Category Archives: San Francisco

In which I write up the NEMA for Failed Architecture

I have a guest post on Failed Architecture about the uproariously tin-eared marketing campaign for San Francisco’s NEMA apartment complex.

Here it is. Editors Mark Minkjan and René Boer did a lovely job. Especially René’s choice of the opening image. Very Sirens of Titan.

In case you’re wondering, the people crossing the street outside in Santa and Christmas-tree costumes were part of last week’s Santacon pub crawl.

Boundaries South of Market, San Francisco

At left: hole in the patch in the fence that they put up after they shut down the King Street camp. At right: Fence on the north side of the highway onramp, blocking the shortcut between the Berry Street housing and the Fourth Street rail station, taken from near the place where they shut down the King Street camp.

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Right: five no-trespassing, no-parking and no-dogs signs. Count ’em, five.






Below: Telling myself the scary Disney billboard is about Santa, not taking your car. That’s 850 Bryant in the background, AKA the Hall of Justice.

IMG_0574scaled 850 Bryant from Boardman Place.IMG_0576scaled County Jail public entranceIMG_0579scaled They really do mean Customer Service is off to the left. Customer Service means the building with the heavy-glassed transaction windows where you pay to get your car back.IMG_0582scaled Elementary school. I guess these gates are primarily to shut people out, not in?IMG_0583detail Digital gates.IMG_0585detail Home.IMG_0587

In search of Brautigan’s Cleveland Wrecking Yard

When Richard Brautigan went Trout Fishing in America he told a tale of riding the Number 15 bus — that means, south on Third Street along San Francisco’s southeast waterfront — to the Cleveland Wrecking Yard where they had a trout stream for sale by the foot. Fictional-sounding kind of geography to the place. Part of it is an outdoor storage yard but it also has a front show window. And then it seems to have a second story too since “the waterfalls are upstairs in the used plumbing department.”

So it turns out the Cleveland Wrecking Yard was real, and (if you ask me) the funny geography may be explained by the real thing having existed on two properties. The erudite fan site says Brautigan really did help a friend buy a used window at the Cleveland Wrecking Yard in 1958. As location it gives: “2800 3rd Street; Quint Street” and, on second reference, “a demolition business on Quint Street”. That has to mean two different places. The Third Street address is a few blocks north of Islais Creek near the San Francisco Bay waterfront. All of Quint Street is farther inland (i.e. west) and definitely south of the creek.

The 2800 – 3rd Street address does seem to be right. The good offices of the SF Public Library and the Internet Archive have combined to place a 1958 San Francisco city directory online. Page 599 of it notes several businesses under “Cleveland”, including not only the “Cleveland Vibrator Co.” (no kidding), but also “Cleveland Wrecking Co. Chas H. Rose v-pres bldg 2800 3d.” As shown at this Google Street View link, a long two-story building at the Third Street address has been fixed up a lot but you can still see how, presuming suspension of the laws of physics, someone might have laid out a 60-foot waterfall horizontally along its second floor.

On the other hand, the city directory page for Quint Street doesn’t mention “Cleveland” at all. Pity.

Just a guess but maybe the Cleveland Wrecking showroom for customers could have been on hard-bitten but businesslike Third Street while the same company could have used a storage yard over on Quint for large, awkward and less popular items. A likely place for such a yard, on Quint, could have been somewhere around Davidson Street in the jumble of wrecking, auto and scrap yards on the south bank of Islais Creek.

This would fit the part in Brautigan’s story where the yard manager gives directions to an area where “what’s left of the animals” are on display as possible extras to go with the stream: “You’ll see a bunch of our trucks parked on a road by the railroad tracks. Turn right on the road and follow it down past the piles of lumber…” Sounds about right.

There’s still a yard where you can buy a salvaged window frame (if not a trout stream) just a few blocks east of Quint and Davidson along that south bank of Islais Creek. It’s Building Resources, out there on Amador north of the postal complex.

[Added: Brautigan’s fictional tale of animals in storage on Quint Street isn’t all that far-fetched either. Mike Garza, who ran a junkyard right near Quint and Davidson, had 13 Barbados blackbelly sheep, all rams, seized from his property in 2004. He briefly faced criminal charges but they were dropped on his agreement to move the sheep to a pasture in Sonoma County.]

It’s exciting to know the real locations involved. Especially that Brautigan may have picked up the unique industrial-backwater atmosphere of that Quint and Davidson auto-yard district.

On the other hand, knowing the facts is bad for a nice conjecture I had going.

I had started out to write this post by wondering if the trout stream for sale “by the foot length” might have been stacked up in its sections of “ten, fifteen, twenty feet, etc.” in Building 2 at Pier 70. I still think Building 2 looks like the kind of place even now I’m sure that it wasn’t. It has the old Dogpatch/Bayview warehouse-world feeling, only parts of which are quaint enough to qualify for preservation.

IMG_0449scaledYou get to Building 2 by way of the Delancey Street Movers lot. Apparently it’s still in use just like it says on the box: by Paul’s Cost Less, AKA Cost/Less Inventories. Some beautiful last-century language in those sigIMG_0454detail2ns painted on the wall.

The signs are very pre-Amazon, pre-eBay.

The signs say:

“Salvors and Appraisers”

“Wholesalers * Jobbers * Salvor”

“Parking for Scooters Only”

“Promotional Items”

“Flea-Market Venders Welcome” (sic)

Brautigan’s text just kind of fits those signs. Frexample: “‘Sir,’ the salesman said, ‘I wouldn’t want you to think that we would ever sell a murky trout stream here. We always make sure they’re running crystal clear before we even think about moving them.”


The taming of Pier 70’s ghosts

IMG_0357detailTwice I’ve had the thrill of crossing the Spanish-French border under European Union law. Once at Hendaye, once at Portbou. There are no border guards now. No papers to show. You just go on through. If you’ve read and heard about the history of border crossings there, it’s like undercounting stair steps in the dark: you reach out a toe, feeling for that one more step down, and instead you find bizarrely solid ground.

Without meaning to suggest equivalence, I had a distant echo of that feeling today at the gate shown here. It was, until recently, the gate to San Francisco’s main city car impound yard. For the last ten years it was run by the Auto Return company. Before then it was run by the legendary City Tow.

An earlier post here tells some stories about ghosts that, metaphorically speaking, haunt Pier 70. Out of those stories, the ones I know best had to do with this gate. For too many poor people who lived in vehicles in San Francisco, this was where their homes were stored after towng and then, too often, crushed.

Today it was possible simply to walk through. No questions, no papers. It’s no longer the tow yard. It’s a property being prepared for redevelopment, in part by assigning it a more manageable identity as simply the former Union Iron Works plant.

Today Pier 70 was hosting a family Halloween event combined with a “sneak peek” at the art creations for this evening’s “Ghost Ship” dance party event. For the afternoon event, admission was free.

Unexpectedly to me, the event had the effect of a healing ceremony. The tow yard had been a hypermasculine environment where painful dispossessions happened. Now the developer had begun to soften the place by hosting an event there for children. It had a healing effect simply to see families receive and accept the assurance that children could be safe there, that none would make them afraid. Or rather, that “scary” Halloween decorations and costumes, brought to the place for a ritual Halloween celebration, might frighten children for a moment or two at most — that the “scary” genuinely belonging to the place was now becoming safely encapsulated in quotation marks, was on its way into the manageable realm of fable.

I take this all a bit personally because I used to be a volunteer advocate, mostly during the City Tow era, for people who lived in RVs and vans and trucks and cars. Because of San Francisco’s campaign to gentrify its eastern waterfront, these wheeled homes were towed often, mainly by the book but often for tiny offenses that wouldn’t have caused trouble for sleeker vehicles in less “transitional” neighborhoods.

Towing is only merely a nuisance if you can afford to redeem your car the same day and you are allowed to do so. It is a life-changing devastating dispossession if, for one reason or another, you can’t get your vehicle back and in it is everything you own.

This gate is where a gruff security man would open the gate just slightly to look at your pass. In the City Tow era, at least, it felt more than a little bit Soviet.

If you were lucky what you had to show the guard was a voucher. A voucher meant you had won your informal hearing at the police tow desk at 850 Bryant downtown, and/or you had paid required storage fees at the privately run tow company desk nearby. That meant you had the right to walk down the earthen ramp behind this gate, and after checking your vehicle for damage or theft, to start up your vehicle — if it would start — and drive it back up the ramp to freedom.

If you were less lucky, either you couldn’t afford the tow fees or the police refused to release your vehicle for any price, but at least you had been authorized to approach the gate with a permission slip to enter. It would allow you to check your vehicle’s condition (the condition was not always as last seen) and to recover property from inside of it (supposing said property was still there). Sometimes vehicle owners came here with friends’ cars, or with whatever kind of handtruck or cart they could bring, to cart away everything they could of all they owned.

Today all the vehicles were gone. Today, in their place, J&I entered the gate and saw, in the former car yard below, a children’s Halloween carnival.


Tough to believe: a bouncy castle. Pumpkins. A hay maze. Among them also, artily macabre Halloween decorations for the grownups’ $50-a-head night-time party.


The monstrous barn at the back of the lot, Building 12, was formerly used for indoor vehicle storage. In the City Tow days at least, if a vehicle had been put in there it probably wasn’t going anywhere else any time soon.


Probably it had been ten years since I’d been in through that big open doorway. Before, you needed a guard’s permission to go in. Today it stood unguarded.

“Lasciate ogni speranza” no more. Just a simple ruin, already easier to see in terms of its older history as a factory floor, already losing its capacity to strike dread.


This next picture, emphasizing the beams and rafters, is most like the storage barn as it occupied my mind’s eye. Of course before it was full of cars and vans and RVs and miscellaneous scavenged junk. Very full.


The artistic variation on a carousel shown below was genuinely, disturbingly macabre. But, again, when we tell stories or make art about the fictitiously horrifying, isn’t that how we get a handle on the genuinely dreadful?


Ironies: a small family house and a steel school bus, both characteristic of the adjacent Dogpatch neighborhood before its redevelopment, both repurposed as art installations, both here.


The next picture below shows the northwest corner of the barn — that’s the back left as you would have entered before, after getting permission at the old lower-level guard shack.

I wrote mistakenly earlier that the cars inside the barn were simply lined up as in a parking lot. A conversation since then has refreshed my memory. Actually, as you went back in the barn, the vehicles got more crowded together. Removing a car or RV from the back of the barn became correspondingly difficult. And unlikely.

So that made a big difference, today, to see the back of the barn emptied out and opened up. In preparation for the night-time dance event, huge signs reading “EXIT” had been posted over all of the barn’s big open doors. Those were wonderful signs to see.


I genuinely felt lighter seeing the remembered Barn Of Vehicular Doom ventilated and put to use for a ritual celebration that purposefully made light of scary things.

Injustices are still happening to people living in vehicles of course, but not here. This particular place has begun to heal.

I felt relieved to be walking back up that ramp, and going freely back out that gate onto 22nd Street, and not leaving anything behind. Not on this day. Not at this place.