Timothy Sarbaugh, the excellent historian of Irish America, noted in his 1987 essay about Eamon de Valera and Irish Republicanism in California that the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR) had, at its height, 150 branches or “councils” throughout the state and about 20,000 members. The AARIR, an unforgivably long and unwieldy name that John Devoy, the cranky old Fenian who led the Clan Na Gael, immediately called “The Growl” because of the guttural tones suggested by the acronym, supplanted the Friends of Irish Freedom, Devoy’s organization which had been, until 1920, the primary vehicle for mobilizing Irish American monetary and political support.
The AARIR was organized into 14 district councils. District XII was based in San Francisco and the Bay Area and boasted of at least 68 councils by Sept 22, 1921. We know this because at that time and unknown individual typed up a list of all of the councils on a piece of legal paper. Entitled “Membership Roll Of Councils In District No. XII To And Including Sept 22, 1921” (it’s always so wonderful when anonymous scribes date their work), the paper is an invaluable source of information about the San Francisco councils of the AARIR. The membership roll and other clerical ephemera from that time lives in a box of stuff collected by Dr. Charles Albert Shumate, a dermatologist and local historian who had an Irish grandmother. Dr. Shumate’s collection of clippings from Irish newspapers and assorted AARIR ephemera is held in the Rare Book Room of the Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco.
The official membership roll written by the anonymous scribe has been mapped by me, here, using another undated council roster, which gives the names of individual supporters, as well as the address of where the councils met. The 68 councils collectively raised $14,410 in support of the new Irish Republic, which sprang into being on January 21st 1919 when Sinn Fein met in Dublin as the Dail Eireann, adopted a provisional constitution and declared themselves an independent Republic.
These lists are the ephemeral residue of what was an intensely productive and busy period of time in San Francisco for Irish Americans. The councils committed themselves to more than just fundraising: there was an outpouring of citizen lobbying, speaker’s events, social evenings with whist parties and dansants and regularly scheduled meeting when the local councils met in order to get their heads around what was happening in Ireland. Many council members immigrated after the mid-1870’s, during the Cogadh na Talúnnd, the land war in which the collective action of Irish tenantry succeeded in undoing the hated and unjust system of tenant evictions, absentee landlords, and land usage and distribution. From this struggle came the boycott which was used in San Francisco during the 15-month period of AARIR council activity, at its height between November 1920 and February 1922. Many of the nation’s councils called it quits early in 1922, because of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. A few persisted: Council 17, the Terence McSwiney branch, which met in the Redman’s Hall on 16th street, was planning new membership drives in the spring of 1922, even as the branches in other parts of the nation were calling it quits.
But for that 15-month period, people were busy. They were ably assisted in their ability to respond to the situation in Ireland, thanks to the AARIR’s national press and publicity wing, the Benjamin Franklin Bureau, and later the Irish Press and Publicity Bureau, the California branch of the national bureau that was headquartered at the Hewes Building in San Francisco, and overseen by Father Peter Yorke. Both of these media projects printed pamphlets and bulletins that described — sometimes in horrifying graphic detail– the atrocities visited on Ireland and its people by the British troops, and the paramilitary units known as the Black and Tans, and the Auxies.
San Francisco had always been well-supplied with information. Yorke had almost two decades worth of publishing experience at that point. He founded The Leader, a weekly newspaper, in 1902 and had thereafter used the editorial column as a personal pulpit to comment on anything that caught his attention or displeased. For example, cars: Yorke was unimpressed by them and thought they were a dangerous addition to city life. (He was a smart guy.)
After the events of 1916, The Leader began to publish nonstop accounts of the terror and mayhem of British military occupation. In this he was helped by the editor of The Leader, Laurence De Lacey, who was a wily and indefatigable Fenian who figured in the power struggle between de Valera and John Devoy. De Lacey broke into the offices of the Gaelic American, the newspaper published by Devoy, as the power struggle between de Valera and Devoy intensified. (That’s a story for another time.)
De Lacey and Yorke made sure that Irish San Franciscans knew everything: the burning of factories, and homes, the examples of brutal torture meted out by British paramilitaries, and the wholesale destruction of cities and villages in Ireland. An editorial insert written by the New York-based American Committee for Relief in Ireland made the situation plain:
“In Ireland, today thousands of women and
children have been driven to the pitiful refuge of the fields and open country.
Balbriggan, Granard, Tralee, Templemore, Trim, Tobereurry, Lisburn, Thurles,
and numerous other towns and villages have been burned and homes have been
wiped out by fire…over forty creameries, the co-operative plants of great and
small communities built by Irish farmers have been razed to the ground and the
economic units they served have been paralyzed.”
Yorke, the resident cleric at St. Peter’s, filled every possible role an ambitious Irishman could fill: he was the Vice President of Sinn Fein in California, the former head of the Friends of Irish Freedom and the new State Director of AARIR after it was founded in November 17th, 1920. Yorke toured the state in the latter capacity, commanding chapter members of the Friends of Irish Freedom to discontinue their work as FOIF’ers and immediately form new AARIR councils.
“To form a branch of the American Association for the Irish Republic is the easiest thing imaginable,” he advised Leader readers late in 1920. “You don’t need any mandate or credentials. You can start anytime or anywhere. You don’t have to hire a hall. You can meet in your own homes. Get twelve people to agree to work for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. Elect a President Secretary and Treasurer. Send their names to Father Yorke, 504 Grant Building, Market Street San Francisco. He will register your branch and send your Treasurer the official receipt book. On receiving stubs and per capita from you, he will send the credentials for your delegate or delegates.”
At other times,
he was more direct. “The State Convention of the American Association for the
Recognition of the Irish Republic is only fourteen days away,” he wrote curtly
in January, 1921. “Get busy.”
People did. They
met in homes, in churches, in associational halls, in residential hotels and, as
in the case of Mr. M.J. Jordan, at the County Jail No. 2 out in Ingleside. San
Francisco AARIR council members were contending with a lot in those days:
within a little more than a decade they’d endured a laborious and inconclusive
graft investigation that upended a somnolent and corrupt city government, which
deprived the laboring classes of a representative government and left the true
boodlers untouched. There were two terrible strikes against the United
Railroads that ended badly both times for labor, once in 1907—31 people were
killed— and again in 1917.
Many dues-paying council members were also dues-paying trade union members, and were frequently embroiled in labor disputes and strikes at this time: Michael McGuire, a boilermaker with Lodge #25, started striking for better wages and working conditions on October 1, 1919, and didn’t stop until sometime in 1920. McGuire, who housed Council 39 in his in-law’s residence on Guerrero Street, sent a letter and a picture of his striking brothers to the Boilermakers and Iron Ship Journal, a publication for union members, in the middle of the strike.
“Dear Sir and Brother: I am sending you herewith photograph taken on June 13th, of the striking members of the San Francisco Bay District after eight- and one-half months on strike. Hoping if possible that you will reproduce the photograph in the next Issue of our Journal. I am, Yours fraternally, M. J. McGuire, Business Agent No. 6.
But it wasn’t all bad news. The city was growing, and acquiring new amenities for city dwellers: the first municipally owned rail car ran down Geary Street in 1912, three years before the Panama Pacific International Exposition opened. There was yet more to come: municipally provided water, an expansion of transit lines and the tunnels to accommodate them, and the construction of new civic spaces. Sometimes, as was the case with acquiring rail lines on Geary Street, or boring a tunnel through the side of Twin Peaks, the passage of bonds or the creation of assessment districts caused some hand wringing over the money that was needed, but ultimately the city committed to the future and paid up. They knew the city was growing and changing.
But even as the scars of the earthquake healed and San Francisco was rebuilt, Ireland was being systematically dismantled. AARIR council members like McGuire, or Theresa Earles McCarthy, the President of Council 67, the Nurses Branch, angered by the destruction, must have also mused on the stark contrast between the renewed city they knew, and the vandalized cities of Ireland, a contrast that might have seemed vast and unbridgeable. But as union members, teachers, public health workers—as San Franciscans— they were accustomed to working on behalf of a future that broke with the past. Brought up within the atmosphere of communal benevolence and collective action, which characterized the Irish community in San Francisco since the city’s founding, they knew what to do. They got busy.
Submitted September 17, 2019. Tonight, I’m honored to be a part of a panel hosted by the San Francisco Historical Society and the Consulate General of Ireland which will feature Eamon’s de Valera’s grandson, Éamon Ó Cuív, TD, former Minister of at least six departments, including the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. We’ll be marking the centenary of Eamon de Valera’s time in America, which included a trip to San Francisco in July and November of 1919. de Valera visited just about every state in the nation, I think, and had an exhausting schedule, which makes me wonder: Where was Eamon de Valera one hundred years ago today? (I think he may have been in Rhode Island.)
One hundred and twenty-four years ago, on a cold December morning in 1894, Edward Creely, San Francisco’s veterinary surgeon, and his colleague James P. Dockery, the city’s newly appointed Milk Inspector, drove to Butchertown, on the outskirts of San Francisco. Once there, the men changed into working garb, holstered their guns, and walked into the mudflats of Islais Creek. Creely and Dockery were preparing to go on a cattle raid.
In the early eighteen-nineties, the year Edward Creely’s story begins, the sight of a cow was commonplace, and encouraged San Franciscans to believe that there was fresh milk to be had. There was, if you owned a cow, or lived near one of the sprawling 1000-acre dairies in the Excelsior Homestead or the Sunnyside district.
There were plenty of customers to be had, too, and unscrupulous dairy owners knew that. They sold milk from cows afflicted with tuberculosis, and laced with formalin, or hydrogen peroxide. To increase the volume of milk, and their bottom line, the dairies diluted the milk with water contaminated with fecal matter, a practice described by a dairyman in an 1894 San Francisco Chronicle article about a new proposal before the board of supervisors: a dairy inspection ordinance.
“Cows must be washed thoroughly”, a cartoon from the San Francisco Call, Oct. 22, 1896
“I have seen some of these milk mixers dip up water from a trough where horses drink and put it in the milk. At many of these cheap dairies the seepage from the barnyard has a deleterious effect on the water used for dilution.”
The free-range cows of San Francisco, eating and shitting freely, led to an even wider-ranging community of Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that causes cholera. Dairymen like John Linehan, whose daughter Julia married a Creely, milked the public of their money as readily as the early merchants of San Francisco mined the miners. Edward, my great-granduncle, lived a pretty good life as a prosperous and renowned veterinary surgeon. But he hit a couple low points along the way, mostly because of cows and their white milk. Both were his bete noir.
“… a city is apt in the plenitude of its sanitary advantages, to pass through its early stages of growth and to develop into a metropolis before it awakens to a recognition of the truth that this heritage is exhaustible. ..ultimately it must throw around them the protective agencies of modern sanitary science.”
A.S. Lovelace, health officer for the Board of Public Health in San Francisco made this sober observation in 1896, after the first year of dairy inspections. It was likely the text version of an argument he’d made in city chambers trying to convince reluctant supervisors to spend money safeguarding public health. Lovelace must have known that the protective agency of “modern sanitary science” would be met with defensive indignation from industries that didn’t want, then as now, to be regulated.
The city’s first milk ordinance was introduced in 1893 by George Knight, attorney to the Board of Health. Smaller dairy owners opposed regulation, knowing that the cost of cleanliness would put them out of business. (San Francisco has always been steadfastly agnostic when grappling with the decision to regulate disruptive entrepreneurs.) Their stalling worked, for a time. The ordinance didn’t pass until 1896. But change was in the air. The standards proposed in 1893 provided a roadmap to a better, more hygienic future. Milk couldn’t contain less than 12 ½ percent of milk solids, among other things, and dairy owners couldn’t keep sick cows. But how was the city to keep track of the milk flowing from the thousands of cows ranged over 49 square miles?
James Patrick Dockery, 1864-1913, San Francisco’s first Milk Inspector.
What was needed was a city official who could perform inspections, enforce regulations, and keep wily dairy owners in check. In September of 1895, the city mustered the will to hire James P. Dockery, an energetic Irish-American, as San Francisco’s first ever Milk Inspector*. “He Will Destroy All Impure Milk,” promised the San Francisco Chronicle.
A mixture of virtue and outrage drove Dockery, a restaurateur who had experience dealing with crooked milkmen, who often paid thousands of dollars to secure the business of restaurant owners. They recovered their investment by selling the same restaurant adulterated milk. Dockery declared war on the dairies, declaring that they had “murdered infants” and could be tolerated no more.
He wasn’t wrong. Unsanitary milk was an inconvenience the city had learned to live with, along with deaths from infectious diseases. More than 20,000 San Franciscans died of “zymotic” or infectious diseases since the Board of Public Health started keeping records in 1871.
Dealing with the dairies was humane, but pragmatic, too. It’s tough building a city if a significant percentage of the population is constantly wracked by acute digestive disorders. If San Franciscans wanted more than just protection from fires and vigilance mobs, the frantic relationship between consumer and producer —I got what you want/you’ve got what I need–had to be intervened with, and a new approach to the city’s future mapped out.
Playtime was over for San Francisco. A reformist political movement called Progressivism played out in cities across the nation. The drive for hygienic dairies, and the concern for public health, signaled a sustained challenge to inefficient, corrupt “pay to play” politics and marked the onset of centralized city government, a strong mayor and a preference for regulation of industries. Pure milk could serve as proof that the city had shrugged off the florid uncleanliness of the Gilded Age that produced men like Chris Buckley, the Irish-born “Blind Boss” who ran San Francisco during the eighteen eighties and early eighteen nineties.
Cracking down on filthy dairies meant drafting municipal codes, antagonizing unscrupulous dairy owners, lobbying reluctant city supervisors and clashing with other men, equally intent on reforming San Francisco’s lackadaisical approach to public health. City Hall was a dumping ground for male ambition, and everyone sloshed around in it, including Dockery and Creely.
The city’s meat inspector, a man named Ben Davis, complained that Dockery’s vigilance was usurping his role as the meat health inspector. Creely, a political appointee who became the city’s veterinary surgeon in 1883, was charged with graft by “Doc” Burns, the former City Veterinarian who was replaced by my great uncle. None of this slowed Dockery or Creely down. It was a heady time in city government, a moment to stand in stark contrast to other, more inferior men. Men possessed of ambition and civic virtue (real or imagined) could hitch their wagons to the rising tide of reform, and gain a lifetime of public approbation.
J. Tomkinson Livery and Stable located at 57, 59 and 61 Minna street, circa 1871. The boarding house at 55 Minna street is directly to the left of the stable. Image from the California State Library.
In the beginning, Edward Creely was a part of the solution, not the problem. He was born in Stockton in 1867, the first son of James and Margaret McCarty Creely. His father, a farrier by trade, moved the family from Stockton to 55 Minna Street, Ward 11, in the South of Market in 1870. The family dwelling sat next to the J.Tompkinson Livery, a stable that spread over two city blocks, making the densely populated neighborhood a forerunner to today’s transit village.
Edward grew up in his father’s horseshoeing shop on Mission street. James Creely managed to corner a vital piece of the horseshoeing market: the horses owned by the city and county of San Francisco. The Creely forge became a hangout for city politicos, major and minor. Edward grew up listening to the political chatter of the adults as he fired the forge and helped control the restive bodies of horses as shoes were hammered onto their hooves.
When Edward was six, his father moved the family to the outskirts of Butchertown, a famously disgusting place, and began working for Zhan and Langermann, blacksmiths and wagon-makers. Butchertown, which roughly corresponds with the industrial area east of Bayshore and south of Cesar Chavez, was founded in 1868 by butchers after they were forbidden by the city from slaughtering animals inside city limits. They bought 81 acres of land from the State, and carried on until 1971 as the city’s abattoir, aided by Islais Creek and the bay which formed a natural dumping grounds for the blood and guts issuing from the slaughterhouses.
The Creelys lived on Railroad Avenue, a street platted on a narrow spit of land surrounded by mudflats. The smells and sounds of the animals on their way to slaughter must have been wretched: I can’t imagine how my great-great grandmother felt about living with four children in such noisome and sanguine isolation. (Or maybe I can. The family moved back to the South of Market within the year.)
Twenty years later, Edward Creely was back in Butchertown helping conduct Dockery’s war on toxic milk, which was well underway. Dockery began that fall by stopping dairy wagons on their way into the city. Brandishing his “lactometer” (you can purchase one for 9.99 on Amazon) he tested the milk on the spot, usually on the side of Mission road or San Bruno avenue and dumped the entire contents of the wagon if the milk failed the Babcock test, named after the 19th-century chemist who devised the test to determine levels of butter fat and adulterants.
In his first month on the job, Dockery stopped 450 wagons, and boasted of dumping 2,000 gallons of milk, usually around midnight, and almost always over the heated protests of the milkmen. After dumping 25 milk cans from John Linehan’s Green Valley dairy** and being threatened by Linehan and his sons, Dockery made his intentions clear: “… I want it distinctly understood that so long as I am Milk Inspector, I will dump every can of milk not up to the standard prescribed by the Board of Health. I will do this if I have to hold a gun in one hand while I empty the cans with the other.”
The press, impressed with Dockery’s alacrity and mindful of the affront to the local dairy industry, called these inspections “raids” which was fitting. Both Creely and Dockery’s Irish roots lay in places famed for cattle raiding, Ulster and Connacht respectively, which is where the legendary Irish epic the Tain Bo Cuilgnne (the Cattle Raid of Cooley) took place. In the winter of 1895 and the spring of the following year, readers of San Francisco newspapers were treated to a local version of the Tain, minus a queen named Mebh, as Dockery and Creely raided dairies, impounded — and occasionally shot– tubercular cattle and skirmished with resentful milkmen in the green hills and wetlands of San Francisco.
Dockery and Creely were in Butchertown to stop dairymen from grazing their cattle on swamp grasses and pickleweed. Grazing livestock in wetlands isn’t unusual, as in France, where agneau de pré-salé–lamb grazed in salt marshes– is a delicacy. But salty milk that tastes like shit has never been popular. The cow’s fodder was liberally laced with human feces, a carrier of Salmonella enterica, a result of the five city sewers that emptied their contents into the marshes of Islais Creek. The dairymen who gazed their cattle there did so because they couldn’t afford (or didn’t want to purchase) quality feed.
Ambition drove Edward into the marsh to chase cows in 51-degree weather. He was a young man, with a growing family and a newly opened veterinary hospital grandly named the New York Veterinary Hospital, located at 510 Golden Gate avenue, around the corner from his uncle John McCarty, who was also a farrier.
Edward, and his younger brother James and Tom were college-educated (the Creely sisters were not) and busy men with work that tended more and more to the white collar world. In 1893, Edward became a weekly columnist for the Pacific Rural Press, an agricultural newspaper printed in San Francisco, and began dispensing medical advice to livestock owners in Northern California who needed his help solving the problems of the grubby, frequently gruesome world of animal husbandry. Chasing cows was all in a day’s work. But it was nasty work. Decomposition is the way of life in a wetland, but the process, which makes short work of a strand of eel grass, isn’t equal to the task of breaking down the body of a dead horse, a sight that greeted Dockery and Creely that morning.
Going to Butchertown was Dockery’s idea. There had been an outbreak of typhoid in Oakland and San Francisco, which prompted the Milk Inspector to crack down on the “Italian swamp ranch community” who were known to pasture their cows in the marsh, near the Golden City homestead at Tulare and Illinois Streets. Dockery’s plan was simple. He was going to drive the cows to the pound, about two miles away and arrest anyone who tried to claim them.
Accordingly, the men began their muddy cattle raid by shooing the cattle west toward San Bruno Road. This provoked an immediate response from the owners of the livestock who emerged half-naked from the depths of the muddy swamp –“most of them had very little wearing apparel on,” the paper noted disapprovingly– and rushed Dockery and Creely, with sticks and dogs. The milk inspector and the surgeon fended off enraged dairymen by firing shots in the air, which drove the men and most of the cows away. The Mission police were summoned and the remainder of the herd taken to the pound. Two hours later, dairymen Alessandro Di Sante, Edwino Del Sante and Bartholomew Mozetti were charged with a misdemeanor and taken to the 17th street police station. (Dockery later bailed Del Sante out of prison to the relief of his children and weeping wife.)
All in a day’s work and yet the loss of a cow, no matter how sickly, has never been a small matter. The Pacific Rural Press reported that a good Holstein calf could cost around about $500, about $4,000 adjusted for inflation. In the same San Francisco Chronicle article about the proposal to inspect dairies, an unnamed dairyman noted that good milk cost good money and cited the Guadaloupe Dairy, located on Valencia Street, as an example, stating that they invested about $150,000–more than 4 million–annually in their operations. The shirtless men pasturing their cows along the creek may have owned their cows, but maybe not much else, certainly nothing resembling a dairy. Fodder and water could be free if you weren’t too picky, but infrastructure was for the rich.
“Inspector Dockery interviews Mrs. O’Brian”, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 10, 1895. Uncle Edward and Bessie the cow look on.
Still, a sickly cow had some value. This was the case with a cow named Bessie who had been caught up in the December raid. She was claimed by her owner, Mrs. O’Brian, who explained that Bessie’s lacteal fluid nourished her and her four children. It might have infected them too. The cow had been declared consumptive by Dockery. But in Mrs.O’Brien’s view, milk from a tubercular cow was better than nothing. Dockery released the cow into Mrs. O’Brien’s custody, an act of graciousness that “took by storm the affections of the people of Ireland,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
It was an easy gesture to make. Bessie was doomed. Destined to give what milk she could with the feed available to her, probably far less than two gallons a day, she was likely slaughtered in Butchertown when her milk ran out, and dumped into the bay to be washed back into the marsh by the tides. Her flesh and the flesh of other cows littered the landscape, like the brawling bulls of the Tain Bo Cuilgne, but unlike those mythic beasts, their bodies had no value and didn’t name that awful landscape.
Dockery wrote a report for the 1895-96 San Francisco Municipal Report detailing the results of his busy year. Out of 3,784 cows inspected, 36 were killed. More than 7 thousand gallons of milk was dumped and 228 warrants for arrest issued.
The same year, infectious diseases killed 472 people, mostly infants in the 11th ward, the first place my family lived in San Francisco. To be a baby in the 11th ward, or a cow in the Islais swamp was to share a common fate: illness and death due to disease spread by San Francisco’s commercial dairies. It would be another decade before the dairy industry was brought to heel.
“Milk Drugged With Hair Dye Poisons A Baby Victim”. San Francisco Call, October 1905.
Milk and dairy inspection lagged during the Schmitz mayoralty. This was how it came to be that in October 1905, Gladys May Tumalty, Edith Hays, and Ruth and Francis Lent, all infants and toddlers, drank milk containing formalin and hydrogen peroxide that came from the dairies of two of the city’s worst offenders, Linehan, and another dairyman named George C. Smart, owner of the New York Dairy. Formalin was used to retard spoilage and hydrogen peroxide was a folk remedy thought to kill Mycobacterium bovis, the bacteria that causes bovine tuberculosis. (It didn’t.)
Smart was smart. After paying a fine of $200 dollars, and narrowly avoiding a jail sentence, he launched the Dairy Delivery Company with John Daly and other dairy owners. They published a pamphlet in 1906, the year the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. It’s a masterpiece of re-branding. “Every operation is conducted on strict sanitary principles,” the company claims. The pamphlet shows clean rooms full of sparkling machinery, and not a single cow in sight.
Picture of the Dairy Delivery Company, sometime after 1906. The Mission District address, 3550 19th is clearly visible on the truck. Image courtesy of Glenn Koch.
In 1912, the Board of Supervisors passed city ordinance 2329 which set the standards for pasteurized milk. That year, just four children under one year of age died of cholera in San Francisco.
“To each cow, its calf,” said the High King of Ireland, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, in his famous 6th-century anti-copyright ruling, meaning all rights revert to the owner. mac Cerbaill’s ruling is about restoration, and so, too, is the idea that undergirds public health, which has always been both desperately needed and a hard sell. Disease and illness carry more than bacteria: they carry stigma, too, a suspicion that people are sick because of some moral failing.
This is why oral hygiene is not covered by public health care plans, incredible as it may seem. You could have flossed more, the thinking goes. Perhaps someone thought you could have paid more for your milk, as they read about Gladys May Tumalty, the infant poisoned by hydrogen peroxide. It’s an old problem, this ambivalence about what we owe one another. But from time to time, it’s been settled as a question.
San Francisco legislators, faced with the “necessity of sanitary reform”, made it clear in their ordinances that a defining characteristic of what it meant to be a San Franciscan, beyond the accident of birth, was having access to untainted milk and later, inexpensive public transportation and a water supply that’s one of the best in the country. To each San Franciscan, their health: this ruling is lettered nowhere within city limits, but its spirit remains in the mission statement of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. The mission of the San Francisco Department of Public Health is to protect and promote the health of all San Franciscans.
It’s a tall order. But as long as we live together, linked by the fluidity of water, grounded by the turbulent earth, and impacted by rapidly destabilizing climate, it will always be a better approach, this idea that by considering ourselves as part of a greater whole, we stand a chance of surviving.
* How much the city paid Dockery is unclear. The municipal report for fiscal year 1895-96 notes his position as Milk Inspector, but doesn’t list a salary. In a San Francisco Chronicle article, Dockery claims that a state law empowers him; however, according to state librarian Angelica Illuca, the first state law that appears to directly reference Dairy Inspections is dated 1899. So, I don’t know. Was he a freelance milk inspector? In a San Francisco Call article dated November 1st 1895, it is noted that William Broderick, the city auditor has allowed JP Dockery’s “first salary warrant, in spite of all the talk to the contrary“. The city did pay him, but how much and under what conditions is, as of this writing, unclear to me.
** A digression (sorry!) John F. Linehan, 1841-1915, and his father, also named John, were major players in the dairy dynasties of San Francisco. The senior Linehan’s dairy was located at Laguna and Greenwich in Cow Hollow. After the city insisted that dairies remove themselves for hygienic reasons, the Linehan family opened the Green Valley Dairy in the Excelsior Homestead near Vienna and France streets. This move did not make them more hygienic, by the way. Delightfully, the Linehan family hailed from a town named Boherbue in County Cork, Ireland. “Bo” is the Irish word for cow, and the term “Bóthar” means cattle road. This is both utterly (udderly?) coincidental, and totally not.
In June of 1910, Hannah McCarty Welsh stepped over the threshold of J.H. Kruse’s hardware store on the corner of 23rd Street and Shotwell and bought a gun. This seems like an act of reckless bravado. But what is more likely is that she was exhausted when she did it, and very frightened.
She and her husband John had been served with an eviction notice the day before, informing them that the homestead he’d established in 1879 on the north side of Bernal Hill, was no longer legally their home, due to a foreclosure by the Hibernia Bank, and the predatory practices of a Geary Street money lender named E.W. Lick.
Ew, indeed. John Welsh’s bitter comments to the press, two or three days later, as he stood in the street with his worldly possessions scattered around him, suggests that Lick talked Hannah into signing something she shouldn’t have. The result was an expulsion from the Edenic surroundings of Bernal Heights, then and now a serene and secluded spot in San Francisco.
Hannah had been arguing their case before the courts earlier that year. This earned her the attention of the San Francisco Call, which showed puzzled admiration for her after she spent two days in court in February, acting as her own lawyer. Calling her a “woman attorney”, the reporter reported that she showed a “knowledge of legal procedures that would surprise some members of the bar.” Did she want to go to law school? Where did her unsanctioned and raw expertise come from?
We’ll never know. Most of the media attention implied that what she really was, was a braying loudmouth. Although she “bravely essayed” to represent her case, and was described as “confident” and dexterous in her questioning, and unshaken by the technical questions from Lick’s lawyer, Mr. Gaylor, the surprise that greeted her confidence carried the unmistakable stink of misogyny. She was alternately derided and condescended to in the press. She “complained’ rather than reported the bribe she claimed had passed between her neighbor and a city surveyor, was called “noisy” and “lawless” as she objected to the eviction proceedings, and was declared insane for making “scenes” as she fought to stay in her home.
The whole sorry episode stinks to high heaven. The only comfort I can take is that two and a half years later, after her husband died, she was released from the asylum and cleared of all charges. By 1922, she was working as a “matron” (a professional shusher at movie theaters) at the Orpheum Theater and owned a house in Noe Valley. She lived with a man named George Hamilton Bohm, thirteen years younger than she, and an employee of the U.S. Post office. He’s described as a boarder in Hannah’s home in the census record from 1930. Four years before she died, he died. She reported his death to the H.F. Suhr & Co funeral home, who handled his remains, and is described in Bohm’s obit as his “dear friend.”
That is the substance of a happy ending: the restoration of home, the happy amity of friendship (maybe he was gay? I sort of hope he was) and the promise of a peaceful dotage. She even managed to be interred in San Francisco, due to her husband’s status as a Civil War vet.
Hannah stayed put in a city that shakes people off its back as effortlessly as a dog shakes water from its coat. But in order to do that, she had to face down the kind of fear that immobilizes people. Eviction at the age of fifty is a banishment to the margins of civilization, of society, of settled existence. She was facing that fear as she stepped over the threshold of J.H. Kruse’s hardware store and bought a gun. Was this necessary? Did it help? It depends.
It didn’t reverse the court’s decision that Lick could evict her. But if you take all events in a narrative as innately causative, and fate-shaping, then sure. It was necessary. So was her fear. So were the mistakes she undoubtedly made: signing papers, losing her temper, talking too much, caring too much, and probably ignoring her husband’s advice. The mistakes she made—and her husband’s pension— might have been necessary prerequisites that led her to 1538 Church street and an old age supported by a dear friend, and her extended family.
Maybe. That’s a nice summation, probably too nice. How Hannah got her gun was simple: she bought it from her friendly neighborhood gun dealer. How she got her resilience and determination to keep her hand in after she lost her home and was institutionalized is more of a mystery.
Some people are just really bloody-minded: by this, I mean that I think that the fiery instinct of Fuck You blazed within Hannah’s soul, granting her some protection from depression and inertia.
She’s in my heart these days. I, too, am in my fifties and have made many mistakes, wasted decades, been bumptious and ill-advised, ill-timed—hysterical even— and am very bloody minded. Fuck You is my rejoinder to all those mistakes, the rebuke they’re lobbing at me, and the fear they’re trying to instill in my soul of what I’ve become: a writer who makes no money. Hannah had her gun; I have my computer: both of us want to be heard.
What is prompting all this over identification with Hannah? you may be wondering. Reader, I’ll tell you. (and I’m sorry to be so outbursty on my blog.) I’ve recently had two or three long dark nights, and at least two days, of the soul, following some galvanic shocks only the universe is capable of delivering. I encountered some writing in major publications that I could have and should have done. And when I say “could have”, I’m not exaggerating.
One of these articles, which was very well written and needful of publication, told a story I began to tell back in 2004, and then abandoned. But here’s the kicker: it wasn’t until I saw the story, that I realized that I had, in fact, abandoned it.
Why did I abandon it? Do you have all day? Neither do I. Chalk it up to a combination of confusion about what I was doing and how to do it, isolation from a peer group, and a lack of self-confidence, which looks and feels like laziness. In other words, the usual suspects hamstrung me and have continued to do so intermittently for the past fifteen years.
This is hard for me to admit. Like Hannah, I’m not a quitter, and yet… time that is unbound by the normal constraints (a nine-to-five job) appears to be closer in the rear view mirror than it really is. One, two, twenty years: I’m not sure what I’ve been doing since I graduated from San Francisco State University with an MFA and married Jay three years after that. Those seem to be the high points in a decade and half that now, in my current six-of-cups mood, feel mired in betwixt-dom.
The fact of the matter is, I’ve started more than I’ve finished (so far) and while these are terrible words to write, they are true.
Happily, I have friends and family who can remind me gently that I have done some things, and so thus endeth—sort of abruptly, cause I ain’t got no more insights to offer—my peroration. It’s all good. I’ll survive. Hannah survived. But I want more than survival, and I think Hannah did, too. What might she have been, had she been sprung from a culture that saw her as uncontrollable and therefore insane?
And where is Hannah now? She’s around. In the mid-eighties, during a divorce which tested her to her limits, my aunt—Hannah’s great-great grandniece—finished law school, passed the bar and practiced law until she retired. She has since retired to a house she owns, and is greatly loved by her family. We’ll be celebrating her 82nd birthday this month.
Into every generationaslayer is born. Hannah lives, I say, and has been sprung from the institutional constraints she struggled against. My aunt survived, I will as well, and my nieces and younger cousins will do that and more, I prophecy, while being as bold, talkative and as dammed obstreperous as they see fit to be.
Cue the music and let the credits roll.
Written in a highly reflective mood, and with love to Ania, Madeline, Delphina, Cosette, and the littlest Creely of all, darling Becca.
Hannah McCarty Welsh is my 3rd-great grandaunt, and sister to Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, who was a source of dismay to his family. Hannah might have been as well, but by the time she shot the sheriff’s deputy—not the sheriff—at her home at 120 Ripley street, the Creely-McCarty family was preoccupied by other family scandals and may not have taken any notice.
The house on north side of Bernal Hill is still standing, trim and well-maintained, and gives no hint to the turmoil that peaked on the morning of June 16, 1910. I wonder if there are any bullet holes in the house, particularly near the side door. It received the worst treatment during the shoot out; that, and the sheriff’s deputy John A. Barr’s left and right cheeks.
Hannah’s crime happened during a trigger happy era in San Francisco. The graft trial of Abe Ruef and Eugene Schmitt, and the 1907 Carmen’s strike both included shooting. Hardware stores like J.H. Kruse’s at 3145 23rd street, which is where Hannah got her gun, must done a brisk trade in the sale of small handguns during those years.
An armed woman facing down a posse of policeman might not have made the papers before 1910. But she chose her historic moment well. San Franciscan’s were tired of reading about the graft trial, and Hannah, as one newspaper account reported, was “known” around town, because she was Whitehat’s sister, and also because she talked a lot.
Hannah didn’t dislike media attention. There’s a picture of her, four months before the shooting, smiling for the camera and holding the corner of her collar in an unmistakably cocky and self-confident manner. She was in court that day contesting the claims of one E.W. Lick, money lender, to the rightful possession of the title on her house. Lick was trying to evict Hannah and her aged husband, John.
Eviction, along with rotten potatoes, would have been very triggering for Hannah. Although Hannah was born in Boston in 1859, her parents, my great-great-great grandparents Timothy and Mary McCarty, were not. They were born in Cork, Ireland in the early eighteen-hundreds, and had the awesome luck of surviving Trevelyan’s economic schemes for Ireland, which included exporting food out of the Ireland as the potato crop failed.
This isn’t the kind of luck I’d wish on anyone. I have no story about their life in Cork prior to immigration, but statistically the odds were not in their favor. Abusive and absentee landlords, terrible workhouses, like the one in Skibbereen, failed crops: the entire panoply of famine, death, displacement and British bureaucratic derangement formed the backdrop to their departure and arrival in America, and probably the rest of their lives in sunny California. Their only luck was their ability to get the hell out.
I don’t know what their immigration year was (looking for a McCarty in a census record from the mid-eighteen hundreds is a thankless task) but anyone who fled a famine no matter where it happened—Ireland, India, North Korea—knows this: the feeling that people are trying to get rid of you is not paranoic fantasy. They are.
In 1910, E.W. Lick was trying to get rid of Hannah and John. They purchased the property from the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society seven years earlier for $250. Adjusted for inflation (it comes out to $6921.73) that’s still a good deal. It’s a roomy lot: 5,625 square feet and 75 feet deep, and it backs up to a hillside. The house has neatly symmetrical second-story fenestration overlooking the street that made a perfect shooting gallery for Hannah.
The trouble began in 1905. That year, Hannah complained to the Department of Public Works that their surveyor improperly measured the lot next to hers, an error encouraged by a bribe offered to the surveyor from her neighbor at 130 Ripley, Mr. Samuel Boyd. This, she said, resulted in four and a quarter feet being deducted from her property. Her complaint was ignored. She was determined to be heard and to obtain justice, but sadly this ancestral vigilance, formed in the crucible of the famine in Cork, was her doom. Prior to the earthquake and fire of 1906, she borrowed $500 from the money lender Lick in order to bring suit against Boyd.
Today, a house stands between 120 and 130 Ripley, but in 1910, there was only an empty field and enough neighborly antipathy billowing across that empty space to make today’s Nextdoor.com dramas pale in comparison. Dumping mattresses is one thing: taking four feet and quarter inches is a trespass not to be born.
Neither Hannah, who was a tailoress, or her husband were working, which is perhaps why the Hibernia Bank foreclosed their $600 mortgage sometime in 1906 through their collection agency, Rauers Law and Collections Agency, which had the snappy motto “We Do Get The Money If The Debtor Has It!” The debtor didn’t have it, but Lick did, and so the die was cast and the drama began churning along.
Lick, whose name rhymes with dick (funny, that) secured a ruling that evicted the Welshes from their home sometime late in 1909, or early in 1910. Hannah refused to budge and ended up in court in February of 1910 for violating section 419 of the penal code, which forbids an evictee from returning to their former abode.
Hannah acted as her own lawyer: this was both affordable and in keeping with her forthright nature. She was helped by a mysterious young woman during the irregular proceedings that day, identified only as “Portia Gray”. Portia claimed she had been admitted to the bar “in another state”, but refused to say any more about it. She and Hannah carried on “whispered consultations” throughout the day, and got a continuance of the case.
Portia Gray never shows up in any other article, and no amount of googling has uncovered her identity. Was she a family member or friend, or maybe even a colleague sent by my great-grandfather James, an attorney, who was used to extricating his family from perilous legal situations? Who knows? Not me.
Things, meaning legal decisions, didn’t go Hannah’s way. Her husband was 74 years old, a veteran of the Civil War, and well within his dotage. This must have weighed on her. When she purchased the revolver from J.H. Kruse’s hardware store that June, one day after being served with a writ of eviction by Barr, the man she later shot, she did so believing that Lick’s men had no right to enter her home.
“I have been told by my attorney that they had no right to enter and that I could have a revolver there to protect my home,” she told a reporter as she sat in jail awaiting arraignment. No article specifies the type of revolver she purchased that day. It was the type you had to reload, which she did at least once during the shoot-out. Perhaps it was a Colt. That detail has been lost to history, but what happened a week later, has not.
It was 54 degrees and clear the morning of June 16, 1910 when Deputy Sheriff John A. Barr climbed the steps of 120 Ripley street, accompanied by Sheriff’s keeper James Logan, and two other policeman. They were there to remove Hannah and her husband from the house and place their belongings in the street. Her husband had gone to plead their case to the presiding judge, George H. Cabaniss, a superior court judge, and Hannah was alone, sick in bed, she said later, but ready to defend herself. When Barr arrived, he found the door barred against him.
The shot went wild, and ricocheted off the wall, near the two policemen crouched outside. Barr put his shoulder against the front door and forced it open. Looking up, he saw Hannah, half dressed, pointing her revolver directly at him. She pulled the trigger and shot him through his left cheek. The bullet passed through his open mouth, exiting above his right ear. He “staggered” out of the house and collapsed, not dead—he didn’t die—but perhaps wishing he had.
She fired her next shot at Policeman Logan, after he forced his way in through a side door. He promptly fled. Hannah opened her front door and stood on her porch, holding the smoking revolver. “I’ll shoot any man that tries to come in here,” she announced. And that’s exactly what she did for the next chaotic hour as policemen in squad cars answered the riot call and rattled up Ripley Street. A crowd of 200 people gathered outside the house, watching and waiting. A neighbor was sent inside to reason with her, but left empty-handed.
Finally, Detective Michael V. Burke from the Mission station forced his way through a back door—not before she shot at him three times—and subdued her. “Although the struggle was between a stalwart policeman and a frail little woman, she fought like a tigress,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle breathlessly the next day. Hannah was taken to the city prison where she was charged with assault to murder.
Hannah’s husband John arrived home and was advised that his wife was in prison. With the doors of his home closed against him, an eviction notice nailed to the front door, and his furniture and personal belongs scattered around him in the street, he spoke with the Chronicle reporter. “This is my property and no matter what my wife borrowed on it or what she was led into signing, it is still mine and they have no right to put me out,” he said. His eyes flashed. “Lick didn’t get it fairly. He has no right to my property.”
His neighbors—maybe the Mahoneys, who lived next door, or the Dettlings, or the maybe the McGarrigals or the Mulcahy’s, all of whom had witnessed the Welsh’s struggle to stay put—gathered around him, offering assistance. Someone gathered up his belongings, and someone else took him away, and gave him shelter that night.
Hannah was arraigned in Judge Deasy’s court on July 14th, and then declined to appear again, and vanished for a month. It was an open secret that she had returned to the scene of the crime and was occupying the house on Ripley Street. The long arm of the law caught up to her in September, and she appeared in Judge Dunne’s court after he threatened to jail her husband. The charges against her were read again, and bail set at $1,000 in cash.
She fired her attorney, Philip Boardman, and, insisting on representing herself, tried to convince the judge to throw out the case. “Shrieking woman breaks up court” was the headline that day: after failing to convince Judge Dunne of the merits of her argument, Hannah screamed so loudly that court proceedings in other rooms came to halt. She was removed from court and taken to a nearby paddy wagon, still screaming that she was being deprived of her rights.
Her persistence didn’t go unrewarded. In October, commissioners with San Francisco County Insanity Commission, announced that she was paranoic, and insane, due to her peculiar conviction that she was better able to represent herself and, moreover, that the courts and officers of justice were in a conspiracy and trying to cheat her.
The commissioners suggested that she be remanded to a private insane asylum. She was placed in the county jail while her friends (they are never named in any of the articles) were encouraged to find such a place. She was officially declared legally insane on November 10, 1910, by Dr. C.D. McGettigan, insanity commissioner, who said that she suffered from “litigious paranoia”. It’s not clear where she was held from November, 1910 to August 17, 1913: the Stockton State Asylum has no public record that shows her as an inmate. Perhaps she was at San Francisco General Hospital. Or perhaps the Creely/McCarty’s funded her stay at a private asylum.
Wherever she was, she proved to be a model inmate. Two years later, on August 17, 1913, Hannah was pronounced sane and released, three months after her husband John died at the age of 77.
Hannah bounced back. After her release, she lived on 24th street, near the intersection of Shotwell, a funny locale for a woman who hadn’t. She made her living as a vest-maker. By 1920, she was sixty-one years old, and working as a matron in the Orpheum theater and living in a rented room on Guerrero street. John’s pension as a veteran would have been available to Hannah; this, combined with her tailoring skills, may explain why, after so much strife, fraud and trickery, she was able to purchase a home at 1538 Church street in Noe Valley.
She passed out of this crazy world 35 years after her impassioned defense of her home, at the ripe old age of 85. She outlived her siblings, Margaret and Daniel, and possibly Catherine and John, too.
There’s no obituary for her, just a record from Carew and English, the funeral home that received her remains. The information in it came from her niece Anna Creely, and confirms the information we, who were born in the aftermath of our ancestor’s immigration, were told in sporadic moments of recollection: that her parents were Timothy and Mary (Rice) McCarty, that Hannah was born in Massachusetts, and that everything we never really knew, was true after all.
Less important, but most illuminating to me is this fact: Hannah was born under the astrological sign of Cancer the Crab, that clever, tenacious, legalistic, and resilient sign most associated with domesticity, and all matters pertaining to the thing we call home.
She and John are buried in the National Cemetery, in the Presidio, in grave 1015, on the west side, under a plain white headstone made by the Green Mountain Marble Co. in Vermont. Requiescat in pace.
Written with love (and a very stiff neck) for Aunt Hannah and Uncle John.
“… the exiled Irish took with them the bitterest memories of the land system which drove them from Ireland… ” Mícheál Davitt, excerpted from the speech he delivered in defense of the Land League in 1890.
November 2nd was a warm day. The sun blazed, the air was still, and in the Mission people walked in a leisurely fashion, the way they do when they aren’t hurrying out of the cold.
But an autumnal bluster lurked behind the placid blueness of the sky. At 2 pm, the light shifted slightly. Long black shadows stretched to the north, cross-hatching the sidewalk with their silhouettes. In front of the Mission Language & Vocational School on 19th Street, old sycamore trees shook in the breeze. The dry leaves rattled once, and fell to the ground. Later that night, thousands of people walked to the corner of 22nd and Bryant Street to celebrate Dia de los Muertos.
Dia de los Muertos, also known as All Souls day—or Féile na Marbh if you’re Irish— always falls on November 2, the month of the Holy Souls in the Catholic Liturgical calendar. San Francisco celebrations have a tough time defending themselves against spectacle seekers, and every year I wonder if it will be the year that some fool ruins the evening for the rest of us.
This is what happened to Halloween in the Castro. It started life as a neighborhood event in the forties, and morphed into a whole-hearted expression of gaiety, drag and revelry when the neighborhood changed hands. Everything stopped in 2006, after someone brought a gun to a fight. Long before that, though, public drunkenness and the narcissistic practice of documenting yourself in a cast of thousands overtook the event. At the end, there were just too many people there, rubbernecking at queer men in brilliant, often very topical drag (you could read the year’s events by looking at the costumes. There was no limit to the commentary: I seem to recall someone costumed as two ruined Twin Towers in 2001.)
I think Dia de los Muertos might be protected from this. Mass memorials aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, as a 2008 Yelp review of the event from a freaked-out attendee makes clear: “I thought this would be a fun event to check out, but it was way more somber than I was led to believe,” he wrote disapprovingly. “Yes, people do get really creative with the designing and building of the alters honoring their departed loved ones but this whole thing is way more creepy and satanic than people seem willing to admit.”
Um, ok. I’m pretty sure that the Church of Satan has never helped organize Dia de los Muertos. The Mission District doesn’t need outside assistance planning big festivals and celebrations. A loose-knit coalition of neighborhood group kicked things off in the seventies, and it’s been going strong ever since. A non-profit called The Marigold Project has for the last decade or so undertaken the project of bringing the dead to life. They fundraise throughout the year to pay for street permits, trash cans, and supplies for the altars. A day or so before November 2, volunteers and Mission residents transform Garfield Park into a city of the dead.
By nightfall, the park glows with candlelight, often electric. Tiny lights flicker on the tops of altars. Millions of bright orange marigold petals are scattered on the ground. Small alters are set up on adjoining streets. It’s extremely chill. People are hanging out with their dead.
The first sign that the procession is starting is the booming sound of drums. People gather on the corner outside King’s Market on the corner of Bryant and 22nd Street. Some people stand on the perimeter and watch as others walk past them and into the crowd to be a part of the procession.
This year, I costumed myself as my great-great Grandfather James Creely’s fine white horse, which involved a paper mache mask, his bridle and lots of white hair gel. The bridle kept shifting, and I kept having to re-adjust it, but that’s part of the bargain when you walk. Costumes aren’t obedient familiars: your costume might change, and should challenge you.
There’s a fine line to be walked when you’re in costume. Processing in costume should take you there, ritually speaking. But “there” is a different place for different people.
It turns some people into poseurs, not processors. My friends and I walked past a couple who were dressed to the nines, looking like extras from “Coco”. They stood rigidly on the corner, not moving, as people swarmed around them with cell phones. My friend snorted in disgust. They’re just here to get their pictures taken, she said. They’re not walking. That’s appropriation. I agreed. They have no one in their hearts, I said.
This was judge-y of us, but probably true. They didn’t appear to be thinking of anyone but themselves. (And let’s be clear about one thing: there’s a lot of dead people who would LOVE to be thought of). Turning the night into an endless Instagram moment kind of kills the spirit. I’m guilty of allowing people to stop me so that they could take my picture. But the picture taking stops the action, literally: cameras interrupt the soulful process. After all, I’m not walking alone.
Instagramming everything takes, but doesn’t give. Could the murals in Balmy and Clarion alley but speak, I’m sure they’d agree with me. It’s nothing new. Contemporary urban behavior isn’t much different now than it was in Georgian England. Just as Jane Austen’s characters shopped, ate and lollygagged their way around Bath, so it is in the Mission. Day-trippers arranging themselves in Clarion Alley in front of images of the dispossessed, the incarcerated, and the newly dead is commonplace. But if you wish to avoid cultural vacuity during Dia de los Muertos, take my advice: walk with your dead. Have someone in your heart.
And know your history. The most popular costume for women is “La Calavera Catrina” the iconic, skeletal figure created by printmaker and political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina’s roots are explicitly political and anti-authoritarian: they express Posada’s political dissatisfaction with the government of Porfirio Diaz, the authoritarian President of Mexico who ruled Mexico with an iron fist for thirty five years, and the caste system that flourished because of him.
The woman who stood on the corner waiting for her close-up probably had no idea that she was animating a sharp satire: the image of the bourgeoisie as the living dead. But it works out, in the end. It makes sense to see La Catrina in a neighborhood that has struggled to maintain cultural continuity, amid an unprecedented influx of wealth and economic division.
Division and loss—and the efforts to bridge them with memory— is the working of the procession, in the company of others: weeping people, laughing people, everyone. Mourners and celebrants mingle in the procession, colliding their sorrow with another’s hilarity. It’s a night when the neighborhood greets itself honestly, and acknowledges the turn of the season toward the dark part of the year. I thought about all of this as I clutched my bridle to my head. I walked in memory of my great-great grandfather James, but I wasn’t mourning him. He was 101 years dead and was well out of harm’s way. So many of us are not. I walked, apparently resplendent in my horse costume, feeling foolishly human, very small and easily fucked with. This was a year in which many illusions died (for those of us who were dumb enough to have any) along with our friends, lovers, leaders and teachers.
It’s been a dark year. There was more than mortal death we had to face. This was the year that children were kidnapped from their parents by Trumpists and caged. This was the year that there were 307 mass shootings in America. This was the year that journalists were alternately derided and threatened in the White House Press room by the administration’s Cromwellian press secretary, and tortured and killed by clients of American armaments dealers. (I walked with you in my heart, dear Mr. Kashoggi.)This was the year the Republican party ran roughshod over the needs of this nation for equity and justice, in their haste to install a political operative on a ever-more compliant Supreme Court. This was the year that entire devotional communities were murdered in their places of worship.ע״ה
There didn’t seem to be as many people walking this year. Permits to close the streets to cars weren’t obtained, and cars ran through the streets to the detriment of the easy ambling pace of the night. I saw the police everywhere. The altars in Garfield Park started to get dismantled at 10 p.m. sharp. Things felt different. Or maybe it was just me.
But some things remained the same. People moved slowly down the sidewalks, taking in the altars, illuminated by candlelight as they looked at the pictures of the neighborhood’s beloved dead. Their expressions set the tone for the gathering: their faces were enraptured and soft. People gathered together chatting and laughing. Time moved slowly; no one was in a hurry.
Dia de los Muertos carries its own time stamp, one in which the past brings the busy neighborhood and the agonized world we live in to heel for a few hours, to slow down, to look, to reflect, and most importantly, to remember.
Written on November 14, 2018, during the waxing moon. I’m tired. It was a hectic and high-spirited High Season. May the blue wave continue to roll.
Here’s a small story about a big building: 200 Potrero avenue, a building that looks like a Gothic church, sits solidly on the right-hand side of the street, 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 by declaring the area to be a non-contiguous historic district encompassing 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 built with enormous “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 built to last. And they have.
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. Bleachers was a neighborhood-serving kind of place if there ever was one: an ad 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.”
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 that could accommodate 150 people. It had an orchestra platform, a dance floor, and a fireplace. 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.
But back to 200 Potrero: this is a building that commands your attention, even though it’s painted a un-reflective grey, a shade I’d name “June Gloom”. 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 was in operation at 200 Potrero, 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.
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 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 historic 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.
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.
My 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. The work being done on empty buildings on Mission street, modernized in the thirties, and awaiting their next star turn, is shrouded in plywood, and shielded from the public gaze. 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 over what should remain from the past and what can be done away with. 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 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. 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 usually 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?
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 add distinction to the city, 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. Harrison street used to host a variety of buildings, in varying heights and widths, that were leftover from its days as a Southern Pacific railroad corridor. Many of the buildings between 21st and 23rd 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.
Finished September 4th, 2018, one day after Labor Day. All Hail, Francis Perkins, 1880-1965, an architect of the New Deal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, were 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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”.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.