West side known as city's playground

by James King

The Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods are often seen as sleepy, quiet communities for families, immigrants, surfers and college students. People from outside the area rarely visit for entertainment unless they are attending a concert in Golden Gate Park or spending the day at the beach on a rare warm day. However, this part of the City has changed dramatically since San Francisco's early days. At one point, it was a hotbed for amusement and leisure.

On the evening of July 15, the SF Public Library hosted a lecture at the Anza Branch about the area's history. Presenting a slideshow titled "The Outside Lands: A History of Enter­tainment and Amusement," Rory O'Connor described an area that had a rich and varied history over the last 150 years.

O'Connor, a former newspaper reporter and current public relations executive, has been researching the history of the Sunset and Richmond districts for years.

"Every time I look deeper, there's another great story to learn; it's a lot of fun," he said.

From the 1880s until the '70s, people came from all over the region to experience what the neighborhood had to offer. People came to eat, dance, swim, ice skate, enjoy amusement park rides and games, or just spend a day at the beach. O'Connor described this part of the city as different from the rest of San Francisco because much of what happened here was "far removed from the more traditional stories of San Francisco history."

O'Connor regaled the audience with stories of the rich and famous who visited this pocket of San Francisco. Charlie Chaplin filmed a movie, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson trained, and Olympian and actor Johnny Weissmuller swam in the western edge of the City. A stunt woman named Velma the Daredevil even strapped herself to one of the blades of the Murphy Windmill as it rotated through the air. Nonetheless, the entertainment was not just for daredevils and movie stars, it appealed to people of all walks of life.

The original attraction was the Cliff House. It was first built in 1863 when miles of sand dunes separated downtown San Francisco from the Pacific Ocean. However, in time, the city and its infrastructure expanded to make the western edge of San Francisco accessible to all. Although the Cliff House has been destroyed multiple times by fire or explosion, San Francisco is currently home to its fourth iteration of the restaurant at the same location as the original.

The lecture also covered the famous Sutro Baths. Despite the fact that only ruins remain today, it was once a thriving swimming pool complex. Built in 1896 by the wealthy businessman and former mayor Adolph Sutro, the baths were a popular place to swim, ice skate and socialize.

Unfortunately, by the '60s, the complex had been abandoned and the building burned to the ground. The site is still accessible today and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the western part of the city.

At the lecture, members of the audience chimed in with their memories of bygone San Francisco landmarks. Both the Fleishhacker Pool and Playland at the Beach were popular with baby boomers and their parents.

Located where the San Francisco Zoo parking lot currently sits, the Fleishhacker Pool was the largest outdoor swimming pool in the world. It opened in 1925 and closed in 1971.

Playland at the Beach was once located at the opposite end of the Great Highway near Balboa Street, where condominiums and a Safeway now sit. Until it closed in 1972, it was called the "Coney Island of the West." The amusement park grew over time and was popular with families and young people for its roller coasters, games and food.

"The neighborhoods have changed so dramatically in such a short time; I've seen photos of my own block in the '50s, and the differences from then to the 80s to now are startling," O'Connor said.

Even though the Fleishhacker Pool, Sutro Baths and Playland at the Beach are gone, they live on in history books and in the memories of San Franciscans of a certain age. O'Connor encourages people to learn more about the area.

"It's fun to share these stories, and to help people who live here understand the area's past as a way of understanding how it came to be what it is today," he said.

The lecture will be available online on the SF Public Library's YouTube page at www.youtube.com/user/SanFranciscoLibrary. O'Connor also leads walking tours of the western neighborhoods through City Guides (www.sfcityguides.org).