Monday, May 11th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 05.11.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
1879: Stoddard, Stevenson, and Rincon Hill

Sometime in 1879:
The house on Rincon Hill

Last week I read to you from In the Footprints of the Padres, Charles Warren Stoddard’s 1902 reminiscences about the early days of San Francisco.

That piece recounted a boyhood adventure, but this book is full of California stories from the latter years of the 19th century; some deservedly obscure, but some that ring pretty loud bells.

Todays’ short text is a great example of the latter, one that dovetails beautifully with two other San Francisco stories, both of which I’ve talked about at Sparkletack: the story of the Second Street Cut and the visit of Robert Louis Stevenson.

The now all-grown-up Stoddard had returned to San Francisco after the Polynesian peregrinations that would inspire his best-known work, and Stevenson had just arrived from Scotland in hot pursuit of the woman he loved.

The two authors hit it off, and — as you’ll hear at the end of today’s Timecapsule — it’s to Stoddard and the house on Rincon Hill that we owe Stevenson’s eventual fascination with the South Seas.

charles warren stoddardSouth Park and Rincon Hill!

Do the native sons of the golden West ever recall those names and think what dignity they once conferred upon the favored few who basked in the sunshine of their prosperity?

South Park, with its line of omnibuses running across the city to North Beach; its long, narrow oval, filled with dusty foliage and offering a very weak apology for a park; its two rows of houses with, a formal air, all looking very much alike, and all evidently feeling their importance. There were young people’s “parties” in those days, and the height of felicity was to be invited to them.

As a height o’ertops a hollow, so Rincon Hill looked down upon South Park. There was more elbow-room on the breezy height; not that the height was so high or so broad, but it was breezy; and there was room for the breeze to blow over gardens that spread about the detached houses their wealth of color and perfume.

How are the mighty fallen! The Hill, of course, had the farthest to fall. South Parkites merely moved out: they went to another and a better place. There was a decline in respectability and the rent-roll, and no one thinks of South Park now, — at least no one speaks of it above a whisper.

read on …

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Monday, February 9th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 02.09.09

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
1869: the fashionable neighborhood of Rincon Hill is sliced in two.

2nd-street-rincon-hill-1865February, 1869
The battle for Rincon Hill is over

There aren’t too many people living who remember this now, but Rincon Hill was once the fanciest neighborhood in San Francisco. You know the place, right? It’s south of Market Street, an asphalt-covered lump of rock with the Bay Bridge sticking out of the north-east side and Second Street running by, out to the Giants’ ballpark. That’s Rincon Hill. What’s left of it, anyway.

Exactly 140 years ago this month, the California Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to a scheme which would destroy it.

San Francisco’s first fashionable address

As San Francisco’s Gold Rush-era population explosion of tents and rickety clapboard started to settle down, the bank accounts of merchants and lucky miners started to fill up. Men were becoming civilized, acquiring culture, and the sort of women known as “wives” were moving into town. This led to a demand for a neighborhood that was distinctly separate from the barbarous Barbary Coast, and with its sunny weather, gentle elevation, and spectacular views of the Bay, Rincon Hill filled the bill.

According to the Annals of San Francisco, by 1853 Rincon Hill was dotted with “numerous elegant structures” — including the little gated community of South Park. By the 1860s, the Hill was covered with mansions in a riot of architectural styles, and had become the social epicenter of the young city.

And then in 1968 (cue evil-real-estate-developer music here) a San Franciscan named John Middleton got himself elected to the California State Legislature. According to some sources, his elevation was part of a conspiracy to push through a specific radical civic “improvement”.

2nd-street-rincon-hill-1869The Second Street “Cut”

Here’s the situation that required “improving”: at the time, there was a high volume of heavy commercial horse cart traffic to the busy South Beach wharves from Market Street. Second Street provided a direct route, but — since it went up and over the highest part of Rincon Hill — horse carts were obliged to take the long way around via Third Street.

Middleton’s plan was simplicity itself: carve a deep channel through the heart of the hill, right along Second Street. He just happened to own a big chunk of property at Second and Bryant Streets, and couldn’t wait to see his property values go through the roof.

“But wait,” you’re saying, “what about the owners of those lovely homes up on fashionable Rincon Hill? Won’t they object to having their front doors open up to a 100-foot canyon instead of a sidewalk? Do they even have the technology to pull this off? And what about the horrific mess the construction is going to make? We are talking high society here, right?”

read on …

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Friday, February 15th, 2008

book review — “The Bottle Imp”

I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if […]

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Friday, February 17th, 2006

#47: Robert Louis Stevenson — Chinatown Treasure

San Francisco has a long-standing reputation as a literature-loving town, as evidenced by government statistics ranking us as having the highest per-capita spending on books in the country. Over the decades this city has nurtured a number of notable writers from Mark Twain to Dashiell Hammett. However, there’s one literary memorial in town that has […]

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