Patent Stamps: History Beneath Your Feet

Sewer Drain at 20th and Valencia. 2011 photo by Christopher Radcool Reynolds

Chrisopher Radcool Reynolds is co-founder of Reynolds-Sebastiani Design Services – a San Francisco-based landscape and construction company. He also has an interest in the history of San Francisco as a built environment.

In early 2010, Reynolds began to digitally photograph patent stamps on pavement, sewer drains, and manhole covers that he found on the city’s streets. It wasn’t long before he began uploading those images into a dedicated folder on his Facebook page – a curated collection of images he entitled “On the Walk.” He describes his online exhibit as a collection of “cool contractor patents stamps, interesting foundry marks, obsolete utilities, and other random finds.”

The project affords Reynolds the opportunity to engage in two of his favorite pursuits – collecting and research. In addition to capturing images of patent stamps and posting them online, he also investigates the companies or contractors whose stamps he finds. For his research, he reviews public utility commission reports, directory listings, and trade journals. The hard copy originals of these documents can be found in many archival repositories (such as the San Francisco History Center). Because Reynolds prefers doing his research online, he uses the digitized versions of these documents that can be found on Google Books.

One of the discoveries that Reynolds has made is the distinction between the marks he finds on manhole covers, which relate to the history of large utility companies in San Francisco, and the marks he finds on the small sewer vents. The latter can bear the stamps of independent plumbing or concrete contractors. As a craftsperson himself, Reynolds has been thrilled to find information about specific individuals and small business owners who have also left their mark on San Francisco’s streets. Whether his research has been about big business or identifiable individuals, he has included the results of his investigations as captions to his online collection of images.

Reynold’s has described his work to me as “a whimsical project.” When I asked him what his feelings were about historic preservation in San Francisco, though, his comments became more serious. As he put it,

“I believe firmly that cities need to reflect the needs and aesthetics of the people who live in them now, not 100 years ago. Part of the beauty and intrigue of history is its transitive quality. It is fleeting. I marvel at what has fallen away and what has risen in its place.”

To see Reynolds’ images and commentary, or to leave your own comments and reflections on his work, please visit “On the Walk.”

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Recreating the Mission Dolores Mural in a New Setting

Mission Dolores mural detail, courtesy of Ben Wood

In 1791, local Ohlone artists painted a 20′ x 22′ mural on a wall of the sanctuary at Mission Dolores. Currently, however, that mural is hidden behind a massive 1796 reredos, or wooden altar. In 2004, artist Ben Wood and archeologist Eric Blind devised a means to digitally photograph a 5′ x 22′ portion of the mural without moving the altar – a project that earned them the 2004 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. Now, Wood is overseeing a project to recreate that portion of the mural in a public setting a few blocks away.

Wood consulted Annice Jacoby’s 2009 publication, Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, and found the names of artists Megan Wilson and  Jet Martinez – both of whom have been active in the Clarion Alley Mural Project. Martinez was interested Wood’s proposal to recreate the Mission Dolores mural, and had already been in communication with Jeremy Shaw, Executive Director of the Mission Community Market, about the possibility of creating a mural on the wall of Mission Market at 85 Bartlett Street (between 21st and 22nd Streets). The Mission Community Market (MCM) is a nonprofit that began in 2010 as part of the San Francisco Planning Department’s Mission District Streetscape Plan. It organizes a weekly open-air farmer’s market at Bartlett and 22nd Streets that also provides a venue for local Mission businesses and arts and youth organizations. Shaw had been meeting with neighborhood business owners about the possibility of putting murals on the walls around the MCM. Martinez, Wood and Shaw felt that a recreation of the Mission Dolores mural would be an appropriate beginning for a larger mural project in the area. The owner of Mission Market was amenable to having the mural painted on the outside of his store; and through Megan Wilson, Ben Wood met two other local artists – Bunnie Reiss and Ezra Eismont – who, along with Martinez, signed on to paint the mural.

Wood has invited Mission Dolores staff to collaborate on an interpretive panel that would accompany the mural, in the hopes of highlighting the stewardship and programming at Mission Dolores in relation to its historic resources. Wood has also consulted with Charlene Sul, Chair of the Advisory Council for The Confederation of Ohlone Peoples about the project. More recently, Wood has been in conversation with Sul’s son, Anthony, about the possibility of his participation in the painting of the mural. Through these and other Native contacts, Wood has been soliciting input about the mural’s creation, presentation, and interpretation.

Wood has created a video about the project to assist in his goal of raising $8,300 by April 4. For additional information about the project, please visit the Mission Dolores Mural website.

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San Francisco History Expo 2011

SF Mint ca. 1900, courtesy the US National Archives

The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (SFMHS) will be hosting the first San Francisco History Expo on Saturday, February 12 and Sunday, February 13 from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00p.m. at the Old Mint on the northwest corner of 5th and Mission Streets. Admission is free; and over 20 local history organizations will have exhibits, including:

In addition to the exhibits, the Expo will also feature a variety of programs, including: live performances, screenings of historic films, a forum at which authors will read from their recently published histories of San Francisco, displays of art by Frank Alan Zimmerman and by the San Francisco Quilters Guild, and opportunities for visitors to record oral histories and digitize photographs to be posted on the FoundSF website. On Saturday at 2:00 p.m. there will be a Community History Panel featuring Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhoods Project, Peter Linenthal and Abby Johnston of the Potrero Hill Archives Project, and Vicky Walker of the Bernal Heights History Project. On Sunday at 2:00 p.m. there will be a presentation on the work of muralist Mona Caron; and at 3:00 p.m. Willy Lizárraga will give a presentation on the history of San Francisco Carnaval.

Kristin Morris, Associate Curator for the SFMHS, points to the SFMHS’s ongoing series of monthly programs in explaining the basis for this collaborative event. This series has provided an opportunity for the SFMHS to partner with variety of local historical organizations, inviting those partners to introduce their work to a larger audience. Now, the SFMHS has invited those same organizations to participate in the Expo in order to further extend their outreach. The SFMHS is providing free admission in the hopes of attracting as many visitors as possible – especially students. By including exhibits by local archival repositories such as the California Historical Society and the San Francisco History Center, the SFMHS also hopes to introduce visitors to venues where they can conduct their own historical research.

The SFMHS plans to continue ongoing renovations to the Old Mint building and to eventually convert that space into museum of  San Francisco history. Because the SFMHS has a limited collection of materials for exhibition, the new museum would involve a collaboration with some of the organizations who will be participating at the Expo. The permanent exhibition would include artifacts on loan from many of those organizations; and some of the organizations will also be invited to curate temporary exhibits.

For more information about the Expo, please call the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society at: (415) 537-1105, extension 100.


Filed under Bernal History Project, California Historical Society, San Francisco City Guides, San Francisco History Association, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, San Francisco Museum & Historical Society

SFGenealogy: Providing Free Online Content

In 2002, the husband-and-wife team of Ron Filion and Pamela Storm launched their website SFGenealogy – a labor of love that showcases their passion for genealogical research and San Francisco Bay Area history. 

Filion describes the primary purpose of the site as providing free online access to content relevant to genealogists (such as information from birth certificates, marriage announcements, telephone directories, and obituaries) that might otherwise only exist in hard-copy in multiple locations.  He is quick to add, though, that the content they have sought to feature is “not your normal resources; it’s a hodgepodge of interesting things,” including a wide range of full-text materials related to San Francisco history. They receive support for the project in the form of a sponsorship by the California Genealogical Society and Library,  Google ads on their site, and single-dollar donations. Many volunteers from around the world also assist by doing transcription.

Storm and Filion seek out new sources of content such as school yearbooks, club membership rosters, maps, and other emphera at estate sales. They have also been known to use less orthodox materials, such as a pot holder they once discovered that featured a political advertisement. After digitizing or transcribing the content, they offer the originals as a donation to archival repositories such as the California Historical Society or the San Francisco History Center.

Their site features Web 2.0 functionality in the form of bulletin boards. This enable users to post comments, questions, or upload content that they themselves have transcribed. One volunteer, Cathy Gowdy, has posted transcriptions of over 12,000 Marin County obituaries. These contributions point to areas of users’ interest that have sometimes surprised Filion and Storm – such as spirited discussions about San Francisco’s defunct Mannings Cafeteria.

SFGenealogy also features a variety of databases that Storm and Filion have built – including the California Birth Index (1905-1995), the California Death Index (1940-1997), and San Francisco Mortuary Records. These databases offer examples of content that in some cases is only otherwise available online through subscription databases. 

In addition to providing content from other sources, Storm and Filion also develop original articles and maps on topics of interest to them –  such as ships buried beneath San Francisco’s streets, or the story of their investigation of a nineteenth-century photograph they had once discovered in the Argonaut Book Shop, or locations around San Francisco’s Civic Center to conduct genealogical and historical research. One of their more ambitious projects was the 1906 Earthquake Marriage Project, in which they investigated the suprising record number of marriages that took place immediately following San Francisco’s greatest natural disaster. The project, which involved conducting oral history work as well as archival research, culminated in an exhibition at City Hall in 2006.

A wide range of cultural heritage institutions have been digitizing content from their historical collections for online presentation for many years. Standards and best practices for how to scan materials (such as the California Digital Library’s Guidelines) and to provide “metadata” or descriptions of those materials (such as the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials) have been long established. In more recent years, some institutions have been moving from presenting their online content only on their own website to also presenting it on third-party hosts, such as Flickr, the Internet Archive, and the Hathi Trust – in part to be able to aggregate their content with content from other repositories (one example of a project to aggregate digital content from multiple repositories is the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Whether the work of making historical content available online is done by major institutions like the Smithsonian or by private individuals like Storm and Filion, questions about the best design formats, venues, and search functionality will persist as we all continue to explore how to make historical content as accessible as possible.     



Filed under California Historical Society, San Francisco History Center

Searching for Buried Ships

The Steamship California, courtesy the Smithsonian Institution

Scores of Gold Rush-era ships lie buried beneath the streets of San Francisco. LJ Moore’s fascination with these hidden ships has led her to direct a group of writers and artists to develop an audio walking tour, The Armada of Golden Dreams,  that is scheduled to premiere in May 2011.

Moore had been investigating the history of Golden Gate Cemetery in what is now Lincoln Park when she happened across a reference to an 1818 whaling ship, the Candace, that was unearthed at Folsom and Spear Streets in 2005. Doing a search on Google for San Francisco buried ships, she found Ron Filion’s 2000 article and map on the SFGenealogy website. Moore contacted Filion, who was generous in providing further information. Filion especially encouraged Moore to take advantage of the resources at the San Francisco Maritime’s research library, located at Fort Mason – where Moore received valuable assistance. Additional searching on Google led Moore to online resources, such as the image collection at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the California Digital Newspaper Collection based at UC Riverside, and the online resources of the California Historical Society. Moore conducted interviews with Bill Duffy, owner of the Old Ship Saloon on the corner of Pacific and Battery Streets – the building of which was originally made out of the hull of a ship, the Arkansas. She made use of JSTOR, a database of academic journal articles – one of many databases available for free through the San Francisco Public Library. She also did searches on Google Images and traced images she found interesting back to their online sources.

Moore is considering possible publication projects based on her discoveries. In the more immediate future, however, she has been commissioned by Tavia Stewart-Streit of Invisible City Audio Tours to develop The Armada of Golden Dreams. For that project, Moore curated contributions from a group of twelve local writers, as well as the work of visual artists and musician Jesse Solomon Clark. The result is an audio walking tour of twelve buried ships in the Financial District. Moore described the process as follows:

I had each writer pull a vessel’s name from a hat, then handed them the packet of historical information I had gathered on that vessel. Tavia and I took them all on a tour of the locations, and asked them to write their pieces with an eye to rekindling the life of the ship buried below. I asked them to use their X-ray vision along with their writer’s imaginations to give the people taking the tour a picture of something they could no longer see, that was buried beneath their feet. I wanted to re-connect people with a shared past that is still here, with that child-like wonder that we all remember but don’t often experience. Our constraint for the writers is to keep the pieces under 3 minutes when recorded, but the form is open– poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism– whatever they felt was their best medium.

She also describes the voice-overs that she herself provides between sites of buried ships:

I’ll be reading from San Francisco personal accounts, letters written aboard ships, newspaper articles, historical texts from the 1848-1853 time period in order to contextualize the tour for listeners and familiarize them with some concrete imagery while they are walking through decidedly modern cityscapes.

Moore has written up the project for a post on the San Francisco blog The Bold Italic, entitled, “Walk the Plank.” For more information about the project and its upcoming release, please visit The Armada of Golden Dreams.

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Filed under San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Haunted by “Vertigo”

Hecksher Gallery, Legion of Honor, 2010 photo by Drew Bourn

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 San Francisco noir thriller, Vertigo, retired police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) investigates Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) – a woman with a mysterious connection to San Francisco’s past. A twist of the plot results in Scottie himself becoming obsessed with the past, and the story moves forward by exploring the risks involved in investigating  – and re-creating – history.

During the course of Scottie’s investigations, he trails Madeleine to locations around the city, including the Mission Dolores cemetery, the George and Marie Hecksher Gallery in the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the Henry J. Fortmann Mansion that used to stand on the northwest corner of Eddy and Gough Streets. By following Madeleine, Alfred Hitchcock and his Director of Photography, Robert Burks, were able to include a considerable number of on-location shoots. That was still somewhat novel for the Hollywood studios; shooting almost entirely on set had been the norm for 1940s San Francisco film noir such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon.

According to Ruthe Stein’s August 29, 2010 article for The San Francisco Chronicle, actress Kim Novak  appears to be as haunted by the past as the character she played in Vertigo. Novak retired from the film industry in the 1960s, and now lives in Oregon. Yet Stein reports that Novak has returned to San Francisco for decades, assuming a disguise to visit the places that her character Madeleine visited in Vertigo.  Furthermore, Stein quotes Novak as saying that she notices others making similar visits, observing that “they do little things that Madeleine does, like they are reliving the scenes.”

I regularly visit and take pictures of locations that had been shot for Vertigo. I’m not surprised by Novak’s claim that others visit these locations, as well. Some, such as Hank Donat, CitySleuth of ReelSF, and the web team at Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, have posted their photographs on their websites. Perhaps among the most ambitious of those visiting and photographing sites from Vertigo have been Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, who have featured their work in their 2002 publication, Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchock’s San Francisco. The website of their publisher, Santa Monica Press, includes some images and content from their work.

One recent example of Vertigo’s continued reach into the present came when the Lembi Group hired Los Angeles-based Thomas Schoos Design, Inc. to renovate 940 Sutter Street (which appeared as the Empire Hotel in Vertigo), re-opening the property in 2009 as the Hotel Vertigo. The new hotel even featured suites named The Gavin, The Scottie, The Carlotta, The Midge and The Madeleine, after characters in the film. As Sarah Duxbury reported in a May 21, 2010 article in The San Francisco Business Times, however, the Hotel Vertigo has since been foreclosed, and was purchased in an auction by the Centerline Capital Group.

The Hotel Vertigo may become a part of San Francisco’s past. Even if that were to happen, however, it may live on as one of many sites to which Vertigo enthusiasts return again and again – including, perhaps, an incognito Kim Novak.

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San Francisco Palimpsest: Seals Stadium

Second Base, in Starbucks; 2010 photo by Todd Lappin

For scribes in medieval Europe, parchment on which writing appeared was sometimes scraped clean to create a new writing surface. Not infrequently, however, the old writing continued to show through, resulting in a palimpsest – i.e., layers of overlapping writing that suggested a parchment’s  history of uses.

Urban environments can be like palimpsests, in which the viewer can sometimes discern visual cues for successive uses of the same location over time.  And sometimes, a bit of historical investigation can help make the palimpsest of the San Francisco cityscape emerge.

Todd Lappin of Telstar Logistics recently collaborated with the blogger of Burrito Justice (who uses the moniker “johnny0”) to identify sites on Potrero Hill related to the location of the former Seals Stadium – San Francisco’s minor league baseball stadium from 1931 until 1959.

Lappin and johnny0 initially consulted Google Earth in an attempt to identify the exact location of the former baseball stadium.  Specifically, they used the historical map overlay – a feature introduced by Google in 2006 in which selected historical maps can be displayed, palimpsest-like, over contemporary maps. Currently, historical maps available for San Francisco on Google Earth include maps from 1946 – when Seals Stadium was still standing. Lappin and johnny0 discovered, however, that the historical overlay feature did not provide them with the degree of precision they wanted in superimposing 1946 map features over contemporary San Francisco.

This prompted them to turn to the fire insurance maps originally produced by the Sanborn Map Company of Pelham, New York. johnny0 had first encountered Sanborn maps of San Francisco on the SFGenealogy website.

Because Google Earth has a feature that allows users to overlay their own content on top of Google Earth maps, johnny0 and Lappin managed to superimpose a Sanborn map of Seals Stadium on top of a Google Earth map of Potrero Hill.

Satisfied with the precision of their palimpsest, Lappin went to Potrero Hill to mark the former locations of the four bases of Seals Stadium. Using blue tape, he marked the sites as they exist in the current shopping center on 16th Street: home base and first base inside an Office Depot store, and second and third base inside a Safeway grocery store.

Lappin and johnny0 posted reports of their investigation on the Burrito Justice and Laughing Squid blogs. As part of their posts, they included pictures they had taken of the current Potrero Hill site (including pictures of the sites identified as the former locations of the bases), as well as images taken from the online Historical Photograph Collection of the San Francisco History Center.

When I’d asked johnny0 and Lappin what had motivated their project, both of them spoke to the question of how changing urban landscapes impact the organization of community life. As Lapin put it,

“It’s fascinating to me to think that a place like that [Seals Stadium] can exist, but then disappear, leaving no trace.  It’s as if we didn’t have any ruins of Roman amphitheaters. That would be a tragedy, because it means we would never know about a telling aspect of their community life. The fact that so many people have no idea that there used to be a ballpark on the Safeway site feels much the same way to me. Only, it’s a sense of community life in the Mission that’s been lost.”

johnny0 pointed to future uses of this kind of work when he said,

“I think it’s extraordinarily valuable to have the historical perspective on how a neighborhood came to be… to enable the community to continue to grow.”

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“Indigenous Renewal” – Commemorating Native American Activism

Alcatraz Welcome, 2009 photo by Jackie Sutherland.

On the evenings of Wednesday, November 25 and Thursday, November 26, a series of film and still images will be projected onto Coit Tower to mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation of Alacatraz Island by a coalition of Native American activists. The project, called “Indigenous Renewal: Alcatraz Occupation Remembrance + Ohlone Presence Celebrated,”  represents a collaboration of San Francisco-based artists Ben Wood and David Mark.  Neil Maclean, as part of the Ohlone Profiles Project, also invited a number of other contributions from local native supporters and some Ohlone. In conjunction with the projection on Coit Tower, a running commentary about the images will be broadcast on KPOO San Francisco 89.5 FM.

On November 20, 1969, a coalition of Native Americans – many of them college students – took over Alacatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in an unarmed occupation that would last until June 10, 1971. At its height on Thanksgiving, 1969, as many as approximately 400 Native activists occupied the island. Alcatraz had been abandoned as a federal prison facility since 1963, and although the U.S. Coast Guard established a blockade of the island at the beginning of the occupation and the FBI were poised to land, the federal government withheld action until the numbers of activists dwindled to about 15 in 1971. The inital occupying party, calling itself Indians of All Tribes, demanded that Alcatraz be developed as a Native cultural center, including programs such as a museum and a center for Native studies. More broadly, the activists drew attention to a wide range of Native issues related to sovereignty, repatriation and civil rights.

Ben Wood described to me the variety of sources from which he selected footage and images that will be projected on Coit Tower. These include images of the occupation that archivist Alex Cherian of the San Francisco State University Special Collections & Archives helped Wood to find. Eric Blind, Presidio Trust Archaeologist, provided imagery related to his work in repatriating Native artifacts. Andrew Galvan, the curator at the Mission Dolores and himself an Ohlone, made it possible for Wood to shoot footage of the 1790s Ohlone mural hidden behind the reredos in the Mission.  In addition to these cultural heritage professionals, Neil Maclean built relationships with a wide net of Ohlone and other Native people and their allies throughout the Bay Area, who provided additional imagery and participated in the project.  The resulting collection of images had also been used on by these artists on previous projects involving projections on Coit Tower in 2004, 2006 and 2008.  Among the content that will be projected this year will be:

  • Alcatraz Is Not an Island, by James Fortier
  • Rendezvouz with Alcatraz, by Ben Wood & David Mark
  • Welcome to Ohlone Territory, by Marlo Mckenzie and Neil Maclean
  • Ohlone Families, by Charlene Sul and Anthony Sul
  • San Bruno Mountain, by Keith Moreau and Sam Ellis Moreau
  • Native America Segments, by Lorenzo

“Indigenous Renweal” will take place on Wednesday, November 25 and again on Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 26, from dusk until the following morning. Wood and Mark have recommended Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 31, and Washington Square as locations from which the images can be seen. Running commentary about the images from Ohlone and other Native participants in the project will be able to be heard on KPOO San Francisco 89.5 FM. For more information about the project and the artists, please go to Coit Live or Ohlone Profiles.


Filed under Mission Dolores, Presidio Trust, San Francisco State University Special Collections & Archives

Ghost Tours as a Way to Engage the Past

"Nob Hill Hotel at Night" 2008 photo by Marla Showfer

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to consider three ghost tours as examples of ways that San Francisco neighborhood history can be presented.

SF Chinatown Ghost Tours have been led since 1994 by Cynthia Yee, a community organizer and nationally-recognized dancer. Yee’s maternal great-grandfather, Fong Louie, immigrated from China in 1885. His Chinatown stories were passed d0wn to Yee’s mother, Mildred Fong, one of the pillars of the 光明佛道研究會 (Quong Ming Buddhist and Taoist Association) in Chinatown. Yee has told me that her idea for the tour came after going on tours in New Orleans. To develop her performance, she has drawn primarily on two sources: stories she learned from her mother; and coverage in local English-language newspapers (such as the San Francisco Chronicle) about Chinatown events such as the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre. Yee tells me that she keeps track of  current news coverage rather than research older newspaper accounts or use archival repositories such as the Chinese Historical Society of America. At the same time, she has told me that Chinatown residents bring her news accounts, providing material to further develop her ghost tour presentation.

Similar to Cynthia Yee’s experience, Jim Fassbinder’s participation in a tour outside San Francisco prompted him to create the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, which he has led since 1998.  To develop his presentation, he did research at the San Francisco History Center, reviewed online content from the California Historical Society, enlisted college undergraduates to provide research assistance in academic libraries, and conducted oral history interviews. In his comments to me, he singled out the staff of the San Francisco History Center as being especially helpful in directing him to primary sources such as historic maps. Fassbinder chose Pacific Heights as the site of his tour partly for logistical reasons – the relative quiet, safety, and ease of walking – in addition to the stories he had learned about the neighborhood. Fassbinder has commented to me about his tour, “my main goal is this: I want everyone on a Ghost Hunt to have a real supernatural experience in a safe way.”

Playwright Kitty Burns has lead the Vampire Tour of San Francisco since 2001. Like Cynthia Yee, she was inspired to create the tour after participating in a tour in New Orleans.  To develop her presentation, Burns reviewed published histories – particularly Fire & Gold: the San Francisco Story by Charles Fracchia, founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Burns also reviewed published articles and online content. She told me that her most valued resource, however, came in the form of oral history interviews she conducted with persons affiliated with commercial establishments and other institutions along her tour. Burns also indicated that the ongoing input she receives both from participants on her tours as well as persons affiliated with her tour stops continue to provide material for the further development of her presentation. Like Jim Fassbinder, Burns related to me that she selected the site of her tour – Nob Hill – partly out of logistical considerations such as safety. She added, “Nob Hill was a perfect area because all the stops on the tour are well known and very classy.  I thought that would add to the humor of a vampire tour.”

Part of what is striking to me about these three neighborhood-specific tours is that despite the differences in how the three guides conducted research for their presentations, all three of them turned to oral history interviews with neighborhood stakeholders as a significant source of content. What is also striking is that whereas many other contexts for engaging San Francisco history involve encounters with artifacts, or architectural features, or primary source materials such as historic documents and photographs, these tours intimate the possibility (with varying degrees of seriousness) of encounters with persons from the past  in the form of the ghosts or vampires of today.

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Filed under California Historical Society, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Museum & Historical Society

History as Opera: Halloween in the Castro

2006 photo by Justine Wolitzer

San Francisco has been featured on the opera stage as early as Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. That opera, which premiered in 1910, was based on a play by former San Franciscan David Belasco and was set in the California Gold Rush. The Italian libretto includes references to San Francisco and Wells Fargo bank. More recently, Stewart Wallaces’ operas Harvey Milk, which premiered in 1995, and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (based on the Amy Tan novel of the same name), which premiered in 2008, were both set in San Francisco. This Friday, October 23 will see the premiere of the Halloween in the Castro,  a new opera with libretto and score by classical and film composer Jack Curtis Dubowsky and performed by the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco.

In 1946, Ernie DeBaca of Cliff’s Variety Store on Castro Street began organizing Halloween celebrations for the children of the then-predominantly Irish Catholic working-class neighberhood of Eureka Valley – celebrations that came to include costume contests, parades and entertainment. By the time DeBaca discontinued the children’s Halloween celebrations in 1979, the Castro – as that part of Eureka Valley had become known – had transformed into a major residential and commercial center of gay life in San Francisco. Concomitantly, Halloween celebrations on Castro Street had largely turned into a more adult-oriented event for the gay men who then lived in the neighborhood.

Dubowsky has commented to me that his opera looks back as far as the period of time when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence had taken over responsibility for organizing and managing the Castro Halloween street party – a period that lasted from 1989 to 1994. As reported in the San Francisco Examiner, safety became a growing concern; and the Sisters collaborated with Community United Against Violence and other community organizations in 1995 in the first of many attempts to re-locate the celebration out of the Castro. Such attempts met with mixed results. Ever-increasing crowds from throughout the Bay Area continued to come to the Castro on succeeding Halloweens as various community organizations and city officials took turns in trying to manage it.  As Dubowsky notes, and as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, 2006 saw the pinnacle of Castro Halloween violence when nine people were shot. Subsequent city policy – including a “Home for Halloween” publicity campaign – effectively shut down Halloween in the Castro.

Dubowsky, who first moved to San Francisco in 1991 and who lived in the Castro from 1994 to 2001, has commented to me that Halloween in the Castro does not include characters representing actual persons, and as such does not attempt to offer an historically accurate account of how the celebration has changed over time. Instead, Dubowsky portrays the opera as dramatizing the competing factions who have had stakes in Halloween in the Castro since the late 1980s / early 1990s. Furthermore, he describes the opera as a form of activism, saying that it “mocks the foibles and hypocrisies of local politics.  It doesn’t give out any solutions.  It doesn’t attempt to solve any problems.  Like Gilbert and Sullivan, it just points out the flaws in the system, and suggests that Castro Halloween is worth caring about, and that there is a viable solution out there. ”

Dubowsky has also commented that his research for the opera consisted of reviewing local and national news reports that he was able to find online – including coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Bay Area Reporter, the Associated Press, Channel 5 (CBS), and Channel 2 (FOX).  Although Dubowsky noted that he has previously donated historical material to the GLBT Historical Society, he also indicated that he did not use the GLBT Historical Society or other Bay Area archival repositories to do his research for the opera. As a professional archivist, this again raises the question for me about what we as archivists can do to make the content of our collections more easily usable to researchers – particularly with regard to content that is not (and may never be) digitized for online presentation.

Halloween in the Castro will be presented on October 23, 24, 29, 30 and 31 at 8:00 p.m. at 150 Eureka Street in the Castro in San Francisco. For more information, please call (415) 295-4469 or visit the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco website.

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