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 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.