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.)
If not for the hapless mistakes made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891, our district would have no parks at all. An ill-advised street layout meant that some lots were too steep and rocky to build on, leaving them vacant for decades. This resulted in enough conjoined lots that the City, two generations later, could buy up and create the Sunnyside Playground and Dorothy Erskine Park.
Additionally, by laying out streets without regard to slopes, the City had to later buy up several residential lots in Sunnyside, in order to lay the sewer pipes—which must of course go where gravity dictates. This happenstance has given Sunnyside several small open spaces for public enjoyment, such as the Joost-Baden Mini-Park and the steps behind the Sunnyside Conservatory.
Yet still today there remains a City-owned piece of land—500 square feet in size—that is undeveloped as a public open space. It is fenced off and inaccessible. One half is used as a private side yard by an adjacent homeowner. The other half is currently leased to Friends of the Urban Forest, but that organization has never used it. These non-public uses of public land represent a loss to the community, and it is time the situation was rectified.
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. Continue reading “The Detroit Steps: Some historical images, and a vignette”→
On 5 January 1911, a photographer named John Henry Mentz came out to Sunnyside to take some shots on a chilly, partly cloudy day. He was the skilled official photographer for United Railroads of San Francisco (URR, which became Muni later). His photos documented the streetcar tracks, but naturally other things were included. Thanks to the availability of high-definition scans of these three images from SFMTA, we can glimpse life on that day in Sunnyside history, complete with a family on the way to the shops and goats grazing on the railroad tracks. The photos were taken on the first block of Monterey Boulevard, near Circular Avenue. First the photos with details, then a comparison to today.
A Thursday Afternoon on Monterey
First Mentz took this image, with a large 8×10 camera and a glass-plate negative positioned squarely in the middle of the unpaved road, facing east (towards what is now Glen Park).
Next week the San Francisco Board of Supervisors votes to approve changing the name of Phelan Avenue to Frida Kahlo Way. This is far from the first such change for this neighborhood’s streets, and a good occasion to look at the several other name changes over the years since its beginning.
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.
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.
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. 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”→