Businesses blooming on Sutter Street

Photograph of Jet Mail co-owner Kevin Wolohan by Kathi O'Leary

Photograph of Jet Mail co-owner Kevin Wolohan by Kathi O’Leary

By Barbara Kate Repa

THE ONCE SLEEPY 2100 block of Sutter Street, stretching from Steiner to Pierce, would seem an unlikely spot for an urban renaissance.

But in recent years the area has quietly remade itself. Even as it lost a few longstanding businesses, it has attracted an eclectic assortment of independent shops — including Jet Mail, which moved down last year from a prime location on Fillmore Street, the newly relocated Iyengar Yoga Institute and gourmet destinations Song Tea and Spice Ace — that have begun to draw increased notice and foot traffic.

sutterstdomOne of the first of the new wave to locate in the area was Olivia Dillan, who with her husband Ben Balzer opened the spice shop of their dreams in October 2012 at 1821 Steiner, two doors from Sutter, and called it Spice Ace.

“When I first looked at this space the landlord warned me away, saying there’s absolutely no foot traffic here,” she says. “But I just had the feeling it would work, that people would find us.”

As she was recalling the conversation, right on cue, several customers filtered in at once, one searching for a specific type of smoky cumin, another looking for a gift for a friend who looks to cook, a third — a recent transplant from Chicago — hoping to find a store that would live up to the specialty spice shop she recalls fondly there. All left with their needs fulfilled.

Dillan, who lives near the shop, remains a loyal booster of the neighborhood and is proud of the Sutter Street surge. “We’re bringing back the small business owners to the area,” she says. “That’s especially important with all the brand name, high-end stores on Fillmore.”

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The golden years: contemplating a move

FIRST PERSON | Hazel Reitz

My husband and I lead active lives and are in pretty good health. But the years are marching on, and to our surprise we suddenly find ourselves in our 70s. A barrage of mail and phone calls pushing medical alert devices, walk-in bathtubs and lifetime care establishments underscores that sobering thought. While not eager to leave our comfortable home, the responsible thing seems to be to examine our options. So together with friends of a similar age, we recently embarked on a series of visits to local “life care communities.”

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Getting the boot

Photograph of Paolo Iantorno, proprietor of Paolo Shoes, by Daniel Bahmani

Photograph of Paolo Iantorno, proprietor of Paolo Shoes, by Daniel Bahmani

By Chris Barnett

SCIONS OF TWO San Francisco real estate dynasties are racing toward a costly collision on Valentine’s Day after seven months of legal jousting. The prize: the storefront on the prime northeast corner of Fillmore and Pine occupied for the last 10 years by Paolo Shoes.

The lease there is officially up on February 14 and the landlord, Webco Group LLC, wants to give the stylish handmade Italian shoe retailer the boot. The store owner claims his lease gives him an option to extend for another five years at today’s prevailing rental rate — which he is willing to pay even though a number hasn’t been put on the table. Webco insists the tenant didn’t exercise his lease option on time and in the proper manner.

The combatants are:

• Paolo Iantorno, 37, the tenant and sole owner of Paolo Shoes, who grew up in tony St. Francis Wood, graduated from prestigious St. Ignatius High School, a third generation member of an Italian family whose father, Sergio Iantorno, and grandfather, Clarence Dahlberg, run San Francisco–based companies that build custom homes throughout the Bay Area.

• Patrick Szeto, 39, the landlord’s representative, raised in San Francisco, and graduated from equally prestigious Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep, a second generation member of the large and powerful Szeto family, owners of Webco Group and American Realty & Construction Inc. led by Patrick’s father, Kwok Szeto, also known as Richard Szeto, with major commercial real estate holdings throughout the city, including 2000 Fillmore Street, home of the shoe store.

Another major player in the drama is Pamela Mendelsohn, a commercial real estate broker with the San Francisco office of Collier’s International. For years, she’s been the leasing queen of Fillmore Street, a confidante of landlords and tenants alike. Mendelsohn leased the Paolo Shoes space to Iantorno a decade ago. And in 2011, she brokered the sale of the entire classic 1928 Mediterranean Revival style building — which includes Paolo Shoes, the Grove restaurant next door, 15 apartments upstairs and parking downstairs — to Webco.

Among its other holdings, Webco also owns the six-acre, 300,000-square-foot parcel encompassing more than 200 commercial and residential units surrounding the Safeway store and bordered by Webster, Geary and Fillmore.

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For sale: our house

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FIRST PERSON | Lucy Gray

AUGUST 2013: I take our younger son, Zachary, to New York, where he will be a freshman in college. While I’m there my husband, David, calls to tell me we must sell our house. I promise to have this accomplished by October 1.

This may sound rash, but on our block of Pacific Heights, houses regularly sell before going on the market. One house sold in half a day. Nothing seems to last more than a week. This was true all through the financial crisis. Prices for homes in our area kept steadily increasing. I bet on this three years earlier, taking the last of our line of credit and renovating the kitchen and reshaping the interior to create two new bathrooms and a bedroom. It was frightening to the core to spend that money. But one reason we bought the house in 1994 was to improve it.

I am still hoping we’ll find a way out of selling. David and I love living here — even more after the improvements. We both work freelance — he a writer and I a photographer — which is another way of saying we practice the art of the long shot. Still, we both work every day as many hours as we have in us and have taken maybe four vacations since our children were born. Every time we went to Europe. A friend suggested we could go away more if we lowered our expectations.

Of course that could also be applied to our buying a home. Perhaps instead of settling in San Francisco we should have moved to a place with great public schools. Or maybe it would have been smarter to sell when we lost our sons’ college fund in one month during the tech bubble. We were still strong earners when our older son, Nicholas, got into the University of Chicago and they told us we made too much for financial aid, while banks told us we didn’t make enough to refinance.
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Walking away from a place you love

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FIRST PERSON | Chuck Smith

Strange. I feel as if I’ve always been a San Franciscan, even though we’ve only lived here for 16 years. The city was in me before I was in it.

As soon as my wife, Lorna, and I arrived in San Francisco, we were drawn to this neighborhood, and a few years after we got here we were able to buy a condo on Sutter Street. We moved in on the Fourth of July weekend in 2000 during the Fillmore Jazz Festival. What a welcome.

From there we made friends up and down the street, never tiring of trekking down the hill to the bay and then back up. Along the way we stopped in every restaurant and shop, new and old — Fillamento, we still miss you! — never passing up a chance to sit outside in the sunshine at The Grove. 
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Feng Schwartz on Fillmore

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FIRST PERSON | John Maccabee

I recently moved to the East Bay and had to leave behind an office I had rented for 20 years upstairs at 2001 Fillmore Street. Leaving the neighborhood was wrenching, although I joked that I was ready to go; I had wrung every cubit of creativity from my 200-square-foot studio. The space had a bay window that faced Pine Street. From where I sat, I could see the Boulangerie sign — not the entire sign, because trees overhung it in a way that revealed only the letters a n g e r. I tried not to take that personally, although my chosen field, writing and game design, does offer plenty of opportunities for anger.

But I was productive there. I wrote two novels, dozens of screenplays and treatments — a dozen sold into the LA film and television markets. And I began a game design practice, CityMystery, creating what is referred to as transmedia games for the Smithsonian, for parks, schools and brands. While that much productivity increases the odds of selling projects, it also comes with a fair share of rejections, which brings me back to a n g e r.

Rejections, although inevitable, are frequently fraught with rage or despair. And early in my tenancy, during a protracted raging, despairing span of bad luck, I was persuaded that the space itself was at fault. Someone close to me recommended that I have it cleared of bad spirits by two practitioners from Berkeley she knew who were experienced in Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement.
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Made locally and beautifully

Photograph of Kristen van Diggelen by Dana Harel

Photograph of Kristen van Diggelen, creator of vanIvey Ceramics, by Dana Harel

WHEN SHE MOVED to the neighborhood six years ago, Kristen van Diggelen was an aspiring art student who had her sights set on a career as a painter.

One day she wandered into Cottage Industry, the eclectic emporium at 2328 Fillmore, seeking inspiration. But she found far more. The building, with two street-level storefronts and four flats above, is one of the more artistically historic structures in the city, having been home to many of the Bay Area’s best-known artists and poets of the Beat generation in the 1950s and ’60s.

She found not only subjects to paint and an artistic legacy, but also an apartment and a studio — and even an opportunity to be something of a saloniste for a couple of years in one of the vacant shops, where she held monthly gatherings to show her work and that of other emerging artists.

She found opportunities she was seeking and some she never dreamed of. But like many artistic pursuits, they didn’t pay very well. So after she graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with a master of fine arts degree, she began teaching a high school ceramics class at Cornerstone Academy in 2010.

“Ceramics was one of the highlights of my arts education,” she says, “but I went to graduate school on a painting scholarship, so I felt like everything else had to take a back seat.”

Then when she found herself around clay again, her old flame flickered anew.
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Fillmore loses its mayor

Ruth Garland Dewson (1939-2013)

Ruth Garland Dewson (1939-2013)

SHE CAME TO California from Paris, Texas, and worked for the telephone company in Los Angeles for many years. But it was only when Ruth Garland Dewson moved north to San Francisco and opened a hat shop on Fillmore Street that she found her true home.

She ran Mrs. Dewson’s Hats at 2050 Fillmore for four decades, closing only reluctantly last year at the end of April. She had already moved herself into AgeSong, a home for seniors in Hayes Valley. Vigorous and opinionated until the end, she died early on Monday morning, October 28, soon after being taken to Kaiser Permanente Hospital, just a few blocks from Fillmore. She was 74.

Ruth Dewson gave full meaning to the phrase larger than life. A full-throated statuesque black woman — and proud of it — she was not shy about claiming her place in the forefront of San Francisco’s parade of colorful personalities. Former Mayor Willie Brown was a walking billboard for her hat shop. And her final Christmas card included her picture with a beaming President Obama.

“I’m not known for not knowing the right people,” she said in an interview a few months ago, recalling how she started the Fillmore Jazz Festival and then got her friends in City Hall to put a parking lot on California Street. She called herself the Mayor of Fillmore Street, and so did many others.

“Fillmore Street for me has been a wonderful, wonderful thing,” she said. “I just can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed Fillmore.”

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

April 2012: “End of an era: Mrs. Dewson’s Hats closes

September 2010: “The hat lady

April 2008: “A force of nature

Getting to know the neighbors

Julie and Mark Swenson are part of a neighborhood photography project.

Julie and Mark Swenson are part of a neighborhood photography project.

PHOTOGRAPHY | Sheila McLaughlin

I had a problem: I didn’t know where to borrow a cup of sugar.

I’m an artist who has lived in the same flat in the neighborhood for 20 years, but I hardly knew any of my neighbors.

Those who lived above had moved away. Same for those next door, across the street and around the corner. I saw some of the neighbors who remain; I looked into their windows; I parked my car in front of their homes. But to see them isn’t to know them.

Camera in hand, I set out to change that. Earlier this year, I began photographing the people in my immediate neighborhood in an attempt to weave together a community through photography. The conceit was simple: I approached people on the street and asked to come into their homes and photograph them.
With surprisingly little hesitation, they’ve said yes. It turns out that I am not alone: Living in a city surrounded by people is isolating for many. We are crammed up against each other by concrete, but might as well have rivers and mountains between us.

My project documenting — and attempting to change — this shared experience is called simply “Neighbors.”

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A seed of faith

The Rolling Pin — formerly the Donut Hole — at Fillmore and California.

The Rolling Pin — formerly the Donut Hole — at Fillmore and California.

FIRST PERSON | Ronald Hobbs

Aunt Beebee — Bertha — and I were no kin at all. She was “that nice old colored woman” who worked at the Donut Hole. Her niece, Bettye, called her Aunt Beebee. It caught on with us regulars. The joint must have served 500 cups of joe a day and a couple of thousand donuts. But for all of the in-and-outers, only a few of us knew her secret name.

Bettye was 300 pounds of a scorching-tongued negress who worked graveyard. There was no need for a bouncer at the Donut Hole on her shift. Besides, in the back room the bakers, Buck and Chuck, packed some serious heat.

We came bleary-eyed and loud after the clubs closed. It was sugar time. Sugar and caffeine not so discreetly spiked with Korbel brandy. Bettye fussed over us like we were her own children, as if we were the little crosses, cable cars and bridges on her charm bracelet.

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