The Mystery of Cherry Lake.

Cherry Lake is the name of a private residential community in Newport Beach. The lake that gives the place its name sits roughly 26 feet above sea level on the northern bluffs of the Upper Newport Bay. Its depth is 17 to 19 feet. It is long, rather than wide, and lozenge-shaped. A water-gate prevents debris from being swept into it from a depressed area that runs from the intersection of Santa Isabel Avenue and Redlands Street. There is a concrete dam on the southern edge that impounds the water with two six-foot pipes inside a catch basin. When it rains fiercely, the impounded water overflows into the pipes that run underneath Irvine Avenue at 23rd Street and through the Santa Isabella Flood channel that drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Twenty houses ring the lake and many of them have docks. “I’ve seen those docks underwater,” Rodney Medler told me. I’d left a note on his door—can I see the lake? —and he’d called and invited me over for a look. Medler, a retired property manager with the rakish good looks of the actor Sam Elliott, lives on 23rd Street. His backyard faces the lake, and he also has a camera trained on it, so that even when he isn’t outside, he can see it, the better to catch lake-crashers (they’ve had some). Cherry Lake has lily pads. When they die off in the fall, the tuberous roots, which are a ghastly greenish-white, float near the surface of the water, looking like the arms of a monster: the Cherry Lake kraken, perhaps. There’s a slide in the middle. People swim in the lake. It’s a special place.

Cherry Lake has a distinctly retro feel to it. The name hearkens back to the technicolor gloss of the post-war era in Newport Beach. Back then, the colors were bright, and women wore coral-colored lipstick as they water-skied in the bay or drank cocktails at the Village Inn on Balboa Island with their handsome husbands. In those day, everything was gay, and people lived their lives gaily, according to the local newspapers, the Newport Ensign and the Daily Pilot, who never hesitated to use this adjective to describe the mirthfulness of everyday life in Newport.

There was no water skiing on Cherry Lake, although there was fishing. “There are fish in there— bass, catfish, bluegill,” said Rodney. “We fish. But we just catch and release though. They’re like pets!”  A woodpecker flew across the lake just then, in a flash of black and white.

“Look at that!” said Rodney. “We get all kinds of birds here. We got some ospreys last year.”

“They must love the fish!” I said.

“Yeah,” Rodney said. He laughed. “We make it easy for ‘em.” The lake was different, he told me. Not only was the bottom unlined, it was spring-fed.

“There are six springs in the lake,” he told me genially. “When you swim, you can feel the water temperature drop. And that’s how you know.”

I’d heard about the spring: it was the lake’s creation myth. But there was nothing plausible about the lake (coastal lakes are relatively rare in California.) It was obviously man-made. But by who?

It was a joint effort. Lawrence E. Liddle, the property owner, joined forces with realtor Jack W. Mullan in 1956, according to papers filed with the Newport Beach Planning Commission. Together, they built a lake.

Picture of Jack W. Mullan ((1924-2004) from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Both men took their cues from the recent past. In 1955 the Vogel Company, a realty firm, advertised a “lakefront” home on Cherry Lake, with guaranteed swimming rights. A year later, the Soil Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture graded the area and installed a desilting basin. How Cherry Lake fared during this rough treatment is unknown. But community memory is tenacious, and the recollection of what the site had been probably encouraged Liddle and Mullan.

Liddle, born in British Columbia, kick-started the development of Cherry Lake, appearing as the principle of “Lake & Bay Park, Inc.”. He drops out of the historic record as represented by city filings and newspaper mentions after a time. Mullan, however, stayed in the news until his death in 2004.

Mullan, an adventurous man, was a big-time developer in Newport Beach. As the vice president of the California Real Estate Association in Orange County, he designed neighborhoods out of the raw materials of the Southern California landscape. His large-scale vision was acquired during the war after enlisting in the Air Force. He flew P-38’s, the workhorse fighter aircraft that could bomb landscapes or document them. A renowned photo reconnaissance pilot, Mullan was trained to do the latter, and continued to fly them after he and his wife moved to Germany after the war. Mullan managed the operations of the Aero Exploration Company, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma a firm that specialized in aerial photography. The company had an outpost in Frankfurt, then at a low point in its long history, the cityscape having been almost entirely destroyed from 1939 to 1945 in nine separate bombing sorties.

The view from the skies above war-scarred world stayed with Mullan, who found civilian uses for his Air Force training in post-war Southern California. Mullan “pioneered the use of aerial surveys in subdivisions” according to his brief biography on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He moved several times before settling in Newport Beach, and once there, began shaping the landscape of semi-rural Orange County.

Mullan didn’t just develop housing tracts, he provided “estates”, with an emphasis on exclusivity, and all the trappings thereof. Golf courses, clubhouses, private roads and lakes were popular design features of the exurbs, built for those in white flight from diversifying city centers. Mullan took all this to its fullest expression, and masterminded Orange County’s most iconic mid-century housing developments, the “Carriage Estates” in Mesa Verde, for example, which were located on the bluffs above the Santa Ana River.

His most enduring legacy is his credit as the co-designer of a new kind of housing development, called a “condominium”. He oversaw the design of the first legal condo development in California called Vista Bahia, appropriately: they (still) overlook the top of the Upper Newport Bay, at University Drive and Irvine Avenue. I marveled at the grounds of Bahia Vista as a child, walking to swimming lessons at the YMCA. The grounds were impeccable with coarse St. Augustine grass and sculptural hedges of Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa).

Bahia Vista embodied Orange County’s two great loves, an expansive view and privacy. Mullan built it in anticipation of the coming population surge, which involved more people demanding more of everything housing, parking, and recreation except density.

He had some defeats. In 1965, the year I was born, Mullan headed the Newport Dunes Hotel Corporation, which intended to develop the Newport Dunes into a Spanish-themed 244-room hotel and restaurant complex, covering 6.4 acres, and facing “the quiet waters” of the lower bay. A fifty-year sublease was planned between Mullan and the county, but the plan was scuttled in 1967 due to bureaucratic hesitance to commit to the costs of construction. The complex was never built.

But Mullan still built plenty, some of it above the Upper Newport Bay. Within a decade, the bluffs between Mesa Drive and East 16th Street were transformed from small farms divided by eucalyptus windbreaks and dotted with ramshackle buildings into family homes plotted on streets whose names memorialized the cities of old Europe: Grenoble, Marseilles and Seville.

1907 Long Beach Press ad for prime land in Newport Heights.

In the mid-fifties, Mullan founded a realty firm and opened an office on the peninsula at 434 32nd Street in Newport Beach, close to Via Lido and just around the corner from my grandfather’s office, the Weist-Creely company, then selling parcels of augmented mudflat on Lido Isle for under one hundred thousand dollars. They were joined by P.A. Palmer, R.C. Greer and others, all of whom were jockeying to sell the undeveloped and sometimes barely terrestrial land of Newport Beach.

In 1958, after he was granted a permit by the city of Newport Beach to post subdivision signs, Mullan hung two advertisements outside a temporary sales office near the old ravine at 23rd Street and Irvine Avenue, and ran an ad in the Los Angeles Times, alerting the public to a new development with natural allure. “Lots overlook the picturesque freshwater lake,” the ads boasted, mentioning that all utilities were undergrounded, and all architectural designs subject to approval, in order to maintain the harmoniousness of estate life. (There was no mention of the lake’s decidedly un-glamorous stint a year or two earlier as a desilting basin). He and Liddle dubbed the development the “Lake Park Estates.”

The “freshwater lake” was, of course, Cherry Lake, a name not in keeping with the nature of the place. There are no lakes called “kirsch see” in Germany, but there are a few Cherry Lakes in Canada, where Liddle was born. Arranging the site must have been a monumental effort: Mullan, Liddle and their engineers had their work cut out for them. Cherry Lake, and the houses arranged around it, sit on top of what once was a 25-to 40-foot ravine.

Ad for Lake Park Estates, Valley Times, July 8, 1960

After talking to Rodney, I developed an obsession with the mythic spring of Cherry Lake and went looking for proof of its existence. The Sherman Library, which is housed inside an adobe house on Dahlia Street in Corona Del Mar, specializes in the history of the Pacific Southwest, and Newport Beach. I sent them an email, asking hesitantly if they knew anything about it. Jill Thrasher, the head librarian, called me back almost immediately.

“What exactly are you looking for?” she asked.

I didn’t know. “Anything?” I said, feeling dumb (water? a hole in the ground?). I explained that I wanted to see the bluffs of the Upper Back Bay as they were in the early 19th-century, before they were developed.

“Creely,” she said. “That name sounds familiar. Are you related to Bunster Creely?” I told her I was. (The library holds some of my grandfather’s personal library.) She said she’d call me back, and I hung up with low expectations. I didn’t expect much. I’d hadn’t given her much to work with. She called back a day later, her librarian’s natural calm slightly ruffled.

“I think I may have found something you’ll really be interested in,” she said. I shuffled into the library that day feeling foolish—what did I want with that old lake, anyway?—and sat down. Jill had USGS coastal survey maps, or “T-sheets”, as big as posters, spread over the library’s long tables. She tapped one with her finger. “Here’s Cherry Lake,” she said.

The United States Geological Survey, which formed in 1879 to inventory the mineral and hydrological resources of the United States, did all historians (credentialed or not) a big favor by mapping the coast of California. The maps from 1927, 1935, 1942 and 1949 all showed, in spidery lines, a sharply incised ravine thrusting like an accusatory finger out of the Upper Newport Bay, and into Costa Mesa, to what was now Orange and Monte Vista Streets.

In 1927, ’35, and ’42, the area was shown as a marshland. Dotted and dashed lines were interspersed with tufted clumps of grass, symbols that looked exactly like the natural feature they were documenting.

In 1949, after the USGS started using color, a thin blue line appeared for the first time, running down the middle of the ravine. “That’s the symbol for a stream,” Jill said. The past swam before my eyes.

Excerpt of 1949 USGS Newport Beach map

In 1949, my hometown was still being assembled. Irvine, and Tustin Avenue, Santa Ana and Orange Streets were paved. Irvine had yet to cross the ravine and stopped at 23rd Street. Orange Coast College was platted and partially built. The bay had been labeled too. “The Narrows,” a poetic name reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s minutely detailed map of Earthsea, was an area directly downstream from the old creek.

Cherry Lake, it turns out, was much more than just a spring. It was mostly a creek that ran through a deep ravine, fed by the artesian belt that Newport Heights was known for. If there were springs, they likely watered the creek south and west of Santa Ana Avenue. There was still more to know: the 1935 T-sheet shows a wetland complex complete with a good-sized pond nestled into what is now the intersection of Bear and Bristol Streets in my home suburb of Mesa Del Mar. (It was still there in 1942.) Looking at the place in the terrain view on Google reveals the remnants of an old bluff curving around the lake between Private Road and Santa Isabella. Today, as you cross Irvine Avenue you are traveling above a ravine that once cracked this area in two.

The earliest appearance of the stream appears on an 1858 U.S. Survey plat map of James Irvine’s property. The northwestern bluffs of the mesa are indicated just under the boundary line with the notation “rolling land.” Another line with another tiny notation “stream of alkali water” appears to the north, cross-hatching the boundary line. But there are no symbols for a spring on any of the historic maps.

This mattered to me, because it mattered greatly to Cherry Lake residents, who, undeterred by the improbability of a spring-fed lake, have always insisted that their lake is spring-fed. But if the old maps didn’t provide proof, community memory did. In 1992, Mullan told Joanne Lombardo of the Newport Beach  Ad Hoc Historic Preservation Committee that Cherry Lake was the original well site for Newport and moreover gave the place yet another name: Indian Wells/Springs, which is how the area is identified in the official inventory. Naturally, I called the city.

“Springs? In that area? I’ve never heard that,” said Bob Stein, a civil engineer and hydrologist for the city. “We have seeps around there. But Cherry Lake is probably fed by normal urban slobber.” He meant runoff.

“It does have a relationship with the Upper Newport Bay. Have you seen the Santa Isabel Flood Channel? It’s kind of a pit,” he asked ruefully. “I’d love to do some restoration around there.” He was curious to know more. “Tell me what you find out!” he said.

“According to the map we have, there’s no outlet,” said Linda Candelaria from O.C. Flood control. “It’s a private lake. We don’t monitor it but we’re all kind of curious now. No one has heard of it. You’ve really piqued our interest.”

“Cherry Lake? A spring? We have no idea,” said the woman who sat behind the desk at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center in Upper Newport Bay. She looked puzzled. “I’ve never even heard of the lake.” A Parks and Recreation staffer, strolled over, regal in her khaki uniform, and said, “I wonder if that’s where the fish came from.”

“What fish?” I asked.

“We found a bunch of dying fish once, about three years ago. Over there,” she said and waved in the direction of Irvine Avenue. “They were just lying there. I wonder if they came from the lake.”

Carla Navarro, from the California Department of Fish and Game said in an email to me, “Cherry Lake is private, self-contained, and does not drain into the estuary.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I’d be interested in anything you dig up. The lake has been a small mystery to me.”

Bob DeRuff, a former Engineer with the Irvine company, provided actual proof. He remembered the spring clearly because he touched the “natural, fresh water” himself.

“That’s a freshwater marsh,” he told me over the phone. “I used to have a copy of a 1875 hydrographic map. It showed the location of springs around the bay, which included that area. I got it from the Irvine Company—had it in a closet, in the back. One year, I moved and I didn’t take it,” he said sadly. “In high school (he went to Newport Harbor High), I remember a place along the road there, where Irvine is now, up around the lake. I remember getting out of the car with a friend. The land was wet. It was almost like a pasture, but there was a rock outcropping and there was water running out of the ground, over the rock. It must have been artesian enough that something was forcing it out. It was just running out.”

“The whole area was a gully,” he said. “I had a friend who built a house on Irvine Avenue, who had to fill the ground with pea gravel ‘cause the water ran so consistently. He needed it to percolate. You know, until the eighties, Irvine Avenue would come apart on a yearly basis. There was so much water seeping in from underneath. That whole area was wet. You can still see it in the area across Irvine Avenue.” He was talking about the flood channel, known colloquially as the 23rd Street creek.

Plat of the San Joaquin Rancho, 1868

Other people had memories, too. “That place? Oh, honey. We called it the run-off. It was terrible,” Francis Gowen Kennedy Moran told me. Fran—our childhood name for her —grew up in a house on the corner of 20th Street and Tustin Avenue, which ends above the artificial shores of Cherry Lake. She remembered it all.

“Honey, it was a marsh. It was a mess — just a mucky swamp. Full of mosquitoes. They didn’t know what to do with it. People were always getting into car accidents there.”

I could see that. Tustin Avenue is flat until it intersects 23rd Street. Then the edge of the old bluff gently descends into the basin holding Cherry Lake. Fran continued with her story. “In those days, Tustin dead-ended into the run-off, and there were no stop signs on Tustin, so people would fly down the street in their car and launch themselves into the swamp. And then my dad, who was a doctor, would be called in to patch ‘em up.”

I thought about those heedless people, gaily motoring down Tustin Avenue in the daytime, or through the velvety blue August nights. Did the sulfurous odor of the swamp fill the air? Did croaking frogs and whining mosquitoes provide a soundtrack on hot summer nights? Crashing your car into a swamp and riding your horse over the bluffs to the edge of the cliffs of Corona Del Mar, as my aunt Cerini once did: these were things people could do back then, in non-developed Newport Beach, a place of crashing surf and glittering starlit nights.

Fran’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Now listen to me, Betsy. That’s not a lake. It’s a swamp. They turned it into a lake. But it isn’t real,” she said. “You’ve made me really curious. Tell me what you find out, okay?”

US Coast Survey, Topography In Vicinity of Newport Bay, 1875

The last person I called was Larry Honeybourne, with the county’s Environmental Health Water Quality Section (he has since retired). Honeybourne had a measured, precise way of speaking that busy people who dole out technical information to the public often have.

“Why do people think Cherry Lake is spring-fed?” I asked.

“Well,” Honeybourne said. “It isn’t impossible. There are artesian situations in Orange County. Fountain Valley is called Fountain Valley because of artesian wells. Orange County is an alluvial basin. It’s great for storing groundwater. So there could be springs, if we weren’t taking out more than we put in.”

But they are. Orange County’s water table is overdrawn and has dropped below sea level. The ocean, sensing an opening, has rushed in to fill the gap. At the moment, much of the water filling the subterranean cracks of the Newport Mesa is coming from the sea. The spring that Bob DeRuff knew in his youth may have dried up long ago.

“The ocean is at your front door,” said Honeybourne. “That’s what we tell everybody.”

Fine, I thought, but what about the damn spring? No one answering the phone with polite and perplexed voices at various agencies seemed to know anything. I called my sister Emily, a field scientist who lives in Alaska, to report my findings and the mysteries that remained. Spring or no spring? And why doesn’t anyone know?

“Betsy, “said Emily, exasperatedly.  “Government agencies won’t know about a spring.” She was right. They aren’t in the business of history, but resource management.

Resource management, though, does create archival documents, and it is in one of these that the mythic spring of Cherry Lake officially appears. In 1952, an engineering firm with the snappy name of the “Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts Engineering Company” prepared an environmental report for the Irvine Company on the suitability of their land for urban development.

Knappen-Tippetts-Abbett Engineering Company report to the Irvine Company, 1952. To read full report, click here. UCI Library Special Collections and Archives

Knappen-Tippetts-Abbetts concurred with the Irvine Company’s opinion that development was the fate of the area, and noted on page 22 that the “active spring” at the “foot of 23rd Street,” which had been marked on charts 75 years ago, might play a part in some suburb’s future. “Around this spring, a park with lawns and interesting planting,” could be of value, averred the report’s author, due to the availability of “natural fresh water.”

“Well there you go,” said Emily briskly when I reported my finding to her. “Fran is right. It isn’t a lake. Cherry Lake—who came up with that name by the way? It’s silly— is an accident.”

Accidents aren’t as well planned, I thought. The place was just devoid of a past. Ah, the developers, I thought. Those mid-century men, consulting maps, and compasses, grading hills, filling land and damming water sources as they built for the future. They knew what had been there. They had proof. Caught between the past and the future, were they able to forget the habitats they had paved over? Did they remember the scent of brine, or the appearance of an enigmatic petroglyph, or the biblical sight of a spring gushing out of a rock? Maybe. But their memories had died with them, and anyway, they probably didn’t talk too much about it.

“What did Cherry Lake look like?” I asked Emily.

She sighed and said, “Want to go for an imaginary walk?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

She and I started walking on the mesa southeast toward the ravine. “So, this is what we’d see,” her voice said, out of the telephone clutched to my shoulder. “First thing, we’d see a bunch of shrubs. Remember- we’re on top of the bluff. So think about what grows there. Sage, for one thing.” She meant the clumps of Artemisia californica, the ubiquitous silvery green sage that forms the top note of the scent of the California coastal chaparral.

“Try to see coastal oak,” Emily urged. I saw old man oak, the gnarled trees that look more like a shrub, with fang-toothed leaves. “The color of the landscape changes,” said Emily, “as we get closer to the ravine. Can you see that?” I could. The soft grey-green of the artemisia sharpened into yellow- and olive-green as the tops of sycamores and willows appeared. The smell changed, too, from the lemony scent of the artemisia to the dank heavy odor of water. There was a faint suggestion of sulfur.

We stood on top of the ravine and looked down. Below us, fringed by red-rooted willows was a pool of dark water. A pond. Not a lake.

“If we went down there, we’d step in mud,” said Emily. “And then suddenly there’d be water, open water, like a little pond.”

“It was beautiful then, right?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “We would have loved it. I have to go to sleep, babe. You have a better idea of what it looked like?”

“Yes,” I said.  We hung up.

Rendering of the proposed Upper Newport Bay Development from the Knappen-Tippetts_Abbott Engineering Co. report

There’s no mystery to the origins of Cherry Lake: it’s private, not mysterious, a post-war folly that started in the skies of the Pacific Theater and came down to earth when Lawrence Liddle and Jack Mullan stood at the top of a deep ravine and beheld murky water pooled in the bottom. If there’s a mystery, it’s this: what do you see when you look at a landscape, and why? I guess it depends on where you’ve been. Mullan, who had beheld the ravages of war, saw something comprehensible, an opportunity for serene, untroubled beauty.

Cherry Lake is both real and unreal, an artifact twice over. It was a spring-fed stream dividing an arid plain in two, then a desilting basin and then, finally, a suburban fantasy. No one can transport an entire world to another place, Avengers-style, but with the means and the drive, you might be able to re-create a spatial simulacrum of place, scaled down for the suburbia, and far more secure. The earth as seen from the cockpit of a P-38 must seem so malleable. It is easy, as Mullan knew too well, for places to change (to vanish), and for landscapes to be exchanged for another.

Cherry Lake, 2019. Photo by Rodney Medler
 
Finished in San Francisco on April 18th 2020, 31 days into shelter in place, and eight years after I started researching Cherry Lake.

 

This is dedicated to my brother James W. Creely with love. Many thanks to the Jill Thrasher at the Sherman Library, Bob DeRuff, Julie Goldsworth of the Irvine Historical Society, Andrew Page of the Newport Beach Public Library, the fabulous Fran Moran, and the staff of the UCI Special Collections and Archives.

 

I over-researched this essay. If you want to see some of the cool papers and maps I found, head over to this repository and check ’em out.
Rendering showing a proposed crossing at Dover and Pacific Coast Highway from Knappen-Tippetts-Abbett Engineering Co. 

Edward Creely and the changing city, 1870-1920

Part Two: The Great Glanders Epidemic of 1892

The San Francisco Veterinary College at 1818 Market Street, near the intersection of Octavia. I think Edward J. Creely is the last man on the left with his hat pushed up.

To return to the story of Edward John Creely: prior to his involvement with tubercular cows, he may have been briefly employed by the industry that created them. In 1890, a “J Creely” appears as a “dairyman” working at 35 Eddy Street, in a building known as Washington Hall. It housed the retail offices of three dairies, the Guadeloupe, San Mateo and New York Dairy, the latter owned by scofflaw dairyman George Smart, who would go on to poison the Lent children after selling their mother milk adulterated with formaldehyde in 1905.

There’s no proof that “J Creely” was Edward Creely, but it probably was. Industry regulators often find work as the employees of industries they later regulate (or fail to.) There was also more than one J. Creely in the city. Creely, his father and brother all had the same initials (Edward Creely was christened John Edward.) To avoid confusion, he swapped out his first name for the second throughout his professional life. But in any case, Creely père and frère were too busy to take up sideline gigs as a dairymen. Edward wasn’t. In 1890, Edward, who started his college studies at St. Ignatius College, finished them as a veterinary student at the University of New York. He returned to San Francisco, where highly-trained veterinary surgeons were in demand.

Creely didn’t linger at 35 Eddy street for very long. As the son of a horseshoer, horses were what Creely knew, and horsepower was what the city ran on. San Francisco had hundreds of horses on its payroll. In the 1891-92 San Francisco Municipal Report, the fire department reports having 88 horses scattered among its 34 stations, and a hostler and veterinary surgeon on staff to tend them.

By 1891, Creely had opened his first establishment, which catered to horses. Called the New York Veterinary Hospital, it was located at 510 Golden Gate Avenue, and was one of several veterinaries that stretched along the avenue from Hyde to Webster Street. Isaac O’Rourke, who specialized in equine dentistry, was located at 331 Golden Gate Avenue, followed within one block by F.A. Nief at 434, Creely at 510, and Ira Dalziel at 605. The “San Francisco Veterinary Hospital” was the last of the bunch and lay the furthest west at 1117, close to the intersection of Golden Gate and Webster street. This hospital was owned by William Egan and Peter Burns. Egan was Creely’s landlord and owned the property at 510 Golden Gate. Both Egan and Burns would later become antagonists of Creely.

New York Veterinary Hospital, 510 Golden Gate Ave, San Francisco, CA circa 1892. Picture courtesy of Kathy Creely

The first announcement that the New York Veterinary Hospital was open for business ran on January 24, 1891 in the Pacific Rural Press, a paper for farmers and agricultural businesses in California. Seven days later, Dr. Creely made the news for his feat of fitting a draft horse suffering from ocular cancer with a glass eye, earning the gratitude of the horse’s owner, Le Roy Brundage, who didn’t want to lose the entire animal for the lack of an eyeball.

Uncle Edward who boasted of a state-of-the-art facility with steam baths for the hard-working horses of the city, kept upping the ante in the highly competitive world of veterinary surgery. In 1893 he saved a choking horse by inserting (he used the terrible word “ramming”) a teakettle spout into the horse’s trachea. The spout was later replaced with a conventional breathing tube. This got him some media attention, and an offer to become a columnist for the Pacific Rural Press.

“Of Interest to Many Readers: Beginning with the first issue in October, the Pacific Rural Press will furnish a veterinary department, which will be in charge of Dr. E. J. Creely, D. V. S., of this city. Any questions relative to diseases of cattle and horses, stock, hogs, poultry, etc., will be answered promptly and intelligently, the idea being to furnish free information to our readers that will be of value to them.”

The ledes in his column read like the titles of penny dreadfuls: Mare With Mysterious Trouble, Crack In the Frog, Cows Killed By Ergot, Treatment for Nasal Gleet in Horses, and Glanders and Farcy and How To Detect Them, among others.

But the attention he received from the press wasn’t always positive. A year before his promotion to veterinarian-at-large for the readers of the Pacific Rural Press, Creely created some bad press for all the right reasons, namely glanders, an infectious and ultimately fatal disease caused by a bacteria called Burkholderia mallei.

Glanders attacks a horse’s respiratory tract, and first appears as a foul discharge leaking from the nostrils. If the horse is not destroyed, the disease migrates to the skin, causing subcutaneous ulcers to develop. At this stage the disease is called farcy.

Glanders is floridly disgusting, and easily preventable by providing humane living conditions for horses, which were hard to come by for the 18th-century urban horse. Horses pass it among themselves when squeezed into crowded stables like the St. George livery on Bush street, which stuffed as many as 150 horses within as little as 5,200 square feet. This gets a horse about 35 square feet, which is very little. A moderately proportioned horse needs at least 60 square feet to fit comfortably into a horse trailer. 

All this infectious proximity came with a human cost as well. Glanders is a zoonotic disease; it jumps from horses to humans with ease. No human was known to have died from glanders in San Francisco when Dr. Creely offered a startling observation free of charge: glanders, he said, was at epidemic levels in San Francisco, killing horses, and maybe humans, too.

 

 

The lede in the San Francisco Examiner on Monday morning, April 4, 1892 couldn’t have made the stakes much higher. 

“EPIDEMIC OF GLANDERS: The Dread Contagion Raging Throughout The City. Horse Dying By The Score.” 

The story started with a dead horse, dumped in front of Creely’s surgery, with a placard attached to its neck, reading “glanders”. The placard might have been an attempt to comply with city ordinance no. 1880, which advised horse owners with that they must place a bright yellow placard, the color of caution, around their horse’s head to warn others that the stricken animal should be avoided. (This measure was mostly ignored.)

The Examiner reporter called to the scene asked an obvious question to Dr. Creely, who at the age of 25, was probably the youngest practicing veterinarian on the avenue. Was there an epidemic of glanders? In the article that appeared a day later the Examiner stated that Creely and “other veterinary surgeons who are in a position to know” thought there was.

“The public do not understand the great risk they are taking handling, being around or even driving behind a glandered horse,” asserted Creely, before going onto name two individuals who he claimed died from glanders: a man with the colorful nickname of  “Mustang Wilson”, as well as the Sheriff of San Jose who died after his horse tossed his head, and his infected snot, in the sheriff’s face.

“There is scarcely a livery stable in the city that is free from it,” concluded the Examiner, in an unattributed quote, that nevertheless was understood to have come straight from the horse’s mouth, Dr. Creely, the only veterinary surgeon willing to be quoted by name.

The allegation that public liveries were hotbeds of infectious diseases resulted in a flurry of articles in the Call, the Examiner and the Chronicle. Although the story ran almost ten years before the bubonic plague arrived in San Francisco, the city was used to being sickened and killed by their living conditions. A “dread contagion” was not only plausible, it was half expected.

Liveries were the mobility business of the day, providing last mile, and longer, transportation solutions to San Franciscans. The allegation that they were responsible for spreading glanders sent shock waves up and down Golden Gate Avenue, which was home to the aforementioned cluster of veterinarian hospitals as well as several public liveries. All of these establishments existed within one square mile of each other.  By today’s Google reckoning, walking from the first livery on the avenue—Crittenden and Bailey’s stable at 24 Golden Gate Avenue– to the last, Charles F. Robinson’s livery at 1212 Golden Gate Avenue, wouldn’t take more than 22 minutes.

This is the very definition of a tight-knit community: proximity and mutual dependence. Charles Taylor’s livery stable at 310 Golden Gate was located directly next to W.H. Carpenter’s (later Isaac O’Rourke’s) veterinary surgery. This symbiotic pattern of livery stable interwoven with veterinary establishments made pragmatic sense—having a vet nearby is a bonus, as anyone whose been awakened at 3 a.m. by a sick cat will tell you—but the street pattern undoubtedly incubated a political culture that had implications for the regulatory aims of the city. The co-mingling of vets and livery owners had the potential, and the profit motive, to hold health reforms hostage to baser concerns.

Golden Gate avenue with its hundreds of horses may well have been a hot zone of infection. From 1891 to 1892, 11 glandered horses were recorded in the city’s official municipal record as having been destroyed. But the avenue was probably also prone to outbreaks of professional censure, slanderous gossip and petty corruption as well. William Egan, Creely’s landlord and competitor, sarcastically refuted Creely’s claims of a looming epidemic in an article in the San Francisco Call on April 7.

“(I) say without hesitation that it is ridiculously and grossly exaggerated and full of misstatements,” said Egan, going on to draw a fine distinction between contagious disease and an outright epidemic. Glanders, he said, was only contagious, and could only be spread through contact with the “glandinal” discharge of a horse. The bacteria wasn’t airborne, he claimed, and therefore lacked the power to spread as widely and quickly as epidemics spread.

Egan claimed special insight into the situation due to the fact that he was on the payroll of at least seven city liveries, St. George’s among them. He saw no conflict of interest in using insider knowledge to downplay the story and chose, instead, to cast doubt on the whole affair by calling out Creely, whose youthful “inexperience” was derided as mere ignorance. He was joined in this by several other veterinarians, who also had business arrangements with city liveries. All of them warned of the panic that Creely’s comments were creating. Owners were reportedly already removing their horses from public liveries.

Dr. Edward Creely in front of the New York Veterinary Hospital, 510 Golden Gate Avenue in 1892 ready to admit an injured horse. Creely is to the right wearing a bowler hat. Note the ambulance. Picture courtesy of Kathy Creely

The controversy also threatened to derail a hotly anticipated city event: the thoroughbred horse race slated to take place that month at the Bay District Racing track in the Richmond district. Hosted by the Pacific Coast Blood Horse Association, the city was welcoming wealthy men and their expensive steeds just as the story broke. The owners, who had spent thousands of dollars on their thoroughbreds, were thoroughly freaked out at the prospect of stabling their investment next to glandered horses. There was big money –$1,900 was collected at the gates–and social status at stake. Senator Stanford, James Fair and W.H. Crocker were expected to attend the race, as well as experienced turfman like Creely’s uncle, the famed horse trainer Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, who was planning on racing his two-year old filly “Bridal Veil”. All of this sporting glory was being jeopardized by Creely’s comments.

On April 12, an apology, so penitent as to be slightly craven, appeared on page 7 of the SF Call from Creely to the community of angry livery owners, and veterinary surgeons. “He is not responsible …for the assertion that glanders was raging in the livery stables. Quite the contrary, the doctor does claim that the livery stables are the last place in the world to find a case of glanders..” The apology hit most of the three “R’s” now in wide use. It responded to the growing enmity expressed by his colleagues, expressed regret that he had said it (although he stuck to his story that he hadn’t said it) and assured the readers of the SF Call that it would not happen again. The last claim wasn’t true.

In June the imbroglio reached its apex. Creely announced in the San Francisco Chronicle that he would seek twenty thousand dollars from publisher W.R. Hearst for libel, saying that the statements supposedly “emanating” from him had not, especially the claim that public liveries were menacing equine and human health. Creely said (and this is the only part of the whole affair which is undoubtedly true) that the story had “injured” his reputation and profession. He was referring to his professional community, clearly, but his family must have said something. Whitehat owned three liveries at various times in San Francisco, and was in the brutal business of racing horses. Creely’s father occasionally sold horses, too. But of those admonitions, nothing remains but speculation.

In any case, Creely’s public shaming was short-lived. By the following year, he had a column in the Pacific Rural Press and he was still being consulted by the Chronicle, who were trying to figure out how much of a threat glanders really posed. In January 1893, a man died from glanders in Los Angeles. Creely repeated himself. “It simply adds force to the warning which everyone who drives horses or takes care of them should heed against exposing himself to an animal who has this contagious malady. There is nothing more dreadful than death from glanders.” That April, Creely was appointed to the position of the city veterinarian, for the princely sum of 40 bucks a month, over the objection of Peter Burns, William Egan’s partner at the San Francisco Veterinary Hospital, located down the avenue.

All in all, the episode looks like a monumental miscalculation that backfired. What motivated Creely to make his claims? There are no recorded human deaths from glanders since the Health Office (later the Department of Public Health) began reporting deaths in 1865 in the city’s municipal reports. Was the dead horse a publicity stunt gone wrong? Were his accusations an ill-conceived attempt to knock out the competition? Or was Creely telling the truth? 

If so, then the tragedy of the deaths of all those horses, who with magnificent necks, flaring nostrils and impenetrable dark eyes, carried the city’s business on their backs and or pulled it behind them, was deepened by Creely’s failed attempts to do the right thing. He may have tried to put public health on an equal footing with pecuniary considerations, and raise the alarm around the hazard that unregulated stables and liveries posed to the health of San Franciscans. He may have begun his career with the best of intentions. But in a city surrounded by equally ambitious men equally capable of corruption, his good intentions might not have mattered.

Dr. Edward Creely surrounded by his students in his “operative surgery” on June 24th, 1892. Photo courtesy of Kathy Creely

Creely prospered, despite two high-profile incidents of petty corruption in 1896 and 1909. He not only managed to secure a series of city and state offices; he’s credited for founding the second veterinary educational institution in California. The University of California opened their college first, on the northwestern corner of Post and Fillmore in 1896, later moving to U.C. Davis. On April 28, 1899, Creely, Mulford Pancoast, H.M Stanford, Joseph Sullivan, and John Murray filed articles of incorporation with the state, which officially founded the San Francisco College of Veterinary Surgeons and Dentists at 510 Golden Gate.

There’s nothing remotely horsey about Golden Gate Avenue now: the 1890’s are too long ago in geological and urban redevelopment terms for any trace of the community of veterinarians and stable owners to remain. The 1906 quake and fire destroyed it. After the earthquake, Creely moved his hospital/college to 1818 Market. In 1915, he announced plans to build a new college on 10th near Stevenson, but that building never materialized and the college closed in a few years later. This may have had to do with his advancing age– he was 50, an age that was sometimes fatal for Creely men– and the fact that horses were vanishing from the city. The resonant clopping of their hooves on the macadamized streets was being replaced by different sounds.

The site where the first hospital and college stood now hosts the American Academy of English. The only image that remains of the New York Veterinary/San Francisco Veterinary College is a picture of Creely standing on top of the building in June of 1906. He’s either in the process of cleaning up, or re-building in the aftermath of the disaster that leveled his competition, and reshaped the city he lived in.

USETHISONEOffice of Dr. E.J. Creely, first veterinary hospital in S.F. June or late May, 1906. Golden Gate Ave. (#510), near Polk. Creely is barely visible on the roof of the building. From the California Historical Society, and available at the Online Archive of California

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I was a child, I was briefly instructed in the geological history of the Newport mesa in elementary school. Costa Mesa was once two places: a settlement called Harper, named after Gregory Harper, a grain farmer, and the town of Fairview, which was famed for its hot mineral baths. They failed after an earthquake stopped the flow of hot water. In 1920, when civic boosters decided to get serious about city building, they renamed the place Costa Mesa in recognition of its geological structure. The name means “tableland on the coast.”

That was about all I knew: that I lived on a tableland on the coast, about 100 feet above sea level. The history of Newport Bay, both its upper and lower parts, was not taught. Maybe this was because the natural history of the lower bay had been obliterated and the future of the upper bay was still being debated.

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

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

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

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

The Santa Ana river in its floodplain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1935 quadrangle (cropped) of the Newport Mesa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

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Looking east from the Shellmound Island Science Center

I went kayaking yesterday with my cousin Elizabeth and her lovely daughter Becca, the youngest Creely. “How’s the bay?” she asked innocently. She was saved from my natural long-windedness by the appearance an osprey, one half of a mated pair, now living and loving in the Upper Newport Bay. The considerate folks at California Department of Fish and Wildlife built a roosting platform for the raptors and their growing family, and the osprey are using it. One fledgling is in the nest.

I first saw the osprey three or four years ago, sitting in the middle of a mud flat. I never saw these birds, these mythic sea eagles, growing up. Now I am. The osprey tells you what you need to know about how the bay is, I think I finally said.

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Looking at the osprey nest from the path.

Seeing them, I explained, means some assumptions can be made. The first assumption you can make when you see ospreys reproducing in the Back Bay, is that the bay is doing better.

You can assume things about the water quality. It’s far better than it used to be,  back in the fifties and sixties when half of the bay was diked off for salt production and the other half was water laced with petrochemicals that leaked from the ostentatious yachts parked around Linda, Harbor and Bay Islands. I remember the rainbow sheen of the water very clearly, as a child. The snazzy motor boats and jet skis that used to race around the bay are now forbidden to do so. Consequently, there is less disturbance, and probably more fish to catch.

You can assume things about the quality of their food supply. The fish they catch and eat don’t have as much DDT bio-accumulated in their oily flesh, and therefore do not compromise the osprey’s reproductive system.

You can assume things about noise. The airplanes that take off from John Wayne airport were forced by the angry people living under the runway to take off at a steep angle so as to gain altitude quickly. This diminished the roar of the airplane. I can all but guarantee that the good people of Santa Ana Heights were not thinking about ospreys, but they managed to do them a good turn anyhow.

Anthropocentric noise ruins avian habitat, plain and simple: the sweet song of the sparrow as it quests for a mate cannot compete with the roar of a chainsaw. I’ve written this sentence, and it’s one of the truest things I know. The high, thin cry of the osprey can’t compete with the huge sound of an airplane. A bird’s habitat exists in this airy atmosphere, and ideally, that aether should be as free as possible of man-made noise.

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Papa Osprey keeping an eye on his fledgling.

You can assume things about predators. Raccoons are going to have a tough time getting up the platform. Other raptors–bald eagles, golden eagles and some owls– prey on eggs, fledglings and sometimes adult ospreys. These predators are not in evidence. Corvids are: they’re a big problem. They love to eat chicks and eggs. I watched the parent osprey chase three ravens away, very efficiently. There’s an explosion of corvids in California. They’re efficient generalists and will eat anything from an egg in a nest to garbage lying on the ground. Corvids get a lot of attention for their mythic qualities. They perch on Odin’s shoulders, muttering news of the nine worlds to him, and turn up in the Táin Bó Cúailnge croaking about death. But in the state of California, they are ubiquitous, and rapacious ,and have lost their mystery.

In the small and special world of the Upper Newport Bay, the lives of the osprey mean everything. They are mythic: an apex predator, they live at the top of their food chain, and as such, increase my understanding of ecology and life, a phenomenon best understood in the aggregate, not the singular. (That’s an idea that belongs to theocrats.) My understanding becomes both tightly concentrated and widely diffused when I see ospreys. I don’t just see them: I see all the systems under, adjacent and above. I see the web.

A last word on assumptions. Many things are knowable, like this fact: the Upper Newport Bay was saved because of action by individuals, institutions and flat-out governmental fiat. In the late sixties and early seventies, hard-working citizen activists and scientists saved the Upper Newport Bay, which was left undeveloped. Since then, some ecological balance has been restored because of the intervention of Fish and Wildlife, and the EPA. When I was a seven-year old, the EPA banned DDT in 1972, clearing the way for raptors like the osprey to begin their comeback, which was helped along by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. All of this protection transformed the bay into a refuge. 

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The fledgling tests its wings.

I kayak every chance I get. As I do, I think about the bay ecology that supports the ospreys and the fact that this tiny little circle of life is situated in an old river delta, the bit where the end of the river meets the beginnings of the sea. This river, an antecedent river of the Santa Ana river, rose and ran west during the last glacial period of the Pleistocene, a rainy, fluvial/pluvial epoch that made Orange County look more like the Pacific Northwest (think big wet trees). It made a gap in the Santa Ana mountain range, ran over the Tustin Plain and emptied into the Upper Newport Bay.

When I paddle my kayak upstream into the wildlife refuge, I move backward in time, into a space made by that old, old river. Somewhere below the muddy bottom of the bay is a still older passage.  It’s the world beneath ours, the one you see in a puddle on a stormy day, when the small, silvery pool of wet dissolves into pure transparency and you are invited to jump in and through. (I saw these puddle worlds often when I was a kid.)

I would jump, if I could. I assume things are better there; no revanchist government; no theocrats, no supremacist, belligerent patriarchs with their handmaids. I don’t know this. I shouldn’t assume. It’s not wise. Ask the questions–Is the bay better? Will it continue to gain in health? Will the ospreys stay put? Will the fledgling fly?–stay put and remember to consider the osprey in its hybrid habitat made by ancient rivers and human intervention.

It’s at rest in its world, the one next to ours.

msospery

This is Mama Osprey who landed carrying a silver mullet in her talons, which she proceeded to eat there, on the marsh plain. Wish I had a better camera.

The Witch sees the Tail of Newt and knows that it is Spring.

Yesterday was the first day of spring, and after a cold hard winter, I welcomed it. The wildflowers of California are out-performing themselves in terms of bloom. Pictures from California’s 58 counties show streaks of pure poppy orange coloring the hills and plains, and mountain meadows, punctuated by purple, pink, blue, white, and red. Every color and every flower I’ve ever seen is punching its way to the surface, encouraged by the water that’s been pouring from the sky and the heat of the sun. It works, this relationship between sun, seed and rain. It’s amazing to see a system do the work, like clockwork, of seasonal production.

I went hiking with my best friend Elyse in Tennessee Valley, one of the many glens—I counted at least 51 on a map between the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes station—that run from the ridges of the Marin hills down to the sea. These long narrow spaces usually have water running through them that forms a lagoon which drains into a pocket beach.  You could almost describe this system in a pictograph.

As you can see, dear reader, I did exactly that and while it wouldn’t be the simplest pictograph to hammer into a rock, it gets the job done of describing what a person could reasonably expect to find in terms of landforms at the bottom of the ridge line of a coastal range. My pictogram has the added benefit of some totally accidental symbolism: the lines depicting the creek, the lagoon and the lagoon’s outlet to the ocean look like a snake. Which you could reasonably expect to find in a natural system like this.

Of course, reasonable expectations get thwarted all the time. The natural system of a glen/creek/lagoon/ocean outlet are often waylaid by the non-natural system of urban development. People just love building houses in beautiful natural spaces, and Marin for all its love of environmental 501 © 3’s is no different. The hills above Muir Beach are thick with expensively designed homes, modest and sleek, all of which depend on urban systems, like sewers and power lines, to house their owners in comfort.

The lagoon that drains into Muir Beach is but one part of the Redwood Creek Watershed. The total system is composed of the creek, the wetland, the lagoon and the tidal dunes, and ultimately, the ocean. It’s all one piece and as such responds to disruption and connection systemically, which is to say that if the water is stymied in its flow, there will be floods, fish will be blocked from building their redds and depositing their cache of eggs, and native plants and animals will lose habitat. If the water has the room it needs, it will run over and through undeveloped land, and create a floodplain, which gives the water that space it needs to spread and meander.

That’s what water does. It also creates topography, which is great for animals that need water to reproduce but also dry land from time to time. The water has the added responsibility of disseminating and germinating native seeds which—at this location anyway—don’t have to compete with invasives for the land and the water they need to grow.

This refreshing lack of competition comes courtesy of some volunteer, or volunteers, more likely, who worked tirelessly to clear it of nasty things like Himlayan blackberry and its whip-like canes, which will take over an area in no time at all. Land management is a critical element in habitat restoration.

Thus it was that a ceanothus bush greeted me and my friend Elyse as we descended from the trail. It might have been planted, but it’s more likely that the seed bed in the soil yielded it up naturally and it survived because of the management practices described above.

“A ceanothus!” I yelled when I saw it. I see them in the city all the time. There’s one blooming right now just down the street from me, a ceanothus foliosus, from the looks of it. But I never see them in the wild. I was so was excited to see it because of where I was seeing it. It was a Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, a thrilling name for its Dionysian connotations. It made me momentarily ecstatic, anyway. My friend, Elyse also recognized it, but had to wait for my rapture to die down in order to tell me that.

“I know this plant because someone called it a see-you-know-us,” she informed me. We laughed at her silly friend.
“You never see this plant here. But this is exactly where you should expect to see it,” I said, proving that it takes more than a rainy two-mile walk uphill to knock value judgements out of me.

We walked across the small bridge that spans Redwood Creek and its floodplain. I heard the croaking of frogs almost immediately. The interpretive signs advised me that these were probably, hopefully, the endangered California Red Legged frog (Rana draytonii)which, again, you would —should—expect to hear in this location, because of this creek, this lagoon and the wetland. Where else would frogs be?

Almost immediately, I saw something large moving through the bushes in the wetland, something big enough for its silvery grey-brown fur to be visible above the low-lying shrubbery. There were some other hikers on the other side of the bridge looking at the animal intently. I walked across the bridge with the chorus of frogs croaking away, and asked one of the hikers what he was looking at.

“A coyote,” he replied. The coyote, as if on cue, stepped out of the scrub and into a small clearing. It was a big one, probably a young adult, with a thick bushy tail and the narrow muzzle that coyotes have.

What you could reasonably expect to see and hear was exactly what we saw and heard all within twenty minutes: a ceanothus, one of the most common plants of coastal scrub, a red-legged frog once incredibly populous and now federally listed as an endangered species and a coyote. I reacted to all these with delight, but surprise.

I say “but surprise” to acknowledge how bereft California’s natural history is of the “history” part. The frog, the coyote and the ceanothus bush were common elements in places like Tennessee Valley before 1849. The frog’s habitat contracted and worse, people developed a taste for its legs.

I don’t have the evolutionary history of any of these animals or plants to hand, but it’s safe to assume thousands of years of habitation in the bay area. The bay itself is 9,000 years old and its baylands developed about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. It took less than 200 years to make the bush, the frog and the coyote strangers in their own land and novelties for hikers like me to encounter. It’s taken about seven years for the staff and scientists of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to put the pieces of the Redwood creek ecology back together. And guess what? It’s working. The moral of the story…well, there’s more than one, but one of them is this: restoration works and it can be a mighty work.

We left the lagoon and walked a trail that edged the cliffs and then dropped down into another glen. And that was the final surprise, final proof of a ancient system working to produce life. I started seeing newts, many newts, all with knobbly skin and bright orange undersides. They scrambled off the path at our approach, away from the peril of our heavy feet. I squealed. I’ve only ever seen newts (a type of salamander) once on a hike. And that was a long time ago (and I wasn’t walking. I was swimming) Again, the question danced in my head. What do you expect to see? I took a picture of the first few little beasts I saw, assuming I wouldn’t see any more, and then continued to see them at such a rate that I knew I would find at least one dead. (I did.)

By the time we walked out of Tennessee Valley, I’d seen at least 40 salamanders. They were endearing, the way they moved: they threw their short stumpy limbs up and out, as they left the path and clambered into the damp underbrush. The salamanders with their glistening, toxic skin seemed inseparable from the environment that they started life in. It was as if the water flowing in Redwood creek had changed into thousands of watery little gods, running like rivulets down the muddy path.

I was surprised by my surprise the entire time I was walking by the things that were there. After all, the “there” that I’m thinking of is made of them. The animals and plants of Tennessee Valley, as they blink in and out of existence, and as scientists and land managers struggle to rebuild ecologies from scratch in order to give amphibians like the Rough-skinned and California newt a home, are the valley as much as the crumpled chert formations that give it form or the water that flows through it.

I do want to be surprised, though. I don’t want to tour natural spaces with animals and birds and insects and all the rest appearing at punctual intervals to assure me I’m outside.

I want to continue to be surprised by everything I see everytime I venture out: the uncontained, the rebounded, the natural, the wild.

Written in the muddy muddy month o’ March, the greenest month we have. These newts are out now and about….

This little guy made right for me and walked steadily between my feet….

They are so dear. And they don’t have much space. So if you go walking the Marin Hills, step lightly and look out for them. 

San Francisco,March 21st, 2017

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.

Meeting the Empress, part 3: Return to Manzanita Mountain

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Arctostaphylos, common name Manzanita, is a shrub (or a small tree—more on that in a moment) with at least sixty known species, several sub-species and an ability to crossbreed in the wild, which produces still more subspecies. Manzanita means “little apples” when translated into Spanish. It’s a euphonious and affectionate word. I invite you: take a moment and sing out the quartet of syllables. You will find that the third syllable naturally stretches out into an operatic warble. If you are in a place with excellent acoustics, the EEeeeee vocable will be snatched up eagerly by the ether and will float away, blending into all the other sounds of this earth.

Last week, I sang the name of the manzanita species I found four years ago on the grounds of the Four Springs Retreat Center, outside of Middletown. Here is some science that will ground this ethereal essay in stolid Saturnine science: the name of the manzanita of Four Springs is Arctostaphylos manzanita, ssp. konocti, named for the nearby volcano. It grows in “closed pygmy forests” in the mountain ranges above Napa and Lake Counties according to the Forest Service. Lacking the conclusive agreement of a field biologist, I believe it does just this on the Lindquist ridge, which is the south-east-facing ridge that encircles the retreat grounds. This USGS topographical map details the area. I gotta say: All hail the USGS and their indefatigable surveyors and map makers! This is the great thing about the witchy gaze: with the right tools to hand— memory, personal mythos, gut understanding and science-based information— all modes of knowledge may be reconciled.

The pygmy manzanita forest of Four Springs begins on a trail which leads to the top of Lindquist Ridge, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level. It’s one of the lower ridges of all the volcanically constructed ridgelines of the Mayacamas, but a beautiful one with a view to the southwest. It’s hard to tell how old the trees are. One of the manzanitas had a 29-inch diameter trunk, which indicates age. The retreat was founded in 1955. So maybe the trees are sixty years old? Or maybe some of the trees have lived a solid century.

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Measured in urban development years, a century-old manzanita, whatever the species, is a very old and very venerable plant indeed. Many manzanitas have gone missing in the last 100 years, as development has increased. Lester Rowntree, a female botanist who disguised her gender to assure the publication of her field work, lamented the almost certain fate of A. franciscana, the sole native manzanita of San Francisco which used to grow plentifully among the San Miguel range in the middle of San Francisco. “Almost in the heart of San Francisco grows another creeping Arctostaphylos,” she noted in her 1938 book Flowering Shrubs of California. A rare serpentine endemic, A. franciscana grew on Mount Davidson and in the Laurel Hill cemetery, the site she chose to document its existence, which at that point was tenuous.

“The manzanita has been there longer than the buildings and longer probably than the oldest graves. None of it grows on the graves (which are unmarked, neglected, and usually encircled by rickety old wooden palings) though nothing,” she averred, “could be more suitable and enduring.” She knew she was looking at one individual plant where there had been many. The old cemetery had been slated for destruction. The human bodies were disinterred and shipped to Colma and the bodies of the plants had been scraped from their rocky beds and tossed, probably, on a pile of brush. Rowntree said of the ghost plant that “…the manzanita and the dead belong to another era…Now it is being regarded impatiently by the folk to whom any land is just so many building lots. If they can, they will eradicate it as a cemetery and that will be the last of an old San Francisco record and certainly the last of Arctostaphylos franciscana.”

This story has a happy ending. A lone A. franciscana was re-discovered marooned on a median strip on Doyle Drive during a construction project in 2010. It was subsequently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and moved to the Presidio. It’s a great story, the finding and rescuing of this plant, and one that I think demonstrates the tenacity of the native plant seedbank in San Francisco. (It also demonstrates the willingness of the Republican party to spiral into a pearl-clutching tizzy at the slightest provocation—always so gratifying to watch, I feel.) I urge you, gentle reader, to watch this video and discover the true story of A. franciscana.

Within the precincts of Four Springs, there has been no development, other than the construction of the small wooden cabins that dot the meadow and ravine. Enormous trees ring the retreat buildings, which made the grounds “indefensible” in the opinion of Cal Fire, but very defended indeed for the manzanita groves, the madrones, oaks, conifers and probably many more trees I took no notice of. I imagine that in the early spring, the grounds and ridgeline are probably incredibly fragrant, with that beautiful warm, leathery-lemony smell of coastal range chaparral and maybe the smell of the fruit of the manzanita. I once walked among patches of Greenleaf manzanita (A. patula), a species Rowntree would include in the “the low-growing” manzanita of California. I noticed it swarming over the granite, but had not associated the plant with the ripe odor of berries that seemed to be everywhere. After absently mindedly sniffing the rich smell of fruit—raspberry? Strawberry? Someone’s highly scented lip-gloss? —I finally asked my friend Cypress what it was. “You’re smelling manzanita berries,’ she replied.

Manzanita is a tree of fire, especially as it occurs in Lake County. A. konocti is growing in the pulverized igneous rock of Lake County, rocks that were formed in the Great Magma Chamber of the Clear Lake Volcanic Region and spat out during the eruptions that ended 200,000 years ago. The fires of the earth, made manifest in these rocks, became friable under the softening influence of water and air. The formerly inhospitable became positively welcoming under the influence of the sibling elements, becoming soil first and later a whole environment, in which many hundreds of plants species, including manzanita, rooted themselves and began to grow, synchronistically and symphonically (the sonic quality of the trees under the influence of wind waving and moving all the branches is absolutely mesmerizing.)

It is because of California’s fiery belly that an environment for manzanitas exists and the design and look of the manzanita seem to acknowledge this infernal DNA. Manzanitas are famous for their ruddy suppleness. Their burgundy-red branches wave away from the truck in formations that look like flames emanating from a fire. Manzanita treasures its beauty and ensures that no one can take advantage of it by means of losing its vivid color and smooth skin when the plant dies. The red branches roughen and turn as grey as fire ash. Acquisitive hoarders looking to collect beautiful objects from nature must look elsewhere for their trophies. “People used to cut manzanitas down to make furniture,” my dad told me on one of our walks in the Santa Ana mountains, probably in response to my own covetous response to the plant (I would have been about seven or eight when we had this conversation.) “But they learned the hard way that it wasn’t suitable.” I looked at manzanitas ever after, knowing that to maintain their beauty, they must be left alone. It’s interesting how the mundane gets transformed into the magical. I glanced at a plant once as a child and my father’s words made it into something visible but unobtainable, untouchable.

Fire destroys most manzanitas. (Those with burls can re-sprout, but most manzanitas don’t have burls.) But fire breaks seed dormancy, and allows the native seedbanks, California’s landscape-in-waiting, often buried under invasives, to re-establish plant communities. Fire may make seventy-five year old manzanitas rare for a year or so, but ideally, the grove will reemerge as seedlings after a fire, often in greater numbers than before. But this re-growth depends on time. The interval between fires must be long enough for the seedlings to grow. Californian’s who care about the native landscape will often nod their heads knowingly when fire is mentioned and talk about fire’s role in creating the conditions necessary for the California’s floristic province to thrive in. But for that to happen and for the old-growth manzanita groves to thrive, fire must be, if not exactly rare, certainly not everyday, (or every week, or every month.) The question facing us might not be can we contain fire, but more can we manage time?

Because time, that scarce resource, is what the manzanita (and the oak, and the madrone and all other plants of coastal and montane chaparral) needs the most. The manzanitas of the Four Springs Retreat Center are old-growth manzanitas. And we should term them as such; give them this distinctive endowment, this charismatic identity. The ongoing destruction of California’s chaparral—of which manzanita is a indicator species—is further justified by characterizing California’s chaparral as fire-prone and dangerous to urban development, an inversion of logic painful to hear and depends, in part, on the dismissive words “brush” or “scrub”, used to describe this endangered landscape. California used to be covered in a lot of old-growth chaparral, a term usually reserved for the big trees of the North Coast and the interior. It surprises people to hear the term “old-growth” applied to a system described, rather brusquely as “brush”. Even those parts of California where chaparral is protected, such as the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego county, the inaccurate term “forest” is used to describe a landscape that is dominated by old-growth chaparral. That probably isn’t semantic laziness: just try getting the public to fund the conservation of a bush or a shrub. I have never seen a bush beloved as a tree.

We all have some catching up to do—Californians and their understanding of how fire creates and destroys the landscapes of our state, and what plants we prize as memorable, charismatic and worth conserving. And especially the trees and shrubs that were undoubtedly lost in the great triad of Lake County fires: the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley fires, all likely to make repeat appearances in the years to come. The seeds of future Great Manzanita Forests lie in the ancient fiery soil of Lake and Napa county, having been released from their stiff jackets by fire. Now they are waiting for the rains to come and, once wetted, will try to catch up to the venerable elders lining the ridges of Four Springs.

With love to the California Chaparral Institute. They deserve your funding. Written while Mars works with Uranus and dedicated with love to journeying Fools everywhere.

Step quick, step light.

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Elizabeth C. Creely in an old-growth manzanita grove at the Four Springs Retreat center in Middletown, CA.

Crisis at the laundromat

A Clean Slate

It’s Monday, December 15th, and it rained hard all morning. The clouds cleared at about two. I went to the laundromat to wash my clothes, walked in, and saw a crowd of people standing in the smallish space. My heart sank. Nobody loves a crowded laundromat, especially not when you have a week’s worth of washing to do. A man sat slumped on the metal folding table. Earlier, he’d walked past me on 22nd Street and greeted me with a low hello. Now he was munching a bag of Fritos and watching man pile clothes into a large front-loading washing machine.

I eyed the top-loading machines, the one I like to use because you get a 30-minute wash. The man who was piling his clothes into the washing machine stopped me. I don’t know if you want to use those, he told me, because the display wasn’t on. I think it’ll eat your quarters. This is how you know who your neighbors really are, as opposed to those taking up space in the neighborhood: do they care about your quarters?

Thanks, I replied. Shit. The Frito-eating man said, You could use those other machines, indicating the row of top-loading machines against the northwest wall. But I don’t like them. They’re 3 bucks a wash and you only get fifteen minutes of a half-hearted swishing. I have sensitive skin. I need all the soap to be washed away. Eh, I said. Those machines are sketchy.

Another woman walked in with a bag of clothes on her back, looking determined.

The clothes washing guy said to me don’t try to use the soap dispensing machine either. It’s broken. I had detergent, so it didn’t matter. But this laundromat, which always has something wrong with it, suddenly seemed unusable. Three washing machines down. A broken soap dispensing machine. An older man, wearing a beret at a rakish angle turned around and said the dispensing machine is broken ? in tones of dismay and disbelief.

I have to leave, I thought. There are too many people in here, and too many mechanical failures to accommodate us all. Before last week, I might have staggered with my heavy laundry load to 23rd and Bryant street to the spacious Super Lavar laundromat. But it was gone. A new restaurant was opening in what is now an empty space under construction. The commons are shrinking, I thought, with a surge of irritation. The enclosures are being built.

SAM_3800I saw the new red awning while walking down Bryant Street with my husband a week before. We stopped and scoffed at the name of the restaurant: “Buttermilk Southern Kitchen”. We stood there for awhile, feeling dismayed that the laundromat had closed. We use A Clean Slate, the overcrowded, mechanically challenged laundromat at 22nd and Alabama, because it’s close to our house, but in a pinch we knew we had the option of walking two blocks to do our laundry. Not any more, said my husband grimly, as we stood on the corner. Now there’s just another expensive restaurant.

Laundromats are basically external domestic spaces for urban dwellers. I grew up in suburbia, and had to adjust to them. Even after 23 years of living in San Francisco, laundromats still seem like a major pain in the ass, and indeed, A Clean Slate is a major pain in the ass. I have had to call the number tacked up next to the change machine several times. Your dryer has eaten my money! I’ve barked. Your washing machine just stopped in the middle of the cycle! I want my money back, I’ve said curtly, acting the part of the entitled consumer whose panic over losing four quarters belies that facade.

Laundromats always meant to me that I had a place to live but with some contingencies: in my case, no washer and no dryer and a weekly walk down the street to the closest laundromat. What is the closest laundromat isn’t down the street? What if the closest laundromat is several blocks away?

And what is the meaning of Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, a restaurant whose owner has described it as not expensive? (Most dishes will average 15 dollars, which is, in my opinion, fucking expensive, especially when you’re talking about a cuisine heavily dependent on green leafy vegetables, legumes and corn. Do you know how much cornbread is per serving? About four cents. Hopping John? Two bucks.) This: the domestic spaces of the Mission are changing to accommodate a work force which is highly paid and rarely at home. The restaurant is perhaps, the most relevant external domestic space right now. Whipping up a meal of oven-roasted sweet potatoes finished in sage-garlic butter and walnuts and served with farfalle is, I guess, out of the question. This is what I’m cooking now, as I write this. The traditional coming-home time of 6 or 7 doesn’t exist any longer, so instead of making a dish like this, most people are trooping off to the nearest restaurant, and paying 18 staggering dollars for it. The contingency of not having access to a kitchen with which to cook because of insane work hours seems far worse to me than the contingency of an apartment with no washer and dryer. But not having a laundromat would really suck.

Anyway. I just went back to A Clean Slate and started my laundry. The man who was eating the Fritos was asleep on the floor, his face soft and childlike in repose. When I went back to throw my stuff in the dryer, I brought him some of my farfalle/sweet potato/sage-in-brown-butter sauce with a sausage added to it.

He thanked me and said yeah, I saw you leave earlier.
I was annoyed, I told him. There was too much going on!

Laundromats are a pain in the ass, but they have this going for them: the comfort of domestic labor, and evidence of family relationships, hearth and home. I see children’s clothing being washed by adults and watch as mothers chase their scrambling, squirmy children around, barking at them to watch their sister— ver su hermana! Get down off the washing machine! Everyone is working together, however unknowingly, as we bend to the demands of the material world and the traces it leaves on our clothing, food, shit, baby puke and stubborn ink stains. There is nothing seamless, nothing not real, as we wash together, dry together, fold together, moving in the unconscious rhythm of the body at work in an atmosphere rich in the polyglot language of Mission laundromats.

Once, the gentleman who ran Super Lavar gave me a small scented candle at Christmastime. Para ti, he said. Gracias, I said. Yep. I don’t think I’d get anything for free at Buttermilk Southern Kitchen.

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton http://www.sarahmnewton.com/
Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton. Go to  http://www.sarahmnewton.com to see more of her work.

This is a good recipe for a squash/pasta/sage dish. Make it some night. Feed yourself.