Noe Valley Voice September 1998

Florence's Family Album: A New Lens on Life

By Florence Holub

Our brown shingled house stands near the top of 21st Street, where we have a spectacular view of the Bay, as well as the skyscrapers jutting in front of it. For the past 42 years, as we have watched these buildings grow taller and denser, my man Leo and I could not fail to observe the effects of the seasons upon them.

Although we can't actually see the sun rising or setting from our front window, these daily events are dramatically recorded on the sides of the monoliths in the downtown financial district.

One clear morning at dawn, I was transfixed by a bright red line that appeared along the eastern edge of the big black Bank of America building. Apparently the sun was striking the far side of the building, creating a thin sliver of reflected light on one beveled corner.

Sometimes at the end of the day, the last rays of the sun hit the same building fully on the western side, presenting a grand, blazing rectangle of red and gold. A dazzling sight!

On sunny days, a beam of light often shines through the Golden Gate at just the right angle, transforming the Marriott Hotel on Fourth Street into a brilliant, diamond-studded jukebox.

Rainy days can be beautiful, too. When the skies are overcast, the gray buildings take on a hazy softness, their edges bleeding like madras cloth. And if the mist is evenly distributed, the sun may still penetrate enough to make the whole city glow as if plated with silver.

Perhaps the most enchanting sight of all is the afternoon fog. It is especially lovely in the summer, as it drifts in close to the ground and quietly meanders between the majestic buildings.

Over the decades, Leo and I have, each in our own way, tried to record these exciting and ephemeral moods of the city. If I see an image I'd like to capture, I make a quick sketch on the spot, then render it on canvas later. In the finished painting, I can easily omit any unwanted features, such as telephone poles and wires and other trappings of civilization.

But Leo, who works with a camera, has a harder task. What he sees when he trips the shutter is exactly what he gets on film. Consequently, ever since we moved into our lofty perch, the photographer in him has been excruciatingly aware of the wires strung between him and the flawless photo he envisions.

One day around 30 years ago, hoping to circumvent these insults to his lenses, Leo climbed up into the attic and cut a hole at the peak, which he hoped would lift his viewfinder above the offending wires. The lines were still in the picture, though, so he moved on to the roof's highest point. There he installed a platform big enough to hold him, his camera, and his tripod.

In the years that followed, whenever the view from the front window in-spired him, he would load up his equipment, climb out an upstairs window, and scale the sloping roof to its tip. Once he got situated on his platform, he'd snap away to his heart's content.

It was usually worth the effort, although there were days when -- by the time he got his gear on the roof -- the cloud formation that had originally captured his attention had already gone south. And more than once, strong winds drove him to the calmer and warmer climes of the living room, where the wires again flaunted their dominance.

It took about 20 years before that dominance was threatened. This began the day our neighbor, Don Stroh, came to our door with happy news: He was gathering signatures for the undergrounding of the overhead wires on our street! Naturally, Leo signed the document immediately.

It took another 20 years, however, for our application to reach the top of the city's long waiting list. More time elapsed before they actually began the work. But once here, they moved quickly, tearing up the streets and sidewalks in order to bury the conduits that would deliver utilities to each home. It was an enormous undertaking, done efficiently and with little inconvenience to the residents.

Another year passed before the new streetlights -- old-fashioned black metal fixtures topped with glass bulbs -- were installed. But the old wooden poles were left standing, and many moons passed before work crews came one weekend this summer to take them down. We watched with great satisfaction as they dismantled the now useless poles, sawing them off in three sections, then carrying them away in a big, strange-looking vehicle.

The day after the poles were carted off, our neighbor Wendy appeared at our door with a bottle of fine champagne to toast the long-awaited occasion. Our street had been transformed! The three of us clinked our glasses sol-emnly, while feasting our eyes upon the new, unadulterated panoramic view of our beautiful city -- truly a sight to behold!