Remember That Rainy Day When Cesar Chavez Boulevard Was Surfable?


While doing some digital archaeology on an old hard drive recently, I re-discovered an image I took during a very rainy day at the corner of Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Shotwell on February 25, 2004 — almost exactly 11 years ago. Since it’s raining today, this seems like a good time to look back.

Of course, the 2004 image was captured a decade before the installation of all the sexy infrastructure upgrades that gave us a brand new sewer main beneath Cesar Chavez, as well as a tropical-themed median strip. But on that wet February morning in 2004, the old Army Street sewer pipes were overwhelmed, filling the street with so much riverine water that the old concrete medians were completely submerged.

I crossed Cesar Chavez in four-wheel-drive on that day — nervously but successfully.

Later that morning, when I showed my photo to a graphic designer I worked with at the time, she decided to have some fun with the image. Let the Cesar Chavez Surf Competition Begin!


PHOTOS: Telstar Logistics


Pinhole Coffee Connects With Bernal’s Filipino Community


A few weeks ago, Bernalwood’s search robots brought an interesting headline to our attention: “Enterprising Filipina opens hip cafe in hot San Francisco neighborhood.” The accompanying article tells a very cool story about JoEllen Depakakibo, the fashionably caffeinated Filipina entrepreneur who opened Pinhole Coffee on Cortland Avenue., a news site for Filipinos, describes how Miss JoEllen from Pinole has connected with the Filipino community in Bernal Heights:

“[Bernal Heights] was the type of neighborhood I was looking for, a mix of the old and modern, giving me the feel of the 1950s,” Depakakibo related.

“Here, you see amazing people walking and talking to each other,” she added. […] Bernal Heights has had its share of woes because of the rapid gentrification occuring in San Francisco. Before the tech surge, it was a more diverse mix of working class residents, artists and activists. Buck Bagot one of the founders of the Occupy Bernal Movement, was quoted in a piece in Bernalwood blog, saying, “When I moved here, every house on my block had a different ethnicity. There were Latinos, Blacks, American Indians, Samoans and Filipinos. … Now they’re all gone.”

Members of the Occupy Bernal movement are currently fighting to save homes from foreclosures and maintain diversity in the neighborhood. When Depakakibo chose Bernal Heights for her venture, she was not yet aware of the history of Filipinos in the neighborhood.

The late Filipino American Bill Sorro, a longtime resident and beloved civil rights and housing activist, was one of the leaders of the movement in the 1970s that struggled for nine years to prevent the eviction of low-income senior citizens, including Filipinos, from the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (The International Hotel Manilatown Center now stands on the site, a testament to the early organizing for affordable housing rights in the city.)

The number of Filipinos in Bernal Heights spiked starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s because of the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which paved the way for immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East to become permanent residents in the U.S.

Gloria Carvajal, one of the beneficiaries of the law, has lived in the neighborhood since she arrived in the US in 1968 and worked for Pacific Bell Telephone Company (now AT&T) for almost 30 years until her early retirement in 1996. She was active in Saint Kevin Church’s close-knit Fil-Am Association, which no longer exists, but she continues to keep in touch and care for housebound members of the group. […]

One afternoon, Carvajal went to Pinhole to have a cup of java, and as soon as Depakakibo saw her, she bowed, took Carvajal’s hand, and put it against her forehead, a sign of respect for elders among Filipinos. In turn, Carvajal gave her a blessing and welcomed her to the neighborhood, immediately proceeding to tell the young Pinay about Filipinos living and working in Bernal Heights. While decades separated their ages, respect for an age-old tradition and love for coffee and community bonded them instantly.

Read the whole thing on, here.

PHOTO: JoEllen Depakakibo (right) gives longtime Bernal Heights resident Gloria Carvajal a traditional Filipino greeting at Pinhile Coffee. Photo my Mila De Guzman for

Tile Mosaic Reveals Catto Family’s Lost Marble Empire on Mission Street


Somewhat by accident, Bernal neighbor Michael Nolan has been doing a bit of historical sleuthing about our stretch of Mission Street near 29th Street. Here are some results from his recent geekery:

I’ve long been fascinated by the social spaces in our neighborhood – where folks used to gather for fun or faith, politics or performance. I was researching the history of Dance Mission Theater at 3316 24th & Mission and mistakenly found myself at 3316 Mission Street, which I discovered was Columbus Hall a century ago.

Here’s how the building looks today; Columbus Hall was the space above the current Cole Hardware:


Meetings of the South of Army Street Improvement Club were held here. Mayor Rolph and City Engineer O’Shaughnessy came to speak on various issues.

But before that, it was the office of John Catto and his granite & marble business, where he made tombstones and church altars in the yard behind the building.

In 1900, John Catto owned lots 2 and 25 in Block 6635, where Cole Hardware and the apartments above now stand, and where his office was at 3316 Mission:


John Catto’s Granite & Marble Monumental Works was around the corner on 29th Street (where the cinder-block plumbing supply building is currently located, and probably including the up-ramp to Safeway).

Here’s how his facility looked in 1904, on 29th Street looking east toward Mission Street and Bernal Hill:


Zoom and enhance:


Peek inside 3316 Mission today, and you can see “Catto’s” spelled out in the marble inlay of the entrance.

In 1900, John and Elvira Catto were living at 351 California Ave. (now Coleridge), just a block from Catto’s office and marble works. Here’s John & Elvira Catto in 1920, after they’d moved to San Mateo:


Some genealogical research led me to John Catto’s great-grandchildren. Earlier this month, they dropped by to see their family name memorialized.

This is Marc Catto, great-grandson of John Catto, and his daughter, Erin Colbert, great-great granddaughter, standing in the lobby of 3316 Mission St. Marc now lives in Santa Cruz County, and Erin lives in San Francisco:

Neighbor Michael says they were surprised to see the mosaic. Yet there it was: Their name, a permanent fixture on Bernal’s portion of Mission Street.

PHOTOS: via Michael Nolan. Cotto Marble Works enhanced detail, via SFMTA photo archive

Photo from Early 1970s Reveals Evidence of Barber Shortage in Bernal Heights


Our friends at the Bernal Heights History project just shared this ridiculously groovy photo of Bernal residents posing for a photo on Cortland Avenue (looking west from Andover) in the early 1970s.

Let’s zoom and enhance to partake of some details:


A few things to notice:

  • Today’s Lucky Horseshoe used to be called The Cherokee.
  • There was a phone booth at the corner! Perhaps that’s where everyone went to change into superhero costumes?
  • Today’s Lama’s Kenpo Karate used to be the Middle East Delicatessen corner store.
  • It looks like there was a pharmacy in the location of today’s Discount Club liquor store.
  • Judging from the hirsute appearance of the gentlemen, it we can surmise that either a) there were no barbers in San Francisco at the time, or b) business was probably very slow for them. (EDITORIAL NOTE: That was a joke.)

Meanwhile, there’s a fun conversation happening at the Bernal History Project Facebook page as some Bernal old-timers try to identify the people in the photo.

UPDATE, January 26: Bernal alum and black-belt history geek David Gallagher points us toward a terrific, reverse-angle 1951 shot of the Arrow Pharmacy that occupied 439 Cortland (today’s Discount Club liquors store):


The caption says:

When Arrow Pharmacy on Cortland was sold by owner Michael Anthony Callagy, Jr. in 1996, San Francisco columnist Steve Rubenstein penned “Ode to a Pharmacy’s Passing – For seniors, S.F. druggist’s closing is a bitter pill” in memoriam.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Bernal Heights History Project on Facebook. Arrow Pharmacy, via Western Neighborhoods Project

RIP Bernice Van Eckhardt, 99, Elsie Neighbor and Expert Practitioner of the San Francisco High Life



Neighbor Bernice Van Eckhardt lived on Cortland at Elsie for 40+ years. She died on January 11, just a few months short of her 100th birthday.

Neighbor Bernice moved to Bernal in 1972, when she was in her 60s. By the time she settled down in a former farmhouse here, she had already spent the previous 40 years living the high-life in San Francisco, most notably in the secret penthouse apartment hidden atop the fabulous Phelan Building on Market Street at O’Farrell downtown. (More on that in a moment.)

Because Neighbor Bernice lived on the corner of Elsie, and because the close-knit residents of Elsie near Cortland take great pride in calling themselves the “Best Block in Bernal,” Elsie-ians naturally embraced Neighbor Bernise as a neighborhood institution. The photo all the way up top above shows Neighbor Bernice at center stage during the fabulous Elsie Street Block Party last September.

Elsie Neighbor Michael Nolan wrote this wonderful bio and obituary for her:

Bernice Margaret Menasco Van Eckhardt
Born June 21, 1915
Died January 11, 2015

She was born in 1915 in Oregon in a town called Wendling, outside of Eugene. She died at her home in San Francisco in 2015, about five months short of her 100th birthday.

Her maiden name was Menasco. Her parents were Henry Clay and Mattie Menasco from Texas and Oklahoma respectively. In the 1920 Census when they lived in Portland, Henry was a street car conductor. On Jan. 15, 1920 when the census was taken of their family, Henry was 38, Mattie was 36, Lois was 15 and Bernice was 4 1/2.

Bernice came to San Francisco at age 22, about 1937. She lived on or near Stanyan Street and then Danvers Street. Her first marriage ended after 4 1/2 years. Then she met Frank Van Eckhardt, 20 years her senior, at a wedding. He was an advertising photographer for The Emporium. They
moved into her apartment at that time at Clement & 5th. They were married at the Presbyterian Church on Van Ness. Bernice worked as a hat check girl at the Palace Hotel.

About 1955, they moved into the Phelan Building Penthouse and lived there for 25 years. Various articles were written about their lovely abode, its outdoor garden and great views of the City. The Penthouse was built by Senator Phelan as a place where he could entertain visiting dignataries. It may have been the Fire Department that finally made the Van Eckhardts move because there was no fire escape.

Frank was born in Holland and came from a prominent family. One of his uncles was the Governor of Borneo when that nation was a Dutch possession.

Bernice bought her home on Cortland, at the corner of Elsie, in Bernal Heights in 1972.

Here’s a photo of Neighbor Bernice and her husband Frank Van Eckhardt enjoying the view from their bungalow penthouse atop the Phelan Building during the 1950s:


Here’s a shot of the Van Eckhardts living large inside the small penthouse, which they shared with four cats, a Collie, five parakeets, two goldfish, and a large turtle:


In 1963, The San Francisco Examiner did a glamorous article and photo spread (PDF) about the couple’s schwanky pad. The article notes that closet and kitchen space was extremely limited, but the couple enjoyed a 1200 square-foot outdoor garden on the deck that Bernice maintained. That’s Bernice, in the photo on the left side:


The Examimer’s style critics were impressed with Neighbor Bernice’s proto-Ikea interior design acumen:


In 2010,  a few decades after Neighbor Bernice settled into her Bernal Heights low-rise, Neighbor Michael Nolan took her to visit the Phelan Building penthouse for the first time since the 1970s:


Neighbor Bernice was clearly an expert at the fine art of living, and her decision to settle down in a Bernal Heights farm house was just the final chapter in a lifetime spent living well.

Her awesome neighbors on Elsie already miss her…

PHOTOS: Block party and 2010 photos courtesy of Michael Nolan and Elsie Street Neighbors. Penthouse photos via this and this, with special thanks to Marcin Wichary.

Explore Bernal History With This Awesome Photo-Map Tool Thingy



At the present moment, at the cusp of the fifteenth year of the new millennium, we are enjoying a golden age for two disciplines that have previously been confined to the far fringes of geography geekdom: Cartography and Archival Photography.

Digital networks have liberated both maps and historical photos from the musty confines of academia and libraries, with generally euphoric results. Happily, its never been easier to visualize a place both as it is today — and as it was in the past.

HistoryPin is a very cool website that brings maps and historic photos together in a wonderfully intuitive way, but placing historical photos on a map that shows where the images were captured. It’s simple and fun, and at the moment, HistoryPin is featuring a special collection about Bernal Heights:


It was in this way, for example, that I discovered the fantastic 1941 photo from the corner of Andover and Cortland that’s shown above.

First, check out the Farmer’s Market store! With Acme Beer! So gorgeous.

Also, now we know the answer to a minor mystery I’ve wondered for a long time: What’s up with the narrow little lot that now serves as the Good Life parking lot? How did that happen? Answer: It used to be the side-yard of a residence that’s now incorporated into the structure of 461 Cortland. Who knew???

There’s lots more geek-pleasure to be derived from exploring the HistoryPin map. Do check it out!

Here’s a parting shot. Can you guess what business now occupies the 1956 location of John Anconi’s Accordion Studio?


Answer: Zante’s Pizza, at 3489 Mission, near the corner of Cortland! Who knew?


Bernal Filmmakers Creating Documentary About Emperor Norton

In the late nineteenth century, back when he was alive and well and enjoying worldwide fame as the self-proclaimed sovereign of all the United States, his Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I did not (as far as I know) live in Bernal Heights. Nevertheless, Bernal has today become the nexus for a devoted cadre of Emperor Norton aficionados.

First and foremost, of course, is one of America’s premier Nortonologists, Bernal Neighbor Joseph Amster, who channels the spirit and dress of Emperor Norton as he leads tourists and history geeks on guided tours of San Francisco:

And who could forget that in 2013, La Lengua rebel propagandist Burrito Justice helped orchestrate a spirited (if unsuccessful) effort to name the Bay Bridge in honor of Emperor Norton.

Now, to complete Bernal’s trifecta of Nortonphilia, Neighbors Jesse Chandler and Kat Shreve have just launched an effort to create a proper, feature-length documentary about Emperor Norton.

Neighbor Kat tells us:

Jesse and I are proud Bernal residents! We reside at Cortland and Prospect (in Cortlandia). We’re writing you today to announce the launch of our Kickstarter campaign to fund a feature-length documentary about Emperor Norton.

The Kickstarter funding will pay for editing, research, illustration, animation, audio mixing, and a musical score to help re-create the world of 1860s San Francisco. We’ve gathered the talent to create an amazing film about the Emperor but now we need your help to tell the story properly.

Thank you for taking the time to check out the project!

Of course, all this Bernal-based Nortonmania doesn’t really require much explanation. From the vantage point of 2014, it would seem that the original Emperor Norton was a very Bernal sort of oddball — whether or not he ever spent much time here. And besides, a proper documentary on Emperor Norton is long overdue, so we raise our imperial champagne flutes to Neighbors Jessie and Kat for making it happen.

Here’s their promo video, in which you will notice that Bernal neighbor and Emperor Norton impersonator Joseph Amster features rather prominently:

So far so good —  Neighbors Jessie and Kat are off to a great start. Don’t forget; you can donate to the Kickstarter here.