Huge Ships, Tiny Ships, Polar Bears

San Francisco Maritime National Park

On Thursday, I attended the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association’s 60th birthday bash. I’m a new member, and so I’m just beginning to learn about this little gem, and the maritime history of SF.

The park includes that bad-ass ship you see at Hyde Street Pier (in the photo at the bottom of this post), a submarine you can go into, and a museum in the art deco building at Aquatic Park with jaw-dropping ship models and other miniaturizations.

San Francisco Maritime National Park
The inside and outside of the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building are covered with awesome WPA-era murals and mosaics.

Learn all about the association and the park here.

San Francisco Maritime National Park
Beware: Polar Bears often swim in adjacent Aquatic Park, so if you’re sensitive to seeing half-naked old guys who like to maximize “shrinkage,” look away – ooh, what a pretty ship!

Sweet Vintage Street Sweeper, circa 1950

Vintage Street Sweeper, San Francisco

This beauty of a machine is shown cleaning the street at Dolores Park, which apparently even back then was regularly trashed by hordes of Missionites. (If anyone knows the origins of this photograph please drop it in the comments so I can properly attribute. I found it here.)

You can buy a vintage ad for the Austin-Western “Model 40” on eBay (and, really, why not?):

Vintage Street Sweeper Ad, 1950

Here’s the ad copy:

On any street, there are many things the operator of a sweeper has to watch, and with the model “40” he sees them all. Only with this sweeper does he have unobstructed view of everything around him. There are no “blind” spots for the man behind the wheel of a model “40.”

Children don’t always watch where they’re going. Thanks to front steer and rear-mounted hopper, the model “40” operator can do the watching for them, because he sits in the natural place “up front” where he can see what’s going on.

And there’s another important angle… Not only can he operate Model “40” safely but efficiently as well, because it’s the only sweeper with gutter brooms visible at all times.

Yes, for efficiency’s sake as well as safety’s sake… GET A MODEL “40.”

Let the “hipster-proof” jokes commence…

Full Story Behind Cliff House “Lightning” Photograph

Cliff House "Lighting" Photograph, San Francisco

It’s one of the most famous San Francisco images, seen on postcards galore. I never realized what an epic story is attached to it and the photographer who is believed to have shot it. (Also, it’s not lightning, nor a storm, as is commonly held.)

According to this Cliff House book project site, on the back of the original print is the following inscription (neither dated nor verified):

A Japanese boy, noticing the approach of lightning and thunder storm, took the last car for the Cliff House at 10:30 p.m.

The night was dark. He took up his position with his camera on the beach, and patiently waiting until 2 o’clock a.m., was able by leaving his camera open to obtain this picture, the “flashlight” being Nature’s own–the bright strokes of lightning at the moment. The patience of the “Oriental,” together with his keen preception of the opportunity, give us this photographic rarity, thunder storms and lightning being a rare occurance in the “glorious climate of California.” –Copyrighted.

Cliff House "Lighting" Photo, San Francisco

There’s more. The “Alamo Square Neighborhood Association Newsletter” from February 2000 identifies (via his son, “Ted”) the Japanese boy as Tsunekichi Imai.

Cliff House "Lighting" Photo, San Franciscod
Scan courtesy of Winston Montgomery

The following story is included in a detailed account of Imai’s life:

Tsunekichi Imai was working in his Polk Street studio when the 1906 earthquake struck, and he described to his family how the pictures hanging from his shop walls shook and gyrated wildly, many tumbling to the ground. In the days that followed, the rapidly spreading fire which followed the quake overwhelmed firefighters and threatened to destroy the entire city. To stop the fire by depriving it of fuel, officials decided to create a firebreak by dynamiting a swath of buildings east of Van Ness Avenue. The Imai studio was located in one of these buildings.

The structures to be exploded were evacuated hurriedly and Tsunekichi Imai thought that all his equipment and furniture had been lost. Someone suggested that he go up to Lafayette Park at Washington and Laguna streets, and there he discovered stacks of personal possessions and household furnishings covered by tarpaulins that firemen and other volunteers must have rescued from the doomed buildings. He found most of the things from his shop piled together and even labeled with his name. Ironically many of the photographs and other personal affects that survived the earthquake and fire were lost during the period that the Imai family was interned during W.W. II at Camp Topaz in Utah.

Tsunekichi Imai took a number of photographs in the earthquake’s aftermath, the most notable, according to his son, Ted, showed a man trapped on the upper balcony of a burning building pleading for help as the flames engulfed him. The picture was taken just as soldiers on the ground shot the man with their rifles to put him out of his misery. Ted says his father was fearful of the possible legal implications of taking this photo or even witnessing this event, and eventually destroyed it.

Read the whole thing.

Tons more photos of Cliff House here.

When Montgomery Street was Waterfront Property

When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street
Yerba Buena settlement in the early 1840s, from the Society of California Pioneers

I’m kind of a big Carl Jung guy. Not so much because I think he was right about stuff in the scientific sense, but more due to an aesthetic attachment. I like that he went up against Freud (although I like that dude, too) and was willing to face ejection from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society for it. Synchronicity. Archetypes. Individuation. Meyers-Briggs. Maybe I like these things because they’re not scientific.

And even though I never really bought into his idea of the collective unconscious, I was nonetheless intrigued by the stated thesis of Charles A Fracchia’s new book about San Francisco history, When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street. He had me invested from the introduction:

I have maintained for some years that San Francisco’s history – to our present time – is compounded from the Gold Rush experience, that its distinctive – one might say unique – urban response is situated in what Jung called the collective consciousness… A city that prides itself in its cosmopolitan features, its tolerance, and its penchant for inclusivity, San Francisco continues to operate based on an ethos that was created during the Gold Rush, when the city was composed of a melange of races and nationalities who had simultaneously arrived in the city, producing a melting pot of customs, religious practices, socio-economic and regional differences, and forcing, more or less, a “live-and-let-live” environment.

The difficulties involved in being a resident of San Francisco during the Gold Rush were no less than a birth trauma as Fracchia puts it, an experience that, while not remembered by the matured being, nonetheless is a form of distress as formative as any other in explaining the being’s development.

I don’t know if Fracchia is familiar with another of Freud’s ultimately purged peers, Otto Rank, but his theory of the birth trauma would have been an even better metaphor for explaining “San Francisco values” than Jung’s collective unconscious.

In any case, the book doesn’t really attempt to use the concretes of the Gold Rush to support the thesis Fracchia clearly states in the introduction. I don’t think there is any further mention of the thesis, in fact, and instead his histories all point to the suddenness of SF’s transformation from a trading outpost to a metropolis. I suspect this is related to his statement at the end of the introduction that his thesis isn’t “empirically provable.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great read, and the photos and illustrations are fantastic. But the book leaves Jung, the collective consciousness, and the birth trauma on the roadside early on, and I wish it hadn’t.

When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street
The Bartlett Map of San Francisco, from the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University

The dominant impression the book left on me is one implied in its title. The focus on Yerba Buena Cove, and especially the multiplicity of images of the original eastern edge of the peninsula, has given me the feeling that I know how that part of the city has changed since it was called “Yerba Buena.” Do I really? That’s impossible to prove empirically.

Low-res images in this post were scanned from Charles A. Fracchia’s When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street.

Walking the Wiggle

Joel Pomerantz,

On the recommendation of Haighteration blog, I took the ThinkWalks walking tour of the Wiggle on Thursday evening.

Guide Joel Pomerantz was bursting with knowledge about the history of the bike route, going all the way back to pre-colonial times (no, the Ohlones didn’t have bikes, but they supposedly followed the same route when walking), and also is an expert on San Francisco generally. Notably, he charmed a random anarchist on a BMX who tried to sieze control of the crowd at one point – the kid ended up sitting and listening for a bit, before bumping fists with Joel, screaming, “Anarchy in the USA!” and riding off.

I enjoyed Joel’s thoughts on SF’s hidden waterways (an ongoing obsession of this blog), and especially his warnings that when the 100-year storm hits, the MUNI tunnel, tubes, and grates in the Duboce/Church/Market St corridor will quickly submerge, forming an underground river that will rush across the Bay and produce a geyser on the other end in Oakland! Great stuff.

There was an impressively low median age on the free tour, and it was almost all locals. (Hey, passers-by who snickered, “tourists” under your breath – suck it, joke’s on you.)

The Wiggle Mural, San Francisco

We met up at the Wiggle mural on the backside of Safeway, and there I became fixated with the fantastic diversity of traffic that converges at the Church/Duboce intersection. I’ve lived in this neighborhood and walked through this spot millions of times, but you get a totally different feel for it when you linger in this spot for a bit, especially at rush hour.

Bonus time lapse video below:

Victory of the Mad Viking: Brooks Park

Brooks Park, San Francisco

Not long ago it was a post-apocalyptic den of drug abuse, blood sport, and murder. Now, it has been re-made as a virtual Valhalla by The Mad Viking himself, Peter Vaernet, and is a tribute to the past figures who battled to make something noble out of the parcel of land atop Merced Heights.

Today, Brooks Park is a model for creative land stewardship, urban gardening, and community pride.

Peter Vaernet is a cyclone of positive energy, and has swept folks like gardener John Herbert into the storm. Together they’ve completed the park’s dramatic adventure from its auspicious beginnings with the Brooks family in the 1930s, through its 1970s and 80s descent, to its glorious present rebound.

We took our camera into the fog to Brooks Park last weekend while they were building a temporary tomato greenhouse in the garden, and met Peter and John:

Victory of the Mad Viking, San Francisco from Spots Unknown on Vimeo.

More after the jump…
Continue reading Victory of the Mad Viking: Brooks Park

Golden Gate Park’s Rhododendron Dell

Golden Gate Park's Rhododendron Dell; photo by Matt Baume

Of all the ghosts haunting Golden Gate Park, the most frustrated might be John McLaren.

When McLaren died in 1943 at the age of 96, he’d served as Golden Gate Park superintendent for 52 years, during most of which he lived in the stately lodge at Stanyan and JFK. His was a life distinguished by a devotion to trees and a hatred of statuary – so how did they mark his passing? With a statue, of course.

You might’ve spotted it on a walk through Golden Gate Park. He’s the short man gazing at a pinecone, not far from the weekend roller-skaters.

That statue is more than just a commemoration of McLaren’s decades of work on the park, which was no more than a strip of sand dunes when first entrusted to his care in 1887. It also marks the entrance to the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell, which has been closed since mid-2009, only just re-opened this month.

Statue of Joh McLaren, Golden Gate Park; photo by Matt Baume

The revamped dell seems strangely empty at the moment, since most of the new plantings haven’t had an opportunity to grow in yet. Over the summer, the beds will become much more lush.

Until then, it’s still a lovely place to wander and get lost. Highlights include a winding staircase to a shaded mound with out-of-the-way benches, and various interesting narrow unpaved paths that lead up into the hillsides.

This facelift for the dell is just the latest upgrade in a difficult history. Created in the early 1950s, many species initially died. As more appropriate varieties of rhododendron were planted, the dell began to fill in – only to be decimated in the same 1996 storm that nearly destroyed the Conservatory of Flowers. Various rehabilitation projects have struggled to keep the dell healthy since then.

But it’s not as easy as simply planting a bush in the ground. A number of factors work against the success of rhododendrons in Golden Gate Park: direct sun can burn the plants to death, while strong winds can inhibit the flow of nutrients.

A 1955 article in the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society adopts an exasperated tone when discussing the failed plantings in the dell:

All rhododendrons are not for all people. Reluctantly we are forced to agree with many who have tried before us that the R. griersonianum hybrids are not going to live up to their rating in the San Francisco Bay area. We refused to accept the judgment passed on them and worked up a large stock of many varieties. These were placed in every conceivable location and condition that we could provide. The results have been far from satisfactory.

The article goes on to describe the meticulous breeding of various colorfully-named Rhododendron cultivars, including the R. Van Nes Sensation, R. Fastuosum Flore-plenum, and R. Prof. Hugo De Vries.

Interestingly, one of the few species of rhododendron to thrive in the dell was a clone named R. John McLaren. The ARS article praises the species’ “legginess.”

Today, GGP gardeners are able to ensure healthy vegetation in the dell. Over the next few weeks, the one-time sand-dunes will fill in considerably with blooming rhododendrons – an utterly fitting tribute to the park’s greatest steward.

Matt Baume is a San Francisco writer and photographer covering transit, ecology, and the science of cities.

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Brand New Commentary on Famous 1906 Film of Trip Down Market Street

The Market Street Railway blog dug up further details about the context for this amazing footage. It’s now believed that it was only days before the big earthquake, and the film was only saved from being incinerated by being shipped off to New York, perhaps as close as one day before the epic fire that destroyed most everything seen in the clip.

Using information generously contributed by David [Kiehn of the Essenay Silent Film Museum], and our own archival material, we created a commentary for the footage (our version of which starts near Eighth Street, not Fourth Street as in the You Tube version) that puts everything you see in the film in context. It explains why the automobiles you see are weaving wildly around the street. It identifies the streetcars that cross the cable car lines running along Market (no, those aren’t “streetcars” as the streetcar caption says, but the cable car lines of United Railroads). It identifies landmarks, provides social history, and sketches the politics that influenced the state of Market Street back then.

I only wish Rick Prelinger‘s restored version was the one showcased, although the original footage with all its flaws has its own charm.

You can view the full 10-minutes of footage of which the above clip is only a sample at the museum itself, located at the San Francisco Railway Museum.

(Spotted @)

San Francisco Streetcars Rusting in Missouri

San Francisco Streetcars Rusting in Missouri
Photo by Scott Tiek

This is a twisted tale of sequential tragedies ending in this snow-bound cemetery for historic San Francisco light rail cars. Well, the cars supposedly originated in St. Louis back in 1946 before coming to SF in 1950s, so they’ve sort of come home to die (though the shot above was taken in St. Charles, MO).

Along the way, the streetcars did a stint in South Lake Tahoe.

I’ll let the reader navigate the ins and outs of this story, but it involves lots of snow, streetcars as sushi bars, pre-recession business deals, and oxidized metals.

The one upside: the photography.

(Spotted @)

“Nuthin’ Eva Move But Da Money”

Street hustler “DaVinci” raps his lament about the degradation of his turf in Western Addition/Fillmore. Use headphones, there’s naughty language (the video is SFW).

Before you dismiss the lifestyle when you hear, “Used to sell ice, weed, coke all night there / now they got cameras and the po-po right there” – learn a little about the history of West Addy. It won’t kill you.

I moved from the Divis/Grove area of the neighborhood in 2005 and it was still one of the rare San Francisco spots where middle-class African-Americans owned homes alongside non-black yuppies. But even then, dopenomics and gang turf disputes generated gun deaths and regular high-speed police chases.

What’s it like these days? Current residents speak up in the comments.

(Spotted @)

Possibly the Best Use of San Francisco in a Film, Ever

Possibly the Best Use of San Francisco in a Film, Ever

Sure, we’ve got Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Streets of San Francisco, and Trauma. But hot damn, if this isn’t the awesomest use of a San Francisco setting for a film sequence I’ve seen yet…

It’s from the 1958 noir, The Lineup, and I challenge you to watch to the end of this 9-minute collection of clips. I promise you, if you haven’t seen it before, the reward is tremendous.

Not only do you get to see the outside and inside of the Sutro Baths just 8 years before they burned down during demolition, but what’s happening in these shots is downright fascinating. I won’t spoil it except to say it involves one terribly sketchy Eli Wallach, a mysterious dude in a wheelchair, a cop, a blimp, and nuns.

Oh, and a climactic act of violence that has to be seen to be believed.

Part of me now wants to see the whole movie, but part of me just wants to hold in my memory the jarring assembly of clips below as a unified and complete work in itself. Check it out:

Sutro Baths Fire, 1966, San Francisco
Sutro Baths fire, 1966. Photo Copyright Brad Schram

(Video Spotted @)

Albion Brewery & Castle

Albion Brewery & Castle, San Francisco

In 1870, an enterprising English immigrant to San Francisco built a castle home on top of a secret cavern spring and used its cold, pure water to brew beer.

Albion Porter & Ale Brewery lasted until 1919 when Prohibition forced it to close. It was resurrected in 1928 as Albion Water Company, selling bottled water, which it did until 1947.

It was almost destroyed to make room for a freeway in 1961, but survived. It stands today on its original spot in Hunter’s Point. The caverns still exist as well, and the spring generates 10,000 gallons of fresh water every day, which empties into the Bay. (The castle once served as the office for Laughing Squid‘s web hosting tech support crew.)

It went up for sale in September 2009 as a private residence for $2.9 million. Does anyone know its current status?

Here are some brand new photos of the caverns, posted to the Oakland Museum of California‘s Facebook page.

Info links: 1, 2, 3, 4

Albion Brewery & Castle, San Francisco

Pony Express Turns 150

Pony Express Turns 150; photo by bikingantoine

Amidst all the furor over the impending USPS apocalypse, we might take a moment to remember that April 3rd is the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.

It delivered mail between St. Joseph, Missouri and San Francisco in about 10 days – half the time claimed by stagecoach (it promised 23 days, but was almost always much, much longer). But the Express operated for only 18 months until the telegraph’s westward expansion obsoleted it.

During its short life, it embodied and perpetuated cultural motifs such as “cowboy vs. Indian,” “man vs. technology,” and the gold/silver rush.

It has remained highly romanticized to this day, with both Wells Fargo and the USPS appropriating the “Pony Express” mark for subsequent branding efforts.

Some fun facts:

  • 600 “horses” (some were mules!) and 75 riders were in the fleet, each galloping about 60 miles until reaching the next relay station.
  • The riders were usually teenaged boys.
  • Horse and rider rode a riverboat from Sacramento to San Francisco for the final relay of the trip.
  • Stories exist of ads saying, ““Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.” The stories have never been corroborated.

Links: 1, 2, 3

“Playland at the Beach” Documentary Premier

Playland at the Beach

This now-extinct amusement park at Ocean Beach was established in the 1880s and dismantled in 1972. It has a rich, weird history. Rick Prelinger unveiled some great amateur footage in his latest Lost Landscapes screening in December.

On March 16th, the Balboa Theater will premier a full-length documentary about the park by Tom Wyrsch.

Gone now for more than 3 decades, it remains one of the city’s lost treasures. Go back in time to see Laffing Sal, the Fun House, the Carousel, the Big Dipper, the Diving Bell, Dark Mystery, Limbo, Fun-tier Town, and much, much more, all through the eyes of the people that were there. The first and only documentary ever made about Playland.

Playland Documentary, San Francisco

(Spotted @SF_Explorers)