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occupants of these antique residences and institutional buildings, I was able to secure a wonderful trove of previously unpublished photos and family stories.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

Songbird in the Swedenborgian choir


BOOKS | Barbara Kate Repa

The versatile and iconic singer Linda Ronstadt has mostly kept a low profile since moving back to San Francisco from her native Arizona about eight years ago.

But all that changed recently with a huge media blitz touting her new book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir. Her appearances these days are made more poignant by the recent revelation that Parkinson’s disease has stilled Ronstadt’s searing singing voice.

She now maneuvers mostly unrecognized throughout the neighborhood: buying her “sensible shoes” at Crosswalk on Fillmore, dining with friends at A-16 or taking walks through the Presidio, sometimes aided by hand canes.

That easy anonymity wasn’t possible back in the day when she ruled the music world with her belting voice and siren-shy demeanor, innocent dark eyes and pouty lips, all hoop earrings and prairie skirts. “That was my ’70s persona,” she told a local crowd recently at a City Arts & Lectures interview. “We were all hippies then.”

Ronstadt lived in Los Angeles at the time, but claims she found the place “mentally exhausting.” So in 1987, she bought the four-level house at 2518 Jackson, overlooking Alta Plaza Park, with its seven bedrooms, music room and sweeping views of the bay. She promptly painted it a controversial shade of lavender and outfitted it with the Victorian decor that’s close to her heart.

And she got to know some of the neighbors.

“She wandered into the Swedenborgian church one day and I asked her if she wanted to join the choir,” recalls Garrett Collins, who then served as the musical director of the historic church at the corner of Lyon and Washington. He asked Ronstadt to audition first, just as he did any other choir member.

“I found out she did not read music, so I offered to give her private lessons on how to do it,” says Collins, who says their time together helped forge a friendship between them.

“She was musically very disciplined — not pompous, not at all what you’d think of as a big star,” he says, fondly recalling the singer’s big easy laugh and the duet of “White Christmas” they performed together for a fundraiser at the Waldorf School. “She was focusing on the two children she had adopted during those years, Mary Clementine and Carlos, and jealously guarding their privacy.”

Ronstadt sold the purple Victorian in 1997 — it was listed for $5.85 million — and moved back to Tucson to be closer to family. But she came back to San Francisco again in 2005, craving its open-minded culture.

She says she took pains to make sure Simple Dreams was not a “kiss and tell” book. It isn’t. She makes scant mention of her past romantic involvements — including several years with Gov. Jerry Brown, who also lived in the neighborhood for a time, when she became known as the First Lady of California. She concentrates instead on the Southern California music scene during the 1960s and ’70s, during which she was dubbed the Queen of Rock, a title she says now makes her cringe.

She’ll likely keep San Francisco her primary residence rather than return to Tucson, where she still maintains another home. “There’s too much cactus there,” she says. “It can make your tires flat.”

Finding love later in life


BOOKS | Barbara Kate Repa

“I was facing the stereotype that all women over 70 look like that picture on the See’s candy box,” laments San Francisco author Barbara Rose Brooker.

That led Brooker to write The Viagra Diaries, a novel chronicling the life and times of Anny Applebaum, an older woman pursuing a writing career, financial independence and undying love — after divorcing her husband when she discovered Viagra in his pocket clearly intended for extramarital escapades.

While not every detail is strictly autobiographical, a painful number come directly from life imitating art. Brooker says men she dated would offer backhand compliments: “You look good — for your age.” And some would make unsubtle age-related inquiries: “You sound like fun. How old are you?”

She was writing a column called “Boomer in the City” for JWeekly, a local Jewish paper, and looking for fodder about finding companionship and love. Her research extended to online dating, although the first service she contacted informed her it didn’t deal with people over age 50. Eventually, her cursor landed on JDate, a site for the Jewish singles community — with a home page peppered with pictures of smiling couples trumpeting their engagements or marriages.


Trying to talk about abortion


BOOKS | Fran Moreland Johns

One chilly afternoon not long ago I pulled on an anorak jacket and walked over to San Francisco’s Laurel Village to pick up some groceries. A young woman who appeared to be about 15 or 16 years old was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Starbucks on the corner of Spruce and California. She was dressed in sandals, jeans and a short-sleeved pink T-shirt with Planned Parenthood emblazoned across the front. She was holding a clipboard with a few papers on it and attempting, presumably, to enlist supporters in the fight against a congressional proposal that would have eliminated funding for the organization.

But she was too cold or too shy to be having much success. She smiled at everyone who came her way, but no one seemed to be stopping. So I did. “Good for you,” I said. “I think defunding Planned Parenthood is a pretty bad idea.”


A poet and now a novelist, too


BOOKS | Mark J. Mitchell

I’ve lived and worked in the Fillmore since before it was new. Old-timers might remember me as the philosopher of beer behind the counter at Bi-Rite Liquors at California and Fillmore before it closed its doors. More recent arrivals might recall me as the Champagne advisor and single malt Scotch whisky guru holding forth at D&M Wines and Spirits for 15 years.

Before moving to the neighborhood, I studied writing and medieval literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz. And even while working all those years in the spirits business, I supported a serious writing habit.

I am primarily a poet, but every now and again poetry is interrupted by prose. My first novel, Knight Prisoner, was published by Vagabondage Press in June. It’s a historical adventure story set in 1470 in London relating the early criminal adventures of two masters of writing and crime imprisoned together, as told through the eyes of their servant.


Finding fate – and faith – near Fillmore

Photograph of Maya Angelou by Dwight Carter

Photograph of Maya Angelou by Dwight Carter

AUTHOR, SINGER, poet, orator, actress and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has had many jobs in her storied life — including, when she was growing up in the Fillmore, a stint as a calypso dancer at the Purple Onion in North Beach.

Recently Angelou recalled her first job: as a San Francisco streetcar conductor.

“I liked the uniforms,” she says. So the 6-foot-tall 16-year-old applied for a job. “I had seen women on the street cars,” she says. “I just had not noticed they were all white. It hadn’t occurred to me.”

When they wouldn’t even give her an application, “I was crestfallen,” she says. Then her mother put steel in her spine. “Go get the job,” her mother told her. “You want it, then go get it.” She went back to the office, taking along “a big Russian novel” to read while she waited.

“By the third day, I wanted to return home,” she says. “But I didn’t want my mother to know I wasn’t as strong as she thought I was. So I sat there for two weeks. And finally a man came out and asked me in.”

Her tenacity won him over — along with her claim of experience working as a “chauffeurette for Mrs. Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas” — her grandmother.

“He accepted me and I got the job,” she says. “That was really my mother’s doing. She was so strict — and so sure about me.”


‘We are refusing to let Marcus Books close’

IT HAD BEEN WHISPERED on the street for weeks: The venerable New Chicago Barbershop had closed and another black Fillmore institution, Marcus Books, would soon be closing, too.

Roots run deep for both the bookstore and its building. Before the historic lavender Victorian at 1715 Fillmore that houses Marcus Books was moved from its original location a few blocks away at 1690 Post, it was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, a legendary after-hours joint that features prominently in the neighborhood’s jazz legacy. Before that — before neighborhood residents of Japanese descent were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II — the building had housed the Nippon Drug Co. in the heart of Japantown.

“Perhaps no other structure in San Francisco has such an extraordinary story,” the Chronicle reported in a splashy feature story in mid-May. But the article did not mention that the building had changed hands at a bankruptcy sale a few weeks earlier, and that its street-level tenant, the oldest black bookstore in the country, was endangered.

That story went public on Sunday, June 9, when the front page of the Examiner proclaimed “Closing Chapter” and a headline inside reported: “Marcus Books on brink of closure.”

The next day a phalanx of black leaders assembled at Marcus Books before a group of reporters and television cameras to decry the events that had endangered the bookstore.