Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Mission Mumbles: Donuts, Trucks and the past of Potrero Avenue.

200 Potrero Avenue, and across the street, 198 Potrero, the former sites of Stempel’s Bakery, and Moore’s Cocktails, respectively.

Here’s a small story about a big building: 200 Potrero Avenue, a building that looks like a Gothic church, sits on the west side of the Avenue, just before 16th. To the east is Potrero Hill, and to the west is the hill that once held Seals Stadium, and is now the location of the Potrero Center, a strip mall with a Safeway and a Ross Dress for Less. Behind all this and to the east is Brannan Street, a portal to SOMA.

To me, Potrero Avenue feels like SOMA lunging desperately into the Mission, but failing to get all the way there.  The San Francisco Planning Department confirms this feeling of mine somewhat by declaring the area to be a historic district, albeit a non-contiguous one, that encompasses both neighborhoods.

The “Showplace Square / Northeast Mission” historic district sprawls from the southern hills around 19th and Pennsylvania, heads west across the 280 freeway, continues in a jagged line between Shotwell and Folsom, and then veers east on 20th Street, where it meanders back to Pennsylvania. Within the district are 600 buildings that, though they may be blocks apart, share enough construction features and history to link them together through time and space.

They time travel, in their own solid way, from a era when the Mission was relatively empty and open. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad built rail lines and spurs throughout this district, creating a transportation grid that made a district suited to PDR, planning parlance for “production, distribution and repair.” This district boasted large brick buildings which boasted huge “slow burn” wood timbers. These timbers didn’t ignite as eagerly as the ramshackle wood buildings that lined the streets and alleyways of SOMA, which were fated to burn in 1906. Those scrambling buildings held mere humanity: the slow-burn brick and reinforced concrete buildings that crept up Potrero before and after the quake were sites of industry and so they were built to last. And they have.

An advertisement from 1935 for the Bleachers Family Nite Club, located at 198 Potrero, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Across from 200 Potrero is a smaller building, 198 Potrero, which is mostly identifiable by a faded sign positioned over the sidewalk that reads “Moore’s Cocktails.” These two buildings, radically dissimilar in design—198 Potrero was built in 1906 with no apparent design ambitions—contain the cultural and commercial history of the Avenue between them. For a time, 198 Potrero held a blacksmith, wagon shop and auto repair. After that, it became the Bleachers Family Nite Club, so-called because of the stadium around the corner. Bleachers did business in the mid-thirties. An ad for Bleachers placed in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1935 informed families that they could drink and dance, and spend a “pleasant evening with the whole family,” a neighborhood-serving kind of place if there ever was one.

This may have changed three years later when the club manager, a man named Fred Engelbrecht, applied for a liquor license, although one does hear stories from old Missionites who will tell you that “in those day” kids could be found at bars and nobody thought much of it. (The bar’s license was suspended in 1947, so perhaps that’s not true.)

Described as a “dance hall” by the planning department, Bleachers Nite Club was a commodious place. It had an orchestra platform, a dance floor, and a fireplace and could hold 150 people. It wasn’t so small that a crowd couldn’t gather and wasn’t so big that the intimacy of the neighborhood—the chance of seeing someone you knew—was snuffed out.

The Moore family purchased it at some point in the sixties and carried on the tradition of running a neighborhood bar. It seems to have been a mostly peaceable place: in 1983, the staff suffered the indignity of being held up. Owner William Moore died ten years later. Since then, the former dance hall has been vacant. It has a surviving counterpart in the Double Play bar on the corner of 16th and Bryant, the last space that survives as a testament to the heaving crowds that poured into Seals Stadium to watch Joe DiMaggio and the other Seals do their stuff before it was demolished in 1959. A mural, painted by artist Dan McHale, which is on display inside Sport Basement, shows Bryant Street back then, and a young fan running with the Seals pennant.

Across the street is 200 Potrero, a building that commands your attention, even though it’s painted the exact shade of a San Francisco summer, a color I call “August grey.” No less than three businesses have left their mark on the building: the name “Golden Bear Sportswear” is embossed on the panels above the first floor. Another sign shaped like a button is affixed to one of the angular parapets that line the second floor. It reads “gizmo” in lowercase letters, the low-key style that the tech community seems to love. (Do uppercase letters embarrass them?)

The last business name is not up, but down: the name “Stempels” is outlined in brass on the terrazzo tile threshold of the Potrero Avenue entrance. It’s a real Desilu production: the “S” is designed to look like a treble clef sign. Back when Stempel’s Bakery—which was one of the businesses here—was in operation, customers would have no problem figuring out how to enter the building. The name is meant to direct, as well as identify: step over me and walk inside. In contrast, Gizmo Art Productions’ sign, hanging high above the sidewalk, advertises itself but does not invite you in.

An July 8th, 1928 advertisement from the San Francisco Chronicle announcing the grand opening of the International Harvester Company’s Motor Truck branch at 200 Potrero Avenue.

In 1905, the Sanborn-Perris fire map showed three buildings at 200 Potrero, two of them dwellings and the other an athletic club. In January of 1928, James Hansen Hjul, a busy and prolific architect in a city full of busy and prolific architects, purchased the property from the San Francisco Seals, with the help of Coldwell Banker, and drew up blueprints for a 2,800 square foot building. “Embodied in the building are all the most recent features,” a Chronicle story exclaimed, which was true, but not perhaps immediately apparent.

Though he designed for the future of industry, Hjul had a marked preference for the past, specifically the ecclesiastical past. The two-story building had “unusual Gothic ornamentation,” including clerestory windows, which functioned exactly as they were designed to do. (They let a lot of light in.) This building became the home of the International Harvester Company’s Motor Truck branch. International Harvester enthusiastically sold trucks from this location for at least two decades. And then, in a space that had been scented by the odor of rubber and petroleum fumes, baker George J. Stempel took over the space and began selling donuts.

Smell beckons memory like nothing else. A little-known fact about the Mission District is that, in the past, this neighborhood has often smelled deliciously of freshly-baked bread, or vanilla, or (less pleasant, but still memorable) vinegar fumes emanating from the Best Foods factory at 1890 Bryant Street. Stempel’s Quality Doughnut Shoppe was a contributor to this olfactory district. They opened for business in 1921 as a small donut shop and restaurant at 2140 Mission street in the building that now houses the Sycamore bar. The paneled Dutch door is a holdover from its time as a small restaurant, but that alone could not make this building historic, in the opinion of the planning department’s Historic Preservation Commission. Nothing eventful happened there, just Missionites eating Stempel’s “warm, tasty” donuts.

A March 4th, 1955 San Francisco Chronicle advertisement alerting San Francisco to a Free Donut Day at the new headquarters of Stempel’s Bakery, located at 200 Potrero Avenue.

Stempel opened two more branches at 316 Fell and 1616 Bush Street, before demand for his excellent donuts drove him to add a third. “Free donut day today at Stempel’s!” exclaimed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1955. “Come on out, Mr. and Mrs. San Francisco, and see our new bakery at 200 Potrero Avenue.” The “huge, street-level picture window” let customers and passers-by watch the donuts being prepared, and let his customers see the cleanliness of the bakery. They were in on the action of the neighborhood, which was at that time, unionized: in 1938, the Bakery Workers International Union, Local 24, which represented about 500 workers, negotiated a two-year work contract with San Francisco bakers, including Stempel’s. The union and the bakery stayed together until the bakery closed sometime in the mid-seventies, after George Stempel’s death in 1971.

So that’s what happened. Like many building-based histories in the Mission, this history is a simply a series of small stories and vivid memories of the goodness of the baked goods. No constitutions were signed inside; no one rich or famous slept there. Trucks and donuts were sold, and the neighborhood hummed along, producing, distributing and repairing.

This neighborhood isn’t totally post-PDR: things are still Made in the Mission. Gizmo Art Productions makes exhibits and helps install sculptures. But what’s missing in the Mission in the 21st century is the boastful pride in the built environment that characterized urban development in San Francisco after the earthquake. In the palmy days of  post-1906 construction, the city was re-conceived and builders and architects alike advertised their visionary design and construction plans in trade journals like The Architect & Engineer of California and the Pacific Coast.

Today, construction and design work are obscured–literally– from the public gaze.  Mission Street is lined with plywood these days. The work being done on the old buildings, modernized in the thirties, and awaiting their next star turn, is obscured from the public gaze, and shrouded behind the wooden walls and padlocked doors. Permit details are (sometimes) available on the planning department’s site, but often there’s no choice but to wait and see, while the skittish developers argue with the planning staff. This is especially true with “adaptive re-use”, the art of rehabilitating San Francisco’s inventory of cranky historic buildings.

The reasons for this are varied but they range between the following: (a.) there’s often little agreement on what should be preserved and why. Nostalgia assigns meaning and value, as much as the date of the construction, to buildings that have outlived their designed purpose. Even those of us most concerned with preservation and historicity can regard old buildings with doubt. Take auto liveries: they have an ample footprint, a doubtful future –cars are disappearing from this city–and design features that are only skin deep. Every time I see a barely-used auto livery, I wonder, irritably: do we really need this?

(b.) Adaptive reuse and historic conservation is expensive: it’s all stick and no carrot, these days. I have no love for the deep-pocketed property owners of this city, but am sympathetic to the steep costs of rehabbing tattered buildings with friable cement exteriors, and sunken foundations. In sharp contrast to the period of Depression-era modernization, there’s no Federal Housing Administration insuring low-interest loans for lending institutions, and no splashy, and optimistic public relations campaign to encourage adaptive re-use for buildings that are approaching–or have exceeded– their centenary.

(c.) because of the above, developers and land owners have little interest in historic preservation. And sometimes, the history of the building is a moving target. Buildings that were constructed a century ago have often undergone multiple alternations in the interim and have, therefore, erased some (or all) traces of the past. The old Majestic theater at 2065 Mission Street was built once and re-designed twice, both times by different, but equally well-regarded, architects. Which year matters more?

A great rendering of James Hjul’s Gothic-style “machine shop”, later to be the home of the International Harvesters Truck Shop, Stempel’s Bakery, Golden Bear Sportswear Leather and currently, Gizmo’s Art Production.

It’s fraught territory. But I do think our built history matters, and I’ll tell you why: people should be able to lay claim to a place, and falling in love with an old building helps that process along. It’s hard to form an attachment to a condo that was built in the fall of 2017. Historic buildings make possible some public claim on city space, which is becoming increasingly featureless, private and covert.

Take Harrison Street, between 20th and 23rd, as an example: I walk down it almost every day, and know it less each time. Previously, Harrison had a variety of buildings, in a variety of heights and widths, that were leftover from its days as a mixed-use, Southern Pacific railroad corridor. They have been demolished and now the west side of the street is faceless and impassive, due to the residential four-story buildings lining the west side of the street.

The visible imposition (or absence) of post-earthquake architectural styles on city streets is a reminder of what architects and urbanists thought the city was or might be: this includes the hostility and racial animus of redevelopment. The architectural ideas in play after 1906 carried big ideas about what was happening for San Franciscans and how people would live. San Franciscans were tutored by these styles: Streamline Moderne didn’t just articulate the consensus of urbanists that life was being lived fleetly: it helped push America past the fear of Depression-era decay.

The period of re-building after the quake and modernization during the Depression have left us with all the mute reminders of that perilous, but oddly confident time:  the business names and signs carved into lintels or embossed in brass. What’s that, one may think, stepping over the name of a long-dead merchant, on the way into the bar or restaurant. The signs and names are claims on permanence, and our scattered attention, which –if paid– can be  reminded that there was a “before” to our hurried present.

The threshold of the former Union Furniture Company, located at 2075 Mission Street. Ironically, this furniture company, owned by brothers Sol and Simon Kauffman, locked out striking union workers, organized under the AFL Master Furniture Guild, after refusing to submit to arbitration in June, 1949. After a 31-day strike, the union prevailed and secured wage increases, improved vacations, and time and a half, according to a July 8, 1949 San Francisco Chronicle article.

 

Finished September 4th, 2018, one day after Labor Day. All Hail, Francis Perkins, 1880-1965, an architect of the New Deal.
Usefulness in a building is good, economy in a building may be necessary, yet how many cheap and useful buildings would not mankind exchange for a Parthenon?” The Architect and Engineer, November 1933

 

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The Creely-McCarty Incident map.

“James Creely overlooks the Bolinas Lagoon”, by Kate Creely, July 2018

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago, a man named James Creely rode a “handsome white horse” along the Bolinas- Fairfax road, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. After spending the night at the Ocean House, a hotel in Bolinas, he took the “Sausalito road” back to San Francisco. The Sausalito News wrote this inch-long article about Mr. Creely in 1886, functioning as papers often did in those days as social media in the truest sense of the term: short on particulars— how did he get there?—and big on image. In the 19th century, even though the Transatlantic cable was transmitting news from around the world with increasing rapidity, newspapers still paid attention to comings and goings of ordinary folk. In many way, the article is the late 19th century version of a Instagram post, in its broad outlines of a moment of sweet leisure in James Creely’s life. In common hashtag parlance, this is #horselife.

This moment lacks any further detail.  Perhaps that’s why his exploit made it into the paper. Like a long-distance athlete looking to set a record, maybe no one had ever traveled from San Francisco to West Marin on horseback.

The real mystery, though, is who this guy was. He may have been one of three people: my great-great grandfather, James Creely, who was forty-five that year, his son, my great-grandfather, James H. Creely, an unmarried law student, or still another James Creely, who first appears in the San Francisco city directories in 1859, and whose name is often misspelled as “Crelly”. I know nothing about this third Creely man. I feel confident in stating that he was my great-great grandfather’s uncle, but fools often feel confidence (and I have often been very foolish.) and I have no proof that he has any relation to my family. But I think he did. James is the name of my 4th great-grandfather, and riding a horse from San Francisco to Marin County sounds like something that certain members of my family would do, given the opportunity.

“James Creely on his handsome white horse”, Kate Creely, July 2018

My paternal grandfather’s family is almost entirely Irish and almost entirely made from the confluence of two families, the Creelys and the McCartys who joined forces in Stockton, California. Both families immigrated from Ireland in the mid-eighteen hundreds.

To wit: in 1849, Patrick Creely came to the United States with two children in tow: his son, James Creely, who was born in May, 1846 in Armagh, Ireland and James’s elder sister, Annie, who was born in 1840. Patrick Creely was naturalized in San Francisco in 1855, and lived in Stockton with his small family. In March 1859, Patrick bought some land from a man named William Eldridge and then died a month later of kidney disease, leaving his son and  daughter to fend for themselves. Patrick is buried at the Stockton Rural Cemetery in an unmarked grave with two other individuals named Connell, and his name is misspelled as “Crelay” in the handwritten register. There has never been any word on the fate of his wife, a women named Elizabeth (McConnell) Creely.

The orphaned son, James, lived with James and Susan O’Connell. His nineteen year old sister Annie, who picked up the surname “Campbell” from an unrecorded marriage lived elsewhere. In those days in San Joaquin, far from dense city centers, life and death—and everything in between— often went unrecorded.

In 1869, James pops into recorded history. He was, by then, a twenty-three year old man, who had married a woman named Margaret McCarty, the “belle” of the town, according to my grandfather. Annie was married, too, to a man named Solomon Confer. The Creely siblings held their weddings in the same location, month and year: September 1866, in St Mary’s, the Catholic church located in what is now the historic downtown of Stockton. By 1868, James and Margaret had two children, Edward and James. Annie and Solomon had three or four. All of them lived and worked in Stockton, Solomon at his brick factory—he is credited with building the original nave of St. Mary’s using his bricks—and James at his profession. He had become a ferrier, or horseshoer.

The 1869 city directory for Stockton lists an advertisement for “O’Connell and Crealy, Blacksmiths”, whose business was located on Market Street in downtown Stockton. Horses were very important to the Creely-McCartys. My family made their living as horseshoers, horse-dealers, horse trainers (and lost some of their living at the horse races.) Cattle figured into the family business, too, for a brief and controversial moment, but horses were the family business until automobiles appeared on the scene.

“James Creely looks over the Pacific Ocean” Kate Creely, July 2018

In 1871, James and Margaret pulled up stakes, and decided to try their luck in San Francisco, where I think they had family members, the aforementioned James Crelly/Creely and (I suspect) some McCartys.  Annie and Solomon stayed in Stockton, and had five children, four of whom died of tuberculosis. One of them, Charles Henry Confer, was the “head artist” at the satirical weekly, the San Francisco Wasp, until he succumbed to TB in Stockton at the age of twenty five. Annie died in 1880, and Solomon in 1902.

James and Margaret first appear in the San Francisco city directory in 1872, on Minna Street with four of their children in a one-room dwelling. In short order, they lived in five different places within a decade, making a circuit of the southern and eastern parts of San Francisco. For a time, they lived on the outskirts of the city, near Butchertown, the swampy southeastern part of the city located near Islais Creek, a hellish place of unregulated abattoirs, sickly cattle and befouled bay waters.

They moved back to the South of Market with their growing family, living on Stevenson, Minna and Natoma and Howard streets in one- and two-room apartments. Like many San Franciscans, they shared their living quarters with their children, and extended family. In 1882, James McCarty—likely a sibling of Margaret’s, or perhaps a nephew—listed his residence as 64 Natoma street, which is where James and Margaret were living with their seven children. Later that year, their nine year-old daughter Mary Emma died of epilepsy.

In 1890, the Creely family moved to Buchanan Street, and then to 510 Golden Gate Avenue, the address of their son’s veterinary hospital. Finally, in 1895, they made it into the Mission. Their house was located at 916 Florida Street, near the intersection of 21st.

Margaret lived another three years and then died on July 16th, 1898 at the age of fifty. She was probably worn out: she’d given birth eleven times, from 1867 to 1888, and was pregnant almost constantly for twenty years.

James and Annie Creely are the Ur-Creelys: the source of all of us who live in California. Only four of their sixteen children had children. Today, the family structure resembles an inverted triangle. Rather than growing, the family shrank a bit, and today instead of a descendant cohort that outnumbers the preceding generations, we have probably only broken even.

This reticence includes their social life: the Creelys-McCarty’s didn’t associate too much; didn’t hang out in the Irish-American halls in the South of Market and the Mission District and held themselves aloof from the buzz of Hibernian associationism that was common in the 19th and 20th century in San Francisco. I look at lists of Ancient Order of Hibernian pledges, men who wanted the protection of that benevolent society, but no Creely ever appears.

The Irish-American Benevolent Society hall, located at 5th and Howard in San Francisco. The building was sold and torn down around 1898-ish.

But they hob-nobbed with their friends and cronies—and contended with their enemies and foes— with energy and alacrity. Because of that, and because newspapers really were social media, the Creely-McCarty’s appear regularly in the pages of Bay Area newspapers: the San Francisco Chronicle, the Daily Alta, the San Francisco Call, and smaller papers, like the Pacific Rural Press. From the 1850’s on, more than 5,000 stories and advertisements appear.

Sometimes it’s a notice of a real estate transaction, or a advertisement for various veterinary hospitals. Sometimes, though—often enough to be satisfying—there’s a full-fledged story, with a nice dramatic arc and a great illustration. Some of the stories I knew about: great uncle Edward and the Jury, Whitehat McCarty and the Palace. There are stories I’ve never heard before: great grandaunt Hannah McCarty Welch and her determination to stay in her home, and great granduncle John McCarty’s beef with the Horseshoers Union.

There are other, sadder stories that happened later in the century. I remember my father’s life-long sorrow over the death of his first cousin, James, who perished in San Leandro in the forties: his friend drove recklessly and, after side-swiping a taxi, plowed into a gas station. The gas station exploded and killed James Creely, son of James Creely, grandson of James Creely, and great-grandson of James Creely, the blacksmith who may have arrived in Bolinas on a handsome white horse one May day in 1889.

What I’m saying is this: I know too much. So I made a map. This map shows the location of the residences, businesses, and incidents involving the Creely-McCarty family from roughly 1859 to 1920 or so. The facts are drawn from family story, city directories and census records, (NOTE: I haven’t been able to find James and Margaret Creely in the 1870 census.) Old newspapers, like the Daily Alta, and the San Francisco Call newspapers, have been invaluable sources. Also: old maps, which have helped me find streets that no longer exist.

The incidents are marked as such. Depending on my energy level and available time, I’ll be writing essays about the incidents—the small dramas—that I’ve discovered in the digitized pages of San Francisco and Northern California newspapers. This map might grow. It might not. Whatever happens I can confidently say that it’s the most complete account of where we lived and worked in this changeable state and city and what we (sometimes) did.

There’s been a Creely or a McCarty in San Francisco from at least 1859, and possibly longer. There’s just three of us here now: me, and my lovely cousin Gerald O’Connor, who has the luminous blue eyes of his great-Grandmother Margaret. My cousin Robert Skinner, who is a McCarty, lives here, too.

Maybe we’ll make some history. (I certainly try.). But in case we don’t, here’s the history we have made. All mistakes are mine and hopefully there’s some resemblance to actual persons, all of whom are dead. Here’s a link to a page which lists the family members that appear on this map. If you want to see birth dates and death dates, please follow this link to Ancestry.com, where that information is recorded. If I’ve missed anyone, feel free to fix it yourself. (Just ask me for editing permission :-).

Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile: we live within reach of each other’s shadows (this is not a strict translation.) Shadows obscure, but they provide shelter, too. It depends on what you use them for, I guess. Shelter or shade, I love my family, and this map is a gift to it, them and you. Enjoy.

Elizabeth Creely wearing her great-grandfather’s bridle.

 

Finished on July 24th, 2018.
This blog post is dedicated to Elizabeth McConnell Creely, my great-great-great grandmother, whose final resting place is unknown. Your family did good out here in California. What is remembered lives.

 

The Role of the Newport River in Shaping the Upper Newport Bay

 

The Upper Newport Bay looking east, with Saddleback in the distance.

If you grow up on one of the mesas on the coast of Southern California, like the one that overlooks the Newport Bay, you’re told something about it. I was briefly instructed in geological history in elementary school. Costa Mesa was once two places: a settlement called Harper, named after Gregory Harper, a grain farmer, and the town of Fairview, which was famed for its hot mineral baths. They failed after an earthquake stopped the flow of hot water. In 1920, when civic boosters decided to get serious about city building, they renamed the place Costa Mesa in recognition of its geological structure. The name means “tableland on the coast.” That was about all I knew. We lived on a tableland on the coast, perched about 100 feet above sea level. Curiously, the history of Newport Bay, both its upper and lower parts, was not taught. Maybe this was because the natural history of the lower bay had been obliterated and the future of the upper bay was still being debated.

That changed after 1973, when I was in third grade. A twelve-year battle between conservationists Frank and Fran Robinson, the state, and the bay’s landlord, the Irvine Company, concluded. The Robinsons won. The bay’s waters, tidal marshes and uplands, was saved from becoming a monotonous urban landscape made of boat slips, rip-rap, yachts, and bay fill. The preservation of the Upper Newport Bay ensured that the bluffs and the bay that were created long ago, by forces mightier than even the most influential Newport Beach developer, stayed reasonably intact.

The mighty force that carved the river canyon and delta of the Upper Newport Bay may have been a river that doesn’t exist any longer, according to Ivan P. Colburn, Emeritus Professor of Geology, California State University, Los Angeles. He gave this “antecedent” river a name: the Newport River. In a talk he gave for the Society For Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), at their Western Regional Joint Meeting, in Long Beach in May 2003, and in a 2006 paper entitled “The Role of Antecedent Rivers in Shaping the Orange/Los Angeles Coastal Plain” Colburn says very plainly that he doesn’t think that the Santa Ana River made the Upper Newport Bay. Colburn theorized that the Newport River, fed by eleven tributary creeks and flowing west from a confluence formed by Peters Canyon, San Diego, and Sand Canyon creek, made the canyon that contains the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn theorizes that the antecedent Newport River shoved its way through a changing landscape as tectonic forces lifted a ridge that stood several hundred feet above the coastal plain. After passing this hurdle, the Newport River made a capacious river delta, which housed all the habitats of the current bay, including the friable marine terraces, the uplands, the tidal marshes, and the basin that the tides flow in and out of.

(In our time, the tidal process is often so unhurried that the footprints of raccoons and other foraging mammals are undisturbed and can be seen inches under the water at low tide, clearly imprinted in the grey marsh mud.)

The Santa Ana river in its floodplain.

In Colburn’s telling of the making of the Orange and Los Angeles coastal plain, the Newport River was one of six “ephemeral” rivers that ran during the interglacial Sangamon age, 125,000 to 75,000 years ago. At that time, the climate hit the pause button in between periods of glaciation, and water coursed down from the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and Santa Ana mountain ranges, and from the weird little stumpy hills scattered among the Los Angeles basin: Puente, Coyote, Repetto, Elysian and San Jose Hills. The six ancestral rivers dribbled and flowed down, and then snaked onto the basin that Los Angeles County sits on top of, creating a series of deltas much further inland and much higher. Sea level was about 100 feet higher than it is now.

These six rivers multi-tasked as they descended, carrying rock and sediment from the mountains and hills that got dumped whenever the flow of the rivers was checked, both taking from and giving to the earth, as all rivers do. This created the Los Angeles Basin where later extractive industries flourished, like the petroleum and the film industries.

The Sangamon age gave way to the Wisconsinan age, 75,000–11,000 years ago, the last glacial period before the Holocene, the age we live in now. The transition between a very warm age to a very cold one trapped some water in ice. The coastline accordingly withdrew. At about 17,000 years ago, the coast of Los Angeles County was about eight miles away from the Port of Long Beach.

Some water became more available. The Wisconsinan age was glaciopluvial, that is to say, that there was much more rain. Southern California had a climate that was “comparable to the Pacific Northwest,” according to Colburn, and may have received over 80 inches of rain annually. This “transformed” the ephemeral creeks and streams into rivers, with more erosive power than they’d ever had.

The power these rivers had is still visible. Imagine that you’re standing on the west bluff of the Upper Newport Bay. Looking east, you see Saddleback, with its twin peaks. (If you’re lucky, the moon is full and the sky is clear.) Directly in front of you is Eastbluff. Looking down, you see roughly 100 feet of eroded cliff, with cactus digging itself into the loose soil. Put your eyes in the back of your head, and travel west on 23rd Street, past Irvine, Santa Ana, and Orange avenues, to Newport Boulevard. Now you’re crossing into Westside Costa Mesa, the former working class neighborhood with the city’s only grange hall, now classed up with high-density condos.

Travel down Victoria Street, still heading west, until you stand on the Victoria Street overpass. What is it over passing, exactly? Why, the west side of the Newport mesa. You have just traveled between two points in an ancient landscape, from the water gap carved by the Newport River to the water gap made by the Santa Ana River.

1935 quadrangle (cropped) of the Newport Mesa

There is no natural might that goes unchecked. Even as the Wisconsinan rain was swelling the rivers and watering the coastal plain, the earth kept its hand in, too. The Newport-Inglewood Fault, which was responsible for breaking some of my grandmother’s china in the late eighties, was active during this late stage in the Pleistocene era. It ruptured and produced a ridge, the Newport-Inglewood Ridge, presenting a challenge to the rain-engorged rivers. Before this, when the climate was drier, their deltas were further inland and easier to reach. But the rising ridge, which ran from the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Joaquin Hills, posed a threat to the free movement of the water.

The rivers, Colburn says, matched this power with great power of their own. They could move the earth, if not the heavens, and “entrench” themselves inside their beds, and flow at rapid speeds, too. So they did. Five of the rivers—the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Bolsa Chica, Santa Ana and Newport rivers—bum-rushed the upwarping ridge that threatened to trap them inside the Los Angeles Basin. They were able to match in speed and might the rising earth because of their sheer velocity and scouring power. They lengthened and deepened their beds to bring themselves into equilibrium with the new location and level of the ocean. And this made all the difference.

The ridge was transected, leaving behind water gaps and mesas where the water did not surmount the ridge. This explains the Dominguez and Signal hills, which always looked sadly orphaned to me, as I flashed past them on the 405 as a child. They are mesas that were formed during this period. So are the Bixby Knolls in Long Beach and Landing Hill in Seal Beach. Only the Los Cerritos River did not make it. It became a wetland, and ultimately suffered the indignity that many wetlands in the 20th century suffered at the hands of private landowners and commercial interests.

Ivan P. Colburn’s rendering of the location of the water gap channels on the LA/Orange County coastal plain.

The Newport River did make it. Colburn estimates that its drainage basin was 260 square miles, and its length, 20 miles. But this power came with a trade off: the entrenchment that allowed the rivers to drop to new sea levels, and allowed for higher volumes of water in their beds, also demanded a new commitment from the rivers to stay put.

Rivers wander; watch a rivulet of water run down a window someday, and you’ll see in miniature the motion of a meandering river. Geologists other than Colburn have supposed that the Santa Ana River wiggled back and forth between its normal course, cutting not only the Santa Ana water gap between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, but the Newport water gap, too. This is the going theory and is, today, widely accepted. An oft-quoted study entitled “Marshlands at Newport Bay” published in 1958 by scientists R.E. Stevenson and K.O. Emery, was influential in shaping theories about how the Upper Newport Bay was formed; it’s cited in the city’s “Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, Environmental Impact Statement,” published in 2000, and appears in the footnotes of dozens of articles in scientific journals.

This is where Colburn departs from his peers. “The geologic reasoning needed to support these assertions was not included in the articles,” he states, going onto to assert that the antecedent rivers were straight-jacketed by their deeply incised beds, making this sort of riverbed-hopping impossible for them to do. Stevenson and Emery are not the only scientists to favor this theory; Colburn quotes two other papers that theorize that the Santa Ana River created not one, not two, but no less than four water gaps between Los Angeles and Orange counties. This is a lot of work for one river, no matter how much water is propelling it across a plain.

Colburn’s research is quoted mistakenly in the current version of the Wikipedia article for the Santa Ana River: his idea that the Santa Ana River didn’t create either the Newport water gap, or the Upper Newport Bay, is ignored in favor of retaining the Santa-Ana-River-did-it-all theory.

He doesn’t take issue with the role of the Santa Ana river in the making of the Newport sandbar/peninsula and its ephemeral mudflats, which became Linda, Lido, Bay, Balboa and Harbor islands. The lower bay is far younger than its sister embayment. Colburn allows that the “anecdotal” reports of the Santa Ana River flooding in the 19th century and entering the head of the upper bay through the entrance created by the Newport River are probable. Since there was more water in the oceans after the glaciers melted, saltwater intruded at least 2 miles up the river channel, slowing the rivers, which caused them to drop sediment further inland from the coast, raising their beds.

If the rivers ran their courses at the time the ridge was rising, it follows (if I understand Colburn’s argument) that the depth of the bed and the volume of water had to be deep enough, full enough, and fast enough to beat the uprising earth at its own game. Leaving its bed and weaving laterally over the plain to make more than one gap was not possible, Colburn states. And that’s where he leaves things.

It’s hard to visualize the kind of titanic power Orange County’s creeks had when they joined forces. Today, the Upper Newport Bay has only one major source of fresh water, San Diego Creek. The rest of Orange County’s creeks are contained in culverts. This keeps them from knowing each other as they did back in the good old glaciopluvial days when their polyamorous nature—creeks and streams like to take many partners—created a river.

The 23rd street creek in late afternoon, as it drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn’s research on the antecedent rivers is hypothetical, and this paper, as far as I can tell, was unpublished and has not been peer-reviewed, although other papers have. His work as a sedimentary geologist has been rewarded–and lauded–by his peers, most notably in 2017, when he received the 2016 A.E. Fritsche Lifetime Achievement Award “for his accomplishments to California geology” from the Pacific Section of SEPM.

If you want to see a remnant of the awesome geological past of the Newport Mesa, go to the Upper Newport bay, and scramble down the eroded sides of the 23rd street creek, which comes out of a culvert at the foot of 23rd street where it hits Irvine Avenue. The creek delivers urban runoff from the surrounding streets to the bay.  Sometime before 1952, that creek and what is now called Cherry Lake, which was once a 40-foot deep spring-fed ravine, supplied fresh water to the Upper Newport bay. Both are both artifacts of an old hydrological system that was spread along the northwest bluff between Santiago Drive and Santa Isabel Avenue. All of it is gone, replaced by modern modes of place-making, like landscaping and the wholesale containment of natural systems, which—should they roar to life, unexpectedly—may yet surprise us all with their ancestral, epochal determination to create.

San Francisco, June 11, 2018. Dedicated to Lizann Bassham, 1959-2018, a mighty work of creation, indeed, and a lover of humanity and nature.

Elizabeth Ann Bassham, 1959-2018

The study “Marshlands at Newport Bay, California.” by R.E.Stevenson, and K.O. Emery, is available from the Allan Hancock Foundation Occasional Papers at the University of Southern California: https://libraries.usc.edu/locations/special-collections/allan-hancock-foundation-occasional-papers  
Let me know if you order it.
With thanks to Professor Ivan P. Colburn for writing something a citizen scientist could read and learn from. Here’s a list of his published articles, as archived by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists

Vótáil Tá: Repealing the Eighth Amendment

Tomorrow, three years and two days after the day that Ireland voted “ta” to the prospect of gay marriage, another referendum is scheduled. What is before the voters this year, in the Republic of Ireland, is the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland. It prohibits abortion. This all goes down tomorrow, May 25 (or today if you’re in Ireland. As I write this, it’s 6:59 in the morning. The polls open in less than one minute.). Time is of the essence: history is being made, and I must race ahead of it and the outcome and collect my thoughts.

I took BART to SFO today to join a courageous woman named Krista who decided that what she should do was hold a sign at Gate 91 in SFO’s International Terminal, applauding the Irish who were flying home on the once-a-day direct flight to Dublin to cast their vote. She showed up two days before the referendum, holding a colorful sign that read “Thanks For Flying. #hometovote. Trust Women”.

Krista Kobeski at SFO well-wishing Irish citizens flying home to vote in the May 25 2018 referendum

“I don’t know what the regulations in the airport are, but I figure if I stand here, out of the way, it’s ok,” she told me. Krista has direct brown eyes and confident bearing and I think Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, my favorite Irish revolutionary feminist, would be really impressed with her. I was. The reaction, she said, had been very positive. “A lot of young men, who are flying home to vote, stopped and shook my hand and thanked me. Lots of young women, certainly, but a lot of young men. Old and young alike.” Her favorite, Krista said, was an older man, using a walker. “He gave me a wink. He stopped pushing his walker, gave me a wink, and carried on.”

Two men walked past us twenty minutes later, both in their sixties. One of them snapped a picture of us on his cell phone, and told us we were doing a good job. After that, two women stopped to talk to us. Their names were Mary and Maura. They, too, were older. “We’re for repeal,” Maura said simply.

The Amendment they wish to rid themselves of was inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, and is, as activist Janet Ní Shuilleabháin has been explaining all around the county for the last few years, a carryover of the days when Ireland was a British Colony and had the “Offenses Against the Person Act” in their criminal code, which prohibited both queerness and abortion. (Janet pointed out in a Facebook post that this was the act that was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde. )

This act was taken up within the Bunreacht na hÉireann immediately after the 1922 Civil war. Contraception was banned in 1935, and both these expressions of fearful contempt were followed by articles 41.2.1 and 41.2.2, authored by the Taoiseach of the time, Eamon De Valera, which legally confined women to the home in pursuit of preserving the family as the “natural and fundamental primary unit group of society.”

This was called “fascist” by Sheehy-Skeffington in a letter she wrote to Prison Bars, a news sheet started by Maude Gonne: “Never before have women been so united as now when they are faced with Fascist proposals endangering the livelihood cutting away their rights as human beings…” She and other Irish revolutionary feminists launched a campaign to have the articles deleted from the draft constitution, and replaced  by language from the 1922 constitution, which affirmed the equality of all citizens “without distinction of sex”. They lost. The Constitution and the articles within—which lurk inside the Constitution to this day—came into force in December of 1937, setting Ireland down a dark path of a punishing and insular conservatism that was followed closely until pretty fucking recently. Read this letter from Academics For Repeal, an Irish organization of in 103 academics, in support of repealing the 8th. It lays this history all out. I was remembering all of the above history today, as I greeted the Irish who were in full #hometovote mode. Aoife Caulfield, who was wearing a Repeal sweater, stopped to take our picture and talk with us. She had radiant blue eyes, which welled up with tears as she explained what this moment meant. “It’s great that I’m going to be home tomorrow to cast my vote,” she said. “It’s so emotional.” Her voice caught and she cried openly for a second. “It has to pass.” She allowed that she was worried.

“I’m from Clare, and my mom said no one is talking about it. It’s like people are afraid to bring up the topic in conversation. It’s the rural areas that are the worry. But then I think maybe people are secret “yes” voters! And that they’re just afraid to come out and voice their opinion.”

Aoife Caulfield, an Irish citizen, who flew home to vote in the May 25th referendum on the Eighth Amendment and Krista.

That wouldn’t be surprising. Secrets, lies and silence: the tight gag of place. I heard all about this coping strategy, this tradition of non-disclosure and the famed Hibernian chattiness that disguises it, from Dr. Ruth O’Hara, another Irish feminist, who taught classes in the Irish Studies Program at the New College of California, in the nineties, when I was a student. Ruth, who was a Stanford professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in her spare time, delivered lectures on the arc of Irish history, and gave particular emphasis on the development of women’s roles, or lack thereof, after the Irish Civil war and the disastrous 1937 Constitution. It was not a hopeful history at all. Frankly, it was very bad.

Ruth told us about the offending Constitutional articles, the introduction of the Eighth Amendment and what it all meant and the horror that these ideas caused: the banishment of women from the economic and political sphere, the introduction of unforgiving and brutal social mores that penalized women with institutionalization, and confinement in the Magdalene Laundries. I heard about the laundries and the situation at Tuam in Ruth O’Hara’s classroom on Valencia street in 1999, years before the graves were “discovered”. I heard about and read accounts of the suicides of women and girls who got pregnant and saw no way out.

I was told about the “X” case. I knew about the girl in the graveyard, bleeding out next to her dead infant son. Whatever you say, say nothing,” said Ruth, quoting Seamus Heany. This is how it is, she told us, this is how women’s lives are handled.

 

The passing of the Eighth Amendment, a desperate and nasty attempt to prevent Ireland and Irish woman from benefiting from legal abortion, cannot pass out of the Constitution quickly enough. History will (I think) show that ultimately all the strictures placed on women got dismantled, but this is cold comfort. The history that led to the repeal of the Eighth will still have to document and contend with hundreds of years of a grossly unjust, terrible past; one that involves millions of women traveling to Britain to obtain a legal abortion, and darker stories too, social ostracization, terrible shame, terrible fear, just animal terror.

There isn’t enough space in this blog post to talk about the terror of living in a society where you have no control over your body, the same body that comes with a full suite of sexual and reproductive capacities. These histories, colonial and post-colonial, form a dreadful geas, a series of conditions and taboos that doomed Irish women, who fell afoul of them.

Taboos are meant to be broken, they say. I think this particular taboo will be thoroughly broken tomorrow. Today in the airport, women wearing “Repeal” sweaters rushed past, pulling their luggage behind them. They looked over at us, and smiled at our signs, giving us a thumbs up. They were individual parts of a mighty diasporic stream, going back to Ireland to vote and change the future of their country, something that was impossible to do, 160 years ago, when my family like so many others, had to leave knowing that they’d never see the place again. A woman named Grainne walked straight over to us. “I have to take your pictures,” she said and did. She started crying and held up her arms for an embrace. We crowded into it and held on tight.

Grainne Wafer who flew home to vote yes.

 

Orla, who is for Repeal, at SFO on May 24th, shortly before flying home to vótáil tá

 

Finished and posted at 7:41 a.m., Irish time.
With forever love to my darling Lizann, my beautiful friend, whose light will never dim.
#RepealedtheEighth
#Repealedthe8th

Scooters, e-Bikes and jet packs: Mobility tech’s big moment.

A Bird scooter lays submerged in a lake in Golden Gate Park, April 2018

Fair is foul and foul is fair, say the witches in Macbeth, warning that what seems to be appealing will seem less so as the plot grinds to an end. This is how I feel about the scooter situation and the onset of for-profit mobility companies who are in perpetual launch mode in this city, arriving daily with mobility vehicles tucked under their arms (figuratively speaking). “The next idea that comes along, I’m not even going to try to speculate what it is,” said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of planning at the SFCTA who spoke of “dockless jet packs” as a real possibility. The hyper activity of the mobility industry is no joke. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I saw someone land in the middle of Mission street with a jet pack strapped on their back.

It’s been a busy month. Like the last twenty minutes in a Marvel movie, everything seems to be exploding and heads are twisting this way and that, trying to keep track of the action. Staff at city and county transportation agencies have spent a lot of time pulling together an emergency pilot program for the scooters and drafting an 80-page report detailing how Bay Area transportation agencies plan on dealing with the onslaught of mobility tech.

The 12-month scooter pilot program comes with a permitting system and fee schedule that allows five scooter companies to operate in San Francisco. There’s a non-refundable $5,000 fee to apply for the permit, a $25,000 annual fee to operate the scooters in the city, and a $10,000 “endowment” from each company to deal with the inevitable scooter detritus. In the first six months, up to 1,250 scooters will be allowed to operate. Thereafter, if all goes well, up to 2,500 will be allowed.

Thus it is that the scooter users may contribute $200,000 to the SFMTA budget (I personally feel it could be a bit more) something I feel certain is not on their mind. They’re too busy having fun, gleefully whizzing by with their feet in a modified fourth position, hair ruffling in the breeze.

The scooters were dumped in April, appearing on a part of the sidewalk I call the littoral zone. In marine ecology, this is the place on a beach where debris washes ashore: seaweed, plastic bottles, small dead animals. When I saw the first scooter, and then the second, and the third, and the fourth forming this sort of tidal line down Harrison Street, with no one minding them, I thought maybe the rapture had happened. Where were the owners? On their way to meet Jesus?

Well, no. The scooter-user was on the next leg of their busy day, leaving the scooter behind. If it was a Lime scooter, it was often tipped against a bike rack. It turned out that the scooter-users were just following the directions from the folks at Lime.

A Lime scooter using a bike rack on Potrero avenue in San Francisco, May 2018

Because of this, it’s not unusual to find bikes racks coated with scooters, especially downtown. This has put me in the weird position of sympathizing with car owners: I now know how it feels to lose a parking space. After a frustrating experience thrusting aside scooters so that I could lock my bike, I wrote an indignant Facebook post, pointing out that even though 5,200 bike racks seems like a lot, they’re used by at least 10,000 bicyclists.

LOL,” scoffed some guy named Tyler, an avid Scooterite. “Why not move them?”

I didn’t tell him I had. “Because, Tyler,” I answered, “I didn’t put them there.” (In San Francisco, it’s still traditional to pay for labor. ) The real problem is how effectively the scooters block the sidewalk and access for the elderly and the disabled population. A friend of mine had to remind Mr. Tyler that some people can’t move the scooters, or use the sidewalks, under the conditions created by the scooter dump.

The scooters are, by design, non-ADA compliant. And they’re litter—large objects left lying about with no natural home. Many of them ended up in singularly undignified positions: knocked over, hanging from branches, dumped in trash cans, stranded in the Broadway Tunnel, broken in pieces and left as litter on public lawns, or submerged in Stow Lake. Both bikes in the latter two examples were Bird scooters, a company that has already failed to honor its own anti-dumping pledge.We have all seen the results of out-of-control deployment in China,” it reads. “Huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles, over-running sidewalks, turning parks into junkyards and creating a new form of pollution—and new problems for cities.”

I’ll say. By the way: I’d bet dollars to donuts that this document was written after Bird was fined $300,000 by the city of Santa Monica for creating public hazards and unwanted litter.

A shattered Bird scooter lies on a lawn at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, May 2018

When I pointed out in another Facebook post that Bird scooters had become the industrial litter the company expressed such horror at, I was taken to task (not very effectively) by Bird’s social media person, who in a series of badly written and enigmatic posts tried to argue with me. “Dear Elizabeth,What is your position on this issue – it is unclear.”

I’ll tell you what’s unclear: how many scooters got dumped and how they’ll perform on our bumpy, hilly streets. There’s a rumor going around that the scooters are only good for about 1,000 miles. I called Bird and asked if the manufacturing specs were available on the website. There was a pause.

“Um. We don’t have the info on our website,” the rider support person told me. I persisted. “Do you make the specifications, like how long they are supposed to last, public?” He said no. I emailed their press person, Nick Samonas, but made no headway. “Hi Elizabeth,” Nick wrote. “Thanks for reaching out. We have worked with a manufacturer to get Birds that meet our needs and standards. Beyond that we do not discuss Bird specifications.”

Happily, an article on Cnet identified the scooter as a Xiaomi Mi Electric Scooter. (By the way, if you’ve considered vandalizing the scooters, I sympathize, but please don’t. You’ll just create some nasty source-point pollution. Lithium is bad for water and God knows this planet doesn’t need more e- waste.)

No one, including the city, knows exactly how many scooters were dumped. A safe estimate is somewhere just south of 3,000. In a meeting with the SFMTA, Lime said they “placed” 1,600, but why take the word of an industry which rather not say? It’s so much easier to disrupt if the public doesn’t know you’re up to.

DDND: Disruption depends on non-disclosure.

A Lime scooter leans wearily against its buddy the bike rack on Mission street in May, 2018.

It also makes the other big “D”, dumping, a lot easier. Dumping is in the company DNA, thanks to the founder, a man named Travis VanderZanden whose surname spell checks to “underhandedness.” Travis follows the motto of all Scofflaw-Bros: Do what thou wilt is the whole of their law. Travis understood how to position the scooters as a cavalry that’s arriving—just in time!—to decongest this city, because Travis oversaw the catastrophic growth of Uber, which was so rapid as to resemble dumping, as the Vice President of Global Driver Growth at Uber from 2014 to 2016. Before that, he was the COO of Lyft.

A re-cap: In November of 2016, the Treasurer of San Francisco announced that 45,000 Lyft and Uber drivers were driving the streets daily and sent those drivers letters, requiring them to register with the city. Only 21,000 Uber and Lyft drivers responded, and only about 6,000 of those drivers said that they lived in San Francisco.

The letters were an attempt to quantify the obvious impacts of ride-hailing on traffic congestion in the city. This was difficult because neither Lyft or Uber would provide data to help the city study the problem. Weirdly, and unfortunately, neither would the California Public Utilities Commission. The CPUC regulates ride-hailing and collects data from them. They’ve “declined” to share their data with the SFCTA and the SFMTA. (I’m trying to find out why.)

Fortunately, the City Treasurer and transportation planners were able come to grips with the proliferation of UberLyft driver-partners without the help of anyone named Travis. In 2017, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, working with the 45,000 driver figure, created a report entitled “A Profile of San Francisco Transportation Network Company Activity.” This report, which was recommended to me by Paul Rose, spokesperson at the SFMTA, is a snapshot of the impact of Uber and Lyft on San Francisco. I encourage you to read it. It shows that Uber tripled its trips inside San Francisco in 2015, during VanderZanden’s tenure as VP of Global Driver Growth. Because of DDND it sheds no light on how many people share rides: “No information on TNC [transportation network company] vehicle occupancy or traveler demographics is available.” This matters. One person in one car at a time isn’t remotely environmentally beneficial.

Don’t have a car? Getaround can help with that!

Neither is getting people to buy or lease new cars to become drivers.  This is now a standard practice at Uber, who were described in a CNBC article as “a major player in the auto finance market.” Uber’s car leasing program ensures that people who didn’t have a car, could get a car. This is no surprise to transportation planners: they’ve long known about the coziness and shared financial goals between the mobility and automobile industry and had to grapple with this as they reconsider terms like car-sharing. Consider Getaround, the supposed successor to the quasi-municipal car sharing program, City Car Share. They partner with Audi.  

Late-breaking edit: Neither Lime, nor Bird, nor Spin (the other scooter company) have repair/charging facilities in San Francisco. As this Salon piece makes abundantly clear, all three pay (barely) contractors to collect and charge the scooters. This means cars on the road in search of scooters to be charged. Aside from the issue of creating unprotected labor pools, it’s hugely self-defeating if you really want to get cars off the road.

Neither Travis nor his scooters are going to solve the problem he and his colleagues at Uber and Lyft created: record high levels of auto congestion in the Bay Area. To do that, you need actual transportation advocates. And a good plan.

Here’s one: the city’s official 45-year old Transit First policy a magisterial and magnanimous gesture the city made in 1973 to give the good people of this city a functioning public transit system. When it’s pressed into service by community-based organizations like Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the transportation situation in the city improves. Both organizations have organized, reasoned, argued, cajoled and lobbied city officials, merchants, neighborhood groups—anyone and everyone—to accept bicycles and walking as legitimate forms of transportation and to cross-reference these modes with BART and MUNI and other mass transit systems. (I remember when I couldn’t bring my bike on BART.) In the way of all resilient ecologies, space was created painstakingly and always in relation to the existing space for mass transit and cars. The amenities that pedestrians and cyclists enjoy—pedestrian bulb-outs, wider sidewalks, longer crossing times, and our semi-contiguous bike network, composed of sharrows, painted lanes, and in the last decade, some set-aside bike paths, are traceable to this policy and these communities.

It was and is vastly disruptive. But, in contrast to the mere non-compliance of the mobility industry, and the fast and furious profits their VC funders demand of them, it has been transparent: disclosed.

And very experimental. Take the super-bike-highway, the Valencia Street bike lane. People striped Valencia street with DIY bike lanes to convince merchants, and the city, that bike lanes were needed and were a benefit. The hugest experiment of all was convincing San Francisco that the terrain of this city, with its 48 hills, was entirely suitable for cycling and would in fact benefit this place by decongesting our aging macadamized streets.

Mary Brown (1969-2015), San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Membership director, and later city planner and preservationist, watches the Valencia street bike lanes get striped in 1999.

There have always been and will always be dynastic struggles among competing forms of transportation in this city: horses and drays co-existed with steam trains, and for a short time electric street-cars and automobiles. By 1928 there were 122,808 cars in San Francisco. A century later, there are at least 496,843. The biggest problem is (still) cars. Scooters may have their place in the city. I know people who own them, and use them. But gimmicky single-occupant mobility systems will only ever be a tactic, not a solution. We need solutions.

Yesterday, I walked to my friend’s place, at the base of Mount Sutro. I was supposed to be there by 3:30 or 4. Leaving a bit late, I checked the time as I began to walk up 17th street. Ah, shit, I thought, and broke into a walk-jog up the street’s steep grade. It was hard. It was strenuous.

All around me were a flock of curious tourists out to explore the city using a variety of options: scooters, bikes and e-bikes. At the intersection of Corbett and 17th, where the grade increases, the vehicles faltered and fell back. Their battery was no match for the hill. Sweating profusely, but with a spring in my step, I planted my feet solidly on the unyielding earth and felt liberated from its surly bonds by the sidewalk, unobstructed and plainly grey, carrying me up, up, up, as far as my eyes could see.

 

Written on May 6th, 2018 in San Francisco, California, city that has definitely known how.

The Mission, marketed: the Glossier pop-up at Rhea’s Cafe.

The large pink wall on the side of Rhea’s Café can be seen from the intersection of Bryant and Mariposa. I’m near-sighted, so the fact that I can see a pink wall three city blocks away means something, mostly that the marketers at Glossier, which is staging a pop-up cosmetics store in Rhea’s Cafe until April 15th,  got what they wanted. Visibility. Some local outrage probably helped with that, too. A Missionite posted on Nextdoor that she wanted the sign “legally” removed. Half the posters on Nextdoor sympathized, half told her she was being ridiculous, some informed her that they’d be heading over to the pop-up. The argument moved from there to No Eviction Mission, a Facebook group, where it continued inconclusively.

As I walked down Bryant, the pink blob resolved into the image of a pink rose. At least fifty people were queued up along the wall. Well, that’s an invitation for a blogger if there ever was one, I thought. People who stand in lines are sitting ducks for writers. I moved in.

A  man with a funny look on his face—was it guilt? sheepishness?—loitered underneath the street sign. “What do you think of all this?” I asked him. He shrugged and smiled. “I’m waiting on my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s in line.” He told me they had driven from Sacramento for a day in San Francisco, which included a stop at the Glossier pop-up.

“She read about it,” he said. “Got really excited.”
“Don’t you want to go in? You drove all that way!” I said. He looked horrified.

“It’s not really my thing,” he said.

Glossier, so you know, is a venture capital backed, online cosmetics company, valued at millions of dollars, which has been described as the “Estee Lauder for Millennials”. It makes low-coverage makeup for a wide range of different skin tones. In contrast to the vividly-hued makeup I spent many hours applying to my face in the eighties, the Glossier brand is diffident, almost introverted. The names are the tip-off: not eyeshadows, but “eye glows”. Not blush, but “seamless cheek colors” inspired “by gradient pink NYC sunsets”. And Boy Brow, which is kind of like mascara for your eyebrows, but less brash, almost undetectable.

What caught me off-guard, when news of the pop-up broke, was the weird combo of make-up and food. Rhea’s cafe is famous for their chicken sandwiches, but in my experience, chicken sandwiches and lipstick don’t go together.  My shock was complete when I saw the re-design: the interior looks like a big seashell, and a distinct scent of rose absolue wafts through the air, outside. How did you do it, Glossier? I didn’t see any diffusers , but I’m not the only one who’s noticed the scent. Jim on Nextdoor  did, too. He thought it was “nice.” And about those “gradient pink NYC sunsets”—what colors might Glossier be inspired to use as a result of its stint in the Mission? It’s really more about smell here: how about a new scent?  Any suggestions, readers? Take your bright ideas to the pop-up. You have five days to let them know.

The spectacle of the Glossier pop-up is the most attention this locale has had since July 1917, the year that the Wickersheimer Brothers saloon, which occupied the building 100 years ago, was targeted for robbery by the “White Mask” gang, a group of Irish-Americans who had been robbing saloons in the Mission District. William King and James Kennedy entered the Wickersheimer saloon, pulled out their guns and tried to get down to brass tacks. Joseph Kraus, the president of the Anchor Brewing company, who just happened to be in the bar, enjoying an after-work brewski, pulled out his gun and shot Kennedy. The robbers stumbled out of the saloon, King dumping Kennedy on the corner of 19th and Bryant, before running back to their flat. Kennedy was arrested and taken to General Hospital. Later, the police arrested King and their molls—Agnes Sullivan, Hazel Moran and Florence Cumming, plus another accomplice, a man named Henry Starkey.

Things have been quiet since then. A series of restaurants popped up in the building: the New Bryant Restaurant in the forties, the Home Plate restaurant in the sixties and Hazel and Jim’s restaurant, which lasted until at least 1980. And now it’s Rhea’s, run by James Choi, who opened it to great fanfare in 2013 and reportedly has had a struggle staying in business.

“James listed this space on Craigslist,” the Glossier “showroom editor” minding the line told me. She meant James Choi. (Glossier calls its salespeople “showroom editors”. Glossier really loves playing with language.) She was good-natured and answered all my questions.

“How much are they paying you?” I asked. “Minimum wage?”

“More,” she replied and then whispered conspiratorially: “sixteen”. They were paying her 16.00 an hour. She was wearing a pink coverall, like a repairman. This puzzled me. Did Glossier want people to think that she could spackle a wall if need be? Or that makeup equaled repair? And why pop-up at all?

“They don’t really have a store,” she said. “That’s not their thing. They open pop-ups from time to time. This is the longest one they’ve done,” she added.

“How many of these people are from this neighborhood?” I asked her. “Can you tell?”

“There’s definitely been neighbors who came and checked this out,” she said. “There’s a lot of locals, but also right now there’s a lot of people from Southern California. It’s spring break.” She turned around and smiled sweetly at the people queuing obediently along the pink wall. “You can go in now,” she told them. Turning back to me, she said “We’re trying not to get too crowded in there.”

“But food and make up? How does that work? What does one have to do with the other?”

She laughed. “Everyone says that,” she said. “But it’s worked out. You know, the owner said he was having trouble staying open…they had weird hours, like 11 to 3, I think? So he posted an ad on Craigslist looking for partners and Glossier was like, ok!”

“Are there always people in line?” I asked.

“Mostly. When we opened there was a huge line. Went down the entire block.”

“Have there been any …conflicts?”

“No,” she said. She knew what I meant. “It’s been quiet.” She liked working for Glossier. “We have a diverse staff, and people like that: they really notice it. Glossier has a range of products intended for all skin tones.” She repeated: I really like this company.

We chatted some more. She was a nice twenty-something, with clear skin and well-groomed eyebrows (Boy Brow!). She lived in the Mission District above a noisy restaurant and was having a hard time with the noise produced by the construction across the street from her apartment. The hard concrete walls effortlessly lobbed noise around her neighborhood. “Oh my god, it was earsplitting with the jack-hammering but now, after two years of construction, it’s gotten even louder.” The large underground garage made everything echo, she told me.

I got a quick psychic hit of her, sitting in her apartment, trying to contend with the unfamiliar sounds of a growing city; the hardness of the new Valencia Street, that has more concrete walls than before. There is a history of sound in all places, and that history has changed in the Mission. The acoustics I encountered at the age of twenty-five on Valencia Street in the nineties were softer. There was more weathered wood and fewer hard surfaces and more room, in general, for sound to travel and dissipate. The fog, which used to roll in regularly, muffled everything: car horns, people talking. The Mission could, at times, almost be inaudible.  It’s not like that anymore.

I thanked her and got on my way, walking past the line of Glossier fans who were busy taking selfies, and doing that thing they do when they crook their knee, sling their hip to the side, and smile guilelessly up into their phone. My upstairs neighbors Chava and Nick walked by and saw me taking pictures and tapping notes into my phone. Chava laughed. She knew what I was doing. “You don’t want to know, Elizabeth!” she said. “You don’t want to know.”

I kinda don’t. “Gentrification” has less to do with how things look, and more to do with what things—lip gloss, chicken sandwiches, dwellings and wages—cost. Neighborhood-serving businesses like laundromats, dry cleaners, repair stores, small restaurants like the Sunrise café on 24th street, constitute some sort of affordable consumer normalcy, a long tradition in the Peterite village of the Mission District. There’s something creepy in the way that pop-up’s like Glossier appear out of the blue –the pink?–luring people into its rose-scented store. They’ll vanish into the ether on April 16th,  taking their business with them. None of that money will circulate through the Mission.

Except for the wages that the showroom editor takes home. Boy Brow* is $16.00 for a little more than a tenth of an ounce. For $16.00 an hour, Glossier gets a human being to sell that item. For $16.00 an hour, our neighbor, the Glossier showroom editor, pays her rent, buys her food, and does all the things one does with wages. She probably doesn’t save much. But more importantly, she costs Glossier $16.00 an hour. I wonder if Glossier, which prefers the ephemeral to the enduring, will extend this preference to their employees. How close are we to robots who monitor lines, speak clearly and pleasantly and function without the requirements of health insurance, rent, food and the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency?

A 2013 paper by Oxford scholars Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne entitled “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” wastes no time in informing the reader that fully 47% of “total US employment is at risk.” The low-wage and low-skill jobs that they say will vaporize under the impacts of computerization, and AI, too, undoubtedly, perfectly describe the job of the Glossier showroom editor. The next time Glossier, or any other structure-eschewing business decides to pop-up in San Francisco, their staff may be REALLY diverse.

It’s true that online undertakings which flirt with, monetize and cheapen the 200+ years of history and culture** in the Mission are obnoxious. But I’m anxious about the showroom editors of this world. Five years ago, it would have been hard for me to write that last paragraph: my fear of laboring robots would have seemed like credulous paranoia. Now it’s not only plausible—it’s in play. Why, then, must we be human? How can our simple hands keep pace with the arid efficiency so treasured by the designers of robotic labor?

I’m late to the game. But I had to think this issue through.  I was less upset by the silliness of the pop-up, and more pre-occupied by the showroom editor: her existence in this city, and the entirely human way she subsided into silence and leaned against the wall, after I stopped asking questions, looking weary as she waited for the end of her workday.

 

 

*(hint: you don’t have to spend 16 bucks to tame your brows. Combine a dab of Vaseline & your preferred mascara, or eyeshadow to hold your brows in place. Don’t use shades with a warm undertone- go for a cool taupe brown. Play with the exact amounts, and you’ll get more or less the same results. )

** I’m using the founding of the Mission. Which date am I supposed to use?  You can argue with me if you want. I had to start somewhere.

 

Finished on April 11 at 9:32. It’s never too late to read Rilke’s Duino Elegies, no matter how many Zen workshops & self-help sessions they’ve endured.  Here’s to Jupiter in Scorpio and the deep up-welling of secrets and treasures.

 

The missing switch of 22nd street

I can explain about the railroad switch. My husband was the one who noticed that it was missing. We were walking down 22nd street, past the old Southern Pacific right-of way. I saw what I always see, dried stalks of Foeniculum vulgare, and the Western Plywood warehouse (which is also gone now). Jay immediately zeroed in on what wasn’t there: the old railroad switch.

Hey,” Jay said, pointing at a clump of fennnel. “Where’s the switch?”

It was gone. I was flabbergasted. I’ve been looking at the damn thing off and on for almost 25 years. There’s that thing, I’d think, what is that thing? It was always there, the mysterious old metal thing stuck in the ground next to the Atlas Stair Company. It only became knowable—it’s a rail switch!— after I started investigating the history of the Southern Pacific right-of-way, now a vacant strip of land cutting diagonally behind Treat avenue. I wrote an article about the right-of-way for Mission Local in December 2017 that described the rails embedded in the ground and the rail switch.

The switch itself is kind of boring. There’s a flat metal plate with rusted spikes sticking through holes. Then there’s a really thick vertical part which supports a circular plate with a cool handle that juts out awkwardly from the side of the apparatus. A length of iron, which still has some yellow paint on it, extends about two feet up from that. It seems like one should be able to lift the jutting handle  and move it counter-clockwise around the circular plate, and fix it into another position, but you can’t. I tried. A bit of iron wire is wrapped haphazardly around it: some long-ago engineer’s quick fix? Maybe. When was it was bolted to the ground? I don’t know. Maybe sometime in the 1860’s, when trains from the San Francisco San Jose line ran along the rail, but it’s more likely a later improvement by the Southern Pacific, which bought the failing SF-SJ line and enfolded it into its tentacular monopoly.

There are endless categories of trains and railways, and rail lines and to go along with this, exhaustively well-researched and documented histories of the terrible fraud and larceny of the rail magnates. Rail history is more than just people traveling and golden spikes driven into rail ties: it’s the game of Monopoly in real time, the history of unregulated capital, labor exploitation, land seizures and riots. It is the story of ex-grocers with fat stomachs, who got rich seizing control of California’s government, land, and labor.

All the magnates—Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins and Crocker, Newhall, all those guys—knew how to exert control. The old switch is a small expression of that.

Here, let me do a cut and paste from Wikipedia in order to explain what a rail switch is. (I had no idea.) A railroad switch is “a mechanical installation enabling railway trains to be guided from one track to another, such as at a railway junction or where a spur or siding branches off.” Basic, right? The switch was probably made in the Southern Pacific’s foundry in Sacramento and might have even been designed by a man named Andrew Jackson Stevens, SP’s General Master Mechanic from 1870 until 1888, a man noted for his ingenuity in designing railroad parts.

I’m telling you this to show that even for something as mundane as a rail switch, it’s possible to know a lot about its origins. And because of the slow unfolding of certain events, it’s also possible for me to tell you why it’s missing from the right-of-way.

An Irishman named John O’Connor saved it. That’s the short story. O’Connor, a tall man with large eyes, is a builder—or developer, if you want to use the faintly pejorative term—and a Kerryman. “That’s cool,” I said when he told me this. “San Francisco is a Cork and Kerry town.” He smiled patiently. John O’Connor bought the Western Plywood warehouse on Harrison street in 2013, and straightway started making plans to tear it down and construct a residential building. He’s kind of shaping presence around here. A couple years ago, he built another residential building right next door to his newest development. His latest project was planned under fire from neighborhood criticism, which ranged from laments over the lack of affordability to concerns that his tall building (it’s going to be 40 feet high) would cast an actual pall over the neighborhood with its high, high walls.

I’m bringing him into this because not only did he save the switch, but also because his property borders the right-of-way.

Now, maybe you’ve been following the news of this neighborhood. Maybe you know that know some of my neighbors here in the East Mission want to turn the right-of-way into something nice, like a long narrow greenway, or maybe a dog run, or maybe both. No one knows yet. Hell, the city doesn’t even know who owns it! The future of the right-of-way is unfolding from emptiness into form, and the actual dimensions of the right-of-way are coming into focus in part because of O’Connor’s 40-foot building rising up on its eastern edge. In a weird way, this is going to help: people will know exactly how much land there is to work with. I find this interesting, in a plot-driven kind of way: O’Connor has acted as a local deus ex machina, providing answers and clarity in a way he probably never intended to.

He certainly did one day, a month after the switch went missing.

On that day, I was walking along the right-of-way with the people who want to see it turned into a greenway. I was interviewing them for another Mission Local story. Ever since Jay noticed that the switch was gone, the pre-verbal, pre-cognitive part of my mind had gone on full alert, like a searchlight. A questing beacon.  Where is it where is it, my seeking mind muttered.

You see: I felt guilt. It was my fault that it was gone. Let me back up, and explain.


The switch is gone! Skulduggery! I wrote in an email to my friend Dennis, hours after Jay pointed out its absence. I thought maybe it had been removed by certain property owners I had mentioned in my December story. They didn’t like being written about, I reasoned, and they didn’t want people to start loving the weedy old parcel: that’s an old railroad right of way, they’d maybe say, looking at the rusty switch with new respect. So they must have pulled the switch out.

Dennis, who is a railroad historian and a journalist, and also very sensible, explained what had really happened. It’s more likely that it was taken, he wrote back, pointing out that because I had helpfully included a picture of the switch in my Mission Local article, that rail fans/artifact plunderers noted the fact that there was a “vintage” rail switch standing in an empty lot and planned accordingly. They probably took it, he concluded, and then told me a story of an awesome object he had written about, which basically doomed it to theft, too.

I thought of Yeats’s famous line about writing plays that got men shot. The article I wrote that got the switch, I thought and stopped right there because my mind was hissing things at me like that’s weird, Elizabeth. Stop being weird. Also, I could not think of a word for “steal” that rhymed with “wrote.”

Dennis sent me a link to Ebay to prove his point. It took me to a world I never knew existed: the world of collectible “Railroadiana & Trains” where, sure enough, two or three rail switches were for sale. My jaw dropped. Some guy in Kentucky had one listed for 399.00 . You understand that railroad switches are very heavy, right? And not pretty. I saw a 16th-century water pump in the Victoria and Albert Museum in England last November that was very pretty. Every square inch of it was adorned with flowers, and other stuff. The switch is not pretty. And yet, they sell for hundreds of dollars (apparently. Maybe the guy in Kentucky is delusional.)

Back to my questing mind: so, I was walking around in the right-of-way with people who want it to be a greenway. Ostensibly, I was there to interview people, and I was doing that: the gentle teacher who thinks about open spaces and the humanity that takes root there, the suspicious and weary artists who live in a warehouse along the southern edge of the right-of-way, who feel like foxes run to the ground. They have had the vacant lot to “work large in” and fear that they’ll lose their creative space if the greenway is developed.

I was definitely working. But I was also thinking about the switch. Where is it where is it where is it, beep, beep, beep…I showed one of the artists where the switch had been. He hadn’t noticed it was gone. Someone else came over and we discussed the situation. It’s a bummer, I told the artist. It made this a place.

What else?

It was a piece of the past. It was a part of the old world where things were manufactured, not just funded. It was Made in America, possibly the handiwork of unionized labor. It hearkened to a time when the physical world held sway and nothing was seamless. We all agreed these things were true.

We walked back to the Western Plywood warehouse, which was three weeks away from demolition. The siding  was open, so I walked inside and took a picture. There was a shout.

“Hey! No! No pictures! No pictures!” John O’Connor—that’s who it was, although I didn’t know that at the time—rounded the corner, looking tall and annoyed.

“Sorry,” I responded. “Can I look around if I take no pictures?”

“Sure,” he said. I noticed the brogue. The others drifted over: the neighbors who wanted the parcel to become a greenway, the artists who weren’t so sure. They had met each other that morning and there was a cautious air of well-shit-I-guess-we-should-talk sense of rapprochement. Someone said something about all the changes, and then someone else mentioned the switch.

“Did you notice the switch is gone?” I asked O’Connor.

“Oh, I have that, sure,” he said.

“WHAT?” I screamed. He pointed inside the warehouse. And there was the switch, laying on the ground with clods of mud and weeds festooning the base.

He’d been inside the warehouse on New Years night, he said. As he was leaving, he noticed that a white truck was inside the lot, down near 22nd street. It was a “bart truck”, he told us.

“A bart truck,” I repeated.

“Yeh, yeh, you know, BARRRRT. Bart. The train. The truck had the BART logo on it,” he said and showed me a picture he’d taken of the truck and the license plate.  He watched as two men wrestled the switch into the truck and then decided to act.

“So, I went over to them,” O’Connor said “and said what’re you doing here? What’re you doing? Yiv got no business here. And I told ‘em to leave and brought that inside. I knew they shouldn’t have it.”

“Did you tell BART?” I asked.

“Ah, no. I didn’t want to get the lads in trouble,” he said. “I chased ‘em off. That was enough.”

It was sort of a moment when he told us that he’d saved the switch, taken it from the plunderers and stored it inside the warehouse. People were happy to see it, the switch that had been stuck in the ground, for maybe a century, year in and year out. We’d all been mostly unaware of it until we started thinking about the future of the place.

It felt like a good omen to see it laying there.

After O’Connor knocked down the Western Plywood warehouse, the switch was moved to a safe (and undisclosed) location, until it goes somewhere else. The Western Railway Museum said they’d take it. But I’m not sure I want it to leave the Mission. One thing is certain: it will probably won’t go back to the right-of-way. Rusted iron spikes and jutting handles are incompatible with concerned parents and their small children, which will play in the greenway, if that’s what ends up happening.

And there’s no security for it now, which is partly my fault—I asked for attention to be paid, and it was.

So now you know why the switch is gone. What I can’t tell you about is its future.

The history it belonged to is totally gone and now the switch is sort of like a marooned time-traveler. What happens to them? Sometimes they get back home. Sometimes they’re destroyed. Sometimes, they remake the future and shape it in ways no one could have predicted. I don’t know what will happen to the railroad switch. It’s in exile right now, but we’ll see. The Mission is changing. But there’s always room for the past.

Here is a cut-n-paste of the SP spur, taken from the  San Francisco block book, circa 1900, possibly even earlier (it’s undated and in the collection of block books at the North Baker research library at the California Historical Society).

 

If you look closely, you can see the names of the property owners scattered throughout. Prominent among these is Samuel Crim, John Center and JH Kruse.

 
Written during a Pineapple Express storm on March 21st, 2018. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I organized a history festival, and that took all my time. And then I got sick. But I’m better now. It’s good to be back.

 

Dinnshenchas in Hogsthorpe: the Holmes family of Charity Farm

 

Hogsthorpe’s village sign, standing at the intersection of Thames and High street

The village of Hogsthorpe has a welcome plaque stationed at the intersection of Thames road and High street, which welcomes the people whizzing past the village on the A52. It sports a heraldic device with the charge rendered as an azure boar standing rampant over three fleur-de-lis. Hogsthorpe, I thought. Of course. Native Hogsthorpian Mike Blanchard, who runs the Orchard Farm Riding Center, doesn’t like the sign.

“The name has nothin’ to do with pigs. Do you know what a hog is?” he asked. We were walking through the graveyard at St. Mary’s, Hogsthorpe’s 12-century church, looking for the headstones of my great-great-great grandparents George Freeman Holmes and Mary Waterman Holmes.

I said no. If a hog isn’t a pig, then I don’t know what a hog is. (Also, I’ve been misled by my great-granduncle Harold C. Holmes, who claimed in an posthumous autobiography entitled “Some Random Reminiscences of an Antiquarian Bookseller” that the village was named after a Viking settler named Ugga.)

“A HOG,” Mr. Blanchard said with energy, “is an uncastrated sheep or pig! Under the age of twelve! They shouldn’t use pigs on our signs! Not unless they use BOTH ANIMALS! UNCASTRATED!”

Hogsthorpe, for those of you who might be confusing it with a certain magical school, is a pleasant little village in the East Midlands of England, in the county of Lincolnshire. My great-great grandfather Robert Holmes left there in 1867 at the age of twenty-two. I decided to visit Hogsthorpe and arrived there on a dark November evening, courtesy of the #449 National Express coach to Mablethorpe. The bus driver did a double take when he saw he had a drop-off there. “Hogsthorpe!” he exclaimed incredulously. (Most people don’t go to Hogsthorpe.) I felt a little shaky as I stepped off the bus. Happily, the Saracen’s Head, Hogsthorpe’s oldest pub, had accommodations that were spacious and clean. I woke up the next morning feeling cheerful and walked to a farmhouse, known locally as Charity Farm.

Goodwin’s Charity Farm, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. Given to the village of Hogsthorpe in 1639.

Charity Farm is where Robert, a quick-witted man, was born in 1845 to Mary Waterman Holmes and her husband George Freeman Holmes. In the 1851 census Robert was living with his mother and father, his siblings Susanna, George, Joseph, Charlotte, and John, his three-day old sister, his grandmother Anne Waterman, his cousin Elizabeth Waterman, and one house servant named Jabez Harriman. His father cultivated crops and pastured animals on one hundred and two acres of land.

Mr. Chandler remembered John and George Holmes, the last Holmes men on the farm, working in the fields with their Fordson tractors and Lincoln red cows. He even remembered how they farmed. “It’s called Norfolk rotation. I don’t know why,” he said wonderingly. “It’s a rotation. Weeds, grass, potatoes, barley, or sumthin’ like that. I can’t remember. I ought to! I’m really a farmer. It’s not practiced today. Everyone uses fertilizers.”

The name of the farm isn’t meant to be picturesque, but descriptive. The Holmes family didn’t own it. They were extremely long-term tenants—“they were there a couple a-hundred years,” Mr. Chandler told me—of the village of Hogsthorpe, and paid about one hundred and twenty pounds annually in the mid-eighteen hundreds as tenant farmers. The last owner, a gentleman named Thomas Goodwin, left the farm to the village, under the care of trustees with the following instructions:

Thomas Goodwinne, in 1639, bequeathed 34 acres of land, augmented by subsequent inclosure allotments to 55 acres, and producing annually £90, of which £20 are paid to the minister, with £5 for repairing the church, £35 applied to the apprenticing of children, and £5 distributed among the poor.

The profit that the farm produced was intended to pay apprentice fees to master craftsmen who trained young men to become wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coopers, brewers, whatever. Robert Holmes may have been a Goodwin apprentice. (He had a first cousin named Robert William Kirk who was apprenticed to a miller in 1887.) At the time of Robert’s departure from “the land of fens and wolds” he was apprenticing at a wholesale and export firm of drapers, or a dry goods firm, in Manchester. Who paid for Robert’s apprenticeship? This, along with the specifics of my family’s tenure, can only be speculated, and is perhaps impossible to know.

“Records went missing,” Dave Kirkham, a current trustee with Charity Farm, told me. He allowed as things like accurate bookkeeping might not have been perfected when my family began their two to three-hundred year history as tenants. It was put about in my family that the Holmes family owned Charity Farm: this pride of place now registered a note of evasiveness.“Were the Holmes’ squatting?” I asked him, alarmed and wondering if we owed back-rent on Charity Farm. “No, no! Nothing like that,” he assured me.  Later, I ran into a church warden, and asked him about the Holmes’s, and what kind of family they were. They were a good family, he replied.

Back entrance of Charity Farm, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England.

Hogsthorpe is quiet in the manner of small seaside villages in the fall and winter. I was assured by Scott, the ebullient bartender at the Saracen’s Head, that both Chapel St Leonards and Hogsthorpe are bustling from April to September. “It is absolutely MENTAL in here,” he assured me. “I couldn’t sit here and talk to you then.” In the dark of the winter, the villages are the opposite of mental; they feel crestfallen and spent, energetically. There is little for a tourist-wanderer to do, but smell the brine of the North Sea and wonder when it will rise again.

Hogsthorpe is surrounded by other villages with equally magical names like Mumby, Thorsthorpe (my favorite. Hail Thor!) Ingoldmells, and Burgh-le-Marsh. I feel certain that many of these names popped up on an inspiration board in J..Rowling’s office: they are impossibly quaint. All of them are governed by the East Lindsey District Council, a pale remnant of the ancient Kingdom of Lindesege. It has a regnal list which claims Wodan, the Anglo-Saxon version of Odin, as an ancestor of Aldfrið, the earliest king of Lindesge. This divine influence did not help the marshy kingdom from being absorbed into stronger Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By the time the Vikings sloshed ashore in the 10th century, the kings of the marsh were gone. The real ruler of the land, water, was still there. The small towns and villages of the Lindsey marsh are reclaimed from the ocean and the rivers that thread through the region. There’s some idea that perhaps the marsh plain might have been semi-detached at times, almost an island, before sea walls were built, and the drainage ditches were dug.

The entire marsh plain has been systematically de-saturated. Rain and runoff water flows through tile drains, then to dykes, which are maintained by the farmers, and into basins, which are maintained by the drainage board. And then the water goes out obediently into the North Sea. “Every twenty-two yards, machines lay pipes. You put some gravel on top of it, so the water gets through quicker,” Mr. Chandler told me. When he was a boy, the drainage basins were de-silted by hand. “There were no pumps in those days,” he said. Now, pumps express water from the landscape, in a mechanical echo of the process by which farmers milk their cows. Mr. Chandler gestured to the fields behind us. “There were thousands of acres of marsh between Hogsthorpe and Burgh le Marsh.” So proud are the people of East Lindsey of their efforts to drain the marshes that they have a museum, the Anderby Drainage Museum. It houses two diesel engines which, until they were replaced in 1992, drove the centrifugal pumps that pulled 4,500 liters a day of water out of the soil.

Hogsthorpe is at sea level and yet Mr. Chandler doesn’t worry about floods. “It doesn’t flood in Hogsthorpe anymore,” he told me. “And yet we got stupid ER signs, evacuation routes. Ridiculous! It doesn’t flood. We got a damn good drainage board, we got pumps every two or three miles along the coast, one at Chapel Point, one at Anderby and one at Ingoldmells. We are never flooded,” he reiterated. “We got a damn good drainage board.”

A drainage ditch that runs the length of the field in front of Charity Farm, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England.

He and I were having no luck finding George and Mary Holmes. In a fit of tidying, the church pulled up the old headstones and leaned them against the walls that line the graveyard. The vicar had helpfully given me a map of the sites where the headstones used to be. According to it, George and Mary were buried directly north and west of the Norman entrance to the church. Mr. Chandler and I looked at the headstones against the north wall, which were being reclaimed by thick ropes of English ivy, propped against the wall. I found Mary’s father, my great-great-great-great grandfather Simon Waterman. But there was no sign of George or Mary.

There are no Holmes left in the village now. John Freeman Holmes, his brother George and their sister Mary, all of whom died between 1944 and 1981, are interred in the newer part of graveyard. Mr. Chandler knows where his family is. He strode over to a particularly thick mat of nettle and ivy and pointed down. “My grandparents are right there,” he said. “When they took the headstones up, they asked us if we wanted the headstones moved.” He pulled up the mass of ivy root, which came away in a single sheet. Underneath were two flat headstones.

“There they are! Those are my grandparents,” he said. He dropped the ivy back into place. “That’s fine. I know where they are.” They stayed put, along with George and Mary, Simon and Anne, and many others. But Robert left.

St. Mary church, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England.

It’s a big deal to leave a small village. Robert made a last visit to Hogsthorpe to say good-bye to his family the year he left. There’s a picture of him looking young and sort of tough, newly arrived in Guiana, where he got to work, managing the dry goods store and marrying up, in 1872, to my great-great grandmother, the magnificently named Emily Augusta Culpeper Massiah. Robert had a lot of energy. He moved his family back and forth between Guiana and England for about ten years, before moving to Canada in 1877 and opening a general store in Toronto, and later in Winnipeg in 1880, after moving there. It was in Winnipeg that Robert lost the remainder of his and his wife’s fortune speculating in real estate.

He and Emily flipped a coin, and moved to California, arriving in Oakland in 1882, cash-strapped with five children in tow, an ignominious entry that wouldn’t survive the harsh scrutiny of today’s fevered anti-immigrant conservatives. (Robert was forced to ask for credit in order to pay his hotel bill.)  He began yet again, working at this job and that, before opening a bookstore in 1894 at the age of forty-nine. It was called the Holmes Book Company and it was located on 702 Mission street in San Francisco. He went on to open six more in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. He never became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Neither did any of his children.

Robert and his two daughters Emily and Marion visited Hogsthorpe in 1911, staying for almost one year. Emily went again for several months in 1922, and was making plans to return once again in 1936 (it’s unclear if she did). Neither Robert or Emily, his eldest daughter who never married (and who, I was told when I was small, flew the Union Jack from the Holmes house on Haste street in Berkeley) ever really detached from the place. It’s very easy to memorialize England, especially small villages with rotund and cozy names; harder is to be able to distinguish between inherited nostalgia and actual memory. It’s not clear how well Hogsthorpe would have fared in family memory and opinion if Robert hadn’t left.

Robert Holmes, founder of the Holmes Book Company, at home on Haste street, Berkeley, CA, 1928.

Hogsthorpe may or may not be making its own departure in the next one hundred years. It, along with Chapel St. Leonards and all the other small towns and villages of the Lindsey marsh plain, lies along a “rapidly eroding” coastline and is inside the official Coastal Risk Flooding Area, as defined by the East Lindsey District Council. The ocean could reclaim land that it lost to industrious farmers, inundating the place in the cold waters of the north sea. There’s less land to reclaim: Hogsthorpe is below sea level, in part due to de-saturation, which subsides the earth. But Mr. Chandler’s faith in local government is not misplaced. The East Lindsey District council (happily) doesn’t have its head buried in the sand when it comes to the impacts of climate change. Actually, sand is used to “nourish” the beach, helping it accrete sediment and gaining elevation.

Hogsthorpe has a chance of surviving all the incursions—the ocean, the tourists, curious outsiders—during the frenzied summer months, and the still winters, existing as it has for many years: solid, weathered and so, so old.

It doesn’t feel as though it plans on doing anything but staying put.

 

A map of Hogsthorpe showing the location of Goodwin’s Charity Farm.

The villagers of Hogsthorpe were incredibly kind and welcoming. I want to thank them all: Bryan Walker, owner of the Saracen’s Head, and his son Scott, the Father Terry Bardel, Vicar of the Church of England for Chapel St. Leonards and St. Mary in Hogsthorpe, Mr.  Balderston and Mr. Dave Kirkham, Charity Farm trustees, Jamie Chandler at the Orchard Farm Riding Center and of course, his dad, Mike Chandler who has the whole history of Hogsthorpe in his head (and heart.)

Elizabeth Creely sitting inside St. Mary’s church in Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England in November 2017.

 

Detail of one of the corbel heads inside St. Mary. This head is unusual: apparently there are only twenty in England.

 

 

October dreams: a short Dinnshenchas

Last night, I had a dream that a seal-creature hauled itself out of the ocean beside a private, bayside resort where well-dressed people sipped drinks on a green lawn.

It pulled itself out of the water and made straight for me. It wanted me.

This seal-creature was grey and had glowing eyes, and it pulled and tugged on a door that separated the outside from the inside, which is where I was. I was scared, because I know from my childhood in Newport Beach that seals can be aggressive and territorial. If you see one, my Dad told me, get out of the water. Seals are like dogs. They bite.

Seals bite, I thought. Seals bite. 

The seal-creature pushed and tugged persistently on the door as the well-dressed people congregated on the overly manicured lawn. The lawn bothered me: why was there a green lawn next to a bay? Why the well-dressed people? Why was there an urban edge that separated me from the water?  Lawns don’t go with bays. County clubs don’t either. Neither one had blocked the seal. I watched it trying to get inside with consternation and fear.

And then the seal was though the door. What it did was this: It swarmed into my arms, as if it belonged there and would never leave. It was fast and fluid and didn’t maintain shape, but it was a seal, with those glowing eyes. It molded itself to me, to my body. It wanted to be held. It wouldn’t let go.

I was confused, walking the halls of the glossy suburban space with the creature clasped in my arms. How could a seal, I wondered, which needs the sea live in an artificial atmosphere like this? I grew less fearful, and more concerned with each passing moment. It needs water, I thought. It can’t be outside of the water like this.

I put it down, tentatively. It flopped around, helpless, unable to move.

I thought perhaps putting it down would force it to do for itself somehow; make itself an environment of water, out of itself, out of sheer will. I thought it would make for itself an environment that would enable it. Help it to navigate and move. But that didn’t happen. It didn’t work.

So with some new tenderness (i don’t think it will bite me) I picked it up again.

 
“I leave myself as open as I possibly can. There’s been very few times in my life when I’ve really planned out a painting and then put it into form. The reason for that, is that by the time I’ve put it into form, I’m bored with it! I was tired of it…I’d already worked it out. Done and over with. I was just doing the mechanical work. So I try and leave it as absolutely open as I can and I start putting some color down, some paint, and let, uh…whatever it starts to say, come into form. And develop it from there.”
Joan Brown, in an interview from 1979

October 26th, 2017

In the Blink of an Eye: the end of CELLspace

 

Two weeks ago my cousin Juli came for a weekend visit. Earlier that day, before she arrived, I’d seen a post on Facebook lamenting the loss of CELLspace, which exists now in partial form at 2050 Bryant street: the east-facing wall is now totally demolished and the rest will follow soon.

I knew CELLspace was being ripped down and that the end was near, but like everyone, thought I had more time with it. I walk by the site almost everyday, and had lately been making mental note to take pictures, for (you know) posterity’s sake. Tristan Tzara’s impudent face had been painted on one of the walls. I loved seeing it. In Tom Stoppard’s play “Travesties”, Stoppard has Tzara yell “Dada! Dada, dada, dada!” like the bratty punk he probably was.

There was a similar sense of surreal unreason guiding the destruction of CELLspace and the surrounding buildings. We who live in the city are now minus a community space. Taking its place will be a six-story building with market-rate condos that most people will not be able to afford. A second eight-story building with 136 units of affordable housing will stand next to it. There had been impassioned attempts to save CELLspace, but in the end, belief in market-driven solutions to the housing crisis and this sentence “C – No Historic Resource Present / Not Age Eligible”, condemned it. The Facebook post made it clear that the end was nigh and that the demolition was proceeding. It was now or never.

“Juli,” I said after dinner, “we’re going for a walk.”

“Ok!” she replied brightly.

We sipped the last of our mead, collected ourselves and walked around the corner to a scene of great finality. Rubble lay in heaps and the dank odor of newly exposed basements filled the air. The entire corner of Bryant and 18th street was gone.

Juli and I let ourselves in to “see”, which was silly. The point of demolition is to take away the thing that used to be there. There was nothing to see. When cities change quickly, individual memory changes too and is included in the act of demolition itself. The construction equipment ripped down the buildings, and my memory, too.

The large brick building that housed CELLspace was still standing that night, now almost two weeks ago, but so bereft of human energy that it already felt gone. There was nothing inside the vast hall, except stuff with no value: a chair, some kind of light fixture, and so many things on the floor that they became nothing, a midden pile of twentieth century plastic trash.

Two years ago, I stood with about 100 people in this hall. There was low flat table supporting a large, wide-mouthed cauldron. A fire was made inside the cauldron because it was St Bridget’s day, Lá Fhéile Bríd, and we had gathered to make promises to each other communally and individually to the Goddess of the forge.

As we moved to the center and made a vow, another ritual participant raised a iron hammer and struck an anvil, which rang out loudly and clearly. There was every kind of person in the space that night, which was usual for that place. It hosted communities that gave the Mission –O horrible word that has ruined my home!—vibrancy. The people who congregated there, made culture there and took it out into the city.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition once held a fundraiser at Cell Space: I know because I helped organize it. Another night, another group, another memory: Rainforest Action Network threw a Christmas party and I danced like a madwoman with my friend Krikor, improvising pseudo-swing moves and having the time of my life.

At the end of the night, someone convinced me to take a hit off a joint. I did so and immediately recognized my mistake. I need to leave, I thought. I can’t be around these dazzling people with my mind on fire. So I walked down Bryant street leaving the confident organizers behind me happy and voluble, standing outside the brick building, gossiping and celebrating their successes even as they plotted their next brilliant campaign.

In all, there are five structures that have been torn down so that the two buildings, known collectively as the Beast on Bryant (The Monster on Mission is a different creature, though no less loathed) may be built. Here are their obituaries.

2000 Bryant street, a two storied, redwood-clad building, unprepossessing and downright homely sat directly on the corner of Bryant and 18th. I knew it as Tortilla Flats. I never ate there. Before that, it was the White Front Lunch Room. Before that it was a saloon, owned first  man named Drewes and later by two men named Jopp and Siebe . Both establishments, which were held up by robbers in 1909 and 1913, catered to the German community. Mr. Drewes often ran ads looking for cooks in the San Francisco Call. “Wanted: German woman for lunch cooking”. This makes me think of my great-great Grandmother Mary Wellendorf who cooked at my great-great grandfather’s “chop house” on Fillmore street during the turn of the century. What solid German lunches were cooked in this space? Schnitzel, probably, cutlets of meat pounded flat and pan-fried with onions and cabbage. (What were the women’s names? Why was Drewes always looking for cooks?)

2010 and 2014 Bryant street: both properties constituted the Korbel Box Factory, which manufactured cigar boxes. Before that, 2014 was home to a 16-year old girl named Annie Couthurst. In March 1903, Annie was declared missing by her frantic mother. She appeared two days later “in a hysterical condition”, declaring that she had been induced to stay out past her curfew by a friend. She feared the wrath of her mother so much, she told the SF Call reporter, that she did not want to return home.

2028 Bryant: this was a two-story Italianate apartment building  located directly next to Cell Space. It was constructed in 1885. In 1927, a woman named Kitty McManus lived there with her eight-year old daughter. Kitty was the victim of a charming bigamist named John Kearney, who had nine other wives. She didn’t know, she said. She planned on getting a divorce. Almost thirty years later, a Patrick McManus still lived there. A brother? Her father? A bachelor uncle? What happened to Kitty? Disgrace?

2070 Bryant: This building, which housed Cell Space, looked like another monumental auto livery of the type that sprung up in the city after the 1906 earthquake. However, it was not: it was a foundry called the Central Iron Works, a funny coincidence considering the ritual devotion that was shown to Bridget and her forge in this space.

In 1913, John O. McAuliffe sold a parcel of land to Central Iron works on Florida street; in 1911 manager A. A. Devoto appeared before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, promising to stop the pounding of the steam hammer at night which “disturbed the slumbers of residents” in the neighborhood. Is this story of neighborly discontent also the history of 2028, which was next door? (What was it like living next to an iron works, with belching smoke, and hissing, grinding, pounding sounds such that the residents of Bryant street might wonder if a dragon had settled in a barrow nearby?)

These histories, and others I’ll never know, represent the “past” of 2000-2050 Bryant street. I recite them to myself as I write, a monotonous string of words, and I think I must sound very much like poor Lady Pole from the book “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, who tries to explain to anyone who will listen that fairies have imprisoned her, and that she is not living in the same world that most people are. She can’t tell the story, because there is a rose at her lips preventing her, and also maybe because of the utter strangeness of it all.

This is how it feels to walk around in the litter of the ruined houses on Bryant street, the old warehouses and box factories of the Northeast Mission knowing that you could tell people some kind of story about who lived in them and what happened there, but that the stories are so wholly free of matters of national import or global impact, that what would come out of your mouth would only be a list of mundane events involving German cooks, workers laboring  in a box factory, broken arms, missing children, lover’s quarrels and a burglary or two. It is all just dust in the wind, so to speak.

From the ruins of the buildings, new vistas have been liberated. I can now see the red neon sign of Heath Ceramics glowing in the foggy night air and the far more of the San Miguel range.

This holds true until the Beast is built. Then I will see far less.

 

written with love and appreciation for:
cousin Juli whose pragmatic response to crisis made this month a lot easier. We will always drink at the Palace.
…and Tom Petty whose sweet soul shines bright. You belong among the wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea. Sail away, kill off the hours. You belong somewhere you feel free