Noe Valley Voice May 2007

Florence's Family Album

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: Florence Holub wrote this paean to the stairways near her home on 21st Street 11 years ago (for the May 1996 Noe Valley Voice). At the time, she counted 369 steps while scaling the hills of Dolores Heights. The steps are still there, but some of the trees and blooms have changed. Take a walk and see for yourself.

About 10 years ago at a Sunday street fair on 24th Street, I could not resist buying a lovely handmade garland of dried flowers, made to be worn over the forehead with ribbons streaming down the back.

But over the last decade, I have not once had occasion to wear it -- not until this year on the first day of spring, when we went to a celebration in honor of the day.

It was held in the home of Marianne Hinckle (writer Warren Hinckle's talented sister), who resided in a charming cottage clinging to the northeast slope of Telegraph Hill. Her address was on the Filbert Steps, a steep section of Filbert Street that has lush greenery and wooden steps instead of the usual cement pavement.

To get to the cottage, we had to park our car below on Sansome Street and then walk up a stairway with 154 steps. (I got this number from a little girl at the party who had counted the steps as she climbed them!)

All through the house, tables were decked with delicious finger food, amid bouquets of daffodils, lilies, and every other kind of spring flower we see popping up this time of year.

Marianne is a graphic designer of excellence, so most of the guests were either associated with publishing or printing, or were her friends and neighbors. My man Leo and I were invited to the party because of our connection with Marianne's printer in Noe Valley, who just happens to be our son Eric. (Eric was unable to attend because he was on vacation in England.)

We were delighted to see the smiling face of Sally Smith, the editor of this fine publication, who was in the company of Neal Elkin, the Noe Valley Voice's typesetter (and spiritual mentor). But Sally soon had to dash off to the Voice office, where she and Karol Barske were putting the finishing touches on the April Fool's issue.

Later, we saw another familiar face, belonging to Douglas Pinto, a doctor friend of a doctor friend of ours. Not knowing where we lived, he asked if we were neighbors of Marianne.

We explained that we lived in Dolores Heights [also known as the Sanchez Hill], but he did not seem to have the faintest idea of where that was, so I described our hill, which is rimmed with cement walls and staircases but has very few through streets.

That rang a bell for Dr. Pinto, for he remembered an occasion many years earlier when he was rushing through our neighborhood in response to a call.

He drove up our hill easily enough, he said, but then became entrapped within what seemed like a maze of concrete barriers. He grew more and more desperate as every corner led to a dead-end or a retaining wall. He did finally escape, but vowed never to venture that way again. "Yes, I know the place well!" he concluded emphatically.

For those readers not familiar with our area, perhaps I can take you on a short walk around the three square blocks atop Dolores Heights between Liberty and 19th streets. We can start at the handsome and historically important Tudor mansion at the northeast corner of 21st and Sanchez streets, once the home of Mayor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph.

Going north, we come to a brown shingled house at 777 Sanchez Street, once the home of Bud Fisher, one of the richest and most popular comic strip artists in America between 1907 and 1954. He lived most of his life in this house, while working for the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1921, at the height of his career, he earned $4,600 per week -- a fortune at that time! -- from his syndicated comic strip, "Mutt and Jeff."

Bud Fisher died in 1954, shortly before we moved to 21st Street, but I do remember his stately widow, who looked a lot like Margaret Dumont, the actress who played the role of Groucho's overrefined lady friend in the Marx Brothers movies.

Continuing down Sanchez, we arrive at the foot of a staircase leading to Liberty Street. It is divided by a planted area, and its presence emphasizes the fact that one half of Liberty Street towers high above the other. Whenever I look at it, I am reminded of Mutt and Jeff.

From here, we head downhill to Church Street, to return via the lower part of Liberty Street, which is divided by a landscaped median strip. At about mid-block we come to a lavish garden, tended by the loving hands of Liberty Street resident Louise Meyer, whose blooming camellias, azaleas, pansies, and begonias cheerfully celebrate the season with the entire color spectrum.

Another Liberty Street resident, Harold Levy, planted three trees on this strip. One, a "dawn" redwood, lived 80 million years ago, and was thought to be extinct until it was discovered still growing in a remote area of China by a professor from U.C. Berkeley in 1936. Mr. Levy planted this redwood seedling in 1980, and it has grown to be about 20 feet high.

Unlike the other two darker-hued trees Mr. Levy planted -- a Douglas fir and a coast redwood -- the dawn redwood is deciduous (it sheds), so these days it is adorned with new light-green leaves.

At the end of the block, stroll around the corner and back to Sanchez Street. This walk serves to illustrate the ingenious solutions that city engineers came up with in 1916, when residents protested an attempt to impose San Francisco's typical gridiron street plan upon their hilly area.

Every homeowner wanted his street to be at the same level as his house, which would have been impossible because a lot of the early homes were built at different elevations. The engineers appeased people by creating several two-tiered streets, many dead-ends, at least six staircases, and many retaining walls.

All of these obstructions to traffic, combined with the steepness of our hill (which separates Noe and Eureka valleys), have served to keep our area fairly undiscovered and untraveled, except by the hardiest of hikers. But it is well worth the climb to see the abundant landscaping, the variety of architectural styles, and especially the breathtaking views of our beautiful city.

Many of the guests at Marianne's vernal equinox party -- high atop that other hill -- remarked upon my apropos headgear, which pleased me, as I almost didn't wear it. When I took the garland out of the plastic bag, some of the flowers dropped off. Upon closer inspection I saw that they were barely fastened with a narrow wrapping of tissue paper!

Not to be discouraged by such a minor flaw, I went to the kitchen and found one of the wire bands that lettuce comes bound in. Then I stripped off the tissue paper and began wrapping the wire through and around the dried posies until I got them fastened back in place. Fortunately, no one at the party seemed to notice that my headdress was on the verge of falling apart.

The garland was still in place when we returned home, so I put it back in the plastic bag, where it shall remain until we are invited to another joyous celebration heralding the first day of spring.