This cottage on Staples Avenue has a juicy set of stories in its past, revealed by some recent research. It was the first in Sunnyside I’ve found whose first buyer ended his short residence there as a wanted felon, on the lam for ten years after stealing the money to buy it, and then fled to Portland where he continued his life of crime.
The carpenter who built this house for developer Rudolph Mohr—and its seven sister houses in that row—also had his own disreputable tale, involving serial bigamy. The residents that followed the escaped embezzler have more ordinary tales to tell, as we’ll see, but which hold interest as they touch on San Francisco’s perennial themes of immigration, labor history, and military service. In all this 110-year-old house was home to some characters of note.
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.
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 The newsletters of Sunnyside’s local organization from those years have recently been archived and made available online at the Internet Archive, and tell some inspiring stories about actions that still impact our lives today.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.
Endemic as racism has been to American culture and politics since its beginning, there have always been those who fought the engulfing tide, in large and small ways. This post recounts, in the words of the time, a minor incident where one man’s racism was countered with another one’s resistance.
David Jackson Staples (1824-1900) and his wife Mary Winslow Staples (1830-1895) are the namesakes for Staples Avenue in Sunnyside. They came from Massachusetts just after the Gold Rush, bringing with them an antipathy to slavery and a strong conviction of the importance of philanthropic work for the public good.
Investment money that funded the Sunnyside Land Company in 1890 was largely sourced from the hefty profits of some of San Francisco’s biggest late nineteenth-century breweries: Philadelphia Brewery, Albany Brewery, and United States Brewery—all overseen by the Brewer’s Protective Association. Men who were heirs to these fortunes, or wrapped up in the racket of propping up prices and selling off franchises to foreign capitalists, were among the most prominent initial investors in the Sunnyside project.
Behrend Joost, President of Sunnyside Land Company, was a notorious and irascible teetotaler, but he had no problem accepting beer-drenched money from his investors, who altogether put in one million dollars to fund the property speculation project. In return, many got their names or the places in Germany they came from on the newly laid-out streets.
Five of the original Sunnyside streets—Mangels Avenue, Spreckels Avenue, Wieland Avenue, Baden Street, and Hamburg Street—I trace directly to these men.
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.