San Francisco: An Index of Influence

Thirteen sites that transformed the city, and the nation — though they look mundane today.

Black and white photograph of public-transportation driver flashing V-sign out his open driver's side window.
The driver of a MUNI F train stopped at the intersection of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue signals support following a silent march protesting violence against queer people, 2006. [All photographs by J. Matt]

The changing light at San Francisco
                          is none of your East Coast light
                                            none of your
                                                                  pearly light of Paris

The light of San Francisco
                                              is a sea light
                                                                     an island light

And the light of fog
                                  blanketing the hills
                      drifting in at night
                                     through the Golden Gate
                                                          to lie on the city at dawn

— Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from “The Changing Light,” 2000

San Francisco is a storied city and, like all cities, a party to its own constant reinvention. It has buried/reconstructed/escaped myriad pasts — Indigenous center, religious-colonial target, frontier settlement, Gold Rush boom town, leftist labor bastion, safe harbor for artists and other fringe-dwellers, tech company town. The city’s incarnations are too many to enumerate, and add up to something greater than the sum of its historical parts. I left my heart….

San Francisco is a storied city and, like all cities, a party to its own constant reinvention, having reconstructed or escaped myriad pasts.

Many episodes in San Francisco have left indelible marks on the national conscience. These events certainly occurred (it seems necessary to state this today), and they unfolded at specific locales. The actors in these events passed these places that we now pass, or might pass; they did things that shaped the legacies embedded in these sites. These places are often unassuming, ordinary, part of the landscape that blurs by residents and visitors alike. And this is the very mechanism of history: the layering of the present on the past. What we choose to take from the strata previously accreted is our decision and our burden. There are as many “right” takeaways as there are points-of-view, whether we individually find them admirable or odious.

But as we determine how we wish to be as a society in perilous times, the decisions we make relative to these aggregated pasts are critically important to the course ahead. Do we stay on the well-trodden route to conflict and violence, or work to chart a more humane path? Do we choose to walk away from the moral lessons presented at these places? Or do we accept, even embrace, the malign instincts that influenced events at each of them?

I cannot look at the photographs that follow and not feel troubled, even as I write this 2,400 or so miles away. True, my residence in San Francisco suffuses these images with personal history. But I don’t think I’m being histrionic when I say that my very sense of a future feels haunted by the specters of these pasts in ways that give me pause and cause me to fear for us all.

I hope that I am wrong, and that my alarm is just the sound of my cat, Manapua, stalking through the darkened house after a gecko.

– Honolulu, 2022

Black and white photograph of downtown city street with pedestrians and traffic.
Intersection of Mission and Steuart Streets — location of Bloody Thursday Riots in 1934, during which San Francisco Police fired live ammunition at striking dockworkers, killing two and injuring many others. Photographed in 2015.

Intersection of Mission and Steuart Streets

On Thursday July 5, 1934, after nearly two months of a strike that crippled the Port of San Francisco in a bid to end dependency on corrupt “company unions,” as well as to lighten loads (this being the era of unloading ships by hand) and to increase bargaining power in hiring and contract negotiations, striking dockworkers were fired on by police at the intersection of Mission and Steuart Streets. Sailor Howard Sperry and unemployed cook Nick Bordoise, volunteering at the International Longshoreman’s Association strike kitchen, were killed.

For weeks, police had been launching tear-gas canisters into crowds and using clubs and horses against strikers. But this was the first time that officers had used live ammunition — and sawed-off shotgun rounds at that. A journalist recounted, “The battle spread over a wide area, bricks flying, fists thwacking, clubs swinging, and tear-gas shells whistling through the air. As the men drew back to their union hall on Mission and Steuart streets, the police opened fire, shooting one man in the back and wounding many.” 1

On Monday, July 16, 1934, 150,000 workers around the Bay Area walked out on strike. Commerce was paralyzed for 83 days.

Strikers quickly laid flowers and wreaths at the sites of the deaths. No sooner were these memorials placed than police moved in to clear them — a pas de deux that would likely have continued through the night had hundreds of strikers not assembled to stand guard over the bloodied ground outside their hall, forcing police to retreat. On July 9, a silent funeral procession of more than 40,000 union men and supporters stretched a mile and a half up Market Street. Until this point, anti-union reporting from daily papers and red-baiting by politicians and business leaders had kept public opinion cool towards the strikers. The marchers’ solemn show of solidarity transformed public sentiment and paved the way for a general strike, long a goal of union organizers on the waterfront.

On July 14, the San Francisco Labor Council voted to authorize the general strike, and on Monday July 16, with rolling strikes already underway, 150,000 workers around the Bay Area walked out. The movement of domestic lumber and agricultural goods, along with trade to and from Hawai‘i and Asia, stopped. Sympathetic workers in retail, manufacturing, transportation, and construction joined, even halting construction on the Bay Bridge. Area commerce was paralyzed for 83 days. One outcome was the creation of a body that ultimately became the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — which today is one of the nation’s last remaining influential unions, the powerhouse that in 2015 shut down California ports while renegotiating that year’s contract.

July 5, 1934, came to be known as Bloody Thursday, and ushered in an era of increased power for organized labor in the U.S. Improvements for millions of workers in pay, hours, and benefits were catalyzed by outrage over the deaths of Sperry and Bordoise at Mission and Steuart Streets in the depths of the Great Depression. The ILWU still shuts down West Coast ports every year on the anniversary of Bloody Thursday to honor the fallen and the fight to organize. Meanwhile, the financial and social condition of the average American worker is now at least as imperiled as it was in that summer 88 years ago, devolving in lockstep with attacks on union membership and influence. The pandemic is proving significant to labor, though; healthcare workers’ unions are gaining deserved power while dissatisfactions with pre-pandemic working conditions are leading many Americans to drop out of the labor force and adding steam to successful organizing in persistently resistant corporations and fields.

’Tis the final conflict

Let each stand in his place

The International Union

Shall be the human race.

– Eugène Pottier, “The Internationale,” 1871. Translated by Charles H. Kerr for The IWW Songbook (34th edition), 1973.

Black and white photograph of Toyota dealership.
2020 Van Ness Avenue — site of the Wartime Civil Control Annex, an assembly site for San Francisco residents of Japanese descent soon to be incarcerated as security threats for the duration of U.S. involvement in World War II. Photographed in 2017.

Wartime Civil Control Annex, 2020 Van Ness Avenue

On April 6, 1942, a group of 664 Japanese-American citizens and resident aliens who had been ordered to assemble under Executive Order 9066 arrived at 2020 Van Ness Avenue. They were bound for the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles, one of several California racetracks and county fairgrounds repurposed as “Assembly Centers.” There this first group would be joined by thousands more shipped out from Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, down the peninsula from San Francisco, and still others arriving from their homes in Los Angeles. Internees were to be housed in tent cities and stables while ten internment camps were built in seven Western states; Santa Anita was a way station until the camp at Manzanar in the Mojave Desert was completed. EO9066 ordered the disposal of property, shuttering of businesses, and removal of children from school. Citizens who were as little as one-sixteenth ethnically Japanese were forced, with the few possessions they could carry, into five years’ imprisonment in isolated, primitive, and overcrowded conditions. 2

Japanese-American internees were to be housed in tent cities and stables at racetracks while ten internment camps were built.

General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command (headquartered in the Presidio district of San Francisco) was an early proponent of this massive forced removal, and his influence was instrumental in cementing the policy. Preying on the President’s prejudices, DeWitt wrote to FDR, “The Japanese race is an enemy race”; though many “have become ‘Americanized,’” he insisted, “the racial strains are undiluted.” 3 Signed February 19, 1942, EO9066 codified DeWitt’s bigotry over objections by the U.S. Attorney General and the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff.

Important domestic industries were affected, especially agriculture. According to the California Farm Bureau, in 1942, ethnically Japanese farmers grew 40 percent of the state’s vegetable crop and nearly the same quantity of fruit, including almost all of California’s strawberries. 4 Japanese immigrants’ farms were turned over to White farmers, permanently, in one of the state’s largest redistributions since Spanish land grants appropriated tribal territories. This land grab came at a time when Japanese-owned farmland was worth an average of more than seven times that of other acreage, due to its higher productivity. All in all, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were wrongfully interned throughout the war. 5

In 1944, when management of the camps was transferred to the Department of the Interior, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes wrote to Roosevelt that the camps were “clearly unconstitutional,” and that “the continued retention of these innocent people in relocation centers would be a blot upon the history of this country.” 6 Nonetheless, it would not be until the Gerald Ford administration that EO9066 was rescinded, having been upheld (also in 1944) by the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States. In 1988, under duress and after five years of opposition, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation paying $20,000 to each surviving internee, along with the first formal apology to those held captive. The families of internees who had died received no compensation.

Black and white photograph of tastefully landscaped courtyard..
1500 Post Street — original site of the nondenominational Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, founded in 1944 by Rev. Howard Thurman and Dr. Alfred Frisk. The church still seeks peace and equality for all races, although it is now located at 2041 Larkin Street. Photographed in 2017.

The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, 1500 Post Street

In 1944, Howard Thurman left his position as a tenured professor and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and moved to San Francisco. He and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, had met Gandhi in 1936 — the first Black leaders to do so — while on a “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India, Burma, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) organized by a group called Student Christian Movements of the United States of America and India. 7 The Thurmans embraced Gandhian ideas of nonviolent struggle against oppression, and came to believe in interdenominational and interracial worship as a means for sparking social change. They felt that founding a revolutionary congregation would be more influential than Reverend Thurman’s work at Howard.

Rev. Howard Thurman    and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman believed in interdenominational and interracial worship as a means for sparking social change.

In collaboration with co-pastor Dr. Alfred Frisk, a White minister and professor at San Francisco State University, the Thurmans founded The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples at 1500 Post Street. The site had been the home of a Japanese-American Presbyterian church, vacant after its congregation was interned under Executive Order 9066. The new church’s vision of diverse peoples working together to achieve peace and equality in the face of worldwide war placed Thurman, Sue Bailey Thurman, and Frisk staunchly in the ranks of the leftist avant-garde; liberal San Francisco was perhaps the only place in the nation where this insurgent undertaking was feasible in the era of Jim Crow.

In 1949, while still preaching weekly at Fellowship Church, Howard Thurman published what would be his most enduring work, Jesus and the Disinherited. 8 The book is sharp in its critique of segregation, and argues for an understanding of Christ as an advocate for the impoverished and disenfranchised. It laid a foundation for Black liberation theology and was a cornerstone of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy. Dr. King carried a worn and annotated copy of Jesus and the Disinherited with him throughout the Montgomery bus boycott and beyond. 9 Indeed, Thurman had long been present in King’s inner circle; as a friend of Martin Luther King, Sr., he was often at the family home in Atlanta, and remained a lifelong mentor to his friend’s son.

Thurman’s congregation still exists (housed now at 2041 Larkin Street), and still embodies his radical message of peace, unity, and advocacy, its message uninterrupted since 1944: “Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you.” 10

Black and white photograph of Beaux-Arts style opera house.
301 Van Ness Avenue, War Memorial Opera House — the first municipal opera house in the U.S., site of the 1945 San Francisco Conference adopting the Charter of the United Nations. Photographed in 2015.

War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue

April 26, 1945, not quite six months before the signing of the Japanese Instruments of Surrender on the USS Missouri, delegates from 50 nations that had warred with Axis powers convened for the San Francisco Conference at the War Memorial Opera House. Their goal was to fashion an agreement creating a United Nations to avert future wars. (The 51st original member state, Poland, was unable to attend as its government had not yet reconstituted after the country’s ravaging by the Nazis.) Back in San Francisco nine weeks later, on June 25, 1945, the 850 delegates unanimously adopted the UN Charter, which they signed the next day at the neighboring Veteran’s Theater. (Poland signed soon afterward.). Signatories declared themselves united “in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.” 11

The United Nations Charter was adopted in the first municipally owned performance hall in the country.

Twenty-six years earlier, in the aftermath of the conflict that H.G. Wells had called the “war to end war,” a campaign to recognize the sacrifice of veterans and civilians alike had been integrated, in San Francisco, into a simultaneous movement to create a cultural center that could rival those in eastern cities. The resulting War Memorial complex comprises an opera house and a theater (originally the Veteran’s, now the Herbst) joined by a grand courtyard. Funded by voter-approved bond, the state-of-the-art facilities cost $6 million in 1919, equivalent to $114.5 million today; the paired Beaux-Arts buildings were the first municipally owned performance halls in the country, and journalists urged San Franciscans to buy the bonds as a patriotic duty. 12 Even so, financing and construction difficulties delayed completion, and The War Memorial Opera House opened on October 15, 1932, with a performance of Tosca. Soprano Claudia Muzio, who had first sung for the company in the late 1920s, was lured back to the stage by director Gaetano Merola, and Act I was broadcast on local radio. Static notwithstanding, the recording still soars.

Black and white photograph of wooden San Francisco apartment building on steep hill.
1010 Montgomery Street — the building in which Allen Ginsberg wrote substantial sections of his poem Howl, leading to one of San Francisco’s most influential obscenity trials. Photographed in 2015.

Private Residence, 1010 Montgomery Street

In the summer of 1955, having been fired from his advertising-market-research job, 29-year-old Allen Ginsberg sat down in his apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street and wrote sections I and III of his first major poem, Howl. Section II was completed in the fall of 1955 in Berkeley. Ginsberg’s sometime mentor William Carlos Williams gave him a letter of introduction to San Francisco Renaissance luminary Kenneth Rexroth, and this led to the first public reading of Howl at Fillmore Street’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955.

The Six Gallery reading inspired Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication of Howl as the fourth volume in City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series. Collaborating with London publisher Villiers, City Lights produced an edition of 520 copies, with an introduction by Williams. The books were confiscated upon arrival from England by San Francisco Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee, on grounds that the work was indecent. Ferlinghetti prudently contacted the ACLU, and U.S. Customs dropped its case. But on June 3, 1957, an undercover SFPD officer arrested City Lights Books manager Shigeyoshi Murao — from whom the officer had just purchased a copy of Howl — on charges of disseminating indecent material. 13 Ferlinghetti was arrested soon after on charges of lewdly printing obscene material. Ginsberg, in Morocco, was reported to be elated.

Ferlinghetti was arrested on charges of lewdly printing obscene material. Ginsberg, in Morocco, was reported to be elated.

The case was defended by Jake Ehrlich (with assistance from ACLU lawyers) and charges were dropped against Murao early in the proceedings. Ehrlich was well known in San Francisco courtrooms. A famously dapper man, he had defended celebrities from Billie Holiday to Howard Hughes, as well as a host of murderers facing execution, none of whom were sent to their deaths. Acquitting Ferlinghetti of all charges, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled Ginsberg’s work not to be indecent, asking in his written opinion, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism?” 14 The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “The judge’s opinion was hailed with applause and cheers from a packed audience that offered the most fantastic collection of beards, turtlenecked shirts and Italian hairdos ever to grace the grimy precincts of the Hall of Justice.” 15

Following Horn’s decision, Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller and Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928) by D.H. Lawrence were finally published in the United States, and precedent was set for contested-speech cases to follow — from prosecutions of participants in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement to arguments against the Meese Report, a.k.a. The Final Report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (1986). “Angelheaded hipsters … who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” indeed! Ginsberg later wrote, “In publishing Howl, I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in the U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy.” 16

Black and white photograph of stone park gates and HAIGHT street sign.
701 Stanyan Street — entrance to Golden Gate Park from the Haight-Ashbury district, leading towards Hippie Hill. Photographed in 2015.

Haight Street at Golden Gate Park, 701 Stanyan Street

By 1965, political-theater outfit The San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded in 1959 as an outgrowth of the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, was losing its more activist members. A splinter group formed a radical anarchist collective they called the Diggers, appropriating the name of a 17th-century sect of British agrarians who envisioned a society freed from the domination of money and private property. San Francisco’s Diggers took these ideals and injected contemporary concepts learned from the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements. Distributing free food in Golden Gate Park, opening a Free Store and free medical clinic on Haight Street, publishing agitprop leaflets, and undertaking performative “happenings,” the Diggers advocated love and generosity in a world they saw being destroyed by racism, capitalism, and the imperialist war in Vietnam.

Alongside the Diggers, a local music scene was coalescing around bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Warlocks, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Jefferson Airplane. Skeptical about mainstream acclaim, these groups played free shows in the park, on the street, and in cheaply rented halls. The Mime Troupe was then being managed by a young man named Bill Graham. But in 1966, he too left the theater company to reopen two venerable San Francisco venues, the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Theater, where he invited the esoterically named acts he knew to play regular shows. Word spread about “psychedelic” music, and American youth began to seek out the new San Francisco sounds.

On October 6, 1967, the Diggers staged an event they called a funeral for ‘the Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media.’

1966 also saw two Acid Tests organized in the city by Merry Prankster Ken Kesey — earnest attempts to expand human consciousness by way of LSD used in communal settings. Shoehorned between the Acid Tests, the Digger’s Human Be-In was held in Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967, a free extravaganza of music, performance, poetry readings, and acid-taking. This was the occasion of Timothy Leary’s first invitation to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

By the end of the summer of ’67, the Haight-Ashbury social experiment was largely over, although more than 100,000 young people had arrived seeking their part in it. Hard drugs, rape and other violence, and the dilution of the instigators’ original subversive goals led the Diggers (by now on their way to greener pastures) to stage a departing event on October 6 that they called a funeral for “the Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media.” By the end of the year, Charles Manson arrived in the neighborhood recruiting followers for what would become his “family” before moving on to Los Angeles and the Spahn Ranch.

Joan Didion famously wrote that many people she knew believed the ’60s ended the day of the Manson murders on Cielo Drive. That may be true for those who had been old enough to experience the mayhem in the media landscape of the era, as fellow travelers in a countercultural milieu. But, from my vantage today, I would argue on the side of the Diggers. The Diggers hoped for a communitarian future grounded in mutual aid, a vision that mass-media culture would work again to kill when it arose in my generation, in the punk scene. Having been drawn to San Francisco precisely by this Digger ethic — though I did not know it as such then — I watched the city dispatch the punks, artists, and leftists to welcome tech dominion, the mass media that has massacred all.

Black and white photograph of two-story concrete building with theater marquee reading "Mitchell Brothers: Where the Wild Girls Are"
895 O’Farrell Street — site of the the theater where the Mitchell Brothers made pathbreaking pornographic films in the 1960s and ’70s. Photographed in 2015.

O’Farrell Theater, 895 O’Farrell Street

Opened on July 4, 1969, on the site of a former Pontiac dealership, the O’Farrell Theater became the epicenter of a business that significantly altered sexual mores in the United States. As the headquarters of Artie and Jim Mitchell’s pornographic-movie-and-live-sex-show empire, the theater would witness many “firsts.”

Innovations included the first safe-sex porn movie; the first intensive marketing of porn on VHS cassettes; and the first explicit fusion of pornography and political punditry.

The O’Farrell opened as an X-rated cinema and counterculture movie house. But soon thereafter, the Mitchell Brothers decided to mimic the Condor Club in the North Beach district, where in 1964 a dancer named Carol Doda had broken taboos on topless performance. They reinvented their theater as a strip club, and ended screenings of nonpornographic films. All the while, Jim continued to make increasingly unorthodox movies in the studios upstairs, utilizing his SF State film-school education. Behind the Green Door, the brothers’ first influential project, was made for $65,000 and released in December 1972. The star was Marylin Chambers, whose previous claim to fame was having been the Ivory Soap girl on detergent packaging. This notoriety (“99 and 44/100 percent impure”) carried the film to gross more than $1 million in theatrical release. It was the first widely exhibited hardcore movie.

The Mitchell Brothers parlayed their success into further innovations: the first safe-sex porn movie; the first intensive marketing and sales of pornography on VHS cassettes; and the first explicit fusion of pornography and political punditry, with coverage of 1984 Democratic National Convention by underground cartoonists working from the theater’s second-floor studio. The Mitchells faced anti-vice campaigns and myriad obscenity suits, all of which they won. By bringing explicit sex into the mainstream, they opened a door for overt sexualization in U.S. media, from advertising campaigns to the increasingly permissive depiction of sexuality in Hollywood film. Unfortunately, even as they were changing national attitudes toward sex, the brothers were also logging firsts in precedent-setting exploitive-labor cases filed against them by dancers. (Jim was sued in 1994 by dancers at the theater; he lost, and paid, to the tune of $2.85 million in back wages. 17) On February 27, 1991, Artie was slain by Jim. Jim died of a heart attack on July 12, 2007. The theater continues to operate, managed by Cinema Seven, the brothers’ old production company recast in a new role.

Black and white photograph of recently built brick post office.
1849 Geary Boulevard— U.S. Post Office occupying the former site of the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ, founded by Jim Jones. Photographed in 2015.

United States Post Office, 1849 Geary Boulevard

The People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ was founded in 1955 by the charismatic Marxist and Methodist pastor Jim Jones. In 1971, Jones moved his church from Redwood Valley in Northern California to a former Masonic Temple on Geary Street, next door to Bill Graham’s famed Fillmore Theater. At its height, the People’s Temple claimed as many as 20,000 members throughout California. This figure is certainly exaggerated, but Jones’ organization did gain statewide influence, due to his ability to marshal thousands of members to canvass for politicians whom he favored; George Moscone, who was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1975, was one beneficiary. By 1976, Jones was openly admitting his atheism, as well as his intention to use religion to foment Marxist social change, even as media scrutiny based on reports of abuse at the Temple pushed him to relocate as many church members as possible to a socialist-agrarian utopia in the jungles of Guyana.

At its height, the People’s Temple claimed as many as 20,000 members throughout California; thousands canvassed for politicians favored by Jim Jones.

In 1978, California Representative Leo Ryan traveled to Jonestown with a delegation intent on investigating abuse claims. He was assassinated by Temple security, along with three journalists and a defecting Temple member, as they attempted to leave the commune. The following day, November 18, 1978, Jones led 918 Temple members to drink cyanide-laced grape Flavor-Aid. This would be, until September 11, 2001, the largest loss of civilian lives in a single event in U.S. history. The stunning yellow-brick-and-terracotta Scottish Rite Temple that had housed Jones’s congregation was one of several buildings on this stretch of Geary Boulevard to be grievously damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989; it was  demolished shortly thereafter, along with the neighboring building. The post office on the site was built on the combined lots in the late 1990s and is listed at 1849 Geary Boulevard, erasing even the 1859 Geary address of the People’s Temple.

Black and white photograph of storefront occupied by Human Rights Campaign, on ground floor of two-story Victorian building.
575 Castro Street — site of Castro Camera, Harvey Milk’s camera shop, which was also the seat of his political power and an epicenter of the gay liberation movement. Photographed in 2015.

Castro Camera, 575 Castro Street

One day in 1973, Harvey Milk and his partner Scott Smith took a roll of film to be developed at a local shop, and it was ruined. 18 In response, they opened a camera shop at 575 Castro Street that quickly became a social center in the neighborhood. Milk had been born on Long Island and served as a dive instructor in the Navy before resigning in the face of questions about his sexuality. He returned to New York and taught, worked on Wall Street, and took gigs as a production designer on Broadway before departing for San Francisco late in 1972 to live as an out gay man.

From his base at Castro Camera, Milk became increasing involved in local politics, initially on behalf of local gay merchants. Motivated by disgust at the difficulties faced by gay people — including harassment by the city’s Franchise Tax Board — as well as the revelations of the Watergate scandal, he ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s equivalent of city council) in 1973. He lost. But he threw himself into community organizing, especially in the service of gay rights. After narrowly losing again in 1975, Milk was appointed to the Permit Appeals Board by Mayor George Moscone. In 1977, Milk ran a third time for Supervisor. Winning his seat by 30 percent of votes cast and becoming one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country, he quickly became popular among a wide range of constituents.

Harvey Milk recorded a message in case he were to be killed: ‘If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.’

As Supervisor, Milk received daily death threats and he recorded a message in case he were to be killed, saying, in part, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” 19 On November 27, 1978, an ex-cop from a conservative San Francisco neighborhood named Dan White, who had been thwarted in a bid to regain a Supervisor seat he had resigned, snuck into City Hall through a basement window. He assassinated first George Moscone, and then Harvey Milk. Board President Dianne Feinstein saw White pass her office, heard shots, and smelled gunpowder. She found Milk’s body and subsequently identified both men for the coroner. Feinstein recalls discovery of Milk’s death as the single hardest moment of her life.20

That night, thousands assembled in the Castro with lighted candles, and silently marched to City Hall. The mass murder-suicide in Jonestown had occurred just days before, and the city was in shock. White turned himself in at the precinct where he once worked, and six months later was tried and convicted on manslaughter charges, having asserted in his defense that consumption of junk food had impaired his judgement. (He served a portion of his reduced sentence and was paroled; shortly after that, he committed suicide.) The notorious “Twinkie defense” fueled what became known as the White Night Riots on May 21, 1979. Militant unrest spread from City Hall to the Castro, where police beat people with night sticks at the Elephant Walk Bar. More than 100 civilians and 61 cops were hospitalized.

A capsule beneath the sidewalk at 575 Castro Street, outside the storefront that was once Castro Camera, now holds a portion of Milk’s ashes. But his bravery, and his work, transcend local importance. His spirit and the gifts he left the world live on in every queer person alive today.

Black and white photograph of three-story dingbat-style apartment building.
1040 Ashbury Street — home of Ken Horne, the first person in the U.S. recognized as having an AIDS infection, and Bobby Campbell, the first person to publicly acknowledge their AIDS infection. Horne and Campbell lived in the same apartment, albeit three years apart. Both succumbed to the infection. Photographed in 2015.

Private Residence, 1040 Ashbury Street

Quietly but steadily in the late 1970s, an insidious infection was moving undetected in the U.S., probably first in New York City and very soon thereafter in San Francisco. In investigative hindsight, it’s likely that the virus later known as AIDS arrived in this country as early as 1966. A retrovirus with a two-to-five-year incubation period, it appeared to target gay men and manifested in a bewildering number of previously rare opportunistic infections. In April 1980, San Francisco resident Ken Horne became the first recognized case of AIDS infection in the country, though the cause of his Kaposi’s sarcoma was not yet understood.

In October 1981, Bobbi Campbell, Jr. became the sixteenth San Francisco resident to be diagnosed with the still-unknown disease, and in January 1982, in an essay in the San Francisco Sentinel, Campbell announced his illness. He was the first person to publicly do so, and for a period was known as the “AIDS Poster Boy.” In 1983, Campbell cofounded one of the first AIDS activist groups, People With AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement, which became a model for advocacy groups nationwide, including the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. The burgeoning epidemic was considered a “gay plague” and political will to fund response remained anemic throughout the Reagan Administration.

Ken Horne died of AIDS on November 11, 1981, and Bobbi Campbell, Jr. died of AIDS on August 15, 1984. By coincidence, both passed away in the same apartment.

In time, as straight (or apparently straight) people perceived to be of higher societal value than gay men fell ill and died, the federal government began to take the crisis seriously. In January 1991, the CDC reported 100,777 deaths attributed to AIDS since its clinical description in 1981. 21 Tens of thousands more would die before the administration of George H. W. Bush funded research and support at levels appropriate to the public-health crisis, starting with the Ryan White Care Act, passed in 1990 and named for a young, straight, White, midwestern hemophiliac who died of HIV-related illness after receiving an infected transfusion.  These interventions came too late for Horne and Campbell; Ken Horne died on November 11, 1981, and Bobbi Campbell, Jr. died on August 15, 1984.

By coincidence, both passed away in the same apartment. 22 It’s unlikely that the two men knew each other well, if at all; 1040 Ashbury would have been passed from occupant to occupant along a rental grapevine that allied folks relied on then, and still do. The unit is located between the Castro and Haight-Ashbury districts, San Francisco’s epicenters of nationally important gay and youth identity movements.

Today, more than 700,000 Americans have died of HIV-related illnesses; almost 1.2 million people in the U.S. live with HIV infections, and the country gains more than 35,000 new HIV infections annually. But without the pioneering work of queer activist groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP (playwright Larry Kramer was pivotal in the formation of both) death rates would surely have been higher in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The nation’s healthcare is still a disaster, but we have — mostly — mastered sanitation, public hygiene, and a great number of communicable diseases. Most recently, the revolutionary transformations that AIDS activists forced at the FDA and CDC have helped to curtail death rates in our current Covid pandemic, by allowing for the rapid development and deployment of a vaccines.  Our debt to these uncompromising queers only increases.

Black and white photograph of glass walled skyscraper lobby.
101 California Street — the ITEL Building, site of a 1993 mass shooting at the law offices of Pettit & Martin. Photographed in 2015.

ITEL Building, 101 California Street

Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee in 1982, the building commonly known as 101 California is a 48-story glass-and-granite-skinned tower, comprising 1.2 million square feet of office space in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. In 1993, the 34th floor was occupied by the law offices of Pettit & Martin.

On July 1st at 2:57 p.m., Gian Luigi Ferri entered these offices armed with a Norinco NP44 pistol and two Tec-9 semiautomatic pistols, with triggers modified to approximate fully automatic fire. 23 He began a shooting spree, moving down through building’s stairwells while continuing to fire at office workers. Before killing himself, he murdered eight and wounded six. Ferri had been a Pettit & Martin client in 1981 (seeking advice on real-estate transactions in the midwest), but had had no connection to the firm in the twelve intervening years.

The rampage at the ITEL Building came months after the Cleveland School massacre in Stockton, California. These attacks provided impetus for the Assault Weapons Ban.

The rampage at the ITEL Building came just months after the Cleveland School massacre in Stockton, California, in which a man described as a “drifter” opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, killing five and wounding dozens more on a playground filled with elementary-school kids. All those killed were children of Cambodian or Vietnamese refugees. Taken together, these attacks provided impetus for passage (on September 13, 1994) of the federal Assault Weapons Ban. Sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ban disallowed the sale and ownership of large-capacity magazines as well as a wide range of assault weapons. In the wake of the shocking mass murders, the legislation enjoyed strong public support — with the exception of the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association, with whom the AWB was predictably unpopular.

The AWB expired by sunset provision on September 13, 2004; it was possessed of so many loopholes that its long-term effects on anything but political polarization remain debatable. Today there is little Federal regulation of assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, and such legislation is left to states to determine. Pettit & Martin did not survive the shootings, and dissolved in 1995.

Black and white photograph of brutalist office building.
611 Folsom Street — the AT&T Building, where a sharply contested digital surveillance node is located in Room 641A. Photographed in 2015.

Study Group 3 Secure Room (Room 641A), 611 Folsom Street

In 2006, an AT&T technician with 22 years of service, Mark Klein, provided documents to the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco describing the installation of a secure room, Room 641A, in the SBC Communications Building at 611 Folsom Street. 24 This building had long been home to telephone and internet switching equipment serving west coast customers. The secure room, which measured about 24 by 48 feet, was accessible only by National Security Agency personnel and housed a fiber-optic beam splitter that created duplicates of browser searches and other internet traffic on AT&T trunk lines, as well as copies of email to and from AT&T customers — all without benefit of FISA warrants. Room 641A, moreover, does not appear to have been a unique installation. In 2018, The Intercept mapped similar facilities in New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Seattle. 25 In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we have to assume that facilities like this remain active.

This history is available elsewhere, in more detail. But you, reader, aren’t elsewhere; you are here. And my experience is that, for many (perhaps most), these are forgotten or overlooked realities. I have yet to show this piece to someone who doesn’t say, basically, “I had no idea” — about 611 Folsom in particular and this system of surveillance in general. So let’s consider some of the mechanics:

The secure room housed a fiber-optic beam splitter that created duplicates of browser searches and other internet traffic, including emails to and from AT&T customers.

In 2006, the NSA began to review cloned data using a Narus STA 6400 “Semantic Traffic Analyzer” installed in Room 641A. The 6400, as Klein told the EFF, is capable of analyzing ten billion bits of data per second; presumably advances in chip design have since allowed for even more powerful surveillance and analysis. This equipment moved the NSA closer to realization of goals that had been framed by another project called the “Total Information Awareness” program — sponsored in 2002 by the Defense Advanced Research Project, or DARPA — whose motto was “Knowledge Is Power.” Klein’s letter to the EFF explains,

I wrote the following document in 2004, when it became clear to me that AT&T, at the behest of the National Security Agency, had illegally installed secret computer gear designed to spy on internet traffic. At the time I thought this was an outgrowth of the notorious “Total Information Awareness” program which was attacked by defenders of civil liberties. 26

According to The New York Times, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, director of the TIA (and infamous as principal architect of the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan years), liked to describe his program as providing authorities “instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant.” 27

As Klein’s letter notes, the TIA attracted outcry, and Congress suspended it in 2003. But the government appears merely to have moved the program’s constituent parts to other, still-more opaque agencies while scuttling or scaling back protections put in place during the Poindexter era. (These included use of a “privacy appliance” that would “strip any identifiers from the information — such as names or addresses — so that government miners could see only patterns.” 28) In 2006, TIA was renamed Research Development and Experimental Collaboration; NSA, CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Counterintelligence Field Activity Group all had access nodes on the RDEC system. 29

After thorough searching, I can find no indication that these redistributed programs or accesses have been changed. In fact, a letter dated April 13, 2021, sent to the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the CIA by Senate Intelligence Committee members Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrch, appears to acknowledge the continued warrantless collection of bulk data. The letter as made available to the public is heavily redacted, but it’s clear that it asks for expedited declassified review of a CIA bulk-data collection program. 30 In February of this year, the Senators received the information they requested, which reportedly describes CIA operations similar to those of the TIA. The New York Times explained that, while the agency responded to the senators’ request, “the CIA kept censored the nature of the data” that it has been scraping up. 31 So, we know they’re still doing it, but we can’t know quite “it” is. When it comes to public debate about American domestic bulk-surveillance programs — much less disclosure of these programs’ existence — the dissolution of TIA has been a Pyrrhic victory.

This history is available elsewhere, in more detail. But you, reader, aren’t elsewhere; you are here.

I have little personal connection to 611 Folsom other than having skated its plaza in the ’80s, before planters were installed to stop such delinquency; in the age of film, I bought darkroom chemicals at a photo-supply store near the building too. Sure, all my data moved through this installation, and as a photographer and activist who has been subject to state surveillance in the past, this gives me pause. My opprobrium, however, arises not from personal slight or anxiety, but from disgust.

I’ll leave you with two quotes worth remembering: Stewart Baker, previously NSA general counsel, is on record as having said, “Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content. … [It’s] embarrassing how predictable we are as human beings.” This statement was referenced by Georgetown law professor David Cole in a 2014 Johns Hopkins-sponsored debate, to which the former director of both the NSA and CIA, Michael Hayden, replied, “We kill people based on metadata.” 32

Black and white photograph of ornate Beaux-Arts federal building.
95 Seventh Street — James R. Brown United States Courthouse, seat of the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Photographed in 2017.

James R. Browning United States Courthouse, 95 Seventh Street

The Judicial Circuits Act of 1866 restructured the federal court system into what we know today, and created the Federal Ninth Circuit Court, replacing the U.S. Circuit Court of California — which had itself been established in 1855 to address the growing need for a dedicated court in the west. This original California court had been headquartered on Battery Street, but soon after the new court’s creation, that building burned. The Ninth Circuit’s functions scattered to various temporary offices downtown. Finally, in 1891, a site was purchased on Seventh Street, “South of the Slot” (i.e. the cable-car and streetcar tracks on Market Street), in an area notable for the dirt and noise of tanneries, rail yards, blacksmiths, steelyards, and slums.

The courthouse has operated since the 1890s, though it was damaged in the earthquake of 1989; in 2016, cases were heard here concerning Trump’s travel ban.

William Martin Aiken and James Knox Taylor, principal architects at the Department of the Treasury, completed plans for a magnificent Beaux Arts structure that opened to the public on August 29, 1905. Housing the court and a post office, it was one of only two buildings south of Market that survived the 1906 earthquake. The courthouse operated without interruption until it was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989; it reopened in 1997 after a retrofit that met and exceeded then-current seismic standards and modernized outmoded electrical, communications, plumbing, HVAC, and elevator systems, all while restoring the building’s antique finishes inside and out.

Today the Ninth District comprises California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawai‘i, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hears a substantially larger number of cases than the next-most-heavily-scheduled district appeals court; it also sees fewer reversals at the Supreme Court than other districts. It was the Ninth Circuit that, in 2016, heard cases concerning the Trump administration’s attempts to institute a travel ban affecting principally Muslim populations, and the withholding of federal funds from cities considered by the White House to be harboring undocumented immigrants. (In June 2018, a sharply divided Supreme Court upheld a more carefully drafted ban.)

Once or twice, I stood in a friend’s painting studio, in a building next door to 95 Seventh Street, and looked down into the court’s rear garage-entry as prisoners were brought in. “It’s weird that what’s going on down there has such consequences and everyone just passes right on by.” Such thoughts, it occurs to me, informed my desire to take on this project of indexing some of San Francisco’s quietly distinguished and darkly legendary sites.

When we traverse landscapes — regardless of our awareness of the antecedent mists we flow through — we time-travel.

Because the fact is that when we traverse landscapes, urban or otherwise — and regardless of our awareness of the antecedent mists we flow through — we time-travel. Such experiences (and this acknowledgement of those experiences) depend neither on insight nor on novelty, but merely on inexorable circumstance. We cannot live apart from the histories that create present conditions, even as histories of place are easy to neglect in workaday surroundings. Sites like the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals are not, by nature, ordinary. This is one of the ten highest courts in the land, penultimate in one of three co-equal branches of national government, and necessarily responding to and shaping questions of national character. Yet far more mundane locations are sometimes raised to similarly influential roles. When we fail to recognize these socially consequential yet visually unremarkable places, we risk recording only an officially recognized past, in which disagreeable histories are forsaken, leaving aside hard truths for the sake of convenience — or worse, in order to disenfranchise societal out-groups. And if we continue to do this, we risk mapping out an intolerable future of reliving past failures.

In the face of this pitfall, this rift in memory poised to suck up our experiences and destabilize our understandings, we can work to educate ourselves about, and to more carefully and actively integrate, the influential pasts that we inherit. For if these photographs do nothing else, I hope they demonstrate our ability as individuals, or as small groups of often marginalized people, to make and re-make history.

  1. Mike Quin, The Big Strike (Olema, CA: Olema Publishing Company, 1949), 58.
  2. The threshold measurement of one sixteenth appears to have been championed by Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen, chief of the Wartime Civil Control Administration, who declared — when asked about interning orphans — “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp.” (Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II, Holt & Co., 2015) See also Henry E. Chen, “The Blood of Our Boys Must Be Kept Clean: Blood and Militarism in Colonial Hawai‘i” (Cornell Historical Society, 2018), which indicates that the one-sixteenth rule was “sometimes enforced.”
  3. John L. DeWitt, “Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942“ (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943), 34.
  4. Gladys Hansen, introduction (May 1998) to “War Hits the Farmlands” by John G. Brucato in The San Francisco News (March 9, 1942), “Internment of San Francisco Japanese,” Museum of the City of San Francisco.
  5. See Sarah Wheeler, “Shikata Ga Nai: The Racialisation and Systematic Targeting of Los Angeles’ Japanese Population Prior to Pearl Harbor,” The Toro Historical Review, vol. 3, no. 1 (2017), 13.
  6. “Japanese American Internment,” Smithsonian American Art Museum (pdf), 2015.
  7. See entry for “Thurman, Howard” in The Martin Luther King, Jr. Encyclopedia at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.
  8. “By 1949, the church numbered about 285 members, with whites about sixty percent of the total; a few years later, whites made up about half, and blacks about forty percent, of its 345 members. Some congregants envisioned the church as a center for social activism and protest, more so than was ever the case with Thurman. After an initial period of co-pastoring with Alfred Fisk, the church became Thurman’s own, a kind of trial project for his ideas.” Paul Harvey, “Howard Thurman and the Arc of History in San Francisco,” Boom California, August 22, 2018.
  9. “Thurman, Howard,” MLK Encyclopedia. See also Paul Harvey, “This Theologian Helped MLK See the Value of Nonviolence,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 12, 2018; and “Howard Thurman Chronology,” The Howard Thurman Papers Project at Boston University School of Theology.
  10. Howard Thurman, Deep Is the Hunger: Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness, first published 1948 (Richmond, IN: Friends Unlimited Press, 2000), 25.
  11. Memorandum from the President’s Secretary (Grace G. Tully) to the Secretary of State,” December 30, 1941. The Avalon Project, Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale School of Law.
  12. Leta E. Miller, “Opera as Politics,” California History, vol. 92, no. 4 (2015), 17-19,; “Teetering Toscas, Bulletproof Toscas, Historic Toscas: Five Stories of Giacomo Puccini’s Masterpiece on the San Francisco Opera Stage,” SFOpera Blog. The buildings were designed by Arthur Brown, Jr., architect of San Francisco’s City Hall, and G. Albert Lansburgh, designer of the city’s Orpheum Theater.
  13. Instigating the Howl trial — March 25, 1957,” The Allen Ginsberg Project.
  14. Clayton W. Horn, “Verdict in the case of The People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti“ (1957).
  15. Reporter David Perlman’s 1957 article is quoted in Peter Hartlaub, “How the Beats helped build San Francisco’s progressive future,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 4, 2015.
  16. Quoted in Ann Charters, “Ginsberg, Allen” (2000), American National Biography,
  17. Julie N. Lynem, “O’Farrell Settles With 500 Dancers,” SFGate, July 10, 1998.
  18. Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), 65.
  19. Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street, vii.
  20. This comment has been widely reported; see for example “Feinstein: It Was the Hardest Moment of My Life,” NBC Bay Area, November 26, 2008.
  21. Centers for Disease Control, MMWR Weekly, vol. 40, no. 3 (January 25, 1991), 41-44.
  22. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1988), 472.
  23. Rene Ruiz, “Merrill v. Navegar: A Soon to Be Reversed Aberration, or a Trend Towards Gun Manufacturer Liability?,” University of Miami Law Review, vol. 55, no. 12 (2000).
  24. “NSA Timeline 1791-2015: January 1, 2003 — Narus Surveillance Equipment Installed in Secret Room,” Electronic Frontier Foundation. See also Russell Shaw, “These photos illustrate AT&T’s phone, Internet tracking activities,” ZDNet, May 23, 2006.
  25. Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke, “The Wire Tap Rooms: The NSA’s Hidden Spy Hubs in Eight U.S. Cities,” The Intercept, June 25, 2018.
  26. Klein quoted in Shaw, “These photos illustrate AT&T’s phone, Internet tracking activities.”
  27. John Markoff, “Pentagon Plans a Computer System That Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans,” The New York Times, November 09, 2002.
  28. Shane Harris and Tim Naftali, “Tinker, Tailor, Miner, Spy: Why the NSA’s snooping is unprecedented in scale and scope,” Slate, January 3, 2006.
  29. On the transition from TIA to RDEC, see Shane Harris, “TIA Lives On,” National Journal, February 23, 2006 (via the Internet Archive), and Shane Harris, “Two controversial counter-terror programs share parallels,” Government Executive, June 160, 2006.
  30. See the letter at Ron Wyden’s website.
  31. Charlie Savage, “C.I.A. Is Collecting in Bulk Certain Data Affecting Americans, Senators Warn,” The New York Times, February 10, 2022.
  32. David Cole, “We Kill People Based on Metadata,” The New York Review of Books, May 10, 2014; video of the debate is available on YouTube.
J. Matt, “San Francisco: An Index of Influence,” Places Journal, April 2022. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.