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Farewell to Noe Valley
By Larry Beresford
FOR 18 OF MY 19 YEARS in San Francisco, I lived within or at the fringes of Noe Valley, which is named for Jose de Jesus Noe, the last Mexican alcalde or mayor of the city that became San Francisco. From 1846 to 1852, Noe owned a vast, undeveloped tract of land called Rancho San Miguel, which included one-sixth of present-day San Francisco and all of Noe Valley and surrounding areas. I spent some of my Noe Valley sojourn just across the neighborhood line (although still within Noe's rancho), first in the Fairmount District of Glen Park and more recently in the Castro above 20th.
But wherever I hung my hat, I saw Noe Valley as the quintessentially charming San Francisco neighborhood, with the Noe Valley Voice its perfect small-town newspaper, whose narrowly prescribed parochialism was an essential part of its charm. Recently, however, I've been forced to confront new realities -- in the neighborhood's changing character as well as in my own life.
In June, my wife and I filled a dumpster with old junk, then the back of a Bekins van with newer junk, and moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue new career opportunities. We hope to return to the Bay Area someday, but we fear that Noe Valley will be all but unrecognizable -- based on today's insane real estate trends.
At the risk of becoming a cliché, I now tell friends that the old neighborhood ain't what it used to be. "You should have seen it back when it was great," I say, sounding just like the people I met when I first moved west in the spring of 1980, hitchhiking out of Minneapolis.
Noe Valley, they explained when I arrived in San Francisco, is where the hippies from the Haight-Ashbury settled in the early 1970s after they graduated from the acid tests and took real jobs. They moved over the hill to take advantage of the cheap Victorians, much as the gays were doing in the Castro, the adjacent neighborhood to the north.
The valley was reputed to be the home of Carey, a rogue made famous in the Joni Mitchell song, as well as countless musicians, artists, actors, and filmmakers. Singer Bobby McFerrin, who came to fame soon after I saw him perform at a Voice benefit at the old Finnegan's Wake bar on 24th Street, and comic Robin Williams, already world famous, could be seen casually dining at 24th Street restaurants like Panos and the Acme Metal Spinning Works Cafe.
One of my first memories of Noe Valley, before I moved to the neighborhood, was coming home on the streetcar from a temporary typing job downtown (followed by drinks in the erstwhile beatnik haunts of North Beach) to a livingroom sofa I was occupying on Corbett Street. I somehow got on the J-line by mistake, not realizing that it didn't cross Castro like the other green torpedoes. But I didn't discover my error until we'd coasted through the shadowy concrete canyons beyond Mission Dolores Park. After I got off at 24th Street, I had to walk back to Market along Church. As I peered up at the towering houses on my left and the dark and mysterious Victorians sloping down the hill to my right, I wondered how such a different world could exist just a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of the Castro.
Then there was Little Italy, which always had a line out the door in the early days and even expanded to Little Italy II across the street for a short while. Maybe it was the line or the anticipation, but it seemed then as if Italian food couldn't get any better. The place across the street, now Barney's Hamburgers, was once the delightful Maggie's Restaurant, serving eclectic, eccentric San Francisco continental cuisine in a lovely Victorian home.
The original walls and rooms had not yet been torn out when Maggie's occupied the building, and the tiny bar had a sublime atmosphere. That's where I dined one night in 1981, after interviewing for a shared apartment on Chattanooga, listed at Roommate Referral on Cole Street. The apartment became my first address in Noe Valley after my fifth move during my first year in town.
I was replacing a guy named Bob, who was off to Burma to study Buddhism. Six months later, he turned up to reclaim his La-Z-Boy recliner for visiting Burmese monks to sleep on. But he bequeathed me a listing kitchen table and a motley collection of dishes, pots, and pans.
By then I had a new roommate, Mike, who was writing his Stanford Ph.D. thesis in statistics while sampling the San Francisco experience. Many evenings Mike and I caught the jazz shows at the venerable but crowded Keystone Corner in North Beach, or heard performers such as Jessica Williams, doing her Thelonius Monk thing, at the Noe Valley Music Series at the Ministry.
Mike briefly got me into a garage band with some college friends in Palo Alto, but he also studied salsa rhythms at the Mission Cultural Center -- doggedly pounding out his lessons on a rented piano on our back porch.
Through a newsletter production class at Media Alliance at Fort Mason, I met Voice alumnus Deborah Quilter, who introduced me to the paper. I wrote dozens of features for the Voice over the next decade, and most of them were opportunities to learn more about my adopted home. My favorite subjects were Noe Valley history and up-and-coming writers and musicians -- ranging from mystical poet Diane Frank to Asian-American playwright Philip Gotanda to hip-hop artist Dominique DiPrima. I interviewed neighborhood old-timers and pored over old documents and photographs in the Main Library's California Room, sternly presided over by city historian Gladys Hansen. Neighborhood guide Judith Lynch, who wrote the history column in the Voice before I came along, gave me several walking tours, showing me the characteristic touches of San Francisco's master home builder, Fernando Nelson, whose influence lasted from the Victorian era well into this century.
One of my first assignments, in the fall of 1981, was to accompany Lynch on a tour of the architectural sights along the J-line -- which had been inaugurated by legendary Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph on Aug. 11, 1917. Later, "Cruisin' the Castro" guide Trevor Hailey explained to me how our neighboring district gained its identity as a gay mecca.
LESSONS CAN BE LEARNED from history, even on the scale of columns in the Noe Valley Voice. If San Francisco's voters understood the fabulously corrupt history of their city's mayors, would they make smarter choices at the ballot box? If, a few years ago, the opponents of renaming Army Street as Cesar Chavez had thoroughly researched the origins of "Army," would they have maintained their staunch resistance? They failed to understand how casually 19th-century developer John M. Horner planted his identity on the landscape -- or, rather, on the surveyor's map, since the neighborhood was still largely goat farms when he plotted the streets. In his haste to fill out the grid, he'd dubbed three streets after himself, John, M, and Horner; one after his wife; and two others after branches of the military, Army and Navy. (The only one that remains is Elizabeth.)
Another historical connection was Jane Cryan, the president and founder of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of San Francisco Refugee Shacks. Jane lived in an apartment on Randall Street with a stunning view of the city -- and of Noe Valley. But she wished to move into an authentic earthquake shack. These 108 x 148 wood shacks had been built in long rows in the parks for $100 each, to house San Franciscans made homeless by the 1906 earthquake. Later, some of the cottages were hauled off to empty lots to become starter homes. When Cryan moved out of her place on Randall, I arranged to move in, so that I might enjoy eight years of the stupendous view.
For me, Noe Valley is also firmly associated with What's for Dessert, the cafe on Church Street opened by Mervyn Mark while I was living across the street -- and closed the same month I left town (see July/August 1999 Voice). Mervyn's cafe quickly became my second home, where I would write first drafts over coffee and scones several mornings a week. I didn't know then that Mervyn would someday be my brother-in-law. My future wife, Rose, was helping him launch his cafe's operations in the evenings, while I spent mornings at a window table. Much later, we met at a creative writing workshop.
I also witnessed the rise of coffee mania and the spread of chain outlets on 24th Street -- which was once the home of two grand movie theaters -- and the demise in my own time of wonderfully funky restaurants like the Acme, the Meat Market Coffeehouse, and the Noe Valley Bar and Grill. All of a sudden, one day the neighborhood was overrun by babies in strollers, many of them pushed by middle-aged professional women who had graduated from Leslie Kirk Campbell's journal-writing workshop, "Journey Into Motherhood."
Later the real estate madness swamped Noe Valley and even dampened the pages of the Voice. It is probably as pointless for me to complain about the migration of rich young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs into the former artists' haven of Noe Valley as it is for embittered Irish and Italian Eureka Valley old-timers quoted in a recent documentary on the Castro to complain about the influx of gays into their former enclave. Yet it also seems obvious, from my current vantage point, that the San Francisco charm the Internet carpetbaggers have come to purchase will be smothered in their embrace. I can see the ad now: Welcome to Disney's quaint old San Francisco! Purchase your tickets for the Noe Valley Ride at Rite Aid, Radio Shack, or the newly opened Home Depot on 24th Street.
Another center of neighborhood memories is from the years I worked for the old Hospice of San Francisco, which once had offices on 30th Street, and helping to raise funds to open Coming Home Hospice, a national-model AIDS residence on Diamond Street. Now I work for the National Hospice Organization, having left behind a lot of friends and memories.
I promised Rose that we wouldn't have to stay in Washington more than five years. When that time comes, will we be able to defy Thomas Wolfe and go home again?
Have we seen the enemy and it is us? Or is there hope for small-town Noe Valley? Please write the Voice at 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114; or e-mail us at email@example.com. Writer Larry Beresford would also like to hear from you. Send e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.