Growing Up in San Francisco, Part Two

When I start a project, I’m never quite sure where it will go. I started working on a book on the ’60s last year, and found myself laying a lot of groundwork on my earlier years (1935-1960), so that the reader would know my background. I ended up with a sort of autobiography for almost half the book.

So when you click on “The ’60s” button in the blog header, there’ll be a lot of autobiographical stuff until I get to the ’60s.

Hitching Streetcar Rides

The “L,” “M.” and “K” (my initials) streetcars ran through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which went from the West Portal district to the Castro district. The mid-tunnel stop was about a mile walk from our house.

This rare photo shows one of the old-style streetcars from the ’40s. The cowcatcher is being lowered here. When the direction of the car was reversed at the end of the line, the cowcatcher would be tied up on the back end via a cable through that round fitting in the center. Throughout the city, us kids would creep up behind a slowly moving car (crouching so the conductor, who was in the back, wouldn’t see us), then run up and jump on the cowcatcher.

We rode all over the city. The big deal was to ride through the 2-mile long tunnel — sparks flying overhead from the electric trolleys — whoo! Lots of alcoves where someone who somehow ended up on foot in the tunnel could jump when trains came by. The trains probably went 20-30 mph, rocking through the darkness, to emerge into the dazzling daylight at Market and Castro.

San Francisco Was a Port

San Francisco Beltline Railroad. In this photo taken July 6, 1938, the E-Embarcadero streetcar line is running alongside the state-owned freight line. Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Until the ’60s, the city, surrounded on three sides by water, was a shipping center. The waterfront was a deep water port, dating back to the clipper ships, with a series of piers. It was (is) called The Embarcadero, and when we were kids, it was a city within the city, with its own hotels, bars, and restaurants. Loading and unloading of ships was controlled by the Longshoreman’s Union. The streets were filled with cargo and busy with forklifts.

Fisherman’s Wharf, now a tourist mecca, was at one time the fishing center of the west coast, with its 16′ Monterey Clipper fishing boats modeled on the felluca sailing fishing boats of Genoa.

I mention this because this was the city of our childhood and one would never guess this by looking at the tourist-oriented, sanitized, palm-tree-lined waterfront of today.

Fishing in the City

Around the turn of the century, my grandfather had a bait and tackle shop at the foot of Hyde Street (in later years, it became Muni Bait), and that’s how my dad got started fishing; he and his friends went fishing in the ocean and also fished for trout in lakes in the Sierras.

My grandfather used to import hexagonal bamboo rods from China and tie on the casting guides with red and gold silk thread. It’s a craft he taught my dad, and my dad taught me.

My brother and I had our city version of fishing, which didn’t require any parental transportation or guidance. We would walk down to the tunnel, carrying fishing rods and a crab trap, and take a streetcar to Van Ness, where we’d take the H streetcar down to Muni Pier.

We’d catch crabs and use the orange part of the innards as bait to catch perch. We’d go back home on public transit and our mom would cook a fish dinner.

The City Was Our Playground

We’d ride bikes out to one of the two huge abandoned windmills at the beach, sneak in the boarded-up door, and climb the ladder to the top, which was 95 feet above the ground.

We’d also ride bikes out to Golden Gate Park to a large pond that had a concrete bottom, and could ride (about pedal-deep) all around the pond.

Playland-At The-Beach was an amusement park out at Ocean Beach, with The Fun House, which all city kids loved. There was also a roller coaster and other carny type rides and games, plus Laffing Sal, a gap-toothed red haired 7-foot tall animated figure in front of the Fun House that waved her arms and cackled raucously. Every person of my generation remembers all the rides and features at the fun house, and especially Sal. (Sal was rescued and is now on display at the Santa Cruz boardwalk.)

Nearby was the magnificent Sutro Baths, a huge ocean-side glass palace with 6 swimming pools filled with salt water. It seems almost unbelievable now, that such a place ever existed, but we took everything in the city for granted. There were pools of different temperatures, a diving pool, a cold pool, seven slides. People wore old-fashioned wool bathing suits. We went there when we were kids; it closed in the early ’60s, and shortly later was destroyed in a fire. You can see the outlines of its foundation now, just east of the Cliff House.

Van Ness Avenue

Van Ness was, among other things, Auto Row in the ’40s, when Americans had love affairs with cars. The showrooms were like palaces, especially the Cadillac agency (now the AMC 1000 theater complex), with marble columns and floors.

On one corner of Van Ness was The Kar Korral, the used car lot of a flamboyant character called Horsetrader Ed, who dressed in a cowboy suit, and yelled (over the radio, later on TV), “You want ’em, Ah’ve got ’em!” He sponsored a world-record-setting flagpole sitter in the early ’50s.

The Hippo was a colorful hamburger restaurant at Van Ness and Pacific avenues that served some 50 different types of hamburgers. One of its features was a hamburger sundae: a burger smothered with hot fudge, nuts, a cherry and a pickle; “Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it,” the menu said. There were 280 seats, and they would go through several thousand pounds of ground meat each day. Out front was a circus awning and there were 20-foot-high murals inside. It closed in 1987.

The Fox Theater

At the foot of Van Ness and Market was the Fox Theater, one of America’s great movie palaces. It was described by Cinema Treasures as “…one of the grandest theaters ever built for the showing of motion pictures.” It was built in 1929 and had 4600 seats. There was a Wurlitzer organ that rose out of the orchestra pit. The lobby had a gold-leafed ceiling, plush rugs, and antiques. I must have gone there dozens of times with my friends.

Sadly, it was demolished in 1963. I was passing by one afternoon that year, and went in one of the exits mid-demolition. There were cables hanging over the stage swinging back and forth, the seats were gone, and there was an air of desolation. It was eventually replaced by the Fox Plaza, an unimaginative and sterile office building.

The Crystal Palace Market

Crystal palace market, early 1950s. Photo: www.foundsf.org

There was so much about San Francisco that we took for granted. For example, a huge central market, at 8th Street, between Market and Mission that opened in 1923. It had a glass-latticed dome and was modeled after the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. (Sutro Baths at the beach and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park — the latter still standing — are other San Francisco spin-offs of Joseph Paxton’s use of glass and metal roof construction developed in the mid-’80s in London.)

The market covered four acres (including parking); it was a 71,000 square-foot-space that included 65 shops that sold everything from meat, fish, and eggs (reportedly 36,000 eggs sold each day), to sporting goods, housewares, magazines, and appliances. A big box before the Big Boxes.

I loved going there with my parents. We’d go on Saturdays. My brother and I would wander around while our parents shopped, looking at the variety of goods for sale. It closed in 1959 and was replaced by the drab 400-room Del Webb hotel.

Monaco Theater Restaurant

My dad was an insurance broker and his clients included the Gavello family. They owned a lot of property in town, including Monaco’s and Lucca’s restaurants on Pacific Avenue, also called the International Settlement; this was a one-block area that had formerly been known as the Barbary Coast, where in the 1800s, there were saloons and dance halls where sailors were shanghaied for conscripted labor on sailing schooners. Thugs would get the sailors drunk and they’d wake up the next day several miles out to sea.
Monaco was a 2-story Italian restaurant with a floorshow. We were treated as VIPs by the Gavellos and we would be seated on the top level and watch the vaudeville-type stage acts. We’d finish each multi-course Italian dinner with seemingly endless trays of delicate Italian pastries.

4 Responses to Growing Up in San Francisco, Part Two

  1. MJ says:

    Fascinating, wistful, informative from a first person front row seat. Thanks, Lloyd, and awaiting more.

  2. Selwyn Gossett says:

    This the type of detail that delights. Great stuff! Keep going.

  3. Phil Miano says:

    The Monaco, not in the right location (560 Pacific), but the facade in the postcard sure looks like the front of the “Hotel Monaco” across the street from the Clift. Same family perhaps Lloyd? The Monaco was always my favorite place to stay in town when traveling for business.

  4. Lloyd Kahn says:

    Nope, not the hotel, but The Monaco Theater Restaurant on Pacific Avenue. This picture is accurate, as far as I recall, with the arches.

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