Missing Middle Housing Urban Design Walkability

Calling a Duplex Home

One of the most memorable places I’ve called home was a Missing Middle duplex. Here’s why I loved it.

It’s been almost a year since I moved out of the stacked duplex I shared with friends in San Francisco, but I haven’t gone a month without running into one of my neighbors somewhere in the city. This isn’t to say that San Francisco is small, but that my neighborhood made it easy to make friends. I’ve lived in a detached house in the suburbs and a high-rise in the central city, but I’ve never known my neighbors as well as when I lived in the Missing Middle.

The top floor of an attached Victorian duplex in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood was my home until my commute to Berkeley finally pulled me to cross the Bay and take up residence in Oakland last year. Like most San Francisco buildings, ours had a bay window with views of downtown to the north and glimpses of sunsets over Twin Peaks to the west, fog notwithstanding. By quirk of our lot’s steep topography, entering from the front stairs meant climbing two flights, while descending to our backyard required only half as many steps.

Inside, a central corridor provided circulation between two bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, and kitchen that made up the original structure of the house. Long before we moved in, another bedroom, a laundry room, and an outdoor patio were added off the kitchen. Our 1,100 square feet were snug, but high ceilings and tall windows kept our apartment feeling more spacious than it was. Nineteenth-century details and millwork imparted a sense of whimsical sophistication; plaster cherubs in the corners of the living room crown molding surveyed the room with equal parts benevolence and menace.

Out front, my street was lined with leafy dooryards and down-market versions of the iconic San Francisco-style stoops seen in the Painted Ladies on Alamo Square, and on sunny evenings it was impossible to walk down the sidewalk without waving to neighbors out tending their gardens or watching the world go by from their stoops.

The stoop opening our building (left) to the street.

My neighbors came from many different walks of life. Two of my next-door neighbors were looking forward to retiring, while across the street a new family had moved in just in time for the birth of their first child. The carriage house behind me was occupied by a newly married couple who worked at tech firms downtown, religiously attended Burning Man, and dazzled the neighborhood with photos of exotic travels. Meanwhile, the couple next door ran a promotional products business from their home and could frequently be found modeling prototype products in their garage. We spent our days differently, but we all came home to the same neighborhood.

To one side of our house was our building’s near twin, another stacked duplex whose occupants frequently lent us power tools and gardening equipment whenever we got ambitious enough to undertake a repair project or tame the garden. To the other side was a single-unit house and carriage house accessed via a side alley. You wouldn’t have to walk far along our block to stumble upon more duplexes, a fourplex or two, and even a small multiplex. If you made it all the way to the park at the end of the block, you’d find a street corner with a tiny organic grocer, the local greasy spoon, and a fine-dining restaurant whose virtuoso young chef lived just a couple doors down from me in a triplex.

The local street corner, a center of neighborhood activity.

On rare warm evenings, my housemates and I might share a drink with neighbors on our adjacent stoops, but the exchanges I valued the most were the quick conversations struck up as I passed a neighbor on the sidewalk or walked out of my door at the same time as my downstairs neighbor was walking up the steps of our shared stoop. These brief hits of neighborliness provided a quick uplift to my days and made it possible to keep up-to-date about the goings-on in the neighborhood without having to check a website or dig through an email listserv.

My eclectic neighbors weren’t just eyes on the street; they became friends who opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the world. The variety of building types and unit sizes on my street made it possible to share the sidewalk with young tech whizzes and retired, working-class pensioners alike—both had found a place they could afford and that suited their needs at that stage of their lives.