Heart of the City Archives

Swinging the block: Tammy Hall, Frankye Kelly, Daniel Fabricant, and Randy O'Dell get down to businesses at Mrs. Dewson's in the Fillmore. 

On the hunt for signs of yesterday's City
by Hank Donat

I'm not sure when the world started to seem right-side up again - if only for fleeting moments - since the war began in Iraq, but the birds have returned to my garden after hiding out from helicopter traffic for the first ten days. 

One hummingbird in particular still seems a little defensive. She's taken to diving at my coffee cup since her return, but I'm not complaining. 

Other signs of color coming back into the city's cheeks are everywhere as shock and awe give way to chagrin and consternation. 

On a 27 Bryant bus, the squeals of soda and candy-infused kids headed home from the Giants opener speaks volumes about innocence not-yet lost. Perhaps it speaks those volumes in a pitch so high only dogs can hear it, but the children's laughter thawed even the iciest old-timers who joined in a chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

A jubilant group of up to 200 Hayes Valley neighbors turned out to celebrate the start of demolition of the Central Freeway's Fell Street off ramp on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon. With the Fell exit closed to traffic, the overpass at Octavia and Market streets was only good for providing shade.

Mayor Willie Brown took the first whack at the overpass with a ceremonial gilded hammer. An over zealous aid to the mayor nearly split with the souvenir hammer but was stopped by a photographer from the Bay Area Reporter so the woman of the hour, former Supervisor Sue Bierman, could take a swing. 

There was a consensus that Bierman could have easily kicked the overpass down with her bare feet had the hammer not been recovered.

"This is for everyone who wants a more beautiful San Francisco," Bierman said as she struck her final blow in a long and successful effort against freeways in the city. What Frieda Klussman is to cable cars, Bierman is to the entire Panhandle and other neighborhoods that have been spared the blight of freeway encroachment.

Just a few blocks away, teams of scavenger hunters were celebrating the 40th birthday of Tony Harris, who lives near Mission Dolores. Most of the tasks in the game were designed to celebrate San Francisco as much as Harris himself. 

San Francisco trivia scavenger hunts are all the rage for an afternoon outing. They're a fun, cheap way to explore the city while learning bits and pieces of its history.

Guests at Harris' birthday party may not have answered that the third winged creature on the statue at Dolores Street at Market is on the soldier's belt buckle, but they learned that the Douglas Tilden bronze commemorates volunteers of the Spanish-American War. 

Still another scavenger hunt was held over the weekend to raise awareness for the upcoming production of "Norton, I" at the Theatre of Yugen on Mariposa Street. Lluis Valls' staged version of the life of the San Francisco merchant who became the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico by self declaration in 1859 opens May 8. 

Among Norton's famed proclamations were the banning of the word "Frisco," and his call for a bridge across the bay to Oakland. Watch for a new, posthumous proclamation to be issued by the emperor in coming days. 

The Norton scavenger hunt included a stop at the Chronicle lobby and Herb Caen's loyal royal at Fifth and Mission streets.

At Moose's in North Beach, proprietor Ed Moose hosted a birthday party for Caen on April 3. The fete drew 200 celebrants from Caen's former social set, along with admirers, family, and friends.

Having a birthday party for someone who died six years ago is appropriate in the case of Baghdad-by-the-Bay columnist Caen, who once wrote, "I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there."

Jack Casford, a 75 year-old Russian Hill resident, came to celebrate the life and work of Caen, to whom Casford sent items from time to time beginning in 1960. His first Caen item came when Casford spotted a sign in a garden that said, "Beware the Duck." The sign amused Casford, as it did Caen.

Mayor Brown repeated his famous lie-cheat-and-steal toast in Caen's honor. It goes like this, "Lie only to save a friend. Steal only the heart of someone you love. And cheat death."

I was honored this year to share a banquette with North Beach literary icon Herbert Gold, author Winston Conrad, and Caen's friend and mine, milliner Ruth Dewson.

Like last years, Ruth's Sunday block party in celebration of Caen included a host of "regular San Franciscans," those not on any social register, and was the most heartfelt of "Herb Caen Day" events. 

Dewson read from a poem she wrote for Caen, whom she remembers as an early integrationist.

"When he wrote about Jack's
The club never went back to being all black...

He did not solely belong to that raucous bunch
With whom he often had lunch
But to those who searched his column for their name
Then screamed, "I'm in Herb Caen!"
In later years new places he'd find
But he was with us in 1939..." 

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