The presence of goats in Sunnyside is evident from the earliest photographs, such as this iconic shot that captured the witch’s hat tower of the Sunnyside Powerhouse in the background, with a munching goat in the foreground, taken on Monterey near Circular in 1911.
Then the same photographer turned to face the other direction, and caught a few more grazing goats on the railroad tracks.
One Sunnyside resident had his own goat dairy, located further up the street on Monterey in the 1910s. It probably wasn’t quite legal, given the City’s pound limits regulating what animals could be kept where. But no matter, because there were a lot of small dairy operations here, and in the Excelsior and elsewhere, well into the twentieth century. A cow in the backyard was far from uncommon.
After arriving in 1909, Sicilian immigrant Frank Maita opened a small dairy operation with goats, on the site of the present house at 535 Monterey Boulevard, in 1915. Most of the lot was open, with a little house set down the hill. Frank and Catherine Maita already had five children when they started their business; with four more to come, it was not a sustainable setup.
But it was a start on a new life in a new country.
Although Bruno Cappa’s soda fountain restaurant was a top neighborhood spot for curly fries or an ice cream float for nearly four decades, the proprietor was far from self-promoting. But if he had engaged a graphic artist for a logo or some merch, he could not do better than what designer Doug da Silva has recently created to celebrate this slice of local history.
Doug grew up in Sunnyside, and although he no longer lives in the city, he has created a line of t-shirts celebrating many iconic aspects of San Francisco past, including Bruno’s Creamery.
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 The newsletters of Sunnyside’s local organization from those years have recently been archived and made available online at the Internet Archive, and tell some inspiring stories about actions that still impact our lives today.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 rain is pelting down today, prompting me to revisit a moment in early Sunnyside history when the cumulative effects of an El Niño winter melted the hillside above Monterey Boulevard (then Sunnyside Avenue) between Acadia and Detroit Streets, sending several houses sliding down. No one was injured, but two of the houses were never rebuilt. Besides the copious rains that winter, a major contributing cause was a massive street grading project on Monterey, wherein earth was removed in large quantities by an unscrupulous private contractor named Kelso, leaving several houses on the north side hovering at the top of sheer cliffs. It was not a time of robust and well-planned public works in the City. Residents felt naturally wronged, and threatened to sue (although without much success it later turned out).
Sunnyside then was very sparsely populated, with only a few houses on each block, largely in the eastern end. It was a bit of a company town; many residents worked at the Sunnyside Powerhouse,the coal-fired power plant for the pioneering electric railway. Notes on people mentioned in the accounts below: Patrick Amrock, lived at the current address 134 Monterey (rebuilt in 1960). The Lufsky/Kuestermann houses were never rebuilt, but were located around 126 Monterey. Percy C Cole, a carpenter, lived in a house at the current location of the 370 Monterey apartments. Andrew Dahlberg (“P Doylberg”), a contractor, lived at what is now 137 Joost (which may be the original 1890s house). Charles Lufsky departed Sunnyside later in the year, but here’s a good story about the saloon he left behind.
Fortunately, 20th century building techniques and City codes have prevented many such disasters since. (Although one happened here in 21st century Sunnyside.)
Read the account below from the San Francisco Examiner published the next morning, followed by another account from the San Francisco Call. Read the related story about Sunnyside’s some-time creek here.
For thirty-five years, Sunnyside had a well-loved and well-patronized restaurant at the corner of Monterey Boulevard and Foerster Street, famous for its opinionated but kind-hearted owner, Bruno Cappa (1911-1984). Bruno’s Creamery Fountain Restaurant counted among its many customers a few of the city’s minor luminaries, but mostly it was a favorite of locals and kids. The place was famous for serving curly fries, forty years before they were on the menus of fast-food chains. Although he was a bit gruff, Bruno is fondly remembered to this day by many people who ate there or just hung out.
The restaurant was an unpretentious place, a narrow space with a counter on the right and pinball machines in the back. Along the left wall were news racks that also held the comic books that were prized as free reading material by local kids. As the years passed, the shop acquired a grill and a donut fryer, along with the special machine for producing his famed curly fries. Behind the counter there were racks with small items like bromo-seltzer and sweets, and on the walls (depending on the décor that year) there were small posters for soda or ice cream.
Bruno and his wife Eva stood behind the long counter—he took your order for a burger, and she cooked it up. They both worked hard, putting in 16- or 17-hour days, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eva was always quiet, but Bruno often gave unasked-for, if well-intended, advice—like telling an unemployed customer to get a job and feed his family. But then Bruno would send him on his way after a meal with a bag of groceries—under that rude exterior he had a big heart.
Kids came in to play the pinball machines in back, and read the comic books Bruno had for sale. Longtime Sunnyside Frank Koehler recalls that Bruno would say ” ‘Hey, you guys, if you want to read them, you gotta buy ’em’—but since we were regulars, Bruno never enforced the ‘you gotta buy ’em’ rule….But he’d always mention the rule before he ignored it.”
Bruno kept tabs on regulars. One person told me about how if Bruno hadn’t seen you for a while, he would send someone around to your house to make sure you were okay.
“Bruno was truly a unique individual and quite a character.”
The Sunnyside Crossing is visible on the left in the 1926 photo, where the electric streetcar tracks crossed the Southern Pacific train tracks. The excavations for Interstate 280 removed much of the land on the left side of the 1926 photo.
Looking east on Monterey Boulevard midway between Foerster and Gennessee. Strip of shops on right side all removed in early 1970s to build Safeway supermarket. Move slider to compare photographs. View larger here. Look at other comparison photographs here.
To add to the recently revealed photo of the Sunnyside Powerhouse, here are five more images from the same album at the San Mateo County Historical Association, including unseen interior shots from the engine room. They were taken by a photographer from the company that supplied the engines, Risdon Iron Works, on the occasion of the opening of the powerhouse and the new electric streetcar line in April 1892.
These new photos are unmatched by any other known ones of Sunnyside’s lost landmark, all of which date to after the powerhouse ceased to operate in 1901. These show a car house and power plant just constructed, ready to revolutionize San Francisco’s urban railways with the introduction of electricity for propulsion. For the first time, the machinery of the powerhouse engine room can be seen.
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”→