities like Austin, Phoenix and New York for the thriving tech scene, and are trying to decide between buying a six-pack of Dogfish Head Chicory Stout or artisanal beer brewed from sorghum rice. Outside, the street’s historic two- and three-floor Victorians – a mix of ground-level businesses and upper-floor flats – remain, though most have been spruced up with new multi-colored paint jobs highlighting their decorative trim. Sandwiched between them are standalone Art Deco buildings and former car repair shops, now housing gourmet specialty markets and Italian eateries.
We’ve always known all our customers and it’s always been a community. Now, that old-school vibe is still here, but the neighborhood itself has come a long way
DIVISADERO CORRIDOR, AS IT’S FREQUENTLY DUBBED THESE DAYS, is an area spread out across various neighborhoods in the city. The street separates the indie-inspired NoPa (North of the Panhandle) District from the increasingly smaller Western Addition neighborhood, and is often lumped in with one or the other – depending on how long you’ve lived in the city. For years it’s remained one of San Francisco’s under-the-radar commercial enclaves, a place that somehow avoided the late 1990s tech bubble and has been slowly and steadily honing its chops over much of the recent startup boom. Now, it’s seemingly unstoppable.
“People used to ask me, ‘Where is your store?’ When I’d tell them it’s at Divisadero Street, they’d immediately think north of Grove Street, which had a really bad reputation. It’s only a few blocks away, but there’s a difference,” Nasser says. “We’ve always known all our customers and it’s always been a community. Now, that old-school vibe is still here, but the neighborhood itself has come a long way.”
For some San Francisco residents, present-day Divisadero Corridor’s mix of old-and-new reminds them of what a large swath of the city was like 25 years ago. Old stalwarts like Comix Experience, the city’s oldest graphic novel shop, and Cookin’, a beloved institution overflowing with recycled culinary wares, share its blocks with newer, independently owned specialty stores – the kinds of places where you can peruse origami-inspired folding kayaks, vintage Benetton sweaters and artisan tea towels. While neighborhood barbershops like Chicago II and no-frills nail salons like the Vietnamese-owned Sunflowers Nails remain, you’ll also find brand-new boutique counterparts – where straight-razor shaves come with a tumbler of whiskey and plush pedicure chairs are more akin to thrones.
Then there are the slew of great bars and restaurants. Local landmarks like Eddie’s Café – a cozy breakfast and lunch eatery known for its unorthodox collection of coffee mugs – and Club Waziema, which serves up Ethiopian dishes in a space leftover from the nearby Fillmore District’s jazz days (in fact, the establishment still has the stage where acts like Billie Holiday and Tina Turner once performed), still hold court in the area. And just a block or two down, the buzzing Bar Crudo oyster bar keeps customers coming with its fresh seafood plates, and butcher-run 4505 Burgers & BBQ – with its alluring covered patio and perfectly smoked meats – draws crowds that include the likes of acclaimed food guru Anthony Bourdain.
I love how central it is – you can get anywhere in the city from here
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA NATIVE JENNIFER KWOK is one of the neighborhood’s new wave of residents. Like many of Divisadero Corridor’s lifelong locals, she isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Kwok moved to the area around Divisadero Corridor in 2009, shortly after graduating from college. At the time, many of her friends were concerned. “They asked me why I’d decided to move there, knowing that it wasn’t a good place to walk around at night,” she says. “But I could see the neighborhood changing. It was still affordable, and I love how central it is – you can get anywhere in the city from here.”
In fact, Divisadero Corridor is only a block west from one of San Francisco’s top tourist attractions: Alamo Square Park, which overlooks the city’s iconic row of Painted Ladies Victorian and Edwardian houses. Still, says Kwok, the recent changes are twofold: “It’s so much safer here now, but at the same time, I can’t walk outside in my sweats anymore. There are people Instagramming everywhere!”