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Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Some Defining Western Moments

by Frank Dunnigan
March 2011

All of us recall certain moments in our lives—situations or events that stick with us as indelible place-markers in the continuum of time and space. Some things, like the death of John F. Kennedy or the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, will always provoke "Where were you when…" discussions. There are also similar indicators in our neighborhood history: this was before such-and-such happened, and that was after. In the Western Neighborhoods, a handful of events in my lifetime will always mark certain passages of time. They are presented here in no particular order:

Playland at the Beach—For many of us, the ultimate demarcation line in the sands of time was the demolition of Playland in 1972. Gone forever was a favored spot of our youth, along with the sounds of the roller coaster, bumper cars, and the diving bell, plus the smell of popcorn, It's It, and dinners at the Hot House—all set against the background of salt air. Along with the 1971 closure of Fleishhacker Pool (so big that it was patrolled by lifeguards in rowboats), those were dark days for all San Franciscans of that era.

Diving Bell ride at Playland, early 1970s. Originally displayed at 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exhibition. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Stonestown—The original shopping mall was opened in July of 1952 with a branch of the Emporium, the Red Chimney Restaurant, and Foster's Cafeteria. Along with dozens of smaller stores, the mall transformed the retail industry in San Francisco forever. The change was particularly hard for those small merchants selling men's and women's clothing and hats on nearby West Portal, most of whom closed up in the face of bigger competition. Just outside the East entrance of the Emporium, there was even a cab stand, with a direct-line telephone beneath a yellow metal hood, for convenience in summoning a taxi. All of that changed circa 1984 when a massive demolition and rebuilding project began, creating the Stonestown Galleria by the Fall of 1986. Complete with Nordstrom and the requisite food court, it's nice, but there was something about those raised brick planter boxes at the old outdoor Stonestown Mall—the tiny manicured patches of lawn, wrought iron fencing and spring flowers were particular welcome to exploring toddlers in the 1950s.

MUNI Fares—During my high school years, those 50-cent student "car tickets", each good for 10 MUNI rides, got me back and forth all over San Francisco. Even for full-paying adults, the fare remained a steady 15 cents from 1961-1969. Since then, the cost of a streetcar or bus ride has been in an ever-upward spiral: to 20 cents in 1969, to 25 cents in 1970, to 50 cents in 1980, to 60 cents in 1982, to 75 cents in 1986, to 85 cents in 1988, to $1 in 1992, to $1.25 in 2003, to $1.50 in 2005, to $2.00 in 2009, with a $5 tab for cable cars.

Nineteenth Avenue—Grandma moved to 21st Avenue back in 1937 when the #17 streetcar still ran along 20th Avenue all the way into downtown. The year she moved there coincided with the widening of 19th Avenue to 3 lanes in each direction. Dad was happy about this when he was out driving, but who could have imagined the constant traffic that would one day fill that street? One of the first civic changes that I recall vividly, circa 1953-54, was the installation of the street's NO LEFT TURN signs. The route to Grandma's house had always been up 19th from Vicente, then left onto Quintara to 21st. Dad pointed out the signs to me, and as we meandered around the block to go west, I wondered aloud, "Who did that and why?" and I've been questioning change ever since.

1957 earthquake damage along Lake Merced Boulevard, March 22, 1957 -

1957 Earthquake—The biggest one in a good many years. Grandma always talked about 1906, and my other grandmother, who came to California in 1907 from Colorado, always remembered the last big aftershock of 1906 that occurred in 1911, the year that she and Grandpa were married. One of the most memorable news photos from 1957 quake showed a store in Stonestown that had a display of dining room furniture in the window, and during the shaking, two sheets of plate glass separated for an instant, and a section of tablecloth became stuck between the panes, most of it inside, but with and a good 12 inches hanging outside.

Traffic Lights—It seems that the traffic light has stayed the same for generations, but there were once so-called "birdcage" traffic lights in San Francisco that had horizontally placed red and green lights and an gong that sounded as a large internal sign above the lights rotated from STOP to GO (see example at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wiley_birdcage_traffic_signal_SFRM.JPG). Once present throughout the City, the last of them disappeared from Market Street in the late 1950s, ushering in a whole new age.

Snow Day in SF—Who can forget Sunday, January 21, 1962 when snow fell in San Francisco? Oldsters recalled previous significant snowfalls in 1951 and 1932, but prior to that, not since the late 1880s, while the flurries of 1976 and 2011 were no match for 1962. We were all out of the house in a flash that morning, building snowmen on the front lawns for the first and only time in our lives. Somewhere, if I dig deeply enough, I'll find the 8mm home movies that Dad took of all the kids on 18th Avenue building a snowman on the Greenblat's front lawn that morning, and see if Woody can make it into a History Minute.

1960s Fox West Coast renovation of the Parkside Theatre as seen in 1980. -

Parkside Theater—It was circa 1965 or so that the big red neon PARKSIDE sign that had dominated the neighborhood for decades was dismantled, only to be replaced with a large plastic sign with orange block letters, back-lit by fluorescent tubes, announcing "Fox Parkside". It was the beginning of the end for that grand old movie palace, which closed once and for all in 1980.

Vicente Variety—The closure of that tiny neighborhood store (see STREETWISE, August 2009) in the late 1960s and the later closure of nearby Vicente Begonia Gardens (to be replaced by an apartment block) marked the beginning of the end for many small neighborhood businesses. Places like gas stations, shoe repair shops, hardware stores, the men's and women's clothing stores that used to line West Portal, along with small neighborhood institutions like Daylight Market on West Portal, Rite Spot on Taraval, Reis Brothers' Pharmacy at 18th & Taraval, Overland Pharmacy at 21st, and many others that simply could not compete against the big chain stores. People are now thrilled to think of a West Portal Avenue with Starbuck's, Walgreen's, Charles Schwab, and the like as being small and neighborly. They have no idea of what it used to be like when Supervisor James Sullivan ran his real estate-insurance office, with our old family friend Theresa sitting in the front window typing, as his little Cairn terrier Tippy had the run of the whole place, or Ronnie, the man who used crutches to walk, but was still able to make a living running a photo shop, or Sam Farace, who taught accordion in a ground-floor studio adjacent to the old Rennie's liquor store.

S.I. on 37th Avenue—September of 1969 marked the beginning of what most of us old fogies still refer to as the "new" school. It's now almost 42 years old, and surpasses the longevity of any of S.I.'s previous sites (two on Market Street, Hayes & Van Ness, the Shirt Factory at Hayes & Shrader, plus Stanyan Street). That first year, when things were still under construction, we had an accelerated daily schedule of 8:10 to 1:20 with no lunch. Only the faculty residence and the classroom building were finished then, and by the end of the year, the Commons and the Little Theater were open, so even today, the interior hardly feels like a place that I know. In spite of some westward expansion, the exterior seems relatively unchanged, though, I have to acknowledge the fact that nearly 10,000 students have trooped through those halls since the last time that I raced around in there, worrying about Father Morgan's Trigonometry final exam and who I was going to ask to the Senior Prom.

Fast Food—Doggie Diner and its presence since the 1960s notwithstanding, it was sometime in the 1970s, when the whole issue of national fast food franchises became a hot political topic (P-Rose, any recollections here to start a new thread?). The unions, which effectively controlled San Francisco politics at the time, were dead-set against the City approving any permits for McDonald's, Jack-in-the-Box or the like. The A&W outlet, that was the Friday night watering hole for a generation of SF high school students was just over the line in Daly City at the northeast corner of Lake Merced and John Daly (then Alemany) Boulevards. San Francisco's hard-line attitude finally fell, and I can remember when A&W opened its first San Francisco outlet, circa 1975, at Hallidie Plaza adjacent to Bank of America where I worked at the time. Downtown dining, particularly during the workday, was never again the same, with tablecloths and other amenities beginning to vanish from the scene.

Twin Peaks Tunnel—Certainly a notable engineering and architectural achievement when it was opened in 1918, the West Portal façade underwent a radical transformation circa 1976 in preparation for MUNI's new Metro cars. As those last pieces of concrete fell, I could think only of the Christmas decorations that used to transform the tunnel entrance into a fireplace back in the 1950s. An era suddenly passed for West Portal neighbors and merchants, and all those once ubiquitous tinsel decorations that the City used to hang from the overhead MUNI wires were destined to disappear next. It also seemed, from the day that the new station opened, that the tunnel became an incredible bottleneck in the whole MUNI system, as outbound trains laboriously entered the new West Portal station after a slow speed crawl from Forest Hill. The horrendous crash that took place there in July of 2009 just reinforced the fact that something here remains amiss.

West Portal entrance of the Twin Peaks Tunnel, 1918, 1918 -

Public Library hours—There was a time when civic-run libraries throughout the U.S. had normal operating hours of 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s (they said that it was "Prop 13 cutbacks"), libraries in San Francisco started maintaining a patchwork quilt of hours. You never know whether or not a particular one will be open on any given day or how late you might be able to visit. What a change from my high school and college days in the 1960s and early 1970s when the neighborhood libraries of Sunset, Parkside, and West Portal were veritable homes away from home at term paper time!

Architectural sketch of Steinhart Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences. - San Francisco Examiner

Academy of Sciences—I like the new Academy of Sciences, particularly after seeing the incorporation of many of the old architectural artifacts (plaster walrus heads, seahorse railing around the alligator) in the new building. It's a bit overwhelming at first, but maybe that's deliberate in order to encourage return visits to see more—not unlike the feeling that one experiences at Disneyland. Although I'm still reserved about the new deYoung, its exterior copper walls are now weathering and beginning to look a bit softer and more attractive in the Park. That underground garage gets my biggest thumbs-up vote of approval.

Outdoor plantings—In the early 1970s, several local groups pushed for tree planting in the Western Neighborhoods. Many of these projects were successful, even if some of the tree choices were not quite right for their location, resulting in buckled sidewalks and large bushy trees that block sunlight from the front windows of some homes and apartments. Recently however, plans have been reviewed more carefully. My old block on 18th Avenue was planted with cherry blossom trees in the Fall of 1994, and they look particularly attractive each spring. I also noticed that there are planter boxes now being installed in the middle of the street along much of Noriega, and that there are being outfitted with a variety of plants and ornamental grasses that are looking very attractive.

MUNI Subway Extension—During my travels through downtown San Francisco recently, I noticed that the much-discussed "Central Subway" from Mission Bay to Chinatown is gearing up, with lots of street digging in the Union Square area for the relocation of utilities. I know that MUNI tries to keep up with changes, and if you have not seen the Mission Bay neighborhood (formerly the industrial area extending out Third Street, just past the Lefty O'Doul drawbridge) it definitely needs some sort of transit to link it with downtown proper. Planners even envision a future when the new line can be extended all the way to North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf. However, as I saw commuters still packing themselves onto buses at the beginning and the end of each work day, I found myself wondering why this particular north-south route was chosen. The #38-Geary, running from Market Street west through the Tenderloin, through the Richmond, and all the way out to Ocean Beach, remains MUNI's most heavily traveled route. It just seems that a subway line from downtown into the Richmond would serve far more people than the relatively short and very expensive line that is now under construction. With the Cliff House nearly 150 years old, folks have literally been beating a path from Market & Geary to the ocean for a long, long time, and can reasonably be expected to continue doing so—but maybe the planners hadn't noticed this. If Herb Caen were still with us, he and Woody would likely have teamed up, and we would be seeing that subway constructed as an east-west line, terminating above the old Sutro's, in a dark green barn-like structure, complete with a huge Coca-Cola sign, just like in the past.

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Page launched 29 March 2011.

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