I live at the border of the Liberty Hill Historic district, just a two-minute huff away from the golden fire hydrant that quelched the fire that ravaged the Mission district after San Francisco’s Great Earthquake. My house sits on 20th Street and is a curious-looking late-Victorian cottage that is a close relative of what’s termed an “earthquake shack.”
It was built in 1906 or 1907 on a lot made vacant when firefighters and volunteers dynamited (or let burn) the structures on the north side of the street as a fire break. Rescued from destruction by that intervention and by the famous golden fire hydrant at 20th and Church, the stately homes on the opposite side of my street are intact. Almost daily, groups of people gather with their tour guides to gawk at those handsome facades.
In the middle of an ordinary day, I’m sometimes halted in my tracks by the realization that those Victorians have stood there for 125 years. They practically loom over pedestrians, like members of a jury. Observing, listening, judging. Positioned on an upslope, their fronts are like somber, vigilant faces.
They watched silently after the quake as the Mission rose from the heap of ashes strewn from 20th Street to Market. They stood by as the train tracks on the block were ripped out and — later — new sewer mains planted and utility poles erected (and, more recently, buried). They’ve outlasted the graves that once filled Dolores Park and were relocated to Colma.
They repeatedly see the street repaved and its sidewalk squares torn out and re-poured. They watch as a recurring sinkhole on the west end of the block caves in every five years or so. They’ve had garages dug beneath their foundations, and the natural springs on their lots funneled into drainage systems.
They’ve endured as San Francisco soldiers marched off to at least six wars. They’ve surveyed crowds of people thronging toward Mission Street or Market Street to protest for women’s suffrage, civil rights and gay rights.
The women who’ve slept in their bedrooms have worn corsets and bustles, or miniskirts, or all-leather ensembles and multiple piercings. People from all over the globe have called them “home.” Recently, children have grown to adulthood in their rooms, but can’t leave because they can’t afford a place of their own.
Sometimes at twilight, if I squint my eyes just right, I can imagine all the houses are brand new. It’s the 1890s. There are no cars. There are no hipsters toting 12-packs of PBR to Dolores Park. There are no skateboarders bombing the hill. The Great Earthquake is still 15 years away and the California Gold Rush is not so far in the past.
We think we have all the time in the world, but San Francisco’s present is rapidly becoming its history. Everything — including the venerable Victorians on my block — will eventually fade away.
So, let’s celebrate our beautiful city right now. Call me and I’ll meet you today at the Golden Fire Hydrant to enjoy the view of the skyline. Tomorrow it’ll be forever changed.