Welcome to the latest chapter of Urbane Studies, in which our agents suss out the finer points of city lore by scrutinizing its individual street corners. This week: Brutalism at U.C. Hastings, C.W. Nevius at the Post Office, and an Allstar Donuts & Burgers breakfast at Hyde and Golden Gate.
Walk a block from where you work: where are you? Are you comfortable, are you at home, are you lost?
Due north of Civic Center, you’re in another world. A couple tourists clutching maps, “Zie Unterground, ist vehr?”
In that scant block from the sepulchral grey Beaux-Artes district, steps from the idealist city of the Burnham Plan’s wide planes and architecture of majesty, we welcome the Tenderloin Proper. Larkin Street is the Tenderloin, of this we can be sure--but comparatively, it’s training wheels territory, being poised on the edge of all that Federal might, and so many noodles besides. What is it about Hyde, afterall? We had a good time there, some laughs, several kitties. It may be as simple as feng shui: while Larkin’s an arrow pointed up, Hyde’s an exit point, the whoosh of southbound traffic aimed toward the freeway, or just plain away. A few blocks up, it’s a neighborhood, but before you know what hits you, the vertical Brutalism of U.C. Hastings stops you dead. End of the road, kid, all downhill from here. Well fine then, best we get some breakfast while we’re here.
Sitting here at Allstars Donuts & Burgers, let it be said that the importance of the lunch counter cannot be understated. A relative rarity in San Francisco in recent times, these scarcely seen architectural elements are a great commoner, all eyes facing forward to the action of the griddle. After the fashion of a bar, one can choose to partake of the easy conversation that comes from sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with one's brethren. As ever, the cues are eye contact, body language; in short, perfect for the Tenderloin. Stiffen up and look gruff, you’re in a world of your own. Only, you’re in the Tenderloin, you’re going to talk to your neighbors and like it, and that includes the amicable staff. Got a paper open to the Chronicle's green pages, you'd best be ready to hold forth on the merits of the Giants' pitching staff. But you're not here for the chin music, but for the vittles.
The merely serviceable elements of mass-produced American foodstuffs are turned into art in the capable hands of the fry cook, his or her tools the ceaselessly chopping metal spatulas, scrapes and flips music to a hungry audience, the occasional flourish a ballet of no wasted motion. The current owners have held the place for about twelve years, but everyone agrees that the joint has been here forever, and so shall be until the end of time, amen. All of which is fine, because sooner or later you’ll need a fried egg sandwich (no mayo) and a bottle of Coca-Cola.
And it is good to sit at the counter, back to the window, losing sight of the dealings of sidewalk bussinessmen who cast their jagged looks up and down the street (“Where the Popos be at?” “They gone, give it here.”). Across the street, another set of men lean against the Civic Center Post Office as if to hold it up. Disdained by an entitled, review-writing populace that expects service at a governmental office, this particular branch is of extreme importance to the neighborhood. As much as we here at SFist may rib the right proper C.W. Nevius, he did have a point when he took the post office to task for not being able to sort mail for SROs. And so it is that this northwest corner is taken up with the responsibility of doling out the mail of the homeless and SRO population: for better, for worse. When this writer lived up the street and Hyde Street was part of our commute, near the first of the month a queue would form along the post offices' eastern wall, now gaily painted with the bird imagery of Johanna Poethig. One man, shifting from foot to foot while waiting for the branch to open, sang himself a little song: “Waiting for my muh-ney, / Gonna buy some druh-uhgs, / Gonna get hai-yah!” Every generation gets the Shakespeare it deserves.
The cheerless village of U.C. Hastings stolidly crosses its arms and turns its back to the southern corners of Golden Gate and Hyde, inspiring nothing in the soul so much as the desire to hasten away. Popularly known as U.C. Tenderloin, the college is the legacy of the industrious Serranus Clinton Hastings. After dallying in Iowa politics with Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, becoming first a Representative in Congress and then that state’s third Attorney General, Hastings moved west with thoughts of conquest. Of a class of men who knew that even a savage land needed ruling, he flourished. In 1851, a scant few months after Hastings moved to Benicia, the California legislature chose him to be the state’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice. That was all well and good, but he then settled on becoming California Attorney General as a means of continuing to practice law, gradually accumulating enough wealth through his real estate holdings to fund California’s first college of law in 1878.
Nowadays, one can get their chuckles while reading how “shocked” at the Tenderloin students are. It’s not everyone that can write lovingly about the Tenderloin, which suits your Society guide just fine.
Of note: this is a bit off our corner, but we can’t resist one of our favorite pieces of Tenderloin lore. That impressively tall student housing on McAllister and Leavenworth--once the Empire Hotel, now McAllister Towers--began life as the William Taylor Methodist Hotel, built by the church to offer visiting Methodists a safe boarding alternative. Because, you know what sort of people stay in those other hotels--your kind, probably. After debt and the Depression forced secularization, a church at street level created something of a complication for the hotel bar. Seems there was a law on the books that disallowed a church and a bar to coexist in so many feet, (lest the wrong spirits get stirred?). The hotel merely moved the bar up, to the 24th floor, thereby offering San Franciscans their first panoramic quaff. From adversity comes greatness. Anyhow, no drinking in the old bar nowadays, word is that it’s a well-appointed study hall. Two blocks into the Tenderloin, are you drunk on knowledge, yet?