Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...

Streetwise: A COVID-era Childhood

by Frank Dunnigan
March 2021

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

For 12 full months now, all our lives have been turned upside down by Covid-19. Yet as a retiree, I'm grateful that my own personal daily routine-unlike school students and their families-still bears some strong similarities to pre-Covid days. Activities such as morning coffee, newspaper reading (both paper and electronic) plus errands, socially distant volunteerism, reviewing the mail (again, both paper and electronic), plus various forms of communication with family and friends all remain firmly in place, just as they were in the past.

So while we might be missing out on some large gatherings (my 50th high school reunion at St. Ignatius, scheduled for last year, remains on hold indefinitely and many friends have been celebrating significant birthdays without much in the way of festivities), many of us have been fortunate not to have been as impacted nearly as much as some others.

I began thinking about what it is like for the kids of today whose daily schedules, recreation, and social interaction with others have been far more restricted than my own-and how they are missing out on many of the things that we once took for granted. With many schools now into a hybrid plan of distance learning on some days and in-person lessons on others, things are beginning a very gradual return to normal.

Growing up in the past, most of us enjoyed classroom instruction at an early age and on a daily basis. As we grew older, we all expanded our study abilities by using the resources of the San Francisco Public Library, with branches scattered across every neighborhood. It was easy to stop in and get suggestions from the helpful staff-particularly in an era when branches were open from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. five days a week and for a full day every other? Saturday. When libraries closed, many felt that digital access would be an acceptable substitute source of information. However, it's far too easy to go off on a tangent while trying to undertake online research. In my own school days, I was usually able to get what was needed at a local SFPL branch (Parkside, West Portal, Merced, or Sunset) and get back home in short order. Today, when I research an item on-line (fact-checking a single date or place-name for a WNP article, for example), I'm more than likely to wander off for hours, clicking links onto some history blogs, photo sites, weather and stock market updates, breaking news, or perhaps even some new recipes for those boneless, skinless chicken breasts that everyone seems to have for dinner night after night. Today, a simple online fact-checking exercise can burn up an entire afternoon for me.

Cool, quiet interior of Parkside Branch Library, 1959., 1959 -

We always enjoyed the option of visiting the homes of friends after school and doing homework together-with different sets of parents to help out. This availability has now been curtailed for many because of social distancing. There's always texting and phone calls, but just as things were back in the dark ages of the 1960s, questions about algebraic equations often evolve into hour-long discussions about "you'll never believe what I heard..." At least today's kids mostly have their own, so there are no more parental shouts of "I'M GIVING YOU JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES TO GET OFF THAT PHONE"-in a multi-person, one-telephone household from the past.

In the past, daily recreation often involved bike-riding throughout the City (the standard parental reminder was "be home before the streetlights come on"), but today there are some serious safety concerns about younger kids venturing too far from home on their own-witness, for example, the long lines of parent-driven vehicles in drop-off and pick-up lines when elementary, middle, and high schools are operating with in-person learning. For many kids today, recess often involves backyard games with siblings or a brisk walk around the block.

Young boy in auto ride at Playland at the Beach. Chutes ride in background., circa 1940 -

Weekend activities might have included free visits to the Zoo, Aquarium, Planetarium, and museums like the Legion of Honor and the deYoung-though that began to change in 1970 when admission fees were introduced. The loss of Sutro Baths in 1966, Fleishhacker Pool in 1971, and Playland-at-the-Beach in 1972 also marked the end of many popular entertainment venues for young and old alike.

In spite of numerous neighborhood parks and playgrounds many young people preferred playing with neighborhood friends right on the streets of their own block. Whether it was hide-and-seek, ball games, jump rope, jacks, or chalk drawing, kids managed to develop a certain sense of freedom while still remaining in view of watchful adult eyes. The influx of parked vehicles on neighborhood streets has diminished this activity considerably from the past.

View east past grassy circle with boys playing baseball, their bicycles nearby. From "At Home in San Francisco," published as part of the Social Studies Series by the Elementary School Department., circa 1949 - San Francisco Unified School District

Likewise, schoolyards that remained open on afternoons and weekends offered safe places for children to play away from traffic. Many of these sites began to be shuttered out of liability concerns in past years, but in the current era, a new spirit of cooperation has emerged with a joint partnership between the City and County of San Francisco, San Francisco Unified School District and Community Partners. Read more here: https://www.sfusd.edu/sharedschoolyard

[Recreation & Parks] Girls playing volleyball. View east to 24th Avenue., 1940s -

The ultimate ticket to freedom in the past was the 50-cent Muni car ticket which was good for 10 rides (even more if you placed your thumb firmly over a couple of the punches on a well-used ticket). Today, Muni fares for youth ages 5 to 18 are $1.25 per ride or an unlimited Clipper Card rate of $40-well beyond the per-ride cost of 5 cents in the past. In addition, Muni service has been significantly reduced in the era of Covid, thus limiting easy access to some destinations.

Skating-ice or roller-was also a popular activity in the past, with many venues easily accessible by MUNI. Skateland for roller skating was conveniently adjacent to Playland-at-the-Beach. Until 1966, there was ice skating at Sutro's, and for much longer at the SF Ice Arena on 48th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton, as well as lessons offered by Phyllis and Harris Legg at two locations: Ocean Avenue in the Ingleside plus at 11th & Market Streets. Listen to Outsidelands Podcast #331 about the SF Ice Arena that operated from the 1920s to the 1990s: https://www.outsidelands.org/podcast/WNP331_48th_Ave_Rink

Finally, who can forget the long weekend afternoons when kids could be hunkered down and out of the fog at a neighborhood movie house? This was back in the day when a few dimes were enough to cover admission AND snacks.

In retrospect, I'm convinced that home schooling like it's done today would NEVER have succeeded in my family or in the homes of friends and neighbors when I was growing up, even if the electronics had been available. One thing is for sure-my Mom would NEVER have been able to teach Math at any level. English, Reading, History, Spelling were her strong suits and she would have excelled there. Whenever she was forced to help out with homework involving fractions, decimals, or equations, her standard answer was: "Ask your father when he gets home-I was absent the day they taught all that in school".

Dad, on the other hand, might have been the better choice for Math or Science, but he seriously over-analyzed any writing assignment-suggesting in-depth research and analysis for a simple 100-word essay. These were some of the challenges to be faced when asking my parents for help with schoolwork-though in the end it turned out be an important lesson for me in finding alternate solutions for any situation.

I have to offer a hearty salute to the kids of today-and most certainly to their parents as well-for navigating the challenges of school, recreation, and social life in very different ways from what any of us ever experienced.

Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!

Page launched 28 March 2021.

More by Frank Dunnigan

Save SF History