A Bird’s Eye View of Bernal Heights in 1938

La Lengua rebel propagandist Burrito Justice recently alerted me to the existence of an online set of aerial photographs taken over San Francisco in 1938.

Within that set of pics, there are some very detailed shots taken over Bernal Heights, with crazy-spooky Google Earth-like resolution. The detail is stunning. So strap in to your seat, and let’s tour some Bernal Heights highlights, way back in 1938, shall we?

First, look to the east: There’s no 101 freeway yet; instead, Bayshore Boulevard carried traffic as US 101. Also clearly visible is the micro-hood centered along Adam and Eve Streets, all of which was plowed under when the freeway was built.

To the north, along Precita Park, we see the tracks of the 36 Folsom streetcar line, which terminated at the park:

There’s no playground at the east end of Precita Park, but it looks like the neighborhood kids created an impromptu baseball/stickball diamond in the center of the park, just west of the walkway that cuts through from Harrison Street:

A little farther west, on Tiffany near the junction of Valencia and Mission, there was a streetcar shed, with “San Francisco” painted on the roof, and an arrow pointing north. (A navigational aid for aviators, perhaps?):

The late 1930s were a particularly interesting time up on Bernal Hill. There were two homes on the hill, Nos. 26 and 39 Prentiss Street, and both were occupied until the 1960s:

At the time when this photo was taken, Bernal Heights Boulevard was less than three years old. Bernal’s circular road-to-nowhere had been carved out of the hillside in 1935, as a WPA project. But construction of the roadway triggered a landslide in February, 1936, on the north slope of the hill just east of today’s Folsom gate. As you can see above, the debris from the slide was still present in 1938. Here’s a ground-level perspective on the landslide from 1936, courtesy of the SFPL:

In the southeast, we see the overgrown site that would become the Alemany Farmer’s Market during the 1940s:

Compare with 2011, which also includes the 101/280 “Spaghetti Bowl”:

Over on Cortland, the lot has been cleared to begin construction of the Bernal Heights Branch Library (which was dedicated in October, 1940):

Just west of the Bernal summit, Elsie Street was still an unpaved dirt path:

Meanwhile, east of Alabama Street, the area of today’s Ripley, Peralta, and Franconia streets was still just plain… dirt:

Okay, so now how do you explore Bernal Heights in 1938 on your own? You can either download individual photo tiles (tedious), or you can use the Google Earth-enabled Web interface (much easier) to cover more terrain more quickly.

Have fun, procrastinate wisely, and please do share any other discoveries you might make about what Bernal Heights was like back in 1938.

PHOTOS: via the David Rumsey Map Collection

9 thoughts on “A Bird’s Eye View of Bernal Heights in 1938

  1. The stadium just east of Bernal was apparently a race track called “San Francisco Stadium.” Burrito Justice found it in a Sanborn map. It doesn’t seem like it was there for long. The first and only mention I could find in a city directory was from 1936. By December, 1942, the site was part of a Marine Corps supply depot.

    From http://corpsfuds.com/reports/INPR/J09CA1099inpr.pdf: “October 2, 1995, aerial photographs were reviewed for the years 1935,1938, 1948, 1955, 1961, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1975, 1981, 1991, and 1994.” Whoa! “Aerial photographs dated 1935 through 1994 (Pacific Aerial Surveys, Oakland, CA).” These are apparently now held by HJW Geospatial in Oakland. (They want royalties to reproduce them, unfortunately.)

    A couple of quotes via Google Books: From Automotive Industries 75 (1936) “There are, of course, many well-organized midget racing speedways such as Madison Square Garden Bowl at New York, River View at Chicago, Walsh Stadium at St. Louis, San Francisco Stadium at San Francisco”

    And from Fire Engineering, Volume 90 (1937), “Fog Nozzle Tested Fognozl Applicators, one of the several types of fog nozzles marked by the Fog Nozzle Company, Los Angeles, Cal., were given a test in the San Francisco Stadium. A sedan was doused inside and out with fifteen gallons of gasoline and set afire. The fire was extinguished in eighteen seconds with the use of a 10-foot duraluminum Fognozl Applicator, with a 1-inch Type B head. But eighteen gallons of water were used. Smoldering upholstery in the car was extinguished with a 5-gallon back pump, equipped with a 2-foot applicator.”

  2. Besides the 36 Folsom streetcar tracks, the tracks on Cortland and Richland are also visible. Both streets only had one track, with a turnout for passing in the middle. And there’s also a second streetcar barn on Mission between 29th and Virginia.

    The Southern Pacific route was still using the Bernal Cut, and the railroad right-of-way takes up the western half of the cut, and the roadway is in the eastern half.

    Saint Mary’s Park was under construction and completely bare, and the terraced levels really stand out. And it looks like there was another landslide there.

    Right in the middle of the Hairball and just out of frame in the second picture in this post is the long forgotten Army Street North. It’s the short angled street between Army and San Bruno.

  3. Wow – Fantastic photos. Long before Big Lots was built there was a street car barn. The barn was torn down for a bowling alley. It would have made beautiful loft space.. The 280/101 freeways certainly blighted the area along southern slope of Bernal Heights. The building of Alemany Projects, which are rundown, neglected tenements, did not help.

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