Streetwise - Out on the Back Forty (feet)


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Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Out on the Back Forty (feet)

by Frank Dunnigan
February 2010

Many of the houses that were built in the Outside Lands followed a simple format of 25-foot wide lots. Throughout most of the area, these lots were generally 100-120 feet deep—roughly 60 or so feet of house and 40-60 feet of back yard. Given those 25-foot widths, most of us grew up in houses of just a little over 1,000 square feet—tiny by comparison to today's new homes. Yet even within these simple parameters, owners constructed a huge variety of landscapes. Today, many backyards are neglected and ignored, but in the mid-20th century, things were very different.


18th Avenue backyard, Frank Dunnigan and mother next to a newly planted flower bed. - Courtesy of Frank Dunnigan.

Much of the original landscaping installed years ago, by the builders and the original owners, flourished because those folks knew what would survive in the sandy soil and foggy climate. When my parents bought their home on 18th Avenue back in 1948 (for the then-outrageously high price of $13,500), the original owners, a childless couple, had a magnificent center area planted in rosebushes—all hardy varieties that were fragrant and that produced magnificent blossoms. Beginning in the early 1950s, my parents removed some of these and planted a small square of lawn, primarily as a play location for kids. To this day, neighborhood backyards without some trace or history of a lawn were invariably owned by folks with no children, since everyone else had the requisite square of grass. Those remaining rosebushes, however, are still there, producing an annual color spectacle from early Spring through late Fall, nearly 75 years after they were first planted.

One neighbor was a fuchsia aficionado, and she got Mom hooked on the dozens and dozens of different varieties and colors of that plant. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, not only our backyard, but also our center patio was a riot of colors from more than two dozen hanging redwood baskets with cascading fuchsias. The summertime fog was great for them, but warm days in Spring and Fall required gentle hand-watering over the tops of the leaves and the flowers. The annual heat waves, usually a week in June and another one in September (they always seemed to coincide with the start and the end of the school year), forced Mom into a watering frenzy. Pretty as they looked, though, they attracted every bumblebee in the area, and Dad quickly got tired of having to chase bees out of the kitchen, and the dead flowers would invariably drop onto his carefully painted barn-red patio floor. In the end, Dad convinced Mom that he was tired of chasing bees and repainting the patio floor so often, so the fuchsias departed, and were replace with glass wind chimes and a single potted plant (poinsettia, Easter lily, or chrysanthemum), that changed with the seasons. The backyard, meanwhile, reverted to some lower maintenance shrubs, which while perfectly nice, were not nearly as colorful.


A backyard in the 1200 block of 30th Avenue, October 1925. - Courtesy of Russel Morine.

Our next door neighbors installed a swing set in the rear portion of the backyard when their first child was born in the 1930s, and over the next 50 years, it stood as silent testimony to the fact that there were once many youngsters in that house. Gradually, over the decades, the canvas seats and metal chains began to corrode and disappear, and by the time that I was small, they had vanished completely. The big A-shaped iron frame remained intact, and soon became a trellis for a variety of plants and vines, but by the mid-1980s, it, too, had succumbed to nature, and was completely corroded back into the ground, where the iron-rich soil produced magnificent hydrangeas of every color—another plant well-suited to the climate of the outside lands.

Our other next door neighbor started a vegetable garden during World War II, and continued to maintain it with her favorite artichoke plants—another sturdy species for the area. Those plants produced bushels full of crop each season, and it's little wonder that artichokes were a regular vegetable on our dinner table, as Mrs. Vincent often gave Mom some of her surplus output.

For those neighbors whose lots were on the west side of a numbered avenue, yards generally had more downward slope than those on the east side of the street. Many owners took advantage of this by building a flat concrete pad adjacent to the house itself, and then installing a few steps down to the rest of the backyard, so as to enjoy the afternoon sun. These were always the houses that had asbestos siding installed on the outside rear wall, added to protect the west-facing back of the house from the onslaught of wind and rain. Today, real estate agents NEVER use the word "asbestos" and instead just refer to the "weathered" siding. I once asked a contractor about the health risks from this, and his answer was, "Unless you cut it open and lick it, you're probably safe." Good thing, since it has always been so widespread throughout the area.

My grandmother, always the thrifty soul, devised an inexpensive landscape project for her house on 21st and Rivera in the late 1930s. As San Francisco's cobblestone streets were removed and paved with asphalt over the years, she continued to collect the discarded cobblestones, and used them to build a walking path between the center lawn and the perimeter flower beds in her back yard. She even used them to build a large round "wishing well" in the far back portion of the yard, and had it adorned with a slanted roof and a bucket on a rope. Again, nature took its own course over the years, and by the late 1960s, only the round base of the well itself remained.

In a city where Catholics were once well over 50% of the population, there are likely still numerous shrines or grottoes to the Blessed Mother tucked away in corners of back yards. These will invariably have a baby rose bush growing somewhere nearby, whose flowers were used in May processions at St. Gabriel's, St. Cecilia's, Holy Name, or St. Anne's. These families invariably took their first Communion and Easter pictures in "The Grotto."


A boy, his dog, and a tent pitched in the backyard of 2730 38th Avenue in 1950s. - Courtesy of Robert Menist.

Catholicism probably also contributed to the large number of "pet cemeteries" in Sunset District backyards. I personally attended many graveside services in my younger days, in which the deceased had an appropriate and heartfelt farewell in a green Stride-Rite shoebox, adorned with many flowers and a generous splash of holy water and words from My Sunday Missal. Even as late as 1970, as a high school senior, I found myself pressed into service in the role of grave-digger at one such ceremony for a deceased rabbit named Howie at 27th & Noriega.

Camellias and rhododendrons were classic pairs of shrubs, one blooming in the winter, and then fading as the other took over in the spring. Solid pink was the usual favored hue in the past, though nurseries have now expanded the color spectrum of both of these plants considerably.

Dahlias seemed to be everyone favorite plant in the 1960s, and they grew quickly, providing ample color, even in the foggy summertime. But their flowers could not be cut and enjoyed inside the house because of the strong odor. They also had a tendency to attract a variety of insects, resulting in many destroyed plants in backyards that were shared with a family dog or cat.

Bulbs provide steady performance year after year, and many neighborhood backyards were planted with daffodils, tulips, fragrant freesias, and miniature grape hyacinths that always signaled the start of spring. There were also the red and the orange gladiolus bulbs that returned to bloom faithfully, year after year, that were referred to by many of our neighbors "those free bulbs from Clorox," referring to an early 1950s promotion by the bleach manufacturer.

Calla lilies were another abundant flower, well suited to the climate, and also to the propensity of many families to visit cemeteries on the weekend. Many of our neighbors also learned that calla lilies could absorb food coloring through their cut stems and become magically transformed for holidays—green for St. Patrick's Day, blue (combined with the standard white) for Passover, and a variety of pastels for Easter.

Fences in most areas of the Sunset were wood, and these have always succumbed to the elements with a frustrating degree of regularity. On my old block of 18th Avenue, the builder wisely installed chain-link cyclone fencing, and while not particularly attractive, it has stood the test of time, remaining intact for the 75-year life of the homes in the area. Generations of owners have obscured the harsh look with ivy, jasmine, or other vines that quickly loop through the links, providing a lush green wall of separation from the neighbors.


Kids amongst a burgeoning backyard garden on Monterey Boulevard near Gennessee, circa 1915. - Courtesy of Carolyn Wade.

Today, far too many owners have neglected their backyards, and they seldom venture out there. For all of us baby-boomers, these places were yet another extension of the neighborhood—kids sets up tents and built ramshackle forts out there. We had summer water fights, and we were all out in our yards on that snowy Sunday morning in January of 1962, after decimating the snow on the front sidewalks and lawns. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, high school graduation parties always spilled into the backyard, at least until the neighbors called to complain about hearing the rhythmic sounds of Simon & Garfunkel at one in the morning.

The backyard was also everyone's designated "relocation point" in case of earthquake, and Mom and I spent many hours sitting there that March day in 1957. When I went to check on her following Loma Prieta in October of 1989, there she was, with her sister, the two of them listening intently to a transistor radio, while seated in folding chairs a good distance from the house, just as many of the neighbors were doing, as well.

Our families knew that from the backyard, we could reach out to the folks on the next block—people that we quickly came to know just as well as those on our own street. The new baby, new dog, or the new resident was always warmly welcomed over the back fence. Recipes were exchanged, inquires were made about each other's family members, play dates were made, and everyone kept track of the childhood illnesses that occurred in each family. A bedroom light burning late at night in a house that was usually dark was a sure sign that something was wrong, and Mom would quickly find out what was the matter, just by waving a friendly hello later in the week as the resident was out watering. The quiet intimacy of the backyard was sometimes more conducive to the exchange of personal confidences than the more public setting on the sidewalk in front of someone's home.

It was no wonder that in Mom's final days, as she approached 90, she wanted to return home from the hospital to her own bedroom. There, she could gaze out onto the flora and fauna that she had lovingly tended for more than 50 years, including the large lilac tree that she and my father had planted in the early years of their marriage. Off in the quiet distance, she could detect the familiar sounds of friendly neighborhood dogs, the mirthful squeals of toddlers at play, and the bubbling of one neighbor's recently installed hot tub. Above the rhythmic swosh-swosh of rotating lawn sprinklers, she could hear the distant roar of the lawn mower as the neighborhood's longtime and friendly landscaper worked his way up and down the block, house-by-house. Indeed, the last sensory perception of her life must have been the fragrance of those many old rosebushes, drifting up to her open bedroom window on that extraordinarily warm August night that she left us, nearly eight years ago.

Many new owners now overlook backyards almost entirely, except to estimate just how far the law will allow the intrusion of new residential additions into those spaces. For many of us, though, these outdoor places were magical spots—cherished parts of our lives growing up in the outside lands—and every bit as important to our personal histories as the very homes in which we were raised.


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