by Frank Dunnigan
Although I've lived outside the Outside Lands for more than a decade now, I still get back on a fairly regular basis for things like work, family, and friends. Yet, each time that I cross the Golden Gate Bridge and enter the Western Neighborhoods, I'm amazed at how many small things have changed so much over the past few years.
The first thing that I noticed coming off the bridge recently is that the turn-off for Park Presidio Drive—always cryptically called "Funston Avenue" on the highway signs—has been dramatically reconfigured, if only on a temporary basis. The Doyle Drive rebuilding project has produced some pretty twisty-turny sections of southbound roadway as traffic approaches the tunnel beneath the Presidio. You would think that with all the problems that CalTrans encountered on the so-called S-curve on the Bay Bridge earlier this year that the engineers working on this project might have tried harder to avoid a similar configuration. Bad as it is, though, the driving public seems to be taking it all in stride, moving along at a steady, albeit snail's pace through the area.
Finally reaching the Sunset-Parkside neighborhood after slugging along 19th Avenue and missing almost every signal, I was amazed to find just how many STOP signs have been installed on east-west side streets. At one point during my visit, I found myself navigating from Dewey Boulevard all the way out Taraval to the Great Highway, encountering along the way nineteen stop signs and two traffic lights (19th Avenue and also Sunset Boulevard), all presumably placed to slow traffic through the neighborhood. Well, they have succeeded nicely.
For my return trip, I thought to myself, "A-HA! I'll just take Vicente and avoid all those pesky stop signs." WRONG! Vicente, from Great Highway to Portola Drive now has—count them—20 stop signs and four traffic lights (Sunset Boulevard, 19th Avenue, West Portal, and Portola Drive)—making Vicente even slower than Taraval. Clearly, there is no longer an easy east-west route for drivers in the Sunset.
Spending the night at the comfortable Ocean Park Motel out there at 46th & Wawona (yes, you really CAN hear growling sounds coming from the Zoo on a quiet night), I was reminded of my huge old downstairs bedroom on 18th Avenue, with the "California stucco" walls. I had to smile when I saw the restored Doggie Diner head on a traffic island in the middle of Sloat Boulevard, since that smiling dachshund face used to point the way to fast food outlets all over the Western Neighborhoods (S.I. guys on Stanyan Street were frequent late-night customers of the Arguello-Geary location). The old Roberts-at-the-Beach Motel was looking particularly sad, now painted a depressing shade of weathered gray, and with a nearly empty parking lot. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was a lively place, painted a cheerful yellow with brown and green trim, the same color scheme as the classic Ford Fairlane station wagon from that era. Families visiting the Zoo or Fleishhacker Pool might make a weekend of it, staying at Roberts, while the dining room there also served as a popular neighborhood party destination in those years. Now the whole place seems ready to fade into the fog, and the rumble of the bulldozers cannot be too far off.
The next morning, trying to find a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle became a tricky proposition. In the old days, Chron newsstands were always located adjacent to the inbound streetcar stops, so that people could buy a newspaper on their way to work in the morning. When the Examiner—and prior to 1965, the News-Call Bulletin—were afternoon papers, they were always sold from newsstands adjacent to the outbound streetcar stops, so that those same folks could pick up a copy of the current day's news on their way home. This rule made finding a newsstand easy—in the old days. Now, most of those corners contain only racks holding various "throw-away" publications and real estate magazines. It must be true that many people are getting their news from alternative sources, since there are now so few corner newspaper racks anywhere in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, the faithful old Tennessee Grill on Taraval still has a Chronicle vending machine right outside its front door. (TG, by the way, seems to have had a spiffy new interior paint job in the main dining room area since a few months back when I hinted that the place was overdue for one—could it be that the owners are readers of Streetwise???) When I entered the place at 6:30 a.m., though, there was still no Chron available, and several of the regulars were grousing loudly about the frequent extended delays. How the Chron can get a copy to my house 70 miles north of San Francisco by 5 a.m., but can't get copies to 22nd & Taraval by 6:30 a.m. remains a mystery to me.
It should come as no surprise that the parking issue continues to grow worse. Most of the Avenues are lined on both sides with parked cars that seem to stay in place all day and all night, moving only to avoid being ticketed on the weekly street sweeping day or to avoid the 72-hour parking limitation. In fact, many blocks have multiple cars parked on what were once lawns, making for a pretty unattractive appearance overall. Those in the know tell me that there are more and more illegal basement apartments than ever, and that a lot of those 1950s "rumpus rooms" where we celebrated childhood birthdays are now studio apartments for 1 or 2 people (and the inhabitants invariably have 1 car per person). Indeed, my own experience in checking out a FOR RENT sign on Grandma's old house on 21st Avenue between Quintara & Rivera showed that the big old garage there had been converted into TWO separate studio apartments, each occupied by a couple. Upstairs lived a family of five—2 parents and 3 adult children—for a total of NINE people and NINE vehicles in that one house! Growing up on 18th Avenue, we seldom saw a car parked outside, except on Saturdays, when Moms and Dads were in and out, trading the one family car between themselves in order to get their errands done.
MUNI, in spite of some bad press recently, has made some nice improvements. It's now a very smooth ride across the streetcar tracks at 19th & Judah and 19th & Taraval, along with the Sunset Boulevard intersections at Judah and Taraval, too. It's hard to remember when all the streetcar tracks in San Francisco used to be outlined with cobblestones. Now, those relics can only been seen on the outermost portion of the L-Taraval line, near where the tracks make the turn onto 46th Avenue for the approach to the Zoo. The L-Taraval and the N-Judah, by the way, are both still providing faithful service to the neighborhood, but as many readers have commented, the new silver Breda cars are far heavier than the "old" 1980s-vintage orange and white Boeing-Vertrol cars, which were heavier than the really old 1940s green and cream streamlined Magic Carpet cars that most of us remember. While today's hybrid automobiles are so quiet that they may be hazardous to pedestrians who cannot hear them coming, there are no such concerns about SF's current fleet of streetcars—you KNOW when one is approaching even though it may be a couple of blocks away. And to think, it was the really old cars that were called the "Iron Monsters"…
Sadly, the planted center divide on Sunset Boulevard can now only laughingly be called a lawn. It's become a combination of dead and dying weeds, sometimes green, though still mowed, but never edged. The City seems to have forgotten that regular irrigation, fertilizer, and weed control are necessary to make grass grow on a massive sand dune like Sunset Boulevard. Ironically, it was just about 30 years ago that neighbors rose up in protest about the proposed addition of a north-south streetcar line along center divide of Sunset, arguing that it would "destroy" the lovely landscaping. I'll take a nice streetcar right-of-way anytime over what is out there on that center divide right now.
My travels along the Boulevard and into Golden Gate Park also managed to convince me that the City was clearly remiss some 20-30 years ago in not noticing that so many of the older trees that were in advanced stages of decay. Today, there are gaps more numerous than in a jack-o-lantern's smile. Some new trees have been set out in a few places, but it is too little and far too late. This needs to be watched closely.
Another striking change in the scenery is that nearly every school, both public and private, now seems to have a staff member dressed in a bright yellow jacket, setting up orange traffic cones adjacent to the schoolyard, mornings and afternoons, with signs pointing out DRIVE-THROUGH. Some of these schools have lines of cars snaking for a full block or more, twice a day. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that this was not a school-sponsored car wash or bake sale, but just the way that kids make their daily trips between home and school today. Doesn't anyone walk or ride a bike anymore? And unless my eyes deceive me, traffic boys and girls are no longer students—they are some pretty mature-looking people, two of whom had cigarettes dangling out of the corners of their mouths—not the greatest image for the impressionable youngsters that they are supposed to be protecting. Oh well, I guess it's good that there's yet another career opportunity awaiting us baby-boomers in our retirement years.
In yet another sign that I'm becoming a classic old codger, I had to acknowledge that prices seemed to be going up everywhere. For Streetwise readers who are no longer locals, here's a brief run-down. It's now $6 to enter San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. MUNI's standard fare is $2, with a $5 tab for a cable car ride. A smaller-than-ever Chronicle, still a quarter near the turn of the millennium, is now a full buck. Parking meters now burn through $2 an hour in the neighborhoods—that's about 8 minutes for each quarter you drop in—and the rate is even more as you get closer to downtown. Overtime parking in a residential permit zone, once just a modest slap on the hand, is now a $60 violation, while leaving a vehicle parked in the same spot for more than 72 hours gets the owner a citation of $85. Even a plain old cup of coffee appears on the menu in many places at a whopping $2.21 (plus a sales tax of nearly 10% and a 15% tip, bringing the total tab closer to $3.00)—even at the old Manor Coffee Shop on West Portal. I'm beginning to feel the same way Dad did in the late 1950s when he had to acknowledge that the nickel coffee that he used to enjoy when ice skating at Sutro's, plus free parking everywhere he went in San Francisco were both gone forever.
The old Lakeshore Plaza Shopping Center, remembered so well with photos on this site, was replaced with a newer version back in the 1990s when I was still living at 22nd & Pacheco. Yet the increase in traffic and parked cars out there is incredible. What's even more frustrating is the "you-can't-get-to-there-from-here" feeling, with so many of those parking aisles turning into dead-ends. I was there fairly early, and I slid into one of the few remaining open parking spaces, even though it was prior to 9 a.m., and most businesses were not yet open. You just KNOW that the owners of this place have to be pondering the idea of a parking fee or a double-decked parking structure or SOMETHING. The old Lucky store and GETs were very popular places, but there was never the gridlock that exists out there now.
During the course of the week, I stopped by to visit an older cousin who has been living in the towers at Parkmerced for years. It's a much cleaned-up community, versus the way it looked during my own residency in 1976-77. There was fresh exterior paint in some tasteful and trendy combinations, along with new exterior light fixtures and bigger, bolder address numerals on all the garden units. The towers, in particular, now have new windows, nicely updated lobbies, plus canopied entrances extending out to the sidewalk to shield visitors and residents from the elements—a good thing, since being dropped off at the door or taking a taxi seem to be the only ways to get to the tower buildings easily. Riding up in the elevator with a resident, I learned that any parking space within a 2- or 3-block radius of each tower is now considered to be "close by." This puts a whole new perspective on Parkmerced's plans to tear down some of the garden apartments in certain areas of the complex, and replace them with mid-rise buildings of higher density. If that happens, I want to get a cab medallion and run a shuttle in and around Parkmerced, Stonestown, and West Portal.
The face of retail continues to change. Small neighborhood drug stores such as Reis Brothers' at 18th & Taraval, Siskin's on West Portal, Dave's on Noriega, or the old Rexall on Irving Street are long-gone. So, too, are most small neighborhood grocery stores at 22nd & Taraval Market, My Pet Market (surprisingly, it was a grocery store for humans) at 40th & Taraval, and Carriage Market at 25th & Noriega. In a fortunate twist of fate, though, Walgreen's has seen fit to take over many former grocery store corner locations for their own stores, which are stocked to the rafters with almost everything imaginable. If you need an Ace bandage, a box of laundry detergent, an electric iron, a spool of thread, or a quart of milk and a loaf of bread at 10 p.m., there they are, open and ready to help you.
The overwhelming presence of hair and nail salons plus stores selling pet supplies makes me wonder—did we not have hair and fingernails, or dogs, cats, birds, and fish in years gone by? It seems that these retailers now dominate every single neighborhood shopping area, but why are there so many of them today? Meanwhile, the bakeries, delis, shoe repair shops, and hardware stores have all become endangered species. Sadly, the late, great Herb's Deli on Taraval remains shuttered and vacant nearly 10 years after the landlord evicted Issa and her wonderful meatball sandwiches in order to build condos that never materialized. While official San Francisco does nothing, and the Board of Supervisors continues to debate and pass a pile of "non-binding resolutions" involving issues far beyond their collective jurisdiction, storefronts like Herb's sit vacant for a full decade, contributing only to the slow decline of life in the neighborhoods.
Recently, when I attended the 50-year reunion of the St. Cecilia's Class of 1960, I was reminded yet again about the many ties that bind all of us together. I finally met the delightful JoAnne Quinn and her classmates, who were six years ahead of me in school. The current principal of St. Cecilia's, Sister Marilyn Miller, was a big 8th-Grader when I was finishing up 1st Grade back in the Spring of 1959. Even dear Miss Pinnick, now retired after 50+ years in a St. Cecilia's classroom (we thought she was OLD when we were in school) now seems to be very close in age to all of us. I introduced myself to one guest, and within two minutes, we discovered that her husband's uncle was my father's good friend and co-worker at the West Portal Post Office back in the late 1950s. Another mentioned that my parents' names were among the signatures in the condolence book for her grandfather, who had died about 1960 or so (I later figured out that her grandfather was the brother of one of my grandmother's sisters-in-law). There were others present who were the older siblings of my classmates, while the guest who had come the farthest for the reunion—all the way from Maryland—was really my old neighbor from 18th & Wawona (whose sister I took to the S.I. Junior Prom in 1969 and whose parents were also my neighbors in Santa Rosa about 10 years ago). Many other reunion participants had parents who were schoolmates of my parents back in the 1930s, and I heard a couple of wonderful anecdotes along with the spot-on nicknames that had once been given to my father and his brother.
Our tour of the school building was a giant step back in time. In spite of some new paint colors and refurbished lighting and floors, plus the presence of so MANY laptop computers, there was still that unmistakable smell that just screamed out SCHOOL—a combination of library paste, paper dust, bathroom disinfectant, and room temperature sandwiches. The old framed class graduation photos—now comprising 5,000 faces spread across almost 80 years—still gaze down from the walls lining the long hallways, keeping watch over a whole new generation of students.
As people re-lived their past glories (while a handful recalled a few less-than-happy moments in their academic careers), several of us paused at a photo of the mother and daughter who perished in the horrific San Bruno fire just a few week earlier. We learned how the entire school, parish, and neighborhood had come together to deal with that tragedy. (Author's note: Though the family lived in San Bruno, the children attended St. Cecilia's School, since enrollment is open to everyone who chooses to register as a parishioner—the old geographic "parish boundaries" no longer apply.) Sister Marilyn and others described how the Irish pastor helped to organize the bilingual English-Spanish Funeral Mass, with its slow, somber mariachi music, and how St. Cecilia's Church was quite literally packed to rafters with well over one thousand mourners. Following the services, there was a reception in the parish hall, featuring a variety of foods prepared by family, friends, and neighbors, including sandwiches, pasta, egg rolls, lumpia, and empanadas. Many of the elderly Grandmas who were volunteering alongside one another in the kitchen that day did not speak each other's language, yet they and their families had all come together in a spirit of love and friendship, consoling one another, as well as reaching out to help and comfort the entire community during a very difficult time. My mind raced back in time to some sad events that shook the neighborhood when I was growing up—an auto accident, a house fire, the unexpected death of a beloved neighborhood parent—and I suddenly realized that the strong sense of community that we knew then remains unchanged half a century later.
The next morning, doing one last quick drive-around before heading home, I was stopped at a red light while westbound on Taraval at Sunset. While waiting for the light to change, I noticed that the side wall of the concrete boarding platform next to me displayed a large blue-tinted porcelain-on-steel photograph made up of a collage of neighborhood faces spanning at least 100 years. It made me smile—another tiny glimmer of warmth on an otherwise foggy day.
More than 150 years ago, the French author wrote, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." For all the changes that have taken place in the Western Neighborhoods, the people there are as wonderful as ever—and that is something for which all of us can be grateful as we once again approach Thanksgiving.
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Page launched 18 November 2010.