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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: A Boy's San Francisco: 1

Here's the San Francisco of a boy growing up there in the 1950s. We'll look first at the places he had to be--home and school, for the most part--then, in a companion folder, at the places he went when he was on his own. There's a third folder, too, showing things that seem obviously important now but which he ignored.

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In the late 1940s, the pre-kindergarten boy knew one of the apartment buildings on the right. His father's mother lived here with her widowed daughter. There was a weak and dull Aldrich upright piano and, reflecting a taste that the boy's mother judged tasteless, a collection of pottery figurines, those shepherds and maidens that Mark Twain mocks somewhere in Life on the Mississippi. What else does the man who was that boy remember of the scene? Little except for the giant city hall. It's still the model against which he compares every building of that type.

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He never knew--never thought to ask--that it was built in 1913-16. Or that its architect was Arthur Brown, Jr, a student of Bernard Maybeck. Or that the design leans heavily on Les Invalides, popularly called Napoleon's Tomb. But he did relish the rotunda's smooth marble staircase, twenty years later to be disgraced by firemen using hoses to dislodge protesters. Those were the days of the HUAC, an acronym almost forgotten now, fortunately.

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The earliest place the boy would remember as home was this building on Cabrillo Avenue in the Richmond District. He lived in the upper flat with his mother, father, and soon enough his little sister. Downstairs, his grandmother moved in, still with her martyred daughter, who could never think of remarriage as anything but sacrilege against the memory of her sainted husband. (When the boy's sister was born, he stayed downstairs long enough to acquire a lifelong hatred of soft-boiled eggs.) The airshaft that once provided a wrap-around alternative staircase has been remodelled out of existence. Too bad! That's where the boy's grandmother gave him slices of buttered rye bread, which he obligingly likes to this day. Once a bee stung him on those stairs, and she treated it with vigorous sucking. Out front there is a new car today, but in 1950 there were two of them. Both were blimpy Nashes, and they replaced a pre-war Buick that needed radiator water more often than camels need it.

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Back then, there were no pink houses in the neighborhood. But, then, San Francisco's nearby Victorian homes were mostly scorned and decaying. The city was a much blander place than it is today and much less respectful of anything that could be dismissed as "old."

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Kitty-corner from his home there was a mom-and-pop grocery store. It was a fine place for penny candy and perhaps a quart of milk--except that milk came from a milkman. The boy's mother was no fun at all and refused to allow him to turn up the flag requesting chocolate milk. The store eventually disappeared, and even its corner doorway was taken out, but that all happened after the boy and his family moved.

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Across the street from the boy's house there stood the massive St. Francis Stables, not only with stalls for dozens of horses but with a roofed riding arena, with bleachers for an audience. The boy never took riding lessons--it was a class thing, a bit like playing polo today--but he spent a lot of time walking around the stable. Sixty years later, he can still smell the place and does not think the Safeway now on the site is any improvement, even though he doesn't mind potato salad.

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Here's where he shopped with his parents or housemaid. (Yes, indeed, even a middle-class family living in an upstairs flat could have a maid. There were two over the years, Nola and Evelyn. They came in the morning and left before dinner. They were a good deal more affectionate than the boy's mother, and so he loved them.) This store was then called Littleman's. Heaven knows why the name is so deeply embedded: the sign carried a little picture of a grocery clerk running. The boy's house was seven blocks from here. He remembers holding hands at the crosswalks and remains puzzled that nobody ever drove those seven blocks, even when there were several bags to carry.

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Around the corner from the boy's house was the school where he went to kindergarten and first and second grades. It was not a happy experience. On the first day of kindergarten, his mother received a call from the principal, who demanded that she come in. The boy, the principal told her, had cried and cried after his mother left. Finally, when it seemed that the teacher would not let him leave, he told her that he would cut her heart out. Off to the principal. The boy's mother explained that it was a figure of speech that the boy heard while playing with his father. Heaven knows what would happen to a boy who said something like that to a teacher in the Year of Our Lord 2010. In the late 1940s, the principal let it pass. Still, the school was a frightening place, because older boys, if they had a chance, would pants younger ones. Yes, "pants" was a verb, meaning "to forcibly remove a victim's pants." There was a deep aura of humiliation surrounding this act, and the boy stayed clear of the danger spots. Now, 60 years later, the whole damned building is gone, the three-story brick heap replaced by this educational warehouse.

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Evelyn and Nola lived in the Fillmore, where the boy's father owned a small furniture store. It catered to customers who did not live in the Fillmore. Why was it here? Who knows? Maybe the rent was cheap. There was a dry-cleaners next door run by a guy named Manny. A block away was the famous Ukraine Bakery. All these places are long gone, not only the businesses but the buildings in which they were located.

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Golden Gate Park has been much more stable. It was only a block away from the boy's home. Here's a statue that marked the entrance the boy used. He always thought that it showed a mountain lion. Nobody corrected him because nobody ever did anything but walk by.

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Even in 1950, this railway waiting room was a relic, the tracks long gone. Nowadays it's part of the city's heritage, but in 1950 nobody used the word heritage. It was just an old thing that nobody bothered to tear down.

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The boy often entered the park past what is now this playground but was then a small duck pond. The boy's mother years later told him she remembered the day he proved to her that he had a sense of humor. They had been feeding squirrels by putting peanuts on their own shoulders and then inviting squirrels to come take it. The boy put a peanut on his shoulder, looked at his mother, and patted it.

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The boy continued into the park through this tunnel, barred shut now but then resounding to practiced and suitably high-pitched shrieks.

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Coming from the street in the background, the boy continued through the tunnel to the cluster of museums in the center of the park.

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In the center of the museum cluster was this bandstand, which the boy saw hundreds of times but where he never heard a band. Go figure. San Francisco's a richer place now, with more stuff going on. It would have pleased the guy who paid for the bandstand, the sugar king Adolph Spreckels, although he would, if resurrected for the occasion, by appalled by the audience's sloppy dress.

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The park had lots of statues, all conservatively figurative. The boy particularly liked this one, which shows an apple presser at work, because the side of the barrel swings open. Fifty years later, it still does.

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Perseus? In any case the figure is remarkable for having survived all these decades with not yet a move to clothe it or apply a fig leaf. Maybe San Francisco really is different.

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The legend under the caption.

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Remarkable, too, this pairing of Goethe and Schiller. How did they survive two wars? One theory: the park's chief designer, John McLaren, hated statues and buried them behind shrubbery.

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A meditative Cervantes, of whom the boy knew nothing but whom he took as a fixed part of the landscape, a navigation aid.

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Here was a strange building. It flanks the childrens' playground, where the boy went a hundred time, but the building was never, never open. Now it's open daily as an art studio for children.

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The main entrance, a side the boy almost never saw.

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A bit of history.

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So who was this William Sharon, of whom the boy had never heard? He was an officer of the Bank of California, a mine owner interested in the Comstock Lode, and a U.S. Senator from Nevada--and, somewhere along the way, a soft touch.

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Here's the playground the boy knew. The small building sold tickets for the merry-go-round, which ran every day, or so it seems in memory.

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There was a little barnyard with a cow and sheep and donkey to pet. All that new playground stuff in the distance replaces honest slides and swings. The coolest ride of all is utterly extirpated: it was a train of kiddie cars that hooked together and ran down a long hairpin-shaped concrete track. A chain hoisted the cars back up to the top to do it all over again. Where did it go? Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? (Impressed, aren't you! Don't let it fool you.)

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Ready for third grade, the boy moved across town to the then near-new Parkmerced, a housing project built by Metropolitan Life and sibling to the company's other housing projects for the middle class, places including Park LaBrea in L.A. and the gloomier Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in New York.

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Met Life sold out long after the boy left for college in 1960. While it owned the place, Parkmerced was lily-white, which makes the current owner's promotional materials mildly shocking to anyone with a sufficiently long memory. The country's changed, you say? This city especially? Fair enough, but the change is huge.

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The sidewalks still carry these vaguely threatening signs. There were plenty of Negroes working in Parkmerced back then--nobody had yet heard of African-Americans--but they were there as gardeners, not even skilled tradesmen. Did they object to being excluded from living here? The boy spent lots of time talking to the gardeners, but they knew what not to talk about.

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So here was the not-quite-utopian neighborhood. Heavily landscaped row housing, minimal street parking, no private garages, and each block built around interior courtyards. Garden apartment was the term of art. The colors are all new: in the 1950s, the houses were white, and even the interiors no darker than beige.

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Every renter got a parking space in the carports. One resident got a new car every year. The boy's father thought it was a ridiculous waste of money. The boy himself spent a lot of time on the carport roof, accessed from convenient trees. There was nothing up there except the knowledge that one was someplace adults weren't.

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The boy knew the street network intimately, mostly from the perspective of a bicycle. The streets were also circuitously navigated by a "muni" (municipal railway) bus to West Portal, the entry to the Twin Peaks streetcar tunnel that continued downtown. The shelter is new; the bus number 17 is not.

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Boys remember things. So this repaired sidewalk comes as an affront. Everyone with half a brain knows that it is and will always be Gonzalez Drive, not Road.

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The half to the right of the tunnel--officially and inscrutably called an archway--was where the boy lived with his parents, his sister, and eventually a brother. Rent was $90 a month, which didn't seem cheap in 1950. For that, you got three bedrooms and two baths upstairs. Downstairs there was a kitchen (you see its window on the left) and a dining room (its window, too) opening into a living room. The main entrance was in the archway, with a small coat closet just inside the door and with a choice to turn right to the kitchen or left to the living room. Oddly, the place looked greener then than it does now, because the first generation of trees--mostly Monterey Pines--quickly matured. They have been removed and not replanted. Right there on the curb the boy once dropped and gloriously smashed a watermelon. Just think! If webcams had been invented then, we might still enjoy the mess.

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This is the inner courtyard behind the boy's place. Behind the wall--white originally, now black raspberry--was a playground with swings.

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The view from the courtyard back toward the archway. The living room had the large windows; upstairs you see the window of the boy's room and the pair of windows of the master bedroom. At night, he kept his window open and heard the Pacific surf a couple of miles away. Behind are two of the Parkmerced Towers, built about 1953 and under construction soon after the boy moved here.

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The boy was fortunate to live on the edge of Parkmerced, and beyond this now-frail railing was a long slope densely covered with acacia shrubbery in which he and several friends built forts. Official playgrounds got much, much less use than the trails that went through this forest, where the soft ground--stabilized dunes, really--could be easily dug to form flat floors. Once settled into these forts, the boys were invisible. It's all gone now, a fantasy landscape reduced to wasteland.

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Even the swings have been removed from the official playground, along with the redgum Eucalyptus that grew so large in the planters that they were finally removed. The fresh paint doesn't help a lot.

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Saturday morning, the boy carried plastic hampers up these stairs to coin-operated washing machines and driers. Back then, the room wasn't locked.

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There were clothes lines here, but they're as obsolete as margarine sold with dye packets. Everybody used to have bags of clothes pins. Long ago and far away.

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Met Life built about a dozen Parkmerced Towers. They were considered a notch fancier than the garden apartments, although it's hard to say whether tower rents were higher because the apartments were better or whether the towers were considered superior merely because the rents were higher. The boy saw a white-haired woman jump to her death from one of the stairwells. He approached close enough to see a trickle of blood from her inert body; then a car screeched to a halt, drove up on the sidewalk, and an adult son ran over to the corpse. The boy had the sense to withdraw. Most of the time, the towers served more cheerful purposes. It was fun to hit every elevator button in all three elevators; it drove residents crazy. Also, balloons filled with water and tossed from the highest stairwell came down with a gratifying slap and splash. Luckily, they never hit anyone.

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Boys sometimes congregated in these stairwells to play various board games. Why, one of the Beach Boys grew up doing just that, along with playing with his voice and producing the oddest speech, all rasping without vocalization. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles and great things.

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Littleman's grocery was now mostly forgotten; the new store was the Green Frog Super, later to become a Safeway and later still Park Plaza. Next door was a pharmacy, a place that called itself a hardware store, then a beauty parlor, then a store with the audacity to call itself a delicatessen, then a wretched bakery named Charlotte's and a bank. Maybe I forget something. But you can see the planned layout. It's a neighborhood shopping center, replete with parking. Call it 1955. Everybody in Parkmerced used it almost exclusively.

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Almost? Well, here's the old Paul Pesce grocery, a family-run grocery store half a mile east of Parkmerced. Anybody with a fondness for Italian items would come by now and then. Certainly the boy's father did, especially to buy some items that the boy still won't venture to spell.

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The boy reached much farther afield, too. Every week he took the 28 bus north past Golden Gate Park. He got off at this corner and transferred to the 31, which ran east. Do 10-year-olds do this now? Let's hope.

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Pain, agony, shouting: piano lessons upstairs at Mr. Rodetzky's. These were years when teachers didn't have to clone themselves on Mr. Rogers or purple dinosaurs, and the boy was a master of driving Mr. Rodetzky into apoplexy. May Samuel--can we now venture his first name?--ever hear Mozart in tempo.

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The boy's angry sixth-grade principal said she'd write a letter to the principal of the junior-high he was supposed to enter the following year, but the boy couldn't be kept from moving on THAT easily. Now he took a streetcar from the edge of Parkmerced to here, Lakeshore Village. What is now a health-food store was then the high point of his afternoon. It was Shaw's, an ice-cream place where a cone with a massive scoop of coffee-crunch cost 15 cents. While eating it, stones from the railway ballast were stacked on the rails. The streetcar would come along with a gratifying series of grinding crunches. The motormen must have been blind or deaf or amused.

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A few doors down was a shoe store, now a cleaners. These were the days when shoe stores had x-ray machines, supposedly to show whether the bones of your toes had enough room in the shoes you were trying. Brain dead no doubt, but it was fun to study your skeleton. Sixty years later the boy was still alive, so there you have it. Radiation is good for you.

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The marquee for Lakeside Village was this classic exercise in Rocket Modernism. The boy paid no attention.

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Nor did he have anything to say about the quasi-Spanish homes lining this pedestrian alley that led to his junior-high school.

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The school auditorium. Ah! Miss America came here in 1956, when Miss America counted! She had been a student here, if recollection serves. On stage, she kissed the cheek of a boy. Oh, the shrieks from the audience! The boy's red face!

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Nowadays it's a middle school; then it was Aptos Junior High.

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There were no fences or screens then. The room behind the new screens was for the music teacher, Mr. Holdorf, who had to eat crow after insisting that Beethoven's name was von Beethoven.

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The second floor corner room belonged to Miss Murray, who seemed even then to walk out of a time machine. Tiny, pushing retirement, rare to smile but not a grump either, she made sure that students came up to speed as they approached algebra. If you didn't, you stayed after school until you did. The boy found out the hard way.

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The main school yard, with the so-called "tunnel" hidden at the upper left and leading inside. The room at the upper right, before the wing of the gymnasium, was Mr. Weimar's print shop, where everything was done from setting type in sticks to running powerful electric platen presses without safety guards. How many fingers and hands were almost lost! Behind the basketball hoop was the beanery, with bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy for 15 cents. An odd choice for a culture later obsessed with fries? Maybe, but very popular.

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You can see the counter over which a million bowls of mash passed.

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The building itself was full of architectural details of which the students were staggeringly oblivious.

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Did students ever wonder where these columns came from? Not a prayer.

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A couple of years later the boy transferred to Lowell High, at that time housed in this brick heap. In 1959, or thereabouts, a quake during school hours made the whole thing rock and roll, but it didn't come down.

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Behind the building was this courtyard, a scene of countless high-school rallies. A massive fire escape has been removed, and the fencing seems much more earnest than it was then. There were some awfully good teachers here.


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