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article imageOp-Ed: A car 'Climbing to the stars' existed before Tony Bennett song Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jan 2, 2017 in Lifestyle
San Francisco - The famous song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" has a verse that says, "to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars." Decades before Tony Bennett sang that song,
There was indeed a car line that was hailed as "climbing to the stars" way back in 1912; that was 50 years before the song was recorded by Bennett in 1962.
While by today's standards the cable car is a relic, at the turn-of-the-19th-to-the-20th Century, a cable car was state-of-the-art for transportation. In those days, as electricity was introduced, the light rail or trolley streetcar became a transportation fixture.
Portions of San Francisco's Sunset District remain dedicated to the transportation fixture. Even as rapid transit has changed, the trolley has remained and has been serving the transit needs of residents in the Sunset for decades. Two major lines serve the district: they are the N-Judah and the L-Taraval.
Yet as local historian Woody LaBounty pointed out to the members of SHARP (Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People) at its Nov 28 meeting, (just as the holiday season went into full swing) it took some effort to get public transit extended to the residents of what was then referred to on maps as “the Outside Lands.” The reference on old maps of 'outside lands' became the name of the annual summer music festival now held in Golden Gate Park.
La Bounty who has been researching and archiving local history for years said, "it's a detective story of sorts." He talked with this reporter after the SHARP meeting, while on assignment for The Sunset Beacon. When I asked him if he ever tires of old history, he said. "Finding out what's what is interesting; going back into archives and looking up information of the past is exciting and helpful. To me it is always fresh." LaBounty always manages to find comparisons from the past that can relate very well to the present day. A native to the area, "I find family and local history that provides a connection," he said. But most of all for LaBounty he sees in his research that in some ways the basics have not really changed.
Just as in the early days of San Francisco and the rest of America, the population was growing. Things were changing. What had been open space was giving way to urban expansion.
Few people in the district today know that there were several trolley lines many years ago, not just two. The N-Judah was not installed until 1928.
Public transit, as well as other services, has always been an issue for the district, even in its earliest days of development. If it sounds familiar, it is. Today's MUNI or as it is now called, San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA), still faces obstacles and challenges; just as transportation systems of long ago.
LaBounty noted that the #6 line was established in 1912 and served the district over a century ago, in what was referred to then as Sunset Heights. The official name of the Sunset District would emerge later. Yet even in its earliest days, the area had to have public transit to help residents get to and from downtown. The #6 was extended out to the 'out lands' just for that purpose and in the hopes that more real estate development make take hold. The line was nicknamed "streetcar to the stars" because with so few buildings, on a clear night the stars were in full view. Portions of that #6 line became “the forerunner of today’s #6 Parnassus bus line,” said Labounty.
Local historian and archivist  Woody LaBounty speaking at the monthly SHARP meeting on Nov. 28  2016...
Local historian and archivist, Woody LaBounty speaking at the monthly SHARP meeting on Nov. 28, 2016. He enjoys providing information about local history because it gives insights into current issues. "Proclaiming the #6 Trolly car line as 'Streetcar to the stars' was a way to get people to move to what was then considered 'outside lands.' Real Estate developers even then were coining terms or describing areas in ways to attract business," said LaBounty.
Courtesy of Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People (SHARP)
After World War II, many of the City’s streetcar lines became bus lines. But streetcars weren't just a symbol of the 19th Century. The streetcars and electrified buses remain useful in the city because of the many hills of San Francisco. Yet, in cities across the nation, the automobile was taking the place of the trolley. Post-WWII became the era of the automobile and the interstate highway system with lots of 'freeways.'
Over 100 years ago, The Sunset was essentially sand dunes of what had once been part of a Mexican-Spanish land grant dating back to Early California days known as Rancho San Miguel. At the turn of the 19th to 20th Century, amid the vast sand dunes the area consisted of very little except a dairy, ranch and or a farm. “Few people know that the area once had a dynamite factory... It was located at 2nd Ave and Irving," said LaBounty, "until 1877, when it had blown up for about the fourth time.” After the Great Earthquake of 1906, things began to change, but only slowly as he explained.
“The early history of our neighborhood had at least one thing in common with the current-day San Francisco," says LaBounty, "investments in real estate played a big role. But unlike today, it was a buyer’s market. Various events seemed to promise the rapid westward expansion of the city, he noted (like the 1906 Earthquake). But development came slowly. Landowners and speculators kept expecting to make a killing but rarely did.”
Part of the reason was the complexity of ‘claim of ownership.’ In addition to the few farms, dairies and ranches, there were many squatters in the area. They too claimed a portion as theirs. Statehood had only been established for about 30 years. So at that time, in addition to various claims, the Federal Government made its mark.
Woody LaBounty is a local historian and archivist affiliated with the Western Neighborhoods Project.
Woody LaBounty is a local historian and archivist affiliated with the Western Neighborhoods Project.
Courtesy of Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People (SHARP)
“In 1866, a ‘grand compromise’ finally resolved the disputes,” noted LaBounty. “Everyone got something, with the city winning what was arguably the biggest prize, the land that would become Golden Gate Park. With the development of the park," says LaBounty, "real estate companies bought land nearby and promoted the area in the expectation that it would appreciate in value.”
Adolf Sutro was one of the major purchasers of land in the area, from which Mt. Sutro is named. He would eventually serve one term as Mayor. The Mid-Winter Exposition of 1894, from which sprang the Japanese Tea Gardens, the de Young Museum, and the concourse attracted many. A special streetcar was established to bring people to the Park. Yet, as LaBounty noted, the anticipated massive development did not occur.
“The lack of water service, fire-fighting facilities, sanitation and transportation, made living in the ‘Outside Lands’ a hard selling point, said LaBounty. This is why neighborhood groups (like SHARP) and people banding together was so important, he said. It was important back then and it is important now.”
To learn more about the Sunset District and other parts of San Francisco's history visit The Western Neighborhoods Project web site.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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