Here is a new map for understanding the historical path that Sunnyside’s tributary of the Islais Creek once took through the neighborhood, a composite using color Sanborn maps from the Library of Congress and DavidRumsey.org 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Okay, it’s been more than a year of photographing this soon-to-be-lost semi-wild open space. By this time next year, maybe, the lower portion of the Balboa Reservoir will have begun its transformation into a housing development.
On a week when being outdoors is hazardous, history can substitute for fresh air. Here is a story from a century ago, about a group of Sunnyside children called the Log Cabineers, who were led in many activities around the then-undeveloped hills in the neighborhood by a remarkable young woman, Elfreda Svenberg of Foerster Street. She introduced them to the joys of being outside with plants and animals, taking them on hiking trips–even a ten-day vacation in Marin.
Miss Svenberg included both boys and girls in her club, saying they were “too occupied with the joys of outdoor life” to become boy-struck or girl-struck.
In February 1906 at the Wilson farmhouse on Gennessee Street in Sunnyside, a woman suffered a brutal attack by a robber on a Friday afternoon. The attacker got away by running into the thick grove of eucalyptus trees nearby. The whole neighborhood was involved in the hunt for the man. The news reports about the incident tell us a lot about Sunnyside in that year – including something of its largely untold dairy history, as well as the lay of the land. The house where it happened still stands today, at the SE corner of Gennessee St and Joost Ave (where it recently sold for almost $2m).
The house at 418 Gennessee (now 440 Gennessee), SF Chronicle, 11 Feb 1906, p21.
By Amy O’Hair Update 2023: New map to chart the route of the creek found here.
Before it was diverted into the drains—probably in the 1920s after improvements to streets and sewers—Sunnyside had a tributary of Islais Creek running through it. Sounds bucolic perhaps, but it seems mostly to have been a nuisance to residents, and for one man, his death-trap.
Before our hills were crowded with houses, there were cows grazing on them. There were big dairy farms near Sunnyside, such as Rock Ranch and Smart’s New York Dairy, as well as many small producers. It was a rough and ready urban business then, serving the needs of a growing city–but subjected to little health regulation (read a good summary here).
Even into the 1920s Sunnyside residents on the north side were irked by the damage done to their gardens from cows that had wandered over the hill from a farm near Glen Canyon. But the surprising thing is that many early residents kept a cow or two of their own in the backyard, even breeding and selling them on.