Streetwise - Summer in the City

by Frank Dunnigan
June 2016

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Ah, the start of summer…

Growing up in San Francisco, it was a given that the beginning and the end of each school year would coincide with one of the Bay Area’s two annual heat waves. Indian Summer in September was matched by equally high temperatures at the end of the academic calendar in mid-June—while the summer months were inevitably foggy or just “overcast, clearing to near the coast by late afternoon.”

Given the local climate, what did City kids do in the old days before electronic devices captured every last ounce of their attentions? Plenty of things!

Bike Riding: Age was a determinant of how big a bicycle kids could have, and that, in turn, generally defined the limits of their ability to roam. Little ones with tricycles weren’t going to get far from the block containing their own home, while older kids with three-speed or ten-speed bikes could safely roam huge swaths of the city during daylight hours with no problems—“be home by the time the streetlights come on” was the standard parental admonition.

Board Games: Every family had a well-worn Monopoly® set on a shelf in the front hall closet, and long foggy afternoons were perfect times to have a crowd of neighborhood friends over for a Monopoly® marathon. What were the house rules in your family? Did you start out with a $500 bill in the middle of the board for the first person who managed to land on FREE PARKING? Did you place all fines and penalties in the middle of the board to be collected by subsequent players who landed on FREE PARKING? Did rolling three doubles in a row send a player DIRECTLY TO JAIL?

Camp: Whether it involved day camp, like Silver Tree in Glen Canyon Park or so-called “sleepaway” camps in places like Occidental in Sonoma County, San Francisco kids had plenty of options. Exploring nature, painting and other craft projects, and cooking over a campfire filled the days of many youngsters, as their Moms breathed a sigh of relief to have the house to themselves for a week or so.

Whitman Coin Folder, n.d. - Courtesy of Frank Dunnigan

Coin Collecting: Back in the 1960s, stores like Toy Village on West Portal Avenue and King Norman’s on Clement Street carried a series of blue-and-silver folders with coin-shaped cut-outs in the cardboard interiors. Manufactured by the Whitman Company, the folders sold for 25 cents and had a space for every possible coin minted in a particular era such as "Lincoln Cents, 1941-present." Going to the bank and buying a roll or two of pennies, at 50 cents a roll, then scanning through them, slowly but surely helped us to fill these books. Trading old rolls that had already been scanned for new rolls obtained from friends helped to fill in the gaps. Each summer, caravans of kids could be seen up and down West Portal Avenue, going from bank to bank, buying and exchanging a roll or two of pennies at one bank or savings and loan office after another (during the school year, this could only be done on Friday afternoons—the one day each week when banks were open until six p.m.). I’m still looking for that elusive 1909-S VDB (minted in San Francisco and including the initials of the designer, Victor David Brenner)—a coin that was so rare that we all had a single gaping hole in those folders no matter how hard we searched.

Downtown Shopping: Thanks to MUNI, it was an easy run to Market Street where kids could spend an afternoon exploring the Toy and Sporting Goods departments at the back of the Emporium’s fourth floor, and then cross the street for a slice of pizza or a hot dog with a Coke (lunch for less than $1) while watching the Miracle Veg-a-Matic being demonstrated on the middle aisle of the big Woolworths store at the corner of Powell and Market.

Family Visits: Every parent had an elderly aunt, uncle, or distant cousin with whom an annual visit was a regular thing. These get-togethers often took place during the summer, and youngsters were frequently taken along so that the older relative could remark, “Oh, my, how you’ve grown! The last time I saw you, you were just 'this big.'” (Hands held out a two-foot distance from one another.) Each July, our family went to visit an elderly lady on 43rd Avenue in the Richmond District and wish her a happy birthday, though I was never quite sure of exactly who she was. Decades later, at Dad’s 1980 funeral, Alice herself finally explained the family connection—she was my father’s much older first cousin—her mother and my grandfather (long-gone before I came onto the scene) were sister and brother, growing up South-of-Market in the 1870s. Alice remained hale and hearty well into her 90s, and served to spark my own interest in genealogy.

Giants Ticket, 1978, 1978 - Courtesy of Frank Dunnigan

Giants Baseball: This was another kid-friendly excursion via MUNI. Special buses with big signs reading BALL PARK EXPRESS cruised major thoroughfares such as Geary Boulevard, 19th Avenue, Van Ness Avenue, and Mission Street, picking up passengers for a direct run to Candlestick Park. As late as 1978, a General Admission ticket cost a mere $1—quite a bargain compared to the cost of cheering on any pro sports team today.

Independence Day: It wasn’t July without a ride across the county line with Dad to the Westlake Shopping Center in Daly City where “safe and sane” fireworks were sold legally—only to be smuggled back into San Francisco where there could be set off illegally in the foggy wetness that seemed to settle over the western neighborhoods every July 4th.

Jigsaw Puzzles: It was the rare family that did not have a couple of jigsaw puzzles stashed away for rainy (or foggy) days. The drill was always the same—look for straight-edged border pieces first, then start looking for recognizable images from the cover, and fill in the big sky portions last.

Library Programs: The San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) had many summer reading programs. Some involved reading a number of books and then summarizing them for the librarian in order to receive a certificate. Other events, geared mostly to younger children, involved spending a couple of afternoons a week in the big, comfy chairs in the reading room as a librarian or adult volunteer read aloud from children’s classics.

Marin Town & Country Club: There was always a neighborhood Mom with a station wagon who agreed to transport her own children and their friends to a day of sunshine in Marin County. The usual route involved creeping across a fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge and up the incline to the Waldo Tunnel. Emerging on the north side of the tunnel, it was blue skies and sunshine all the way to Fairfax. A full day of fun and frolic cost about $1 for adults and a mere 50 cents for children.

Read more here:

WNP historian John Martini has posted dozens of great images of the place here:

Vacation Fun Every Day sign at Marin Town and Country Club, 2009 - Photo by John A. Martini

Movies: Every city neighborhood had a cavernous movie house (always located immediately adjacent to a MUNI line), where kids could spend a summer afternoon in the dark, getting caught up on the latest western, the adventures of Superman, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges, along with cartoon antics ranging from Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. In 1962, the Parkside Theater on Taraval offered a summer matinee subscription of 13 tickets for afternoon-long events spread over June, July, and August, for just $1.30—10 cents per show. Thousands of Moms regarded this as money well spent.

Museums: When the museums were all free, kids could pick up some basics of culture and art appreciation while still hanging out with friends and having a good time. I recall my own first visit to the Josephine Randall Junior Museum to see an exhibit of model trains, which led to my interest and later visits to places like the Morrison Planetarium and the Steinhart Aquarium, and eventually to places like the deYoung and the Legion of Honor.

Picnics: Mom and two of her friends, neighbors Claire and Dorothy, used to combat “cabin fever”—their own as well the same affliction among us kids—by declaring impromptu picnics on someone’s front lawn as a way to serve lunch to us as toddlers, while getting everyone out of the house. If the foggy weather persisted for more than just a few days, one of the Moms would volunteer to drive down to San Mateo’s Central Park on El Camino Real—where there was a miniature train—for an afternoon picnic in the sunshine. I was surprised recently when an old college friend informed me that she had taken her brother’s grandson there recently and that the train is still operating—with an engineer who still allows kids to take turns blowing the whistle—proving that some things are just too good to let go.

Playland: One punch on a MUNI car ticket would get us to Playland-at-the-Beach for the day. Until the mid-1960s, most parents considered this a safe place where kids could be kids, racing around, letting off steam, and devouring cotton candy, popcorn, and Cokes. The crowd began getting a bit rougher, and there were multiple incidents of fighting and gang activities as the 1960s wore on. In spite of our fond memories of earlier times, most parents were no longer allowing younger children unsupervised access to the midway by the time it closed on Labor Day weekend of 1972.

Returning Soda Bottles: In order to have some pocket change for snacks at the show or while out on MUNI excursions, hundreds of kids, boys and girls alike, gathered up empty soda bottles from their own families and from the neighbors, and then returned them to local grocery stores to collect the “deposit” that had been paid by the original purchaser—3 cents for small bottles and 5 cents for larger ones. Kids who had thirsty relatives and neighbors always had pockets full of change.

Summer Jobs: Many kids began searching early for a summer job that did not require them to wear an apron or do heavy lifting. While office work was ideal for many, others thrived on being an usher or usherette at a local theater, baby-sitting (with plenty of time to make phone calls to friends without parents screaming “five more minutes”), or playground supervision. If nothing decent materialized, there were always the food service concessions at Playland where weary teens had been dipping frozen bananas into chocolate sauce for decades.

Summer Reading: Once a common practice in all schools, the “summer reading list” now seems to exist only in schools that promote a college-prep curriculum (Lowell, St. Ignatius, etc.)—though Balboa High School now has a very modest two-book requirement for summer completion by students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Combined with summer reading programs at SFPL branches, this school-based project always served as a great introduction to serious reading for many kids—and it is strange that it is not a districtwide requirement for the San Francisco Unified School District.

Summer School: Some kids used to dread having to attend summer school for remedial math or reading classes, but many others signed up in order to get an advance start on completing graduation requirements sooner, learning a new language, practicing musical or sports skills, or just attending enrichment courses in arts and theater programs.

Vacations with the Family: Whether eagerly anticipated or dreaded, every family invariably embarked on a road trip to places like Rio Nido, Camp Mather, or possibly Disneyland (see, with predictable back-seat arguments about who was getting the window seat.

Whatever the activity, most city kids had plenty of things to do all summer long—in spite of the foggy weather—and were refreshed and ready to return to a new school year each fall.

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Page launched 30 June 2016.

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