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Changing Place Names to Change Historical Memory

Oakland-based graphic designer Kenji Liu has recently embarked on a project that puts him in a long line of artists and polititians who have changed place names in San Francisco. His Decolonized Area Rapid Transit (DART) map is based on the official San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station map. Liu has substituted the names of counties, bridges, transit stations and natural features that appear on the BART map with the names of local Native people and progressive political activists. In doing so, Liu has provided a vivid demonstration of the potential for using place names to invoke or erase local history. That same potential has also been revealed in battles over re-naming that have occurred repeatedly in San Francisco.

In the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, thousands of San Franciscans lost their homes and began a process of re-settling the city in new patterns of density and demographics. Three years after the disaster, a commission of the Board of Supervisors convened to address those population shifts by updating the names of the city’s streets and reducing the confusion of new place names. Many of the changes – such as eliminating the multiple use of the same name for different streets – provoked little or no controversy. However, upon proposing renaming streets of the Richmond and Sunset districts with names drawn from California’s Spanish past, some residents of those neighborhoods protested vociferiously. They denounced the prospect of becoming San Francisco’s “Spanish Town” so soon after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war. While some concessions to residents were made by the Board of Supervisors, the use of Spanish names (such as Anza, Balboa, Cabrillo, Arguello, and Ortega) was nevertheless implemented for many of the streets.

Editorial, San Francisco Call, November 24, 1909, page 6.

Other street name changes have been less ambitious than those carried out by the 1909 commission. In 1988, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti successfully petitioned the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to change the names of twelve streets to commemorate local writers and artists. The new names included Jack Kerouac Alley, Isadora Duncan Alley, Dashiell Hammett Street, and Via Bufano.

Nick Jaina band performing in Jack Kerouac Alley. 2008 photo by Chantel Williams.

While Ferlinghetti’s changes highlighted the city’s artistic past, other San Francisco streets have been re-named to highlight the city’s political past. The Board of Supervisors voted in 1985 to change the name of Brenham Place, on the west side of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco Chinatown, to Walter U. Lum Place, in recognition of the Chinese American journalist, educator and civil rights activist. Another civil rights activist was acknowledged when the block of Polk Street in front of City Hall was renamed Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place in 1999 in honor the local African American publisher and physician. Similar changes have met with resistance, however.  When the Board of Supervisors changed the name of Army Street to César Chávez Street in 1995, some white residents of the street organized a citywide ballot proposition to reverse the change. Their efforts were defeated, and the street continues to be named after the famed Mexican American labor organizer.

Intersection of César Chávez Street and Mission Street. 2008 photo by Freya Gefn.

In addition to streets, the names of neighborhoods have also been the subject of proposed changes. In some cases, the proposals are perhaps only partly serious. JohnnyO, writer of the local blog Burrito Justice, has proposed the name La Lengua (Spanish for “the Tongue”) for a portion of the Mission District. In part, his writing about La Lengua helps to highlight the work of the San Francisco Association of Realtors to continually change neighborhood names in the hopes of increasing sales. Reverend Malcolm Byrd of the First A.M.E. Zion Church has addressed this issue in more earnest terms when he has decried realtors’ naming a portion of the Western Addition neighborhood “NOPA,” or “North of the Panhandle,” in an effort to erase the area’s African American history and population and make potential home sales more appealing to white buyers.

The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.) also proposed a change of name of a San Francisco neighborhood when it lobbied Mayor Ed Lee in 2011 to change “The Tenderloin” to “The Tempeh District.” P.E.T.A. argued that the current name “echoes the violence and cruelty of the meat industry” and was inappropriate in a city with “some of the best vegan cuisine in the world.” The proposal met with some incredulity and was not pursued by either Mayor Lee or Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the Tenderloin. As historian Peter Field notes on his walking tour, the name “Tenderloin” emerged in the nineteenth century out of the neighborhood’s role as a vice district. To change the name to “Tempeh” would risk losing a marker of that history.

Whether proposed name changes have been intended as official city policy (such as the work of the 1909 commission), or conspicuously unofficial (such as Kenji Liu’s DART map), or somewhere in between (such as the work of the San Francisco Association of Realtors), each example highlights the ways in which place names can function to highlight or obscure the site-specific history of San Francisco.

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Geotagging: Using Maps to Organize Historic Images

Map of San Francisco Chinatown, ca. 1901. Bancroft Library, G4364.S5:2C45 1901.C4.

Map of San Francisco Chinatown, ca. 1901. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. G4364.S5:2C45 1901.C4.

In recent years, a handful of projects have used online map programs such as Google Maps to provide access to historic images of San Francisco. These programs allow website creators or users to “geotag” digital versions of historic images – in other words, to situate the digital images on an online map. Some of these projects are examples of Web 2.0, meaning that users are able to make contributions by uploading images of their own, or add tags or comments to others’ photos. By considering some of these projects together, it is possible to compare their features. I’ll discuss five projects here, and then raise three issues related to this kind of work.

One project is HistoGrafica. Users can upload images, as well as a free-text description of the image and its source. Users can also contribute to others’ photos by rating the image, adding it to a list of their favorites, recommending it to other users, or suggesting that the location assigned to the image may be incorrect. Images can be searched by location on the map or keywords that search the images’ descriptions, and search results can be limited to a range of years.

Another project is Sepia Town, by Jon Protas, Eric Warren and Eric Lehnartz. Like Histographica, users can upload photos, provide a free-text description, indicate the image’s location, and identify its source. Images can be searched by a location keyword, geographic coordinates, or using the map, but keyword searches do not search the descriptions of the images. Also, the search results cannot be limited by a range of years. Sepia Town does, however, offer a split-screen “Then and Now” feature allowing the user to see an historic photo on the left and a contemporary Google Street View image of the same location on the right. Of course, users can make mistakes in identifying the location of the images they’ve uploaded. Because the site doesn’t offer the option to tag or comment on others’ photos, users would have to contact the website owners to suggest that any mistakes had been made.

WhatWasThere is similar to Sepia Town in that users can search for images only by using the map or inputing keywords related to locations, and search results cannot be limited by a range of years. Whereas Sepia Town uses a split screen presentation to view both an historic image and a current shot of the same location on Google Street View, WhatWasThere allows users to superimpose the historic image directly over a shot from Google Street View and to adjust the historic image’s opacity using a slider bar. As with Sepia Town, in cases where an incorrect location is assigned to an image, there is not a means for other users to tag or comment on the image in order to suggest changes.

Sometimes a map-based set of San Francisco historic images is presented in a Web 1.0 format, instead of a Web 2.0 format. This means that only the creators of the site can make changes or new contributions to it. One example is Dan Vanderkam and Raven Keller‘s project, Old SF. Vanderkam and Keller have used images and their descriptions exclusively from one source – the San Francisco History Center‘s online collection of historic photographs. Users can search for images on the map and can limit the search results by a range of years. The Web 1.0 format means that if users have an interest in making their own contributions (such as providing additional images, or offering further information about images), they would contact the site creators rather than directly making the contributions on the site itself.  A Web 1.0 format is easier to design than a Web 2.0 site, and it allows creators to have creative control over the site and its contents.

Vanderkam and Keller have done a tremendous amount of work in identifying the locations of images approximately 13,000 images from the collections of the San Francisco History Center. Building on that work, the San Francisco History Center has plans to further develop its own contributions to another Web 2.0 map project, Historypin. Historypin is perhaps the most ambitious of the current Web 2.0 mapping projects.  In addition to features seen in the other projects discussed above, it also provides further options for user contributions – including upload of video and audio content.

A few issues arise with the emergence of map-based collections of historic images. One issue derives from the very fact that there is more than one project: researchers have to keep track of multiple sites in order to search for images they need. A similar challenge had been faced by researchers searching for digital versions of rare books, which archives had previously uploaded to a bewildering variety of locations. These locations included their own websites as well as third-party hosts such as Google Books, the Hathi Trust, and the Internet Archive. Recently, archives have been increasingly collaborating to aggregate their content into consolidated sites (such as the Medical Heritage Library project) both to reduce duplication of effort as well as to improve ease of research.

A second issue is copyright violations. Although the copyright of some historical images has expired, many site designers and contributors remain confused or uninformed about copyright law. Resources are available to clarify the copyright status of various works – one example is the excellent Copyright Chart by Peter Hirtle of Cornell University. Nevertheless, site users’ compliance with copyright law continues to be a challenge.

Finally, there are risks associated with the content of user contributions. Site creators cannot easily control or monitor contributions, and those contributions can include everything from innaccuate information (such as incorrectly identifying the locations of images on a map) to libelous statements or other inappropriate content. This year, the OCLC Social Metadata Working Group is publishing a report for archives, libraries and museums to address the challenges associated with hosting user-generated content on their websites. The first of the three parts of the report is already available for free online.

The projects considered here represent an ongoing attempt to improve access to historical images by making them available online, and by using crowdsourcing to geographically locate and describe those images. For more information about the projects, and to see how they continue to develop in both their features and content, please visit their websites:  HistoGrafica, Sepia Town, WhatWasThereOld SF, and Historypin.

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“Ten Years” Tour: Using New Technology for History

Chris Carlsson installing a "Ten Years" plaque at 2937 - 24th Street. 2011 photo by LisaRuth Elliott/Shaping San Francisco.

In the recently published Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-1978, editor Chris Carlsson and the contributing essayists argue that the years 1968-1978 saw important innovations in grassroots political mobilization in San Francisco. These innovations included new directions in environmental justice work; changes in student, labor and immigrant organizing; housing rights and anti-gentrification campaigns; and unprecedented interventions against racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Accompanying the publication of the book is the release of a self-guided walking tour. The tour covers twenty-four sites in the Mission District, and each site is related to an essay that appears in Ten Years (a map of the sites is available for free at City Lights,  The Green Arcade, and other local bookstores, galleries, and cafés;  and can be ordered online for $5). Visitors to each tour site can dial (877) 919-7464 to hear an audio recording by the essays’ authors about the sites  – similar to audio tours by phone offered at some museum exhibitions.

What is especially innovative about the Ten Years tour is the use of on-site QR (“quick response”) codes. Posted at each of the twenty-four sites is a plaque identifying the location as part of the Ten Years tour. Visitors can use their smartphones to scan the QR code featured on the plaque, automatically opening one of twenty-four webpages on their phone. For example, visitors to 3030B – 16th St.,  near the site of the former San Francisco American Indian Center, can find a Ten Years tour plaque that includes the following QR code:

QR code for "Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory"

When this QR code is scanned from the “Ten Years” plaque (or from this computer screen) with a smartphone, a webpage opens on the phone with an excerpt of Mary Jean Robertson’s essay, “Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory.” The webpage also features an audio file of Ms. Robertson reading from her essay. The audio file can be heard by clicking on the “play” button of the audio bar, or, if visitors are using an iPhone, an mp3 of the recording can be downloaded.

This is not the first time Chris Carlsson has used of emerging technology to deliver historical content. Carlsson is one of the founding members of Shaping San Francisco, a grassroots project dedicated to documenting underrepresented aspects of the history of labor, ecology, transportation, and political activism in San Francisco. Beginning in 1998, the Shaping San Francisco team had developed some of this historical content and made it available in the form of CD-ROMs. Perhaps more interestingly, Carlsson and his colleagues also installed 6 public kiosks around they city – including locations such as Rainbow Grocery, Modern Times Bookstore, and the Anarchist Book Fair. The kiosks featured desktop computers that were not connected to the Internet, but whose hard drives contained of the content from the CD-ROMs. Together, the CD-ROMs and the public kiosks were intended to make this historical content as accessible to as many potential users as possible. Furthermore, users were encouraged to submit original content themselves – such as oral histories and historic photographs – for future upgrades of Shaping San Francisco.

By 2009, however, the Shaping San Francisco team had phased the kiosks out. The  team migrated the historical content from the CD-ROMs and kiosks to a new format – an online wiki called FoundSF. By choosing to use a wiki, the Shaping San Francisco team was again implementing an emerging technology. The FoundSF wiki has been supported by both CounterPULSE and the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

Although stand-alone kiosks with no Internet connection became obsolete, at the time of their debut they were a groundbreaking use of new technology. Similarly, wikis and QR codes might eventually be superceded by other ways of delivering historical content. However the new trends develop, Carlsson and his colleagues may well continue to blaze trails by acting as early adopters of emerging technology to make historical content as widely available as possible.

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Locating “Tales of the City”

Macondray Lane, 2010 photo by D. Huw Richardson.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is a series of eight novels set primarily in San Francisco, spanning from 1976 to the present. The stories recount the lives of a broad cross-section of the city’s denizens, and the transformative impact that the characters and the city have on each other. The first five novels were originally published as serials in The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner; the first installment appeared in the Chronicle exactly thirty-five years ago today. Beginning in 1993, the first three novels were adapted as three television miniseries starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. This year, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco is premiering a new musical based on the first two novels. When San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein installed a time capsule under the Benjamin Franklin statue in Washington Square Park in 1979, the small collection of items intended to represent San Francisco’s most recent past included a copy of the first Tales novel.

Larry Rhodes first moved to San Francisco in 1982 – when Maupin was still publishing Tales of the City as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle. However, it wasn’t until three years later, when Rhodes was living in Atlanta, that he began to read Maupin’s work. Rhodes became so engrossed with Maupin’s writing that he subsequently developed a website featuring Tales-related self-guided walking tours, Tours of the Tales, which launched in July 2010.

Rhodes’ initial impulse to create the tours came around 2001, when he was again living in the Bay Area and wanted to take out-of-town friends to sites mentioned in Tales of the City. At that time, Maupin’s website included a walking tour of locations mentioned in Tales, but the tour focused almost exclusively on the Russian Hill and North Beach neighborhoods. Rhodes was interested in developing something more comprehensive.

In 2003, Rhodes began in earnest to research the locations that appeared in the first six Tales novels and the first two television miniseries. Because some of the businesses mentioned in Tales had moved or closed by the time Rhodes began his investigation, he relied on telephone directories and Polk’s city directories going back to the 1970s at the San Francisco Public Library to establish their correct locations. He also sought information online, using sites such as Mister SF by journalist Hank Donat and Film in America by location scout Scott Trimble. Based on his findings, he made excursions to find and photograph the sites as they exist in San Francisco today (selected photographs can be found on a dedicated Flickr site). As Rhodes commented to me,

” I want to place the locales not only in the context of the books or movies, but in San Francisco itself. I want the people who take the walking tours to have a feel for San Francisco – somehow capture the essence of the City that captured me.”

So far, Rhodes has created four self-guided walking tours that are available as PDFs on his website. These cover Acquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, Russian Hill, North Beach, Jackson Square, Telegraph Hill, Chinatown, Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, and Union Square. He plans on extending the scope of his tours; additional areas for future tours might include the Castro, Noe Valley, Civic Center, South of Market, the Haight, and Golden Gate Park. He is also considering tours that cover sites outside San Francisco that are mentioned in Tales, including locations in Oakland, Marin County, Mendocino, Los Angeles, and Reno.

Because Rhodes provides these tours as PDFs, they can be printed out or read on e-book readers such as Kindle and Nook. Armistead Maupin’s webmaster, Rick Miller, had previously used Google Maps to develop  a map based on his own research, and Rhodes has subsequently created similar maps, links to which can be found on the PDFs of each walking tour. Rhodes plans to lead occasional free group walking tours, but the primary focus has been on developing a means by which fellow Tales enthusiasts could explore the sites mentioned in the series at their own pace and on their own schedule. Rhodes’ website also includes a guestbook, which provides an opportunity for those using the tours to respond not only to Rhodes’ work but also to connect with one another.

To learn more about Larry Rhodes’ project, and to download the tours, please visit his website, Tours of the Tales.

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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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Sutro Baths: Creating an Historical Map 2.0

"Sutro Baths" 2009 photo by Maggie Morrow

The Sutro Baths, whose ruins on the western headlands of San Francisco now form part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, were originally created by millionaire Adolph Sutro as an opulent 3-acre public baths featuring seven pools of varying temperatures, water slides, trapezes, springboards, and other attractions. It opened in 1896 and was able to accommodate approximately 10,000 bathers at a time. The Baths subsequently underwent many changes and eventually burned in 1966; the Golden Gate National Recreation Area acquired the site of the ruins in 1973.

This year, London resident and Brunel University student Adam Smith developed an online interactive map of the Sutro Baths after a visit to San Francisco. Smith researched historical photographs and blueprints of the Sutro Baths using the online resources available at the San Francisco History Center’s Historical Photograph Collection, Gary Stark’s Cliff House Project, and the Western Neighborhoods Project. Smith also drew from material in Marilyn Blaisdell’s 1987 publication, San Francisciana: Photographs of the Sutro Baths, a copy of which he discovered in Green Apple Books. Smith consolidated this material and used Google Maps to create an online interactive map. He concedes that his map is only an approximation of the layout of the original Sutro Baths, superimposed over the current location of the ruins. Nevertheless, Smith has succeeded in providing the user with a fairly detailed sense of the layout, complete with photographic views that can be clicked on from various vantage points. Furthermore, his map is interactive in that it allows users to rate the map, report problems, and leave comments.  In this way, Smith’s map provides an example of Web 2.0 – that is to say, a website in which users, as well as the creator, can provide original content and participate in the development of the site. Other examples of San Francisco history projects that involve Web 2.0 features are blogs such as Sparkletack and wikis such as FoundSF.

Given Smith’s facility for transforming historical content into a Web 2.0 format, it’s not surprising that his inital love for San Francisco was itself cultivated through participation in a Web 2.0 game called San Francisco Zero, in which participants challenge one another online to use public spaces around San Francisco in new and unexpected ways. Smith, who can be reached via his Google profile, hopes to re-locate to San Franciso upon completing his studies. For any of us who use San Francisco history, Smith’s map suggests new possibilities for how the Web can continue to be used to present historical content in a way that is not only interactive, but that also allows users the opportunity to contribute.

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