In the eighties and early nineties, Grove Street was not part of “Hayes Valley,” as it’s known now, but of “the western addition,” a neighborhood built west of the original town of San Francisco on the east bay as it expanded after the gold rush, and before it stretched all the way to the Pacific. Sometime in the myopic sixties, the rows of Victorian houses on Grove, Laguna, Fulton, and McAllister were destroyed and housing projects built in their place. One of these became the “Pink Palace,” an infamous, and pink, hotbed of gang crime and violence. One didn’t walk past it alone; in broad daylight, joggers had been dragged inside, raped and killed. Once even, police arrested a man there and brought him in handcuffs to their car, only to lose him to a rioting mob of Pink Palacites who dragged him from the car and back into the Palace, leaving the car, and the policemen, on their sides in the street. This incident terrified the city so much that the government soon after tore down the Palace and transferred its occupants to somewhere in Oakland.
That was in the mid-nineties. Before that, and before the dot-com boom and resulting gentrification, Hayes Valley was still the western addition and the Pink Palace still stood glowering over us, two blocks away from my home.
I was aware that this neighborhood was pretty grim; I was not allowed to play outside, gunfire could be heard any time of day, the middle-eastern men who owned bodegas on the corners came to work armed, and any car parked on the street overnight would be tireless, windowless, and stereo-less by morning. Even the glass that walled in the bus shelter was constantly getting smashed. I looked out our window once and saw a father coaching his son on the best angle to strike the shelter glass with his elbow in order to send the whole thing crashing down. It was what Maxfield Parrish would have painted had he turned his attention to ghetto tableaux. Our neighbors played rap music so loudly our windows shook. I was ten when Freaks of the Industry came out, and I sat in my room listening uncomprehendingly as lyrics about someone named Money B not letting the kitty-cat get past him thundered up from up from downstairs. I believe I heard the girl who lived in that apartment being attacked one night; there was a loud argument between her and a man, after which, he went silent, but for the next five minutes, she continued to cry and beg, “Get off me; please get off me…” Her story was sad; sometime after this incident, she won a full scholarship to study at University High School, probably the ritziest co-ed private high school in San Francisco, where boys with Yale chins and girls with Radcliffe boobs are groomed for the Ivy League. Her family went, “what, you think you’re better than us?” and so she continued in the dismal California public school system. As I said before, I was aware that I was in a ‘bad’ neighborhood, but that awareness was thrown into low relief when I entered Katherine Delmar Burke School for Girls in seventh grade.
Burke’s was a blonder-than-thou WASP nest that groomed girls for University High School. The Aliotos, the Pelosis, the Fleishackers, all the families who owned San Francisco sent their daughters there, except for the Feinsteins, the Swansons, and others who sent them to Convent of the Sacred Heart (where I transferred to for high school). Burke’s is nestled in between Sea Cliff and Lincoln Park. Everybody knows Pacific Heights, the ritzy hills in the middle of town; it’s famous and flashy. But not everyone knows Sea Cliff, an area of mansions right on San Francisco’s bayside edge, shielded from most of the city by a large and quiet residential neighborhood that extends to the Pacific and that is populated mostly with Asian immigrants. You can’t just drive through Sea Cliff on your way to somewhere else; its grandeur isn’t conspicuous from every other less grand vantage point in the city, as in the case of Pac Heights. Sea Cliff is about as exclusive as a neighborhood that doesn’t have gates around it can get. It’s a destination, a wealthy haven on the edge of the land; in fact, once in a while a house literally slides off the edge of the cliff and into the bay, and when this happens, it always makes the news. The city watches with a mixture of glee at the misfortune of the rich and genuine sadness as yet anther one of San Francisco’s architectural treasures tumbles onto the rocks.
In a city where the real estate prices rival those of New York (and sometimes surpass it), Burke’s, a school of 400 students, covers 3.5 acres of land, with a soccer field, two tennis courts, an NBA-sized gym, and five art and music studios, in addition to the academic buildings. When I was there, the school also owned a three-story house on its perimeter where it held the extra-curricular sewing classes, which I and maybe four other students took. Before Burke’s I had gone to a school that had a giant Baptist church attached to it, but no gym or sewing mansion, and I was used to playing what was supposed to be only ‘touch’ football but never was, on a tarred-over rolling incline that moonlit as the church’s parking lot on Sundays. So I came to Burke’s a scabby tomboy and thrilled at the chance to play any sport on a team and in a gym or on a field with actual grass instead of potholes and oilslicks. One night after a basketball game I drove home with the school van because my father, who usually made it to the games in the city but not to those in Marin, couldn’t pick me up. As the van pulled onto my street and approached my building, my teammates went silent and looked like they thought we must have taken a wrong turn onto the Gaza strip, so since I had to take the platters back from my mother’s vast post-game cheese-and-salami spread, I tried to manage my sports sac, backpack, and the platters myself so no one would have to get out of the van and help me, and god forbid, enter my building. But when all the platters slid out of my arms and crashed onto the sidewalk, Anne Holmes left the school van to help me carry everything. Anne was a year ahead of me, was the only girl on the team who could run faster than I, and was what I thought was an American version of the quintessential English rose: blonde, moneyed, long limbed, pink cheeked, of nose long and narrow (this was before I moved to London and discovered that the quintessential English Rose dyes her hair maroon, chain-smokes, and lives in Kensal Rise with a short tulip of a nose). She was always friendly to me so I was grateful that it was she who followed me into the building rather than one of the others. But my momentary relief died when the doorbell buzzed behind us as we walked up the stairs and Charles, who lived next door to us, flung open the door to his apartment, revealing its yellowed walls and releasing its stink of old grease and chicken and bellowed down the stairwell in his y-fronts and a shower cap (the only outfit I ever saw him in). I caught a glimpse of terror in Anne’s eyes before she set the platters on my doorstep and ran down the stairs. I was ashamed to be ashamed of Charles-next-door. He was inelegant, maybe, but seemed basically benign: he, too, was always friendly to us, unlike our other neighbors, one of whom had once threatened my father with a knife, and another of whom had called me a prejudiced bitch and spat in my face when I was eleven. However, when our building burnt down a year later, it was from a fire started by Charles-next-door, freebasing cocaine in his bedroom.
After the incident with Anne Holmes and Charles-next-door, I asked our coach to drop me off last from then on.
My covetousness was not assuaged by visiting my classmates’ homes. Another basketball-related event, our end-of-season awards dinner, I think, was held at Laurie Hannah’s house near the school right on Sea Cliff’s edge. Laurie Hannah’s house, a pink (again with the pink!) Spanish-style mansion from the ‘20’s, still clings to its seaside perch. I remember wondering if the sound of the waves crashing against the back wall under her bedroom window kept her up at night, but she always seemed pretty well-rested, so probably not. Her father was a cardiac surgeon and owned Hannah vineyards in Napa.
There were two routes my father could take when he drove me home from school. One was to drive south away from Sea Cliff and east onto Geary, a major street he could take all the way back to our neighborhood, or he could turn back into the winding Sea Cliff lanes and emerge further east onto California and take that slower-moving road back to the western addition. I often asked my father to take the scenic route so I could gawk at the homes there, and I have regretted it ever since. I don’t know how even at eleven or twelve, I could have been so crass as to subject a man who loved me to the fact that, however much he had given me, what I really wanted was something he never could give me. These were his waning years; he died before I wised up.
The fire in our building in 1993, and another fire on our block in a much larger apartment building, as well as the destruction of the nearby Pink Palace, roughly coincided with the dot-com boom that brought a lot of new money into the city. Everyone in our building except for us was sent either to jail or deported, and same for the larger building down the street. After the renovation of our building, which took about half a year, and during which my mother and I stayed in a room at the Commodore Hotel on Sutter street while my father was in the hospital, my mother took the task of finding tenants over from the property management company that had previously done that job, both for our building and the one next door to ours, which had emptied out for reasons I don’t remember. She filled both buildings with senior-age Russian immigrants. Immediately the whole street seemed, and I guess was, safer than before. Cars could stand untouched on the street all night. Gunfire was seldom heard anymore. No one in our building threatened us except with cardiac arrest-inducing meat pilaf. The city also tore down the remnants of the freeway extension that crossed Grove street and separated it from the more affluent area where the Opera, the Herbst Theater, the San Francisco Ballet building, the Symphony, and City Hall are clustered at the junctures of Grove and Van Ness. The freeway had been damaged in the 1989 earthquake and had stood for years, a disused eyesore and a symbolic barrier between the civic center and the ghetto. With the greater aura of safety on our block, people started referring to the neighborhood as Hayes Valley rather than the Western Addition, and yuppies and well-to-do homosexuals started renting and even buying flats near us. Women started jogging alone down the street and it didn’t seem like a suicide bid. It was becoming necessary to visit other neighborhoods to get drugs, as the DIY experts had all moved away. Glamorous businesses started popping up on Hayes (the next street over from Grove). One of the corner bodegas became a pilates studio. A restaurant opened whose menu consists entirely of pancakes. There’s a sushi bar, an imported Italian shoe shop, a Sake shop, and a gallery of rugs that benefit victims of war. There are coffeeshops manned by skinny hipsters in emo haircuts. There’s an ayurvedic skincare salon. For a while people who lived in wealthier areas would come to Hayes Valley in what I assumed was a timid attempt at “slumming it” (no one “slummed it” here when it was really a slum) but now it seems like they’re the ones who actually live here. One of my old classmates from Burke’s lives two blocks from me.
My mother, my sister, and I, who have lived here for over twenty years now (even though I spend most of my time elsewhere I feel like Grove street is home) somehow seem just as foreign now that our neighborhood is posh as we did when it was rough. Go figure.
I have neglected your blog and squandered innumerable hours surfing web froth… Today, provoked by your seemingly callous quake comment I decided to look into it… It was, as Steve said, "Brilliant". Your dad would be, as I know your mom is,proud.John*
Fantastic writing – it has been said before but bears repeating. I grew up in suburban Houston and would stay with my grandparents in the "second ward" during the summer. I still continue to be amazed at the difference in scenery (and continual decline as there has been no gentrification in their neightborhood).