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Harry Aleo -- Champion of Small-Town Noe Valley
By Jim Christie
With Noe Valley about to celebrate its History Day on June 26 (the last History Day of the century!), what better way to reminisce about the past than by hearing from a man whose neighborhood connections go back 75 years?
Harry Aleo, the owner of Twin Peaks Properties, was born in San Francisco in 1920, and moved from the South of Market area to Noe Valley when he was 5. These days he lives "just six minutes away" in West Portal, but he still spends a considerable amount of time in the neighborhood.
Entering his 24th Street office feels like a journey back in time. Behind the front counter there's a pile of firewood and an axe sitting next to a wood-burning stove. The walls are covered with aging framed photographs, mostly of racehorses, one of Aleo's passions. The room has a couple of comfy chairs and several 1940s-era radios, one of which is tuned to a station playing "Stormy Weather" (which Aleo unabashedly sings along with).
He sits down in a swivel chair behind his desk, leans back, and peers suspiciously through his eyeglasses at the interloper who wants to hear about the good old days. Aleo's wavy silver hair is combed back neatly, and his strong facial features only hint at his Italian ancestry. His fit, compact frame and a brown leather bomber jacket give the impression of someone decades younger.
Aleo's speech is peppered with mild oaths, and his gruff manner can be intimidating. (He usually avoids interviews and likes to dismiss the Voice as "that radical rag.") But once he warms to his subject, he sets his natural guardedness aside.
Aleo has plenty of fond memories of his childhood in Noe Valley. He lived with his parents at 820 Diamond St., above the small fruit and vegetable store they operated for 30 years. Harry delivered groceries for Aleo's Market as a youngster, and he attended the neighborhood's public schools.
Harry started grade school at Noe Valley Elementary, a wooden schoolhouse at 24th and Douglass streets (where Noe Courts is today). Then he moved to James Lick Junior High when it opened on Noe Street in the 1930s.
"James Lick was originally a four-story wooden building," Aleo says. "Then they tore it down. I had the distinction of being in the last class at the old James Lick and the first class at the new James Lick."
One of Aleo's biggest smiles is reserved for his memories of the original Herb's Fine Foods (3991 24th St.) -- whose proprietors were Herb and Margaret Gaines. The soda fountain was directly across from the Noe Theater, the majestic movie house that stood where Just for Fun and Ritz Camera are now.
"Movies cost a dime," he recalls. "Then we'd have dime hamburgers and milkshakes at Herb's after the show." The film he remembers most from the Noe's heyday is The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939.
Aleo also engaged in his share of adolescent pranks with his friends. On Halloween he and his buddies would toss eggs through the angled open windows of the Noe Valley Library's upper floor. Then there was a fellow named Buxy Mullins who would drive his convertible down 24th Street with his head popped up through a hole in the ragtop. "We'd lob water balloons at him if we spotted him coming," laughs Aleo. "We had good clean fun back then."
The convertible triggers another recollection. "One of the strange things was that we used to have five gas stations and very few cars," Aleo says. "There was the Flying A, where Home Savings is now, a Richfield station at Church and Jersey, a station at 24th and Diamond, one next to Haystack Pizza, and another at 24th and Church. Now we have no gas stations and too many cars."
Aleo smiles and makes a claim that present-day car owners can only dream about: "Back then, you could drive anywhere and park."
Still, public transportation was king in the '20s and '30s. Aleo remembers the old Number 11 streetcar, which ran on 24th Street from Hoffman Avenue down to Dolores, where it turned left heading north. At 22nd Street it cut over to Mission Street for its run to the Bay.
"There was also a cable car barn where Walgreen's is today," he adds. "Its cars traveled along Castro from 26th to 18th." (The Castro Street line was phased out by 1941 and replaced with diesel buses. Later it switched to electric trolleys and became the 24-Divisadero.)
When Aleo and his pals weren't tossing water balloons or hitching rides on cable cars, they played a lot of baseball. "I was with the Douglass Midgets," he says proudly. "Glen Park's team would come to Douglass Park to play us, and we'd walk over the hill to Glen Park to play them. Good Brothers Dairy was over there, and cows used to graze where Glen Canyon is today."
Baseball remained an important part of Aleo's life. After graduating from Mission High School, he was a pitcher and third baseman at San Francisco Junior College (now City College). He later played semi-pro ball. In the early 1940s he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but an arm injury cut short his career. Aleo still has the release letter he received from the legendary Branch Rick-ey. He remains a Dodgers fan to this day.
Aleo was almost 21 when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place. He remembers climbing up to his rooftop the night of Dec. 7, 1941, and looking around at San Francisco shrouded in darkness -- a blackout was in effect because of a rumored Japanese air attack.
Like many other young men, Aleo was drafted by the U.S. Army. But he was initially turned down because of a slight hernia. He had surgery to correct the problem, was reclassified 1-A, and eventually fought with the 87th Infantry in France, Germany, and the Ardennes campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge with General Patton's 3rd Army.
After returning from the war, Aleo began working part-time at a real estate firm. He decided after six months to start his own real estate and insurance brokerage, so he and a partner, Jerry Butler, opened Twin Peaks Properties in 1947. (Butler was involved for only a few years.) The original office was located on 24th Street where Haystack Pizza is today. Aleo paid $75 per month rent for 12 years.
"Johnny McCarthy [the landlord] never considered raising the rent," Aleo says. "These days it's how much can I get-- not what's a fair and just rate. I understand that if someone buys property at current prices, they need to cover their mortgage payments, but some people bought years ago. I'm against gouging rents."
Aleo considers himself to be a Johnny McCarthystyle landlord. He prefers that his residential and commercial rental rates remain confidential, but the numbers he mentions are well below what the market would bear now.
Twin Peaks Properties moved to its current location at 4072 24th St. (near Castro) in 1958, when Aleo became the sales agent and eventual buyer of the building next door to John's Pool Hall (now the Mitre Box frame shop). Aleo remembers that the space had been occupied for years by Pete's Grocery, but Pete decided to retire when the owner put the building up for sale.
"It was a great opportunity," says Aleo. "That's where all the business was, between Castro and Noe. There wasn't much of anything near my first office."
The building owner wanted $35,000, with $5,000 down, so Aleo borrowed the down payment and the place became his. The mortgage payment was $200 a month.
Noe Valley in preWorld War II days was populated mainly by working-class people of Irish and German descent. Aleo remembers only one African American, who happened to be the mailman. Over time, a few Asian store owners moved in.
These and other changes to the neighborhood were always gradual, according to Aleo. Even the hippie invasion of the late '60s had little effect on the neighborhood. Aleo remembers joining a Council of Merchants delegation to meet with the mayor about the "vagrant" problem in the Haight. "Mayor Shelley just held up his hands and said, 'What the hell can I do?'" laughs Aleo.
The only time Aleo sensed an abrupt shift in Noe Valley was when Safeway opened in Diamond Heights. "Look at what they carry," he says, "cards, flowers, a bakery, meat and fish markets. Just think of all the small shops that represents. The little guys couldn't compete!"
Asked about the issue of chain stores in the neighborhood, Aleo says, "You can't keep a chain store out just because they're a chain, although I wish you could. But there are other ways, like [looking at] the impact on traffic and parking they create, and by limiting the area size of the business. I want to maintain the small-town charm of the neighborhood. I'm for small business."
Many people might be surprised to hear such pronouncements from Harry Aleo. Most 24th Street habitués know him only from his storefront window, where for years they have viewed his collection of Republican memorabilia, American flags, and anti-Clinton political cartoons with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Aleo as a right-wing conservative. He might even be called a progressive, based upon his efforts on behalf of the neighborhood over the years.
He also has something in common with Clinton: they're both saxophone players. Aleo recalls that when the mood struck him, he'd bring out his sax and entertain the neighborhood groups who used to meet at Willopi Hall.
That was back in the '50s, before the hall was condemned by the city. You can thank Harry Aleo for the existence of the public parking lot that sits there now (between Hopwell's and Radio Shack).
When Willopi Hall was put up for sale after being condemned in 1961, Aleo was afraid it would be purchased and turned into something that didn't fit the quiet neighborhood. He wanted to buy it himself, but lacked the $30,000 asking price. He eventually convinced 19 other businesses to acquire it with him (in the name of a title company to ensure anonymity). They then turned around and sold it to the city (for the same amount), upon the city's assurance that the building would be demolished and the space used for a public parking lot. The lot opened in 1963.
Aleo stayed active in the neighborhood by joining the original Noe Valley Merchants Association (NVMA). He served as president several times in the '60s and early '70s, until a couple of divisive issues created a rift in the organization. One faction wanted to institute street fairs, and also promoted an idea with more serious ramifications for 24th Street: "They want-ed to change the zoning to allow second-floor businesses," says Aleo. He and other like-minded members vehemently opposed both ideas, so they left the NVMA in 1974 and formed the Business & Professional Association of Noe Valley.
"After a lengthy battle we stopped the zoning change and kept businesses from the second floors," Aleo says. "If we had lost, 24th Street would not be the same today, since commercial rents are much high-er than residential." In other words, all those upper floors would be offices, and we'd have even fewer apartments for rent.
Several years later, the two merchants' groups reunited when it became apparent that their goals had coalesced once again.
Aleo and fellow realtor Armando Bolanos met with NVMA's president at the time, Vi Gianaras (of Panos' Restaurant, now closed), who assured him that the second-floor-business advocates were gone. The current Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association arose out of that meeting, and 24th Street has remained free of new second-floor businesses ever since.
Aleo is still involved with the group, and he was recently honored as Merchant of the Year by the Council of District Merchants Association. Aleo shrugs off the honor by saying, "If you live long enough, good things will eventually happen to you."
It is now past Aleo's closing time, but he agrees to take a few more questions. Still wondering about his perception of the Voice, I suggest that the Twin Peaks Sentinel, a weekly neighborhood newspaper in the 1930s, was just as "radical" in its time as the Voice is now. "The Sentinel wasn't radical!" exclaims Aleo. "They just printed the news."
To prove his point, he jumps up and rummages through a box of papers, then pulls out a February 1941 issue of the Sentinel. He's right, too. There is no way that the headlines about the annual Police Ball, the Columbia Park Boys' Club variety show, or the doings of the Willopi Council could be considered subversive.
"You just want to stir up controversy," he says about the Voice. He points to the James Lick Just for Fun brouhaha as a recent example. "One kid shoplifts, a store owner chases him and hurts himself in the process, you publicize it, and now we have all these meetings. It was blown totally out of proportion."
But realizing that he's been steered away from the old days, Aleo puts up his guard again. "What else do you want to know?" he says.
How about what's right with Noe Valley? Aleo gazes out toward 24th Street and smiles at a passing stroller brigade. "Well, it's good to see that babies are in season again. I like that."
And how about the old days versus now? "This is still one of the best neighborhoods in the city," Aleo says. "But it was a different life then, and you guys missed it."