Heart of the City Archives

Willie's new ride: Former Mayor Brown has been taking the bus.

It's the same old City, with change to spare
by Hank Donat

If I woke from a 13-year nap I would find that George Bush is running for re-election with a war in Iraq and the poor at home getting poorer. A closer look reveals that some details have changed. In 1991 it was about "the economy, stupid." Today it's about, "how stupid do you think we are?"

As I looked around the City during the past week I found that many other things had also changed and stayed the same in varying ways and degrees.

Piccadilly Fish and Chips on Polk Street is a neighborhood institution. For several years it was commonly known as a no-name joint because until recently the only sign out front was a 7-Up soda ad. A new sign proudly proclaims Piccadilly. The fish and chips are as crispy and delicious as ever.

On my way to the Piccadilly, I found former Mayor Willie Brown at a northbound bus stop at Union and Van Ness. Citizen Brown, still dressed by Wilkes Bashford and Ruth Dewson, used a Fast Pass. I didn't see it, but I assume former mayors get a lifetime Fast Pass. Brown will let me know if I am wrong about this.

Brown sat in the front of the bus and chatted with the driver while passengers traded expressions of amazement. Had Da Mayor become a man of da people? Quicker than you can say noblesse oblige, Brown asked the driver to let him off at Clay Street, where there is no designated stop. The driver pulled over for Willie. Some things never change and why should they? A busload of Mr. and Ms. San Franciscos had an unusual sighting to report at dinner.

Imagine my shock when I turned the corner at Bush and Jones and found a worker moving sinks and other equipment out of a dark Mister Lee's salon. Mister Lee's catered to a society and celebrity client list at his beauty parlor and spa at 834 Jones Street for 37 years.

Mister Lee was a neighbor of mine. Anyone could randomly run into Ann Caen or Bea Arthur on the corner because of the presence of his salon in the area. The decidedly unglamorous block on the wrong side of Nob Hill also appears in the Eddie Murphy movie "Metro." In "What's Up Doc?" Barbra Streisand watches a pizza chef toss dough in the shop that's Cybelle's today.

Lee says he wants to slow down, so he sold the building. He'll continue to see clients at the St. Moritz salon at the Grand Hyatt at Union Square. Lee is also taking clients at salons in Marin and Napa. So much for slowing down! Helen Reid, who runs St. Moritz is delighted to have the acclaimed hairdresser on staff part time.

Striking changes greet visitors who enter the St. Francis Hotel on Powell Street. The new Restaurant Michael Mina opened with fanfare last week. In past incarnations, the hotel's major restaurant was The Orchid Room, The Terrace Room, and most recently the Compass Rose.

As its corporate owner Starwood rightly proclaims, the history of the St. Francis is inexorably woven into the history of San Francisco. As part of its continuing anniversary celebration, the St. Francis' own Howard Mutz and Steve Wong have lovingly curated an expansive collection of artifacts and photos from the hotel's 100-year history.

The displays truly have to be seen in order to believe the registry of historic figures who have stayed at the hotel, from Ann Richards to Zubin Mehta. The platinum banded china used by Queen Elizabeth for the Royal Visit State Dinner in 1983 induces oohs and ahhs.

Something that's missing from the hotel lobby is also likely to catch your eye. The historic lobby clock where you could "meet me at the St. Francis" has been moved to the entrance of the Grand Ballroom. (Update: The clock was returned to the lobby after some public outcry. - HD)

The City recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the revitalization of the cable car system, which was out of commission for two years before returning to service in June of 1984. Before that time, little had changed in the cable car, which was invented in 1873.

In March, 1966 Miss America Deborah Bryant appeared for a photo opportunity in the City as grip operator Luther Cann switched on the Car 527's new windshield wiper. It was touted as the first innovation in cable cars, but I've found a non-mechanical exception.

Mona Hutchin was a 19 year-old college student in the early part of 1965 when she staged a protest against the long-held tradition preventing women from standing on the steps outside the cable car. Police hauled Hutchin off after she refused to step inside, but there was no legal violation with which they could charge her. Muni officials then asked the City Attorney to formalize the prohibition of women from riding on the outside board, but that request was denied.

The winner of the 42nd Annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest, held last Thursday at Union Square, was Keith Ware. He was awarded his trophy by the 42nd mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom.

If you think you remember that the 40th annual contest was held just last year, you are correct. A Muni historian said that records show the contest started a year earlier than was previously believed, making last year's winner, Ron East, the 41st champ.

Finally, everyone who appreciates changing San Francisco should go to Jessie Street between Fourth and Fifth for a stunning sight - the dome of the old Emporium. It is held high by a tower of beams in order for workers to build the new Bloomingdale's under it. Wrapped in white plastic, the stand-alone dome is visible all the way to Potrero Hill. The hundred year-old, steel and glass structure weighs a half million pounds. It will be the centerpiece of the new Bloomingdale's when the doors open in 2006.

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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