The Portola District is one of those great, overlooked neighborhoods of San Francisco, beyond the city known to tourists, big business, and suburbanites. Collectively, these districts are known as the "Outside Lands," i.e. lying outside of the footprint of the 19th century city. This doesn't mean that nothing happened in Portola before 1900: the Southern Pacific and Ocean Shore railroads passed nearby, corrals housed cattle and sheep bound for Butchertown down on Islais Creek, and several major welfare institutions first located there, like the Magdalen Asylum. Farms spread across nearby hills and valleys, while dozens of greenhouses supplying cut flowers to the city sprang up in the Portola, taking advantage of its sunny clime and verdant springs. Many of these activities persisted until very recently.
The Portola, like the rest of the Outside Lands, filled in with houses over the course of the 20th century. The Portola was an early type of suburb, with a majority of single-family homeowners and its own shopping district along San Bruno Avenue. It was a mostly working class neighborhood occupied by first and second generation
Americans of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Maltese extraction. If they didn’t work in neighborhood businesses, family members went off to work on the docks at India Basin or Hunters Point, in the factories and warehouses stretching down to Bayview, or in the shipping and produce centers on the former Islais Creek marshes.
The Portola continued to change along with the wider city of San Francisco. Highway 101 cut the neighborhood in two in the 1950s. Its dominant ethnicity is now Asian, including Chinese and Filipinos. Younger people moving in are as likely to commute to work on the Peninsula as to jobs downtown. New infill housing, echoing older building styles, has sprung up on former nursery sites. New schools and businesses occupy former orphanages and an immigration station, but the district maintains its homey and unpretentious nature. It's a good place to live.