Jo Babcock stands by a renovated Victorian in Dogpatch that used to have a gas storage tank as a neighbor.
Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
A completely different San Francisco is the centerpiece of a modest exhibition of photographs on the fourth floor at the main branch of the public library.
It’s an exhibit of a couple of dozen color views of life on the eastern edge of Potrero Hill and Dogpatch, all taken in the 1980s by Jo Babcock. Back then this was an industrial area, with freight trains rumbling down the middle of the streets, factories, an active shipyard, and run-down old houses where the rent was cheap. It was a nowhere part of San Francisco.
It’s gone now, gone like a dream in the night, replaced by a new San Francisco — condos, trendy bars, upscale restaurants, all anchored by a new UCSF campus.
Babcock used to live in the neighborhood when he was a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute. He’s had a successful photographic career since, but back then he was young and poor.
He would go out every morning when the streets were deserted and the light was good to document the warehouses, the lunch counters and the cottages. “This was no-man’s land,” he said. “Most people didn’t come down here.”
The signature piece of the exhibition is a picture Babcock took about 1980 of a two-story Victorian house next to a gray, steel gas storage tank as tall as a 30-story building. It was on Pennsylvania Avenue near 25th Street. The tank was probably the biggest, ugliest landmark in the city. It sent a clear message — that this part of town was nowhere.
The gas tank was torn down in 1988, but the Victorian, now close to 120 years old, is still there. Now it’s surrounded by live-work lofts and condos. It sold in 1986 for $75,000 when the gas tank was still there. It has been painted and improved since then with stately palm trees in front. Zillow, the real estate website, estimates its value at $1,590,432. Zillow says in the past 30 days the house increased in value by $37,267.
Babcock and I took a walk around his old neighborhood the other afternoon, a stroll that was part nostalgia, part discovery.
We met at 18th and Third streets, just beyond the UCSF Mission Bay campus and on the northern edge of Dogpatch. We went up 18th, past old Victorian cottages, many newly painted.
We stopped at 18th and Minnesota. Babcock lives in the Mission now, but Dogpatch was his old stomping ground. He remembered an old one-story building, a factory of some sort.
“It had a sign that said, ‘BAGS.’” Babcock said. “Just BAGS. WeWe talked to Denise Holman, who has lived there for 13 years. As late as five years ago, she said, the neighborhood was so off the city’s radar and so sketchy she couldn’t get pizza delivered. “I had to beg them,” she said. wondered what they did in there.” Whatever it was, it’s gone. A tower crane is there. A big steel-framed building is going up.
Babcock stood on the corner and talked about what 18th and Minnesota was like. “By day it was all industry, trucks, factories, warehouses, blue-collar workers,” he said. “At night the workers all went home and it was like a ghost town.”
But not entirely. “There was a food distribution place across the street,” he said. “And on Sunday nights 18-wheeler trucks would come and park in the street, idling their engines — ROOOM, ROOOM, ROOOM all night long.
“In the morning, the forklifts would come out and unload the trucks. And then the mom-and-pop grocers would come in station wagons and cars and pick up their orders. That was before Costco and all that.”
The freight trains would move their cars down the middle of the streets at night, too, he said. “And they would bang the boxcars into each other — Bang! Bang! — It was hard to sleep until you got used to it.”
Babcock used to live across the street in what was then an old warehouse. He rented the whole place — 3,000 square feet — for $450 a month. It was big and empty, so he began to cut it into lofts and friends moved in.
“It was a great place to live,” he said. “We had artists and creative people. Wonderful parties, too.” Maybe Babcock was an urban pioneer because the warehouse has since been converted into a handsome 32-unit apartment house called Minnesota Lofts.
That was then. UCSF is building two six-story structures, 595 units in all, at 18th and Minnesota to house graduate students and trainees. They replaced what the university called “aging warehouses” — the box factory and the old grocery facility.
We went up on the edge of Potrero Hill, where Babcock took a panorama in the ’80s of a bleak industrial area. Now the new San Francisco skyline is in the far distance, glittering in the sunlight. Up close, we counted 11 construction cranes between China Basin and 20th Street.
South of 20th Street, Minnesota Street is lined for blocks with five-story apartments and condos, like a neighborhood in Europe. If you look carefully, you can see where the railroad tracks once ran.