A gourmet ghetto

Although Noe Valley has become quite tony in the past decade, the neighborhood’s commercial district seems to be developing a slight case of schizophrenia, at least in the matter of comestibles. On one hand, chic little food shops abound, selling fancy cheeses, coffee, gelato, baked goods, and wine — but on the other, there is an area of darkness at the center of things, on the main drag between Noe and Sanchez streets.

On the south side of 24th Street, we find the corpse of the Real Food Company, which unceremoniously shut down in August 2003. The empty building has lain there ever since, dark and silent, windows papered over. The occasional bit of buzz suggests fresh permits have been taken out or workers have been seen inside, but these are like Elvis sightings. People are becoming inured to them, while the building sinks slowly into slumdom. There are rumors that the building’s new corporate owners plan to tear it down and replace it with something more up-to-date, with housing on the upper levels, but if that is the plan, the powers-that-be should note that it’s already been tried a few doors to the west, with a (so far) conspicuous lack of success: unoccupied apartments above blank storefronts.

Across the way, meantime, Bell Market continues to twist in the wind. Last August it was announced that Kroger, the store’s parent company, had agreed to sell the store (and most of its Cala-Bell siblings) to its former owner. The deal was to close in December. In mid-December, an employee told me that the closing would occur in January or maybe February. My neighbor said she’d heard it would be in March. Now the Noe Valley Voice is reporting (in its February issue) that the sale of the 24th Street store (though not of the others) has fallen through altogether. Details are vague but seem to have to do with the lease term — Kroger’s control of the property lapses in 2009. That’s a pretty tight window for a new owner trying to rejuvenate a business.

It’s possible that someone has plans for the site that don’t include an aging supermarket building and a homely, if useful, parking lot out front. But there is much to be said for neighborhood grocery stores, which, if nothing else, don’t have to be driven to — driving being, in the city, a drag.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com