Monthly Archives: May 2011

Essay: Who Remembers Us?

History is made by everyone who is born into this world. The moment you take that first breath, you become part of the story. Most everything you do will affect someone in someway, down to the person on the street asking for money. Everyone has a share in this story, but not everyone is remembered for their part.

Recorded history often forgets the little person’s role in the legend. It doesn’t seem to care about the man who worked hard and somehow played a small part in keeping civilization alive. History ignores the woman who had a family and worked diligently to teach them about compassion, ethics, and responsibility. The teacher, garbage collector, nurse, bus driver, sales clerk, small business owner, construction worker, minister, and day laborer all have an impact on our society. Unfortunately, they are not all remembered.

While researching the history of San Francisco, it becomes apparent that those who made the most money are the ones who are remembered. The ones who were the biggest scoundrels and scammed the most people are the ones who are remembered. Often they are self-memorialized in a structure they built with their name on it to remind everyone of who they were and that they made a lot of money. These buildings are like giant, ornate tombstones scattered throughout the city.

Those who were supposedly the biggest saints are also the ones who are remembered. It is interesting to note that sometimes a figure can go from being the biggest scoundrel to the most pious of saints based solely on how they lived their life after they made their fortune or how they wrote their will.

But what about the common person? They are remembered on in their families for a couple of generations, and then they are a short sentence attached to a photo in a dusty album. Where is the museum to the men and women who really built this country with their hands and not their pocketbooks?

It is fun to read about the “great” people in history and marvel at all the awesome things they did and structures they built, but not at the moment. Instead, let’s try to draw today’s inspiration from the ordinary people who have gone before us. The common men and women who contributed to the story and legend that is history but never got their name in the newspaper. The ones who made it possible for the “historic” characters in history to achieve their goals and build great buildings.



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Socialism in the City

When you visit Coit Tower, spend some time looking at the murals surrounding the hallway inside the structure.  At first glance, you may just bypass them and concentrate on the views and getting into the elevator, but the murals themselves are an amazing attraction.  Created in 1933 as one of the first public works projects, the California School of Fine Arts faculty and staff worked hard to create paintings that would reflect life in California.  There are cowboys, 49ers, fruit pickers, industrial workers, etc.

During this time, Rockefeller Center removed Diego Rivera’s artwork because he had painted in an image of Lenin.  The artists who were working on Coit Tower protested and painted in several leftist images to show solidarity with Rivera.  These paintings created quite a stir, and one of the pictures entitled “Workers of the World Unite” was removed before the opening.

Today, you can still see the socialist influence in the murals that line the hallways of Coit Tower.  You can see it in the man who is pulling Karl Marx’s Das Kapital off a bookshelf, or the man who is portrayed reading a newspaper with the headline talking about Rivera’s artwork being removed from Rockefeller Center.  It is also in the painting of a man who is reaching for the Daily Worker from a newsstand, and in the scene of a poor family panning for gold as a rich family looks on.  In addition, closely check out the industrial paintings, especially the one showing a sea of diverse workmen joining together.

It is definitely worth going to Coit Tower for the phenomenal views, but also take some time to really study the murals.  You won’t be disappointed.



Coit Tower Murals, May, 2011 5

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Filed under Coit Tower, San Francisco, San Francisco Art, San Francisco Entertainment

Bay to Breakers: The Event

Bay to Breakers is definitely something you have to experience to believe. It has to be the largest costume party in the world. Thousands and thousands (55,000 plus) showed up to run and walk their way across the city from the bay to the ocean. Costumes included Angry Birds, I’m with Charlie Sheen girlfriends, underwear gnomes and regular gnomes, witches, Scooby Do, Napoleon Dynamite, fairies, etc. It is so San Francisco, and absolutely fabulous. Happy 100th anniversary to the Bay to Breakers 12K race. 

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Bay to Breakers

Wikimedia Commons:  Geoffrey Weber

It is finally here. The 100th anniversary of Bay to Breakers will be this Sunday from 7:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. This is a 12k race from the San Francisco Bay to the ocean breakers, and it was established as a way to raise the city’s spirits after the tragic 1906 earthquake and fire. It is the oldest foot race in the world that has never changed its course. During W.W. II, attendance dropped to below 50 participants, but it has continued to grow. This year they are expecting 55,000 registered entrants and an untold number of bandits who “crash” the race. In 1986, the race had 110,000 participants, enough to make into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest footrace in the world.

This is not your mother’s footrace. Over the years it has evolved with a San Francisco feel and vibe. When you go and view the race tomorrow, don’t be surprised by the large number of runners/walkers/drunk crawlers who are wearing costumes. You may see Egyptian princes, super heroes, pink gorillas, spacemen, and any number of people dressed up. In addition, you may also see those who declined to wear a costume, or a running suit, or anything at all for that matter. Yes, they must be cold.

Stay tuned to this blog for pictures of the event. G-rated pictures of course.



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Mary Ellen Pleasant: The Mother of Civil Rights in California

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Before coming to San Francisco, Mary Ellen had a very eventful life. This African-American activist was a financial backer of the Abolitionist movement and played an active role in the Underground Railroad. 

Her second husband, James Smith, was an African American man who was passing as white. He had already freed his slaves, and the two of them worked hard in the abolitionist movement. After his death, she began a marriage/partnership with John James Pleasant which eventually led them to New Orleans where she became fast friends with Marie Laveau’s husband and often took advice from the great voodoo priestess herself.

The California Gold Rush is what eventually brought James and Mary Ellen to San Francisco. The possibilities for wealth were limitless.  When she stepped off the boat at Yerba Buena Island, she registered herself as white, and as such landed jobs managing some of the more exclusive eateries in the city.  While performing her duties, she often overheard tidbits of financial gossip and used them to invest wisely and grow her personal wealth. By 1885, Thomas, who found success in quicksilver, and Mary Ellen had created a 30 million dollar fortune. Unfortunately, Thomas did not live long after this, passing away in 1887 of diabetes. Instead of staying at home and mourning the death of her husband, Mary Ellen hit the trail with John Brown and for the next two years worked tirelessly to attain civil rights for African Americans.

San Francisco called her back in 1879, and this time she came out as a black woman. The African-Americans in San Francisco knew of Mary Ellen’s true race all along, but very few white people knew this secret. When she came back and declared herself black, there were some who were very shocked.  After her return to the city, She fought a series of court cases around civil rights for African Americans and often won.

Mary Ellen worked hard all her life for human rights and a better life for everyone, but she did not have a spotless reputation. There were always rumors surrounding her, including that she was the daughter of a voodoo priestess and a Virginia governor. Her relationship with Thomas and Teresa Bell did not help. Teresa was Mary Ellen’s friend and business associate. When Teresa got married, Mary Ellen built her a huge $100,000 mansion as a wedding present and then lived in it with the wedded couple. The ornate residence and formal gardens occupied a large space at 1661 Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter. The exact arrangement of their living conditions was not openly discussed, but it appears that Mary Ellen ran the household, including all of the financial obligations. Soon, Thomas and Teresa had a falling out, and on October 15th, 1892 while Thomas was suffering from an illness, it is reported that in the middle of the night he called out “Where am I?” and crashed to the basement floor from a second story landing, dying soon after. At the time, it was believed to be an accident.

Shortly after the death of Thomas, Mary Ellen and Teresa found themselves in court fighting over his estate. The peculiar circumstances of the marriage and relationship were alluded to in court, and the rumors started to fly in the newspapers. Teresa set out on a campaign to destroy Mary Ellen’s name by calling her a voodoo priestess, a baby stealer, a baby eater, and a multiple murderess. Teresa was successful in her smear campaign and eventually won the house and evicted Mary Ellen.

Probably most disturbing to Mary Ellen about the whole ordeal is that Teresa was able to tag her publicly with the title of “Mammy.”  For the rest of her life she was often referred to, especially in the press, as “Mammy” Pleasant, a title which she abhorred.

She passed away on January 4th, 1904.  She was a great woman of action who used her success to help many people.  RIP Mary Ellen Pleasant, 1817 – 1904.  

Source: Wikipedia & Historic Walks in San Francisco, by Rand Richards

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May Flowers

Golden Gate Park 3.27.11   5
Golden Gate Park 4.10.11 B

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