Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: Mission District

Bring out your dead: Dia de los Muertos

November 2nd was a warm day. The sun blazed hotly, the air was still, and in the Mission, people wearing shorts and sandals walked in a leisurely fashion, the way people 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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Creely-McCarty Incident map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Creely wearing her great-grandfather’s bridle.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DDND: Disruption depends on non-disclosure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not really my thing,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have there been any …conflicts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

The missing switch of 22nd street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I have that, sure,” he said.

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

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

“A bart truck,” I repeated.

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

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

“Did you tell BART?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

In the Blink of an Eye: the end of CELLspace

 

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

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

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

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

“Ok!” she replied brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

From the 23rd Street Crossroads: the Weeping Man O’ the Mission

 

 

People do get themselves into a pickle: On Friday, as Jay and I walked home down 23rd street, past the Gaehwiler’s Hoarded Mansions, I saw a Siamese cat dart onto the sidewalk and heard the sound of weeping. We walked toward the sound and found a  man sobbing in abject sorrow, sitting on the bottom step of 3015 23rd Street. We asked him what was wrong. He really couldn’t tell us.

“My friends live here,” he told us, by way of explanation. His name was Ryan. He was wearing black-rimmed glasses and his hair was groomed. He lived in Los Angeles and he wanted to go home and go to bed. That was all we could get from him: he lived in Los Angeles, he’d been waiting for his friends, and he wanted to go to bed.

“Where are they? I want to go to bed,” he wailed. It was a nice little bed, he said, located in Los Angeles and he desperately wanted to be in it. His head dropped into his hands and he sobbed afresh. (sorry for the pseudo-Richardsonian prose, but it was exactly like this.) He was very drunk.

Later, I observed to Jay that that kind of drunkenness is a state of inebriation usually achieved in the small hours of the morning.
“That’s a three-o-clock-in-the-morning drunk,” I said. “Not an 11:30 drunk. It takes time to get that wasted.”
“I’ll defer to your superior knowledge,” replied my husband.

Ryan had big brown eyes. “You guys are so kind,” said he said tearfully. “I’ve been sitting here for three hours and no one has stopped.” A car drove by and he sat bolt upright.
“Is that them? Oh, God. Could that be them?” It wasn’t them. He slumped back down. It was a long story, he went on to say, of how he came to be sitting, shivering, woeful, and drunk on the bottom of the stairs and was too wonderfully incomprehensible to be related in a way we’d understand.

“It’s a long story, right?” I said sympathetically.

“Oh my god. It’s such  a long story,” he said and waved his hand in a gesture of you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-I told-you bafflement. I saw, over Ryan’s slumped shoulders, the tenant of apartment 1305A, twitching her curtain at intervals, peering at us from behind her locked door.  23rd street, between Alabama and Folsom, looks and feels deserted. The Gaehwilers’ have been systematically emptying their buildings, and the sticky, brine-scented fog that was rolling in from the west enhanced the sense of ghostly lostness.

Poor Ryan was wearing only a flimsy jacket and a thin tee shirt. I know from experience that San Francisco fog still comes as a shock to Angelenos. Ryan, I imagined myself asking sternly, where’s your jacket? I was wearing an ugly beige London Fog windbreaker because of the windy, damp cold. It’s a jacket so devoid of style that my mother refuses to wear it. I took it off and spread it across his shoulders.

“Oh, that’s so kind of you!’ he cried. “I’m OK. I really am.” He burst into tears again, and then stopped. “I’m OK. What are you guys doing? You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a professional,” he said.
“I believe you,” I replied. I noticed a white paper band around his wrist; it was the type of bracelet they attach to you as proof of entrance in festivals or psych wards. I touched it.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Oh, that was from a club I went to,” he replied.

The Siamese cat had been darting back and forth on the sidewalk during this encounter. It was a gorgeous cat, a seal point Siamese, with observant eyes and a whippy black tail. If I hadn’t been so involved with the woeful Ryan, I would have paid more attention to it.
“Don’t go in the street,” I told the cat.
It threw itself on the pavement and started writhing ecstatically: clearly it was communing with the spirits of the fog-shrouded night and in thrall to them.

Jay discovered that Ryan’s phone was out of juice. “Do you want me to go get a charger?” he asked Ryan, who waved him away.
“No, no. What are you guys doing,” he said with drunken irritation and touch of belligerence. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m a professional.”

He clearly belonged to some profession. The watch he was wearing was a good one, and the scent of his cologne, which was in competition with the  smell of alcohol on his breath and skin, was very distinct: it had a strong note of fougère, and had clearly been crafted by some of the finest noses in the business. He was, in any case, a sitting duck. Robbery is a brisk business in any city, and San Francisco is no exception. I myself had been stolen from just six days before. My bike was swiped because I posted  woefully on Facebook a day later, of my hare-brained actions and the thief’s moral laxity. The loss had affected my week, leaving me with a sense of jumpy, hyper-vigilance.

I looked at Ryan critically: he didn’t weigh more than 160 pounds and he was extremely drunk. Anyone could have robbed him. I could have robbed him.
“Is your wallet on you? Do you have money?” I asked. “You could go and find a place to stay, right?”
“Yes, of course,’ he said. “I have money. My wallet is right here. Go on with your night,” he said. He made an attempt to sit up straight. “Really- you guys are so kind. I’ll be fine.”

I felt doubtful, but also no desire to invite him to our apartment, so that he could pass out in peace. It might have been fine, but it might not have been. The small talk in the morning would have been excruciating and I was all out of patience with the world.
“We’re going to leave you,” I told him. “I’m not real sure we should be doing this.” But he wanted us to go and finally we did.

When we got home, I called non-emergency dispatch and asked that they check on him, knowing he would not welcome this, knowing that it would be his worst nightmare, the flashing red and blue lights, the men in uniform standing over him, the flashlight in his face. But Ryan was vulnerable, sitting there weeping loudly, drenched in his expensive cologne and wearing his fine watch.

Does he have a weapon, asked the dispatcher and I laughed. Oh god no, I replied. Later the thought he’s an American and many American are armed ran through my head. He could have had a weapon, a small gun, maybe, a pearl-handled derringer, the weapon of maiden aunts and spinsters of Victoria Holt novels, blunt-nosed and deadly. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t afraid, I thought.

This morning, while Jay made breakfast, I called non-emergency dispatch.
“Can you tell me what happened with a call I made last night?” I asked and gave the dispatcher the address.
“23rd Street, between Harrison and Alabama, right?” No one had been found there, the dispatcher told me. By the time the police showed up, Ryan was gone.

How long did Ryan sit there, ears straining for the sound of an approaching car with his friends inside? Did they laugh affectionately, jeeringly, at the sight of him and his tears? Did they ask him about the beige windbreaker? (where on earth did you get that terrible jacket?) Did they reassure him that they’d always meant to come home, and open the gates for him, and take him inside to a little bed where he could finally sleep, a safe place inside, where the ecstatic cat and the sticky fog could not follow?

 
— written on Saturday, July 1st, as the moon waxes ever fuller in Libra, the sign of balance and right relationships.
Today is
my eighth day with no bike. The lesson of the stolen bike is this: there’s really no rush. The world isn’t going anywhere.

 

From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Robot Wrangling in the Mission District

robot2

I saw the robot before it saw me: it looked like a cross between a Travel Pro 3-Wheel(™) mobility scooter, the kind my elderly cousin uses, and a mini-fridge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be a hastily assembled, somewhat jerry-rigged robot: not top shelf, really. More bargain-basement. A man was trotting along after it, in the way of a pet owner chasing his unleashed dog.

I biked up to the man. “Can I ask you what that is?” I asked, knowing which answer I’d get. This is the New Mission: no one talks about their business, particularly if it’s funded with venture capital. The man, who had long, slightly stringy brown hair and brown eyes smiled. “I can’t tell you,” he replied. “Sorry.” I smiled back at him. I wasn’t surprised. The Mission District is in the grips of a massive Non-Disclosure Agreement these days: automated cars and robots are common sights on sidewalks and streets, and yet no one can or will tell you what they are or what they are meant to do.

“Can I follow along and ask you some questions?” I responded. The man winced. I was on my bike, so it was easy to shadow him and his pet-robot as they traveled down Alabama Street. The man, who also couldn’t tell me his name, said he was from New Jersey and that his company’s headquarters was in the Mission. “But I can’t tell you where. I’m not sure I could, anyway. I’m new here,” he said. “I don’t know San Francisco yet. We’re close to Potrero and some street named after a state.”

“York? Hampshire?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe one of those. But really: I can’t tell you,” he said.

robot3

I’d been primed for this encounter by a Mission Local story written by journalist Laura Wenus about a “Carry” robot—a different one than the one I was looking at— that she encountered on Valencia Street. Tech companies are routinely using streets and now sidewalks to test and develop and profit from their technology, and yet none of them will disclose what they’re doing.

I flashed back to a New Yorker story about Jim Dyson, the millionaire design engineer who invented the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer. “No humans, completely automated,” he said, about the making of the hair dryer. “Can’t have any humans.”
“This is meant to be a delivery system, right?” I said, adding “Bye-bye subsistence capitalism!”
He laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, right. This will definitely take someone’s job. Well…” he shrugged his shoulders. What are you going to do?

“How do you feel about tech firms using public space to develop their technology?” I asked.

“Well, we have to worry about competition,” he explained. “If we talk about what we’re doing—what this is”—he jerked his chin at the robot—“we run the risk of competitors stealing our ideas. I sympathize with people’s need to know, but I just can’t tell you anything. But I can say this is meant to help people, and that I would never work for a company to didn’t intend to help people. I wouldn’t be a part of that.”

We were having this discussion on Alabama street, which has the distinction of having some of the oldest houses in the Mission District. A PG&E serviceman was kneeling on the sidewalk in front of a cottage built in 1862, attending to some subterranean problem. The robot zoomed gaily ahead. “You gotta be careful,” said the man. I realized that he was talking to someone else.

“Are you controlling this thing?” I asked.
“No. Someone back at headquarters is,” he said.

The worker saw the wheelchair-mini-fridge contraption coming his way and sat back on his haunches. His eyes widened.”

Whoa!” he said. “Is that a robot?”

“Yes it is,” said the man, whom I had started to think of as the robot wrangler.
“Do you want to know what this is?” I asked the worker. “Ask him.”
“What is it?” asked the PG&E repairman.
“I can’t tell you,” said the wrangler, who looked a panicked. I could see him wondering about my persistence. When is she going to leave me alone?

1_enterscrosswalk

The robot moved confidently down 23rd, turned right on Harrison and made a beeline for the intersection of 22nd and Harrison. “That’s quite a curb,” the man muttered into his headset. The robot made its way into the crosswalk and, tottering a bit, managed to mount the curb cut. It veered around the woman who sits on the corner selling oranges. She eyed it with calm suspicion.  “Naranjas?” she asked to the robot wrangler as he herded it across the intersection.

“Do you think that companies that use public resources should pay for the privilege of using public sites to develop their technology?” I asked the wrangler.

“Well,” he said, “I think that fact that we’re providing some kind of benefit,” he said breathlessly (it was clear that he wasn’t used to all this running; he had the hunched posture and pallor of an tech engineer)—“to people …I can’t tell you what that is but I can say that this will provide some kind of benefit. So I dunno. If we had to pay a special tax we might want to go somewhere where we didn’t.”

2_incrossealk

I wasn’t surprised by his answer: this is the era of the Libertarian New Deal which has evolved a formula exactly opposite to the three R’s: instead of Relief, Recovery, and Reform, it’s Deny, Deconstruct, and Dissemble. Small “l” Libertarianism, as I’ve seen it practiced by start-ups in the Mission District, is avoidant, anonymous and prefers to to create things—cars and miscellaneous gadgetry—that make more private space.

This is how I view “innovations” like automated vehicles; the self-driving cars Cruise Automation has spent the last two years test driving around the Mission (and I do mean around, and around, in dizzying regularity) function like private BART cars. Included in this avoidance of common space is a suspicion of public safeguards, permits, in other words.

Uber’s decision to place their driverless cars on San Francisco streets in defiance of California’s entirely reasonable vehicle permitting laws is a perfect example of the tantrumy we’ll-do-what-we-want-to-do-you’re-not-the-mother-of-me reaction to public safety laws.  I asked the robot wrangler if the anonymous tech company had checked in with the city or sought any sort of permitting. “No,” he answered.

I recounted this conversation a day later to Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF who said immediately: “They are not legal. They are not permitted to be on the sidewalk.” She’d read the February 21st Mission Local story about the “Carry” robot, and thought I had seen the same robot.

“This was a different robot,” I told her. “It looked like a mobility scooter.”

She sighed. “We’re concerned that this is the beginning of the era of Wall-E. More and more public space is being taken away. People that live in the city enjoy the fact that they can walk places, like the grocery, for instance. Maybe you bump into a friend on the way. Sidewalks form social spaces and are part of the fabric of urban culture. To stop that culture from unfolding is detrimental to urban life. And it has an impact on the elderly and disabled population.” I asked her if they had a plan to deal with scofflaw robots. “Yes,” she said. “We’re working on that.”

The robot and the wrangler crossed the street and entered the crosswalk. I decided it was time to stop talking and start documenting. I laid my bike down next to the woman selling oranges and grabbed my cell phone.

“I don’t want to be in the picture,” said the wrangler.
“I can crop you out,” I said and then thought wait a minute. He’s walking around with this thing on a public sidewalk. Sorry, guy. The robot vroomed past me and churned down Harrison street. The conversation with the wrangler was over. He was nice, but I knew there was nothing for me to know; all I was required to do was watch the spectacle of a robot, zooming through my neighborhood.

3_walkingtorobot

But I followed them, anyway. We came to the corner of 23rd and Harrison.  A nattily dressed man wearing a porkpie hat stood on the street corner. His eyes lit on the robot and his eyes widened.

“Woah! Is that a robot?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said, answering for the wrangler, who was busy running after the robot.
He looked happy. “Is that like R2D2’s great-great-great-great Grandfather?” he asked gleefully. His name was Eric Peralta. “I’m a furniture designer and sci-fi geek,” he told me. He was enchanted by the robot.
“Do you want to know what that is?” I asked Eric.
“Yeah! Hey! What is that?” Eric called after the wrangler.

“I can’t tell you,” answered the wrangler. He and the robot zoomed off. Eric’s eyes were alight: the future was all around him in the Mission and it was awesome. Eric, a self-identified extreme-Left-Libertarian didn’t see a problem with the robot’s developers using the sidewalks and streets for product development or financial profit. “That’s what most companies do, right?” Neither did he mind the secrecy of tech culture. “When you’re working on sensitive technology, you need to be able to protect your design to keep your work from being stolen.” Who’d want to steal that thing? I wondered. What evil tech competitor would be interested? It looked so slapped together a Jawa might have second thoughts about scavenging it. In comparison, the “Carry” robot that Wenus encountered looked sleek, definitively high-tech and convincing in its role as the delivery person of tomorrow.

Eric looked thoughtful as he gazed at the rapidly vanishing robot. “It’s strange to be alive in this time. I can remember when computers were barely a thing…they fit in closets, not people’s hands. I grew up in the forest and love nature, love the environment. But the earth has become a human sphere. We are changing it.” He seemed to think that the future was upon us, in all its glory, unmovable, unchangeable and suddenly just present. I felt differently, of course: the future that tech companies seem to be building seems to be concerned with banishing the quotidian in favor of a future free of human activity and monopolizing my environment with a monoculture of non-disclosure and anonymity. Gee, no thanks. Like St. Joan of the Stockyards, I Want To Know.

What seems to be at-large in the streets of the Mission district (aside from unpermitted robots) is a culture that is at once voluble, and cagey: the public humble-brag and carefully scripted candor of the tech community when it speaks of the future at tech conferences vanishes when you encounter tech engineers roaming around the Mission District sitting inside self-driving cars or running after robots. They are legally and culturally tongue-tied. When asked what they’re doing, and what the things they’re developing will do, they can only say I can’t tell you. This is probably the truth. They probably don’t know.

Which is weird. An opaque, undisclosed future is at odds with the kind of Futurism I grew up with. It took delight in explaining everything: there will be ansibles, veldts, holo-decks. There will be genderless societies, black obelisks, undiscovered galaxies far, far away, monsters made from cadavers who need to be loved, tiny green people in elongated spaceships that either want peace or to destroy us. The authors and writers of the movies and the books I love (I’m a sci-fi geek, too) are in the business of description: new worlds, relationships, and environments. Some of the stories were cautionary. Some were frightening. But the makers of these scenarios wanted me to consider, to anticipate, to know.

The tech community of the Bay Area do not. They only ever show a bizarre mix of squeamishness and surprise—You’re only here to witness. We Can’t Tell You— as they develop an undisclosed future on the streets of my neighborhood.

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Written after a long time of not writing. The Moon is brand new and in Pisces. Venus is in the evening sky these days: go ahead and blow her a kiss.
Here’s to unsettled exoplanets!

Riding with Mary.

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Mary above the Puerto Alegre restaurant at 25th and Bryant

I went riding with Mary today, on my bike, through the neighborhood and hailed her every time I saw her. She’s a constant in the neighborhood, a genius loci, who’s been up in everyone’s business in the Mission —the Ancient Hibernians, the Latinx, —for a long time. (sometimes I think people think the Mission has only ever been either Irish or Mexican.) During my marathon Irish Walking Tour someone asked me what had changed in the mission …really? They posed this question to me sotto voce. I don’t know why: were they hoping for secret knowledge? I said It’s not that the Mission used be Irish…it’s that this place used to be about family. Multi-generations in one house. That’s what the Mission used to be.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe above El Farolitos on 24th Street

(The Mission was always a place to party. During prohibition, the Mission had speakeasies called “blind pigs”. The Quinn family who hailed from Cork, lived above a blind pig on the corner of 24th and Alabama. A shot of moonshine went for about 25 cents, according to Frank Quinn. Wonder what the operators of the gambling den/brothel in Lilac Alley charge? )

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Mary at the south end of Balmy Alley

I had this slightly surreptitious conversation while standing in front of an image of the Mary of La Reyna Panaderia on 24th street. Mary is one thing that hasn’t changed. She’s always been here and people have always worshipped her and loved her I told this person, who really needed to know that things are not so simple. People have been talking to Mary in Irish, in Italian, maybe in German, obviously in Spanish, obviously in English, for a long-ass time. Right? There’s a good reason that sightings of her are so common. All the prayers, all the fervent petitions to her, all of the apologies that stern Irish priests in the olden days of the Mission made you go down on your knees to say (I’m not catholic, so I don’t know how this goes, exactly.): all of this has left an imprint on the neighborhood.

St. Peter’s was founded in 1867, which means people in this “Peterite village” (so-called by Rev. Nicholas Farana, assistant pastor at St. Peters) have been talking with Mary for nearly a century and a half.

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Lourdes Mary and Mary with a fabulous Crown, also in Balmy Alley.

Sé do bheath’ a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta. Tá an Tiarna leat. Is beannaithe thú idir mná

(Oh, speaking of sightings. We had an actual, un-official Marian visitation in July, 1996. I was living on Precita Avenue, which is down the street and around the corner from the Chapel of Immaculate Conception. This chapel—which is gorgeously adorned with mounds of glazed terra cotta fruits, flowers and cherubs with round cheeks, blank eyes, and mouths frozen in a perfect “o”— has had a couple of mystical things happen: the current priest is an exorcist, an altar boy began excreting oil of rose through his pores and may have been in the early stages of developing stigmata. Also: Jesus was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. Mary made an appearance on the brass roof of the chapel and the devout answered this unexpected visit by appearing in the hundreds each night for a week, holding candles, clicking beads, murmuring prayers and staring at the intersected scratches on the brass panel that became a hooded figure with a drooping head the longer you looked. The panel glowed softly but distinctly. I saw this with my own eyes.)

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Our Lady of La Reyna Bakery and coffee shop on 24th street, between Folsom and Shotwell.

Hail, Mary. If there wasn’t so much talk between her and the people who lived here, she wouldn’t hang out. There are at least 13 different images of her in the neighborhood, with different expressions: patient, bland, stern, muy doloroso, kind of annoyed, kind of bitchy with raised eyebrows. I know better than you she seems to say, like an uptight church lady, and I’m like well, yeah, you’re the mother of Jesus, so you better! She bridges cultures, she leap-frogs over history. She’s everywhere: in back alleys, in store windows, on bright yellow awnings. All the Marys: the Lourdes Mary, the Medjugorje Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe Mary.

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This is a Mary who got invited to Chata Gutierrez’s going-away-party mural on 24th street. She’s so serene.

 

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This is a stealth Mary, who is hard to see. She is painted on the side of 899 Capp street, which is diagonal to accommodate the Southern Pacific’s San Jose Railroad, which used to run through the Mission.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.

Prompted by my friend, I muttered these words to her in Balmy Alley on the night of Dia de los Muertos. My sister was having a health care crisis, and I was like a child in the face of my fear. Mary was all over the place that night, not just in paintings, but in the faces of people and their shining eyes. The procession was quiet this year: everyone was holding their breath a bit because of the election, and there was something else going on, too, some other event that had drawn people away. The mood of the crowd felt more settled, more calm, as if the celestial blue of Mary’s mantle had settled on us all.

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I think this Mary of Lilac Alley. She’s pretty close to the blind pig.

(one note, written 2 days later: six of these Marys are versions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or “Reina de Ambas Americas”, or, Queen of both Americas. The popularity of this version of Mary speaks to that time when the Mission transitioned: older immigrant groups, the Irish, mostly, headed into the hills of Noe Valley, Glen Park and the western parts of the city, as “large scale immigration” from Central and South American increased. There was conflict in the parish. The old Irish Peterites were unhappy with the changes sweeping through their little sráidbhaile and the immigrants from Mexico, Salvador and Nicaragua contended with each other. Father Leopold Uglesic, pastor at St. Peters in the fifties, and survivor of fascist violence in Eastern Europe, worked with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an effort to unify the parish.*

 

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Mary, holding her own in a shop window on Mission Street.

Ave María, llena de gracia, el Señor es contigo, bendita tú entre las mujeres

I took these pictures today because I think when you start noticing things—like the prevalence of Marian iconography in your neighborhood, or horrible things, like white nationalists holding meetings in Washington D.C., throwing the fascist salute—ya oughta notice that you’re noticing, and talk about it a little, in the middle of your fascination. Or your panic.

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This is a fierce pagan Mary in Balmy Alley.

I’m not Catholic. I don’t intend to be Catholic, either. But I’m noticing Mary because I’m noticing my neighborhood, toda la gente, the laborers, los trabajadores, the Fenians, the Sandinistas, both of whom ran military drills in the Mission, both of whom perfected the art of resistance in the Mission, before returning to Ireland or Nicaragua to kick out oligarchs and pinche shitheads.

I rode with Mary today, in my neighborhood, because I love my neighborhood and people love her and because she knows all these the families, the Quinns, the Gutierrezes. She’s something that hasn’t changed.

I addressed her the way she’s used to, with desperation which can be equally composed of hope and fear and probably said over and over again something like Hail Mary, full of grace. Lady, hear us in the hour of our need. Her face looked at me from the center of her labial corona, her hands folded together patiently or spread apart in entreaty.

Come to me, talk to me. I’ve heard it all. I want to know what’s happening. Lay it at my feet. I’ve seen you before.

Talk to me.

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I am including this, because it feels like a Mary. All that beautiful blue, plus the cherubs. This is at 24th and Mission, right next to the intersection of 24th and Lilac Alley.

*When I write about the Irish, or St. Peters, I depend upon Jeffrey M. Burns’s excellent essay entitled “St. Peter’s Parish in San Francisco: The rise and eclipse of an Irish Parish, 1913-1965” which is included in the anthology “The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area: Essays On Good Fortune”, published by the Irish Literary and Historical Society.

 

Written from the 22nd street Crossroads on a dim November day, the 22nd to be exact, in the year 2016, during the last quarter of the old moon. Everything is cuspy: planets, people’s understanding of the political system and their place in it, my heart.
In eight days, a new moon comes. Prepare your work.