Streetwise: Faded from the Scene

by Frank Dunnigan
April 2018


Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Until she died in 1960, my grandmother used to lament the absence of the company that delivered a twice-weekly block of ice to her Sunset District kitchen on 21st Avenue until the mid-1950s—after she had placed a card in the front window to signal the driver about the quantity needed. She was certainly among the ice company’s very last residential customers when my parents finally persuaded her to buy an electric refrigerator from the Sears store at Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue, circa 1955.

In the last 20-30 years or so, many other once-popular places and things have also disappeared from the local scene—but check back next month for a column about local institutions that are still alive and well.

Adult Fashion: The market for men’s hats tanked the day JFK was inaugurated in 1961, and “Friday casual” became the style in many workplaces prior to the turn of the millennium. Also long-gone are hats and gloves for women, neckties on men, hosiery on women, and cuff links on men. Personal fragrances (after-shave/perfume/cologne) are now forbidden in many offices, while online access has drastically reduced briefcase usage by everyone.

Auto Body Shops: Once a standard local business, with many operating near 7th Avenue & Lincoln Way in the Sunset, auto body repair facilities are now highly-regulated by local zoning laws and are disappearing from most neighborhoods.

Shell Station, NE corner of 37th Ave and Balboa. Also advertised on the right, The Soda Barn., 1951 - SF Assessors Office (WNP Collection)

Bank Branches/Tellers: Since the widespread introduction of ATMs in the early 1980s, many bank branches have closed. Direct-deposit has also served to limit the need for in-person transactions. Sadly, this has resulted in the conversion of some once-grand spaces (Hibernia Bank at #1 Jones Street, Bank of America at #1 Powell Street, Security-Pacific at #1 Grant Avenue, and others) to a variety of business ventures that are far less grand than the ornate granite/marble palaces themselves—the Ice Cream Museum? Bank of America had 60+ branches in San Francisco in 1960 (vs. half that number today)—all of which used to be staffed/managed by local residents who had long-standing personal interactions with their customers. Today, many decisions originate in North Carolina, home of the bank’s headquarters since a 1998 takeover.

Beauty Parlors: Places with names like this once catered to ladies with blue-rinsed bouffant hairstyles. Now, the shops and their customers are fading fast.

Bowling Alleys: There are exactly five remaining—three South-of-Market, one in the Mission, and one in the Presidio.

Children: The long-standing statistic is true—there are more registered dogs than children in San Francisco, creating ripples of change throughout many industries.

Clothing Stores: Neighborhood shopping areas used to include clothing stores. Some of these were King’s Tots & Teens on Ocean Avenue, Portigol’s Baby Shop at 18th & Geary, Elsa Margo Apparel Shop on Irving, and Barone of California Menswear on West Portal—all of which are long-gone.

Coffee Shops: The demise of Zim’s in 1997 (along with the closure of the Fosters chain nearly 30 years earlier), changed the urban landscape of San Francisco. The demise of hot meals and coffee at all hours was a serious loss to many. The proliferation of Starbucks outlets simply does not fill the culinary gap.

Delicatessens: Changing tastes/rising rents have chased many away: A.G. Ferrari in Laurel Village in 2017, plus Herb’s on Taraval, Herman’s on Geary, San Francisco Meats & Delicatessen on Ocean, Lee’s in the Financial District, and many others before that.

Dime/Variety Stores: Fast-vanishing ever since Woolworth closed in 1997. If you had to buy shoelaces, a spool of thread, or a thumbtack right this minute, where would you go? Most people would probably turn to Amazon since few local stores carry such items today.

Downtown Rooftop Flagpoles: These were once a standard feature on downtown buildings, but not any longer.

Driver Education/Training: Once a regular part of junior year in high school, these courses are now offered by private companies.

Field Repair Staff: Growing up in the 1950s, our family had a friendly TV repair man who came out regularly to replace tubes in our RCA-Victor set. Today, it is rare for anyone to come out to repair anything. When TVs and other appliances stop working, they are generally thrown into the trash or left on the sidewalk.

File Clerks: A popular entry-level position in many companies, often leading to promotion within the firm—long-gone.

Flower Stands: The downtown area used to have dozens of them, but today, only a handful remain, often handed down in families.

Flower Stand on Stockton. Union Square in background, circa 1955 - Photographer Unknown (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Funerals: Changing customs have been impacting the mortuary business since late in the last millennium, resulting in numerous closures. (See: Streetwise: Final Services Will Be Held and also Streetwise: Valente, Marini, Perata)

Furriers: Once operating downtown as well as in neighborhood locations (Clement, Geary, Irving, Ocean, Judah, Taraval, and West Portal), they have nearly vanished, and city government is considering laws to shut them down entirely.

Gas Station Attendants: Self-service pumps and automated credit card readers have eliminated another entry-level job. Gas stations themselves are becoming increasingly rare in San Francisco because of high land values—particularly along 19th Avenue. (See Streetwise: The Long & Short of It)

Richfield gas station on the southeast corner of Noriega Street and 27th Avenue, about 1948. Al Alden, center, Ray Sullivan, right., circa 1948 - Courtesy of Al and Julie Alden.

German/Danish Bakeries: These have been disappearing for many reasons—rising rents, competition from supermarket bakeries since the early 1970s, and customers who are more health-conscious about fats/sugars.

High Schools: Gone are Commerce, McAteer, Polytechnic, and Wilson—due to shifting attendance patterns. On the Catholic side, Notre Dame de Namur, Notre Dame des Victoires, Presentation, St. Brigid’s, St. John’s, St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s, St. Rose, St. Vincent’s, and Star of the Sea are all gone because of declining enrollment and increasing costs.

Hobby Shops: Bill’s Terminal on Market Street, Chan’s Trains & Hobbies on Van Ness, Noriega Hobby Shop, and Gamemasters on Geary all began to suffer in the 1970s/1980s, while Internet competition delivered the final blow to Franciscan Hobbies on Ocean Avenue in 2014.

Hof Brau: This style of restaurant once dotted the Tenderloin and downtown area, but changing tastes led to a slow but steady decline beginning 30+ years ago, leaving Tommy’s Joynt at Van Ness & Geary as one of the few survivors.

Kids Mowing Lawns: Once popular among youngsters, this began to fade about 1977 when long-term drought conditions led to many lawns being replaced with concrete. Sadly, today, many homeowners don’t maintain their landscape at all, and parents are often reluctant to allow children to undertake such responsibilities.

Malls/Department Stores: Continuing to disappear, but stay tuned for new developments as Stonestown begins to demolish the old Emporium/Macy’s building for something new.

Manufacturing/Shipping: Both industries went into a serious decline in in the 1960s. Today, you are not likely to find a cargo ship, sheet metal shop, rag manufacturer or any number of other industrial-type businesses locally.

Martini Lunches: Along with dice-playing, these were Monday-Friday Financial District traditions. Enlightened standards of office behavior and more stringent DUI laws led to a steady decline beginning in the mid-1980s.

Military Presence: Shifting patterns of federal government support have resulted in numerous closures in the Bay Area over the last few decades: Presidio of San Francisco, Fort Mason, Treasure Island Naval Station, Letterman Army Hospital, and the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in the city, plus numerous other installations and military hospitals throughout the Bay Area.

Movie Theatres: Fewer than 20 remaining, down from 50+ in 1980. (Note: the website Cinema Treasures lists 38, though this number includes adult video, live performance venues, and “experimental” films.)

Neighborhood Pharmacies: Gone are the days when Wakelee’s on Clement, Dave’s A-1 on Noriega, Bowerman’s on Ocean Avenue, and other local drug stores were in business, employing high school students to make free deliveries.

Built in 1925, 2001 Irving Street housed Roths Rexall Drugs in 1951. Although the building still stands, the exterior was extensively remodeled and the tower demolished in 1993., 1951 - SF Assessors Office (WNP Collection)

Newspaper Carriers: This once-popular pre-teen occupation has now become adult employment, with few parents willing to allow children to walk neighborhood streets alone in the early morning darkness.

Paper Drives/Rag Drives: Formerly popular school fund-raisers, demand for such materials diminished drastically along with the decline in manufacturing.

Parochial Elementary Schools: Closures continue due to declining enrollment, increasing tuitions, few remaining nuns, plus city-required earthquake retrofitting. Among those closed in recent years: All Hallows, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart, St. Charles, St. Dominic’s, St. Elizabeth’s, St. Emydius, St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s Chinese, St. Michael’s, St. Paul’s, St. Paul of the Shipwreck. Immaculate Conception merged with St. Anthony’s several years ago, and many of the remaining schools, which used to have multiple classes of 50 students apiece at each grade level, are now operating with only one class of about 30 children each, from Grades K-8. St. Gabriel’s in the Sunset, once the largest Catholic elementary school west of Chicago with 1,200 students, has seen its enrollment drop by more than half. Sadly, the situation is not unique to San Francisco—the Diocese of Oakland closed 5 elementary schools in 2017 due to declining enrollment.

View northeast. St Michaels Catholic Church on right. White Corvair parked at curb. Schoolchildren catching streetcar. House at 92 Broad St center left. M-Line Muni PCC #1144 , Sep 1966 - Photographer Unknown (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Pennies: Whatever intended purposes there were—parking meters, cheap candy, and contributions to piggy banks—few still exist today. With more retail transactions being performed electronically, it seems only a matter of time before legislation kills off the penny entirely, with final amounts for cash transactions rounded up/down to the nearest nickel.

Print Newspapers: With so many forms of news dissemination and classified advertising, the newspaper business has changed drastically. Now a single-newspaper town (down from four in the late 1950s), home delivery of the San Francisco Chronicle costs over $700 annually (more than $500 for suburban newspapers like the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat) vs. about $25-35 in 1970. Soon, an entire generation will never experience the quiet satisfaction of leisurely leafing through the morning newspaper over coffee at the kitchen table.

Senior Citizens: The good news is that people are living longer. The bad news is that many of them are unable to do so in San Francisco. Although the daily obituary notices in the Chronicle often list almost half the dearly departed as being 90+ years of age, the vast majority of those notices also tell stories about people who were born and raised (plus having raised their own families) in the city, but who often depart this world from a remote locale.

SFPD Mounted Patrol: Once much larger, the unit is now comprised of 1 sergeant, 6 officers, and 9 horses. Fortunately, the terrain of Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, and other San Francisco locales suggests that the mounted patrol will remain active for a long time to come—unlike the San Francisco Fire Department stables that shut down when the last fire horse retired 97 years ago, in 1921.

Shoe Repair: One particular service that has been severely impacted by rising rents in the last 30+ years (often caused by demand for neighborhood space for cell phone stores, nail salons, fast-food eateries), this has often been among the first local merchants to be displaced. Today’s throw-away culture often leads people to discard worn footwear without considering the possibility of repair.

Smoking: A huge decline in this practice has been achieved since the time of the US Surgeon General’s first warning in 1964. Locally, there are many legal restrictions in place today, and cigarette vending machines, once found in public places, are long-gone. Distributing cigars in the workplace once celebrated births, though now, the practice might cause an office manager to summon the police.

View south towards Market Street. Cigarette Shortage, line of customers at cigar store, Dec 8, 1944 - (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Toll Collectors: Eliminated from the Golden Gate Bridge in favor of electronic transponder toll processing five years ago (March 2013), it is anyone’s guess just how long this job will remain on other Bay Area bridges.

Traffic Girls/Boys: Students used to provide a valuable community service. This program began to fade by the 1980s, and when it was revitalized recently, paid adults were hired, eliminating a popular right-of-passage. Streetwise: Stop, Look, and Listen)

Transportation: San Franciscans once relied heavily upon MUNI rather than motor vehicles, with fewer cars parked on neighborhood streets.

Travel Agents: Online systems, plus numerous discount websites for air travel/lodging/car rentals have diminished this business significantly. One local firm, Portal World Travel, continues to operate on Ocean Avenue, more than 70 years after its founding on West Portal.

Typewriter Repair Shops: Deader than the proverbial doornail.

Zoo: Still popular, but ceased to be free in 1970. (See Streetwise: A Fine and Fancy Ramble)


Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!

Page launched 4 April 2018.

More by Frank Dunnigan

Save SF History