At some point during the first Shelter in Place (I assume there will be more) my neighbor, the venerable Mrs. Rivera, who has lived in her apartment for more than a half a century, began greeting the neighborhood as her late afternoon ritual.
Mrs. Rivera is tiny, and very old with a cap of snow-white hair, and large dark eyes. She’s cheerful and gracious, except when her family, who take very good care of her, asks her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Then she screeches like an owl. Even now, after recovering from surgery, and stuck in her bedroom because of the plague, her interest hasn’t waned in the comings and goings of the neighborhood that she’s lived in for much of her life. Of course the coming and goings these days are much different.
I became aware of her new role as the 22nd Crossroads greeter last month as I sat at my desk, WFH, or trying to. The Mission district is distracting, and I am often distracted by the sidewalk dialogue, which is usually some weirdly confident FinTech guy discussing the uncertain future very energetically.
A couple weeks ago I heard someone say, “Are you OK?”. They didn’t sound OK, so I drew my drapes back to see what the matter was. A jogger stood before Mrs. Rivera’s window, looking concerned. I ran down my steps and looked up. There was Mrs. Rivera looking down at us.
“Are you OK?” he asked again. He was confused by her sudden appearance and didn’t understand how his boring afternoon jog had suddenly turned into an improv game.
“She’s fine,” I told him. “She’s just saying hello to you.” I waved at her and walked back inside.
She kept it up. I’d be working at my desk, and would suddenly hear her muffled cry. “Hello! Hello!” I’m crushing your head, I’d mentally add. The jogger — it was almost always a guy — would stop look up, squint and ask her if she was OK.
She was attracted to the joggers, who appeared in swarms after 3 pm. Both they and she were better than a clock, which I’ve discovered is useless after a certain point, there being little difference between 2 and 4 pm. Pandemic time as told by the position of the sun, the sounds in the neighborhood and the type of neighborhood activity is better than a clock at telling you where you’re at in the temporal scheme of things.
Mornings are silent. The early afternoon is merely quiet. At midday, people line up along Florida Street to get their groceries from Gemini Bottle Company, which has adroitly transformed itself from a high-end bottle shop to a general store (they can get you quail eggs, I was informed by the affable owner, and also basics like milk, bread, cheese and champagne.) Delivery services start distributing packages from their trucks.
Late afternoon brings the aforementioned joggers, dogs and their walkers and even less sound. The 7:00 pm church bells from St. Peter’s ring (or toll depending on one’s mood) as the evening salute to healthcare and other essential workers starts up. People clang bin lids, clap kitchen implements together and play “Taps” on a trumpet. This brings the curtain down on the day.
After that, people go inside, and the evening is ushered in. The night becomes tenderly hushed. The aural burden on the city’s soundscape has been lifted so much that at times as I sit outside in the evening, I hear voices from blocks away, clear and yet distant, the way voices sound in remote camping sites in the Sierra Nevada.
The night that two men were shot at 14th and Guerrero, my friends and I were sitting (distantly) around a backyard fire near Folsom and 25th. We turned our heads towards the sound of explosions in the manner of animals who, startled by a footfall, freeze in fearful anticipation. We weren’t hearing the gunshots, it turns out, just fireworks, but at that moment it was hard to tell. What simmers underneath the placid atmosphere is the dread knowledge that slow burning emergencies like this one will cause some people to lose their shit, murderously.
There are other sounds, too, less alarming — the heavy, slightly panicked sounds that joggers make, birdsong at odd hours (I heard a mockingbird singing at 8 pm), and the wind, rattling the dry trees late at night. It’s incredibly peaceful, for all the wrong reasons.
I’ve gone full circle in some ways. The city felt silent to me when I moved here in June of 1991, which may have had something to do with the fact that AIDS was en route to killing 20,000 people in San Francisco. Had I understood that, I would have translated the silence very differently.
I get it now, though.
A lot has happened, but very little time has passed. Most of what has happened still happens: the past seven weeks have been as repetitive as hand-washing, or the admonitions aimed at the current administration from public health advocates. This has not moved the needle one whit: Trump and his fellow cult members are unmoved by the I-Told-You-Sos’ issuing forth from scientists (who did.)
It’s impossible for me to draw any real conclusions about anything during this inconclusive moment. What will the future bring? Who knows? It feels as immobile as I do. Most nights, I sit on my porch looking through the scaffolding that’s left over from a lead abatement process long concluded but still standing because it’s non-essential to take it down. I don’t mind it. It frames the view, making ordinary neighborhood sights look as staged and eventful, like a New Yorker cover by Eric Drooker.
This matters, because I don’t know what I’ll remember about the spring of 2020 (or the year.) Which image will stick with me? Will it be the scene of domestic tranquility I’ve seen night after night as my neighbors sit down to dinner? Or will it be the woman I saw last week, striding through the cobalt-blue evening, silent as a huntress in the woods, carrying that elusive, highly-prized commodity: a roll of toilet paper.
Written on May 6th, 2020 in San Francisco on day 51. Rest in Peace, Courtney Brousseau. I am so sorry.
Cherry Lake is the name of a private residential community in Newport Beach. The lake that gives the place its name sits roughly 26 feet above sea level on the northern bluffs of the Upper Newport Bay. Its depth is 17 to 19 feet. It is long, rather than wide, and lozenge-shaped. A water-gate prevents debris from being swept into it from a depressed area that runs from the intersection of Santa Isabel Avenue and Redlands Street. There is a concrete dam on the southern edge that impounds the water with two six-foot pipes inside a catch basin. When it rains fiercely, the impounded water overflows into the pipes that run underneath Irvine Avenue at 23rd Street and through the Santa Isabella Flood channel that drains into the Upper Newport Bay.
Twenty houses ring the lake and many of them have docks. “I’ve seen those docks underwater,” Rodney Medler told me. I’d left a note on his door—can I see the lake? —and he’d called and invited me over for a look. Medler, a retired property manager with the rakish good looks of the actor Sam Elliott, lives on 23rd Street. His backyard faces the lake, and he also has a camera trained on it, so that even when he isn’t outside, he can see it, the better to catch lake-crashers (they’ve had some). Cherry Lake has lily pads. When they die off in the fall, the tuberous roots, which are a ghastly greenish-white, float near the surface of the water, looking like the arms of a monster: the Cherry Lake kraken, perhaps. There’s a slide in the middle. People swim in the lake. It’s a special place.
Cherry Lake has a distinctly retro feel to it. The name hearkens back to the technicolor gloss of the post-war era in Newport Beach. Back then, the colors were bright, and women wore coral-colored lipstick as they water-skied in the bay or drank cocktails at the Village Inn on Balboa Island with their handsome husbands. In those day, everything was gay, and people lived their lives gaily, according to the local newspapers, the Newport Ensign and the Daily Pilot, who never hesitated to use this adjective to describe the mirthfulness of everyday life in Newport.
There was no water skiing on Cherry Lake, although there was fishing. “There are fish in there— bass, catfish, bluegill,” said Rodney. “We fish. But we just catch and release though. They’re like pets!” A woodpecker flew across the lake just then, in a flash of black and white.
“Look at that!” said Rodney. “We get all kinds of birds here. We got some ospreys last year.”
“They must love the fish!” I said.
“Yeah,” Rodney said. He laughed. “We make it easy for ‘em.” The lake was different, he told me. Not only was the bottom unlined, it was spring-fed.
“There are six springs in the lake,” he told me genially. “When you swim, you can feel the water temperature drop. And that’s how you know.”
I’d heard about the spring: it was the lake’s creation myth. But there was nothing plausible about the lake (coastal lakes are relatively rare in California.) It was obviously man-made. But by who?
It was a joint effort. Lawrence E. Liddle, the property owner, joined forces with realtor Jack W. Mullan in 1956, according to papers filed with the Newport Beach Planning Commission. Together, they built a lake.
Both men took their cues from the recent past. In 1955 the Vogel Company, a realty firm, advertised a “lakefront” home on Cherry Lake, with guaranteed swimming rights. A year later, the Soil Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture graded the area and installed a desilting basin. How Cherry Lake fared during this rough treatment is unknown. But community memory is tenacious, and the recollection of what the site had been probably encouraged Liddle and Mullan.
Liddle, born in British Columbia, kick-started the development of Cherry Lake, appearing as the principle of “Lake & Bay Park, Inc.”. He drops out of the historic record as represented by city filings and newspaper mentions after a time. Mullan, however, stayed in the news until his death in 2004.
Mullan, an adventurous man, was a big-time developer in Newport Beach. As the vice president of the California Real Estate Association in Orange County, he designed neighborhoods out of the raw materials of the Southern California landscape. His large-scale vision was acquired during the war after enlisting in the Air Force. He flew P-38’s, the workhorse fighter aircraft that could bomb landscapes or document them. A renowned photo reconnaissance pilot, Mullan was trained to do the latter, and continued to fly them after he and his wife moved to Germany after the war. Mullan managed the operations of the Aero Exploration Company, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma a firm that specialized in aerial photography. The company had an outpost in Frankfurt, then at a low point in its long history, the cityscape having been almost entirely destroyed from 1939 to 1945 in nine separate bombing sorties.
The view from the skies above war-scarred world stayed with Mullan, who found civilian uses for his Air Force training in post-war Southern California. Mullan “pioneered the use of aerial surveys in subdivisions” according to his brief biography on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He moved several times before settling in Newport Beach, and once there, began shaping the landscape of semi-rural Orange County.
Mullan didn’t just develop housing tracts, he provided “estates”, with an emphasis on exclusivity, and all the trappings thereof. Golf courses, clubhouses, private roads and lakes were popular design features of the exurbs, built for those in white flight from diversifying city centers. Mullan took all this to its fullest expression, and masterminded Orange County’s most iconic mid-century housing developments, the “Carriage Estates” in Mesa Verde, for example, which were located on the bluffs above the Santa Ana River.
His most enduring legacy is his credit as the co-designer of a new kind of housing development, called a “condominium”. He oversaw the design of the first legal condo development in California called Vista Bahia, appropriately: they (still) overlook the top of the Upper Newport Bay, at University Drive and Irvine Avenue. I marveled at the grounds of Bahia Vista as a child, walking to swimming lessons at the YMCA. The grounds were impeccable with coarse St. Augustine grass and sculptural hedges of Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa).
Bahia Vista embodied Orange County’s two great loves, an expansive view and privacy. Mullan built it in anticipation of the coming population surge, which involved more people demanding more of everything — housing, parking, and recreation — except density.
He had some defeats. In 1965, the year I was born, Mullan headed the Newport Dunes Hotel Corporation, which intended to develop the Newport Dunes into a Spanish-themed 244-room hotel and restaurant complex, covering 6.4 acres, and facing “the quiet waters” of the lower bay. A fifty-year sublease was planned between Mullan and the county, but the plan was scuttled in 1967 due to bureaucratic hesitance to commit to the costs of construction. The complex was never built.
But Mullan still built plenty, some of it above the Upper Newport Bay. Within a decade, the bluffs between Mesa Drive and East 16th Street were transformed from small farms divided by eucalyptus windbreaks and dotted with ramshackle buildings into family homes plotted on streets whose names memorialized the cities of old Europe: Grenoble, Marseilles and Seville.
In the mid-fifties, Mullan founded a realty firm and opened an office on the peninsula at 434 32nd Street in Newport Beach, close to Via Lido and just around the corner from my grandfather’s office, the Weist-Creely company, then selling parcels of augmented mudflat on Lido Isle for under one hundred thousand dollars. They were joined by P.A. Palmer, R.C. Greer and others, all of whom were jockeying to sell the undeveloped and sometimes barely terrestrial land of Newport Beach.
In 1958, after he was granted a permit by the city of Newport Beach to post subdivision signs, Mullan hung two advertisements outside a temporary sales office near the old ravine at 23rd Street and Irvine Avenue, and ran an ad in the Los Angeles Times, alerting the public to a new development with natural allure. “Lots overlook the picturesque freshwater lake,” the ads boasted, mentioning that all utilities were undergrounded, and all architectural designs subject to approval, in order to maintain the harmoniousness of estate life. (There was no mention of the lake’s decidedly un-glamorous stint a year or two earlier as a desilting basin). He and Liddle dubbed the development the “Lake Park Estates.”
The “freshwater lake” was, of course, Cherry Lake, a name not in keeping with the nature of the place. There are no lakes called “kirsch see” in Germany, but there are a few Cherry Lakes in Canada, where Liddle was born. Arranging the site must have been a monumental effort: Mullan, Liddle and their engineers had their work cut out for them. Cherry Lake, and the houses arranged around it, sit on top of what once was a 25-to 40-foot ravine.
After talking to Rodney, I developed an obsession with the mythic spring of Cherry Lake and went looking for proof of its existence. The Sherman Library, which is housed inside an adobe house on Dahlia Street in Corona Del Mar, specializes in the history of the Pacific Southwest, and Newport Beach. I sent them an email, asking hesitantly if they knew anything about it. Jill Thrasher, the head librarian, called me back almost immediately.
“What exactly are you looking for?” she asked.
I didn’t know. “Anything?” I said, feeling dumb (water? a hole in the ground?). I explained that I wanted to see the bluffs of the Upper Back Bay as they were in the early 19th-century, before they were developed.
“Creely,” she said. “That name sounds familiar. Are you related to Bunster Creely?” I told her I was. (The library holds some of my grandfather’s personal library.) She said she’d call me back, and I hung up with low expectations. I didn’t expect much. I’d hadn’t given her much to work with. She called back a day later, her librarian’s natural calm slightly ruffled.
“I think I may have found something you’ll really be interested in,” she said. I shuffled into the library that day feeling foolish—what did I want with that old lake, anyway?—and sat down. Jill had USGS coastal survey maps, or “T-sheets”, as big as posters, spread over the library’s long tables. She tapped one with her finger. “Here’s Cherry Lake,” she said.
The United States Geological Survey, which formed in 1879 to inventory the mineral and hydrological resources of the United States, did all historians (credentialed or not) a big favor by mapping the coast of California. The maps from 1927, 1935, 1942 and 1949 all showed, in spidery lines, a sharply incised ravine thrusting like an accusatory finger out of the Upper Newport Bay, and into Costa Mesa, to what was now Orange and Monte Vista Streets.
In 1927, ’35, and ’42, the area was shown as a marshland. Dotted and dashed lines were interspersed with tufted clumps of grass, symbols that looked exactly like the natural feature they were documenting.
In 1949, after the USGS started using color, a thin blue line appeared for the first time, running down the middle of the ravine. “That’s the symbol for a stream,” Jill said. The past swam before my eyes.
In 1949, my hometown was still being assembled. Irvine, and Tustin Avenue, Santa Ana and Orange Streets were paved. Irvine had yet to cross the ravine and stopped at 23rd Street. Orange Coast College was platted and partially built. The bay had been labeled too. “The Narrows,” a poetic name reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s minutely detailed map of Earthsea, was an area directly downstream from the old creek.
Cherry Lake, it turns out, was much more than just a spring. It was mostly a creek that ran through a deep ravine, fed by the artesian belt that Newport Heights was known for. If there were springs, they likely watered the creek south and west of Santa Ana Avenue. There was still more to know: the 1935 T-sheet shows a wetland complex complete with a good-sized pond nestled into what is now the intersection of Bear and Bristol Streets in my home suburb of Mesa Del Mar. (It was still there in 1942.) Looking at the place in the terrain view on Google reveals the remnants of an old bluff curving around the lake between Private Road and Santa Isabella. Today, as you cross Irvine Avenue you are traveling above a ravine that once cracked this area in two.
The earliest appearance of the stream appears on an 1858 U.S. Survey plat map of James Irvine’s property. The northwestern bluffs of the mesa are indicated just under the boundary line with the notation “rolling land.” Another line with another tiny notation “stream of alkali water” appears to the north, cross-hatching the boundary line. But there are no symbols for a spring on any of the historic maps.
This mattered to me, because it mattered greatly to Cherry Lake residents, who, undeterred by the improbability of a spring-fed lake, have always insisted that their lake is spring-fed. But if the old maps didn’t provide proof, community memory did. In 1992, Mullan told Joanne Lombardo of the Newport Beach Ad Hoc Historic Preservation Committee that Cherry Lake was the original well site for Newport and moreover gave the place yet another name: Indian Wells/Springs, which is how the area is identified in the official inventory. Naturally, I called the city.
“Springs? In that area? I’ve never heard that,” said Bob Stein, a civil engineer and hydrologist for the city. “We have seeps around there. But Cherry Lake is probably fed by normal urban slobber.” He meant runoff.
“It does have a relationship with the Upper Newport Bay. Have you seen the Santa Isabel Flood Channel? It’s kind of a pit,” he asked ruefully. “I’d love to do some restoration around there.” He was curious to know more. “Tell me what you find out!” he said.
“According to the map we have, there’s no outlet,” said Linda Candelaria from O.C. Flood control. “It’s a private lake. We don’t monitor it but we’re all kind of curious now. No one has heard of it. You’ve really piqued our interest.”
“Cherry Lake? A spring? We have no idea,” said the woman who sat behind the desk at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center in Upper Newport Bay. She looked puzzled. “I’ve never even heard of the lake.” A Parks and Recreation staffer, strolled over, regal in her khaki uniform, and said, “I wonder if that’s where the fish came from.”
“What fish?” I asked.
“We found a bunch of dying fish once, about three years ago. Over there,” she said and waved in the direction of Irvine Avenue. “They were just lying there. I wonder if they came from the lake.”
Carla Navarro, from the California Department of Fish and Game said in an email to me, “Cherry Lake is private, self-contained, and does not drain into the estuary.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I’d be interested in anything you dig up. The lake has been a small mystery to me.”
Bob DeRuff, a former Engineer with the Irvine company, provided actual proof. He remembered the spring clearly because he touched the “natural, fresh water” himself.
“That’s a freshwater marsh,” he told me over the phone. “I used to have a copy of a 1875 hydrographic map. It showed the location of springs around the bay, which included that area. I got it from the Irvine Company—had it in a closet, in the back. One year, I moved and I didn’t take it,” he said sadly. “In high school (he went to Newport Harbor High), I remember a place along the road there, where Irvine is now, up around the lake. I remember getting out of the car with a friend. The land was wet. It was almost like a pasture, but there was a rock outcropping and there was water running out of the ground, over the rock. It must have been artesian enough that something was forcing it out. It was just running out.”
“The whole area was a gully,” he said. “I had a friend who built a house on Irvine Avenue, who had to fill the ground with pea gravel ‘cause the water ran so consistently. He needed it to percolate. You know, until the eighties, Irvine Avenue would come apart on a yearly basis. There was so much water seeping in from underneath. That whole area was wet. You can still see it in the area across Irvine Avenue.” He was talking about the flood channel, known colloquially as the 23rd Street creek.
Other people had memories, too. “That place? Oh, honey. We called it the run-off. It was terrible,” Francis Gowen Kennedy Moran told me. Fran—our childhood name for her —grew up in a house on the corner of 20th Street and Tustin Avenue, which ends above the artificial shores of Cherry Lake. She remembered it all.
“Honey, it was a marsh. It was a mess — just a mucky swamp. Full of mosquitoes. They didn’t know what to do with it. People were always getting into car accidents there.”
I could see that. Tustin Avenue is flat until it intersects 23rd Street. Then the edge of the old bluff gently descends into the basin holding Cherry Lake. Fran continued with her story. “In those days, Tustin dead-ended into the run-off, and there were no stop signs on Tustin, so people would fly down the street in their car and launch themselves into the swamp. And then my dad, who was a doctor, would be called in to patch ‘em up.”
I thought about those heedless people, gaily motoring down Tustin Avenue in the daytime, or through the velvety blue August nights. Did the sulfurous odor of the swamp fill the air? Did croaking frogs and whining mosquitoes provide a soundtrack on hot summer nights? Crashing your car into a swamp and riding your horse over the bluffs to the edge of the cliffs of Corona Del Mar, as my aunt Cerini once did: these were things people could do back then, in non-developed Newport Beach, a place of crashing surf and glittering starlit nights.
Fran’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Now listen to me, Betsy. That’s not a lake. It’s a swamp. They turned it into a lake. But it isn’t real,” she said. “You’ve made me really curious. Tell me what you find out, okay?”
The last person I called was Larry Honeybourne, with the county’s Environmental Health Water Quality Section (he has since retired). Honeybourne had a measured, precise way of speaking that busy people who dole out technical information to the public often have.
“Why do people think Cherry Lake is spring-fed?” I asked.
“Well,” Honeybourne said. “It isn’t impossible. There are artesian situations in Orange County. Fountain Valley is called Fountain Valley because of artesian wells. Orange County is an alluvial basin. It’s great for storing groundwater. So there could be springs, if we weren’t taking out more than we put in.”
But they are. Orange County’s water table is overdrawn and has dropped below sea level. The ocean, sensing an opening, has rushed in to fill the gap. At the moment, much of the water filling the subterranean cracks of the Newport Mesa is coming from the sea. The spring that Bob DeRuff knew in his youth may have dried up long ago.
“The ocean is at your front door,” said Honeybourne. “That’s what we tell everybody.”
Fine, I thought, but what about the damn spring? No one answering the phone with polite and perplexed voices at various agencies seemed to know anything. I called my sister Emily, a field scientist who lives in Alaska, to report my findings and the mysteries that remained. Spring or no spring? And why doesn’t anyone know?
“Betsy, “said Emily, exasperatedly. “Government agencies won’t know about a spring.” She was right. They aren’t in the business of history, but resource management.
Resource management, though, does create archival documents, and it is in one of these that the mythic spring of Cherry Lake officially appears. In 1952, an engineering firm with the snappy name of the “Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts Engineering Company” prepared an environmental report for the Irvine Company on the suitability of their land for urban development.
Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts concurred with the Irvine Company’s opinion that development was the fate of the area, and noted on page 22 that the “active spring” at the “foot of 23rd Street,” which had been marked on charts 75 years ago, might play a part in some suburb’s future. “Around this spring, a park with lawns and interesting planting,” could be of value, averred the report’s author, due to the availability of “natural fresh water.”
“Well there you go,” said Emily briskly when I reported my finding to her. “Fran is right. It isn’t a lake. Cherry Lake—who came up with that name by the way? It’s silly— is an accident.”
Accidents aren’t as well planned, I thought. The place was just devoid of a past. Ah, the developers, I thought. Those mid-century men, consulting maps, and compasses, grading hills, filling land and damming water sources as they built for the future. They knew what had been there. They had proof. Caught between the past and the future, were they able to forget the habitats they had paved over? Did they remember the scent of brine, or the appearance of an enigmatic petroglyph, or the biblical sight of a spring gushing out of a rock? Maybe. But their memories had died with them, and anyway, they probably didn’t talk too much about it.
“What did Cherry Lake look like?” I asked Emily.
She sighed and said, “Want to go for an imaginary walk?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
She and I started walking on the mesa southeast toward the ravine. “So, this is what we’d see,” her voice said, out of the telephone clutched to my shoulder. “First thing, we’d see a bunch of shrubs. Remember- we’re on top of the bluff. So think about what grows there. Sage, for one thing.” She meant the clumps of Artemisia californica, the ubiquitous silvery green sage that forms the top note of the scent of the California coastal chaparral.
“Try to see coastal oak,” Emily urged. I saw old man oak, the gnarled trees that look more like a shrub, with fang-toothed leaves. “The color of the landscape changes,” said Emily, “as we get closer to the ravine. Can you see that?” I could. The soft grey-green of the artemisia sharpened into yellow- and olive-green as the tops of sycamores and willows appeared. The smell changed, too, from the lemony scent of the artemisia to the dank heavy odor of water. There was a faint suggestion of sulfur.
We stood on top of the ravine and looked down. Below us, fringed by red-rooted willows was a pool of dark water. A pond. Not a lake.
“If we went down there, we’d step in mud,” said Emily. “And then suddenly there’d be water, open water, like a little pond.”
“It was beautiful then, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “We would have loved it. I have to go to sleep, babe. You have a better idea of what it looked like?”
“Yes,” I said. We hung up.
There’s no mystery to the origins of Cherry Lake: it’s private, not mysterious, a post-war folly that started in the skies of the Pacific Theater and came down to earth when Lawrence Liddle and Jack Mullan stood at the top of a deep ravine and beheld murky water pooled in the bottom. If there’s a mystery, it’s this: what do you see when you look at a landscape, and why? I guess it depends on where you’ve been. Mullan, who had beheld the ravages of war, saw something comprehensible, an opportunity for serene, untroubled beauty.
Cherry Lake is both real and unreal, an artifact twice over. It was a spring-fed stream dividing an arid plain in two, then a desilting basin and then, finally, a suburban fantasy. No one can transport an entire world to another place, Avengers-style, but with the means and the drive, you might be able to re-create a spatial simulacrum of place, scaled down for the suburbia, and far more secure. The earth as seen from the cockpit of a P-38 must seem so malleable. It is easy, as Mullan knew too well, for places to change (to vanish), and for landscapes to be exchanged for another.
Finished in San Francisco on April 18th 2020, 31 days into shelter in place, and eight years after I started researching Cherry Lake.
This is dedicated to my brother James W. Creely with love. Many thanks to the Jill Thrasher at the Sherman Library, Bob DeRuff, Julie Goldsworth of the Irvine Historical Society, Andrew Page of the Newport Beach Public Library, the fabulous Fran Moran, and the staff of the UCI Special Collections and Archives.
I over-researched this essay. If you want to see some of the cool papers and maps I found, head over to this repository and check ’em out.
Dear Census Bureau: I just filled out the online census form, and to be perfectly frank (by the way, that’s not my name–don’t list me as Frank), I was sort of underwhelmed. In my opinion, you didn’t ask enough questions about the actual respondent (me). During this historic moment, citizens of the United States are having a lot of thoughts and feelings about things like the future, that people in the actual future (if there is one) are going to want to know about, especially from people like me who live in vibrant neighborhoods such as the Mission District, which, no matter what happens, will always be popular.
I’ve suggested some questions below that maybe you can include in your online census, or provided to census takers (is that still going on?) as icebreakers. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m just not sure that Buzzfeed should know more about me than the census does. All those quizzes I’ve taken online are going to go away into the Internet someday, and then where will I and other millions of Buzzfeed followers be? I love finding out what kind of wand I’d be in Ollivander’s Wand Shoppe on Diagon Alley as much as anyone does, but I’m smart enough to know that all that quiz data isn’t used for the census, and it just seems like the many, many questions that I answer on Buzzfeed might help answer the many questions my descendants might have. (I have no descendants, but you know what I mean.) Plus, it would make it more interesting.
I want to make sure that the denizens of the future, whatever they are, will know who I was and why I chose to live in the Mission District, the city’s greatest neighborhood (also I’m worried no one will know it was called the Mission District. My neighbor Connor, who is 27 and a total dick, won’t stop calling our neighborhood the “Ea-Mi” on Nextdoor even though I’ve told him a thousand times to knock it off. Also have you guys thought about posting a Nextdoor version of the census? I think that’s a good idea.). Anyway, I might not be able to stop Connor from talking out his piehole, but I can at least stop future readers of the Census from repeating his stupid idea.
Following are some suggested questions. They don’t even have to be “official”. Maybe just use them to get people interested in answering the actual census. Like a warm-up!
My carbon footprint: It’s really low. I bike and walk and would take public transit if it hadn’t closed down. I haven’t used a drone yet. Is that low carbon? Anyway, I want the people of the future and their viral overlords to know that I was thinking about them and trying in my own small way to help.
My porn star name: Suki Mendoza! Isn’t that perfect?
Current Netflix binge: It’s not Netflix. It’s “30 Rock” on Hulu. I have a date with Jack Donaghy every night, and it’s helping me get through this crisis. You know that scene where he has a heart attack trying to have sex with his uptight British fiancé? (“Here it comes, Donaghy! Ride it! Ride it to hell!”) This is my current Covid-19 mantra.
Preferred domestic animal: It would be a cat, but I’m allergic, so it’s nothing. It’s definitely NOT a dog. In fact, please put me down as a “non-dog” person.
Celebrity I most resemble: Well, Buzzfeed thinks I look like Rita Wilson, Tom Hank’s wife. I’m sure she’s a nice person and all, even during her infectious phase, but I don’t think I look her.
My morning temperature: It’s fine. Who wants to know?
Last night’s dream: You know those dreams where you’re trying to dial the phone, and the buttons are too small, and you keep making a mistake, and then you start screaming at the phone and freaking out that you’re going to miss your plane? Please note for your records that this was my dream at 2:26 a.m. on March 27, 2020.
Number of Facebook friends: 637. I look forward to meeting them all as soon we are allowed to breathe the same air inside again.
Cat I most resemble: I tried to take that quiz but it broke my computer so I don’t know. I have to leave this question blank.
Uber or Lyft?: Check your assumptions, people of the future. I said I biked.
Where I see myself in ten years:
Harry Potter wand I most resemble: I got ivy. I don’t understand this. Ivy is a vine. How do you make a wand from a vine?
These are just some of my suggestions. I’m sure if you reached out to America and asked them what they think you should ask, people might be more motivated to fill out the Census and you wouldn’t have to threaten them with a house call (if that’s still even happening.) And then the people of the future would know everything we know now, which admittedly is not a lot.
Give it some thought, and if you decide to use my questions, I expect you to give me full credit.
(Also: I’m vaccinated.)
Written at the 22nd street Crossroads on 3/28/2020, on the 13th day of Shelter in Place.Have you stopped touching your face?
To return to the story of Edward John Creely: prior to his involvement with tubercular cows, he may have been briefly employed by the industry that created them. In 1890, a “J Creely” appears as a “dairyman” working at 35 Eddy Street, in a building known as Washington Hall. It housed the retail offices of three dairies, the Guadeloupe, San Mateo and New York Dairy, the latter owned by scofflaw dairyman George Smart, who would go on to poison the Lent children after selling their mother milk adulterated with formaldehyde in 1905.
There’s no proof that “J Creely” was Edward Creely, but it probably was. Industry regulators often find work as the employees of industries they later regulate (or fail to.) There was also more than one J. Creely in the city. Creely, his father and brother all had the same initials (Edward Creely was christened John Edward.) To avoid confusion, he swapped out his first name for the second throughout his professional life. But in any case, Creely père and frère were too busy to take up sideline gigs as a dairymen. Edward wasn’t. In 1890, Edward, who started his college studies at St. Ignatius College, finished them as a veterinary student at the University of New York. He returned to San Francisco, where highly-trained veterinary surgeons were in demand.
Creely didn’t linger at 35 Eddy street for very long. As the son of a horseshoer, horses were what Creely knew, and horsepower was what the city ran on. San Francisco had hundreds of horses on its payroll. In the 1891-92 San Francisco Municipal Report, the fire department reports having 88 horses scattered among its 34 stations, and a hostler and veterinary surgeon on staff to tend them.
By 1891, Creely had opened his first establishment, which catered to horses. Called the New York Veterinary Hospital, it was located at 510 Golden Gate Avenue, and was one of several veterinaries that stretched along the avenue from Hyde to Webster Street. Isaac O’Rourke, who specialized in equine dentistry, was located at 331 Golden Gate Avenue, followed within one block by F.A. Nief at 434, Creely at 510, and Ira Dalziel at 605. The “San Francisco Veterinary Hospital” was the last of the bunch and lay the furthest west at 1117, close to the intersection of Golden Gate and Webster street. This hospital was owned by William Egan and Peter Burns. Egan was Creely’s landlord and owned the property at 510 Golden Gate. Both Egan and Burns would later become antagonists of Creely.
The first announcement that the New York Veterinary Hospital was open for business ran on January 24, 1891 in the Pacific Rural Press, a paper for farmers and agricultural businesses in California. Seven days later, Dr. Creely made the news for his feat of fitting a draft horse suffering from ocular cancer with a glass eye, earning the gratitude of the horse’s owner, Le Roy Brundage, who didn’t want to lose the entire animal for the lack of an eyeball.
Uncle Edward who boasted of a state-of-the-art facility with steam baths for the hard-working horses of the city, kept upping the ante in the highly competitive world of veterinary surgery. In 1893 he saved a choking horse by inserting (he used the terrible word “ramming”) a teakettle spout into the horse’s trachea. The spout was later replaced with a conventional breathing tube. This got him some media attention, and an offer to become a columnist for the Pacific Rural Press.
“Of Interest to Many Readers: Beginning with the first issue in October, the Pacific Rural Press will furnish a veterinary department, which will be in charge of Dr. E. J. Creely, D. V. S., of this city. Any questions relative to diseases of cattle and horses, stock, hogs, poultry, etc., will be answered promptly and intelligently, the idea being to furnish free information to our readers that will be of value to them.”
The ledes in his column read like the titles of penny dreadfuls: Mare With Mysterious Trouble, Crack In the Frog, Cows Killed By Ergot, Treatment for Nasal Gleet in Horses, and Glanders and Farcy and How To Detect Them, among others.
But the attention he received from the press wasn’t always positive. A year before his promotion to veterinarian-at-large for the readers of the Pacific Rural Press, Creely created some bad press for all the right reasons, namely glanders, an infectious and ultimately fatal disease caused by a bacteria called Burkholderia mallei.
Glanders attacks a horse’s respiratory tract, and first appears as a foul discharge leaking from the nostrils. If the horse is not destroyed, the disease migrates to the skin, causing subcutaneous ulcers to develop. At this stage the disease is called farcy.
Glanders is floridly disgusting, and easily preventable by providing humane living conditions for horses, which were hard to come by for the 18th-century urban horse. Horses pass it among themselves when squeezed into crowded stables like the St. George livery on Bush street, which stuffed as many as 150 horses within as little as 5,200 square feet. This gets a horse about 35 square feet, which is very little. A moderately proportioned horse needs at least 60 square feet to fit comfortably into a horse trailer.
All this infectious proximity came with a human cost as well. Glanders is a zoonotic disease; it jumps from horses to humans with ease. No human was known to have died from glanders in San Francisco when Dr. Creely offered a startling observation free of charge: glanders, he said, was at epidemic levels in San Francisco, killing horses, and maybe humans, too.
The lede in the San Francisco Examiner on Monday morning, April 4, 1892 couldn’t have made the stakes much higher.
“EPIDEMIC OF GLANDERS: The Dread Contagion Raging Throughout The City. Horse Dying By The Score.”
The story started with a dead horse, dumped in front of Creely’s surgery, with a placard attached to its neck, reading “glanders”. The placard might have been an attempt to comply with city ordinance no. 1880, which advised horse owners with that they must place a bright yellow placard, the color of caution, around their horse’s head to warn others that the stricken animal should be avoided. (This measure was mostly ignored.)
The Examiner reporter called to the scene asked an obvious question to Dr. Creely, who at the age of 25, was probably the youngest practicing veterinarian on the avenue. Was there an epidemic of glanders? In the article that appeared a day later the Examiner stated that Creely and “other veterinary surgeons who are in a position to know” thought there was.
“The public do not understand the great risk they are taking handling, being around or even driving behind a glandered horse,” asserted Creely, before going onto name two individuals who he claimed died from glanders: a man with the colorful nickname of “Mustang Wilson”, as well as the Sheriff of San Jose who died after his horse tossed his head, and his infected snot, in the sheriff’s face.
“There is scarcely a livery stable in the city that is free from it,” concluded the Examiner, in an unattributed quote, that nevertheless was understood to have come straight from the horse’s mouth, Dr. Creely, the only veterinary surgeon willing to be quoted by name.
The allegation that public liveries were hotbeds of infectious diseases resulted in a flurry of articles in the Call, the Examiner and the Chronicle. Although the story ran almost ten years before the bubonic plague arrived in San Francisco, the city was used to being sickened and killed by their living conditions. A “dread contagion” was not only plausible, it was half expected.
Liveries were the mobility business of the day, providing last mile, and longer, transportation solutions to San Franciscans. The allegation that they were responsible for spreading glanders sent shock waves up and down Golden Gate Avenue, which was home to the aforementioned cluster of veterinarian hospitals as well as several public liveries. All of these establishments existed within one square mile of each other. By today’s Google reckoning, walking from the first livery on the avenue—Crittenden and Bailey’s stable at 24 Golden Gate Avenue– to the last, Charles F. Robinson’s livery at 1212 Golden Gate Avenue, wouldn’t take more than 22 minutes.
This is the very definition of a tight-knit community: proximity and mutual dependence. Charles Taylor’s livery stable at 310 Golden Gate was located directly next to W.H. Carpenter’s (later Isaac O’Rourke’s) veterinary surgery. This symbiotic pattern of livery stable interwoven with veterinary establishments made pragmatic sense—having a vet nearby is a bonus, as anyone whose been awakened at 3 a.m. by a sick cat will tell you—but the street pattern undoubtedly incubated a political culture that had implications for the regulatory aims of the city. The co-mingling of vets and livery owners had the potential, and the profit motive, to hold health reforms hostage to baser concerns.
Golden Gate avenue with its hundreds of horses may well have been a hot zone of infection. From 1891 to 1892, 11 glandered horses were recorded in the city’s official municipal record as having been destroyed. But the avenue was probably also prone to outbreaks of professional censure, slanderous gossip and petty corruption as well. William Egan, Creely’s landlord and competitor, sarcastically refuted Creely’s claims of a looming epidemic in an article in the San Francisco Call on April 7.
“(I) say without hesitation that it is ridiculously and grossly exaggerated and full of misstatements,” said Egan, going on to draw a fine distinction between contagious disease and an outright epidemic. Glanders, he said, was only contagious, and could only be spread through contact with the “glandinal” discharge of a horse. The bacteria wasn’t airborne, he claimed, and therefore lacked the power to spread as widely and quickly as epidemics spread.
Egan claimed special insight into the situation due to the fact that he was on the payroll of at least seven city liveries, St. George’s among them. He saw no conflict of interest in using insider knowledge to downplay the story and chose, instead, to cast doubt on the whole affair by calling out Creely, whose youthful “inexperience” was derided as mere ignorance. He was joined in this by several other veterinarians, who also had business arrangements with city liveries. All of them warned of the panic that Creely’s comments were creating. Owners were reportedly already removing their horses from public liveries.
The controversy also threatened to derail a hotly anticipated city event: the thoroughbred horse race slated to take place that month at the Bay District Racing track in the Richmond district. Hosted by the Pacific Coast Blood Horse Association, the city was welcoming wealthy men and their expensive steeds just as the story broke. The owners, who had spent thousands of dollars on their thoroughbreds, were thoroughly freaked out at the prospect of stabling their investment next to glandered horses. There was big money –$1,900 was collected at the gates–and social status at stake. Senator Stanford, James Fair and W.H. Crocker were expected to attend the race, as well as experienced turfman like Creely’s uncle, the famed horse trainer Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, who was planning on racing his two-year old filly “Bridal Veil”. All of this sporting glory was being jeopardized by Creely’s comments.
On April 12, an apology, so penitent as to be slightly craven, appeared on page 7 of the SF Call from Creely to the community of angry livery owners, and veterinary surgeons. “He is not responsible …for the assertion that glanders was raging in the livery stables. Quite the contrary, the doctor does claim that the livery stables are the last place in the world to find a case of glanders..” The apology hit most of the three “R’s” now in wide use. It responded to the growing enmity expressed by his colleagues, expressed regret that he had said it (although he stuck to his story that he hadn’t said it) and assured the readers of the SF Call that it would not happen again. The last claim wasn’t true.
In June the imbroglio reached its apex. Creely announced in the San Francisco Chronicle that he would seek twenty thousand dollars from publisher W.R. Hearst for libel, saying that the statements supposedly “emanating” from him had not, especially the claim that public liveries were menacing equine and human health. Creely said (and this is the only part of the whole affair which is undoubtedly true) that the story had “injured” his reputation and profession. He was referring to his professional community, clearly, but his family must have said something. Whitehat owned three liveries at various times in San Francisco, and was in the brutal business of racing horses. Creely’s father occasionally sold horses, too. But of those admonitions, nothing remains but speculation.
In any case, Creely’s public shaming was short-lived. By the following year, he had a column in the Pacific Rural Press and he was still being consulted by the Chronicle, who were trying to figure out how much of a threat glanders really posed. In January 1893, a man died from glanders in Los Angeles. Creely repeated himself. “It simply adds force to the warning which everyone who drives horses or takes care of them should heed against exposing himself to an animal who has this contagious malady. There is nothing more dreadful than death from glanders.” That April, Creely was appointed to the position of the city veterinarian, for the princely sum of 40 bucks a month, over the objection of Peter Burns, William Egan’s partner at the San Francisco Veterinary Hospital, located down the avenue.
All in all, the episode looks like a monumental miscalculation that backfired. What motivated Creely to make his claims? There are no recorded human deaths from glanders since the Health Office (later the Department of Public Health) began reporting deaths in 1865 in the city’s municipal reports. Was the dead horse a publicity stunt gone wrong? Were his accusations an ill-conceived attempt to knock out the competition? Or was Creely telling the truth?
If so, then the tragedy of the deaths of all those horses, who with magnificent necks, flaring nostrils and impenetrable dark eyes, carried the city’s business on their backs and or pulled it behind them, was deepened by Creely’s failed attempts to do the right thing. He may have tried to put public health on an equal footing with pecuniary considerations, and raise the alarm around the hazard that unregulated stables and liveries posed to the health of San Franciscans. He may have begun his career with the best of intentions. But in a city surrounded by equally ambitious men equally capable of corruption, his good intentions might not have mattered.
Creely prospered, despite two high-profile incidents of petty corruption in 1896 and 1909. He not only managed to secure a series of city and state offices; he’s credited for founding the second veterinary educational institution in California. The University of California opened their college first, on the northwestern corner of Post and Fillmore in 1896, later moving to U.C. Davis. On April 28, 1899, Creely, Mulford Pancoast, H.M Stanford, Joseph Sullivan, and John Murray filed articles of incorporation with the state, which officially founded the San Francisco College of Veterinary Surgeons and Dentists at 510 Golden Gate.
There’s nothing remotely horsey about Golden Gate Avenue now: the 1890’s are too long ago in geological and urban redevelopment terms for any trace of the community of veterinarians and stable owners to remain. The 1906 quake and fire destroyed it. After the earthquake, Creely moved his hospital/college to 1818 Market. In 1915, he announced plans to build a new college on 10th near Stevenson, but that building never materialized and the college closed in a few years later. This may have had to do with his advancing age– he was 50, an age that was sometimes fatal for Creely men– and the fact that horses were vanishing from the city. The resonant clopping of their hooves on the macadamized streets was being replaced by different sounds.
The site where the first hospital and college stood now hosts the American Academy of English. The only image that remains of the New York Veterinary/San Francisco Veterinary College is a picture of Creely standing on top of the building in June of 1906. He’s either in the process of cleaning up, or re-building in the aftermath of the disaster that leveled his competition, and reshaped the city he lived in.
Office of Dr. E.J. Creely, first veterinary hospital in S.F. June or late May, 1906. Golden Gate Ave. (#510), near Polk. Creely is barely visible on the roof of the building. From the California Historical Society, and available at the Online Archive of California
On August 18th 1898, a 56-year old woman named Ellen Riley died in her home at 707 Florida Street, which she shared with her husband Michael and five of their seven children. A native of Cork, like her husband and many other naturalized Irish living in the Mission District, she was waked at home, and memorialized at St. Charles Borromeo on 18th and South Van Ness.
Two weeks later her grieving husband was killed by an incoming Southern Pacific train. He’d just purchased a new windowpane from J.H. Kruse’s hardware shop at 23rd and Shotwell, and was walking home along the SP right-of-way between Harrison Street and Treat Avenue with the freshly cut glass tucked under his arm. At 9:30 am, as he neared the intersection of 22nd and Harrison Streets, a train he may or may not have heard (grief can preoccupy a person to the point of insensibility) smashed into him.
Riley was thrown 15 feet and died almost immediately, his arms, legs and skull fractured. SP Engineer A.C. Thyle later told a judge he threw the emergency brake as soon as he could, but to no avail.
The San Francisco Examiner reported that the corner where Riley died was particularly hazardous because of the acute angle of the track as it plunged past an old “rookery” and into the intersection. Residents who used the right-of-way as a migratory route through the neighborhood, resented the blind spot that made an otherwise perfectly good pedestrian corridor into something unpredictably violent. They had complained about the hazard, but their protests were “ignored”.*
There are no trains now, but the right-of-way has maintained its ability to disturb the neighborhood. Today, the complaints center on the fact that no one knows who owns the right-of-way, least of all the San Francisco Assessors-Recorder’s Office, who assess the value of all property in the city. They didn’t know until December 2017 that the State Board of Equalization had transferred the parcel containing the right-of-way to them ten years before.
Two years and several articles later, no assessee or owner has been found. Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu’s office has steadfastly claimed to have tried to identify the assessee, which is different than being the owner, while just as steadfastly refusing to discuss how they came to that conclusion, or what they know.
In general, nobody’s talking. What seems to be haunting the place these days isn’t the battered ghost of Michael J. Riley, as one might expect, but the spirit of Gilded Age obfuscation, leftover from the days of the railroad barons.
In the instance of the strange case of the right-of-way-nobody-owns there are only known unknowns. Most of them are kept in a banker’s box in the Superior Court of California’s storage space in Contra Costa County. If you request this box from the staff of the reading room at the San Francisco Civic Center Courthouse at 400 McAllister Street, it will be brought to you in due time, and you will be free to peruse roughly 800 legal documents that comprise the 1992-1996 “Southern Pacific Transportation Company vs Earnest R. and James W. Heinzer First Amended Complaint for Quiet Title, Trespass and Slander of Title”. This is the formal name of the legal action, which is the last time someone took legal action to prove or “quiet” title.
The link will take you to a page which has most of the important documents listed in date order with summaries following the original documents.
Southern Pacific’s legal action against the Heinzers took five years to settle and was inconclusive. At first, Southern Pacific included other property owners in the lawsuit, who meekly moved their stuff off the right-of-way– this is the “trespass” part of the action– leaving only the railroad company and brothers James and Earnest Heinzer to spar under the jurisdiction of Judge Daniel M. Hanlon.
The Heinzer brothers, whose green warehouse is on Treat Avenue, were one of four businesses who received shipments of freight from Southern Pacific Transportation Company. The Heinzer’s warehouse and the Atlas Stair Company are the only buildings left on the right-of-way from the era of rail deliveries to Mission District manufactories.
In 1991, Southern Pacific, faced with a shrinking customer base along the “old main line”, stopped service and tried to sell the right-of-way for about a million bucks. The Heinzers objected to this, saying they risked being put out of business if the trains stopped delivering their freight (this was a spurious claim- they, like other small industries in the area, were getting their stuff delivered by trucks.) Later, after offering to buy the right-of way for far less than it was worth, they filed a quit claim deed they got from a distant relative of John Center, the original landowner, and a notice to preserve interest in the parcel.
Southern Pacific Transportation Company objected to all of this –this is the “slander of title” part of the lawsuit–and filed suit. The rest would have been history were it not for corporate reticence, the inaccessibility of the legal documents and the reluctance on the part of the public to plow through piles of badly copied legal documents in order to understand what happened.
But the 1994 judgement is mercifully clear: Judge Hanlon found that Southern Pacific didn’t own the parcel, and had only inherited an easement from the predecessor railroad, the San Francisco-San Jose railroad. The SF-SJ RR ran through the land donated by John Center, a 19th century land baron who owned most of the Mission from 1850 until his death in 1909. An “easement” means you have the right to use the land, but you don’t have the privilege of selling or profiting from it.
Reading the documents is a real slog, but there are moments where plain language pokes its head over the parapet of legalese and makes the situation a bit easier to understand. The John R. Hetland Deposition is one of those moments. Hetland, a respected and beloved professor of law at UC Berkeley, and expert in real estate law, was retained by Southern Pacific as an expert witness. In his deposition, Hetland takes pains to explain why he felt the Heinzers had no claim. He foresaw the confusion over ownership and suggests on page 36 that asking Southern Pacific for their side of the story might help clear matters up.
I doubt this would have helped. Southern Pacific, which went out of business about three years after Hetland made this suggestion, didn’t like discussing its business with the general public. Neither does Union Pacific, the purchaser of Southern Pacific’s assets, who have disclaimed any interest in the right-of-way in emails to me.
No one knows where the original title, which was drafted in 1863, is. It was probably destroyed along with the Southern Pacific freight offices in 1906, leaving only a typewritten copy of the original deed** to be offered as evidence of ownership in 1994. The typewritten copy was turned down by Judge Hanlon, who found it was “without proper foundation”.
This could be said of every piece of property in San Francisco. The unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land in San Francisco has passed through the prism of settler violence and speculation, leaving contended property titles as artifactual evidence, much like the right-of-way itself functions as a historic remnant of California’s railroads. Historian R. A. Burchell notes in his book “The San Francisco Irish: 1848-1880” that San Francisco’s claim to possess title to 17,754.36 acres, which was first pursued by the city in 1852, wasn’t fully recognized until 1884.
The period of contention between the old Californios trying to prove ownership with their surreally distorted diseño maps and speculators, like Center and his buddy Samuel Crim, another Mission District land baron, form a specific chapter in the Mission District’s history, one in which unquiet titles begat unquiet social conditions, like the Mission Dolores Squatter Riot that took place on the night of October 9, 1867.
The riot was an armed grudge match between Center, Crim, and Supervisor James H. Reynolds, all of whom claimed title to the same parcel on Howard (South Van Ness) between 22nd and 23rd street. On the night of the riot, Center and Crim led 70 men brandishing guns and bayonets through the Mission to rip down Reynold’s holding and other “shanties” in the neighborhood. The Reynolds faction, threatened at gunpoint, shot first. Fire was returned, wounding three men and killing a fourth, an Irishman from County Meath named Peter Bradley, who was with the Center-Crim gang. In the aftermath, Reynolds, Center and Crim were arrested and charged with assault with the intent to murder.
In any case, the settling of the Mission continues. In the last year, the Assessor-Recorder’s office has divided the right-of-way into three parcels, for reasons they prefer not to discuss, citing California revenue and tax code section 408. The Assessor’s office did confirm in an email to Mission residents that they’re seeking taxes from dead people and defunct family trusts associated with these three parcels.
The John Center Company, which was dissolved in the mid 20th century, is on the hook for $211,653. William Henry Crim III, a descendant of Samuel Crim, and who might be dead, is being billed $61,514. Celia Wehr, a woman who lived next to the right of way in 1910, and who is certainly dead, has been billed $9,676. (That the deceased are being taxed by the assessor’s office adds a surprising twist to the adage that death and taxes are inevitable.)
So now what? If no taxes are paid within the next four years, and the land is declared abandoned, the parcel will revert to the city, who will then have the choice to auction it, or keep it unowned, with protection against profit, and develop it as open green space, sort of like it was a long time ago, before missions, ranchos and land speculators began to purchase the place now called San Francisco.
The destruction of the original title, which was accidental, now seems determinative. Prior to any official decision making, this parcel has managed to revert back to its natural state of being un-owned, which is to say un-sequestered by deed for future profit. It feels misguided to investigate missing titles on unceded territory when the deeper identity of this place— land used for a common purpose—seems so determined to assert itself. Land has spirit, too, quiet but persistent.
Written on a sultry day on October 6, 2019. We’re six days into the month. No fires yet.
*The San Francisco Examiner, Sept 6, 1898, “Killed by a train in the Mission”. May the spirit of Michael J. Riley rest at the right hand of God and in peace.
** The typewritten copy of the original title is not among the uploaded documents. I ran out of time. Sorry about that.
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 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. Both lists give the names of individual supporters, and the addresses of the councils. 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. The Anglo-Irish Treaty brought an end to the era of AARIR community organizing, although a few branches held 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 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 they had incorrectly 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, after declaring that she would represent 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.
Eviction Back from Dublin, my grandmother finds an eviction notice on her door. Now she is in court for rent arrears. The lawyers are amused. These are the Petty Sessions, this is Drogheda, this is the Bank Holiday. Their comments fill a column in the newspaper. Was the notice well served? Was it served at all? Is she a weekly or a monthly tenant? In which one of the plaintiffs’ rent books is she registered? The case comes to an end, is dismissed. Leaving behind the autumn evening. Leaving behind the room she entered. Leaving behind the reason I have always resisted history. A woman leaves a courtroom in tears. A nation is rising to the light. History notes the second, not the first. Nor does it know the answer as to why on a winter evening in a modern Ireland I linger over the page of the Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal, 1904, knowing as I do that my attention has no agency, none at all. Nor my rage.
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.