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Public Art in Visitacion Valley

Oct25th

“Valley Vision,” a mural on the side exterior of 45 Leland (formerly home to the Visitacion Valley Library).

Some of San Francisco’s most outstanding art is found on city streets, in neighborhoods like Visitacion Valley. As part of our Heritage in the Neighborhoods project, we’ve mapped some of the best known examples of public art in this southern district, most created by San Francisco-based artists. Themes depicted in Visitacion Valley’s public art include neighborhood pride, significant local places and buildings, multiculturalism, natural landscapes, and more.

We’ve included highlights of murals and other public works of art that we know still exist today. This map is by no means comprehensive as we could not go out and confirm as many as we would like, so we welcome your suggestions! Please email kyoung@sfheritage.org if you have knowledge of (and even have photos of) existing Visitacion Valley art that we’ve missed.

“Visitacion Valley”, 4’x70′, acrylic latex and spray paint, 2012, San Francisco, CA“ painted by artist Nico Berry with the help of local high school students.

A mural by Cameron “CAMER1sf” Moberg, painted on the side of coffee shop/local goods store Mission Blue. It depicts a Mission Blue butterfly along with California poppies. Painted October 2020.

Woody LaBounty poses behind dragonfly gates and mosaic tilework at the Visitacion Valley Greenway Children’s Play Garden.

Fun Friday: Leonarda’s

Oct22nd

Interior of Leonarda’s Restaurant, c. 1950s-60s. Courtesy of the Visitacion Valley History Project.

An ad for Leonarda’s in 1961. Courtesy of the Visitacion Valley History Project.

What is today a parking lot serving the Bank of America at Bayshore and Leland was once the site of a popular Italian restaurant called Leonarda’s (16 Leland Avenue). Owned by Leonarda “Lee” and John Concerti in the 1950s and 60s, the restaurant served up breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the locals in Visitacion Valley. Oral historian Celeste Jimenez fondly remembers the live music served up with the food on weekends in the 1960s.

After its sale, the property evolved into a lesbian bar in the 1970s. Run by Peg Clark and Val Souza, Leonarda’s was famed for its Sunday brunches and live entertainment, such as these 1971 performances by singer Maxine Weldon.


Clippings from a June 1971 piece on singer Maxine Weldon and Leonarda’s in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History (2012), a former patron recalls what it was like there:

Cheryl Gonzales: Yeah. Oh yeah. There was a club out by the Cow Palace that called Leonarda’s, and it was a nightclub. Thelma Davis might have told you about Leonarda’s because that where I met her. Women were in drag. Women dressed in drag. It was definitely couples, and when you walked in, you knew who the butch was and you knew who the fem was. There was unspoken rules about dancing with someone’s girlfriend. There was a lot of fights in the bars at that period of time. Coupled with alcohol, you know, it can be very violent.

A notice for a show at Leonarda’s in the March 1972 issue of the Gayzette, featuring famous female impersonator and singer Laverne Cummings.

Despite cases of discrimination within queer communities in the 1960s to 1980s, a number of gay and lesbian bars in San Francisco were known for welcoming a mixed clientele or known for catering to queers of color, including Leonarda’s. According to an oral history with Sharon Tracey, the Visitacion Valley bar was welcoming to African American lesbians.

If you have more on the history of Leonarda’s, or can share any photos, The Visitacion Valley History Project would love to hear from you! Email VisitacionValleyHistoryProject@gmail.com


Thanks to research from the Visitacion Valley History Project and the Citywide Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco (2016) p. 179, by Shayne Watson and Donna Graves.

Community Voices: Life in the Valley

Oct21st

This piece will also be published in the October-December 2021 issue of Heritage News.


BY RUSSEL MORINE

Russel Morine is a Visitacion Valley resident and member of the Visitacion Valley History Project. He was born and raised in the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood, before moving to the Little Hollywood area of Visitacion Valley in the late 1990s. A father of two young sons, Russel has been an advocate for the South Eastern neighborhoods for decades.

Local legend has it that old Hollywood star Mae West made her home – or at least stayed – at the grand Mission-style Casa Bahia Loma (1933), at the corner of Blanken and Tocoloma avenues in Little Hollywood.

Tell us a little about yourself and your relationship to Visitacion Valley.

Like most city natives, I have to start with “I was born and raised in San Francisco.” I grew up in the Bayview. My grandparents and parents were from that generation of African-Americans that were Southern-born, but migrated to the Bay Area during the midcentury. My connection to Visitacion Valley started in 1994 when I got my first ‘real’ job out of college working at Sanitary Fill Company, better known as The Dump. Which, is oddly one of Visitacion Valley’s better-known landmarks. I’ve lived in Little Hollywood, a sub-area of Visitacion Valley, since 1998.

How did you get involved in the Visitacion Valley History Project? Why do you think it is important to practice and promote local history?

Looking back, as required by historians, I’ve always had an interest in urban geography and how the built environment came to be. In the context of the question, my interest in the history of Visitacion Valley started by asking neighbors “Why is this part of the neighborhood called Little Hollywood?” I’d get different answers, but the most common one was that Mae West lived in the neighborhood, in a big house on the corner of Tocoloma Avenue. Over time, asking that question led me to neighbors that had answers. But, as we know, the answer to one question often leads to more questions. This was around the time when Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America books were all the rage. One of the people that had many answers about the neighborhood’s history willed the Visitacion Valley History Project into existence to create the Visitacion Valley edition. Fortunately, I was included because I asked a lot of questions and could do most of the scanning work.

Cover of Arcadia Publishing’s “San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley,” authored by Russel and members of the Visitacion History Project.

It has been close to fifteen years since we worked on that book together. Looking back, I see how important the preservation of history is at the neighborhood level. There’s a whole generation that came of age since we completed our book. They didn’t witness the implosion of Geneva Towers in 1998 or see the Schlage Lock factory buildings in their heyday. Major pieces of Visitacion Valley’s history never existed for them. That is why we need to preserve and share local history. If we didn’t do this work, future residents might not know why “Visitacion” is always spelled with a “c” not a “t.”

Visitacion Valley is home to a diverse set of local landmarks, businesses, and open spaces. What are a few of your favorite places in the neighborhood and why?

The funny thing about our local landmarks is that the ones that most people are familiar with are on the edges of the neighborhood. The Cow Palace, McLaren Park, and Candlestick Park in its prime all define Visitacion Valley, but are not really “in” the neighborhood. Downtown Visitacion Valley (Leland Avenue, our neighborhood’s commercial corridor) is one of my favorite places. There’s an interesting mix of architectural styles: turn-of-the-century, Art Deco, mid-century, and even contemporary buildings attempting to look old. Our new library branch is also a must-see.

Built in 1946, the block of storefronts at 21-29 Leland Avenue are in the Streamline Moderne style. 

What is one thing that you’d like people to know about Visitacion Valley?

Just because you haven’t been here, it doesn’t mean we aren’t part of San Francisco. Visitacion Valley is IN San Francisco!

Russel helped research and author the Legacy Business Registry application for Shears Barbershop in the Bayview District. The Historic Preservation Commission is set to review the application on November 3, 2021. 

You are also involved in community efforts in the neighboring Bayview District. How is your role as a community advocate similar and different here?

I’ve done San Francisco [Legacy Business Registry] write-ups for a few businesses along the Third Street corridor as part of my consulting work with a local nonprofit. These include The Jazz Room, G. Mazzei & Son Hardware, New Bayview/Bay View National Black Newspaper, and Shears Barbershop. Researching the history behind these businesses and their relationship to the neighborhood is rewarding. I do think that on a high level, the history of the Bayview is being told, but I’d like to see more residents doing on-the-ground research. There is a lot of history in the Bayview that is not being collected and shared.


Learn more about The Visitacion Valley History Project by visiting their website at www.visitacionvalleyhistoryproject.org or by emailing them at VisitacionValleyHistoryProject@gmail.com.

The Mile Houses of Visitacion Valley

Oct20th

Six Mile House in the early 1900s. The roadhouse stood on today’s Bayshore Boulevard near Visitacion Avenue. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAB-1862)

by Woody LaBounty

From its earliest days, Visitacion Valley was the doorway to San Francisco. Perhaps most nineteenth-century visitors arrived by water at one of the docks, but anyone traveling by land had few options to skirt or climb the hills hemming in the city from the peninsula. There were the San Jose and Mission Roads, merging together just south of the San Mateo County line, and the San Bruno Turnpike Road, splitting off from Bernal Heights to run southward across the mouth of Visitacion Valley.

Beginning in the 1850s, roadhouses were established up and down these roads as places to get water for horses and a stronger drink for their owners. Many of these refreshment stops used a “Mile House” naming convention that noted how far they were from the city center, the assumed destination or departure point. This was a popular tradition for inns and outlying public houses in Great Britain, across the United States, and throughout Gold Rush California. For instance, in the 1850s the fields and Sierra Nevada foothills had a spider web of “Mile Houses” referencing the distance to Sacramento, with a Four Mile, Five Mile, Ten Mile, Twelve Mile, Fourteen Mile, Sixteen Mile, Eighteen Mile, Twenty-Six Mile, and even a Forty-Mile House.

Measuring the purported mileage to San Francisco’s heart—which at the time was Portsmouth Square—city and peninsula roadhouses ran from One-Mile House (Mission and 5th Streets, a distance which hardly seems worth the effort to note) to Millbrae’s 17-Mile House on El Camino Real.

Visitacion Valley had three of these mile houses. Two of the original buildings are still intact and one is still serving food and drink. Let’s take a look from north to south:

Five Mile House
3556–3564 San Bruno Avenue

Five Mile House operated out of the building set back from the sidewalk on the 3500 block of San Bruno Avenue from the 1890s to roughly the 1940s. (Heritage photo.)

At one time there were two Five Mile Houses operating on different San Francisco roads. The larger and better known one was run by horse dealer and trainer Charlie Shear at the intersection of Mission Street and Silver Avenue, where the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living stands today. But as early as 1865 a Five Mile House served drinks on the San Bruno Toll Road, today’s San Bruno Avenue. At the top of a ridge out of Visitacion Valley and facing Bayview Hill, it was a popular stop for dairy workers (“Milk Dealers”) to have a drink after trudging up the incline with their wagons in the morning or heading back to the ranches with empty delivery cans in the afternoons.

Five Mile House had a number of owners, operators, and business models over its 120-years of existence, but it was always, in essence, a bar. The original building burned down in 1896, replaced by the structure still standing in the middle of the 3500 block of San Bruno Avenue, now tucked behind a row of storefront additions. The name lived on when the business relocated a block away to the ground floor of the skinny apartment building at 3600 San Bruno Avenue sometime just before World War II.

View west on Wilde Avenue, with the relocated Five Mile House at 3600 San Bruno Avenue in the background on the left. (OpenSFHistory/wnp14.3459)

This later incarnation was still open when I was going to my first Giants games at Candlestick Park in the 1970s (not that I went inside as a ten-year-old). It may have lasted into the late 1980s. I’d love to hear more information on when it closed, and if anyone chooses to fix up and reopen the Five Mile House, in either building, I’ll buy the first round.

Six Mile House
San Bruno Road (now Bayshore Boulevard) near Visitacion Avenue

Six Mile House on Bayshore Boulevard near Visitacion Avenue in 1925. Closed, its northern wing appears to have been demolished. (Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, BANC PIC 1996.003:Volume 20:21b–fALB)

Henry “Pop” Blanken’s Six Mile House was a much grander affair than the Five Mile House and was often described as a “rural resort.” Occupying most of the block of what is now Bayshore Boulevard between Visitacion and Sunnydale Avenues, its grounds had shade trees, gardens, bowling alleys, trap shooting, and training facilities for boxers.

Blanken started his career as a roadhouse host with the Overland Mail House, a smaller place across the San Bruno road from the Five Mile House and named for where the long-distance mail carriers changed their horses. The Six Mile House shows up on maps as early as 1861, although Blanken’s 1915 obituary claims his version of it opened on the Fourth of July in 1876. Drinks, lodging, and clam chowder were all available to those choosing to stop for an hour or a weekend.

Like many roadhouse proprietors, Blanken made a sideline as a “sporting man,” working with horse breeders, betting men, and boxing trainers who used his facilities for both their occupation and their recreation.

The historic building was demolished in 1938 for a garage and gas station, but Blanken Avenue in Little Hollywood keeps Pop’s name alive in the neighborhood.

7 Mile House
San Bruno Road (now Bayshore Boulevard) and Geneva Avenue

7 Mile House when it was owned by Egidio Micheli in the early 1900s. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAC-1769)

The still-thriving 7 Mile House is technically just over the county line in Brisbane, but it is in every way a fixture of Visitacion Valley life. Stories have been passed down that “The 7” started in the late 1850s. That’s likely when the San Bruno Toll Road tollhouse was set up on the same spot, and the roadhouse probably grew out of that building.

The clientele for 7 Mile House has been very and proudly blue collar for its entire life: dairy and farm workers, hostlers and teamsters, blacksmiths, truckers, railroad and factory workers. The building, whether it started as a tollhouse or not, has had additions and remodels over the decades, losing its gingerbread trim, but doubling in size and outdoor dining space. Owner Vanessa Garcia is the latest owner. Since buying 7 Mile House in 2004 she has made it a welcome place for locals and travelers alike with old photos of the last operating mile house proudly displayed inside. It’s one of my favorite spots for lunch.

7 Mile House on the left in January 1910, when Bayshore was only starting to grow out of its country road origins. (Crop of John Henry Mentz photograph, SFMTA photo Archive, U02520)

Although mile houses gave off an authoritative air with their numbered designations—implying some transit-related officialness, maybe even that some surveyor was involved—their names were more marketing than wayfinding aids.

7 Mile House is not a mile from where 6 Mile House was—more like half a mile distant. Six Mile House was a similar distance from where Five Mile House stood. And none of the three is exactly five, six, or seven miles to Portsmouth Square or any other notable San Francisco landmark.

7 Mile House may be in Brisbane, but is still a fixture of Visitacion Valley life.