Streetwise - The Taraval Trail


More by Frank Dunnigan

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - The Taraval Trail

by Frank Dunnigan
June 2010

Although I spent most of my first 50 years living in the Outside Lands (with just a temporary relocation to Santa Clara for part of college), I now live outside of Outside, though I still visit there pretty regularly. When I don't spend the night with family or friends, I often stay with those nice folks out at the Ocean Park Motel at 46th Avenue & Wawona, and then I always seem to find myself awake early, and in need of coffee and the Chronicle. This leads to the inevitable trips up and down the inner part of Taraval to see what's open.

It always seemed to me that in days gone by, Taraval was a veritable beehive of early morning activity. Reis' Pharmacy at 18th, Zim's at 19th, and the Baronial Bakery, the Post Office, and the Overland Pharmacy, near 21st, just to name a few, were active, even in the dark, early morning hours. The familiar old yellow-panel bakery trucks with the pull-out shelves in the back would be cruising up and down the avenues with baked goods and early morning grocery items such as orange juice, ground coffee, eggs, and bread. The milk trucks from Borden and Sun Valley Dairy would be following a path, delivering to virtually all the homes on some blocks. Farther out, all the way along Taraval to the beach, were the small corner stores, their lights shining brightly. Many of those small places probably did a huge part of their business selling alcohol, tobacco, milk, bread, and laundry detergent in the late night and early morning hours, back in the era of Ike & JFK.

"Dark Passage" is playing at the Parkside Theater. Overland Pharmacy, Sherry's Liquors, Baronial Bakery, Rite Spot Food Center, and Josephine's Delicatessen are among businesses on Taraval Street between 20th and 21st Avenue in 1947. - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.

There also used to be "paper boys" delivering the Chronicle (if you were in a Republican household) or the Examiner (if you were in a Democratic household), while those who delivered the Progress and the Shopping News were usually out and about after school. Strangely, virtually all of them are gone today. The big blue Chronicle trucks that used to rumble up and down Taraval frequently, until about ten years ago, loading up the vending stands on each corner with an in-bound streetcar stop, are now few and far between, probably a reflection of both a decline in readership, and fewer people headed to work in downtown. Today, it seems that it's just those cool silver car tracks, stretching all the way out to the beach, without any early morning signs of life in the neighborhood.

On one recent visit, at the stroke of 6 a.m., I found my way into the Tennessee Grill, an old familiar breakfast hang-out from the days when Dad would want to get an early start on any family outing from vacation to the annual St. Cecilia's parish picnic. The place hasn't changed much over the years since it was owned by my classmate Carmen's parents. The food is decent, down-to-earth, and still reasonably priced. Service is unbelievably quick, but don't ask for "cholesterol free" eggs, because they don't have them. Toast is just white, wheat, or rye, and the coffee is definitely not Starbucks. The only concession to modern times is that there are now pink, yellow, blue, and brown packets on the tables, in addition to plain old sugar. Ketchup still comes in a red plastic squirt bottle, as God intended.

On that foggy Monday morning not too long ago, I was sitting in the same booth that I did in 1964, and enjoying a pleasant meal, served up cheerily, though on plastic Melmac plates rather than the heavy cream-colored crockery plates of days gone by. The Chron was still stringing a few pitiful pages together that I could read as I ate (no more columnists, fewer comics, virtually no business news at all, very little local coverage, and no high school sports, with the main focus on vague international issues and Hollywood scandals). Glancing around, I estimated that I was the youngest customer in the place by a good 20 years or so—hey, it's a great establishment that can make me feel that young again! If they would just repaint the interior in a color more cheerful than battleship gray, and warm up the lighting a bit, it would crank things up a full notch or two. Once I was finished, it was time to walk off the fat and cholesterol, so I wandered a bit up and down Taraval to see the sights.


First Navy Jet in Larsen Park, 1960s. - Courtesy of Richard Lim

I was reminded of the early 1950s, before I started school, when Mom was still a non-driver, and her usual household routine involved one or two weekly walking trips to all those long-gone merchants along Taraval. A regular shopping journey began by walking from our house on 18th Avenue down Vicente and then up 20th Avenue—a route that she selected to minimize the uphill climb. We would pass by the swings and slides of Larsen Park Playground, which would become a stopping-off point on the way home, if I behaved myself. Further along 20th Avenue, past the older houses that had been constructed in the early days of the streetcar lines, we'd wave hello to Mrs. Wolfinger, Grandma's girlhood friend, who might be sitting in her living room window or out front watering, just as she had been since the early days of St. Cecilia's Parish, circa 1917. Then we'd pass the side wall of the theater on 20th, with its memorable billboard advertising 7-Up, along with the stern admonition that I remember to this day: SHOP THE PARKSIDE.

Looking up Taraval at 20th Avenue, we could see the Parkside Sanitary Barber Shop, whose proprietor would be out there each morning winding up the barber pole with a hand crank, so that a hidden mechanism in the porcelain base would spin a red, white, and blue cylinder in a glass cage—its message being, the barber is open for business. This was something that I always enjoyed watching for reasons that I still can't fathom. I had my hair cut there for about the first 15 years of my life, and if I didn't squirm too much, I could count on the barber to open up the drawer full of Tootsie Rolls that he kept in a desk opposite the first chair near the window. That was also the place that I learned the concept of infinity, by staring into a mirror that reflected the images of another mirror behind me—great stuff when you're five years old.

Mom's first stop was the Bank of America branch on the opposite corner. There was still etched glass in the lower six feet of the bank's tall windows facing 20th Avenue, and it added to the mystery and the allure in the mind of a six-year old of just what mounds of currency and coin might be found at the desks within. Stepping into the lobby, there was the distinct smell of money in the air—something that is no longer present in the sanitized, air-conditioned bank buildings of today. Some of my early reading was done while standing in that lobby—Paying, Receiving, Savings, Checking, Safe Deposit, Christmas Club, Loans, Note Department, Merchant Window were just some of the signs that caught my eye. In particular, the Christmas Club sign evoked visions of Santa and his reindeer, kicking back and relaxing in recliners around a fireside with mugs of hot chocolate. How I wanted to visit that part of the bank building! Thirty years later, when Mom was about 70, I introduced her to the miracle of the ATM one Saturday afternoon, and she had a look on her face that was about the same as if Orson Welles had walked up to her and introduced a friendly Martian.


Baronial Bakery at 1033 Taraval Street in 1951. - WNP Photo

From there, it was off to the Rite Spot Market just a few doors away for a few grocery items, then a stop at the Baronial Bakery run by Willie Nabbefeld and his wife, where Mom would buy half-a-cake for dessert or perhaps a loaf of cinnamon bread. For years, every birthday, confirmation, and graduation cake in our house came from Baronial, along with plenty of Sunday morning powdered sugar doughnuts—we always went to Adeline on West Portal for Danish pastries. Looking closely at the old 1950s photo posted on this site, you can see that the exhaust fans from the kitchen that whooshed fragrant warm air right out onto the street, above the glass entry doors. Dad could stand there and chat with Willie endlessly, having known him from the days when Willie and his father operated a smaller bakery on the north side of Taraval, just east of 19th Avenue, and even earlier than that, when they did business near Duboce Avenue where Dad had spent some of his early years growing up.

Then it was on to the Post Office. Prior to 1963, it was located right there on Taraval, just east of the Overland Pharmacy, but with the backside of the P.O. building wrapped around behind the drug store, so that the P.O. loading docks faced 21st Avenue, thus reducing the impact on traffic on Taraval. If you look really, really closely, you can still see where the three openings for the mail trucks once were in that west-facing wall. We would always stop in to buy stamps and say hello to Dad's friend Mr. Tobin, who was the husband of the lady who would one day be my 5th Grade teacher at St. Cecilia's, and if we were early enough, we'd see Leon, who would be delivering the mail to our block exactly at 1:00 p.m. every afternoon.

Next, we'd stop in at the Overland Pharmacy on the corner for some toiletries and to say hello to Richard, the owner. Flash-forward to 2002, and with Overland Pharmacy long-gone, I found myself shopping on Taraval, picking up Mom's prescriptions at Safeway, where I was waited on once again by, yes, Richard the pharmacist who used to be the owner at Overland. As we talked, it also turned out that I had spent more than 20 years working alongside his widowed sister—nice people, both of them.

Moving along with the day's errands, we'd bypass the Parkside Paint Store (that was a favorite spot on Dad's list of weekend errands and I'd get to go there with him and inhale paint fumes on Saturday), and then stop in at Ping's Hand Laundry, where Mom took her tablecloths and Dad's dress shirts. There was something very comforting about the steamy, clean smell of freshly laundered shirts, wrapped in blue paper and string, and neatly lined up on the shelves that I can't quite explain, though it remains with me to this day. In my mind's eye, I can still see Ping's elderly father, clad in a silk jacket, ironing shirts by hand, against the left-hand wall, behind the counter. Years later, as Ping himself was about to retire, he lamented to me the fact that the family business was not going to survive the next generation. "We worked hard so that all of the kids could have college degrees, and now no one wants to run a laundry." He sold the business to a nice Korean lady about 20 years ago, which turned out to be a wonderful beginning for her and her family.

I continued my walk, passing by several empty storefronts that may or may not truly be under renovation. I seem to recall that there was a radio repair shop, though that business probably dropped off considerably after the introduction of transistor radios, circa 1959 or so. There was also a jewelry store where Mom liked to ooh and ah the contents of the display window. The old Germanic-looking man behind the counter, jeweler's eye firmly in place, would always look up as we passed, and smile and wave at us. Approaching the corner, I could still envision the Vogue Reweaving Studio where the two quiet Japanese ladies performed needle and thread miracles on torn sweaters, damaged tablecloths and the like. I know that they were still busily reweaving in the 1980s and 1990s when I lived at 22nd and Pacheco, but they have now vanished like all the others, swept up into the foggy mists of the past.

Our next stop was at the meat counter of 22nd & Taraval Market (now Walgreens), where our Wawona Street neighbor Mr. D'Angelo worked as a butcher, and he would always offer me a slice of bologna or a hot dog. Mom enjoyed chatting with him and she felt sorry that his young wife had died years earlier, leaving him alone to raise a son just a few years older than myself. Sadly, the son was killed in an accident in the summer of 1962, leaving Mr. D'Angelo all alone in their big house for another 25 years or so.


Parkside branch of the San Francisco Library, opened at Taraval Street and 22nd Avenue, 1951. - Parkside District Improvement Club Scrapbooks

Then we'd cross Taraval (remember, hold hands and look BOTH ways) and visit the library where we could sit and relax for a few minutes after picking up or dropping off books. I could see that the present renovation seems to be coming along, though it is eerie to see it looking like a bombed-out shell, with parts of the building essentially open to the elements. My first memories of that place are from the Fall of 1957 when Mrs. Beckerman and Mrs. McAtee, the two Kindergarten teachers at Parkside School, walked the entire afternoon class, holding hands, two-by-two, up there one drizzly autumn afternoon. We were all appropriately decked out in our yellow slickers, rain hats, and galoshes (anyone else remember adults telling you that you had to take them off in the house or else they would hurt your eyes?). Once we arrived, we were taken into the big reading room in the front, with the floor-to-ceiling windows facing Taraval. Climbing up on the big leather chairs and sofas, with a warming fireplace along the back wall, and the incredible smell of a library, it was a place of pure comfort. I still remember that the one thing that I wanted for my birthday that year was a library card—ah simpler times! The fireplace, inoperable for years by city ordinance, will like not be returning, and I'm sure that the leather seating failed to pass inspection by some politically-correct bureaucrat. Let's just hope that no one attempts to change the windows that let in that great southern exposure, since they will be the only element to warm up the place now.

I passed by the old locations of Hamill's Hardware Store and in the next block, Parkside Appliance. Both were favorite shopping places for my parents. Mom had a pair of ceramic Dutch boy and girl figurines that she & Dad purchased at Hamill's the day they moved into their house in September of 1948. Those two statues stood sentry in the very same spots at opposite ends of the fireplace mantel, appearing in every family photo, for the next 54 years.

As I walked east up the north side of Taraval, my imagination could still see the Parkside Theater on the right. Without a doubt, it defined the entire community with its massive red sign rising vertically four or five stories above its low-rise neighbors, and dominating the scene by turning the foggy air a crimson hue, something that could be seen most nights from our living room window on 18th Avenue, several blocks away. That old place was the site of countless summer matinees, for which schoolchildren in the neighborhood could buy 10 weeks of admission for a mere $1 total at the start of the summer. Those thin yellow perforated tickets were our key to freedom, circa 1963 or so. Whether with a group of friends or on our own (and usually meeting lots of classmates there), the tickets provided an uninterrupted afternoon away from home, and nobody worried, as long as Mom knew where you were. We faithfully paid the inflated prices at the Parkside's snack bar, though the really "wild" kids always managed to sneak in candy from the adjacent Dickinson's, which sold for far more reasonable prices. Beginning in the late 1960s when it was remodeled into the "Fox Parkside," it began to lose its allure, and slowly all the old trappings disappeared, from the sign, to the ticket booth, and it finally became a nursery school, with the iconic name, Parkside School. Recent updates have totally obliterated any remaining traces of the once-grand movie palace.

In that same block, there was a small gift shop run by a lady named Evelyn, who lived on 21st Avenue, and Mom would stop in there to buy the occasional birthday card. When I was about 6, the fringe on the sleeve of my Davy Crockett jacket bumped a teacup off a shelf, and Evelyn coolly told Mom that she would have to pay for it. Not liking to be taken advantage of for an accident, Mom didn't bat an eye, but just as coolly told the woman, "I'd like the pieces gift-wrapped, please." Once home, she carefully glued it back together, and placed it on a glass shelf in the living room's curio cabinet, where it resided for the next 45 years.


Different Bakery, 925 Taraval at 19th Avenue, Feb 1951 - WNP collection

Just uphill from the theater was The Different Bakery, a place that Grandma used to visit all the time, just for their jelly roll, covered in white frosting—her traditional dessert after serving a corned beef dinner to everyone at her house on 21st Avenue. It came as a surprise to me in the 1990s, when Mom mentioned that her own mother had worked there for several years in the late 1930s before World War II, and it intrigued me to think that my two grandmothers had likely known one another long before my parents had gotten together.

Crossing 19th, I saw that Zim's, along with its grass-skirted replacement, are now both gone, replaced by yet another eatery that does not open very early. The old painted sign on the south-facing wall of that building, advertising Roberts at the Beach Motel, has been painted over by a new advertiser for many years now. Strange as it seems, the gas stations along 19th Avenue are another dying breed. The Shell station is still there, alongside the 1960s apartment building where Dad's cousin Vivian used to live, but all those other gas stations that used to dot virtually every intersection are becoming a rare breed, indeed.


821 Taraval Street, the Sunset Motel, in November 2006. Demolished in 2009. - WNP Photo

The Sunset Motel, built in the 1950s and expanded in the 1960s, is now gone, replaced by a new block of condos, and the adjacent medical building once housing Dr. Tackney's dental office (a favorite of St. Cecilia's students) now has a whole new roster of tenants. Across the street, the Gold Mirror stands out like an old friend, serving up a month's worth of vitamins with every bowl of minestrone. The place has been spruced up a bit after a runaway truck did some damage to the entrance a couple of years ago, and they'll likely still be around for a good many more years. Reis Brothers' Pharmacy, now a liquor store, was at the southeast corner of 18th & Taraval, with an expansive comic book selection just to the right, inside the front door. It was the very last place that I ever saw a druggist use a mortar and pestle to mix drugs. All the work went on in a little room in the far rear corner, entered through a set of "bar room"-style swinging half-doors, and I remembered having to wait impatiently while Dad would lean on the counter, yacking back and forth with the two owners, whom he had known since 1937 when he first moved to the neighborhood with his widowed mother and his brother.

Across the street on the north side of Taraval on the site of the present Safeway store, was Holiday Chevrolet, beginning in the early 1960s. Prior to that, it was known as Spencer Buick, but Grandma always remembered the location as the Parkside Coal Company, and an old advertisement on the wall of her garage confirmed that fact for me. Several blocks up Taraval, also on the north side, and closer to Herbert Hoover Middle School and the present Western Neighborhoods Project office, was another auto dealership, Avenue Rambler, I think. Each fall, all the boys in the neighborhood would descend, en masse, on each of these two auto showrooms to check out the new models, much to the disgust of the sales staff. The styling differences from one model year to the next were enormous back then, and although I can still identify every GM model from 1950 through the mid-1970s in a flash, I would hard-pressed to identify most cars on the road today as a 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, or a 2010 model year. How some things have changed!

At the corner of 17th and Taraval, there was Charles J. O'Callaghan Real Estate & Insurance—his youngest son and oldest grandson were both in my class at St. Cecilia's, and one of his granddaughters just retired as the Assistant Chief of Police. For many years, he was one of the leading real estate agents in the area. His biggest competition was James Sullivan Real Estate & Insurance on West Portal, where our old family friend Theresa was the office manager. In spite of their business rivalry, O'Callaghan and Sullivan were long-time neighbors living just across the street from each other on the 2500 block of 17th Avenue, near St. Cecilia's Rectory.

As I headed back to the car and drove off, I passed by the corner of 24th Avenue and Fahey's/The Dragon Lounge, which has been written about a few times on the Outside Lands site. It's nice to see a bit of the past combining with the present and future, so that so many people can share in the same memories and the same nostalgia going forward. Wally's Ice Cream, with its red-and-white striped awning, just kitty-corner from there, is long gone, while the Police Station, just up the hill, looks much the same, even after some renovations.

The flats adjacent to the Police Station, when new, were the scene of a Valentine's party back in February of 1922. A friend's grandmother always recalled how she met her future husband there that night, when they discovered that they had matching halves of red construction paper hearts, passed out by the hostess to all the guests. They were then paired up for the evening, began dating, and were married that December, raising a family, and living out the rest of their long lives just over the hill on 24th Avenue near Noriega. As I passed by, a young couple was walking up the block, hand-in-hand, reminding me that some things in life do not change at all.

But back to that matter of early mornings along Taraval—maybe Woody could get an earlier start and open up shop at WNP Headquarters on Taraval & Funston ahead of the Tennessee Grill's 6 a.m. opening for all of us early morning coffee and Chronicle lovers…


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