New Map: The Creek that Ran Through Sunnyside

Here is a new map for understanding the historical path that Sunnyside’s tributary of Islais Creek once took through the neighborhood, a composite using color Sanborn maps from the Library of Congress and from the early 1900s. Additional information for areas not covered by Sanborn from Joel Pomerantz’s Seep City project for mapping our city’s old waterways.

Read more about Sunnyside’s creek here. Click on map for larger version.

The Creek that Ran Through Sunnyside. OpenStreetMap base. Created in 2023 by Amy O’Hair

The Creek that Ran Through Sunnyside. Composite of historical data over base. Sources: Library of Congress and Help from Created in 2023 by Amy O’Hair Click on image for the larger version.

A culvert was installed from one side of Monterey to the other at about Edna Street in the 1910s. Part of the creek was contained in a box drain in the 100 block of Flood Ave (north side) about the same time. Other manipulations took place, until the City diverted the water that would have fed it into the sewer system, during the 1920s.

The Sunnyside History Project of 2006

By Amy O’Hair

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.[1] 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.)

The History Fair 

Continue reading “The Sunnyside History Project of 2006”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Bridge-Builder and Muni Driver Raises a Family on Congo

House on Congo Street where the Jensens lived in the 1950s and 1960s. Google Streetview.
House on Congo Street where the Jensens lived in the 1950s and 1960s. Google Streetview 2019.

One of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making.

By Amy O’Hair

After World War II, Gordon and Mary Jensen bought this house at the top of Congo Street on the 700 block. They were then in their thirties, and had two young daughters. Gordon had an adventurous working life in midcentury San Francisco, being part of the historic construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and teaching Muni bus drivers for many decades.

But the story starts much earlier, in another house two blocks down the street; the couple had met while they were teenagers living across the street from each other.

A Lifetime on Congo Street

Gordon grew up in a house on the 500 block—a tiny shack that had been built after the 1906 Quake. The family had moved to San Francisco from Arhus, a small village in Denmark, by way of Canada, arriving in 1922. They bought this house from another family who were from the very same Danish village. (Read more about them in this piece by the late Murray Schneider here.)

With five kids, the cottage was quite a tight fit, with no bathroom, no electricity, and no refrigerator. Fortunately, Gordon’s father quickly met a man at church who helped them built on and get a bit more room. Still, the conditions were difficult; Gordon slept on a sofa in the living room, with his toddler brother Henry. His younger sister Phyllis slept on a couch in the kitchen, with fixed arms, and later recalled that as she grew, she just curled up more.

On the Edge of a Wild Mountain

Later, when Gordon’s sister Phyllis was in her sixties, she wrote an account of growing up in the little house. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Bridge-Builder and Muni Driver Raises a Family on Congo”

The Congo in Sunnyside

One of a series of posts about Sunnyside streets and street names.

By Amy O’Hair

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.

Continue reading “The Congo in Sunnyside”

Acadia: The controversial history of a little street name

One of a series of posts about Sunnyside streets and street names.

By Amy O’Hair

One of Sunnyside’s shortest streets is Acadia–the ‘A’ in the brief set of alphabetized north-south streets. The name reaches deep into history, like many of the somewhat obscure choices made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891 when the district was laid out–such as Congo, Gennessee, and Detroit. Like those names, Acadia touches on the history of colonization and land appropriation.

Also like some of the neighborhood’s other streets, it suffered from misspelling over the years. ‘Arcadia’ was the name in directories and on maps for a time. It was a natural mistake; Arcadia, meaning a place of rural contentment, is the English version of the French word l’Acadie. The name originated in ancient Greece, referring to an isolated place there where the people lived in pastoral simplicity.

An International Atrocity 

To start with, the political history: L’Acadie (anglicized to Acadia) was the name of the place where French pioneers explored and later colonists settled in eastern Canada—areas that are now called New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

Acadians at Annapolis Royal by Samuel Scott, 1751, earliest known image and only pre-deportation image of Acadians.

From 1755–1764, the British waged a concerted campaign to forcibly deport the French settlers, who were called Acadians–an event known as the Great Expulsion. Continue reading “Acadia: The controversial history of a little street name”

Congo and Flood: 1923 and Today

Move the slider to compare photographs. Looking north up Congo. View larger here. Look at other comparison photographs here.

A Bridge between Neighborhoods: the Santa Rosa Underpass

A now-lost bit of infrastructure connected two neighborhoods for six decades, an underpass below the Southern Pacific railroad tracks that extended Santa Rosa Avenue to meet Circular Avenue and Congo Street.

1927, Santa Rosa Bridge. Circular Ave at Congo Street. Southern Pacific railroad tracks running at crest of embankment. Houses on left located on Flood Ave. wnp36.03489

In the usual way of things then, Sunnysiders asked for this relatively minor, yet vital link for many years before the city built it. From the neighborhood’s beginning in 1891 and for decades to come, Sunnyside was hemmed in.[1]  Sutro Forest blocked the west, Phelan Ave was not yet built through on the south, there was no road over the railroad tracks on the east, and no passage over Mt Davidson on the north. You came in via Chenery or San Jose Road, and left the same way, usually on the electric streetcar.    Continue reading “A Bridge between Neighborhoods: the Santa Rosa Underpass”

Growing Up on Congo Street in the 1920s

The account below by Phyllis Jensen Marklin of being a child growing up in a little house on Congo Street, on the Sunnyside/Glen Park border, includes some fabulous details–the sort of domestic history that is all too often lost with the passage of time. She wrote it when she was in her sixties. Her daughter has graciously given me permission to reproduce it here, along with a photo that includes the family in front of their house at 511 Congo Street. 

Her parents Axel and Olga Jensen came originally from Arhus, Denmark, but lived in Canada for years before coming to San Francisco. Although not all the children stayed in the neighborhood, Phyllis’s brother Gordon made his home as an adult just a few blocks down Congo. Read that story here.

The Jensens in front of their house at 511 Congo Street, late 1920s. Photo courtesy Judith Simpson.
The Jensens in front of their house at 511 Congo Street, late 1920s. Photo courtesy Judith Simpson.

Continue reading “Growing Up on Congo Street in the 1920s”