The Outside Lands of San Francisco: Exploring the Richmond District

First held in 2008, a large festival and celebration of music, food, wine, beer, and art dubbed “Outside Lands” took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The increasingly popular annual gathering has continued to grow in scope with over 200,000 attendees over the 3-day period in recent years. Young people could be forgiven for thinking that this now-famous concert series was the origin of the term “Outside Lands.” However, it is not. Dating back to the 1800’s, the neighborhood today known as the Richmond District was referred to as the “Outside Lands” because it lay outside of the original San Francisco city boundaries established in 1850. Today’s Richmond District did not officially become part of San Francisco until 1866. The region originally was home primarily to the deceased, as there were few inhabitants but several cemeteries in the area. By 1888, a train line was established through the Outside Lands, taking San Francisco residents out to the recreational areas at Land’s End and the Sutro Baths that were completed several years later.

How the Richmond District Earned its Name

In the early days of the Outside Lands, the most prominent resident of the area was George Turner Marsh. Born in Richmond, Australia, Marsh was a successful businessman specializing mostly in Japanese imports and exports. At the corner of 12th Avenue and Clement Street, he built and elegant residence appropriately named, the “Richmond House.” The prosperity of Marsh’s business and the respectability his lavish home brought to the once sleepy area of the city clearly made an impact on his fellow residents. In 1890 the Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance 2309 which struck the name “Outside Lands” from the map and officially designated the area as the “Richmond District.”

The Playland Legacy at Ocean Beach

Virtually unknown to many of the recent transplants living in San Francisco today, there was a large and highly popular amusement park located at Ocean beach for several decades known as “Playland at the Beach.” Located at the end of a major streetcar line, the park enjoyed its heyday in the late 20’s, the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. In a nostalgic post reflecting on the era, author Christopher Newton wrote the following: “A traveler climbing aboard the B car heading downtown late on a weekend afternoon in the 1950s might find himself surrounded by packed-in black families from the Fillmore District. They were heading home tired, cranky and sandyfooted after a terrific cotton candy and enchiladas day. Latino families from the Mission, Irish and Italian families from the Richmond and Sunset districts, city teenagers mixed with teens from San Bruno all the way to San Mateo twenty miles down the brand new Bayshore Freeway, they were were hotfooting down the Midway, looking for fun, looking for thrills, looking for girls. On sunny days in September, Ocean Beach itself, across the Great Highway, was packed with families on blankets listening to big black portable radios or dabbling their toes in the ferociously cold surf.” By the late 1950’s, perhaps due to the opening of Disneyland or perhaps due to the changing demographics of San Francisco and the exodus of families to the suburbs during that era, Playland began to experience a slow but steady decline. By 1972 the park was no longer popular nor financially viable and was demolished to make room for a new development of condominiums.

The Richmond District Today

Today the Richmond District is home to a very prosperous Chinese-American community and is known by many as “New Chinatown.” With busy commercial arteries on Geary and Clement Streets, the area is home to some of the most highly rated Chinese restaurants in the city. The Richmond District also is known for its proximity to San Francisco’s urban parks such as Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Ocean Beach, and Baker Beach. While often overlooked by tourists visiting Union Square, Alcatraz, and other more famous San Francisco attractions, the Richmond District has lots to offer those ready to explore it.