Traffic calming – planting and saving trees – safe places for children to play – newly revealed local history: the issues on the minds of Sunnysiders fifty years ago were not so different from things that interest residents now. The newsletters of Sunnyside’s local organization from those years have recently been archived and made available online at the Internet Archive, and tell some inspiring stories about actions that still impact our lives today.
Although Sunnyside has seen organized advocacy by residents since the 1890s (more here), the current organization, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), dates to late 1974. The 1970s saw a surge of local activism in the many neighborhoods in San Francisco. Five decades later, we still enjoy some of the fruits of that upwelling, for instance in open spaces that were established as parks. There was also a downside to the activism then that still affects the city; in some areas, such as the Richmond district, residents fought density with downzoning measures, working to exclude multi-unit buildings and “retain local character,” resulting in a dearth of housing units in subsequent decades, and de facto residential segregation.
But SNA was, according to the record of these early newsletters, more intent on trees, parks, and calming traffic. Monterey Boulevard had already undergone big changes in the 1950s and 1960s, with an extensive apartment-building boom. The 1970s saw even more upzoning on the boulevard. SNA didn’t oppose more housing, but as we’ll see, it did try to rescue trees that were eventually to fall victim to a particularly determined developer of multi-unit buildings, among many other projects, such as tree-planting and boosting local businesses.
The shabby open space that makes up the remaining portion of the Balboa Reservoir was certainly one place where a person was unlikely to catch Covid this year. Plenty of people came to chill out, literally in the fog or figuratively in the solitude.
From February to June 2021, the reservoir land played its part in the recovery by serving as an overflow route for people in cars coming to the adjacent City College of San Francisco mass vaccination site. The goats were back for their annual munch in August. The big storm in October briefly left more standing water than this would-be reservoir ever held before. Construction on the planned housing project. for the site is due to begin in 2022. All photographs Amy O’Hair except where noted otherwise. Thanks to Susan Sutton and Joanna Pearlstein for their contributions.
When the old gymnasiums at the City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus were torn down in 2008, as the new Wellness Center was built, three pieces of artwork by Sargent Johnson attached to the structures had to come down too. Fortunately they were preserved, though their destiny remains undetermined.
Mounted over the entrances of the old gyms were three bas-reliefs Johnson created when it was built in 1940. Architect Timothy Pflueger commissioned the works, just as he commissioned art for almost every building he designed, even something as modest as a gym.
The gyms (one for women, one for men) were two of the first three buildings designed by Pflueger and constructed for the campus, the third being Science Hall. That building’s colorful murals are much better known as public art, and still stand. Johnson’s works were removed before the gyms were demolished, and have been in storage since then.
The Sports Figures
The three reliefs depict sports-related subjects: a group of female ball players; a female tennis player; and a group of male athletes. They are made of cast concrete.
On the South Gymnasium (women’s) there were two figures. First, a set of three women playing medicine ball. (See the end of this article for an explanation of medicine ball.)
For the Golden Gate International Exposition, sculptor Robert Boardman Howard created a magnificent fountain called The Whales. Later it was installed at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, where it was a familiar sight to visitors for half a century. Then it languished in storage outdoors at City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus. Restoration has yet to happen, and now it is tucked away at an SF Arts Commission storage facility awaiting funding and badly needed attention.
Curious Sunnysiders walking through nearby City College may have noticed the sculpture stored there over the last several years. It was a sad site–noble and elegant killer whales peeking forlornly out from under tarpaulins and straps. In real life, some communities of this species are endangered; these massive animals rendered in stone looked equally condemned to extinction.
As San Francisco city government currently works through the planning process for a housing project on the last remaining seventeen acres of the original Balboa Reservoir land, a review of the dramatic fate of the first housing plan for that land is in order.
In the 1980s, rather than watch the Mayor’s Office of Housing sell off part of the Balboa Reservoir land that was for ten years the site of City College’s West Campus, a campus-based coalition of faculty, staff, and students, joined by some local residents, fought back against housing plans through the ballot over several elections, from 1985 to 1991.
From the end of WWII until the mid-1980s, there were several ill-fated attempts to fund the building of the Balboa Reservoir; it was dug and paved but not finished in the late 1950s. Its real life during these years was as an asset to City College, first as West Campus, then as parking for students, faculty, and staff.
But it also functioned as a place for a host of casual uses by local residents, some legal and some not: teen drivers, go-cart races, runners and walkers, Riordan football team training, underage drinking, motorcycle berm-jumping, police safety training, and more. No city agency seriously considered housing during these years; after WWII there were still plenty of empty lots in the city on which to build.
Making Wartime WAVES
In June 1944 the SPFUC discussed the matter of leasing the reservoir land to the US Government, in line with the US President’s edict that any unused public land be put to wartime use. The Navy was given a lease which was to end six months after the “national emergency.” A large compound comprising many buildings was quickly built for the United States Naval Reserve Women’s Reserve, known under the acronym WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The facility opened in July 1945. It included housing for over a thousand enlisted and officer women, two-story buildings, and an auditorium, with all the needed water, sewer, electricity, and gas infrastructure.
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.