She kept the neighborhood looking good

Lydia Ainsley: caught in the act of cleaning up Fillmore Street.

SHE WALKED the street incognito, just another neighbor, often bandannaed, with a shopping bag on her arm.

But Lydia Ainsley was on a mission every time she walked down Fillmore Street. For more than two decades, she made it her business to remove the signs and posters taped to utility poles on Fillmore and discreetly tuck them into her sack.

Nobody asked her to do it, but she approached her task diligently. Eventually the Fillmore merchants began paying her the princely sum of $150 every month, which she expected on time.

She resisted all praise and publicity, insisting it would only blow her cover.

She was also a faithful volunteer for Food Runners, delivering excess food from local businesses to shelters where it was needed. And she did it via Muni, or on foot.

Lydia Ainsley died on August 6 at age 91, still in her beloved apartment of more than 40 years at Fillmore and Vallejo, overlooking the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Our own piazza

Photograph of The Italian Homemade, at 1919 Union, by Sheila Pierce

By SHEILA PIERCE

La piazza: It’s one of the things I miss most about Italy.

Because la piazza preserves the traditions and habits of the past, which modern life is swallowing.

Because la piazza offers a newspaper stand instead of an app, interaction with people instead of technology and an outdoor space to breathe in where the world goes by in person rather than on a screen.

Because la piazza becomes a canvas of local flora and fauna, the central hub of a neighborhood, where kids migrate in the afternoon to kick a soccer ball and grandparents perch on benches to watch the next generation whiz by — where life slows down.

In the year and half I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve watched una piazza take shape, and by no coincidence it’s thanks to a group of Italians. This piazza is not where you might think it would be: in the North Beach-Little Italy area of the city, which is an admirable community of shops, pizzerie and restaurants run by extraordinary Italian-Americans still operating their ancestors’ businesses. And it’s not oval, square or rectangular, like most piazzas.

Instead, it’s linear, and it takes up two blocks on Union Street, between Laguna and Webster Streets. Here, my kids feel at home, as if back in Italy. In these places, my kids can speak Italian, enjoy homemade Italian cooking and gelato, feel the bond of neighborhood friends, reminisce about the Italian culture they miss and see how the tradition of family-run businesses transcends from Italy to America.

Read more: “A San Francisco Piazza

Alta Plaza Park reopens

Photograph of the new lawns at Alta Plaza Park by Dickie Spritzer

AFTER MONTHS of being surrounded by chain link fencing while its irrigation system was overhauled, the top side of Alta Plaza Park has reopened to the public.

The lawns have been replanted and new drains installed to capture water runoff. Some areas of the park are still fenced off as final details, including a new entry at Jackson and Pierce, are completed. New plantings at the entrances are to be installed later this year.

Still cozy after all these years

For four decades, La Mediterranee has attracted a mix of diners with its atmosphere and food.

By SHELLEY HANDLER

In the very affordable 1970s, the Fillmore was home to working artists, including photographer Edmund Shea. Best known for his collaboration with conceptual artist Bruce Conner and his book covers for neighbor and acclaimed writer Richard Brautigan, Shea’s work can still be seen in the neighborhood today.

Approach La Mediterranee restaurant at 2210 Fillmore, and hanging just to the right of the door is a large framed photograph of a champagne bottle on ice, with “open” splashed across it. On the reverse, the same bottle is shown upended in the ice bucket, with the message “closed” directly below.

Though champagne might seem a bit upscale for this simple neighborhood spot, it reflects both Shea’s quietly bon vivant lifestyle and owner Levon Der Bedrossian’s desire for a place at once humble and indulgent. Shea moved easily between his artistic friends and San Francisco society, where his innate charm was not lost on the ladies. In its own way, La Mediterranee has the same cross-cultural ease — still, after almost 40 years, drawing a mix of creative locals and tony denizens of Pacific Heights.

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Unity Church may become a pot shop

Unity Church (center) is in contract to sell its longtime home at 2222 Bush Street.

UNITY CHURCH has entered into a contract to sell its longtime home in the Victorian building at 2222 Bush Street — reportedly to a marijuana retailer — if the church can find a new location within the next year that is near mass transit lines and better-suited to its needs.

Church members voted earlier to hire a commercial real estate broker to explore the sale of the building — which is zoned for retail as part of the Fillmore neighborhood commercial district — and the purchase of a less expensive home that would be more accessible to its members.

A church leader confirmed the contract, but declined to identify the buyer. Records in the city’s new Office of Cannabis show the Vapor Room has submitted an application for a retail cannabis permit at 2222 Bush.

On August 18, the church was the location for what was billed as the world’s first Free Weed Comedy Show. For $35, attendees got to hear three local stand-up comics, plus two free drinks and, before the show outside on Bush Street, “a small amount of free marijuana to take home (no onsite consumption).” Munchies were available for purchase.

“It went really well,” said comedian and organizer Adam Hartle. “No plans yet to do another in San Fran, but maybe one day in the future.”

An innovative new academy opens

A neighborhood school for “purpose-drive teens” welcomes its first classes of students.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

“Teens are capable of impressive real world accomplishments,” says Michael Strong, founder of the Academy of Thought and Industry, a new private high school in the neighborhood geared to “purpose-driven teens.”

His aim is to set them free to make great accomplishments. With an impressive background of his own in innovative education and entrepreneurship, Strong has two other academies to his credit: one in Austin, Texas, and the other in New York City.

On August 27, the new school opened the doors of its stately building at the corner of Jackson and Scott Streets, which formerly housed the Sterne School. It has been totally renovated with such details as a maker’s space in a former garage, several rooms set up with large tables for Socratic discussion, a math room, several kitchens (since purpose-driven students fix their own meals and snacks) and a laboratory with gleaming new equipment that will have to compete for student attention with stunning views of San Francisco Bay and Alta Plaza Park.

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Copy art had roots in the Fillmore

“Big Bucks,” a color Xerox work by Barbara Wyeth

By BARBARA WYETH

There was a brief time on the San Francisco art scene when artwork done on color Xerox copy machines was hot — the latest thing, de rigueur for experimental and accomplished artists, and for novices as well. The Fillmore was right at the center of all the excitement.

The neighborhood had a long tradition of welcoming musicians and artists. That had begun to change with redevelopment, the Geary expressway and gentrification, as Fillmore Street became an upscale shopping district for residents of Pacific Heights. Painterland, a loose collection of artists who gathered in and around 2322 Fillmore in the 1950s, was essentially over when Jay DeFeo and her behemoth painting The Rose moved out of the building in 1965.

In the mid-70s, however, some remnants of that bohemian spirit remained. The street was still eclectic and diverse, with small service businesses, one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and framers, Japanese sushi shops and bars with live music. It was in this milieu that Barbara Cushman, a native New Yorker, opened A Fine Hand at 2404 California Street, now home to Smitten Ice Cream. Initially, her shop offered fine writing implements and supplies for lefties — the proprietor being one — as well as handcrafted goods and fine art. Cushman had worked in ceramics and collage art and had an avid interest in all forms of artistic expression.

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A lodge with a view

Photograph of the Lodge at the Presidio by Kentyn Reynolds

LANDMARKS | BRIDGET MALEY

Just before the Fourth of July, the lucky first guests checked in to the Lodge at the Presidio, a new addition to the collection of overnight accommodations available in San Francisco’s Presidio. The stunning renovation of a former army barracks provides a unique urban park experience with world class views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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A knack for the timpani

Photograph of San Francisco Symphony timpanist Ed Stephan by Kristen Loken

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Being the San Francisco Symphony’s principal timpanist is just one of the things keeping Ed Stephan busy these days. He’s also head of the percussion department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; on the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at Northwestern University in Chicago; and timpanist of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he’s spent much of the summer.

The Pacific Heights house he calls home is being sold, so he’s been looking for another place in the neighborhood.

And the symphony’s new season begins this month. Stephan is particularly looking forward to the Stravinsky Festival. The orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, will perform the composer’s Persephone and The Firebird from September 21 to 23; and his Violin Concerto, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) from September 27 to 30.

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City sues Fillmore Heritage Center developer

The Fillmore Heritage Center’s public spaces are empty, and no change is in sight.

CITY ATTORNEY Dennis Herrera filed suit this morning against developer Michael E. Johnson — who built the Fillmore Heritage Center  — for more than $6.5 million the city claims Johnson owes for a loan that helped build the complex.

“The years of excuses are over. Time’s up,” Herrera said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “San Francisco taxpayers need to be made whole.”

For a few lively years beginning in 2007, the 50,000-square-foot space at Fillmore and Eddy housed Yoshi’s jazz club and restaurant and the 1300 on Fillmore lounge and restaurant, plus a gallery, screening room and garage. Yoshi’s closed in 2014 and briefly became The Addition, which Johnson ran himself before it too closed. 1300 on Fillmore closed in 2017 and now operates at the airport. The city took over the complex in 2017 when Johnson defaulted on the loan and has not yet figured out what to do with the empty commercial spaces.

“The city made this loan in good faith and has given Mr. Johnson every chance to pay back San Francisco taxpayers,” Herrera said. “San Francisco has worked with Mr. Johnson at every turn. Mr. Johnson has never held up his end of the bargain.

At a public meeting in May 2016, Johnson told the audience he had, in effect, had the project thrust upon him. He noted that he was primarily a housing developer when he was asked to become involved by local residents who wanted an African-American in charge.

He said it was a mistake for him to get involved in entertainment and restaurants. “It was a bad decision to go down that road,” he said.

After Yoshi’s on Fillmore declared bankruptcy, Johnson decided to run the club and restaurant himself. “I made another mistake,” he said. “We decided we’re going to try to resurrect it and create The Addition.”

He added: “We found out that operating that 28,000-square-foot facility was very difficult. We went six months. We couldn’t make it work. We had to close.”

The case is: City and County of San Francisco v. Michael E. Johnson et al., San Francisco Superior Court case no. CGC-18-568954, filed August 16, 2018.