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Haight-Ashbury’s Retail Beginnings

by Woody LaBounty

In the 1880s, what we now call the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood had more cows than human residents. Small dairy farms occupied Cole Valley. Essential infrastructure had yet to reach the land south of Golden Gate Park’s panhandle. But the park itself was a draw and beginning in 1883 the Market Street Cable Railway Company established three transit lines reaching Stanyan Street with “commodious” cable cars to deliver weekend visitors seeking recreation.

Crowds milling at the Stanyan Street turnaround for the Haight Street cable cars after a baseball game at the Haight Street Grounds circa 1890.

The cable cars brought the crowds, but development was slow to follow. In 1890, only about a dozen homes stood in today’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood—six of them clustered on Cole Street—while commercial activity catered almost exclusively to day-trippers. On the corners of Stanyan Street small hotels opened for visitors to the park, their clientele more roadhouse revelers than out-of-town travelers. Six saloons huddled on the block of Stanyan between Page and Waller Streets, while restaurants and pool halls faced the Haight line cable car turnaround at Stanyan Street. From 1887 to 1897, the California League Baseball Grounds occupied the block of Frederick, Stanyan, Shrader, and Waller Streets. It had its own two-story saloon under the bleachers.

View of the Haight Street baseball ground on the block of Frederick, Stanyan, Shrader, and Waller Streets in the 1890s.

In 1902, The Chutes amusement park opened on the south side of Haight Street between Cole and Clayton, its big draw a three-hundred-foot-long, 70-foot-high water slide in which thrill-seeking passengers rode down in small boats to splash into an oval pool. In the enclosed grounds were two carousels, shooting galleries, a bandstand, an animal menagerie, a theater (supposedly able to seat 3,000 people), and an encircling elevated railway that chugged past painted panoramas and gave unique views of the park. Entertainment acts hosted at the Chutes included hot air balloon ascensions, flea circuses, a high-diving elk, and Chiquita, a 26-inch-tall performer billed as the “condensed Cuban patriot.”

The Chutes amusement park on the south side of Haight Street across from Cole Street, circa 1903.

After a seven-year run on Haight Street, the Chutes moved to Fulton Street at 10th Avenue, opening up the extension of Belvedere Street to Haight Street and spurring the construction of housing and retail stores on the two blocks.

Bicycling took off in the public imagination in the 1890s and being favorably located at the entrance to Golden Gate Park meant the Haight was the locus of sales and repair shops, rental operations, and even private riding tracks to rival the park’s fine roads. A velodrome opened at the north edge of the panhandle’s start on Baker Street and two lots on Page Street were planked with wood for bicycling.

Bicycle-related businesses at the corner of Stanyan and Page Streets on a 1905 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, including a “planked platform for cycling.”

Most of Haight-Ashbury’s residential architecture was built between 1890 and 1910, primarily in the era’s popular Queen Anne Victorian style. The site of the Haight Street Grounds baseball field was subdivided—creating Beulah Street in the center—and in 1904 Henry P. Heagerty replaced his saloon on the southeast corner of Stanyan and Waller Streets with a fashionable hotel equal in elegance to the Queen Anne and Classical Revival residences under construction nearby. Designed by the architectural firm of Martens & Coffey, the inn is today known as the Stanyan Park Hotel.

The exterior of the Stanyan Park Hotel today. (SF Heritage photo.)

Even as flats and large homes began filling the blocks south of the Golden Gate Park panhandle, the commercial corridor of Haight Street remained mostly empty lots, in part because of litigation resolving the Baird Estate, which controlled many of the parcels east of Cole Street. Early neighborhood-serving stores that did open—bakeries, butchers, and dry goods merchants—operated out of simple one-story buildings or on the ground floors of two-and-three-story structures with flats above.

The displacement of thousands of San Franciscans by the 1906 earthquake and fire made those flats highly desired and spurred the filling in of Haight Street’s empty lots. Thousands of earthquake refugees temporarily living in camps in Golden Gate Park also gave the neighborhood retail environment a boost. While still home to park-related businesses (bars and bicycles), in the years after the earthquake Haight Street began to more closely resembled the commercial strips of other San Francisco neighborhoods with clothing stores, groceries, repair shops, and movie theaters.


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