Growing Up in the Richmond in the 1950s
by Victor F. Berardelli
The Richmond District was a "wasteland" reclamation typical of the pre-World War I era. It was mostly shale and sand dunes cascading down to the Pacific Ocean on its west. As Scotsman John McLaren turned sand dunes into Golden Gate Park, entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to develop housing to its north for the displaced of the Great Earthquake of '06.
Throughout the country in those days, real estate developers built streetcar lines to bring people from town to their housing lots. In any American city, the outermost end of the line had an amusement park, primarily as a way to lure folks from the inner city. San Francisco was no different. Playland was all that was needed for someone downtown to jump on the B Geary streetcar line. The developers hoped that people crowded in the inner city would see the houses closer to the beach and the fantasy world and consider buying one of their houses. Obviously, it worked in reverse. Once there, they could see how easy it was to reach work in "the city."
After World War II, in my era, the Richmond District became the first stop melting pot for aspiring middle class families climbing out of the more densely-populated ethnic enclaves. So Italians fled North Beach for "the avenues" and the Irish fled the Mission and Latinos fled Guerrero Street and Ukrainians fled Fillmore and Russians fled Divisadero and Chinese fled Grant Avenue.
We all melded into a community of equals at Lafayette School, the public school center of the community at 36th and Anza. We had our ethnic ways at home but Americanized in the school yard. My mother would pack an Italian eggplant sandwich in my lunch which I'd swap with Paul for a pastrami or Pedro for an empanada. (Funny how today we'll gladly pay $20 in a deli for comfort food which we swapped off as kids!) Our differences taught us that we were similar. As David joked, "The only difference between your Italian mother and my Jewish mother is a black dress."
I had my first crush in Kindergarten on Tanya who was Queen to my King of the Maypole. But I jilted her for a crush on the first grade teacher Miss Giovachinni who, to a five or six year old, was as beautiful as Jane Russell and nicer because she would tie your shoe.
We learned what framed us as we swapped war stories. My father fought at Leyte Gulf and the Solomon Islands. Joel's dad landed at Anzio. And we learned the ugly side of the war. Steve's father never made it back and he only knew him from photos. Michel, who spoke English with an accent, escaped Europe as a baby in his fleeing mother's arms. Howard's grandmother sat morose in her rocking chair when you'd go to his house after school and, one day, I learned the reason when the sleeve of her sweater slipped up and I saw numbers tattooed on her forearm.
In the late-40s and early-50s, teachers were assigned to the school in their neighborhoods. So we learned to behave on the streets because Miss Geeson might see us cavorting on Balboa Street and say something to our mothers at PTA.
Mrs. Pope was one of those overly-pious superstitious Irish Catholics who would go to Mass every morning at St. Thomas the Apostle on her walk to teach at Lafayette. If a Catholic kid in her class did good in a test, she would slip them a holy card or a medal. If she found out we played hookey from after school Catechism classes for public school kids over at St. Thomas School, she'd call our parents. My Jewish buddies couldn't laugh, however, because Mrs. Bauer would jump all over them if she found out they skipped Hebrew School at Temple and would tell their parents at B'Nai Brith meetings. At least the Catholics or Jews could walk to Catechism class or Bar Mitzvah lessons. The poor Chinese kids had to take a bus across town to Chinese classes and the Greeks had to go all the way near Stonestown for their Greek lessons.
Balboa Street was our first educational street experience. We hung out as a group and simply walked the street to explore and learn and we flirted with the girls in the parochial school uniforms who sent mixed messages - on the one hand aloof, on the other intrigued at our exotic differences.
On Saturdays we jumped on our Schwinn's and formed a bike brigade. If someone double-dog dared you, we'd ride all the way down to Playland and then have to pedal back up hill until we hit the crest at 40th.
Sometimes we got into mischief. We delighted in putting pennies in the streetcar tracks to watch the sparks fly as the huge metal wheels ground into them and then reclaimed the concave copper as our trophy. That was tame to our pastime of walking the residential avenues for a spirited game of ring-run where we'd ring a doorbell and run and hide to giggle as people opened their doors and gaped finding nobody there. On a triple double-dog dare, we'd scoop up some dog poop and put it in a paper bag which we would set on fire on the front stoop as we rang the bell. For adolescent fourth and fifth graders it seemed especially funny to watch a homeowner panic, start stomping the flames only to discover they were stepping in crap!
We played ball in the streets. Oncoming cars were defensive backs and we'd run up the street with the football and dodge them at the last minute by jumping between parked cars. A sewer grate in the middle of the street was home plate. I remember once hitting a home run off Kevin's pitch. Well, it would have been a homerun except that I hit the ball so hard it knocked down a power line sending us scampering for hiding places at home. I had caused a six-square-block power outage and was sure that PG&E would find out and have the police arrest me!
Hide and Seek was a favorite because we always made my obnoxious kid brother or Jack's mouthy sister IT. While they closed their eyes and counted, we disappeared around the corner and took off for parts unknown.
We played war games with one "army" starting around 40th Avenue and one on 33rd and we would advance toward Lafayette School, which we proclaimed a fort to be taken. Stale miniature Tootsie Roll pieces were the weapon of choice (although Jujubes shot with a slingshot were great, too) until the day I let one go with the strongest toss my arms ever threw and I got Charlie right between the eyes. He ran home crying to his mother. This prompted Cathy's dad, who was a cop, to put on his tough face, round us up and scare us. The choice, he said, was either go to the precinct and get booked for Juvie or be turned over to our fathers. Were he serious, we'd probably willingly go to the police station rather than have the old man punish us. Cathy's dad was a good guy, though, and he'd let us off with the infamous cliché, "And don't let me ever catch you doing it again." He was especially liked around Fourth of July because all of the firecrackers he confiscated from the pachucos, he gave to his daughter. In exchange for a daring 10-year-old hug and a kiss, she would give us some to set off. That made her one of the most popular girls in the neighborhood. I haven't seen her since I was 12 and often wondered with those skills what she bartered when she got older!
The commercial strip extended from 33rd to 39th. There were three food markets which gave us our first jobs as delivery boys, two pharmacies, some beauty parlors, an old fashioned pharmacy with a soda counter, a Bank of America branch, a five and dime, the Sugar Bowl bakery, Frosty Bossy ice cream, a gas station, Vince DiMaggio (the youngest of the baseball clan) owned a bar at 38th and Balboa and we kids peeked in the door to see the baseball memorabilia. A former San Francisco Shamrock player owned a bar called Hockey Haven which didn't seem too sporting and was a place where kids' drunken uncles and a certain Irish priest were seen to stagger out. There was a Firestone Tire store which later turned into a ladies' dress shop.
The Balboa Theater was our cultural center. Saturday afternoon kids' matinee was only a quarter and you got a black-and-white B-movie like "Superman and the Mole Men," a serial like Boston Blackie or Hopalong Cassidy and a couple of Tom & Jerry or Mighty Mouse cartoons. Merchants had promotions where our parents got tickets for a drawing when they made purchases. I won my first Schwin bicycle at a Saturday matinee drawing.
In the middle of the block between 37th and 38th was a penny candy and joke store run by a short fat man of unknown eastern European accent named Luke. We'd walk in to be greeted by a cranky, "What do you vant, keeds?" As we grew older, we learned that behind the curtain in the middle of the store was a great array of dirty magazines which was the cause of his nervousness when we entered innocently to buy a root beer sucker or a joy buzzer. Around 12 or 13, he'd let you wonder through the curtain for your first glimpse of a picture of a lingerie-clad lady. Rumors spread in the schoolyard that under the counter he had magazines which showed even more but you had to be in high school to see those.
In good weather, the gang would walk down to Golden Gate Park and explore. We'd feed ducks at Spreckle's Lake, learn fishing at the fly-casting pools, pet the horses at the stables, and watch the polo games and the harness drivers training for the Bay Meadows season. We were too young to know what horny meant but we got the gist every year when we'd lean on the chain-link fence and watch the stags rutting ritual in the buffalo paddock. We got educated in the park too because the Steinhardt Aquarium and museums were free admission in those days, so we could see artworks and eels and Middle Ages armor on an afternoon hike from home.
When we got old enough to ride the bus on our own, around 12, we'd go downtown and do the same roaming ritual from Powell and Market up to Union Square. Or, we'd go down to the Embarcadero and watch them unload Matson passenger ships or cargo freighters with exotic flags from places in the Pacific which were little known to us. It gave us the wanderlust to see that big world out there. The city was a gigantic playground and exploratorium.
About that same age, we got real excitement when the Giants left New York and we got to see our Major League heroes like Willie Mays and Stan Musial up close and personal at Seal's Stadium all the way across town on Bryant Street. The right-field bleacher seats were only 90-cents and sold first come-first served until sold out. I got up every morning at 4 a.m. to deliver the San Francisco Examiner (I learned early that the biggest tips came if everybody got their paper by 6:30 a.m.) and, during summer school vacation, I'd take a quick shower, pack a brown bag lunch and grab the bus. On a big game day when Warren Spahn or Sandy Koufax was in town to pitch against the Giants, tickets would sell out by 11 a.m. We'd get inside, stake out a seat on the long wooden benches and watch batting practice from the outfield.
It also gave us our first window on the Negro culture as we'd have to get off the 31 Balboa bus and transfer to the 22 on Fillmore Street, which went to the ballpark. The transfer point was outside the Cincinnati Barbecue & Lounge and, as I stood waiting for the Balboa bus on the way home from a game, I got my first introduction to jazz as I heard the wail of a be-bop sax played by one of the dudes inside or a Coltrane record. The folks didn't seem menacing to me at all. They were no different than the Italians in North Beach except they had cooler music than O Sole Mio playing on the jukebox.
San Francisco was two things in the 50s: a food city and a music city. Even neighborhood restaurants were better than the biggest eatery in smaller big cities. And the radio dial was our window to the outside world. We had Hawthorne spinning the pop Top 40 of the Temptations, Everly Brothers, the Shirelles on KYA and we had Don Sherwood on KSFO introducing us to irreverent humor between Frank Sinatra and Catarina Valenti records and Nick & Noodnick did crazy comedy character sketches on KROW between Elvis and Fats Domino. And the city was opinionated. Ira Blue, who took my on-air call as a precocious 12-year-old and gave me the first fire in my belly to go into radio, would castigate the 49ers defense in one breath and the Board of Supervisors for a stupid law in the other.
Change comes to everything. San Francisco is no different.
It first went through a period when it became Disneyland with a Permanent Population. Its economy made the exodus from the onerous regulations and high taxes to the extent that its tourism mystique was all that it had left. But it wasn't even locals anymore as national chains invaded Fisherman's Wharf. And it took a singer from Brooklyn to croon about leaving his heart in San Francisco!
And on my last stroll down Balboa Street, some 50 years later, all that was left were the memories of places long gone.
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Page launched 17 February 2010.