Searching for the city’s secrets

Mural at St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church at 1286 Fillmore Street.

Mural at St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church at 1286 Fillmore Street


For the last few years, Miles, my beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback, and I would walk through the neighborhood every morning. Down to Fillmore, up to Broadway, over to Lyon, back to Sacramento. I would point things out to him. I am a designer, by trade and by nature, and I am finely tuned to detail: the font in a logo, the frame on a window, the way a painting is lighted, the clasp on a woman’s handbag.

I would remark at the details as we walked along. Sometimes Miles would look disdainful, as though to say, “Why are you so fascinated by that?” And so we would go on. He held to his mysteries; I held to mine. Then one day he died. He was 14.

It was Miles who first got me thinking about the nature of interesting places in the city. Our journeys led me to start a blog about art, architecture and unusual places in the Bay Area, which led to my new book, 111 Places in San Francisco You Must Not Miss, one of a series of 111 Places books published by the German publisher Emons Verlag.


Fillmore jazz era project being updated



In 2006, internationally acclaimed photographer and professor Lewis Watts and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and writer Elizabeth Pepin Silva published Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era.

From cover to cover, Harlem of the West is filled with vintage photos documenting San Francisco’s historic jazz era during the 1940s and ’50s. The book also features anecdotes from those who lived and performed in the Fillmore during this period. Currently out of print, it continues to be in high demand.

Now the pair has teamed up again to create a unique, multi-platform history project that tells the story of San Francisco’s Fillmore District in its musical heyday. The goal of the Harlem of the West Project is to bring San Francisco’s Fillmore District history back to life in a book filled with rarely seen photographs and stories from those who lived through the period.

Read more: “Gone but not forgotten

Library a treasure in terra cotta

Photographs of the Golden Gate Valley Branch Library © Bruce Damonte

Photographs of the Golden Gate Valley Branch Library © Bruce Damonte


The terra cotta clad treasure that sits at the southwest corner of Green and Octavia Streets is often mistaken for a bank. This exquisitely designed building was built in 1918 as San Francisco’s fifth branch library funded through the Carnegie Corporation’s Library Program. Designed by architect Ernest Coxhead, known primarily for his ecclesiastical and residential works, this neighborhood library incorporates a rounded end resembling a church apse, a semicircular recess often containing the altar.


Focusing on ballerina moms



When I was 10, my parents divorced — and I watched with fear and admiration as my mother got her first job so she could support five children. That made me sensitive to the subject of working mothers. It wasn’t surprising that later, as a photographer with children, I would try and get at that subject. I asked friends who were working mothers to pose for me.

One was an executive who pumped milk in her car as she drove to work each morning. But I couldn’t get the dare in what she did in my pictures. You couldn’t see the baby crying at home, or her anxiety about expressing enough milk, or her cool in doing it right before a meeting with business executives.

I knew almost nothing about ballet or dancers but when I met Katita Waldo, a prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet, holding her 3-day-old son James at CalMart, I wanted to photograph her. Her work was visual and, when she brought her son to the studio or the stage, what I would capture would inherently show the two worlds.


The Bodhisattva barters time



In 1981, the poet Latif Harris was working at — and living above — Browser Books in its former location a block up from the current store on Fillmore Street. Harris was behind the front counter when, he says, “the most beautiful woman in the world” walked into the store.

They did what you do in a bookstore: talked about books, with Harris recommending something he was reading at the time. After she left, he hesitated briefly before chasing her down the street. He asked her to dinner and, to his surprise, she accepted. The most beautiful woman in the world is Alpha Gardner, and she and Harris have been together now for 34 years.


Minerva’s Owl was a beloved bookstore


Juicy News is moving down the hill to 2181 Union Street — the very place, longtime locals will remember, where Minerva’s Owl Bookshop was located for many years.

Minerva’s Owl was actually created three blocks east at 1823 Union in 1964 from what was originally a coal yard. I founded the bookstore with my partner Ruth Isaacs. We met when I worked for her at the Golden Gate Valley branch library, the lovely Beaux Arts building at Green and Octavia. People from all over the city came to her for advice and recommendations about what books to read.


He found his niche

HE’D HAD A successful and rewarding career as a bookseller and then settled comfortably into retirement in his book-filled flat on Bush Street across from St. Dominic’s Church.

Then disaster struck Richard Hilkert.

Richard Hilkert (1928-2014)

Richard Hilkert (1928-2014)

He was walking home from a 78th birthday massage early on the afternoon of August 29, 2006, when a rampaging driver ran him over in the crosswalk at Sutter and Steiner. More than a dozen local residents were injured and one died when the deranged driver’s spree came to an end. Hilkert had a broken shoulder, but recovered — and found himself more popular than ever, his plight having received wide news coverage.

“I think people had forgotten I was still alive,” he said a few weeks later. “Now they’re calling and inviting me for lunch.”

So his charmed life continued for eight more years, until he died on October 9, 2014, at age 86.

Hilkert had continued to live alone in his apartment, surrounded by books and art and music, tended to by a caring circle of friends and neighbors — including those across the street at St. Dominic’s, where he was a member.

He was delighted when St. Dominic’s built a columbarium behind its main altar and he secured a niche for himself.

“I only have to move across the street,” he would say, having prepared detailed instructions for how he wanted his final rites to unfold.

That will happen on November 14 at 1 p.m. when a memorial service will be held in the Lady Chapel at St. Dominic’s.

Alamo Square and the families who lived there


Very soon after I moved to the historic and architecturally rich Alamo Square neighborhood in 1979, the untold stories of its vintage housing stock piqued my curiosity. When I could discover very little photographic or written material, I began my own research and eventually composed old house profiles for the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association newsletter from the 1990s on. By personally contacting descendents of the early owners and occupants of these antique residences and institutional buildings, I was able to secure a wonderful trove of previously unpublished photos and family stories.

The sequence of the profiles was dictated by whichever homeowner in the neighborhood would agree to host an association meeting in their home. In exchange the owners would receive a house history by me and a drawing by former architect Jack Walsh.

Now I have gathered these profiles, drawings and photographs into a new book called The Storied Houses of Alamo Square.

Many of the homes in the Alamo Square Historic District were designed by some of the city’s most prominent architects and contractor-builders for a clientele that included a number of the downtown’s prosperous businessmen. Several families residing here were listed in the pages of Our Society Bluebook. Except for the handful of large 20th century apartment buildings, our housing inventory shows a similarity of scale and building materials that evokes a pedestrian-friendly, residential atmosphere.


Images that tell a story

David Johnson and his iconic 1946 photograph in the 1300 on Fillmore lounge.
Photograph by Rory Earnshaw

A CONVERSATION with photographer David Johnson and his old friend and new wife, author Jacqueline Sue, as a new exhibition of his photographs of the Fillmore during the “Harlem of the West” era opens.

Jackie: In November we will have known each other for 58 years. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated your 88th birthday and our fifth wedding anniversary. Do you remember how we met?

David: Well, my wife Lucy and I and our two children were attending the Westside Christian Church at Bush and Divisadero. The mostly white congregation was interested in bringing more African-Americans to their church. A black pharmacist named Wayman Fuller who was a member invited my family, and we met you there.

Jackie: New in town, age 21, no friends, I was there because it was my family denomination in Kentucky and that was the only Christian Church in San Francisco.

David: You and Lucy bonded quickly and became friends because you were both among the first African-American long distance operators in the 1950s.

Jackie: When your son Michael was born in 1957 and I became his godmother, you were already an established photographer, but I didn’t realize it.

David: Yes, by then, I had photographed many of the historical photographs that are now being exhibited. My studio was on Divisadero Street not far from our church.

David Johnson’s photographs are on view at the Harvey Milk Photo Center at 50 Scott Street from September 6 to October 19.

You see, as a youth growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, I found that I was curious about the neighborhood and environment where I lived. We were poor and living on the edge. However, my foster mother provided a good place for me to grow up.

After my discharge from the Navy following World War II, I decided to come to San Francisco and study photography with Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). While Ansel and other students photographed Yosemite and nature, it was a natural fit for me to photograph people and the Fillmore community I lived in.


Marcus Books locked out

Eviction notice on the locked door of Marcus Books at 1712 Fillmore Street.

Eviction notice on the locked door of Marcus Books at 1712 Fillmore Street.

THE LONG FIGHT to keep Marcus Books in its historic home on Fillmore Street reached another milestone — and perhaps its conclusion — when the new owners of the building locked out the owners of the bookstore May 6. An eviction notice was posted by Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

In an open letter emailed to supporters, the owners of the bookstore wrote:

“It was difficult to know what to tell you about our struggle to stay in our building, its winding path of lawyers and judges and protests and promises, hopes and gravities made it difficult to report our status on a curved road. But the current property owner has changed the locks to the door of 1712 Fillmore Street.”

Read the full letter

EARLIER: “We are refusing to let Marcus Books close