Susie Bright Remembers a Life on Bessie Street

Susie Bright is a writer/activist who edited On Our Backs, an influential ‘zine about female and lesbian sexuality that was published during the 1980s. During the heyday of On Our Backs, Bright lived in a small apartment at 25A Bessie Street that also served as the magazine’s editorial office and photo studio.

Honey Lee Cottrell, Bright’s former partner and collaborator, has lived in the apartment on Bessie Street ever since. But on Friday she will be evicted. To mark the sad event, Bright wrote a short essay about years spent in the apartment, and she calls her recollection the “Annals of Bessie Street: From Revolution to Eviction.”

This Friday I am losing my long-standing home in San Francisco: 25A Bessie Street.

My first books Herotica and Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World were written inside this little nest. I grew up as a young woman in this apartment, my daughter grew up here from infancy to adulthood.

The best and most outrageous of On Our Backs pictures were conceived and often shot at Bessie Street. This is where Honey Lee Cottrell, my partner, and OOB’s staff photographer, became a legend.

We had a tiny garden that got a few rays of sun. We turned a roving green briar into a wandering rose. I held my first porno pajama parties there, which later became my big screen road shows: How to Read a Dirty Movie and All Girl Action. The thumb-size cactus we planted outside on the sidewalk grew into a behemoth.

We raised kids here— Honey Lee captured so many of our children’s best moments.

Some things I can’t get out of my mind. Fanny Fatale demonstrated “how to female ejaculate” on our kitchen linoleum one afternoon, and I said we should never clean that spot again. I think our apartment should be made into a feminist historical monument.

I moved to Bessie Street with my girlfriend, Honey Lee Cottrell, when I was 23 years old— and she was 37. It’s a tiny basement apartment on the steep north face of Bernal Hill. The bathtub is in the kitchen, which looks out over all of downtown and the Mission district. The kitchen windows are the one place where the light pours in.

Our first landlord was unsure if I could qualify as a tenant, because at 5’10”, I had to duck to get into some of the corners of the low-ceilinged apartment. I assured her I could— at $400 a month, the price was just right for the two of us. In the early 1980s, Bernal was still a poor and working class, multi-racial neighborhood, adjacent to “Needle Park,” which nowadays is filled with bouncy houses and miniature-dog birthday parties.

I moved out of Bessie Street when I was 30— we broke up after seven years— but I never “left.” I moved a few blocks away, and when Aretha was born, she went back and forth between our two homes. That never ended, no matter how many miles I moved away. The last two years, my daugther lived at Bessie Street with Honey, graduating from college.

Early this winter, the Bessie Street building was sold to a new owner, and after 30 years: “Eviction.” Ironically, it was bought by a wealthy man who wanted to make a home for his young son in the city who otherwise could never afford to rent a place…

There’s lots more at Susie’s site, including many more images from the pages from On Our Backs (NSFW). It’s a poignant tribute to a memorable time and an important place in the evolution of the Bernal Heights we all live in today.

Farewell, 25A Bessie Street.

PHOTO: Honey Lee Cottrell via Susie Bright.
Hat tip: Rita Roti

House Portrait: Chalkboard Garage on Mullen Ave.

Chalkboard House

Chalkboard House

Deep in the depths of Mullen Avenue, there’s a 1950s-style house with two garage doors that have been painted with chalkboard paint. And if you look closely, you’ll find a tidy bucket of chalk sticks sitting at the foot of the doors, in case you feel inspired to make an artistic, political, cultural, territorial, or culinary statement.

Chalkboard House


PHOTOS: Telstar Logistics

House Portrait: Big Pink on Brewster

Brewster at Macedonia

This very big, very pink house at the corner of Brewster and Macedonia is from the late 1950s or early 1960s. It almost looks like a birthday cake; so much so that I find myself wanting to eat all the icing.

But as always with Bernalwood Style, it’s the meticulous attention to detail that really pulls the whole thing together:

Brewster at Macedonia

PHOTOS: Telstar Logistics

House Portrait: Hidden Peralta Street iPad House

When you zip south on US 101 alongside Bernal Heights, it’s hard to miss the giant Apple iPad billboard perched alongside the freeway just beyond the Cortland Avenue overpass.

But what you may not have noticed is that there’s also a house hidden behind that big billboard, and considering the odd location, it actually looks rather charming:

The iPad House

UPDATE: Bernalwood contributor David Gallagher pointed us to this superb 1955 photo that clearly shows this same house (at bottom, center) … as well as the fact that it has been hidden behind a billboard for many decades:

Gee whiz, it sure would be swell to reprise that old TWA billboard with the Lockheed Constellation on it, eh? Here’s a close-up detail:

Other fun things to notice in the detail: Peralta Street is still unpaved. That warehouse in the background is now the (quite good) San Francisco Antique and Design Mall, which was originally built as the headquarters for the American Seating Company.

Photos: Telstar Logistics, Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection

The Lost History of The Beatles House on Precita

The Beatles House (1982)

Beatles House, 1982

This is a tale of The Beatles, a house on Precita Avenue, a mural, an artsy kid, domestic terrorists, classic punk rock, and a lost moment of Bernal Heights bohemia…

For almost two decades, the former “Beatles House,” at 191 Precita was covered by a colorful mural of the Fab Four. The mural became a local landmark and tourist attraction; so much so that the Beatles House was used to represent a rehearsal studio in the film “Living on Tokyo Time,” while also garnering mentions on local TV, CNN, and in local newspapers.

Today, the mural is gone… vanished without a trace.

I live down the street from the former Beatles House, so the neighborhood lore about the mural piqued my curiosity about it. Eventually, I found an old black-and-white picture of the house from 1978:

"Beatles House," 1978

The posting triggered a lively discussion in the photo comments that attracted both past and present residents of the property, and soon the woman who actually created the mural chimed in to tell her tale.

The Beatles mural was first painted in 1974 by Jane Weems, a young woman who lived in the house during the 1970s and 1980s.

In high school, Jane was the drummer/songwriter for a punk band called The Maggots. The band had a local underground hit with their song “Let’s Get Tammy Wynette.” Stereo Sanctity explains:

Formed around the nucleus of drummer Jane Weems and bassist Robert Mostert in ’78, it seems The Maggots proceeded to get through a veritable bus-load of additional members in their short existence, all arriving and departing from within SF’s high school-age punk milieu, raising merry hell in some parental basement and swiftly developing into the kind of band just as concerned with pasting together fake biographies and press releases for themselves and developing their own brand of icky goofball humour as they were with finding shows to play or recording songs.

The Maggots

You can listen to some vintage Maggots here. (Good stuff!) Jane still looked the part in 1982, and apparently she had a favorite Beatle:

Jane Weems

And here’s Jane, hard at work repainting the Beatles House, also in 1982:

Jane Weems, Hard at Work

So what inspired the Beatles House? In an email to me, Jane explained:

“I painted the house in 1974, when I was still in junior high school…. I had painted the walls of my bedroom inside the house, first with yellow submarine, then, I did the Elton John “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album cover really big on one wall, and other paintings of the Beatles & Elton John on my walls… they were pretty much covered… so, I asked if I could paint a mural on the house, and my parents said yes… so, I started to draw out what I wanted to paint, with a pencil, all freehand, in the low parts that I could reach… after painting that, my mom rented a scaffold, so I could go up higher to get the whole front done… in the middle of this, I had to go to school every day, so progress was slow.

The S.L.A. ‘s Emily Harris [of Patty Hearst kidnapping fame] lived secretly in a safe house down the street, and used to come by to “watch me paint” and talk to me about the Beatles.

It was fun, both times I painted it… lots of people would stop & watch, or talk to me when I was up there… when I was finished, for years folks would come by, take pix, ring the bell and see what kind of folks lived inside… : ) the SF Bay Guardian gave me a blue ribbon award once for being voted “The best SF remnant of the psychdelic 60′s” even though it was painted in ’74…

Basically, I was just an artistic kid who ran out of room inside, and started on the outside.

And finally, the Where Are They Now? Today, Jane lives in the Midwest, and Beatles House looks like this:

Former "Beatles House," 2007

IMAGES: Vintage photos courtesy of Jane Weems

The Cottage by the Reservoir (and the Day it Was Demolished)

Here’s a special celebrity guest post by Vicky Walker of the excellent Bernal History Project. Vicky shares a charming tale about a charming house that sat on Elsie Street, alongside the College Hill Reservoir, for 100 years. As a special bonus, she also brings the Interweb premiere of a home movie that shows the sad day in 1971 when the cottage was torn down. Take it away, Vicky…

The College Hill Reservoir was built on the edge of Holly Park in 1870 by the Spring Valley Water Company; the reservoir-keeper’s cottage at 336 Elsie Street was built next to it in 1871. It is described in Here Today thus: “This simple farmhouse, set in a well-maintained garden, looks as if it really belongs on the San Mateo coast. From its lot next to a reservoir, the home commands a fine view of Twin Peaks.”

It was one of only four Bernal Heights buildings considered to be architecturally significant by the Junior League of San Francisco in 1968 (the others are 450 Murray Street, 34 Prospect Avenue, and 3340 Folsom Street) and the only one of the four that no longer survives.

Peter B. Quinlan (1813-1903) was a longtime employee of the Spring Valley Water Company who rose from the position of plumber to superintendent, registrar, and then financial adjuster. While he never lived in Bernal Heights, Peter Quinlan may have helped a relative find work with the company: one Thomas Quinlan is listed as the reservoir keeper from 1880, and was still living there in 1915.

The reservoir’s expanse of open water seems to have beckoned many Bernal residents. An April 1892 Chronicle story tells of how Thomas’s wife, Caroline (described in the headline as “An Old Woman” – she was 53!), accidentally or deliberately fell in and drowned. “He and his wife frequently wandered around the edge of the basin,” the article reports. “About 4 o’clock the old man missed his wife from the house and went to the pond. To his horror he saw her body floating in the water a short distance from the shore.”

One morning in December 1877, Mrs. Peter Brickley of Cherubusco Street strolled naked (except for a wand tipped with several brightly colored ribbons) up to the reservoir. Once there, she took a leisurely bath first in a water trough and then in the reservoir itself. The reservoir-keeper’s aged father “shut his eyes tight and tried to fight her off with a garden rake,” but she managed to evade him. Finally, one young man jumped in to nab her; she was pulled to shore and wrapped in an assortment of clothing provided by the women of the neighborhood. The article concludes, “Mrs. Brickley was conveyed to the City Prison and thence to the House of the Inebriate, and her neighbors are using well water for a few days.”

In January 1916, the determinedly suicidal Agnes Graham of 24 Heyman Avenue was spotted by Holly Park Station relief firefighter Edward Ford, “who, noticing something queer in her actions as she hurried toward the reservoir,” jumped into the water after her and wrestled her to shore. She survived; he sustained severe bruises.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission decided to demolish 336 Elsie after it fell into disrepair; there were attempts to turn the building into a teenage dancehall before it was destroyed. This two-minute home video was shot by sisters Betty Mikulas Kancler and Janet Mikulas Thompson from their home on the other side of Elsie Street, sometime in 1971. It didn’t take long to reduce the century-old building to a pile of timber and rubble, as you can see in this silent home movie filmed on the day the cottage was demolished:

PHOTO: Top, 1891 photo from Bernal hill shows the houses at 418 and 412 Eugenia in the foreground. The keeper’s house is beside the uncovered reservoir, all by itself on Elsie Street. Courtesy of Andrea Cochran. Clean version of the photo here.