Who pees on books? You don’t. I don’t. But somebody must. Because — let me tell you — when scavenging books from streetside cardboard boxes, the smell test is a prudent idea.
Since so many folks are decamping from San Francisco these days, and since relatively few of them micturate on their former possessions, you can amass quite a library in this manner. It was likely in this manner that I obtained San Francisco: Walks and Tours in the Golden Gate City by Randolph Delehanty.
And this was quite a find. Delehanty is a fun tour guide; he writes with the world weariness and acid wit of an older man but, at the time he penned this book, he was barely 35; he jauntily wrote his dedication to this volume on the feast day of St. Francis, our city’s namesake, in the year of 1979.
In the ensuing 40 years, our city, a serial boomtown, has been remade. But there are vast swaths of San Francisco that have simply been repurposed. The Mission falls into both of these categories. There are stretches that have been physically transformed and stretches that remain virtually untouched — yet still feel transformed.
Delehanty wished me luck in retracing his steps of 40 years ago. “I have always seen the Mission,” he e-mailed, “as ‘the revolving door into American society.’”
Mission Dolores is made out of mud, yet is as close as this city comes to eternal. And, outside, is a timeless scene. A quartet of paint-splattered workmen rest in its noontime shade and eat oversize hamburgers out of grease-spotted paper bags. These four men are speaking in Spanish, but, roll back the clock half a century or more, give them Irish or Italian lilts instead, snip the seat belts out of their pickup truck and give it a driveshaft you could impale yourself on, and it’s a scene out of an earlier Mission era.
There is, as you’d expect, a sense of timelessness within Mission Dolores as well. The ceiling, Delehanty wrote, is one of the most beautiful in all San Francisco. “It looks different when seen straight up than at an angle; then the chevron patterns turn into another design.” That’s still so. And you can still let yourself out the side door, through the tasteful 1978-vintage courtyard, and into the postage stamp of a graveyard.
Then as now, the gaudiest memorials have been erected to the thugs and murderers and corrupt politicians and brothel-keepers who gave this city its its rough-hewn reputation. There are, perhaps, 5,000 Native Americans resting below, too. In the present day, at least, they are memorialized via a simple tule hut.
Once we leave the dead and rejoin the living, present-day San Francisco veers a bit off Delehanty’s 40-year-old script. Notre Dame School at 347 Dolores St. is still a charming, New Orleans-like structure with ironwork that survived the blaze of ’06, but it’s no longer a school. It’s now a residential facility for the elderly; old people wearing multiple cardigans recline in a scenic garden out back. They smile at the sounds emanating from the playground at the private school next door (tuition: up to $35,360). In the building’s central, three-story atrium, dozens of songbirds flutter about in a 30-foot-high aviary.
Continuing along Dolores, the 1920s-era bell on a shepherd’s crook once indicating the old El Camino Real is long gone. You will find, however, a bearded man in a blue tank top and gym shorts veering his electric scooter onto the sidewalk. Be sure to sidestep him. And take care not to be snagged by the selfie stick protruding from his backpack.
Wandering into Dolores Park at Church Street, one is greeted by an advertisement for canned wine. That wasn’t there 40 years ago. Nor was the lanky man in workout clothes smoking cigarettes and wearing a flowing Daenerys Targaryen blonde wig.
Dolores Park is the epicenter of San Francisco’s demographic quake. It is, every sunny weekend, an open-air bacchanal of largely tolerated drinking and smoking under the eye of 12-megapixel crime cameras; for many of today’s San Franciscans, it’s a place to avoid via the Yogi Berra logic: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Nostalgia for 40 years ago, however, is to pine for a rougher, grittier and dingier era. Delahanty laments the “ugly little park building” marring the center of this green expanse. And, lo, that’s gone; the bathrooms here are brand new, as is the $3.5 million playground. In ’79, Delahanty summed up the concrete plaza separating the hemispheres of Dolores Park as nothing more than “a target against which to throw beer bottles.” But, on a recent Thursday, nary a shattered bottle was to be found. Perhaps San Franciscans’ aim is getting worse. Perhaps those ads for canned wine are working.
Or perhaps this is the inevitable upside of reducing gentrification into a binary.
Just across Dolores Street, Delehanty directs our attention to the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, which he describes as “competent.” In perhaps the most on-the-nose 2019 element of this tour, this church has been repurposed into a quintet of townhomes, aimed at “the discerning, cosmopolitan buyer who seeks to have privacy, a magnificent luxury home and immediate access to the best of world-class San Francisco.”
There’s one left, and it can be yours for $6.2 million. Competent indeed.
Wandering down Liberty Street, one sees what might have been. This might have developed into the repository of San Francisco’s most luxurious homes, situated in San Francisco’s most luxurious neighborhood. But, then, Andrew Hallidie went and perfected the cable car, and there went that; instead of this becoming Pacific Heights, Pacific Heights became Pacific Heights.
These remain, however, some of the most splendid and grandiose houses in the city. They grow a bit less grandiose, however, as we cede the high ground and approach Valencia.
Valencia is, now, a realm of artisanal everything and knit bike-rack cozies. But it was a bleaker place in Delehanty’s day. And before. He notes that it served as the delineation between professional/middle-class homes and flats for the working-class. The two-family houses on stretches like Lexington Street hail from the Reconstruction Era and could, back in the day, be bought by the city’s “mechanic class.”
Today these homes are done up in chipper, salt-water-taffy colors. One has a magenta door with a pineapple knocker.
Around the corner, the Mission Street of 1979 was a far cry from its 1930s movie palace and department store heyday. But it was “lively if not immaculate. There are almost no empty shops.”
Alas. In 2019, on the stretch of Mission between 21st and 22nd alone, there are half a dozen shuttered stores, stalled construction projects, or vacant lots. At the corner of 22nd is the large scrap of fenced-off dirt and wild fennel left after the 2015 blaze that displaced 60 tenants, killed one, and burned out scads of area businesses (including Mission Local).
During the rainy months, a lagoon forms here. You can hear frogs from time to time.
Continuing along Mission, we pass the nine-story Bay View Savings Building, a Brasilia-like structure that is one of the city’s ugliest. It combines much of what Delehanty hates most into one entity: block-like concrete, a lack of synchrony, the “fear and arrogance” of a “riot-proof” ground floor, and a sprawling parking lot. (“The Mission was built with the streetcar system, not the automobile, in mind. The present-day need to accommodate the car has destroyed housing and the area’s visual coherence as well.”)
All of that sounds about right today. As does the praise he heaped on the breathtaking Chuy Campesano, Luis Cortazar, and Michael Rios mural at the 23rd and Mission Bank of America building. This structure underwent a heavy renovation that spanned much of 2018, so the mural was covered. But the construction work is complete and the masterpiece is visible once more.
“We renovated everything that was replaceable,” says Aldo Paniagua, the bank’s relationship manager, with a nod at the mural overhead. “But this is irreplaceable.”
Paniagua grew up in the Mission. Before he worked here, he visited this bank as a kid, and ogled this mural. “Every day,” he assures me, “there’s a new detail to see.”
Delehanty concludes his walking tour at 24th Street BART plaza, in large part, it seems, so you can take transit back to wherever you came from. But leaving the Mission isn’t on my agenda today. Instead, I walk back to Delehanty’s nemesis, the Bay View Savings Building. And, while its first floor may be “riot proof,” there’s nobody keeping you from taking an elevator to the top floor.
The view is dazzling. The city’s gentle hills descend into the Mission, which stretches, far as the eye can see, toward the distant, mushrooming downtown and the bridge and East Bay beyond. Additionally, standing atop this hideous tower, you don’t have to see this hideous tower. It’s a glorious day, you’re in the center of the Mission, and it feels like you’re in the center of the world.
The complete and the incomplete; the large and the small; the major streets and the side streets; the past and the present — everything spreads out in all directions. There’s a lounge chair on a roof. There’s a group of kids playing soccer. There’s a guy fixing his car in an alley. There’s an earthquake shack-sized cottage, invisible from the street; an outdoor bathtub sits by the front door, and it’s filled with lush and flowering plants.
Every day, there’s a new detail to see.