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Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Up & Down West Portal

by Frank Dunnigan
February 2009

While visiting some friends a while back, I found myself bumping along the L-Taraval's tracks on Ulloa, driving towards West Portal Avenue. Unlike most of my excursions to the City, this time I was surprised to see a number of empty parking places, all of which beckoned me to stop and get out of the car.

Now that I've been living outside San Francisco for well over 10 years, it is always interesting (sometimes pleasant, sometimes not) to return to old haunts and discover some of the changes that have taken place. Many of the changes represent clear examples of how our everyday lives have been transformed between then and now. More than anything else, I noticed that many of the distinctive sounds and smells associated with the past were simply gone.

West Portal entrance of the Twin Peaks Tunnel decorated for Christmas, 1950s. -

It was just before Christmas, but the old red papier-mâché and foil decorations were missing from the streetlights and the overhead streetcar wires. These always went up just before Thanksgiving, an effort designed to promote neighborhood shopping. Also missing for even longer, probably since the late 1950s or the very early 1960s, was the faux brick fireplace façade, complete with oversized Christmas stockings, mounted on the face of the Twin Peaks tunnel—the old flat entrance wall came down in 1976 when the Muni Metro station was constructed. For every kid in the neighborhood, that fireplace scene was the surest sign that Christmas was fast approaching. I also remembered recorded holiday music playing in the background, but that may have been just my imagination running along ahead of me.

I knew that the cavernous old First Western Bank (later, United California Bank or UCB) at the corner near the tunnel entrance had become a huge Walgreen's, which probably explained the absence of the old Siskin's Thrift Drugs across the street. The opposite corner from the bank, with the proud address of "#1 West Portal Avenue," once housed West Portal Joe's restaurant—and with a name like that, you just knew that you would encounter the welcoming scent of minestrone, marinara sauce, garlic bread, and mouth-watering meatballs, all of which are now gone. Their motto, "Eat here and save a trip to North Beach" was highly effective at pulling in the locals for half a century before they closed.

Strolling down the Avenue, I also missed my old friend, Polly, the green parrot that used sit, with her leg chained to her perch, outside the entrance to the West Portal Pet Shop in the 1950s and 1960s. In her place is now a Noah's Bagel. Polly wanna bagel? The aromas from Noah's were a fair substitute, though, for those that used to come wafting out of the pet shop. Across the street, Eezy-Freezy Market, a holdover from a time when all the other merchants in the neighborhood were closed on Sundays and holidays, still maintained its presence. They have always been pricey, to be sure, but if you absolutely need that box of laundry detergent at 10 o'clock at night, a can of cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving afternoon, or a couple of "D" batteries on Christmas morning, there they are, still ready and waiting.

Just down the street was a trendy little restaurant in the spot where there used to be Sullivan's Real Estate and Insurance. Jim Sullivan was a member of the Board of Supervisors for several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Board's roster sounded like the roll call from the Ancient Order of Hibernians. City government was so Irish in those days that Sullivan actually had a counterpart on the Board at the same time, another Supervisor Sullivan, but no relation. In those days, diversity meant electing an Italian.

Until his death in 1961, "the Supervisor" (his preferred title) employed our old family friend Theresa as his confidential secretary—think of Della Street's role on Perry Mason. Sullivan was a dapper widower, who always evoked the image of the blustery characters played by Gale Gordon-Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks or Mr. Mooney on two generations of The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy.

The restaurant wasn't open, but I could still see the image of Theresa, always smartly attired in a crisp business suit and pastel blouse, with fresh flowers on her desk (cut that morning from her postage-stamp garden on Santiago Street), seated at her old Royal manual typewriter up front, near the door. Sullivan's little Cairn terrier, Tippy, would race from the back of the office to the front to greet each incoming visitor, and Theresa would offer him a treat from her top desk drawer to quiet him down—the dog, that is, not the visitor. Looking back through some papers when I returned home, I was surprised to see that "the Supervisor" died nearly a half century ago—early in 1961, just after the inauguration of John Kennedy.

The old Toy Village, complete with the sounds of electric trains, cap pistols, talking dolls and unbreakable 78 rpm records, was gone from the landscape. It was always a toss-up to see if our hard-earned nickels, dimes, and quarters would be spent for the momentary pleasures of a Shaw's double-scoop ice cream cone, or saved up for something more substantial. Like Toy Village, the original Shaw's, once located in the next block, has become a fond memory, though there's still the reliable old El Toreador Mexican restaurant across from the site of Toy Village and Sullivan's—a favored neighborhood spot when the parents didn't want to drive all the way out to the beach for dinner at the Hot House.

Empire Cinema, formerly the Portal and later CineArts, at 85 West Portal Avenue in 1966. -

Most of the old bakeries, Adeline on one side and Fantasia on the other, have now become sweet dreams, and the smell of fresh pastries, one of life's great small pleasures, now a rare thing. The original Bank of America branch, painted in shades of dappled green (the new one opened a block down the Avenue), used to be opposite the Empire Theater, which was then a single screen. Just after the Empire converted to a 3-plex in the 1970s, I saw Love Story in one theater while Patton was chasing Rommel across North Africa on the other side of a too-thin wall—a memory that has made me avoid multi-plexes ever since. On the corner, there was the squat orange brick Home Savings and Loan, run by a man named Desmond Kelly, who was a perpetual sponsor of the annual calendar distributed by St. Cecilia's Parish.

Moving beyond Vicente, the fabric store on the corner has been gone for years, and the building has been the long-time home of Starbucks—its delectable aromas a positive addition to the neighborhood. The adjacent Charles Schwab office, always bustling, is said to have opened when Mr. Schwab himself realized that he had well over 10,000 customers within a 2-mile radius of West Portal, and that virtually all of them found a trip to Montgomery Street difficult and time-consuming. Presumably, many of them now enjoy the convenience of circling the block looking for parking, rather than the "inconvenience" of taking the streetcar downtown.

The old Foster's Cafeteria and Bakery was supplanted years ago by a restaurant, currently the popular Café for All Seasons, and presently one of the Avenue's more established institutions. Even now, that old original black-and-white tile floor remains, harkening back to the days when you could pick up a dozen Foster's delicious potato rolls for a mere $1. The adjacent Baskin-Robbins, new in the 1960s, was replaced by a bakery—some 40 years after Foster's departure. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

As a youngster, one of the main attractions on the Avenue was the long-gone F.W. Woolworth, the store that carried everything from a needle to an anchor—school supplies (strong smell of fresh paper), to household products (the 88-cent cans of "No-Moth" produced an even stronger fragrance) and the scent of live fish and squalling of the caged birds up near the front of the store (strongest smell and loudest sounds in the entire store) all combined to alert passersby that Woolworth's was open for business. From Whitman's candy for those last-minute gifts (See's having departed the Avenue in the 1950s) to potted plants, Epsom salts, window shades, key cutting, and sewing notions, this was a store that literally had something for everyone.

West Portal Avenue northeast of 14th Avenue, October 1946. Shell Oil Station and Safeway Market visible. -

Across the street, I saw that Tip Top Shoe Service was still there, but the elegant young Greek widow of the 1960s owner has been long gone from her place behind the counter, and yesteryear's strong smell of vulcanized rubber seemed drawn out by a new exhaust system. The old reliable Chuck Wagon restaurant, set back from the street in a pleasant courtyard, was replaced by Bagatelle in the late 1970s, and has morphed a few more times since then. Just down the street on the same side, Sam Farace's Accordion Studio is making music only in the memories of those older than 50, and the adjacent liquor store later became a book shop, though Round Table Pizza was still contributing to the neighborhood's pleasant aromas. The tiny little Safeway that had served the neighborhood for so long was demolished in the early 1970s and replaced by a bank. Across the street was the large, pink stucco Daylight Market, and just inside the entrance, parallel to 14th Avenue, was its huge meat, poultry, and fish counter, whose fragrance combined with the store's sawdust, produce, and cleaning products to create a distinct smell known as "grocery store"—very different from the plastic-wrapped sterility of today's supermarkets.

Stopping at an ATM for some quick cash, it also dawned on me that banking transactions today are handled without that indescribable smell of money in the air. For those of us who remember long lines and long hours in banks on Friday afternoons (all closed on Saturdays), there were huge quantities of cash behind the teller lines and in the vault. That cash literally perfumed the air in the building, but not so any longer, now that most of us rely on direct deposits and electronic transfers for many of the transactions that were once handled in cash.

The kitty-corner gas stations at 14th Avenue (Shell and Union 76) were joined by Flying A, located just off West Portal at Ulloa and Claremont, and the Chevron station at 15th. I also remembered that there used to be a Richfield station near Chevron, and what kid didn't enjoy the pungent smell of fully leaded gasoline? Today, all 5 of them are gone, making it difficult for the occasional visitor to know where the gas stations are now located (safe bet: head for 19th Avenue).

The Post Office where my dad once worked and the adjacent greasy goodness of the Manor Coffee Shop represented a couple of the only unchanged store fronts along the Avenue, though the Post Office underwent a sterilizing interior transformation, probably 20 or more years ago, in which all the old wood and glass and brass fittings were removed, in favor of plastic, aluminum, and formica. Manor seemed to be appropriately nostalgic and satisfying, though, with no pretensions.

Road to Mandalay bar, 314 West Portal Avenue, 1940s. -

Across from the Post Office was the storefront that once housed the old Road to Mandalay bar. Outfitted like a sailing ship, the place used to discharge pungent fumes of cigarette smoke and bourbon, and both the architecture and the smells always fascinated us as kids, but now it was home only to the mounds of paper associated with real estate transactions. I thought back to a cold January morning, so long ago, so far away, when I stood there as a college student, chatting with a classmate's father, John Barbagelata, the neighborhood realtor who had just lost the mayoral election to George Moscone by a paper-thin margin. Was it possible that one of the saddest chapters in San Francisco history might have turned out differently had that election gone the other way? No one will ever know...

As I continued my walk all the way down to the Art Deco Buena Vista Apartments at 15th Avenue, there definitely seemed to be more medical and dental offices than there used to be, and fewer stores with home furnishings. J. Leo Linn used to be near the apartment house, Dulfur's was at the corner of Vicente, and there was also the mid-block Sylvanus, offering furniture, household accessories, and drapery/upholstery services, respectively. The Lite House had merged with Dake's Interiors, and relocated to the opposite side of the street, while the plain old Avenue Lamp & Shade was gone, silent testimony to the changing nature of retail along these few blocks.

It seemed that the older barber shops and "beauty parlors" (whose patrons would never have been caught dead in the establishment of the opposite gender) had now given way to franchised hair salons that serve everyone. Gone were the aromas of hot shaving lather and bay rum in the barber shops and those throat-gagging fumes of permanent wave solution that used to emanate from the beauty parlors. Even the unisex hair sprays of the 1970s and 1980s have evaporated into the ozone, causing whatever damage they did.

Strangely, because of living elsewhere for so long, I was surprised to run into a few familiar human faces during my walk, and I chatted with several of them, while recalling many others, now long gone, for whom a stroll down the Avenue used to be a daily ritual, and I found myself reminiscing with them in spirit. The businesses and the people—those present and those long-gone—made my impromptu stop on West Portal an enjoyable stroll down memory lane.

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Page launched 28 February 2009.

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