Heart of the City Archives

Summer of contrast in the city of no season
by Hank Donat

When it comes to contrasting moods, nothing beats a summer in San Francisco, where you can watch a young couple walking a pair of unicycles in the rain at Duboce Park and get a sunburn on the same day.

More than ever, the City is a study in contrasting old and new elements. During a visit by out-of-town relatives last week I found myself calling out a growing number will-be landmarks such as the new Conservatory of Music and future towers on Rincon Hill. Then there are those that are old and new at once, such as the Old Mint/future San Francisco History Museum.

One old-and-new treasure of the City is the Palace of Fine Arts. Now that renovation of the lagoon is underway we've said goodbye to the chain link fence that marred many a wedding portrait there. The fence, resembling braces on a beautiful smile, was given its last rites with much fanfare last week.

A visit to the 1915 landmark Palace of Fine Arts must now include a stop at George Lucas' Letterman Digital Arts Center just a couple of blocks away. Not only is the public park there extraordinary, Mayor Gavin Newsom calls Lucas' big screen pixel factory a "cornerstone in the future of cinema."

On the heels of these additions to our landscape, the mayor has called for the addition of 15,000 housing units in the next five years. And while the City ushers in an era of new landmarks, the neighborhoods continue to suffer big losses as some longtime favorites pass into history.

Trevor Hailey has been giving her "Cruising the Castro" walking tour for 16 years. Now Hailey says it's time to pass the baton. She is selling her business and moving to San Diego.

Hailey was inspired by Shirley Fong-Torres, who operates long-running walking tours of Chinatown. After hearing Fong-Torres give an address on entrepreneurialism in 1989, Hailey was off and rolling with Fong-Torres' sound advice and encouragement.

Hailey has since become a leading resource for information about the Castro and the gay community in San Francisco. Landmark buildings can be restored or rebuilt. The Palace of Fine Arts was restored once already in the late 1960s. The likes of Trevor Hailey are irreplaceable.

It's easy to overlook the G.F. Thomas Cleaners, with its location on a quiet stretch of 14th Street in the Duboce Triangle area. The storefront is the oldest business in the City continually operated by the same family. According to some reports it is also the oldest dry cleaning shop in the United States. After five generations and 119 years of service to San Francisco, G.F. Thomas will close up shop on September 3.

With a theme of old and new close to mind as I walked through the City last week, I observed a changing institution in North Beach. The Condor sports bar, the former historic Condor strip club, is now a seafood and jazz joint. The Condor sign remains, but purists will not be consoled. The sign belonged to the sports bar and is not the original.

Across Columbus Avenue at The Stinking Rose, Lee Houskeeper hosted a special session of his dinner group, dedicated to the memory of Chet Helms. Helms, the renowned Summer of Love organizer, passed away after a stroke several weeks ago.

Throughout the evening of memories and stories of Helms came discussion of an appropriate way for the City to recognize his influence on our social culture. "Chet taught Bill Graham everything he knew," said one mourner.

Momentum exists to have a meadow in Golden Gate Park named after Helms. PJ Corkery's suggestion was repeated in Rolling Stone magazine and many think it's a good idea. Now, a faction is growing to have Hippie Hill, where Haight Street meets Stanyan, renamed Chet Helms Hill. "The City may be concerned that Hippie Hill attracts drug users," says Houskeeper, "but that won't be affected one way or the other if the hill is named for Chet."

Last week Houskeeper, still mourning the death of another longtime pal, Dick Hongisto, called me at home before breakfast. "We keep losing the greats!" he announced. "Oh no," I said bracing myself for the worst. "Spud Murphy died," said Houskeeper. I wasn't clear on Murphy's contribution, but Houskeeper set me straight. "He wrote the Three Stooge's theme music!" Somehow I knew Chet Helms would appreciate Houskeeper's sentiment and his attempt to lighten his own mood. I may need to take Houskeeper with me when I visit G.F. Thomas.

Welcome to MisterSF.com. Please visit the site often to keep in touch with San Francisco, for your own amusement, and to use the Local Joints section as a portal for independent businesses. Keep your money in the neighborhoods... Watch this space for observations, interviews and more from around town. All other sections of MisterSF.com are also updated continually, so come back and watch us grow!

Contact MisterSF.com

Copyright 2005 Hank Donat
mistersf.com home