The colorful murals of San Francisco’s Mission District

San Francisco’s Mission District is a neighborhood with a number of faces. It is at once gritty and unique, increasingly filled with shiny new businesses yet still retaining the vibrant Latino immigrant culture and scruffy charm for which it has always been known. As one walks the area, it’s easy to get a feel for these differences – pungent taquerias and Quinceanera dress shops increasingly back up against indie booksellers and sleek furniture stores.

No matter the changes, The Mission remains the center of a thriving community of Mexican and Central American immigrants, which continues to give the neighborhood a distinctly south-of-the-border flair. This is especially true of The Mission’s vibrant street murals, a tradition that is evident just about anywhere you look.

Murals have a long tradition in Mexican art, particularly in the context of the Chicano movement, which represented the struggles of Mexican Americans for social and politcal rights. Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera played a large role in the movement, painting large scale public art in cities such as San Francisco which depicted a variety of social and political themes.

Though Diego Rivera is long gone, the legacy of his work lives on to this day in The Mission. The casual visitor will find the streets bordered by 16th to 24th and Mission to Valencia are packed with an assortment of wildly colorful murals. While some are strongly tied to the traditions of Mexican mural painting, others are thoroughly modern in scope, referencing themes as diverse as video games, 60’s Psychedelia, Hip-Hop and modern New York graffiti tagging.

During a recent visit to San Francisco we took a closer look at some of the many public murals dotting the area. Take a look at the gallery below for a tour of the murals of the Mission District.


Undiscovered New York: Rambling Red Hook

Welcome back to Gadling’s weekly series, Undiscovered New York. Being the global metropolis that it is, criss-crossed with highways, cargo ships and landing airplanes, you may find it hard to believe that any part of New York City could be considered isolated. But the fact of the matter is that there are still some parts of the city that could easily be labeled “the place that time forgot.”

One neighborhood that holds such a distinction is Brooklyn’s Red Hook, a charmingly disheveled waterfront district cut off from the rest of the city by the BQE Expressway. Red Hook’s reputation as a working-class, hardscrabble industrial port area is well earned. From the mid 1800’s until the middle of the 20th Century, this was a thriving hub of marine-based commerce in New York City and home to around 20,000 residents, primarily longshoremen.

But by the mid 1960’s, a changing shipping industry had moved many dockworking jobs to New Jersey. The departure of these jobs from Red Hook, along with the completion of the BQE, sent the neighborhood into a period of decline. The 1970’s through the 1990’s saw the area ravaged by crime – LIFE Magazine even went so far as to declare it the “crack capital of America.”

Yet by the end of the 90’s Red Hook was taking a turn for the better. An influx of new residents, attracted by the neighborhoods cheap rents and gorgeous views of the New York Harbor were opening new businesses at a record pace. Recent years have seen further development, including a huge Fairway grocery store, the recent arrival of furniture behemoth IKEA, and a house for castmembers of MTV’s popular reality show The Real World.

Still, despite these changes, Red Hook maintains a unique charm unlike any other part of New York. Want to eat a chocolate covered Key Lime pie on a stick? How about taking in sweeping views of New York harbor and aging industrial relics? Click through for Undiscovered New York’s guide to Red Hook.
Red Hook Food
If there’s one thing that has New Yorkers talking about Red Hook, it’s the many unsung food spots. If you’re anywhere north of Key West, Red Hook is ground zero for some of the country’s best Key Lime pie at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies. This unassuming shop is nothing more than a small counter and a refrigerator with some freshly made slices of citrus-y heaven. If you simply can’t wait to try it, get yourself a swingle, which is a personal-size key lime pie on a stick covered in chocolate. Enjoy it outside on a picnic table while you take in some of New York’s best harbor views.

The other amazing food spot in Red Hook is the Red Hook ball fields, home to what is arguably New York’s most authentic collection of Central and South American cuisine. On weekends during the warmer months, the fields host lively soccer matches, and the competition is ringed on all sides by food vendors offering everything from mouth-watering ceviche to milky Horchata drinks to cheesy pupusas.

Van Brunt Street Strip
If lonely Red Hook could be said to have a main strip, it’s probably Van Brunt Street. A range of quirky and eclectic businesses crowd both sides of this thoroughfare, reinforcing Red Hook’s shifting reputation as a home for artists and artisans. LeNell’s is Red Hook’s liquor store and then some, stocking a diverse range of small-batch liquor and exotic mixers for the cocktail enthusiast. Meanwhile dessert specialist Baked offers a mouth-watering array of muffins, cakes and cookies. Those looking to discover their inner longshoreman should stop off for a pint at Sunny’s Bar, a proudly old-school local watering hole since 1890.

Urban Exploring
One of New York’s greatest forgotten pleasures is urban exploring. While there have been great benefits to the city’s gentrification, it’s also stripped away some of the quirky buildings and spaces that once gave the city its character. Red Hook still retains an essence of this “gritty” charm, and it can be amusing to get lost on its many deserted side streets and alleyways, revealing a number of deserted architectural relics. You might stumble upon the imposing Red Hook Grain Terminal, which looms ominously along the area’s waterfront. Or you may meander past the ancient Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse, a well-preserved Civil War-era factory that dates to 1859. Meanwhile, massive cruise ships drift by like lumbering giants as they inch their way into the nearby Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. It is perhaps bittersweet to note that one of Red Hook’s most iconic wrecks, the Revere Sugar Refinery, met the wrecking ball in 2007.

Band on the Run: Kitschy, Classy Drake Hotel is Toronto Arts Beacon

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

If the merging of kitsch and class together is on the agenda for a place to stay in Toronto, The Drake Hotel is perfect. Each room is unique. The furnishings are retro and modern combined. The artwork is compelling. There’s even an antique photo booth machine that shares a room with an electric saddle ride.

But we didn’t stay there.

Honestly, it’s a bit too pricey for the musician’s salary, but it’s one of those urban hotels that are worth splurging for on a special occasion because it would be a memorable and unique night’s stay. And, well, it’s a happening place in the city and surely the entertainment within its walls would be worth absorbing. This week, for instance, it’s one of the social hotspots for the Toronto International Film Festival. Well… there’s something.

(Which film stars will be riding in that saddle, I wonder?)


I was in Toronto this weekend for a jam party and some rehearsals. I love this city. I spent nine years living here up until 2004 and I still feel like it’s my urban home. The thing that has struck me so much since I left, however, has been the rapid changes that urban landscapes undergo. One of those changes is Queen Street West and its push towards upward mobility from artist and low-income eccentricity.

Gentrification. It’s heading west in Toronto. At least the eccentricity hasn’t been completely vacuumed away. The Drake is evidence of that fact.

Places like The Drake have popped up all along this stretch. It’s not as though this hotel wasn’t here when I lived in Toronto. In fact, it was a dive that most people I knew stayed away from. It has been around since 1890 and used to house the railroad workers that came into the city. In the eighties and nineties, it was a rough punk bar and just seemed like a seedy establishment that one hurried past if walking by late at night.

The current owner bought it in 2001, gutted the place and underwent several years of renovations before opening the space as an upscale hotel, lounge, rooftop restaurant and live music venue in the basement. Since it’s opened, the traffic to this part of the city has increased, as have the number of art galleries, cafes, and loft-dwellers in nearby newly constructed urban condos. It’s remarkable how quickly neighbourhoods transform.

Their website describes The Drake as “a democratic hub and cultural pathfinder, in the midst of a re-energized indie art gallery district.”

I can’t quite swallow the democracy here, since it’s out of many people’s price range if you’re not actually looking to stay, but I do concede that it’s a hub. It’s central to new growth and feels like a beacon of change. What’s more, it does unite rather well with the diversity of the neighbourhood as though its spot “in the midst” of so much art hasn’t been lost on the designers. They hang local artwork on the walls, have commissioned canvasses and expensive sculptural displays flanked by refurbished couches and squeaky vinyl diner stools. Indie musicians file through the basement venue while a sushi bar and yoga den take up the upper levels.

It’s definitely full of contradictions that succeed at representing a neighbourhood in the throws of change, on the cusp of new identities, on the eve of new beginnings without a desire to erase the past.

When I walked into The Drake this weekend to check out the second stage of renovations – I had been told that it had transformed into a more 30’s style kitsch look in the past year and I was curious – I spoke to the smiley front desk clerk about the hotel and its story. He seemed to smile out of every pore as he showed me the flyers and flashed white teeth in response to each of my questions. He had me smiling back, to be sure, but I wondered how happy he really was.

He spread his arms outwards to sweep in the whole of the building when he told me I was free to walk around and take pictures. Another grin and he went back to work without a word. In fact, no one seemed to mind my presence in the least. I felt a bit like a fly on the wall as I strolled into rooms I hadn’t been in for several years and took pictures and looked around. I listened in on a few meetings, a lover’s spat and a heated political discussion over a late lunch.

When I returned to the lobby, the smiling host looked up from his word asked if I had any other questions about the space and if I wanted to reserve a room. He explained that I wouldn’t be able to view one because they were all booked out (there are only 19 rooms), but he brought out room brochures that showed their diversity. As I mentioned, every room at The Drake is different. It’s not themed, per se, but several top designers were hired to design the rooms and each took a different approach. Some rooms have hardwood, some have carpeting, some have exposed brick walls and minimalist decoration and others have walls filled with unique art pieces. No art in the whole hotel is repeated, actually (sigh of relief) and each room boasts different furnishings, colours, layout and overall decorating style.

I looked at the brochures with genuine interest and told him that I’d be back in touch in the future. After all, anything’s possible.

Maybe, if nothing else, I’ll come back to socialize and get my picture taken in that old black and white booth.

Right after I’ve ridden in that saddle!