There Goes the Neighborhood
I have an obsession for things that don’t exist anymore. I think it has a lot to do with having been raised in Southern California on wistful stories of the city’s forsaken jewels like Bunker Hill.
San Francisco takes stock in its hills covered in Victorians, but from the aquatic shantytown that now rests under the Financial District to the gouged-out heart of the Fillmore, this city, too, has its fair share of Bunker Hills.
But like a haunted house, there is surely always something left. A tile, a sign – at the very least, a memory. I decided to take a tour of the city’s more forgotten districts to see what I could find.
After consulting books and photos at the San Francisco History Center, housed at the Main Library, I decide to start with Rincon Hill. Though still a place name, it displays very little of its original charmed past.
If it were possible to live inside a Victorian valentine, Rincon Hill and its environs must have been pretty close. Stately mansions with precious gardens where cherubic couples stole kisses, graced the top of the bluff surrounded by little dells with names like Happy Valley. Anyone who was anyone lived here, such as William Tecumseh Sherman, who must have found it a calming retreat after incinerating the South during the Civil War.
Records and photos show that a retaining wall from Saint Mary’s Hospital, which anchored the east end, exists somewhere around the intersection of Rincon and Bryant. Not particularly exciting, but maybe I would find an old laudanum bottle or maybe a rosary bead.
All I find is wind whipping dirt and trash into my face.
Undaunted, I decide my next excursion will be a little down the coastline to another leveled mountain. For as many allusions as there are to its beautiful hills, the city has spent a lot of time tearing them down. In the middle of what is now Dogpatch stood a mountain once called Irish Hill. San Franciscans were fond of naming hills after ethnicities back then, being the charming xenophobic types.
After the Gold Rush, the Dogpatch was the center of industry, where all the shipyards and mills were located. The hill was home to a shantytown almost completely inhabited by Irish men, who worked for Spreckels and Union Brass and Iron Works, before it became Bethlehem Steel. Not the most delightful neighborhood, but it provided the workers with boarding, booze, and brothels. Separated by a series of causeways and water, it was far from the more “civilized” locales.
Its rep and location on top of a mound of serpentine rock brought about its demise in the early 1900s. The city started carving the mountain up for bay fill and slowly but surely the boys moved on.
I check out what’s left of the hill enclosed in barbed wire just off of 22 nd and Illinois streets. More of a large rock than anything else, it sits in an industrial lot next to the ruins of Bethlehem Steel and Western Sugar. The area is dark and silent with the wind slamming rusty doors and the smokestack from PG&E lending the only activity. I read that there are plans to make this area into a park, but that seems a little far from crystallized.
Local group North Coast Meats has been trying to open a vertically integrated slaughterhouse close to the city for a few years now, but if you have ever been near a slaughterhouse you may predict the kind of reception it’s received. What people forget, though, is that slaughterhouses weren’t always in some dusty place far from our delicate senses. They were much closer.
Indeed, it was only decades ago that slaughterhouses lined the banks of Islais Creek, at the top of what is now Bayview-Hunters Point, in a place once called Butchertown.
Former residents still tell stories about stray cows walking into their homes and the horrid stench that hung in the air. Most vivid, however, are the descriptions of Islais Creek itself, which ran almost red sometimes with blood and viscera. There was a reason; after all, the neighboring district was called Dogpatch – the creek having been a nightmarish gravy train for the city strays.
On Third Street, I start at the heart of the neighborhood, Sam Jordan's Bar. Sam Jordan came to the city in 1947 after serving in the navy and soon after gained acclaim as a prizefighter. Jordan soon opened his bar and it quickly became the cornerstone of the neighborhood. Concerned about community issues, he was the first African American to run for mayor. Even though he didn’t win, he came to be known as the mayor of Butchertown.
When I get there, I talk with his son Allen Jordan about the old slaughterhouse that almost literally surrounded his dad’s place, now a bunch of empty buildings and lots. I ask if people from the Butchertown days still come in and he replies, “Oh yeah. They still do. And their kids do now too.”
Before I leave, Jordan tells me to wait and goes back to get something. When he returns, he hands me a green slip. “SAM JORDAN for MAYOR. The FREDOM NOW Candidate .” It’s a campaign pamphlet from his father’s race. He says he’s got plenty, but being one of the coolest things I’ve ever received, I just stutter. That’s how the Jordans are – they share what they have.
At nearby Pier 92, the last tallow factory is still in operation. Loading pumps hang above the street from giant vats, and when I’m about five feet away it hits me. A waft-like rancid chicharròn conjures visions of a percolating soup of hides, bones, and corrupted fats. The breeze coming off Islais Creek cleans out my nostrils and it’s hard to imagine its Jungle -esque past. Granted, that bay water is by no means clean, as the fishing placard reminds me…but still.
The great shifting sands at the city’s western edge were largely dismissed by early residents as wasteland, like the deadly borders of the Land of Oz. But some citizens did not share these sentiments and in the 1890s set up shop far from the overcrowding, blackened air, and filth of the rapidly developing city.
When the city’s railways became electrified and horse-powered cars became obsolete, the city tried to sell them off at $20 a car, $10 without seats. They ended up all over the place, including Carville-by-the-Sea, a beachfront town made out of the horse-drawn trolleys, and later, surplus cable cars. Carville residents created structures for their homes and businesses using single streetcars, but some were made up of two or more cars connected together.
Carville became a haven for a Bohemian community of artists and others escaping the confines of the city and finding solace in the great expanse of the Pacific. But eventually, a combination of “concerned” citizens and property developers had their way and the little community of old streetcars was wiped clean from the dunes.
Or was it?
I spoke with native son Woody LaBounty, who has just published a book about Carville. Woody runs the Western Neighborhoods Project out of a small office in the Parkside. Woody says there is at least one intact streetcar house and probably others. People may either not let on or even realize what they’re seeing. He suggests that I just walk around and check things out.
On Woody’s recommendation, I hit up the one for-sure remnant. Like everyone told me, the home lays way back of the Great Highway and indeed holds two old streetcars several feet off the ground, lovingly cared for by their owner.
I decide to search for more clues in the surrounding area. On Judah Street I stop in at Pittsburgh’s Pub, a neighborhood joint that’s a little scuffed but friendly. The subject garners skepticism from some, but one old gent named Charlie assures me the streetcars are there. He’s been inside a few, but “the wife” is the one that knows where and she’s not answering the phone.
Back on Judah I stop in at a gallery called the Carville Annex. Part of a collective connected to the Outerlands restaurant a few doors up, I find that the people there know all about Carville and the hidden cars and share an infectious excitement about the area in general. They embrace not only the air and surf, but the artistic spirit of those long ago Carvillians.
The Outerlands, too, seems like an homage to the Sunset itself. One of the owners, Dave Muller, despite being tired from catering to a large brunch crowd, also displays the same pride in his quirky little hamlet. Under a sea-sprayed sky and sun, I have to admit feeling a little dazzled.
In fact, in the time I’ve spent out here I’ve begun to realize almost everyone has the same passion for this little corner of the Sunset. Depression, not heady enthusiasm was more of what I was expecting. Being guilty myself, I ask what they think of the misconceptions inner city denizens maintain about the Sunset and its supposed row upon row of mediocrity and gloom. They almost all get the same mischievous look in their eyes as they say it’s just fine with them.
Pittsburgh's Pub, Carville Annex, and Outerlands are the perfect trio of drink, culture, and cuisine.
In addition to having killer barbecue, Sam Jordan's Bar is the spot to start an exploration of the Bayview past, present, and future.
There’s gold in them there dunes, and Woody LaBounty is the guy with the map. Go to the Western Neighborhoods Project to check out when the next tour leaves.