Posts by devinmccutchen:

Articles By: devin mccutchen

Devin was raised on the edge of suburbia in the rural hinterlands of the Bay Area. While at UC Berkeley he took up studying San Francisco history and playing the banjo, thus sabotaging all conversational competency with people younger than 140. These days he finds himself in begrudging exile from The City, commuting through orange groves and sprawl en route to UCLA, where he's a MA/PhD student of California history.

Researching recent American history can be shamefully easy. Historians of other countries are constantly faced with international research trips, locked archives and missing or destroyed documents. Not only do American historians often find that they have ample historical material at their disposal, but the route to finding that material seems to be getting simpler every year.

The rapidly expanding quantity of material available online is particularly game-changing. In fact, when it comes to accessing primary-source material, internet literacy puts the historically inclined amateur nearly on par with trained academics. Consider, for example, the explosion of genealogy sites, any of which grant even the passively curious access to centuries worth of government documentation. One  clearinghouse page currently lists over 300,000 genealogical research websites.

My new favorite online tool for researching San Francisco history is Old S.F. This stripped down, pleasantly designed and intuitively navigable site is remarkably addictive for those of us already addicted to our city’s past. San Franciscans are notorious for being both history obsessed and technologically savvy, so it should come as no surprise that there are so many online local history resources. FoundSF, sparkletak and the Western Neighborhoods Projects, just to name a few of the more extensive ones, are each great examples of this embarrassment of riches.

The problem that many of these sites face though is the same one that is increasingly troubling all American historians. We’ve left the world of information scarcity only to enter one of information overload. How do you sift through it all? How do you organize it to help it make sense?

An excellent example of this problem is the San Francisco Public Library‘s digitized Historical Photograph Collection. Every time I explore this site I’m struck with two thoughts. First, I’m amazed by how much great stuff they have. Second, I’m confounded with the prospect of navigating through it all.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library

Search terms are great; however, they take a lot of creativity to make them do what you want them to. For example, how many searches are required to find out how your neighborhood has changed over time? You might end up entering “Sunset,”  “Outer Sunset,”  “L Taraval,”  “Sunset Blvd.,”  “Stern Grove,”  “Lowell High,”  “Fleishhacker”  and on and on. Each search gives you a long list of photos, one after another. Like a TSA agent staring at an X-ray machine screen, your eyes start to glaze over.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library

Thus my excitement in finding Old S.F.. By combining the Library’s photograph collection with Google Maps, the creators of this site have made these photographs markedly more accessible. Interested in a particular neighborhood? Just zoom into it. Want to weed out the more recent photos? Just slide the date on the timeline.

Geomapping images is nothing new in the internet information world. It’s what made Google Earth such a great time-waster. Nor is it the only site that geomaps historical images, as evidenced by HistoryPin. That said, Old S.F. does a wonderful job of applying a useful organizational strategy to an established collection of images. It doesn’t just pile more historical information onto the internet, but rather, makes what’s already there easier to find.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library

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I was a San Franciscan long before I moved to the City. In fact, the path that led me to San Francisco started long before I was born when my grandparents left there almost sixty years ago.

My grandparents, 1954

In 1954 they cashed out for a brand new tract home in Sunnyvale. Six months earlier their suburban neighborhood had been an orchard, but the crop switched from cherries to ranch-style homes and the land became laced with a tangle of cul-de-sacs. It was the sort of neighborhood that must have been described by many people as “a good place to raise a family.”  The driveways sprouted new cars and the lawns stayed neat and green. In many ways, it was the Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best life incarnate. In the evenings the kids played in the streets and the neighbors dropped by to share a cigarette in the driveway, and on even wilder nights the gin and tonics would flow. Occasionally my grandparents tried their hand at Poker or Bridge, though they gave up on the latter after a few too many losses-one in particular, dealt by the Jobs family over in neighboring Los Altos after little Stevie had gone to bed.

Living the suburban dream, late 50s.

But my grandparents were raised in The City. They grew up in the outer Richmond, playing hooky out on China Beach. Eventually they discovered where the good bars were and learned which Municipal and Market Street Railway cars to take where. Even after they’d moved my grandfather kept his job in the city, riding the SP up the peninsula every morning and back down again after 4. For fifty years they had the San Francisco papers delivered to their house in Sunnyvale, morning and afternoon. They may have moved but they never truly left their home. San Francisco would always be “The City”  to them. It was their touchstone, the world pillar of their mapa mundi.

By the time I came along, my grandparents had built up a canon of stories and photographs that were regularly shared around the living room coffee table. To this wide-eyed child of the suburbs, the world they described was fantastic and seductive. It was filled with sharp hats, nightclubs, department stores, rationing, big bands and world’s fairs. In their stories I could hear the clink of drinks and the rolling wail of foghorns. I learned that we were a family of transplanted San Franciscans and that there was some real magic in this hometown of ours. I learned to call it South of the Slot before I knew where Market Street really was. I learned about The Park before I could have found it on a map. I learned to be nostalgic for The City without ever having lived there.

A night out on the town, 1943

There was one place in the City, however, that I really did know. A place whose smells I could recall from memory better than that of any home-cooked meal. A place whose cluttered walls I could describe for hours. A place where I knew the price per play on the jukebox and could pick the songs without checking the listings. Though we only visited twice a year at most, I considered myself a regular there. It was the Gold Spike, and I knew that it was somehow integral to who I was.

Let me clarify. The Gold Spike was a bar. But that doesn’t do it full justice. It was also what, at one time, was called a family-style restaurant, serving food that was affordable, plentiful and satisfying. The menu was neither modern nor fashionable; it was rich, starchy and unapologetic. There were booths in the rail-car-sized main room and a few tables in the quieter side room. In the passage between the two, where you could catch a glimpse into its tight and cluttered kitchen, you had to catch one of the two rushing servers in order to get your name onto the wait-list on the clipboard nailed to the wall. The tables were always full and there was always a wait.

But, again, I should clarify. The Gold Spike was really a bar. To my taste, most modern dining establishments are restaurants with bars. The balance between the two functions shifts slightly, but the description still holds. The Gold Spike was the opposite of this. It was a bar with a restaurant, and it never pretended to be anything else. In retrospect, it wasn’t really much of bar, at least not for booze aficionados. They never had a cocktail menu and there couldn’t have been more than a half dozen domestic beers on tap. There was, however, a signature cocktail: a Basque concoction known as a Picon Punch left over from an older time-perhaps the forties, when you couldn’t avoid family-style dinners and Picon Punches. At least not in North Beach. That’s where the Gold Spike was, on the southwest side of Columbus between Green and Washington Square. Its name was Western, its drink was Basque, and its food was Italian.

Its décor was something else altogether. For starters, it wasn’t easy to see because the walls were covered with business cards left by patrons. They were slipped into the edges of framed photographs and stuck into the light fixtures. Each bore some small inscription: “Great meal!”  “Dined Mar. 14, ’84”  “Thank you Paul.”  The ceiling was even more cluttered. There you could find enough browned, crumpled and pinned-up dollar bills to buy several rounds for the house. But if you could see through the clutter, the decorations did fit the place’s name. There were pick axes and gold pans behind those cards and bills. The lights were all old oil-lanterns fitted with electric bulbs and a massive glass-eyed moose head stood guard over the jukebox. A photograph on one wall showed the bar on the eve of the ’39 Fair filled with revlers duded out in their finest Western attire. Not much seemed to have changed since. Maybe a few extra taxidermied animals.

My grandparents’ last night at the Gold Spike

For some reason never explained to me, this was where our family convened in the City. It was probably just the last of the old places that my grandparents still recognized. So on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, this is where we came. As our favorite place in our favorite city, it was the center of the center of my family’s world. This was where, on my grandmother’s seventieth, my grandfather choked on a chicken bone and his brother-in-law calmly and swiftly delivered the Heimlich. This was where my aunt, uncle and cousins came for dinner one night only to be unwittingly seated in the next table over from my grandparents. This was where my mother nearly stormed out on my giggling father as he tried to explain that the sign above the bar (“IITYWYBMAD?” ) really did say “If I tell you, will you buy me a drink?”  This was where I, as a precocious ten year old, chatted with folks at the bar about San Francisco history and learned all the lyrics of “Everybody Loves Somebody,”  “Volare,”  and “Houston.”  This is where, grinning and beaming, I took my fellow Berkeley freshmen to dinner on our first evening out in the city.

Waiting for our table, mid 90s

And finally, this is where I came, in the Winter of 2006, when the Gold Spike closed its doors for good. I didn’t even try to get a table that night. I played the jukebox, slipped a red linen napkin into my pocket and drank a final toast to the empty seat at the end of bar, which was a house tradition there in the bar’s later years. Over three generations the Mechetti family had piloted the establishment through Prohibition, Beatniks and multiple tech-bubbles, but in the end they couldn’t make it through a building retrofit and a rent-hike. Thus went “the Spike.” 

My grandfather died a year later and my grandmother about two years after that. The next time I saw the place the two-story neon sign was gone, and the interior had been gutted. Through the window, the place looked smaller and the walls oddly bright and white. Today, the bar is a photo gallery and the side room is a jewelery shop. I’ve never been into either.

The Gold Spike today, or just 527 Columbus Ave. Only the black tile remains from the original Gold Spike.

Cities are changing entities. In some fundamental way, this is part of what makes them cities. By staying true to their character they leave thousands of cities in their wake. For some of us who have learned to love these wild and unruly places, the discomfort that comes with these changes partners with that love. For others it even fuels it. But for all of us, awareness of change is vital.

Today’s San Franciscans have a fine heritage of sentimentality to live up to. Time and time again their predecessors set the sentimental bar high. Yerba Buena, the days of ’49, the Barbary Coast, the pre-1906 City that Was, the three fairs, the ferries, the Fox, Playland, Winterland, the good-old South of Market, the good-old Fillmore, the good-old Haight, the good-old Castro, the International Hotel, Psycho Alley, Army Street-the list goes on. Each San Franciscan adds to it, building new San Franciscos on the remnants of older ones. Many San Franciscans embrace the sentimental vision, mourning and loving their city in one unified emotion of frenzied love. For them, the ghosts of all those San Franciscos mix and layer, and become the hallmark of this place they call home.

For me, it’s 527 Columbus, the Gold Spike. Now I’ve added it to the list too: another San Franciscan’s identity built on the shaky ground of yet another city that was. “[A]ll your San Franciscos will have to fall eventually and burn again.”  (Jack Kerouac, from “October in the Railroad Earth” )