This website, which I began in 2015, has not been the only effort to collect and rediscover the stories of this neighborhood; almost twenty years ago, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association initiated a wide-ranging project to rediscover historical materials and record oral histories of old-time residents. One result of the group’s work was to present a history fair in February 2006, where documents and photos were shared with the community. Another product of their efforts was a little booklet, “A Brief Look at Sunnyside”.
The members of Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA) who worked on the project were led by Jennifer Heggie, and included Daphne Powell, Robert Danielson, David Becker, Karen Greenwood Henke, Bill Wilson, and Rick Lopez. They were aided in their work by Woody LaBounty and Lori Ungaretti at Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP). Other contributors included Julia Bergman, City College of San Francisco’s Chief Librarian and Archivist (now deceased), and local history author Jacqueline Proctor, as well as two workers at St Finn Barr Church, Denise McEvoy and Kathleen Ramsay.
The Oral Histories
The oral history interviews took place in 1995, 2005, and 2006, and were conducted with six people who grew up in Sunnyside, mostly before the Second World War. To preserve the interviews, the transcripts were later archived at the San Francisco History Center. The subjects described what it was like in the neighborhood, where they played and went to school, what transit they took, the landscapes and animals that were a part of their childhoods, and so on. (I’ll quote extensively from the oral histories later in this post.)
This story contains accounts of violence and racism.
This week marks fifty years since the night a nationwide network of clandestine violence touched down in the quiet center of Balboa Park, across the freeway from Sunnyside. The ambush on the Ingleside Police Station left one officer dead, Sergeant John V Young, and a civilian clerk wounded. It was one of a great number of armed actions taken in cities during the 1970s by self-proclaimed revolutionaries identifying with different causes.
While much has been written and dramatized about more sensational actions by radical groups then, such as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the campaign of the Black Liberation Army against the police in San Francisco has not seen nearly as much print. The 1970s was a time of intense political violence, resulting in considerably more deaths by terrorism than the post-9/11 period. The passage of fifty years is a chance to reflect on what has changed—and what has not changed—in policing, anti-Black racism, and domestic terrorism.
The legal proceedings related to the attack played out over almost the entire intervening five decades—a messy and incomplete case. The last man implicated in the ambush who was still incarcerated was only released on parole this last October, after 49 years in prison; for some his sentence was too short.
On the evening of Sunday 29 August 1971, two men entered the Ingleside Police Station at 9:40 p.m. armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9mm pistol. The station had only three people working there at the time; just an hour before a bomb had gone off at a bank branch in Stonestown, planted as a diversion by the attackers, and most officers were elsewhere in response. The attackers had been given an all-clear signal by a woman who entered the station in disguise to make a false report and scope out the situation a half-hour beforehand.
Once inside, one of the attackers pushed the shotgun into the speaking hole in the barrier at the front counter, and fired multiple shots, killing Sergeant Young and wounding a clerk, Ellen Nina Lipney. A third officer was not hit; he crawled over and dragged the wounded Young out of the line of fire. The attackers continued to fire shots, at the window and an armored door. Accounts vary, but as many as 18 shots were fired from the shotgun, and more from the pistol.
Some reports state that the gunmen intended to set a bomb to detonate after they left, to destroy the station, but it failed to go off. Outside perhaps three accomplices were on look-out duty. After the attack, which took only moments, all those involved escaped from the station grounds through an opening that had been previously cut in the chain-link fence that separated the station from the adjacent Interstate 280 freeway. On the verge of the freeway waited two cars, which left both live shells and skid marks on the road when they sped off northbound.
1971. The hole in the bulletproof window at Ingleside station through which the gunman shot Sgt Young, pocked with gunshot. Larry Tiscornia, SF Chronicle.
The armored door that was shot several times by the gunmen during the attack. Courtesy Ingleside Police Station.
30 Aug 1971. Ingleside station, the day after the attack. AP.
View of Ingleside station from the freeway side, showing the location of the opening cut in the fence whereby the attackers escaped to waiting getaway cars. SF Chronicle, 31 Aug 1971.
A view of Ingleside station today from the freeway side,
Before I give an account of the Black Liberation Army and the legal cases that resulted in the 1970s and 2000s, here is a recollection of the life of the officer who died that night.
‘A Very Good Man’
Sergeant John Victor Young had served twenty-two years with the force, and when he died he left behind a beloved wife, Geraldine; they’d been married for twenty-four years. He also left behind a great deal of good will and the respect of seemingly everyone who knew him. Those who worked with him widely acknowledged his compassion, even temper, fairness, and religious devotion. “He treated cranks and superior officers alike, with the same kindness and understanding.” Another officer who worked with him said: “He was careful with his language and a good listener.” Young had a commitment to helping people, no matter what their history or circumstances. Among his desk duties before he was assigned to Ingleside was helping ex-convicts who sought legal rehabilitation that could lead to having their records expunged; sometimes he went further, even digging into his own pocket to help one who needed a bit of cash. 
Congo Street in the Sunnyside neighborhood runs nine blocks, from Circular Avenue to Bosworth Street, from the edge of the I-280 freeway to the edge of Glen Canyon Park. It makes the ‘C’ in the short run of alphabetical street names that begins with Acadia Street on the east and ends with Hamburg Street on the west (changed to Ridgewood Avenue in 1927).
The name has been a mystery of sorts to many. A scooter messenger I once knew who liked to contemplate the city’s enigmas used to find himself pleasantly puzzled when stopped at Congo on his way out Monterey Boulevard. If you live in the neighborhood, it’s easy for the name to become part of the furniture—used but not noticed.
Unlike the picturesque set of river-themed street names in a Sacramento suburb, where ‘Congo’ sits next to ‘Klamath’ and ‘Nile,’ Sunnyside’s Congo seems without meaningful context, being next to streets named Detroit and Baden. How it came to be the choice of the Sunnyside Land Company when the district was laid out in 1891 is the story of idealized capitalist aspirations that would soon meet the realities of imperialist atrocities against indigenous peoples in the heart of Africa.
In the two decades following the naming of the street in Sunnyside, the Congo in Africa was the site of a genocide of staggering proportions. Many people have told the story; this article highlights only some of it, including a few heroes of humanitarian reform of the time who should be better known, as well as an African American poet who evoked the Congo throughout his long working life.
And the Congo has resonance in the immediate present: the recent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement in Belgium may finally knock the villain responsible for the atrocities, King Leopold II, off his plinth. Better a century too late than never.
Blood on his hands. Many statues King Leopold II were defaced and removed during Black Lives Matter protests in Belgium, June 2020. The (UK) Independent.
One of many statues King Leopold II , being removed from its public location in Brussels, Belgium, June 2020. Reuters.
Statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, smeared with red paint during the Black Lives Matter protests. in June 2020. Photo: John Thys. Getty Images.
The large plot of land that was known as the Balboa Reservoir has had a remarkable history, despite never having been filled with water and once being declared “void of positive features” by the City. Through most of the twentieth century it was owned by SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), yet none of the uses the land has been put to have had any impact for good or ill on the city’s water supply. Now the last third of it still left in the hands of SFPUC is being developed as a housing project.
Spring Valley’s Real Estate Wager
The reservoir site started as part of Adolph Sutro’s Rancho San Miguel holdings, most of which were acquired by him in 1881. Sutro sold the 42-acre lot on the far southeast corner of his eucalyptus-covered kingdom to the Spring Valley Water Company in 1894. The company’s stated purpose was to build a reservoir there. They didn’t.
Who would site “the Largest and Most Important City Subdivision” next to an extensive and notorious jail compound? That’s exactly what Behrend Joost did in 1890 when he created the Sunnyside district from a portion of the Rancho San Miguel land that Leland Stanford sold off then. The choicer cuts went to other investors; this was no Stanford Heights (later Miraloma Park), perched on Mt Davidson. (Joost’s true aim was to be Baron of the Electric Rails, in any case.)
There had been a jail on this property in some form or another since the 1850s; the city originally bought the 100-acre House of Refuge lot in 1854, when it was far, far from the city. The 1905 view show below is now unimaginable: the Jail complex has been replaced by City College of San Francisco, and the narrow railroad tracks of the San Francisco-San Jose train line that passed directly by have been replaced by the Interstate 280 Freeway.