Some San Franciscans remember a time when the corner of 16th and Valencia streets was a graveyard. Memorials filled the empty pit and the walls to commemorate the estimated 14 people (the final number is still unknown) who perished in a fire at the Gartland Hotel on the night/morning of December 12, 1975.
Archival photos of the scene look eerily similar to the fire-ravaged excavated spaces at 22nd and Mission and 29th and Mission streets.
That similarity is not lost on the makers of a new documentary about the Gartland, which was made by firefighters Michael Rustia, Ron Lewin, David Jebe and Adam Wood.
In “The Gartland Fire,” shown at a private screening last week, they reconstruct the historical context of the fire and use the stories of the firefighters who responded to the fire to create a riveting and haunting narrative of the fire and its aftermath. They juxtapose that story with commentary from neighborhood luminaries, poet Alejandro Murguia and activist Roberto Hernandez, who draw parallels between fires and gentrification.
This is a firefighter film, made by firefighters for the 150th anniversary of the San Francisco Fire Department. To outsiders, parts of it can feel a bit like exclusive insider banter. (Firefighters I spoke to praised the film, by the way.)
But having to guess what “hose lead” or a “box” or “going to a third alarm” mean doesn’t stop a layperson from being drawn into the sometimes horrifying, sometimes lighthearted retelling of what happened when the Gartland was set on fire.
“The Gartland Fire” is compelling despite being very procedural. The latter is helped by the inclusion of vast amounts of archival footage and photographs that illustrate the firemen’s stories.
The events unfold strictly chronologically, and the film explains thoroughly the location, layout, and history of the Gartland fire, as well as the technical difficulties that kept firefighters from reaching victims.
“It was pretty tough to put down,” said Gary Leal, a firefighter who fought the Gartland blaze, because the arsonist who started the fire had spread gasoline all over the stairways.
There are horrific details of the victims firefighters weren’t able to reach including the woman who came to the window and then simply melted away. And then there is the task of excavating and transporting the bodies, a macabre but necessary reminder of the loss caused by the fire.
But perhaps even more important to viewers who live in a modern San Francisco, where fires still plague low-income neighborhoods and buildings, is the context. Through the notes of neighborhood news reporters working at the time at legacy newspapers like El Tecolote and the New Mission News, Rustia pieced together a map of the blocks surrounding the Gartland and illustrated the frequency of fires.
In just two years after the Gartland fire, the nearby blocks were hit by dozens of fires. In the nine-block area around the Gartland, there were 146 fires, 14 proven to be arson, in the three year period from 1974 to 1976. At least 56 of those occurred in the peak year, 1975.
Firefighters in the film remember being called to a near-unimaginable number of blazes. In some cases they are in the process of putting out one fire and already seeing the smoke or glow of another one a few blocks away. One firefighter recalls working on a fire only to see two more ignite at the same time in different buildings.
“The thing we recall is the amount of fires. Every watch, it was guaranteed to be a fire…you had arson like crazy,” said Dennis Pardini, a firefighter who was at the Gartland, after watching the film. Indeed, Pardini said he’d been there responding to another fire two weeks earlier, finding heaps of mattresses stacked in the basement.
For context, Mission Local has covered around 25 fires in the entire neighborhood in the last two years, at least three of them occurring in tents on the street and some of them at commercial buildings. While the Gartland and other fires of its time were ruled arson, evidence of foul play has not been found in any of the recent residential fires in the Mission.
But, as the documentarians make clear, a fire doesn’t have to be caused by arson to be devastating. In the film, Hernandez and Murguia point out that fire-damaged buildings are often converted, in effect, from housing for low-income tenants who have been able to stay there because of rent control to much higher priced rentals, or even newly constructed condominiums.
In the case of the two most devastating fires in the neighborhood in recent years, the owners have marketed the property after the fires, but neither property has been redeveloped. Tenants displaced by both continue to wait, in the case of 22nd Street for more than two years, for someone to rebuild the sites. In the meantime, they struggle to hold on in the city.
“If it’s neglect or arson, the effect is the same. People still can’t come back,” the filmmakers told me.
The producers of “The Gartland Fire” are still circulating the film to film festivals and therefore unable to publicly screen it, but hope to release it after it makes its festival debut.