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‘My tree’ on California Street

The unusual tree outside the market on California Street.


I don’t know exactly why the tree in front of Mollie Stone’s first caught my attention.

Perhaps it was the tiny, palmate-shaped leaves sprouting at the base of the tree that seemed unusual. Having worked with naturalists in the Presidio developing tours for the National Park Service, I want to understand the natural world.

I looked up into the canopy to try and identify the basic shape, which has been spread by years of pruning to remain below the overhead lines running down the sidewalk on California Street. I stood back to grasp the size and see if it looked like any other trees I had seen.

I was stumped. And now I was on a hunt for an answer.

This tree stood out and felt special. It seemed old. San Francisco has a fairly routine palette of trees in our neighborhood: London plane trees, whose knobby branches are clipped back every year, a few magnolia trees, Victorian Box, with their fragrant white flowers, and a few others.

I have lived in San Francisco since 1979, first visiting the Fillmore to see movies at the Clay Theatre after eating savory cordon bleu crepes next door at Millard’s. I moved to the corner of California and Fillmore Streets in 1984. My local shop was the Bi-Rite, on the southeast corner, where the poet Mark Mitchell worked before he moved up the street to D&M Liquors.

I worked at home as a graphic designer and, for social interaction, sold designer men’s clothing for my friend Jon Stevenson at The Producer, which was next door to the fun group of Iris Fuller’s employees at Fillamento. We had customers from all over San Francisco and locals who just stopped by for conversation. I helped Robin Williams, John Traina and Steve Perry there, and became friends with many fascinating Fillmore personalities. We knew all the merchants and movers, as well as local characters like Gloria, who was often near the donut shop at Fillmore and California asking for a quarter.

I shopped for flowers at Kyo’s, the lovely Japanese flower shop just north of Sacramento Street, where I could practice my few words of Japanese, and ordered take-out sushi down the street at Maruya. With charming toys and gadgets, my go-to for graphics supplies was the Brown Bag, where I would grab a quick visit with busy employee and friend Barbara Wyeth. There were still local drug stores with racks of gift cards and sundries, as well as a pharmacy. My co-worker Michael Sabino at Button Down loved eating mayo-filled egg sandwiches in the mornings in the old fashioned booths at Lee’s diner on California Street. My artist friend Will Barker and I created window displays for the Beauty Store across the street each month. We had dinners with jeweler Marc Willner, and ran into Peter Tork of the Monkees while making copies at the Copy Center. I loved the candy array at Fletcher McLean, a lively place.

It was also a time of panhandlers and the beginnings of gentrification. I finally moved to quieter Presidio Heights when I tired of standing in line for restaurants and negotiating my way, as I did my errands, through tourists shopping on Fillmore. 

I still walk to Fillmore for pastries at La Boulangerie, a coffee at Peet’s, fish for our aquarium at Aqua Forest, some finds at Goodwill and groceries at the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, where the friendliest cashiers in the universe work.

But back to “my tree” on the sidewalk outside the market. I posted photos of the tree online, but got no replies. Then a friend mentioned a book she carried along to learn about trees in the city as she was taking daily walks while sheltering in place. I sent her my photos, and she double-checked with a landscape architect friend.

Finally I discovered this may be an unusual tree some call a Field Maple or Hedge Maple. A website maintained by the Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute says there’s one in Strybing Arboretum, but I cannot find any other examples in San Francisco.

I searched to see who lived at this address before the grocery store was built, hoping to find an historic photo with my tree in front. “An elegant nine room house” was advertised at 2435 California in 1900. Names I found from this era were Cook, Colonel Sutherland, Thomas and Mary Gilbert, Butler Shaw. It seems this home rented rooms. In 1928, Senator and Mrs. Otis F. Glenn of Illinois made it their home for a short time. But the addresses may have changed.

Newspaper articles report that Grand Central Market opened at 2435 California in 1941, and there are earlier listings for a Grand Central Liquors. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was once on the block.

I’d love to know more about “my tree.”

The canopy of the tree on California Street.

It may be one of a kind

“You have a great eye!” says arborist Roy Leggitt, a longtime neighborhood resident.

“It is likely Acer platanoides, a Norway Maple. I nominated that very tree for Landmark Tree status, but the Department of Public Works didn’t want to encumber itself with street tree nominations. There used to be another one along California Street and two or three others on Dolores Street, which have since been removed. As far as I know, this is the only tree of this species left in San Francisco.”

A tiny plant store on tony Fillmore

Organic forms and abundant greenery mark Plants and Friends at 1906 Fillmore.

A NEIGHBOR, out for a walk one night soon after Plants and Friends opened its new shop at 1906 Fillmore in early October, stopped to admire the greenery in the window.

“It’s fun,” she said to another neighbor walking by. “It makes you smile.”

And so it does. Who would think — in the age of international fashion boutiques and cosmetics salons — that a tiny plant store could sprout on tony Fillmore Street?

Owner Nick Forland, that’s who. Suggest to him that he’s a dreamer for opening a petite plant store in a high-rent district and he seems completely surprised anyone could think he’s taking a risk.

“We’ve made a plant store work for two years in Hayes Valley,” he says with a toothy grin. “We had a test run.”


She rose to the occasion

Camille Martinelli’s garden is a meandering landscape of many levels in a parklike setting.


From the first step into the garden behind a welcoming house on Clay Street, I was enchanted — and surprised, too, by its size and parklike feeling.

This is not a manicured plot behind a single home, but a meandering landscape of many levels that extends the length of several properties on the block. The garden is the creation of Camille Martinelli, developed over the years by her research, study, hard work and passion. Her husband Marco has caught that enthusiasm, too — especially in the last couple years, and especially for roses, which are Camille’s favorite.

But on this day, she offers an apology: “I’m afraid you’ve missed the roses; they’re pretty bloomed out.”

While walking up a series of brick steps, under an arch of climbing vines and onto a cobblestone path, she points out a huge old birch tree with moss encrusted bark. “We’re very proud of that tree,” Camille says. “They’re very hard to grow here.”


He scraped the gingerbread off

Erich Mendelsohn’s floating modern landmark at 3778 Washington Street in 1952.


“For some 14 months now the normally placid Pacific Heights intersection of Washington and Maple Street has been host to what might be described as a perpetual traffic jam,” reported a Chronicle article on June 17, 1951, headlined “A King-Size House That Floats on Stilts: Mendelsohn Creates a Landmark.”

Architect Erich Mendelsohn, a German modernist whose innovative designs had riveted the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, had indeed produced one of San Francisco’s most innovative — and attention-getting — modern homes.


Bloomers turns 40

Photographs by Barbara Wyeth

Photographs by Barbara Wyeth


The flower business is an early morning affair. My morning usually starts with an espresso at Jackson and Fillmore, then a short hop past Alta Plaza Park to work at Bloomers at 2975 Washington Street.

Opening the door, I’m met with the fragrance of fresh flowers and the aroma of more strong coffee brewing in the back room. The crew is already at work trimming, cutting, cleaning, putting flowers into water and setting up the store for another day of business. Presiding over all this industry, as he has since 1977, is owner and proprietor Patric Powell.

This year the venerable Pacific Heights florist is celebrating 40 years of flowering. That alone is a real accomplishment — a thriving small business with a rarefied and fragile product in an expensive city of fickle taste.


No Zen on Cottage Row

A PLAN TO build a Zen-style Japanese rock garden at the foot of Cottage Row has been derailed, at least for now.

In June, a committee of the Recreation and Park Commission approved the garden, which would honor the Issei generation of Japanese-Americans who founded Japantown 110 years ago after the 1906 earthquake.

But Bush Street resident Marvin Lambert, who has vehemently opposed the garden in a series of public hearings, threw a monkey wrench into the works by appealing the Planning Department’s finding that the garden would be an appropriate addition to the Cottage Row Mini Park.

Lambert’s challenge was to be heard by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission on July 19. But the sponsors of the garden pulled their project from the agenda as the meeting began.

Lambert spoke nonetheless.

“I hope we can now close the books on the proposed Cottage Row Zen Garden,” he said. “This proposal was based largely on lies, logical fallacies and other nonsense.”

Cottage Row was almost entirely occupied by residents of Japanese ancestry before they were interned during World War II. But Lambert said only the blocks east of Webster Street were historically part of Japantown. He said “faulty reasoning” was used in city documents that say otherwise.

“It’s not over,” said Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center, who has spearheaded the project. “The garden proposal is not dead. It’s just in suspension.”

Osaki dismissed Lambert’s appeal as “an abuse of the system and taxpayers’ dollars.” He said supporters were returning to the Planning Department to figure out how to proceed.

“We’re going to continue on,” he said.

According to the latest count from the Rec and Park Commission, 100 nearby neighbors favor the garden; 10 oppose it.

EARLIER: “Cottage Row garden sparks a fight

Cottage Row Zen garden moves forward


A PLAN TO CREATE a Japanese Zen rock garden at the foot of Cottage Row has been green-lighted by the Planning Department and is scheduled for a go-ahead vote on June 15.

The garden would honor the first generation of Japanese residents in San Francisco, the Issei, who established Japantown in its current location 110 years ago after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The memorial was proposed last year by leaders and supporters of the nearby Japanese Cultural and Community Center, who enlisted renowned gardeners Shigeru Namba and Isao Ogura to create a garden on the Sutter Street side of Cottage Row that would honor the Issei generation.

“Cottage Row is the only place in Japantown they would recognize,” said Paul Osaki, director of the center, because the rest of the neighborhood was torn down and remade during redevelopment in the 1960s.

Osaki presented the proposal last year at a series of five sometimes raucous neighborhood meetings. Some neighbors disputed the Japanese heritage of Cottage Row and insisted that any memorial should honor everyone who had lived in the area.

A subsequent review of census records showed that Cottage Row was in fact occupied almost entirely by Japanese-Americans until they and the other residents of Japantown were interned during World War II.

After committee review on June 1, the Cottage Row proposal is slated to come before the city’s Recreation and Park Commission on June 15. The commission agenda describes the plan as “an in-kind grant valued at approximately $56,000.”

A staff report notes that the garden plan is supported by 100 nearby residents, 23 community organizations and 463 people who signed petitions, in addition to supervisors London Breed and Aaron Peskin. Ten nearby residents and one other person registered their opposition to the plan.

EARLIER: “Zen garden sparks a fight

A bonsai tree as old as Japantown

David Thompson and the century-old bonsai.

David Thompson and his century-old bonsai.

WHEN NEIGHBORHOOD RESIDENT David Thompson read about plans for a Zen rock garden at the southern end of Cottage Row to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Japantown, he had an idea: That might be the perfect place for his century-old bonsai tree.

The tree has been in the same family since it was brought from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition and planted in their garden designed by legendary gardener Makoto Hagiwara, who also created the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Thompson, now its guardian, has been searching for the right home for the tree’s second century. He has been connected with the Japanese landscape designers planning the Cottage Row Zen garden.

Cottage Row Zen garden sparks a fight



In celebration of its 110th anniversary this year, Japantown leaders proposed a gift to the neighborhood: a simple Zen rock garden at the foot of Cottage Row to honor the first generation of Japanese-Americans, the Issei, who established the community here after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

To create the garden, they enlisted the renowned landscape designers Shigeru Namba, who oversees Oracle boss Larry Ellison’s extensive Japanese garden, and Isao Ogura. Together the two have already created memorial gardens at San Francisco State and at Tanforan mall, the first stop for residents of Japantown evacuated and interned during World War II.

The gardeners would donate their services and all costs would be paid by private donations. Organizers hoped to complete the garden before the end of the anniversary year.

Then they ran into Bush Street resident Marvin Lambert.


At Soko Hardware, it’s the mix that works

Eunice Ashizawa and her nephew Aaron Katekaru help run Soko Hardware in Japantown.


After Masayasu Ashizawa came from Japan to San Francisco nearly a century ago, he opened a hardware store in 1925 in the heart of bustling Japantown and named it Soko — Japanese for “that place.” Soko Hardware’s founder could not have imagined the family business would be thriving in that place today under the management of his grandson Philip, born years after his grandfather died.

Soko Hardware, at 1698 Post Street, thrives not just as a local hardware store, but also as a destination for Bay Area residents and visitors who come for the paper lanterns or the authentic teapots or the delicate china — sometimes even for the hardware.

“I think of going to Soko as a special treat, like going to a museum and finding things I didn’t know existed,” says Mill Valley resident Sue Steele. (more…)