Parkside District Improvement Club “Night in Hawaii” Dinner Dance, October 6, 1962. (PDIC Scrapbooks, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.)
by Woody LaBounty
Volunteer community groups were significant drivers of San Francisco neighborhood development and vitality in the early twentieth century, especially in the city’s outlying areas. Groups such as the Mission Promotion Association, the Hayes Valley Improvement Club, and the Bay View Boosters had to lobby hard for essential services from sewage lines to street lights to schools. The importance and relevance of “improvement” clubs in the 1910s was such that once a week the San Francisco Call dedicated a whole section to the challenges, efforts, and victories of dozens of organizations across the city.
When the first Parkside District homes were built in sand dunes in 1907, remote from any settled neighborhood, the residents moved in bereft of many basic city services. On March 25, 1911, the Call described just some of the challenges:
“[R]esidents of Parkside were compelled to walk in utter darkness at night from the [street]cars to their homes, because there were no street lights. If their houses were to take fire they would have to look on hopelessly while the building burned down, for there was no fire protection in the district. If the residents had children the parents would have to anxiously ship their children aboard a streetcar hoping that they would find their way downtown to school and would return safely in the evening for there was no school in the district.”1
First Parkside School on Taraval Street near 31st Avenue, 1917. (Williams Family Collection.)
In 1908, property owners met in a building on the corner of 26th Avenue and Taraval Street to form the Parkside District Improvement Club (PDIC). Over a series of meetings they created committees to attack the most pressing needs of the neighborhood. One lobbied for and secured telephone service for the district, while another pressured for mail delivery, as the postal service hadn’t gotten around to assigning anyone to the Parkside. A new 25-man volunteer fire department composed of residents borrowed equipment from the city’s Fire Commission, and stored it in a building donated by the Parkside Realty. And when the Board of Education dithered on finding a site for a local elementary school, the group secured a donated lot on Taraval Street near 31st Avenue.
San Francisco Call, March 25, 1911, featuring the officers of the Parkside District Improvement Club.
By 1911, the Parkside District Improvement Club (PDIC) numbered 75 men (out of about 100 households in the district) and a women’s auxiliary. Both met in Williams Hall, an upstairs space above the Parkside’s only market at 32nd Avenue and Taraval (today Gene’s Liquors). The women’s auxiliary was just as active as the men’s club, although it tended to focus only on local issues, such as getting a fence constructed around the school to keep out dogs.2 According to stories passed down, the women also played a lot less poker at their meetings than the men. The two sides came together with a social committee that organized dances and music concerts at Williams Hall to “encourage social relations” among neighbors.3
Parkside volunteer fire department engine parked on 32nd Avenue in front of Eugene Williams’ grocery (with social hall above) at Taraval Street, 1910s. (Williams Family Collection.)
Even after essential services were secured, the Parkside club served as a binding force in the district for decades. It was also a prominent collaborator with other neighborhood groups in shaping city policies and practices. The PDIC weighed in on the proposed location of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (the club wanted it at Lake Merced), on the issuance of bonds to create the first public transportation line (the club was against), and on the establishment of a municipal water department (very much for).
By the 1930s, under the leadership of Ray Schiller, the Parkside District Improvement Club became an even more dynamic force in the neighborhood and an influence on politics citywide. District celebrations in McCoppin and Parkside Squares and parades on Taraval Street drew hundreds. The club successfully lobbied for the extension of the L-Taraval streetcar line to the beach (at the time mostly through a sandy desert). PDIC marshaled hundreds of locals to attend numerous meetings at the Board of Education and City Hall to get Lincoln High School constructed. In the 1940s and 1950s, neighborhood businesswoman Evelyn La Place rose to be PDIC president and one of the city’s most active female voices in civic affairs, serving on the Library Commission and as president of the Central Council of Civic Clubs.
Parkside District Improvement Club’s power originated in the district’s isolation and the residents’ mutual needs, but it also drew from the village atmosphere present in most city neighborhoods before World War II.
Ray Schiller lived and worked on 28th Avenue. Evelyn LaPlace lived on 32nd Avenue, and ran her gift store and library at 941 Taraval and her dress shop at 1109 Taraval Street. PDIC board member Russell Powell published the Pacific News, the neighborhood’s own newspaper, at 1722 Taraval Street. Parksiders bought their aspirin at Parkside Pharmacy (28th Avenue and Taraval), their paints at Parkside Hardware (1038 Taraval), and had their breakfast at Parkside Coffee Shop (949 Taraval). Groceries, cakes, clothing, doctors, dentists—all on Taraval. They went to services at Parkside Gospel Hall or St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church. Children either attended Parkside School or St. Cecilia’s parochial school. Men generally had full-time jobs and women generally stayed home, and they all knew their neighbors well.
Parkside Square dedication ceremonies, April 24, 1938. (PDIC Scrapbooks, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Library.)
Village life sounds pleasant, even idyllic—wouldn’t it be nice to be so neighborly? But its reality was riddled with limitations and exclusions. Beyond marriage and motherhood, opportunities for women were extremely restricted: teacher, secretary, clerk at a store, operator at the telephone company. Single businesswoman Evelyn LaPlace was a notable outlier, called a “Career Girl” in one newspaper headline when she was appointed the city library commission at 42 years old.4
And while racist deed covenants weren’t in place across the neighborhood like they were in tonier developments such as St. Francis Wood and Balboa Terrace, nonwhite residents and buyers were excluded from the Parkside by acknowledged “understandings” between real estate agents and residents. Occasionally, the arrangement had to be made plainer. In 1943, the PDIC wrote the Real Estate Association of San Francisco:
“We have received rumors that colored people and Filipinos were attempting to purchase property, namely new homes being erected, in the Parkside and Sunset district. We would appreciate any information you would be able to give us and what we might do to prevent this situation from developing.”5
PDIC mock installation of officers at American Legion Hall at 38th Avenue and Taraval Street, 1940s. (PDIC Scrapbooks, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Library.)
By the early 1950s, the Parkside was no longer an isolated island on the dunes, but enmeshed in a residential landscape that stretched in all directions. The neighborhood’s insularity fractured in the 1960s and 1970s as early residents passed away and their children were attracted to new developments in the suburbs. The PDIC held May Day celebrations into the 1970s, installation dinners for its officers continued to the end of the century, but the club’s power and influence dwindled with its membership. A handful of residents kept it alive into the 2000s, content to hold monthly meetings of no more than a dozen people.
But the club was fortunate to have dedicated archivists and chroniclers of its history, particularly Opal Piercy, who made scrapbooks of club photos, ephemera, meeting minutes, and newspaper clippings related to the neighborhood and the PDIC. Those scrapbooks are now safe in the San Francisco History Center of the San Francisco Public Library, and copies are kept at the Parkside Branch Library.
5. Copy of letter dated May 17, 1943. PDIC papers, Western Neighborhoods Project Collection.