Heart of the City Archives

Sunset District Earthquake Shack takes flight.


Sunset raises the roof for historic shacks
by Hank Donat

Western Neighborhoods Project founder Woody LaBounty paced like an expectant father in a hospital waiting room. The setting, however, was a muddy lot on Kirkham Street near 47th Avenue in the Sunset District. There, workers from the Sheedy crane company were busy preparing four surviving earthquake shacks for delivery to the San Francisco Zoo.

LaBounty and the WNP spearheaded the effort to move the shacks, which were used as temporary homes for survivors of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Fewer than 25 such dwellings remain of the 5000 that were retrieved from camps following the City's recovery from the disaster. Many of those, such as the Kirkham shacks, were fashioned together to create small homes. "This is the big day," LaBounty said of the effort to save the shacks, "It took us two years to get here."

About a hundred history buffs and Sunset neighbors turned out to watch the dramatic scene as one by one, the four shacks, each no bigger than a large tool shed, were raised into the air and mounted onto flatbed trucks. "We're not in Kansas anymore!" came a shout from the crowd as the first cottage went skyward.

Now that the shacks have been moved to zoo property, they will be renovated for historic preservation and use as a focal point for next year's centennial celebrations.

Artist Anna Conti made the scene on Kirkham Street early last Saturday morning. Conti is a Sunset resident and a true Ms. San Francisco. After reading an item in this space a few weeks ago about a pick-pocket who openly discussed her crimes on a cell phone on Muni, Conti couldn't wait to share her own adventure in cell phone indiscretion.

"I was on a half-full N-Judah at about 9 a.m. on a Saturday," Conti says, "When a man sitting behind my husband and I opens his cell phone and starts talking loud enough to be heard at the opposite end of the car."

"'Yes, this is John Brown,' he says, 'and I'd like to report a case of identity theft. No, I just opened the account and hadn't used it yet. I had to close another account because of an earlier identity theft. Someone nearly cleaned me out, and I'm still fighting with the bank over that one. My account number?'"

Conti says she and the other passengers sat in disbelief as Mr. Brown (whose name I've changed to protect the careless) revealed his address, phone number, and Social Security number to anyone who was listening and everyone else who was trying not to. "By the time we got off the train," says Conti, "we knew his whole financial history, plus when his apartment would be empty, and what was inside." Unbelievable - yet believable!

I finally had a chance to check out the new location for Conti's favorite portrait subject, the Doggie Diner sign, on the median strip across from the zoo near 45th Avenue. Though many consider it a place of honor, others are disturbed that the sign has been removed from its context at the Carousel Diner several yards away.

If I had my druthers, the sign would have been moved to SBC Park, but it does seem appropriate that the Doggie now faces east, toward the past, rather than south, toward Los Angeles, as it had since the days of Playland. If the new location is good enough for Diana Scott and Joel Schechter of the Ocean Beach Historical Society it's good enough for me.

There were memories to spare at the recent "Valencia Rose Revisted" event at the Main Library. Jim Van Buskirk and Doug Holtzclaw organized the evening of stories about San Francisco's legendary comedy club that helped launch the careers of Whoopi Goldberg and most of America's first openly gay and lesbian stand-up comics in the late 1970s.

Valencia Rose founder Ron Lanza said he knew the place was blessed by the start by spirits from the venue, a former mortuary that currently houses the New College. Much has been written about the club that introduced audiences to Tom Ammiano, Karen Ripley, Marga Gomez, and Broadway favorite Leah Delaria, but an unusual claim to fame was revealed. Because the building had a loading ramp for coffins, the Valencia Rose was one of the first wheel chair accessible nightlife spots in the City. Lanza was also a pioneer of smoke-free venues, the Valenia Rose and later Josie's Cabaret, long before local laws prohibited lighting up indoors.

Ammiano recalled that the Valenica Rose provided a place for gays and lesbians to see their own lives and stories reflected on the comedy stage for the first time. "There was always a feeling like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland cleaning out the barn to put on a show," Ammiano says, "The performers felt like stars. We were all hoping to be the first out gay comedian on the Tonight Show."

That distinction went to comedian Bob Smith in the mid-1990s, more than a decade after the Valencia Rose closed.

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