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Streetwise: Music in the Western Neighborhoods

by Frank Dunnigan
June 2023

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
Music and song have long been a part of the western neighborhoods. From the 1894 Midwinter Fair held in Golden Gate Park to present-day concerts at the park’s band shell, Stern Grove, and other locations, residents have always had easy access to instrumental music and singing. Dipping into the photo archive, we take a look back this month at just a few of the many examples of the neighborhood’s upbeat history.

Band posing on the steps of Administration Building at California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park, 1894 - Isaiah West Tabor, photographer - Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.
“Mexican Band” posing on the steps of the Administration Building, near the present-day Music Concourse, at the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park.

Large crowd at Stern Grove concert, circa 1950 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
The FREE summer concert series at Sigmund Stern Grove began on July 10, 1938 and it has been held every year, with exceptions during World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic. Running for 10 consecutive Sunday afternoons from June through August, attendance is now about 20,000 per week. Major renovations were begun at the Grove in 2004 and were completed in time for the 2005 series. Acts have spanned many musical genres from classical to rock, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz, and have also included ballet. In 1949, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979) conducted a series of pops concerts at Stern Grove that was so well received that they continued each July at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium for several decades, even after Fiedler’s passing. Due to the popularity of the Stern Grove series, this summer will mark the first time that reservations will be required for admittance, though the performances will continue to be FREE. Listen to a history of the Stern Grove concert series.

Aptos Junior High School Band, 1955 - Courtesy of Valerie Hoover.
The Aptos Band, shown here in 1955, was one of several large middle school bands, including another at nearby Herbert Hoover Middle School.

Marching band at East-West Shrine Game, December 28, 1957 - Tomaso, photographer - Examiner Negative Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.
The annual East-West Shrine football game at Kezar Stadium on December 28, 1957 saw the stands filled to capacity – and the field as well! Just for the record, the final score was West-27 and East-13.

Review of the School Safety Patrol Review in Polo Fields, May 23, 1968 - Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner.
An annual review of the school safety patrols representing public and private schools was held annually near the end of the school year, with accompaniment by school bands. The event was held at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park in this image, but over the years, the Presidio, Civic Center Plaza, and Kezar Stadium were sometimes used. Read more about the School Safety Patrol in the April 2014 Streetwise column. Also, see pictures from the May 1935, May 1942, and May 1955 events.

Merry-Go-Round at Playland at the Beach at night, 1970 - Dennis O'Rorke, photographer / Courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke.
The sounds of Playland at the Beach and its carousel drifted through the fog of the Outer Richmond District from the 1920s until Labor Day weekend of 1972. After Playland’s demolition, the site remained empty for some time, but it was eventually filled by low-rise housing. The carousel has a long and interesting history, and has been operated in Rhode Island, Seattle, San Francisco, New Mexico, Long Beach, and finally, back in San Francisco. Read more about the carousel's 117-year history and listen to our podcast on Charles Looff and the Hippodrome.

Performers at San Francisco Blues Festival in Music Concourse, August 12, 1978 - © Greg Gaar Photography (Courtesy of Greg Gaar).
Musicians performing at the San Francisco Blues Festival on August 12, 1978 at the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. See more images from the 1978 Blues Festival.

Mimi Yuan leading a group of seniors through a song program at South Sunset Senior Center, 1990s - Philip Liborio Gangi, photographer - Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review.
Self-Help for the Elderly began as a program in Chinatown in 1966. Today, the non-profit group offers social, recreational, nutritional, health, and employment services at ten locations across San Francisco. Here, group members hold a sing-along in the 1990s at South Sunset Senior Center at 40th Avenue & Vicente Street.

Mass at St. Stephen's Catholic Church, 1990s - Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review.
Worship services are often known for music and singing. This image of St. Stephen’s Church on Eucalyptus Drive in the Stonestown area dates from the 1990s when weekly church attendance saw pews regularly filled to capacity in many locations – much higher than it is in many places today.

Conservatory of Music at 19th Avenue and Noriega, August 2000 - WNP Collection.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music took over the old Infant Shelter building at 1201 Ortega Street in 1956 and remained there for the next half-century, expanding with a concert hall along the 19th Avenue side of the property in the 1970s. Performances at the conservatory could regularly be heard wafting across the neighborhood. Shown here in 2000, the conservatory announced plans that year for a move to the Civic Center-area, which eventually took place in 2006. The building is now occupied by a French language school, Lycee Francais de San Francisco. Originally built in 1928-29, the building remains an official San Francisco Landmark. Read more about the history of the building and see more pictures of it.
Lindley Meadow Crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 6, 2013 - Courtesy of Arnold Woods.
Beginning in 2001, San Francisco venture capitalist Warren Hellman began a bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park. He subsidized the entire event and the public attended for free. Since then, the annual event, typically on the first weekend in October, has included non-bluegrass music, becoming known as the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The event takes places in the Lindley, Speedway and Marx Meadows part of the park. More than a half million people attend each year.
Lands Ends Stage at Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, August 6, 2022 - Courtesy of Arnold Woods.
Since 2008, the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival has taken over the Polo Fields, Hellman Hollow/Speedway Meadow, and Lindley Meadow. The annual event takes place in August and features 75+ music artists, local food, beer, and wine concessions, artists, and non-profit groups (the WNP has been there since 2010) each year. While the event brings in a lot of money for the City, it also engenders noise and parking complaints and fears about damage to the Park.

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