Political Landscapes: When Cornered, District Seven Residents Show Backbone

Westwood Park is one of the west side’s quintessential residence parks that developed after the opening of the Twin Peaks tunnel nearly 100 years ago. PHOTOGRAPH BY BETSEY CULP/INGLESIDE-EXCELSIOR LIGHT

Conventional wisdom says that on the scale of San Francisco politics, District Seven stands far from the progressive end. If you walk around its neighborhoods, you’d never know that Bernie Sanders has been running for president. Signs in the windows show a preference for moderate local candidates like Scott Wiener and Joel Engardio. It’s a nice quiet part of town, loath to upset applecarts.

That’s because you don’t remember the “orphan amendment” of 1937. Hang onto your hats! It’s a good story. But first, a quick look at the district today.

Many of the places we associate with San Francisco are in District Seven. The city’s largest lake — Lake Merced. Its highest hill — Mt. Davidson. Three institutions of higher learning — City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University and University of California, San Francisco. A beach — Fort Funston. A hospital — Laguna Honda. An outdoor music venue — Stern Grove. And a zoo.

But the area is primarily known for its quiet, traditional neighborhoods. According to the 2010 Census, more than half the residents are white and the next largest group is Asian; more than half are college graduates. The median household income is $94,121.

In contrast to the fiery rhetoric heard in much of San Francisco, the political conversation here is predictable, almost comfortable. Campaigns usually focus on “fiscal responsibility”. Supervisor candidate Ben Matranga says, “We need to start by asking whether San Franciscans are getting our money’s worth from government.” Quality-of-life issues like street crime loom large. Engardio explains in a San Francisco Examiner column, “Years of low crime justified less police presence, which made the westside easy pickings.” The housing crisis that grips the rest of the city is held at arm’s length. Westside Observer columnist and supervisor candidate John Farrell calls for “a game plan for the future that keeps the integrity of San Francisco and our neighborhoods.” Michael Young expresses a persistent complaint: “Local homeowners and long time residents often get left out of the conversations about growth.”

In this district of little residential neighborhoods, homelessness is a new and worrisome problem. Matranga notes, “There are three or four homeless people in and around West Portal.” Engardio calls for improvements in mental health treatment. Incumbent Supervisor Norman Yee recently wrote constituents who were worried about an influx of homeless people into a West Portal Avenue parking lot: “I want to assure our neighbors that we can confirm that these two sites will not be utilized as emergency homeless shelters or Navigation Centers.”

In other words, the district’s politics are pretty tame today. But what about the past?

It all started with one geographical fact: in the olden days, a huge sand dune, nearly 1,000 feet high in some places, ran down the middle of San Francisco like a backbone. First European and then American settlers worked their way inland from the bay, but they stopped short when they came to “Los Pechos de la Chola,” or “The Breasts of the Indian Maiden,” which our less imaginative Anglo ancestors renamed “Twin Peaks.”

Around 1880 a silver baron named Adolph Sutro bought up hundreds of acres of land west of Twin Peaks, where he set about creating his own private empire. There he built a house surrounded by a magnificent sculpture-filled garden; he rebuilt the Cliff House as an elegant place for city folk to dine and dance; and he concocted a system of public swimming pools overlooking the ocean known as Sutro Baths.

Under the influence of Bay Area poet Joaquin Miller, who fancied himself a West Coast Johnny Appleseed, Sutro began to plant trees. Soon thousands and thousands of trees — eucalyptus, yes, but also ash, pine, maple, cypress and acacia — covered much of the land west of Twin Peaks. They not only changed the ecology of the area but also provided fuel for heated discussions among 21st-century native plant enthusiasts.

Suddenly, this land was much more attractive. But it was still inaccessible. It took an earthquake and the subsequent need for housing to bring about a change. In 1918, the city bored a streetcar tunnel under the ridge, setting off a housing boom in the area that is now District Seven. Planned “residence parks” such as St. Francis Wood, Westwood Park and Forest Hill moved into Sutro’s Forest.

It must have been a beautiful place to live. And only a few minutes from downtown!

But soon progress arrived, carrying a nasty genie in a bottle — the automobile. Shrewd businessmen realized that there was money in them thar hills: the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the quiet neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks faced an invasion of “gas stations and hot dog stands.”

At the same time, city planning discovered the virtues of zoning, of designating properties for residential or commercial uses. The genie landed at the corner of Dewey and Laguna Honda, where a landowner tried to get commercial zoning in order to build a gas station. His neighbors protested; the Planning Commission supported them. The offensive landowner sued; the court ruled in favor of the neighbors. And justice seemed to prevail.

But the genie had friends, who had friends on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Next thing the neighbors knew, a special election was called for March 9, 1937, where voters would be asked to approve an amendment to the city charter, stating that only a property owner — not his neighbors — could have a say in the zoning of his property. Horrors!

Local neighborhood associations, amalgamated into the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, began a media blitz. The president of the Board of Supervisors, Warren Shannon, soon tired of dodging brickbats and withdrew support from the amendment that he himself had crafted. “I am not so hot for the amendment now,” he said.

Since it was too late to remove the poor “orphan amendment” from the ballot, the Central Council continued its campaign, asking voters to kill the amendment once and for all. And they did.

Imagine if they hadn’t! Imagine a San Francisco political environment where no one could legally protest the Beast of Bryant or the Wall on the Waterfront! And it all started at the Forest Hill Clubhouse west of Twin Peaks, where the grassroots reach down into the roots of Sutro’s Forest.

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