By Woody LaBounty
Visitacion Valley, in the southeast corner of San Francisco, is one of the city’s neighborhoods whose name, and spelling, directly connects to California’s Spanish era. It even has a specifically dated origin story. On July 2, 1777, friars and soldiers on their way to the new Presidio stopped in the bayside valley between what we now call San Bruno Mountain and John McLaren Park. Being the Catholic feast day of the Visitacion of the Blessed Virgin, the valley was baptized with the name it holds today. With the story comes another, that the party celebrated mass that day using a local chert outcrop as an altar. The rock associated with that religious service, and all associated subtexts of colonialism in the valley’s naming story, is today fenced inside the backyard of a typical city lot on Delta Street near Visitacion Avenue.
The sheltered bayside valley was home to two Yelamu settlements, Amuctac and Tubsinte, before the Spanish arrived and claimed the valley as grazing land for Mission Dolores’ cattle stock. In the 1830s, the new Mexican government granted the valley to American trader Jacob Leese as part of the Rancho Cañada de Guadalupe, La Visitacion y Rodeo Viejo.
With the United States takeover in the 1840s, came subdivision of the fertile valley soil for nurseries, dairies, and truck farms. Windmills to pump up irrigation water for the agricultural activity dotted the landscape and the nickname “Valley of the Windmills” survived with some large nurseries well into the twentieth century.
On the main pathway up the peninsula, Visitacion Valley has served as a stop for travelers on horseback, stagecoach, locomotive, and automobile. Local inns and roadhouses began offering hospitality to travelers beginning in the 1850s. One of the city’s first motels, the San Francisco Auto Camp, opened on part of the former six-acre estate of California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, on Sunnydale Avenue. The 7 Mile House (named for the ostensible distance still to go the city’s Portsmouth Square) is still serving drinks on the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Geneva Avenue. In the nineteenth century, the valley had a ribbon factory, a fertilizer factory, breweries, and quarries delivering their products via the transportation link provided by the Southern Pacific (SP) railroad lines built on bay fill. Along with the maintenance yards of the mighty SP, the Schlage Lock Company’s factory complex employed hundreds and dominated the valley’s economy in the twentieth century.
Residential development plans flourished in the first half of that century, with the Reis-Paul Tract selling lots for $125 ($1 down, $1 a week) in 1905, and even more successful stucco subdivisions filling the hillside slopes around older farmhouses and barns from the 1920s to the 1950s. The most interesting and fully realized of these tracts was the Crocker Estate’s Little Hollywood. Nestled now in the shadow of Highway 101, Little Hollywood’s single-family homes are romantic both in style and in reputation, imbued with long-told tales involving Prohibition parties, bootleggers, and the actress Mae West.
Visitacion Valley has always been a landscape of such stories, a borderland distant from the city’s center with late-night carousels along the county line. Said line is literally painted on the floor inside a rustic cabin on Bayshore Boulevard. Occupied since the 1960s by valley institution A. Silvestri’s Company’s Fine Statuary, the building housed former roadhouse Sam’s Lodge.
For many San Franciscans, tamer stories of Visitacion Valley revolve around concerts or the circus at the Cow Palace, memories of the Geneva Drive-In, or sandwiches grabbed at the Piccolo Pete deli on the way to Candlestick for a Giants or 49ers game.
These are primarily touchstones for those from other neighborhoods. Residents deeply ingrained with the sunny streets, with the astonishing diversity of cultural communities, with the mom-and-pop character of both long-standing businesses and newer cafés and delis, have the complicated feelings commonly associated with a small home town rather than an urban neighborhood. The valley is a village, a place of pride and belonging, a satisfying secret; geographically on the edge, over the hill, hemmed in by rail yards, and split by freeway, it is often infuriatingly ignored, passed-by, looked-over and unacknowledged, especially in regards to city services and support, they will tell you.
So many of the people I know who grew up in Visitacion Valley or choose to live there now are what I think of as “old-school” San Franciscans, whether they have been in the district sixty years or six, native or newcomer. To them, the neighborhood is an enclave and an island, a cherished secret, and an independent community with its own subdistricts, traditions, nomenclature, and speech. Don’t lose that “c” in Visitacion, no matter what the spellcheck tells you; Viz Valley with a “z” will not fly; Wilde Street is pronounced “Wild-E,” don’t forget.
The valley is the diverse place San Francisco likes to imagine itself being. It is home to at least half-a-dozen languages. Services are held at Korean First Presbyterian Church, American Indian Baptist Church, Visitacion Chinese Baptist Church, Iglesia El Espiritu Santo, and just over the county line, First Burmese Baptist.
Until perhaps recently, Visitacion Valley has been a place where families could find an affordable home or apartment. Seminal public housing projects, Sunnydale and Candlestick Cove, were created in the 1940s. Joseph Eichler’s plan for luxury residences in twin 20-story high-rises became instead the subsidized housing of Geneva Towers, which was poorly managed and maintained before being ceremonially imploded by dignitaries in 1998.
Eichler’s midcentury modern work is still on display in his brick-faced, arched-windowed townhouse development along Sunnydale Avenue, and another modern master, Mario Ciampi, designed Our Lady of Visitacion School in 1965. An even more heralded name in architecture is attached to St. James Presbyterian Church at 240 Leland Avenue, designed by Julia Morgan in 1923.
Morgan’s creation replaced a church building dating from 1906, the year of the great earthquake and fire when the outward migration of displaced San Franciscans spurred the development of valley institutions and small businesses. The Catholic Church of the Visitacion was founded in 1907. Leland Avenue began developing as the robust commercial spine of the neighborhood with the Bayshore Hotel building, small groceries, produce markets, butcher shops, and dry goods stores occupying vernacular structures similar to those built on the main street of any California small town. A number of these humble buildings received façade remodels in the 1920s and 1930s with stucco cladding and Art Deco angles and stepped parapets.
I have been simultaneously worried and encouraged about the character of Leland Avenue in recent years. There are demolitions approved for what I consider some of the strip’s cornerstone buildings, including 198 Leland Avenue at Rutland Street, which held Dougherty’s Groceries in the early 1900s and Paddy’s Hawaiian Restaurant in the 1980s. But the the valley’s “Main Street” has also been enlivened and invigorated by the twenty-first century creations of the “Greenway” parks and plaza running from Tioga Avenue to Leland and the San Francisco Crosstown Trail, which draws urban walkers to the neighborhood.
This combination of loss and new opportunities makes Visitacion Valley an exciting choice for our “Heritage in the Neighborhoods” program. We are working closely with community leaders and local historians Edie Epps, Russel Morine, Cynthia Cox, Betty Parshall, and Mono Simeone to highlight the neighborhood in October 2021. Please follow Heritage’s social media, website, and email blasts all month. Stay tuned for a follow-up town hall convened in the fall to decide upon a neighborhood project which will enhance the vitality and preserve the legacy of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley.