Noe Valley Voice July-August 2008

Neighborhood Won't Be the Same Without Harry Aleo

By Steve Steinberg

Noe Valley said farewell last month to Harry Aleo, one of the neighborhood's most talked about and colorful individuals. The longtime owner of Twin Peaks Properties passed away on June 21 from cancer. He was 88.

Aleo, who was a World War II veteran, a one-time aspiring major league baseball player, and the owner of thoroughbred racehorses, was best known in liberal Noe Valley as Mr. Conservative.

He festooned the windows of his 24th Street realty office with photos of Republican icons like Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon. The pictures, along with such handwritten signs as "Welcome to Looney Valley, the home of the cell phone, latte-sipping, left-wing liberals," seemed designed to taunt the inhabitants of this Democratic stronghold.

"But what he really wanted was for people to think about things," said Carol Yenne, owner of the children's clothing store next door and a longtime acquaintance. "He felt many people weren't thoughtful enough about the important issues of the day, and he wanted to provoke them into reflecting more on what was going on, both locally and nationally." Of course, Yenne added, "he also wanted people to know where he was coming from."

Photo by Beverly Tharp

Aleo's gallery of Republican presidents was not always graciously received by passersby.

"People would come into his office and scream at him about his window displays," recalled friend Bob Roddick, a Noe Valley attorney with a practice on Castro Street. But Aleo remained unruffled, he said.

His "Welcome to Looney Valley" jingle has now become a keepsake, inscribed on tins of chocolate at Chocolate Covered, the 24th Street candy store across the street from Twin Peaks Properties.

Slogans Only Part of the Story

If you had judged Aleo only by the slogans on his storefront, you might have been surprised by the other dimensions to his character.

"Outwardly," said Yenne, "he could appear to be a hard shell, a curmudgeony conservative. But he was really an authentic, caring, personable individual."

"I never heard him say a bad thing about anyone," agreed Roddick.

According to Yenne, Aleo often would sponsor local homeless people who were in need. She said he once helped out a man who was panhandling in Noe Valley by buying him a bus ticket to his family's home. Later, Aleo received a postcard from the man, thanking him for the ticket and telling him that he had reconciled with his family and was making a new start.

He was also a good friend to Jesse Zele, the homeless man who used to sit in front of the municipal parking lot on 24th Street near Castro. Zele died in September 2005, but Aleo continued to keep several pictures him in his office window alongside the Republican presidents.

Neighborhood Came First

Aleo was a strong supporter of Noe Valley and the Noe Valley Merchants Association, to which he belonged for 60 years. He was president of the association for several terms. "He cared about Noe Valley in a way that not many did," said Yenne. "He was a real pillar of the community."

Despite his political leanings, Aleo supported and worked with Noe Valley's Democratic supervisor Bevan Dufty. "He respected Bevan because he worked for the neighborhood," said Yenne.

Dufty returned that respect: "Harry and I had a unique and wonderful relationship that probably mystified some people." Dufty noted that Aleo went so far as to put one of Dufty's campaign posters in his office window--right next to Reagan--during his 2002 run for supervisor.

"I was momentarily agasp," Dufty recalled. "People are going to think I'm a Republican!" He added that the two got along, "even though I was gay and there were some things about me that Harry didn't get."

Thank Him for Parking Lot

Roddick, who knew Aleo growing up in Noe Valley, said his friend "contributed like crazy" to local events. "He would always bring books and candy for the kids at Christmas and would always be there for the annual Noe Valley Hayride."

One of Aleo's biggest contributions to the neighborhood was the municipal parking lot on 24th Street. When the old Alta Mira movie theater came up for sale in the early 1960s, Aleo encouraged the Merchants Association to buy the building and turn the property into a badly needed parking lot, Roddick said. The association did not have the money, so Aleo bought it with his own funds in the association's name. He then sold the property to the city under the condition that the city turn the land into a municipal lot.

A Soft Spot for Tenants

Although Aleo acquired numerous commercial and residential properties in San Francisco, he was not greedy. He took pride in treating his tenants well.

"He was a fantastic landlord, the best," said Glen Potter, whose Accent on Flowers storefront on 24th Street was owned by Aleo. "He was fair to everyone who rented from him."

In fact, according to Potter, Aleo would get upset if other landlords were exploiting their tenants. Potter said some of Aleo's residential tenants paid less than market rate for their apartments. "He was generous with his tenants who couldn't pay any more."

One person who attempted to talk Aleo into taking a more business approach was Joel Panzer, head of Real Management Company on Castro Street. "Fifteen years ago, I tried to convince him to let my company manage his properties. I told him we could get more rent than he was getting, and he could go to the horse races and relax."

But Aleo would have none of it. "'Let 'em alone,'" Panzer recalled Aleo saying of his tenants. "'Whatever their rent is, that's what it is.'"

According to Panzer, Aleo said that when he got out of the army after World War II, he couldn't find an apartment until a friend helped him. Aleo also told the Noe Valley Voice in a 1999 interview that when he first opened his real estate office he was assessed a very decent rent by the building's owner. That landlord's attitude also helped shape Aleo's approach.

"He had a real soft spot for other people," Panzer said. "He was a mensch, which [in Yiddish] means a human being."

Although his business proposal came to naught, Panzer did develop a friendship with Aleo. The two men especially enjoyed looking at old documents and photos, of which Aleo had an extensive collection. Many of them adorned his 24th Street office window. There were photos of the 1955 Dodgers (that's the Brooklyn Dodgers) and pictures of San Francisco homes with decades-old prices, as well as vintage newspapers and magazines. Panzer hopes Aleo's collection can somehow be preserved, perhaps in the Noe Valley Library. He also would like the city to name Noe Valley's parking lot in honor of Aleo.

Almost a Brooklyn Dodger

It would seem a fitting gesture, not only because Aleo made the lot possible, but because almost all of Aleo's life was interwoven with Noe Valley. He was born here Dec. 7, 1919, and grew up above his parents' fruit and vegetable market at 820 Diamond Street. Aleo attended Noe Valley Elementary, which used to be located on the site of the present-day Noe Courts park. Later he attended James Lick Junior High and then Mission High School.

From an early age, baseball was a big part of Aleo's life. He played for San Francisco Junior College--today City College of San Francisco--and then went on to sign a minor-league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Unfortunately, an injury to his arm ended his playing career, but he still remained an ardent Dodger fan, even after the team moved to Los Angeles.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Aleo joined the U.S. Army. He would eventually fight in the Battle of the Bulge with Gen. George Patton's Third Army.

At war's end, Aleo decided to get into the real estate business. In 1947, he and a partner opened Twin Peaks Properties on 24th Street where Haystack Pizza is today. He moved his office to its current location at 4072 24th Street in 1958.

Passion for Racehorses

Aside from real estate, Aleo's other great love was thoroughbred horseracing. He became involved in the sport in the late 1970s and soon owned a series of multiple stakes winners. One of his horses, Lost in the Fog, achieved national prominence. The colt won its first 10 races, as well as the Eclipse Award as an outstanding sprinter in 2005. Lost in the Fog went on to earn almost a million dollars in winnings, before having to be euthanized, ironically because of cancer, in September 2006. The horse and its owner have been immortalized in a just-released documentary film by TV producer John Corey called Lost in the Fog.

Aleo is survived by his longtime companion Deannie Bartlett and three daughters, Carol, Terri, and Valerie. Family and friends held a memorial service on June 27 at Valente Marini Perata & Co. funeral home on Mission Street. Aleo was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma.

Noe Valley expressed its grief last month by placing bouquets of flowers and poignant notes outside Aleo's now closed office door. "Harry, we loved you," said one. "Hope we meet again."