By Amy O’Hair
The public stairway in Sunnyside called the Detroit Steps is currently the focus of an art and landscaping project. The stairway runs along the route of a planned street that was never built due to the steep hillside. In other places in Sunnyside, such unbuildable “paper” streets—that is, streets that only existed on maps—were simply excised altogether. (More about that here.)
Stairway beauty spots, decorated with art and landscaping, free of cars, and perhaps with a view, are a longstanding San Francisco tradition, given the impracticality of building roadways on various blocks of the city’s steep hills. From the high-buzz tourist attraction at 16th Avenue—to the many undecorated and largely unknown stairways such as Mandalay Steps or the Detroit Steps—this is a city full of wonderful public stairways.
The Detroit Steps Through Time
The present-day concrete stairs were installed at the Lower Detroit Steps (south of Monterey) the 1930s, and the Upper Detroit Steps (north of Monterey) in the 1960s. Like many of the steeply sloped blocks on either side of Monterey Boulevard, the nearby lots went undeveloped for a long time, as the photos below well show. It took the apartment-building boom in the 1950s-1970s to fill out Monterey’s unbuilt hillsides (and thereby deprive the neighborhood kids of some adventures). The great increase in density along Monterey makes the preciousness of any public open space away from traffic all the more important now.
Images below were taken in the 1930s and 1940s, showing the area around the Detroit Steps—although just on Monterey Boulevard. I’ve also included bits of the Sanborn maps and aerial photos.
The Lower Detroit Steps
The Upper Detroit Steps
From the Air
These images show how sparsely built the area was before the 1960s. Early on, there was but one house along the route of the present Upper Detroit Steps, at 398 Monterey, gone for the apartment building now at 380 Monterey (1988). That house and its little wooden stairway was clearly visible in the 1938 and 1948 aerials below, and also in the images above. Also notable are the well-worn paths up the hill.
By Sanborn Maps
1915 Sanborn map of area around Monterey at Detroit Steps. Tiny indication of wooden stairway north of Monterey. Lower Steps yet to be built. Sheet 917. ProQuest.
One notable event nearby was an incident in 1941 that the San Francisco Dept Public Works called the Joost Ave Slide #2 (the first one being in 1928 a bit to the east). It was a minor landslide on the slope between Joost and Monterey, on either side of the site of the present Upper Detroit Steps. The two photos here, taken on either side of the steps, show what lies beneath and behind the current apartment buildings—steep crags of rock, largely dug out for construction.
A sketch of of this patch of Sunnyside before World War II, based on early residents’ accounts in oral histories contained in the Sunnyside History Project of 2006, period photos, and my own research.
Imagine, if you will, it is the 1930s and you’ve taken the No.10 streetcar out to Sunnyside to visit a family friend. The fare is still a nickel, and that includes the transfer. Travelling along Monterey Boulevard—which not long ago was still named Sunnyside Avenue—you look around to see that as the car gets toward the end of the line at Gennessee, it is nearly empty on this Sunday afternoon. Sitting on the sunny side of the car, you look out between the few houses on the street for a clear view of the San Bruno Mountains to the south. The land along the boulevard seems to drop away suddenly down the bare hills on the south and rise steeply in crags on the north. Large billboards fill in between the houses, three or four each block, advertising beer or gasoline. There is a gas station on nearly every block—small, one-man establishments that are little more than a shack and a pump or two. In all, this is the impression you have, that the “boulevard” in this sparsely built neighborhood is thin on car traffic and thick with gas stations and billboards, and many vacant hillside lots—a lot sleepier than the neat but dense block where your apartment is now located, or the crowded and dirty alleyways of North Beach where you grew up.
At last you reach your destination, Detroit Street; never having been here before, you had asked the driver to alert you when the car arrived at the stop. You get out at the foot of a narrow rickety-looking wooden stair, which serves as the way up to a lone house up the hill. You cross over the street—there is no real danger here as car traffic is so infrequent—and stand at the top of a new concrete stairway that goes down the hill. It is wide, with steel bannisters. The view is wide and open from this spot, and you can seen the bell tower of the local church, Saint Finn Barr, as well as the new building for Sunnyside School on Foerster Street.
At the bottom of the steps is a cul-de-sac, surrounded by a few houses. You walk to the intersection at Hearst Ave, to the little old-fashioned-looking house of the Molinari family, who moved here decades before, giving up the familiarity of North Beach for the quiet of this new neighborhood. This is your destination. On the tiny porch sits Theresa, the grandmother and matriarch, as her ten-year-old grandson Andy comes running out with a crude homemade sled, a couple of friends trailing behind. “Watch me, Nona! We’re gonna slide down!” The boys mount the stairs and get ready to sled down the grassy slope beside the concrete steps. Theresa offers you some of the red wine her husband Giovanni makes in their basement wine press. Prohibition is over now, but they have always made wine since moving here in 1908, even during the dry years. You join her on the porch and cheer on little Andy when he reaches the bottom of the hill on his wooden contraption. It doesn’t quite feel like you are still in the city, but it makes for a good visit on a lazy Sunday.
10 thoughts on “The Detroit Steps: Some historical images, and a vignette”
Thanks for all these old photos of the Detroit Steps. I’m not sure that the 1942 photo shows a gas station. Scroll up to the 1938 photo. It seems to show a retaining wall with a couple of garages built into the hillside. Perhaps the guy leaning over the open hood is working on his own vehicle. Clicking on each photo allowed me to zoom in for a closer look. Thanks again.
Lots of good memories for me. I lived at 271 Hearst from 1953 until 1971. My cousins lived around the corner at 408 Detroit. Spent many a day riding bikes in upper circle bottom of stairs. I remember the upper stairs when there was not much there. I seem to remember there was some kind of a small pond up there you could rent boats or something like that. Hard to place now. Looking at picture from 1940 looking down from Monterey you can see the block where I lived. The houses look like they are two stories. All the houses in the fifties on that block were one story on top of a basement with an alley running behind. I don’t know when they were built but they are definitely not the ones in the picture? Also St. Finn barr our parish church and Sunnyside school my Alma Mater from 1958 until 1964. It really is great to see all this. Good simpler times.
Marty, I remember a family at 408 Detroit. Last name was Bouswah (you can tell I’m not French). I went through Sunnyside with John. He had an older sister, Mary, and several younger siblings. Their father worked at the US
Post Office, I believe.
Follow up post didn’t seem to get there. Anyway just saying I realized the larger houses were on Flood. They caught my eye and I missed the smaller ones in front which were on Hearst.
Can you say more about the creek with the wooden bridge that is visible on sheet 917 of the Sanborn map? I will walk these steps as soon as possible.
I don’t know if you were asking this of me but this is what I know. In one of the earlier maps Amy had put out I was surprised to see a creek ran directly under my house at 271 Hearst. I don’t remember ever hearing about that. My dad worked for the Water department for many years so I would bet he knew about it and probably told me as a kid but I don’t remember.
I was, but happy to benefit from your information/memory, too. I was surprised to see it. Looks like it’s named…the name is obscured tho. Is that creek the source of the small pond?
The creek has some words written on it on the Sanborn — “DRY IN SUMMER.
Joel Pomerantz was kind enough to name that little bulge of water in his waterways mapping book– the Buchwald Pond — after the poor fellow who killed himself there in 1915.
Reply comments seem to be having some glitches – may be that any comment with a link gets delayed.
So, the whole story of the creek is on this blog, with the name “The creek that ran through Sunnyside” – I’m leaving off a link for now….
That would be my cousins. Bourgeois was the spelling. Eldest Mary, John, Tom, Bill, Trudy, Ken. Father Jerry did work at Post Office. Mom Gertrude was my Dads sister. John lives in Crosby Minnesota. Married two boys been there fifty years. Others scattered around still all alive. Mom and dad died years ago. You might also remember Tom. He is a couple of years younger than John. He lives in Columbia South Carolina also close to fifty years. Nice to hear comments from newer folks but is great to hear from people that knew people from back then.