Op-Ed: South San Francisco's Grand Ave is like 'Anywhere USA' Special

Posted Nov 27, 2012 by Jonathan Farrell
On the Peninsula not far from San Francisco is "The Industrial City" of South San Francisco. Sprawling like a suburb its old part of town is more like "anywhere USA."
Grand Avenue in South San Francisco  CA is the main street for the heart of the city. Spread out lik...
Grand Avenue in South San Francisco, CA is the main street for the heart of the city. Spread out like a suburb, the main thoroughfare of Grand Ave has more the feeling of a small town, like anywhere USA.
Grand Avenue is the main thoroughfare and walking along the five or six blocks which is perhaps the heart of the old part of town it feels more like a small town than a rambling suburb. Traffic is busy but not so busy that cars will not stop for people wishing to cross the street at a cross walk with no traffic signals.
There are lots of spots just outside of San Francisco along its Peninsula, along El Camino Real that have just a bit of that "small town" type of atmosphere to them. Brisbane, San Carlos, Redwood City, even San Mateo. A commuter going along busy El Camino Real would not recognize the various distinctions as the towns and areas have sort of melted into one another as suburbs grew. The older parts of any town tend to keep much of the charm it once had when the town was newly founded.
Rock and Roll musician and part-time historian Dave Crimmen explained that the reason for the mishmash of boundary lines between these towns along the Peninsula. "In the late 1940's just after the war (WWII), much of the Peninsula blossomed into suburbs covering up what had once been farm land."
South San Francisco or "South City" as some locals refer to it still maintains that charm with three-light lamp posts on the street, patches of lawn and some benches to sit on and of course plenty of shops to peak at while strolling down the avenue. There's a hardware store, a barber, a dry cleaners and a bakery. Yes, there are empty store fronts and homeless roam, trying to ask for spare change.
Driving along El Camino Real it is easy to just drive past the more settled parts of a town. Not to say that a strip mall area or little shopping center in today's rush around life does not have any charm or value. This reporter knows that. In fact, my chiropractor, recommended a barber shop along El Camino Real. It is a busy little spot. Had it not been recommended and had I not stopped by this reporter would have missed it.
But taking the time to walk, get out of the car away from rush of the commute, a new perspective unfolds. Waling the avenue, like Grand Ave, to see the quaint houses, the shops and local businesses makes one realize, every town, just about "anywhere USA" has these. And, so this perhaps is what helps to keep a portion of that seeming ever-expanding suburb charming and quaint, reminding visitors and locals alike of what it once was.
On Grand Ave is Galli’s Sanitary Bakery. It is perhaps one of the few long-standing local establishments that is an anchor to the old part of town. Called “Sanitary” back in the early days of “The Industrial City” when Grand Ave had no pavement, just dirt and gravel and the name was intended to ensure customers that baked goods from Galli were of the highest standard and quality. The bakery located at 324 Grand Ave has been providing fresh baked goods to the community for over 100 years since 1909.
Galli Sanitary Bakery on Grand Ave has a wide array of baked goods such as pies  cookies  breads and...
Galli Sanitary Bakery on Grand Ave has a wide array of baked goods such as pies, cookies, breads and lots of cakes.
Courtesy of Galli Sanitary Bakery, South San Francisco, CA
Tina Galli wife of the one of the descendants of founder Ambrose Galli Jr. graciously took the time to mention the specialties that the bakery will be offering for the holiday season. “Pies, especially pumpkin and apple; Cannoli and yes, Saint Honore cake,” said Galli.
Originally from France the rich cream puff cake eventually became a favorite among Italians who brought to the area. Each bakery has their own style and way of preparing the cake, which at Galli’s has become a hallmark of their baking expertise. “We also have tea cakes for the holidays too,” said Tina Galli. Samples of the banana-almond nut teacake were given that Monday Nov. 19 to customers as they walked in.
The aroma of fresh baked bread and sweets filled the air. In addition to the anticipated array of sweets Galli’s also offers savory items such as ham and cheese Croissant and fucacchia pizza.
Pies are made daily. “Eight inch pies start at $11.00, and tea cakes are $8.99. Wen the Peninsula Progress stopped by that Monday morning, Tina Galli explained that Saint Honore cakes are made fresh each Wednesday or by special order. Of course, the bakery can make just about any cake upon request. While Galli’s is proud of its Italian heritage it also reaches out to meet the wedding and birthday cake wishes of the changing cultural mix in South San Francisco which includes Latin and Asian influences.
Galli’s makes a delicious “Tres Leche” cake, a favorite mentioned on Yelp reviews. Various custards and fresh banana cream cakes are also a specialty. Open six days a week, Monday through Friday, The bakery continues to thrive, even amid recession times. "Saint Honore cakes are about $50.00 for the small one, and lately orders have not been so frequent," said Galli. Still, people stop by and will get something to go with their morning coffee.
Galli's serves coffee even with the competition of a Starbucks directly across the street. At Starbucks, obviously the traffic of people is constant and streaming. Yet local shops have more of the local flavor which make South San Francisco, just like "anywhere USA" a unique place.
When this reporter says unique, I am saying that which is home-grown to the area, it is not a chain or a corporate-style franchise. While there is something to be said about having a familiar chain that is reliable, too many of them can rob a town or even a city district of its originality.
The sign on the hillside overlooking South San Francisco  visible for miles  it is a landmark.
The sign on the hillside overlooking South San Francisco, visible for miles, it is a landmark.
Courtesy of Carole Fogelstrom
And in that originality people are more inclined to be themselves and connect more to a local community. For instance, waiting at the SamTrans bus stop, locals chat, young and old, some in English some in Spanish, and some in Tagalog. The flow of people while leisurely, is consistent as the small town demeanor encourages people to be acquainted rather than alienated. "I grew up here and do a lot of business here," said local realtor Carole Fogelstrom. She keeps a blog called "South City Blog" which she chronicles all the things that matter to locals. Not just about real estate, but everything.
Fogelstrom took a few moments to reflect, as she said, "there were many industries that I remember that date back to the 50’s and even earlier then that in South City." "The ones I remember were companies such as Zellerbach Paper Company, Swift & Company (a meat products producer) as well as Bethlehem Steel Company. As a child our neighbor worked at Bethlehem on the East Side of Grand Avenue," she said.
But today, Fogelstrom noted, SSF’s claim to fame is probably characterized by the sign “The Birth Place of Bitechnology” placed by Genetech. "They are the largest employer in SSF, employing thousands of workers," he said.
"My daughter worked there one summer just before going off to college," said Fogelstrom. "She thought it was a wonderful company; catering to its employees, offering day care as one of its perks." "They are probably one of the world’s largest biotech companies, said Fogelstrom and they have paved the way for other biotech companies to set up shop in South San Francisco."
As winds of change stir with this new form of industry no doubt the area will change more. Yet Fogelstrom will always consider South San Francisco her home. "The library was a favorite place of mine growing up," she said. "in case you missed it, she added, City Hall and the Library on Grand Avenue are two of the most gorgeous buildings in the city in my opinion." And, I would have to agree, in fact there are many distinctive buildings and some fine homes to in a variety of styles. From regal Tutor style mansions to Mediterranean-Spanish style dwellings, no "tic-tacty" house here. All neatly kept, each with their own individuality. There was a sense of pride, even in the older part of town that indicated very strongly that "people live here."
This is why I was inspired to write about South San Francisco. It is so easy to "snap-judge" it as "just another suburb" amid the many endless suburbs across the nation. The large letter-words in the distance on the hillside in the distance that say, "South San Francisco the Industrial City" may loom large but at its heart, especially along Grand Ave, for this reporter at least, it is really just a small town.