I had lunch with retired Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik at the boulangerie on a sunny and windy Wednesday. I’m not just writing this because it gives me the opportunity to lose names, but because she told me to meet her at Octavia Green.
The male part of me refused to ask for directions. But other than guessing it was near Octavia Street, I had no idea where to go.
Siri was of no help and told me about movies with Sydney Greenstreet. So I found a parking lot on Hayes Street and walked until I found trees. A sign said “Patricia’s Green,” and it must have been the right place because Leah Garchik showed up, big as life and twice as elegant.
San Francisco is a patchwork of neighborhoods sewn together over 49 square miles. These neighborhoods choose their names and are rarely the ones you see on the map.
When Brian and I first moved to town, we lived on the Mission above Guerrero Street, but the realtor called it Liberty Heights. My friends who live in the inner and outer park call their neighborhood “the avenues”.
One of my friends, Crazy Mike, lives in the Visitacion Valley. His son tried to call it “Upper Vis” but it hasn’t caught on yet.
This fall, Zane and Aidan will be going to school for the first time in six years on the same block (Frida Kahlo Way), in a neighborhood I just found out is Sunnyside, not to be confused with the much sunnier Sunnydale that Law.
If you ask three people on Market Street where Lone Mountain or Little Hollywood is, you get a blank look.
This is not just a problem in San Francisco. My colleague, also known as Brian, reluctantly told me that the recognized name for his Oakland district is “The Bottoms,” which is only ironic if you know his lifestyle.
Which brings me to the mysterious outer, outer, outer, outer Excelsior. One reader, Amy Nachman, read the notes over the years and located our blue bungalow. In doing so, she discovered the area that real estate agents call “Crocker-Amazon”.
Now I have nothing against Charles Crocker and God knows I love Amazons. But there is no poetry about this name. Butchertown and Dogpatch resonate, but not Crocker. In addition, he never lived in the neighborhood, but was one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, a robber baron “Nabob”, after whom Nob Hill was named. His villa was in the land now inhabited by Grace Cathedral.
The outer, outer, outer, outer Excelsior deserves its seal of approval. Let’s call it, not the robber barons. We live in a neighborhood in San Francisco with no tourist attractions: No Painted Ladies, Turnaround with the cable car or Jazz Center. We only have a cow on a roof, an armadillo in a box and the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater. We also have a mural on the Cordova Market & Deli site called “A History and Champions Inspired Neighborhood” with images of giants, 49ers, and the Amazon Theater. Sohel, the manager there, runs the only shop in the corner that can’t get rye bread, but aesthetic appreciation (and Mitchell’s Grasshopper Pie ice cream!).
So what’s in a name? I grew up in South Ozone Park, named for an inorganic molecule known to be a respiratory hazard. But we called it “the block,” and what made it a neighborhood was Sadie Caddens soda bread, Jeannie McCormick’s pool, and Sister Vivian.
It’s the same with us. Excelsior always means upwards, and so we live in the outer part of the upwards. We live with Susan’s sourdough bread, Uncle Quentin’s piano playing, Nona’s pancit and all the little kindnesses that hold our community together.
And the thing is, like the artists who painted this mural, you can make any neighborhood a “neighborhood inspired by history and champions”. A neighborhood of friendliness.
Kevin Fisher-Paulson’s column appears in the Datebook on Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]