Thursday, August 24, 2006

Grand - Grace

Nineteenth Century Grand Avenue. Or, more accurately, Grandiose. It’s an alley, and it only lasts one block. In fact, it’s one of two alleys (along with Washburn) that slice through the block from 9th to 10th, and Mission to Howard.

(Since the great street renaming around 1909, Grand lost some of its grandeur with a new name: Grace—which is still a touch high-falootting for such a modest alley.)

Number 35 Grand Avenue was home to the O'Brien family in 1906. 13-year old James Joseph O’Brien, his older brother Milton and their parents rented the 3-story wood-frame flat for $18 a month, sub-letting the top story to the engineer of the bath house across the street and the engineer’s wife. (The sub-renters paid the O’Briens $18/month, thus offsetting the cost nicely).

In pre-fire-quake days, Jim and his family shopped around the corner on 9th street. (Five cents for a loaf of bread, a dozen donuts for a dime. The butcher gave them free liver for the cat and knuckle bones for the soup.)

The first jolt that Wednesday morning on April 18 caused Grand Avenue’s wood-frame houses to dance a nice shake-rattle-and-roll. When the music was over (45 seconds after it started), the houses readjusted themselves and returned to their original upright, standing positions. But, while redwood sways nicely when it needs to, brick chimneys don’t. Showing little grace, the chimneys toppled, as did the contents of the kitchen- and medicine-cabinets.

But don’t worry about Jim and his family. Fire did wipe out their flat but not until many hours later—plenty of time to move their belongings south out to Potrero and Oakdale. And, the family had insurance with Liverpool, London and Globe, which paid sufficiently that the O’Briens could put up a pre-fab house with funds left over for a 14-person burial plot at Holy Cross Cemetery.

(Mr. O’Brien’s reminiscences were published in a now out-of-print volume called 1906 Remembered.)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Redwood is one of the tree-plant streets (Ivy, Lily, Hickory, Linden, Rose, Olive, Birch, Myrtle…) that used to run--and now skip--through Hayes Valley.

These were always narrow—the kinds of streets where the rich certainly wouldn’t live but their hired help would frequent. While narrow, they were long: 6 or 8 blocks or more. But they were still little enough not to be taken seriously, and easily erased when more important buildings were to be built (City Hall, St. Ignatius College, Mechanics Pavilion, Commerce High School, and later Davies Symphony Hall, War Memorial Opera House, the state building, and so many more).

Redwood and the others have survived into the 21st century in bits and starts. Snippets of Redwood exist as deadends west from Laguna, east from Franklin, and for a block-long shady stretch between Van Ness and Polk (shady, not from redwood trees, but from the highrise public buildings on either side). Along this shady corridor, you can now find the City Box office (seller of tickets to many cool local events), and the back door Trader Vic’s restaurant (home of the original Mai Tai, invented in 1944).


Friday, August 11, 2006

Opera Alley

This post is a trick. You won’t find this little street any more. But, in the decades before the 1906 quake-fire, Opera Alley ran NW from Mission Street between 3rd and 4th, just next to the –then- Grand Opera House.

Famously, the world’s greatest tenor of the time (or of all times, by some accounts), Enrico Caruso sang Don Jose in Carmen at the Grand Opera House on Tuesday night April 18, 1906. Caruso was touring with the Metropolitan Opera Company here when the quake hit. Earlier in April, when the company was in Chicago, Caruso almost parted ways—Caruso intended to take the train back to New York, and then return to Italy (where the food was more to his liking). He intended to let the MOC end the tour without him. But, alas, Vesuvius started erupting, so Caruso continued on where he’d be safe.

The pre-dawn temblor woke Caruso, shaking him from his bed at the nearby Palace Hotel but not seriously damaging the building. Legend has it that he breakfasted heartily that morning at the nearby St. Francis Hotel on Union Square, but refused to return to the Palace. (He did send his butler back inside for Caruso’s eight trunks of personal items—that’s personal items, not costumes or sets or anything.)

The fires started slowly that morning but by mid-day the Opera House was eaten by flame, and by mid-afternoon, the Palace also succumbed. Caruso (along with his trunks) escaped the city, and kept his promise never to return.

Today, the Opera House is in Civic Center. What was Opera Alley in the 1890s until 1906, is now a cyclone-fenced construction pathway for the building of the Jewish Museum (projected to open in 2007).


Saturday, August 05, 2006

Carlton Goodlett Place

Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place is and is not a little street. Hunh?

It's actually an aka for Polk Street, a north-south artery one block east of Van Ness. Huunnh??

Since 1915, San Francisco City Hall has found itself sandwiched between Polk and Van Ness, Grove and McAllister. None of these even remotely qualifies as a little street. Yet, since 1999, City Hall has enjoyed a little-street address. The part of Polk Street it faces is now Goodlett Place. All the glamour of a move, without all those pesky moving boxes, tape and disruption.

What gives? As they say on the official city website:

City Hall's official address is now 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place. The two blocks of Polk Street in front of City Hall were renamed Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place in honor of Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, the late local civil rights leader, community activist, physician and publisher. Dr. Goodlett was the publisher of the Sun Reporter newspaper, and served as the president of the San Francisco branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The official renaming ceremony took place on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, January 18, 1999.

What the official website doesn't say is that Dr. Goodlett's community activism centered on the fight with City Hall and the federal government to include Fillmore neighborhood residents in planning for the future of their neighborhood. Alas, before locals could speak, wrecking balls had destroyed not only the delapidated housing but also the clubs and businesses that were home to a vibrant jazz scene. (It took years before new housing replaced the old, and by then much of the old spark was lost.)


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Daniel Burnham

Daniel Burnham? But he’s from the Midwest. What’s he doing in San Francisco?

With a whopping 50 years of statehood under its belt, early 20th century San Francisco was the biggest port, the biggest industrial center, and in fact the biggest city on the west coast. Nearly half a million people were San Franciscans (up from around 500 in the 1840s). Former mayor James Phelan and other civic boosters wished to bask in the proper international recognition of our greatness. In 1903, they hired the world’s greatest urban planner (Daniel Burnham) to show us how to make San Francisco the Paris of the Pacific.

When it was unveiled, six months before the great quake-fire of April 06, Burnham's plan was clearly too costly to implement. Too many buildings would need to be destroyed in order to create the broad Champs Elysees-like avenues, the spiraling roads that would climb the hills, the grand amphitheatre and parks.

But then, voila, the city burned down. 28,000 buildings were destroyed. The perfect opportunity to start over from scratch, right? Wrong.

Each day needed for construction, was a day that businesses weren’t earning income. Private parties needed to rebuild ASAP. The city’s tax base was destroyed (and the credibility of its politicians was in the basement—but that’s another story for another day). With a reduced city budget, public projects were out of the question. Burnham’s plan was largely ignored.

But the plan had its merits, apparently sufficient merits for Mr. Burnham’s name to grace this little street. (Actually, San Francisco’s civic center—combining politics and the arts—was the one part of the plan that we followed. Thus, it's not incorrect the D. Burnham Ct. should be near civic center.)

(For a great bio of Burnham, check out the New York Times bestseller Devil in the White City—author Eric Larson manages to transform a rather dull topic (project management for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair) into a fascinating page-turning read, by juxtaposing Burnham’s story with the nationalenquireresque but true story of contemporary serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H. H. Holmes.)


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ross Alley

Now home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, a musical barber, and a brass plaque-map of the alleys of Chinatown, Ross Alley’s bustling present is a very long walk from its dark past.

Photographer Arnold Genthe captured Ross as the street of the gamblers. (Genthe would spend hours standing in Chinatown’s doorways, until his subjects bored of his Caucasian face, and then he took photo after photo of this exotic city within a city. When his subject matter didn’t appear sufficiently exotic, Genthe touched up the negatives in his lab before creating a final print.)

In 1880, national census-takers walked the alley, knocking on door after door. They found houses of Chinese boarders living next door to store keepers, tailors, cigar makers, seamstresses and cooks along this alley, then called Stout.


Sunday, July 30, 2006

Vicksburg Street

Like Fair Oaks and Chatanoonga, Vicksburg was named when Civil War battles were still fresh in the memory.

At 5 blocks in length, Vicksburg is just at the outer limits of Little Streets, but it's not a thoroughfare to anywhere, and anyway, I just like it.

For my favorite bit, turn uphill from 24th St. (Noe Valley's main drag) at the corner with the Phoenix Bookstore, and continue one short block till you get past Elizabeth--you won't notice the hill, as you'll be stopping so frequently to ooh and ahh. When you reach the top (actually the beginning) of Vicksburg, peek downhill on 22nd Street – one of the city of hills’ steepest paved hills (over 30% grade, or so they say). Climb the sidewalk-stairs down to Church Street for the views, climb back up to Vicksburg for a short aerobic workout.


Saturday, July 29, 2006


A lunch-time park sits on Market Street, right where Ecker Place began at the turn of (the previous) century. One Ecker is now a block in, at Stevenson. Ecker now--as then--continues past Jessie and Elim to Mission Street where it stops without ceremony.

The immediate-post-fire building at One Ecker is your classic unreinforced masonry building (or UMB, as they say in the trade)--rows of pretty red brick lined up side-by-side, with every 5th or 6th row being end-to-end. Its deep-set windows give another clue that it's UMB. Of course now you can see the external steel bolting that attaches floors to walls, and the internal cross-bracing -- evidence of more recent (probably post-Loma Prieta) earthquake retrofitting. As charming as it is, don't be fooled by the retrofit: in a really good jolt, the building won't collapse catostrophically, but it is likely to throw its brick facade off into the middle of Ecker and Jessie and Stevenson. (In a really good jolt, if you're inside, stay inside; if you're on the street, cozy up next to a building so that the bricks fall past you.)

Across from One Ecker is a skyrise--sit inside or out here, and emjoy Yank Sing's sweet and savory dim sum offerings. Or, walk a few steps south to the building that once housed Swallow. I haven't tracked the story of Swallow Printing, but this plaque hints at bits of nostalgia from the building that now. Just a bit further along Ecker is a lovely park (the fountain burbles weekdays, is quiet on weekends), and then you pass the eminently forgettable (if I didn't keep reminding you) Elim Street, then a cyclone-fenced empty lot.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ramona Avenue

Right in the heart of the Mission district’s 16th Street corridor, is a one block-long street filled with small single family row houses, and with the high-falutting title of Ramona Avenue.

It would seem that one Mr. Andrew Thompson created Ramona in the post-fire days to spread his wings and mark his territory on the block bounded by 15th, Dolores, and of course, Ramona. Mr. T had made his first fortune in gold, then invested it in this plot of land. In 1852, he built his second fortune at his popular saloon fronting on 15th Street here, near the old Mission chapel. With the proceeds from his second fortune, he built himself a large brick home next door, and added a grocery store to the saloon.

All was apparently fine on April 17, 1906, and all was apparently destroyed by April 21. (We don’t know for sure but the brick structure was a likely victim of dynamiters creating a firebreak that would save the mission chapel.)

Immediately post-fire, Mr. T. purchased a home then located on Haight St, and had it transported to the then-vacant land. This large Italianate now sits amidst gardens at 1876 15th St. So, what of Ramona? Rental housing was in high demand after the 1906 fire destroyed 28,000 buildings and left some 250,000 homeless. Sounds like Mr. T. was financially astute, and created a sort of income-producing fence along the edge of his property: a row of rental houses.

As for the name… hard to say. Lots of the little streets are named for women. Perhaps this little street was named for the lead in Helen Hunt Jackson’s popular story of mission days.

(Source on Mr. T and 1876 15th is the Junior League of San Francisco’s book, Here Today.)


Monday, July 17, 2006


The houses along the Mission district’s Lexington Street (then called Stevenson) sprang into existence in 1876 – the work of real estate builder-developers The Real Estate Associates or TREA. Not the mansions of Nob Hill, Pacific Heights or Upper Van Ness, not even the single-family architect-designed homes along Liberty Street (around the corner), the TREA homes on Lexington were tract houses. Here, TREA bought a whole city block (or 2) and created two streets between Valencia and Mission so they could cram in lots as small as they figured the market would bear.Slight variations on the windows and façade distinguished one house from another.

According to the 1880 census, when Lexington was still new, 27-year-old barber Valentine Meinberger lived here with his wife and infant daughter. A corner building was home to two households: 29-year-old letter carrier Austin King lived with his wife Delia in one flat, 24-year-old John Wilkins lived with his 19-year-old wife, daughter and younger brother—the two boys ran the downstairs store. Their neighbors along the street included more letter carriers, a music teacher, a post master, an engineer, a carpenter, and a dentist. Most were young families with newborns, toddlers or school-aged kids.

(If you're curious about a specific family, or address, send me a comment and I'll see if I can track down a detail or two to delight you.)

Today, this old tract neighborhood is a delightful, tree-lined oasis from the bustle of the nearby major thoroughfares. The trees have grown up now but 125 years later, Lexington Street still provides “affordable” housing (within reason, of course—this is, after all, San Francisco!) with easy access to great restaurants along Guerrero and Valencia.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

Maiden Lane

In the 19th century, this was Morton Street, variously considered the vilest, or the second vilest street in San Francisco. (Chinatown’s Waverly place provided the principal competition). Topless harlots leaned from their casement windows, luring business from the men who passed by. On a slow night, a woman’s pimp sold fondles for the standard price: 1 breast for ten cents, 2 for fifteen.

After the 1906 fire, Morton Street’s former tenants moved their business elsewhere, and the increasingly upscale merchants in the Union Square neighborhood renamed this Union Square Avenue. In the early 1920s, a local diamond merchant won city approval to rename the street again, this time for the jewelry district Maiden Lanes of London and Paris. And thus, with no apparent nod to irony, Morton Street completed its transformation.

Juicy stories set in or near Maiden Lane abound. For more, you might want to join me or one of the other San Francisco City Guides on our Monday morning “Bawdy and Naughty” walking tours.


Mark Twain

At one block, plus one and a half blocks (punctuated by the Transamerica Pyramid) you’d think Merchant Street was already short enough. But no. The part that starts at the redwood grove on the east side of the pyramid has to share its generic mercantile name with the way-funnier Mark Twain. (Map)

Why Mark Twain?

The story goes back to the steam baths that used to be in the basement of the Montgomery (Monkey) Block. The Monkey office block filled the space between Montgomery St and Sansome, and Washington and Clay, was built in 1853, just as San Francisco recovered from the gold rush. The structure survived the fires of the 1850s, and those of 1906 (the interior burned in 1906 but the building itself was reusable). In fact, the Monkey Block survived until the 1959, when a developer tore it down and put in a parking lot. (We were into modern then.) A few years later, Transamerica replaced the parking lot.

So what does Mark Twain have to do with steam baths and the Monkey Block? The story goes like this: a young Mark Twain met a fireman one day while the 2 were sitting steaming in the basement baths. The fireman’s name was Tom Sawyer. No one knows/cares what became of the fireman but we all know what became of the name.

And, while we’re at it, here’s another Monkey Block story… An Italian restaurant there, Coppa’s, had at first catered to the upscale businessmen who worked in the upscale offices in The Block; then as Block got older, and the upscale offices moved out and more and more bohemians/artists/writers moved in, Papa Coppa increasingly fed the artistic crowd—fed them well when they had just made a sale, fed them anyway when they were between commissions/sales. In return for Papa C’s generosity, artists painted a mural on first one wall, then all the walls of the dining room. Apparently quite something—filled with visual gossip and risqué portraits—so much something that it became a tourist draw and kept the Coppa’s tables full. Then the earth shook and fire swept through. After the fire, soldiers enforced a dusk-to-dawn ban on inside fires (stoves, fireplaces, even candles were banned). Soldiers also patrolled to keep looters from looting downtown banks and businesses.… But a few soldiers couldn’t keep a few determined writers from their old haunt. When they snuck in one night (and brought their own wine and comestibles, which perhaps they shared with the guards), they had themselves a candlelit celebration. They celebrated having survived, and that their friends survived. They also celebrated the ashes of manuscripts that had been sent out for publication repeatedly and met with rejection just as repeatedly—they were now free from the old burdens and could move on. Or so the story goes.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dearborn to (Humming)Bird

Two streets so tiny you'd almost miss them if they weren't so near the brilliance of the Women's Building murals. (Map)

Dearborn connects with neither Lapidge nor Linda, although it starts right across 19th from them. You first come to a lovely private garden, fenced, I'm sure, to distinguish it from the lovely community garden right across the street, at the corner of Bird.

Dearborn supports only one-way traffic but Bird, such a tiny snippet of a street it might be renamed Hummingbird, supports next to no traffic at all. Bird doesn't last half a block, as if the delight of its name can hardly keep it grounded.


And, parallel to, and immediately west of, Lapidge is Linda…

Linda – meaning in Spanish (you know, Mi Cielito Lindo) – didn’t exist in 1898, and (judging by the architecture) probably not until the 2nd or 3rd decade of the 20th century. Instead, what is now the 100 block of Linda was, in 1898, Angelica Street, running 2/3 of a block south from 19th, just past Cumberland Place (which now deadends in the park).

Rumor has it that Tessie Wall--San Francisco's most famous and beloved early 20th century madam--grew up in this neighborhood, and retired here when she got out of "the business" in the 1920s.


At #124 lies one house—actually part of a house (marketed as a TIC)—on sale for $489,000. The Edwardian building dates to the post-fire era (1908). For photos and details, check out: B.J. Droubi - 124 Linda.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


In the Mission district, Lapidge is best known for sneaking up next to the spectacular mural that wraps around the Women’s Building on 18th Street. Stroll the quiet block that is Lapidge and lull into calm until you hit the shock waves of brilliant orange, yellow, blue swirls around Surgeon General Joselyn Elders, Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberto Menchu, the Chinese goddess of mercy Quan Yin, the African slaves’ goddess of the sea Yamenja. Painters created the mural to celebrate paying off the mortgage on the building. They chose the medium of a mural to celebrate the neighborhood’s Mexican heritage. They chose the the theme of powerful women through time and across cultures to celebrate feminine strength and vibrancy.

Of course Lapidge didn't pop into existence in some sort of recent birthing ceremony. It shows up in city maps from 1898. And, folks have been living along Lapidge for a hundred years or more before the Women’s Building existed.

o On December 15, 1902, starting at 2:30, Isabell Campbell, the widow of Irish native Francis Campell (from County Monaghan), gathered together friends and relatives at their home, 35 ½ Lapidge, to celebrate the life of Francis, who had died the day before. Three years and four months later, the Campbell residence was destroyed in the fire that swept the city after the 1906 earthquake. (Thanks to Susan Cherry-Boyer for the transcription of the death notice.)

o In 1922, number 63 Lapidge was home to Mrs. M. Fritz, or so it would appear from the 1922 edition of Who’s Who among the Women of California.

o And, in 2004, the 1908 Vic at 79 Lapidge sold in 2004 for $1.1m. A year later, its next door neighbor (77) was on the market for a mere $790,000.

Lapidge is not a common name. It isn't the name of a U.S. president or a Mexican settler. Where did it come from? Perhaps this short street was named for W.F. (or W.E.) Lapidge, the sea captain who sailed for the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. on the route between San Francisco and Panama in the 1860s (before the transcontinental railroad). (For more on Capt. Lapidge, see: Maritime Heritage, Transcriptions from the Sacramento Bee, and Docking of the Colorado.)

Friday, July 07, 2006


Do you know Elim Street? Elim meets the criteria for small. It's one block long, and you don't need to worry about being hit by a car here.

If you wanted to lay down sideways in Elim--no, on second thought, I wouldn't recommend such intimate contact with the pavement here (it's puddled in the winter, a little stinky when the homeless man has been staying there). Nothing elegant here. OK. So, instead, try standing in the center and sticking out your arms. You'll touch (unreinforced masonry) walls on either side. Basketball players are taller than Elim is wide. Nine of my shoes, placed toe-heel-toe-heel, will span the distance. To Market Street's 120-foot width, Elim is 7.

So how do you find Elim? Walk down 1st St from Market, past Stevenson, past Jessie, almost to the Mexican restaurant. On 1898 city maps, Elim wasn't called Elim at all. It was Lick Alley (but the footprint was the same). Sometime in the century since, the Lick name was transfered to the more important non-passageway of what is now the Crocker Galleria, sitting between Post and Sutter, just up from Market Street. (Map)

I don't know when Lick became Elim, or which Elim it was named for but I'm on the hunt... If you find out before I do, please send a comment.