San Francisco Street Homes, 2016

San Francisco Homeless 2016

My colleague and friend Pat Yollin had me look at some pictures an artist named Judith Cohn has taken of impromptu shelters devised by San Francisco street residents — here and here.

The pictures are mostly from a part of the city I’m familiar with — the area just to the north and west of Potrero Hill. In fact, I recognized several of the shelters and beaten-down RVs and trailers she’s taken pictures of because I’ve photographed them myself.

Above, without any further comment, pictures of San Francisco street homes I’ve taken in the last 12 months.

San Francisco Real Estate Angst, 1855 Style

I’ve been doing some reading on Gold Rush history for a work project — looking specifically at some of the Bay Area’s economic ups and downs. I came across this piece in the June 20, 1855, edition of the Daily Alta California, one of the state’s oldest papers (and one that continued to publish into the 1890s, I think). I picked up the text from a machine transcription of a digital image from the California Digital Newspaper Collection. Apparently, the CDNC is having a hardware issue and the digital image itself is not displayed at that link. So I’ve cleaned up the machine text as best I could, though there are a couple places I couldn’t divine what the original said.

I found this essay, which is a critique of ongoing property speculation in San Francisco, to be interesting in its condemnation of out-of-control speculation as ruinous to the public good. “In a word, it has vitiated the morals of the whole community,” it says. Even if the moral focus of that statement is coming from a Victorian concern about the deleterious effects of speculation — gambling, in effect — it resonates in a present where social justice activists are fighting gentrification taking place amid crazy-seeming spikes in property prices.

Here’s the Alta California piece in full:

One of the greatest evils which has ever overtaken the city of San Francisco — the greatest because the parent of many other evils — has been the overvaluation of property. It has not been properly confined to the city, but has manifested itself ail over the State, and its results are to be noted throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Now that Real Estate is “down,” it may not be improper to say a few words concerning a subject which is of unusual interest to every permanent resident of California. The available area of the pueblo of Yerba Buena for business purposes was very small. It extended only from about Pacific to California and from Montgomery to Dupont streets. We indicate the boundaries by streets which were laid out after the pueblo became the city of San Francisco. This space, although ample to accommodate the limited trade of 1846-7, proved wholly insufficient to meet the requirements of the wholesale immigration incited by the gold discovery.

By a natural law, the working of which never deviates, the price of lots within the available area of the town, after those discoveries, rose enormously. Thousands of people were rushing into the State, the most of whom landed in this city. Thousands of tons of merchandise were poured in upon us, which had to find storage in town, and had to be disposed of here. Rents naturally rose to the most extravagant rate, and the price of land advanced with equal rapidity, although not in a proportionate degree. There was no telling where the thing would stop, particularly as money was most abundant, and there appeared to be no end to the immigration. So far the speculation was a legitimate one. Afterwards it assumed another character.

It was evident from the first that this state of things could not last forever. The capital which had been introduced into the country in the shape of merchandise was quickly turned to enlarging the limits of the city proper. Wharves were extended, and the water invaded on the one side, while hills were cut down and streets graded on the other. All this time rents still kept up, if not to their original point, at least to one which proved highly remunerative, and the immigration still continued larger. It still appeared that there was more room wanted, until at last San Francisco attained her present size. But the tide had turned, and rates at last, after a long period — unexampled, indeed, for duration in California — began to decline. They have been declining ever since.

The city of San Francisco is to-day out of all proportion to the State. Where we originally did not have enough room, we have now a superabundance, not merely for today or this year, but for years to come. The Real Estate speculation, which was originally a [legitimate?] one, has for the last two or three years [become?] merely a bubble, liable to burst at any time, and kept [abreast?] of inflation merely by the activity of those interested in it.

There is no reason why, with the present population and prospective increase of our State, fifty-vara* lots two miles from the Plaza should command thousands of dollars, particularly when they are so situated as not to be available for purposes of agriculture. They should have a value, of course, and a vary considerable one. They may and do furnish legitimate objects of permanent investment for those who look forward to a return for their capital years hence; but their intrinsic value is not to be rated by thousands. We have been going too fast. We have followed out the speculative [?] to its full extent, and now we must stop.

It is an indisputable fact that nearly all the prominent operators of 1852-3 are now bankrupt, and the mass of smaller men are utterly ruined. A year or two ago they thought themselves rich — they lived extravagantly, kept their horses and carriages, furnished their houses magnificently, and now — they have nothing. Some few still hold out, and, with retrenched expenses, are waiting impatiently for a “rise.” They will probably be sick at heart before it is realized.

But this system of overvaluation has not merely ruined those engaged in Real Estate operations: It has to a certain degree debauched the whole community. Parties who saw futures in land have neglected their legitimate callings to squat on fifty-vara lots, and drag out unprofitable years waiting for a settlement of titles. A recklessness of human life has been engendered, which has told very badly on the interests of the State at large, preventing many who would have made excellent citizens from coming to these shores. It has kept rates of interest extravagantly high, thereby eating out the vitality of the republic. A disposition to speculate desperately — in other words, to gamble — not merely in land, but in everything else, has been fostered by it, and manifests itself in the frantic effort to “get whole” which have led men of high social standing to the commission of the most debasing Crimes. In a word, it has vitiated the morals of the whole community.

The Real Estate market is at present in a curious position. The asking and offering prices for land show no approximation whatever to each other. Outside lots are unsaleable except at a ruinous discount from cost prices, while in some parts of the original plat of the city rates still keep up. The lot at the corner of Washington and Montgomery streets on which Burgoyne’s building stands sold, a few days since, at auction, for $39,000, or about $1,000 a front foot. At the same time, fifty-vara lots on the hill, which were valued eighteen months ago at $15,000 to $16,000, to-day only command about $2500. It is a singular fact, that a person owning a lot in the business part of the city, on which a brick building has been erected, can to-day borrow more money on it than it would sell for!

It is time that we began to awaken to the real value of property here. San Francisco is not New York, a city of half a million of inhabitants, with an immense population behind it; it is a small place — an important one, it is true, and destined one day to be the central point of the Pacific, but nevertheless a small one — the entrepot for a population of less than four hundred thousand people. There is no reason why property in it should rule at New York rates, and any attempt to force them up to such prices can only be a purely speculative movement which must, like all gambling — be it with dice, or cards, or Peter Smith titles — redound to the injury of the community at large.

*A vara was a Spanish unit of measure widely employed in parts of the Southwest that had been part of Mexico. According to sources I find, the vara in San Francisco was equivalent to 2.75 feet, or 33 inches. Fifty varas would have measured to 137.5 feet, and a 50-vara lot would have been 50 varas square, or 137.5 feet by 137.5 feet. That’s 18,906,25 square feet, just a bit over four-tenths of an acre. What would that land go for today? Well, here’s a listing in the city’s rough Tenderloin neighborhood, about one-third the size of a 50-vara lot, going for about $3.2 million.

Rain, 2014 Style


There it is: what you might refer to idiomatically as the sum total of Berkeley rainfall — or at least the rainfall we have seen here in the North Berkeley flatlands — for the entire month of January so far. When the drizzle started coming down last Saturday, I grabbed the camera and ran out to take a picture. It was just enough to moisten the pavement or the bottom of a rain gauge or, as above, to bead up on windshields.

And from what the weather forecasters, the paragons of prognosticatory pessimism, are saying, this is the only rain we can expect to see through the end of the month. Which means we’re starting 2014 with the driest January on record. Here’s a brief synopsis of where the rain season stands from the National Weather Service’s Bay Area forecast discussion:


And that, friends, kinds of puts things in perspective. What we’re seeing now hasn’t been seen since 1849, the beginning of San Francisco’s rain record.

A Long Walk

Last Saturday, the 1st of June, I skipped my usual weekend sleep-in and got up at dawn to go on a walk. OK, nothing terribly unusual there. But this wasn’t just going to be a stroll out for morning coffee, or even a hike in the hills. I needed to be over at Candlestick Point in San Francisco–yes, where the stadium is–to start an all-day hike around the San Francisco shoreline. The entire San Francisco shoreline, all the way up the eastern bayside, past landmarks like the old Hunters Point naval base, Phone Company Park, the Bay Bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf, then across the northern shore past Fort Mason and the Marina and the Golden Gate Bridge, then south past Land’s End and Cliff House and along the beaches all the way to Fort Funston.

That’s 23 or 24 miles, depending on detours along the way. Molly Samuel, a colleague and friend at the Public Radio Station where I work, dreamed up the project and scouted out the route and then walked it last June with about 15 people. (Another Public Ratio Station in town actually did a cool little feature on the event afterward.)

I think the best reason to take a hike like this is no reason at all–because it’s there, because you can. But for me, there was something else: There are big slices of the city I’ve never really seen, especially its southeast corner, where we started–Bayview and Hunters Point–and this was a way of starting to stitch together pieces I know with new pieces I don’t really have a sense of. I’m pretty confident we may have walked adjacent to one of the poorest census tracts in the city–the Double Rock housing project, out by Candlestick Park–and through the wealthiest–the Seacliff neighborhood between Baker Beach and Land’s End. And walking along Ocean Beach is always a little bit of a surprise: a magnificent strand that seems to stretch forever into the mist fronted by a diverse collection of neighborhoods, some blocks looking pretty affluent, some looking pretty hard-scrabble. It was a trip I wanted to record; the result: lots of pictures.

The biggest surprise of the walk for me: Although it took eleven and a half hours to complete, including stops for lunch and snacks and regrouping along the way, I never felt fatigued and the day never dragged. I don’t really think I looked at the clock once except out of curiosity. I think one reason, maybe the main one, was that the group was so sociable and comfortable and there was interesting conversation every step of the way, or engaged silence if that was what you wanted.

Molly said she noticed last year that you see certain landmarks ahead of you for a long time and they sort of work their way into your consciousness as a way to mark your progress. And that was true: the Bay Bridge was out there in front of us for a long time. Then the Ferry Building. Then the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge, until you arrive at the top of the bluff at the northern end of Ocean Beach with those miles of sand spread out forever. You’d see those sights, gain slowly on them, then be slightly amazed that you’d already arrived at them and then surprised again to take a glance back to see them disappear.

That’s it, except to say thanks to Molly and everyone else for a fun day out of doors.

Here’s the slideshow.

Embarcadero Pedicab


Short version of this post: A very cool pedicab driver gave me a free ride a couple weeks ago, and I want to say “thanks again.” I’m also including a pretty picture of the Ferry Building taken on another night altogether, because I like it.

Longer version: Most Fridays, I try to end the work week by walking from my office in Public Radio World, located on the west side of Potrero Hill in San Francisco, over to the Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street on the Embarcadero, to catch the last boat of the night to Oakland. The favored route is across the summit or upper northern slope of the hill and over to Third Street, then north past AT&T Park and up the waterfront to the ferry. But since it’s a walk with a deadline–the boat has a schedule, and it leaves on time–the route can be adjusted if I’m getting out of the office a little late. I’ve developed a nice zig-zag route across South of Market with what I fancy to be shortcuts through alleys and parking lots. The longest version of the route might be four and a half miles, the shortest is just 100 yards or so under three miles, and the version I usually take is four miles, a distance I can reliably cover in about 55 minutes.

Of course, another variable I can change is speed. I like to stop and take pictures along the way, but I’ll keep that to a minimum if I haven’t left myself a lot of time. Or I can run part of the way. As fun as that sounds, I’m not fond of it because I’ve turned what started out as a relaxing stroll and turns it into a race and I have occasionally wound up at the boat with zero seconds to spare (the captain saw me running up to the dock once and waited for me) and soaked with sweat.

A couple of weeks ago, I had left the office a little late and knew I would be cutting it close. Still, it was a gorgeous evening and I really wanted to go over the hill, longer than the shortest route across town. I can sort of gauge my time and how much I have to hurry by my arrival at the ballpark. When I got there on this evening, I knew I’d have to hustle. So I alternated jogging and walking with backpack and camera up the Embarcadero. About half a mile or so from the ferry, heading to a sweaty finish, I saw three guys who’d just come out of a bar talking to one of the pedicab drivers who work the waterfront. I jogged past. A minute later, the pedicab guy was pulling up alongside me.

“Sir, you look like in kind of a hurry,” he said. “Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Where are you going?” “Just up to the Ferry Building.” I would have liked to have jumped aboard. “You know, I don’t have a dime on me,” I said. “Well, just let me give you a ride,” the driver said. “I’d like to do something nice for you.” So I got in.

The driver’s name was Bill Cummings, and he rides and manages the shop for Cabrio Taxi. He told me he’s had the pedicab gig for two and a half years, and the business has been good enough to him that it’s his only job. Tourists going up to Pier 39, the Alcatraz Ferry, and Fisherman’s Wharf make up a lot of his business, as do people going to and from the ballpark. The Embarcadero bike lanes and weekend traffic congestion around the tourist spots means he can get back and forth faster than people in cars or on public transit. On the other hand, the three guys I saw him talking to before he picked me up were going out to 19th and Mission, several miles into the a heavily driven part of the city–not a terribly safe or attractive trip just as it was getting dark. I had noticed he had the look of a competitive cyclist, and I asked him whether he raced. He said he does Ironman-length triathlons (140.6 events, to the cognoscenti) and that he was in training for one–in New York state, I think.

When we got to the Ferry Building, I offered to go inside to an ATM and pay him. He said no, he really just wanted to do something nice, and it was something he tried to do every day. OK, then. Something nice done, and noted. And below is Bill’s card.


Dry December Update

“Rain, rain, rain, rain,
Why’d you cause me so much pain?”
—”The Rains Came,” Sir Douglas Quintet

Southern California got a little spritz of rain over the weekend—nearly a fifth of an inch yesterday in the desert town of Blythe. Here, it’s dry, and the California-Nevada River Forecast Center sees only a small chance that rain will fall over the northern part of the state in the next week (and that will be far north of the Bay Area). Our local National Weather Service forecast office, in Monterey, reads the models the same way: “Dry and mild weather will continue through at least the next 7 days … with little variation in the upper level weather pattern. A series of storm systems will move towards the region over the next week … but pass to the north and east of the area. ” The longer-range outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is for drier and warmer than median weather.

Here’s the local NWS table on precipitation so far this year. And below that, today’s theme song

Station July 1-Dec. 18, 2011 % of Normal July 1-Dec. 18, 2010 % of Normal July 1-Dec. 18 Normal July 1-June 30 Normal
SFO Int’l Airport 2.87 50 5.76 101 5.69 20.11
Oakland Airport 3.06 52 6.66 113 5.91 17.42
Mountain View Airport 1.73 45 3.24 85 3.83 13.35
San Jose Airport 1.53 39 3.05 77 3.95 15.08
Santa Rosa Airport 4.45 42 13.19 123 10.70 31.91
Salinas Airport 3.31 103 3.45 107 3.21 12.91
San Francisco Downtown 3.35 47 7.88 111 7.08 22.28

Hey, Rainmaker

A dry summer, and then comes the fall
Which I depend on most of all.
Hey rainmaker can you hear the call?
Please let these crops grow tall.

—The Band, “King Harvest”

We had some rain overnight–just enough to keep the dust down, if there had been any dust (we did have plenty of crap in the air, though: a miasma of car exhaust, smoke, and other metropolitan exhalations that led the regional air district to ban wood fires for four days in a row). The “storm” total in San Francisco for the rain that started falling last night is .04 of an inch–four-hundredths–and according to the National Weather Service is the first rain since we got .21 of an inch on Thanksgiving.

Meantime, continuing my claim to be the first in my neighborhood to express precipitation anxiety this year, the state Department of Water Resources and its California Data Exchange Center are out with their latest summary of hydrologic conditions for the state. Here’s my summary of their summary: November 2010 was wet, November 2011 was dry. Or in the summary’s own machete-proof prose:

On November 30, the Northern Sierra 8-Station Precipitation Index Water Year total was 6.5 inches, which is about 70 percent of the seasonal average to date and 13 percent of an average water year (50.0 inches). During November, the total precipitation for the 8-Stations was 2.6 inches, which is about 41 percent of the monthly average. Last year on November 30, the seasonal total for the 8-Stations was 15.5 inches, or about 167 percent of average for the date. On November 30, the San Joaquin 5-Station Precipitation Index Water Year total was 4.0 inches, which is about 59 percent of the seasonal average to date and 10 percent of an average water year (40.8 inches). During November, the total precipitation for the 5-Stations was 1.5 inches, or about 32 percent of the monthly average. Last year on November 30, the seasonal total for the 5-Stations to date was 14.4 inches, or about 212 percent of average for the date.

Of course, one or two good drenchings will make all this early-season anxiousness go away.

It’s December. Do You Know Where Your Rain Is?
KQED: California Reservoir Watch

The King’s Daughters Home for Incurables


Broadway in Oakland, between 40th Street and MacArthur Boulevard.

I have been up and down this block hundreds of times driving, on the bus, on a bike, and on foot. Late this afternoon, while waiting for a prescription to be filled at one of the Kaiser pharmacies nearby, I took The Dog for a walk. On our way back, just below 40th Street and on what you’d call more or less accurately the east side of Broadway, we crossed a driveway and I looked up. A spare and striking archway said “The King’s Daughters Home.” I went back to the car, grabbed my camera, left the dog, then walked back to the gate. The name alone suggests there’s a story there.


The building, not pictured, is now owned by Kaiser and houses at least part of the organization’s psychiatric and counseling practice. What was it before? To me, “King’s Daughters” suggests what used to be called a lying-in (or maternity) hospital; maybe one for what used to be called young women in trouble.

The actual history: The Broadway facility was indeed a hospital, designed by architect Julia Morgan (perhaps best known as the architect of William Randolph Hearst’s castle on the Central California coast). A gallery of the King’s Daughters Home pictures gives its completion date as 1912, so we’re on the eve of the centennial. What kind of hospital was it?

First, the home took its name from the International Order of King’s Daughters (later “Daughters and Sons”), an interdenominational Christian organization that started in New York in 1886. According to the order’s history, the movement spread rapidly and had 50,000 members across the United States, Canada, and overseas within the first year. The group’s mission was to undertake good works in the name of Christ. If you look for the phrase “King’s Daughters” now, you come across many hospitals across the country that apparently began as projects by local King’s Daughters circles.

In 1890, a San Francisco circle organized The King’s Daughters Home for Incurables. In July 1895, the San Francisco Call detailed the home’s workings, including the high demand for services, the difficulty finding money to provide it, and rates for long-term patients (“life memberships can be secured for those above 60 years of age for $500…”). I’m not sure how long the San Francisco home lasted; I find references to it, first on Francisco Street in North Beach, then on Golden Gate Avenue in the Western Addition, through 1917.

A second home, sometimes called the Alameda County King’s Daughters Home for Incurables, opened in Oakland sometime in the late 1890s (were the two operations connected? I don’t know). A story in the September 3, 1902, edition of the Call suggests the home’s first East Bay location may have been at 11th and Oak streets, near the current site of the Oakland Museum of California). The story mentions a deadly fire there, and the May 10, 1902, Journal of the American Medical Association reported: “The north wing of the King’s Daughters’ Home for Incurables, Oakland, was destroyed by fire, April 28. Despite the heroic efforts of the matron, nurses’ and attendants, one inmate was fatally burned and another will probably die from injuries received.” (The San Jose Evening News published a more complete account under the headline “Awful Fire in Oakland Hospital.” The story reports: “That so many inmates were rescued is due to the prompt and heroic action of some of Oakland’s most prominent society ladies who resided in the vicinity of the Home.”)

The fire prompted the home to move to the property at 3900 Broadway, which contained both a building that could be used for temporary quarters and room for a new, permanent hospital. In subsequent years, the Call reported on plans for the new facility (“King’s Daughter Will Erect New Home for Incurables,” March 31, 1906) and a redoubled fund-raising effort to obtain the $100,000 needed to finish the project (August 23, 1910. The story says “Every home in Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda is asked to contribute at least one dollar. Coin envelopes are being distributed from house to house by specially appointed workers, who may be identified by a badge they wear, with ‘King’s Daughters’ printed upon it. Every family is asked to donate what it can, inclosing the amount of the gift in the envelope, which will be called for Thursday, August 25, between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m.” )

Who were the incurables? Those who medical science of the day could not treat: stroke victims, the disabled, patients diagnosed with tuberculosis. One patient in the 1930s and ’40s is said to have been Bess Maddern London — Jack London’s first wife — who had suffered a crippling stroke.

Where did the patients and residents end up? Mountain View Cemetery, less than a mile away (and designed by another notable architect, Frederick Law Olmstead), reportedly has a section devoted to Kings Daughters patients.

Among the many things I don’t know: When the facility ceased being the King’s Daughters Home for Incurables. Still on the hunt for that, but I’ve got to get to bed.

[Update: One interlocutor asks: Where did the name “King’s Daughters” come from? The order’s history says a Mrs. Irving, one of the founders, suggested that title. “The King” was to be understood to be God. An 1888 poem by an early member spells it out:

“…Her Father sent her in his land to dwell,
Giving to her a work that must be done.
And since the King loves all his people well,
Therefore, she, too, cares for them every one.
Thus when she stoops to lift from want or sin,
The brighter shines her royalty therein. …”]


PM Getaway, Holiday Eve


I almost never drive to work in the city (San Francisco) at regular commute hours. I go in at midday, usually, and return home well after the last of the evening commute. But today I drove because it was the day before the holiday and the morning rush hour was light. I waited a little too long to start home, till almost 3:30, and this is what happened: a long (but standard) jam on the western approach to the Bay Bridge. The stop-and-go and merge after merge after merge slows you down so you can reflect on why you love living here.

Coming Attractions: Autumn Rain


There it is: our first storm of what we’d like to call our rainy season (the live version of the image is here). The National Weather Service has been advertising this as a “rather weak” system that won’t drop much rain here. Maybe so, but the radar image–which doesn’t always depict what’s out there in the atmosphere–seems to indicate some moderate to heavy precipitation off the coast. We’ll see in the next few hours.