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”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: The Italian Craftsman Who Signed His Cabinets

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

Although he wasn’t among the first wave of Italian immigrants who moved into Sunnyside after the Quake of 1906, Giuseppe Scorsonelli bought this house on Staples Avenue for himself and his wife Enza in 1963.

Their five children were mostly grown up by then, although the youngest daughter lived with them for a while. It was a big move up from the rented flat where the family lived on Dolores Street. Giuseppe was a cabinet maker, trained in Sicily, and he made the most of finally owning his own home; fitting out the rooms with custom cabinetry of his own design and craftsmanship—and proudly signing the work on the back, invisible to the eye, but revealed decades later when the present owner removed them for renovations.

Giuseppe's signature on the backside of the telephone kiosk. Photo: Jim McCormick.
Giuseppe’s signature on the backside of the telephone kiosk. Photo: Jim McCormick.

In his professional life, Scorsonelli worked for the premier San Francisco cabinet-making firm, Fink & Schindler Company, and helped to craft many fine wooden interiors in churches, bars, and stores that are still a part of the city’s legacy of Italian craftsmanship. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: The Italian Craftsman Who Signed His Cabinets”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Companion to Hollywood Starlets Settles Down on Baden Street

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

As a star-struck teen in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Jane Wardy did more than just swoon over beautiful film stars from afar—she got herself into the intimate lives of three glamorous actresses, one after the other, devoting herself to being their constant companion. Two of those relationships ended with the death of her beloved.

Later in life, after the excitement was over, Wardy settled down in this house on Baden Street, and lived a more sedate existence—although she would then marry three men in succession before she died in her eighties.

Midwest Girl turned Model

Born in Ohio in 1909, her family moved to California in the 1920s. Jane completed two years of high school before launching into work—as a shop clerk and a store model. All her life, despite the capricious lives of her famous companions, Wardy always had steady work.

Glamour photo of Jane Alice Wardy, taken in the 1920s. Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Jan 1930.
Glamour photo of Jane Alice Wardy, taken in the 1920s. Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Jan 1930.

At the age of eighteen or nineteen she met and befriended the aspiring starlet and horsewoman Vonceil Viking, who had made a name for herself with a splashy stunt, riding her horse Broadway from New York to Los Angeles on a bet with an English aristocrat, the Marquess of Donegall—for an astonishing $25,000 (something shy of a half a million dollars now).  More about this stunt here.

Vonceil Viking in Washington DC, during her famous ride. 1927. Library of Congress. View whole image here. https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/1927-Voncneil-Viking_WashingtonDC_LoC.jpg
Vonceil Viking and her horse Broadway in Washington DC, during her famous ride. 1927. Library of Congress. View whole image here.  

Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Companion to Hollywood Starlets Settles Down on Baden Street”

Sunnyside in the 1970s: Trees, Traffic, Taxes

By Amy O’Hair

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.[1] 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 publication of the new archive of the SNA newsletters is due to the work of LisaRuth Elliott and her team for the Neighborhood Newspapers of San Francisco project on the Internet Archive. Continue reading “Sunnyside in the 1970s: Trees, Traffic, Taxes”

50 Years On: The Ingleside Police Station Ambush and the Black Liberation Army

By Amy O’Hair

This story contains accounts of violence and racism.

This week marks fifty years since the night a nationwide network of clandestine violence touched down in the quiet center of Balboa Park, across the freeway from Sunnyside. The ambush on the Ingleside Police Station left one officer dead, Sergeant John V Young, and a civilian clerk wounded. It was one of a great number of armed actions taken in cities during the 1970s by self-proclaimed revolutionaries identifying with different causes.

While much has been written and dramatized about more sensational actions by radical groups then, such as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the campaign of the Black Liberation Army against the police in San Francisco has not seen nearly as much print. The 1970s was a time of intense political violence, resulting in considerably more deaths by terrorism than the post-9/11 period.[1] The passage of fifty years is a chance to reflect on what has changed—and what has not changed—in policing, anti-Black racism, and domestic terrorism.

The legal proceedings related to the attack played out over almost the entire intervening five decades—a messy and incomplete case. The last man implicated in the ambush who was still incarcerated was only released on parole this last October, after 49 years in prison; for some his sentence was too short.

The Ambush

On the evening of Sunday 29 August 1971, two men entered the Ingleside Police Station at 9:40 p.m. armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9mm pistol.[2] The station had only three people working there at the time; just an hour before a bomb had gone off at a bank branch in Stonestown, planted as a diversion by the attackers, and most officers were elsewhere in response. The attackers had been given an all-clear signal by a woman who entered the station in disguise to make a false report and scope out the situation a half-hour beforehand.

Once inside, one of the attackers pushed the shotgun into the speaking hole in the barrier at the front counter, and fired multiple shots, killing Sergeant Young and wounding a clerk, Ellen Nina Lipney. A third officer was not hit; he crawled over and dragged the wounded Young out of the line of fire. The attackers continued to fire shots, at the window and an armored door. Accounts vary, but as many as 18 shots were fired from the shotgun, and more from the pistol.

Some reports state that the gunmen intended to set a bomb to detonate after they left, to destroy the station, but it failed to go off. Outside perhaps three accomplices were on look-out duty. After the attack, which took only moments, all those involved escaped from the station grounds through an opening that had been previously cut in the chain-link fence that separated the station from the adjacent Interstate 280 freeway. On the verge of the freeway waited two cars, which left both live shells and skid marks on the road when they sped off northbound.

Before I give an account of the Black Liberation Army and the legal cases that resulted in the 1970s and 2000s, here is a recollection of the life of the officer who died that night.

‘A Very Good Man’

Sergeant John Victor Young had served twenty-two years with the force, and when he died he left behind a beloved wife, Geraldine; they’d been married for twenty-four years. He also left behind a great deal of good will and the respect of seemingly everyone who knew him. Those who worked with him widely acknowledged his compassion, even temper, fairness, and religious devotion. “He treated cranks and superior officers alike, with the same kindness and understanding.” Another officer who worked with him said: “He was careful with his language and a good listener.” Young had a commitment to helping people, no matter what their history or circumstances. Among his desk duties before he was assigned to Ingleside was helping ex-convicts who sought legal rehabilitation that could lead to having their records expunged; sometimes he went further, even digging into his own pocket to help one who needed a bit of cash. [3]

Sergeant John V Young. About 1970. SFPD/AP.
Sergeant John V Young. About 1970. SFPD/AP.

Continue reading “50 Years On: The Ingleside Police Station Ambush and the Black Liberation Army”

The Detroit Steps: Some historical images, and a vignette

By Amy O’Hair

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”

Sunnyside History in Photos: People

A collection of photographs of people who lived in Sunnyside.

Photos of places and things in Sunnyside here. Main photo page here.  Do you have a photo to add? Write me.

1905c. Early Sunnyside resident Seph Williams stands with his horsein front of his house at 257 Joost Ave. Courtesy the Williams family.
1905c. Early Sunnyside resident Seph Williams stands with his horse in front of his house at 257 Joost Ave. Courtesy the Williams family. Read more about the Williams family on Joost.
1906. The Mickelsen family at 511 Congo Street. Immigrants from Denmark who stayed for several generations.
1906. The Mickelsen family at 511 Congo Street. Immigrants from Denmark who stayed for several generations.
1917. Charles Behler and his family and neighbors pose for a group photo on the 600 block of Mangels. Courtesy Geoff Follin.
1917. Charles Behler and his family and neighbors pose for a group photo on the 600 block of Mangels. Courtesy Geoff Follin. Read the story here. 
1920s. The Williams brothers ran the Sunnyside Coalyard at 36 Joost until the 1930s. Courtesy the Williams family.
1920s. The Williams brothers ran the Sunnyside Coalyard at 36 Joost until the 1930s. Courtesy the Williams family. Read the story here.

Continue reading “Sunnyside History in Photos: People”

Dancer, Director, Dreamer: The Work and Life of Ann Marie Garvin

SF Examiner, 20 Dec 1981. Photo: Chris Hardy for the Examiner.

Sunnyside Resident Ann Marie Garvin passed away recently at the age of 82.

“Dance is all that’s left that’s real. It’s another world, all yours, and no one can take away the thrill of it.”

Ann Marie Garvin spoke those words to a reporter in 1976, shortly after she had founded her studio on Monterey Boulevard, Dancer’s Synectics Group. They were words she lived by over the course of her long working life–performing, teaching, directing, and choreographing, in San Francisco and beyond.

For 45 years, in the pink-striped building, she taught thousands of dancers, from near and far, her particular fast-paced jazz style and much else as well. Many Bay Area dancers studied with her, such as Ed Mock, Snowy Winter, Greg de Silva, and Craig Innes. Jazz dancer and instructor Ann Barrett noted in an artist’s bio how performing in Ann Marie Garvin’s ‘Dance Between the Lines’ had been invaluable to her understanding of choreography and theater, and for that she was “eternally grateful.”[1]

In assembling and choreographing her own companies of dancers, Ann Marie Garvin rode the crests of several trends, including the push for a greater diversity of body shapes and skin colors in dance that happened in the Bay Area the late 1970s.[2]

“The distinctive thing about Ann Marie is her disregard for height, or color of skin. She is unaware of anything except this: Can they dance? So [her] company has tall and short, plumpish, tan, black, white, but all marvelous dancers.”[3]

Continue reading “Dancer, Director, Dreamer: The Work and Life of Ann Marie Garvin”

Immigrant Dreams and Long Hours: The Delicatessen at Monterey and Edna

The deli on Monterey Boulevard at Edna Street is popular with locals as well as those passing through Sunnyside on their way elsewhere. But few know it has been a deli continuously for the last 72 years, with a succession of owners. This is a story about running a local business, but also about immigrants and opportunity—and danger.

The building was constructed in 1947, part of a strip of postwar buildings that went up on previously empty lots.

The delicatessen first opened that same year, founded by two women well into their fifties, both of whom had some familiarity with restaurant work: Alma Fitch and Frances Swensson.

1948-49 San Francisco Directory.
1948-49 San Francisco Directory.

The deli’s first name—Vienna Delicatessen—was Frances’s choice; she was born Franziska Anzengruber in a little town in Austria, and came to San Francisco in her late teens sometime after the Quake and Fire of 1906.

1908c. Frances Anzengruber (at table) in Weibern Austria, just before leaving for the US.
1908c. Frances Anzengruber (at table) in Weibern Austria, just before leaving for the US. Photo courtesy Janice Smyth via Ancestry.com.

Continue reading “Immigrant Dreams and Long Hours: The Delicatessen at Monterey and Edna”

The Quest for a Sunnyside Hall

SF Call, 19 Nov 1910.

Meeting places make possible gatherings that can give rise to group action. Without a place big enough to meet and plan, speak and listen, how do members of a group know they have the number and consensus that can become a force for change? These points seem obvious, but for the real estate speculators laying out Sunnyside in 1891, even the provision of a park space where such a meeting place might be located was not a perceived need. Large union halls were numerous elsewhere in the city in areas with industry, but the rise of mainly residential areas in the late 19th century didn’t anticipate the needs of neighborhood activism.

Sunnyside had no park or public common space in the 1890s, but within a few years, common needs drew people together in private spaces. The first order of business at the first large public gathering of residents was the need for a school. There were 80–100 children in the area, even as sparsely populated as it was then. In January 1896, resident Eugene Dasse called the meeting at a hall he had built a couple of years before (where 54-56 Monterey is now) — Dasse’s Hall. There was such energy at that meeting that the first Sunnyside Improvement Club was spontaneously formed.

SF Call, 26 Jan 1896.
SF Call, 26 Jan 1896.

Continue reading “The Quest for a Sunnyside Hall”