A World Apart: the Outer Sunset

In San Francisco's sleepy, surf-centric neighborhood, it's the tough — and the entrepreneurial — who thrive
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May 19, 2015 | By Bryan Kitch

In San Francisco's ever-evolving discussion of gentrification, not even the farthest reaches of the city escape unscathed. In the Outer Sunset, foggy streets and sleepy, small-town vibes are making way for tech-industry boomers looking to live next to the water. Through it all, the Sunset surf culture — the heart of true, cold-water, NorCal surf — has kept on.

t’s different out there in the Outer Sunset, covered in dense fog and made up of line after line of two-story stucco homes along seemingly endless, treeless streets. It feels almost like a separate city from the rest of San Francisco. But it’s not different in the way you might expect.

In the 19th century, the Sunset District was a long way from the edge of town. It was a sparsely inhabited, rolling landscape of sand dunes, known only as the “Outside Lands.” Among the earliest modern settlements of the Sunset was Carville — so called because people had taken up residence in abandoned streetcars, which had been dumped in the sand. History shows that the area has always attracted a tougher breed of human; it’s as far away as you can get. And even though the days of Carville are long gone, the tougher breed still survives.

“This isn’t a good place to learn how to surf,” says San Francisco native and longtime surfer Matt Lopez. He should know; he learned here. Lopez grew up in San Francisco's North Beach area, but his stepfather was a surfer and soon had him out riding the waves along Ocean Beach. These days, it’s the neighborhood Lopez calls home.

“The waves here are short, the conditions are harsh, and the water is cold.”  Lopez feels like things might have warmed up a little since he was a kid, but it remains intimidating to the uninitiated. He and his friends eventually became known as "the groms," because "we were the only kids that surfed here."

These days, there are more than a few kids at Ocean Beach, as well as a large number of what the older generation of surfers might call “people who surf” rather than surfers. But there’s no denying that surf culture has grown tremendously. “Surfing in general is just getting exponentially more popular,” Lopez says. “There are just more and more people doing it. These days, people in San Francisco are finally realizing that there are waves here.” He explains: “You’d get these people who moved here and they’d surf the middle of the beach, because nobody surfed the middle. There’d be no one out. So they’re going, ‘I’m not going to go surf Kelly’s with all the locals who are gnarly dudes, I’m going to go find my own peak at, say, Pacheco Street.' And the waves turn out to be good, and they’re surfing them by themselves. Now, Pacheco is crowded. It’s crowded everywhere.”

Why? Because San Francisco is a boomtown. It rose to prominence during the Gold Rush. The dotcom boom of the late 1990s saw another spike in affluence and population. And now, Silicon Valley’s influence is felt everywhere. Yes, even in the Outside Lands.

Combine that with the enhanced media of today — high-resolution digital cameras and social networks, to start — and greater buying power, and you’ll understand why surfing has become much more accessible to a much wider audience. Despite what you might think from the midsummer weather, San Francisco is still located on the California coast, where mainland surfing originated. These days, even the techies want to catch a wave, but that doesn’t mean that the local influence is gone — instead, it has adapted, just as the Carville settlers adapted to their circumstances.

Enter Andy Olive, a friend of Lopez's since they were kids. “We met through surfing,” Olive says of Lopez. “Back when there was only one surf shop in the city, I worked there. Matt came in one day; he had the morning off school or something, and I was the first one of the kids our age who surfed to have a car. He came into the shop and somehow convinced me to cut my first class so I could take him surfing, because ‘this spot down the coast was going to be real good.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”

As we’re talking, Olive is printing shirts by hand and feeding them into a conveyor dryer. That’s because we’re standing in the back of the Outer Sunset San Franpsycho, the shop that he and co-founder Christian Routzen use as their screen-printing center on Noriega Street (there are two other locations in the city). What started as a series of short films back in the early aughts turned into San Franpsycho, a clothing company and lifestyle brand. 

In talking with Olive, you can tell he knows his city backward and foreward, not to mention almost everyone in his neighborhood. Makes sense, having lived here most of his life. “The demographic out here was a lot poorer,” Olive says, recalling his days as a kid trying to "get barreled" out on Ocean Beach. “Now, we’re seeing high-end strollers on the Great Highway,” he says with a laugh. “I think out here, it’s been affected a ton — I mean, it used to just be cheap and quiet, and small-town-ish, but now it’s turning into this pricey beach town.”

The changes aren’t all bad, though. The community of surfers that was here before the dotcoms and before Silicon Valley is making the most of what's happening in their neighborhood, and they’re helping each other to get it done.

Indosole, for example, found the storefront on Noriega that is now San Franpsycho. Routzen had met Kyle Parsons, the founder of Indosole — a company that imports handmade shoes and clothing from Bali, often made with recycled materials — while Routzen was working as a bartender in North Beach. "We started doing events together, like the Union Street Fair, the North Beach Festival. San Franpsycho started carrying Indosole's stuff, he started supporting us, and it just went from there."

Parsons had grown up on the East coast and initially moved to Tahoe before he made it all the way to the Bay Area. "I wanted to kind of grow up a little bit and then see what San Francisco had to offer," he says. After working as a sales rep in retail for a number of years, it was a trip to Bali in 2004 that kicked off the idea for Indosole. "I found a very cool pair of sandals that had a natural weave on the top and a tire tread as the sole. I thought it would be a cool product to source and launch as a brand on my own." Parsons started the business by running it out of a public storage locker. Today, it's an internationally recognized brand. The timing was just right.

Same goes for the early days of San Franpsycho. Back then, when the co-founders were in their early 20s, "all of our friends were sort of coming into their own," says Olive. "Like, one guy was the music manager for Red Bull, so he was able to get us these huge DJs for our parties that there was no way we’d have been able to afford otherwise. Other friends of ours opened a lounge and they were like, dude, throw parties here! So we were able to throw parties at a brand new club. It all fell into place.” 

It only goes to show that the community in the Outer Sunset is about more than just knowing people — it's about knowing the kinds of people who live out here.

The contemporary surf culture in the city is the product of a tight-knit community, a community of entrepreneurs. Much like their Silicon Valley counterparts, these surfers have found ways not only to continue to do what they love, but also to earn a living from it — something that probably wouldn’t have been possible at any other time in the city’s history. And it’s only gaining momentum. The Outer Sunset is no longer the sleepy home of artists and bohemians that people imagine; instead, it’s another shining example of people taking a risk to turn their passion into their work. 

After Routzen and Parsons became friends, they made the move together to the Outer Sunset to build their separate businesses. “We bonded over our entrepreneurship, really. Coming home from our day jobs, and talking about our businesses; how we were going to get started, playing off each other with ideas, connections, and all of that good stuff. It was a really good time for us to move to the Outer Sunset.”

A friend of mine once said, “A lot of surfing is waiting.” It’s true. Waiting, and carefully observing — anticipating that key moment. That way, when the wave does roll through, you’ll be ready to catch it. [H]

Bryan Kitch is a writer and artist living in San Francisco.
He prefers Vesuvio to Tosca, and believes there's no better way to spend a day than on a boat.
You can follow him on Twitter.

All images © Bryan Kitch