Noe Valley Voice February 2003

Are We There Yet?
Take a Mural Walk With City Guides

By Janis Cooke Newman

I am standing in front of a painting that features an embracing interracial couple, an Aztec poem, and a man with an exploding Don King hairdo.

"Look, Mom," says my 7-year-old son, Alex. "It's the Enterprise."

I follow his gaze to a three-panel mural that depicts the past, the present, and the future, and is filled with dinosaurs, rainbow-painted VW vans, and big-eyed aliens. In the future panel, I spot the TV spaceship, which I take to be proof that, like the past and the present, the future will contain Star Trek.

Alex and I, and a half-dozen people hailing from Great Britain, Buffalo, N.Y., and San Mateo, are taking a City Guides walking tour. City Guides, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library, runs close to 30 different free walking tours of San Francisco--from the Victorians of Alamo Square to the vistas of Land's End, the pagodas of Chinatown to the mansions of Pacific Heights.

Alex and I have chosen the Mission Murals Walk because what kid can resist the idea of someone being allowed to paint on a wall?

The murals we're looking at flank the entrance to Flynn Elementary School on Precita near Harrison. Across from the man with the Don King hairdo is a painting called "Spirit of Mankind," which is peopled with the denizens of the Bernal Heights neighborhood, including a smiling drummer in an Oakland Raiders' shirt.

According to our guide, these murals were painted in the 1970s and were the brainchild of Susan Cervantes, Flynn Elementary's former art teacher and the founder of Precita Eyes, an organization that is responsible for more than 200 San Francisco murals.

Our guide leads us across the street to see the paintings on the front of the Precita Community Center--masked revelers from the first Mission District Carnaval, watched over by a green-winged madonna. Then he takes us a couple of blocks away to see the murals at Garfield Pool--psychedelic fish that look as if they've flippered over from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.

But the best stop is Balmy Alley off 25th Street near Harrison. Every available inch of this blocklong alley is covered with murals painted on garage doors and the sides of houses.

The Virgin of Guadalupe in a hot-pink gown stares across at the Indian god Manjushri, who is painted with saffron-colored skin and blue hair. Magenta parrots fly around the 14-Mission bus, which has sprouted wings. One mural, painted by HIV-positive children, shows a crying woman, a teddy bear, and a clock.

I like the mural honoring Latin movie stars, which features Dolores Del Rio cradling a pink pig and an actress called Dona Diabla, who has a doorknob incorporated into her headdress. Alex prefers one in which a man appears to be puking clouds.

Our guide stops in front of a painted Virgin on the side of a house. "People used to pee here at night," he tells us, "so the owners had a Virgin painted."

Walking through the alley, we're surrounded by the sherbet colors of the murals--tangerine orange and lemon yellow, lime green and raspberry pink. Salsa music pours from the windows of the street's inhabitants, who are outside fixing bicycles and chatting among harlequin serpents and purple coyotes. Inside an open garage, a man paints a blue-robed Virgin, resting his canvas on the hood of an old Nissan.

We come out of the alley on a block of 24th Street where the air smells sugary from the open doors of pastry-filled panderia. On the side of the meat market La Gallinita, we stop to admire a mural of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, the god and goddess of Mexico City. Popocatepetl is wearing a feathered hat and little else. Ixtaccihuatl is swooning across his shoulder. The whole thing is steamy in a romance-novel kind of way.

At the corner of Florida and 24th, we view the mural-covered walls of St. Peter's Church, which were painted to commemorate 500 years of native resistance. One panel depicts an army of conquistadors and U.S. soldiers pouring from the mouth of hell. Another is filled with skeletons and dead bodies painted in blacks and grays.

Around the corner from the Galeria de la Raza art gallery on 24th Street we find a mural of a sour-looking man with a mustache. "That is the patron saint of drug dealers," our guide informs us. No, really.

The tour ends at the 24th Street Mural Park, where all the murals are kid-related--spotted dogs on swings and buses wearing sneakers. I'm expecting Alex to want to stay and play on the climbing structure, but instead he begs me to take him up the street to the Precita Eyes storefront, where they sell the intensely pigmented paint used for mural painting. I get him to settle for a nice box of sidewalk chalk. h

The Details

City Guides offers walks every day of the week, with four walks scheduled on Saturday and five on Sunday. To get a schedule, call 415-577-4266, or visit the group's web site at Suggested walks for kids include Mission Murals, Chinatown, Land's End, and Embarcadero North. Walks generally last from 11/2 to 2 hours. No reservations are necessary; just show up at the meeting place. While the walks are free, the guide does pass around an envelope at the end of the walk for donations.

Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center is located at 2918 24th Street. For more information about the center's drop-in art classes for kids and adults, call 415-285-2311 or visit Precita Eyes also offers weekend mural walks that are more in-depth than City Guides'.

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at thereyet@