Mission Mumbles: Pandemic Time

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.

“Hello! Hello!” she called out, sounding like Mark McKinney’s head crusher from Kids in the Hall. She waved. The jogger gaped at her, agog.

“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. 

Mission Mumbles: My United States 2020 Census

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.

LMK!

Elizabeth Creely

(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?

 

Unquiet title, unquiet land: the history of the Southern Pacific Transportation Company’s lawsuit to quiet title in the Mission District.

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.  

Map of the Mission District “Pueblo Lands” circa 1865. Please note the Embarcadero, or pier at the mouth of Mission Creek, close to the modern day intersection of um…Harrison and 17th? If you know for certain, tell me.

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.

From the mixed up files of the Creely-McCarty family: why Hannah got her gun.

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.

Barr sent the other men around to a side door, and ordered Hannah to open up “in the name of the law”. That’s when she fired the first shot.

Hannah’s busy day as captured by the SF Examiner

 

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.

120 Ripley Street as it appears today.

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.
—Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

 

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Bring out your dead: Dia de los Muertos

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.”

A sign with the names of founders of the Black Panther Party hangs on a chain link fence in Garfield Park on Dia de los Muertos, November 2, 2018

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.

An altar in Garfield Park on Dia de los Muertos, November 2, 2018

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.

Elizabeth Creely dressed in honor of her great-great grandfather, James Creely, a horseshoer and blacksmith, whose last forge was on the corner of 21st and Folsom.

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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

The “Showplace Square / Northeast Mission” historic district sprawls from the southern hills around 19th and Pennsylvania, heads west across the 280 freeway, continues in a jagged line between Shotwell and Folsom, and then veers east on 20th Street, where it meanders back to Pennsylvania.

Within the district are 600 buildings that, though they may be blocks apart, share enough construction features and history to link them together through time and space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last business name is not up, but down: the name “Stempels” is outlined in brass on the terrazzo tile threshold of the Potrero Avenue entrance. It’s a real Desilu production: the “S” is designed to look like a treble clef sign. Back when Stempel’s Bakery was in operation at 200 Potrero, customers would have no problem figuring out how to enter the building. The name is meant to direct, as well as identify: step over me and walk inside. In contrast, Gizmo Art Productions’ sign, hanging high above the sidewalk, advertises itself but does not invite you in.

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

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

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

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

Stempel opened two more branches at 316 Fell and 1616 Bush Street, before demand for his excellent donuts drove him to add a third. “Free donut day today at Stempel’s!” exclaimed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1955. “Come on out, Mr. and Mrs. San Francisco, and see our new bakery at 200 Potrero Avenue.” The “huge, street-level picture window” let customers and passers-by watch the donuts being prepared, and let his customers see the cleanliness of the bakery.

They were in on the action of the neighborhood, which was at that time, unionized: in 1938, the Bakery Workers International Union, Local 24, which represented about 500 workers, negotiated a two-year work contract with San Francisco bakers, including Stempel’s. The union and the bakery stayed together until the bakery closed sometime in the mid-seventies, after George Stempel’s death in 1971.

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

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

Today, construction and design work are obscured–literally– from the public gaze.  The work being done on empty buildings on Mission street, modernized in the thirties, and awaiting their next star turn, is shrouded in plywood, and shielded from the public gaze. Permit details are (sometimes) available on the planning department’s site, but often there’s no choice but to wait and see, while the skittish developers argue with the planning staff over what should remain from the past and what can be done away with. This is especially true with “adaptive re-use”, the art of rehabilitating San Francisco’s inventory of cranky historic buildings.

The reasons for this are varied but they range between the following: (a.) there’s little agreement on what should be preserved and why. Nostalgia assigns meaning and value, as much as the date of the construction, to buildings that have outlived their designed purpose. Even those of us most concerned with preservation and historicity can regard old buildings with doubt.

Take auto liveries: they have an ample footprint, a doubtful future –cars are disappearing from this city–and design features that are only skin deep. Every time I see a barely-used auto livery, I wonder, irritably: do we really need this?

(b.) Adaptive reuse and historic conservation is expensive: it’s all stick and no carrot. I have no love for the deep-pocketed property owners of this city, but am sympathetic to the steep costs of rehabbing tattered buildings with friable cement exteriors, and sunken foundations.

In sharp contrast to the period of Depression-era modernization, there’s no Federal Housing Administration insuring low-interest loans for lending institutions, and no splashy, and optimistic public relations campaign to encourage adaptive re-use for buildings that are approaching–or have exceeded– their centenary.

(c.) because of the above, developers and land owners have little interest in historic preservation. Sometimes, the history of the building is a moving target. Buildings that were constructed a century ago have usually undergone multiple alternations in the interim and have erased some (or all) traces of the past.

The old Majestic theater at 2065 Mission Street was built once and re-designed twice, both times by different, but equally well-regarded, architects. Which year matters more?

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

It’s fraught territory. But I do think our built history matters, and I’ll tell you why: people should be able to lay claim to a place, and falling in love with an old building helps that process along. It’s hard to form an attachment to a condo that was built in the fall of 2017.

Take Harrison Street, between 20th and 23rd, as an example: I walk down it almost every day, and know it less each time. Harrison street used to host a variety of buildings, in varying heights and widths, that were leftover from its days as a Southern Pacific railroad corridor. Many of the buildings between 21st and 23rd have been demolished. The street is lined with residential buildings, faceless and impassive, on the western side of the street.

The visible imposition (or absence) of post-earthquake architectural styles on city streets is a reminder of what architects and urbanists thought the city could be. This includes the hostility and racial animus of redevelopment.

The architectural ideas in play after 1906 carried big ideas about what was happening for San Franciscans and how people would live. San Franciscans were tutored by these styles. Streamline Moderne didn’t just articulate the consensus of urbanists that life was being lived fleetly. It helped push America past the fear of Depression-era decay.

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

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

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

The Creely-McCarty Incident map.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happened: in 1849, Patrick Creely came to the United States with two children in tow, his son, James Creely, who was born in May, 1846 in County Armagh, Ireland and James’s elder sister, Annie, who was born in 1840. Patrick Creely was naturalized in San Francisco in 1855, but lived in Stockton with his small family until March 1859. The fate of his wife, Elizabeth, remains a mystery.

In those days in Stockton, life and death often might go unrecorded, but land transactions always were. Patrick bought land from a man named William Eldridge and then died a month later of kidney disease, leaving his children to fend for themselves. Patrick is buried at the Stockton Rural Cemetery in an unmarked grave with John O’Connell and his wife Susan, and to make matters worse, his name is misspelled as “Crelay” in the handwritten register. He was buried with them because they were probably related to him. This may explain why his son, my great-great grandfather James Creely was living with the O’Connells and another man named John Rocks, also from Armagh, by 1860. The Creelys and the Rocks show up on a map of turf bogs in Enagh, County Tyrone, according to the journal North Irish Roots (Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 25-27) I have no idea what this really means, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn the the Creelys, Connells and Rocks formed an extended family, and probably followed each other out of the north of Ireland and into California.

In 1869, James pops into recorded history as a twenty-three year old man married to Margaret McCarty, the “belle” of the town, according to my grandfather. His sister Annie Creely picked up the surname “Campbell” from an unrecorded marriage and later married Solomon Confer, a prosperous bricklayer. The Creely siblings held their weddings in the same location, month and year: September 1866, in St Mary’s, the Catholic church located in what is now the historic downtown of Stockton.

By 1868, James and Margaret had two children, Edward and James and James had a profession: he was a ferrier, or horseshoer.

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

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

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

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

They moved back to the South of Market with their growing family, living on Stevenson, Minna and Natoma and Howard streets in one- and two-room apartments. Like many San Franciscans, they shared their living quarters with their children, and extended family. In 1882, James McCarty, my great-great grandmother’s youngest brother traveled from the East Coast, and stayed with his sister, her husband and his seven nieces and nephews at 64 Natoma street. Later that year, their nine year-old daughter Mary Emma died of epilepsy.

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

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

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

This reticence includes their social life. The Creelys-McCarty’s didn’t hang out in the Irish-American halls in the South of Market and the Mission District and held themselves aloof from the throng of 19th-century Irish societal associations that were so prevalent in San Francisco. I look at lists of Ancient Order of Hibernian pledges, men who wanted the protection of that benevolent society, or the Knights of Tara (I’m not sure what they did) but no Creely ever appears.

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

But they hob-nobbed with their friends and cronies—and contended with their enemies and foes— with energy. My family appear regularly in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Daily Alta, the San Francisco Call, and smaller papers, like the Pacific Rural Press. From the 1850’s on, more than 5,000 stories and advertisements appear.

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

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

I know too much. So I made a map. This map shows the location of the residences, businesses, and incidents involving the Creely-McCarty family from roughly 1859 to 1920 or so. The facts are drawn from family story, city directories and census records and newspapers, like the Daily Alta, and the San Francisco Call newspapers, Old maps, which have helped me find streets that no longer exist, have also been incredibly useful.

This map might grow. It might not. Whatever happens I can confidently say that it’s the most complete account of where we lived and worked in this changeable state and city and what we (sometimes) did.

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

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

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

Elizabeth Creely wearing her great-grandfather’s bridle.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DDND: Disruption depends on non-disclosure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not really my thing,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have there been any …conflicts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

The missing switch of 22nd street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, maybe you know that know some of my neighbors here in the East Mission want to turn the right-of-way into a long narrow greenway, like Juri Commons. No one knows yet, because the city doesn’t know who owns it the parcel. In the meantime, the future of the right-of-way is unfolding from emptiness into form, and the dimensions of the right-of-way changing because of O’Connor’s 40-foot building rising up on its eastern edge. In a weird way, this is going to help: people will know exactly how much land there is to work with. I find this interesting, in a plot-driven kind of way: O’Connor has acted as a local deus ex machina, providing answers and clarity in a way he probably never intended to.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I have that, sure,” he said.

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

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

“A bart truck,” I repeated.

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

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

“Did you tell BART?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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