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It’s still his square

A bench in Alamo Square now honors a beloved neighbor.

JUST ABOUT THIS time of year, for decades, Joe Pecora would be throwing open the doors of his beautifully maintained Victorian home near Alamo Square for his annual Christmas pot luck. The house would be brimming with friends and neighbors and decorated from top to bottom with his collection of antique ornaments and Christmas cards.

Joe died in 2020. But he is remembered as the author of “The Storied Houses of Alamo Square” and a true friend of the neighborhood. Now he has a permanent presence in Alamo Square. Friends came together at the park in high style on Sunday afternoon, December 10, to dedicate a new bench in his honor.

Read more: “A photo report from Ron Henggeler

Joe Pecora’s book debuted in 2014 where it should have: at Alamo Square.

Feinstein always made time for Convent girls

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein with 8th graders from Convent School on Broadway.

By CLAIRE FAHY
The New York Times

Dianne Feinstein was laid to rest last week with a funeral service on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, a fitting backdrop for a woman who was as much a symbol of the city as the Golden Gate Bridge is.

It certainly felt that way when I was growing up in San Francisco. I went to the same high school she did, the private all-girls Convent of the Sacred Heart.

Read more: “Saying goodbye to a San Francisco icon
Dianne Feinstein ’51 at Convent School

SF loses a piece of its history

Photograph of John Gaul at the Haas-Lilienthal House by Ramon del Rosario

JOHN GAUL, 97, a fixture on Fillmore Street and in San Francisco historical circles for decades, died on July 25, 2023, at his longtime home at John F. Kennedy Towers.

He leaves a considerable legacy of celebrating and perpetuating the history of the city he loved. He was a docent at three of San Francisco’s most historical places: the Palace of Fine Arts, the Haas-Lilienthal House and the Swedenborgian Church. He led tours and helped train docents for all three, and was also active in SF Heritage, the San Francisco Historical Society and the Victorian Alliance. 

Always impeccably dressed and relentlessly positive, he helped spearhead the designation of the Swedenborgian Church on Lyon Street — birthplace of the Arts & Crafts Movement in the U.S. — as a National Historical Landmark. He remained active in the church, phoning in a poem or limerick or other “wise words” during services even after he was no longer able to attend. And he worked ahead: His recorded “rhythms,” as he called them, will continue to be heard during Sunday morning services through the end of the year.

John Melvin Gaul was born on November 9, 1925, the son of Carl Joseph Gaul and Olive Mae La Brash, and raised in Tacoma, Washington. His parents and a brother, Carl Gaul, preceded him in death. 

He is survived by his cat, Apollo, who has been adopted into a new home. Late in life Gaul became a spokesman for Give Me Shelter, a pet adoption agency that helped him find companionship after others turned him away because of advancing age and limited finances. He also became a supporter and poster boy for Meals on Wheels, whose delivery trucks for a time sported his bowler-hatted visage.

A memorial service will be held at the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church at Lyon & Washington Streets at 2 p.m. on September 9, 2023.

John Gaul leads a tour of the Swedenborgian Church.

Unthinkable: No Dino at Fillmore and California

Dino Stavrakikis and his son Santino: “It’s time to go.”

By CHRIS BARNETT

After a 34-year run of flipping pizzas, uncorking wine and telling stories on the northwest corner of Fillmore and California, Dino Stavrakikis is selling the longtime pizza palace known for decades as Dino’s — now renamed after his son as Santino’s Wine Bar — to the owner of Ace Wasabi Sushi in the Marina.

The ownership changes hands today [Sept. 20]. New owner Ken Lowe has announced no decision on changing the popular storefront and is likely for now to keep the wine and pizza format and the longtime employees.

“When it’s time to go, it’s time,” says the affable Dino — it seems impossible to call him anything else — on why he is pulling the ripcord. “When I bought the place, Reagan was president. We’ve been though a couple of wars, viruses, a pandemic and many mayors. Fillmore — the street and the neighborhood — has changed, and not for the better.”

Dino’s corner housed a drug store before it became a pizzeria in the 1970s, initially owned by his Uncle Vito. Dino apprenticed in another pie shop at Polk and Broadway straight out of high school. “I knew I was an entrepreneur and I wanted to own my own place,” he recalls.

At 21, he moved a few doors away to Lord Jim’s — “the greatest fern bar ever” — and worked his way up to lead bartender. Dino was behind the plank the infamous night a squad of San Francisco cops raided the saloon on a tip it was dealing cocaine out of the back. It was a bad bust. The bar was packed with lawyers that night who were enjoying their after-work cocktails. They howled. Owner Spiro Tampourantzis, like Dino a Greek, sued the city with the help of Fillmore Street criminal  defense attorney Eric Safire and prevailed.

In 1988, Uncle Vito — actually a distant cousin of Dino’s — ran out of dough, and Dino bought the pizzeria out of bankruptcy for $90,000. “I moved into an apartment upstairs,” he says, “changed the name to Dino’s and worked 15 hours a day to get the place back on its feet. Fortunately, I had the gift of gab. All the best Italian pizza parlors are owned by Greeks.” Actually, Stavrakikis is half Greek, half Italian.

From the start, Dino says he loved his landlord and still does, a sentiment rarely heard from retail tenants. “We’ve had the same one from the beginning— Russ Flynn from Meridian Co.,” he says. “They’ve really been super and kind, working with me all the way through Covid.”

Dino’s fledgling pizza shop was thrust into the spotlight in June 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev, then the charismatic president of the Soviet Union, made a 22-hour swing through San Francisco. Their motorcade was headed back to the Soviet consul’s residence at 2820 Broadway when a couple of dozen wellwishers on the corner of Fillmore and California caught the Soviet president’s eye. The procession stopped and Gorbachev leaped out of his Russian-made Zil limo and started shaking hands.

A stunned Dino said at the time that Gorbachev “was the most famous man I have ever met,” and he had met 49er great Ronnie Lott and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Since then, he met the late Secretary of State Madeline Albright, quarterback Joe Montana, actress Sharon Stone and others who dined on pizza and other dishes in his shop, many created by Dino’s late mom, Koula.

A lifelong bachelor who loves kids, Dino didn’t let his singlehood stop him from becoming a father. In 2011, he arranged with a surrogate what he considers his greatest triumph: a son he named Santino. Practically from birth, Santino became a household name in the Fillmore. The proud papa renamed his shop Dino and Santino’s. “He’s the love of my life,” beams dad.

After three remodels and a transformation into Santino’s Wine Bar, Dino decided he was ready to throttle back. He moved to Walnut Creek to be near his parents and to get Santino in a better school. He gave more operating responsibilities to his longtime lieutenants, Jesus and brother Emilio Ceidillos — both with Dino for 33 years — and Tony Santos, with him for 25 years. Dino continued his annual summer treks to Greece to visit his family, including former boss Spiro Tampourantzis, and soak up the sunshine and culture. 

But he found himself wanting to spend more time with his son. So recently, he and Lowe, who Dino’s known for 30 years, huddled over glasses of wine and penciled out a deal. “I couldn’t have picked a better guy,” Dino says. “He’s bringing in an Italian chef, has his own ideas about making some changes.” Dino is tightlipped on this point, and Lowe has made no public announcements.

What’s next for Dino? “I have a gym at my house and I want to get in good shape,” he says. “I love to work. Unfortunately, I don’t have any hobbies. I just love the action. We’ll see what presents itself. But I’m going to miss my loyal customers.”

EARLIER: “Dino’s boy
When Gorbachev stopped by Dino’s

A poet’s stories

BOOKS | MARK J. MITCHELL

“I never intended to write a book,” Ronald Hobbs said as we basked in the warm February sun in Santino’s Vino’s parklet at Fillmore and California. “Who does that these days?”

“Well, you did,” I nudged, tapping my copy of his new book, Nearing a Place Called Home. “A pretty good one, too. How did this accident happen?”

“My editor and I — Isaiah Dufour, a very talented young man, from the Mission, a playwright.”

Conversations tend to snake around with Ron.

“We were sitting on my back porch, enjoying something red from Napa, and he knew about the little stories I’d been writing. He sort of talked me into it.”

Ronald Hobbs has been living in the Fillmore since before it was new. He arrived here in September 1970 and stayed, with many an absence, abscondage and return.

He spent some early days working in the back rooms of the legendary Minnie’s Can-Do Club, and also read poetry from time to time in the front. He worked at nearby Connie’s West Indian restaurant, too, and remembers Rev. Jim Jones handing Connie a big check after taking over her place one night. For a long time, he was a partner in Spectrum Imports, a shop near Fillmore and Pine that specialized in exotic birds. He’s always been thought of as the poet of our part of Fillmore, and he brings his poet’s eye and ear to this book of prose.

Photograph of Ronald Hobbs by Lucy Gray

“The stories seem autobiographical,” I suggested, as he sipped at his beer.

“Well, they are,” he replied, “but they’re stories. You know.”

Nearing a Place Called Home is a collection of stories, most very short (the longest one is 11 pages). They take you from the Louisiana bayou to Mexico, Japan and San Francisco. They feel autobiographical because Ron writes so well, and every event feels truly witnessed.

We talked about some of the stories in the book, as he asked which ones I liked. I mentioned “When Russell Tracy Sang Butler Yeats” because I knew he was drawn to the musical settings of that poem. The story tells me why. His eyes lit up as he remembered the astonishing voice he’d heard as a young boy when another boy sang Yeats’s words. “It was like being in church, but better,” Ron said. “And it was Ireland, and I’d never heard Ireland before.”

Most of the brief pieces offer a quick epiphany, but they paint distinct pictures. The endings always seem to leave just a little more mystery for a reader to savor or solve. The era in which many of the stories take place is long enough ago that it feels like another country, but still recognizable.

I started to suggest he had a nostalgia for lost times, then caught myself. It’s not nostalgia, but affection, and the affection is for the people, the characters.

He agreed with that description. In the pages of the book, you meet many memorable people, most living at the edges of society and the borderlines of the law. He claims the names have been changed and the incidents rearranged into fiction, but acknowledges that some version of these people did exist.

These stories feel autobiographical because Ronald Hobbs writes so well, and every event feels truly witnessed. He brings his poet’s eye and ear to this book of prose.

Ron’s personal favorite is the one called “Suzonka.” “She was a real person,” he told me, “the wife a friend. She was a beautiful woman, almost to the point of gaudiness.” He paused, remembering. “But there’s always a Suzonka somewhere. Right now, there’s probably a young man sitting in a club in North Beach watching her dance.”

We talked about the neighborhood, which we’ve both called home for decades, dropping some names of those no longer with us. I was happy to see that he’d included a local bass player in a scene in one of the stories, just in passing. Only longtime Fillmore residents would catch it. “Well, you write about what you’ve seen, don’t you?” Ron proposed.

His first love is poetry, and it’s also mine. We both share a vocation for the play of words. His must-have, desert-island anthology is Modern Poetry, edited by Oscar Williams — the 1947 edition. I have the later expanded version. The great sadness in his life is that he feels he’s failed at what he loves. 

“Every day I get up and I try to write poetry, but what comes out is crap,” he says. That’s his opinion. All writers dance their own dance with the muse, but I’ve always liked Ron’s poems. If you can find a copy of Songs for Fillmore Street or Beadstringer, you should snap it up and pass it around. 

Cheers were coming from the Super Bowl crowds inside Santino’s and the other bars along Fillmore Street. I slid my copy of Nearing a Place Called Home across the table for his autograph. The sun was going down at the end of California Street. I helped Ron up and walked him slowly across the street to the place he now calls home.

Mark J. Mitchell is a local poet and novelist. His newest book, Something to Be, is due out shortly from Pski’s Porch Publishing.

MORE: Five Fillmore stories by Ronald Hobbs

UPDATE: Ronald Hobbs died soon after his book was published in 2022. His son Django Runyan posted on May 26, 2022: “After a long battle with pulmonary heart disease, my father has now passed on. I thought you all should know. My father was a remarkable man. Although a man of meager means he was, to me, an Aristocrat of Being. He brought magic and grandeur to my life and to my brothers, Zack and Sonny. He provided us with a space for those less visible things. He showed us how rich ordinary life can be. He taught me to value the deepest questions above all. We have been very lucky to share his riches while he was here.”

He also left this recording for his sons.

Ronald Hobbs recites “A Codicil.”

Mr. Fillmore moves on

Photograph of Vas Kiniris by Chloe Jackman

By CHRIS BARNETT

After nearly three decades of involvement with the Fillmore Merchants Association — as board member, vice president, president and the last five years as executive director — Vasilios Kiniris, the personable man-in-perpetual-motion known to some as Mr. Fillmore and to all as Vas, is exiting stage left.

For most of that time, he’s been working — sometimes visibly, sometimes behind the scenes — to wrangle the neighborhood’s diverse coalitions into a cohesive and positive force. A lifelong merchant himself, save for a brief detour into architecture, Kiniris, 55, isn’t giving up on small businesses. He’s just crossing the street, so to speak, to a new entrepreneurial venture he calls NextSF, an agency that will offer his marketing savvy to other merchant associations and individual businesses and organizations seeking to build their brands and business.

Timothy Omi of Liberty Cannabis is the new president of the Fillmore Merchants Association. Patti Mangan is the new executive director. Continuing board members are Beverly Weinkauf of Toujours, Victorian Dunham of HiHo Silver and Chandler Tang of Post.Script. 

A candid long-hauler who believes in relationships, the Greek-born Kiniris sees life as a series of “half-empty opportunities,” but he’s no Pollyanna. He doesn’t shrink from the hard facts plaguing San Francisco and the Fillmore in particular. 

“Crimes are happening, no doubt about it,” he said during an exit interview this week. “Fillmore needs to be a safe place for its merchants, their employees and their customers.” The street, battered by the pandemic, has an unprecedented number of empty storefronts. But Kiniris remains upbeat. “Many are currently in contract with new leases,” he says. “They are filling up again.”

Kiniris has been swimming upstream all his life, and not without failures. “I’ve made my share,” he admits. One of his more visible ill-fated ventures was moving his Zinc Details home design emporium south to a huge vacant space on Fillmore near the Geary bridge, where an old dollar store once stood. It didn’t pan out. Zinc Details had been on Fillmore for 27 years when it closed in 2018.

Kiniris was 7 when he and his family arrived in San Francisco from Macedonia in northern Greece. At first they lived in public housing in the Mission “to get our bearings.” His dad Nick was a dishwasher at Nob Hill hotels, including the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins. “My mother was a garment worker,” he says. “Dad quickly realized he had to go into business for himself.”

The family opened one, then another, small corner grocery store. Young Vas went to work there as kid and grew up stocking shelves and checking out customers while his dad made sandwiches. “We worked every Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day for 15 years,” he says. “For me, it was my baptism in retail. Some people call it a sacrifice, but not me. The stores, the business, the customers were my social glue, my family. I didn’t get a chance to party much, and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience. But it was a learning experience.”

So were four years at UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in architecture. “But the practice was not to my liking,” he acknowledges. “And frankly, my mechanical skills were not all that good.”

He had a side job waiting tables in the ’80s at Stars, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower’s once-glittering restaurant near City Hall. Remembers Kiniris: “I waited on people like Walter Cronkite and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and all the socialites and movers and shakers.”

He says he was first exposed to the finer things in life as an exchange student living with a prosperous German family. “Here I was, a blue-collar immigrant surviving day to day by extreme frugality and I was introduced to the extras, the intangibles of life, this joie de vive. Even now I still consider them my second family,” he says. “We all have many parents in our lives.”

In 1990, accustomed to living with no safety net, Kiniris and his wife, Wendy Nishimura Kiniris, plunged into retailing on their own with a small store at Post and Hyde in the Tenderloin, with drug dealers and prostitutes just outside their door. The rent: $500 a month. Their wares: contemporary furniture. The name: Zinc Details.

“We were credited with introducing modernism to San Francisco,” he says. “In those days, you were either old money or you had no money. We appealed to both. Our look was so fresh to the market, which had been dominated by Macy’s.”

From there they were thrust into the public arena. “We were both designers and highly edited curators,” he says. The couple was invited to set up a “store within a store” in Macy’s, created products for the Gap, and launched a wholesale business and private labeled to top retailers in Paris, London and Tokyo.

A recession brought them back to earth, which Kiniris now calls “a great opportunity, if you take advantage of it.” They moved upmarket, from the Tenderloin to Fillmore Street. “We looked at Union and Fillmore,” he says, “and Fillmore was coming up at the time.”

As the years passed, the Kinirises at one point had three Zinc Details stores in the neighborhood, with 20 employees, and he embedded himself as a passionate and engaged merchant. So when longtime Fillmore Merchants Association president Thomas Reynolds resigned in 2015, Kiniris stepped up to the plate. “Thomas left us a very good merchants association and his were very big shoes to fill,” he says.

Kiniris took some big steps in different directions. Using his social media skills, he expanded the association’s communications and membership. Pedaling on his electric bike, he integrated the small business owners on the street with representatives from the corporate and international brands that had been moving into the neighborhood. He reached out to merchants on lower Fillmore and in Japantown.

“My goal was to create a dialogue and potential collaboration among all groups,” he says, “and to help the big chain stores demonstrate good corporate behavior by engaging with the community in a meaningful way.”

Kiniris says he is proud the FMA has built relationships with many sectors of the community. “We have a strong relationship with District 2 supervisor Catherine Stefani and District 5 supervisor Dean Preston,” he says. Indeed, the supes handed him a certificate of honor when he announced he was stepping down from the FMA.

He has worked closely with the S.F. Police Department and the city’s top cops. Kiniris is a graduate of the SFPD’s community police academy, helped secure a two-officer foot patrol on Fillmore, and is co-chair of police chief Bill Scott’s small business advisory forum. Recently he helped organize a small business summit with all 10 captains of the the city’s police districts. “We had breakout sessions where each captain met with merchants in his district.” he says. “I realized the merchants don’t know what the police do, and vice versa.”

More ambitious and still a work-in-progress are partnerships between merchants with mega-companies including Google, Facebook, Uber and Spin, the city’s micro-mobility scooter renter. “We have to demonstrate how they can be true community partners,” Kiniris says. “They can’t sit in their ivory towers.” While many San Francisco streets remain dirty and littered, Kiniris has worked with cleanup groups like the city’s Department of Public Works, Together SF and Refuse Refuse.

During his years as Mr. Fillmore, Kiniris says he has sought to “reach across many aisles” to bring people together who can help Fillmore Street and other merchant corridors.

“The role of the merchants association is to provide three things to its members and the community: security, maintenance and marketing,” he says, repeating his frequent mantra.

Despite San Francisco’s well publicized woes, Kiniris is convinced the city — and especially the Fillmore — is on the verge of a rebirth, or “a regeneration,” as he calls it. 

And not for the first time.

“It’s part of our history,” Kiniris says. “The Fillmore Merchants Association is the city’s oldest, formed 115 years ago after the 1906 earthquake. This neighborhood was the birthplace of the rebuilt city, and the Harlem of the West, and the Summer of Love. It was a hotbed of business opportunities with its big Jewish, Japanese and African American communities over the decades,” he says. 

“It was diverse, an ethnic collaboration, and it is again time to work with many partners,” he says. “It’s the Phoenix rising.”

Minnie’s Can-Do Club was a gathering spot

Photograph of Minnie in the 1970s by Ed Brooks

FIRST PERSON | DENISE KORN

’Net surfing can get you into a whole lot of trouble. That’s what happened to me. I rarely get bored — even during these crazy pandemic days. But, one night, Netflix just wasn’t doing it for me. It was late and there I was in bed scrolling again under the glare of my phone’s blue light. I wasn’t really searching for anything in particular. I was just … looking. 

I happened to run across an article on the New Fillmore website. The piece, dated several years ago, was about my neighborhood — the Fillmore. 

When I was young, there was no “upper” or “lower” Fillmore. It was just the Fillmore. Lots of people called this area the Western Addition. But for the thousands of African-Americans who strolled past the old Melrose Record Shop, or got their ’fros tightened up at the barbershop near the corner of Geary, or browsed the jumble of shops between Geary and Sutter; this didn’t happen in the Western Addition. We lived the rhythm of our lives in the Fillmore. 

The night I discovered the New Fillmore website, I scrolled through looking at old pictures and articles about a time I remember so well. Then I happened upon an article and — even better — a painting featuring an old family friend, Minnie Carrington. I couldn’t believe it!

I live in Atlanta now, and seeing someone I knew so long ago, looking just as I remembered her, pulled me down the rabbit hole of my memory. I decided to see if the once-famous proprietor of Minnie’s Can-Do Club on Fillmore was still around. 

I’m happy to report that I was able to track down a phone number and speak with Minnie. She’s over 80 now, and living in an East Bay senior facility with her daughter, Felita. Minnie is confined to her bed, but she still loves to talk. She’s the true old-school San Franciscan, interested in everything and interesting to everyone. San Franciscans are natural storytellers.

So, here’s mine.

(more…)

He created the Elite Cafe

SAM DuVALL | 1940 – 2020 

In the 1970s, the two blocks of Fillmore Street between Clay and California were the prime blocks for retailers; south of California was a desolate strip of lifeless shops and joints. Leasing broker Carol Chait broke through that barrier when she listed the Art Deco Asia Cafe space that had been vacant for a couple of years. She narrowed it down to two prospective tenants. 

“Restaurateur Sam DuVall saw the space as a diamond in the rough,” Chait says. “It was a bookie joint with a card room and the Croatians from Tadich Grill used to hang out there.” Jeremiah Tower — the former Chez Panisse chef who later opened Stars near City Hall — was the other bidder for the space. Chait had to choose between the two, who were both willing to pay $2 a foot plus a percentage of the gross revenue.

Her decision was driven by one thing: a dead rat.

“I was showing the space to Jeremiah,” Chait says. “There was crap all over the floor and all of a sudden I saw this rat in the corner. It was dead, but I was afraid to pick it up. I asked Jeremiah to put it in the trash, but he didn’t want to touch it either. Later that day, I was showing the space to Mr. DuVall and I said ‘Sam, would you do me a favor and get rid of that thing?’ He did — and he also had the best ideas for revitalizing the restaurant. I said to the owner, ‘Sam’s your guy.’ ”

Chait adds that DuVall did a painstaking restoration of the space, renaming it the Elite Cafe. “The Elite did such enormous volume even on that block that the owner, with his rent and percentage, got this windfall of cash,” she says.

— Chris Barnett

FAREWELL: “Restaurateur Sam DuVall dies at 80
EARLIER: “There’s a reason they call it the Elite

Farewell to the Artists Inn

The Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street, near Fillmore.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Even during the first weeks of the virus lockdown in early April, the Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street was at full occupancy, brimming with love and laughter. But it was a bittersweet time.

Beloved owner Denise Shields had recently returned from her second home in Mexico with an ache that turned out to be pancreatic cancer. The cozy little blue house half a block from Fillmore, behind a white picket fence, quickly filled with her two sons, Will and Jason, daughter-in-law Lily and five granddaughters. Will’s partner Elisabeth was home in San Diego awaiting the birth of grandchild No. 6. “We’re sort of hoping for a boy,” Denise said during a brief break from a family Parcheesi game, “but we’ll be delighted with any healthy baby.”

Two months later, on June 6, the family welcomed a sixth granddaughter into the world. Three days after that, Denise died.

Now the Artists Inn, in one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, is ending an era as a center of warmth and hospitality for guests from around the globe. Following the death of their mother on June 9, Denise’s sons reluctantly decided to permanently close the four-room inn. They will host a garage sale — masked and socially distanced — from August 14 to 16.

(more…)

Still being neighborly

Andre Matsuda, Dan Max and Audrey Sherlock bring their own.

EVEN SINCE THE stay-at-home order went into effect on St. Patrick’s Day, some locals find it possible to enjoy a few minutes of togetherness at cocktail hour — carefully spaced six feet apart at tables that remain fixed outside The Grove, with beverages brought from home.