Bay Curious Bay Curious is a podcast about the unexplored San Francisco Bay Area. Each week we take a deep dive into the mysteries that make this area quirky, delightful and, at times, dysfunctional. It's a show about questions — and the adventures you stumble upon when you go looking for answers. Now here's the twist: You ask the questions. You decide what we work on. You help us find the answer. Join host Olivia Allen-Price to explore the Bay one bite-sized episode at a time. The show is produced at KQED in San Francisco. Learn more at BayCurious.org.
Bay Curious

Bay Curious

From KQED

Bay Curious is a podcast about the unexplored San Francisco Bay Area. Each week we take a deep dive into the mysteries that make this area quirky, delightful and, at times, dysfunctional. It's a show about questions — and the adventures you stumble upon when you go looking for answers. Now here's the twist: You ask the questions. You decide what we work on. You help us find the answer. Join host Olivia Allen-Price to explore the Bay one bite-sized episode at a time. The show is produced at KQED in San Francisco. Learn more at BayCurious.org.More from Bay Curious »

Most Recent Episodes

Black Power, the 1968 Olympics and the San Jose State Students Who Shook the World

John Carlos and Tommie Smith both won medals in the same track event at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. On the medal stand, both raised clenched fists in a salute to Black power. The backlash that followed cost them the rest of their running careers and years of difficulty outside of sports. Fifty years later, the prevailing attitude toward their protest has changed, and the movement lives on with other athlete activists like Colin Kaepernick. Featuring Devin Katayama of The Bay and KQED reporter Rachael Myrow. This episode was produced by The Bay staff: Vinnee Tong, Erika Aguliar, Peter Arcuni and Devin Katayama. Bay Curious is made by Olivia Allen-Price, Jessica Placzek, Katie McMurran, Paul Lancour and Ryan Levi. Additional support from Julie Caine, Suzie Racho, Ethan Lindsey and David Weir. Theme music by Pat Mesiti-Miller. Ask us a question or sign up for our newsletter at BayCurious.org. Follow Olivia Allen-Price on Twitter @oallenprice.

Black Power, the 1968 Olympics and the San Jose State Students Who Shook the World

How SantaCon Got Its Start in San Francisco Counterculture

Every December, about 17,000 people gather on the streets of San Francisco for what has become one of the city's preeminent drinking holidays: SantaCon. On this episode of Bay Curious we dig into the 1994 origins of this event, which has spread from San Francisco to cities around the globe. Prefer to read than listen? Here's the web version. Reported by Sonia Paul, who first wrote about SantaCon for Harper's Magazine. Produced by Jessica Placzek. Bay Curious is made by Olivia Allen-Price, Jessica Placzek, Katie McMurran, Paul Lancour and Ryan Levi. Additional support from Julie Caine, Suzie Racho, Ethan Lindsey and David Weir. Theme music by Pat Mesiti-Miller. Ask us a question or sign up for our newsletter. Follow Olivia Allen-Price on Twitter @oallenprice.

10 Things To Know About Bike Theft in San Francisco

You don't have to be a cyclist in the Bay Area to appreciate that bike theft is rampant. Walking around, you might notice broken U-locks next to bike racks where someone's ride vanished. Or skeletal bike frames that are still locked up, but the wheels, seat, and anything else that wasn't welded in place have all been picked clean. An analysis estimated that in 2012 there were more than 4,000 actual, attempted or unreported bike thefts in San Francisco, with some $4.6 million worth of bikes taken. In this episode of Bay Curious (listen using the play button above), we unpack two questions — what the San Francisco Police Department is doing about bike theft, and what happens after bikes or bicycle parts are stolen. Along the way, reporter Daniel Potter learned several surprising facts. Here are his top 10: 1. Some bike thieves are handy with power tools. Maybe you already knew a cheap cable lock is no match for a sturdy pair of bolt cutters. Or that metal U-locks can sometimes be defeated using car jacks. But in the arms race between thieves and deterrents, a power tool called a cordless angle grinder is hard to beat. In a spray of sparks, this handheld electric saw can slice through metal — meaning even a decent U-lock might not be enough. Alas, there's a tool for everything. 2. Organized crime is a factor. Bike thieves operate on different levels. Some are low-level opportunists — they'll grab a saddle or an unsecured wheel to make a quick buck. Others are much more sophisticated. They have not only power tools but also trucks, and places to store bikes that may end up for sale online — or in other cities. It's not unheard of for bikes stolen in the Bay Area to turn up in Los Angeles or Portland. Box Dog Bikes, in San Francisco's Mission District, knows this kind of crime firsthand. In August, burglars broke into the store overnight and hauled away 21 bikes valued at more than $40,000. 3. Even so, bike thefts in S.F. are trending down. Comparing the first nine months of 2018 to the same period last year, San Francisco police say bike thefts dropped 23 percent, from 572 to 441. That could be thanks partly to outside factors, like the proliferation of bike-rental kiosks and scooters that enable people to risk their own bikes less. But police chalk it up to expanded foot patrols warding off some would-be thieves, along with newly centralized investigations aimed at stopping higher-level theft rings. 4. Stolen bikes are often swapped, then swapped again. In some circles, bikes aren't just a practical mode of transportation, but also a kind of currency. An intact bike is like a large bill that can be broken up into smaller denominations in the form of parts, and later reconstituted as a different ride. This means stolen bikes and parts tend to change hands early and often — potentially complicating police work. 5. Hot bikes go for pennies on the dollar. A bike that would retail for over $1,000 often goes for a lot less when it's stolen. That's partly because bike thieves may be eager to offload hot property for quick cash (see #4 above) and also because the bikes are often reconfigured in order to sell parts separately — or to hastily disguise a stolen frame, say, with a new paint job. When athlete Canaan Vallejos' stolen bike turned up on Craigslist, he managed to get it back — minus the racks and expensive saddle, which had been replaced with a seat so cheap he told me "they wouldn't put that thing on a Huffy." 6. Websites like Bike Index help people recover their stolen bikes. Thousands of bikes have been returned to their proper owners thanks to people volunteering their time and keeping an eye out for bikes reported stolen in their area. With help from a tipster using Bike Index, Robin Lee, one of this week's question-askers, managed to track down a customized mountain bike that was stolen out of her garage. (The police helped get it back, and SFPD recommends calling 911 if you have eyes on someone with your stolen bike.) 7. SFPD has a warehouse full of stolen bikes whose original owners can't be found. An analysis found that in 2012, SFPD recovered 864 stolen bikes, but only 142 went home with their owners — about 16 percent. Asked if she could ballpark the current number of recovered bikes in storage, Public Information Officer Giselle Linnane told me "hundreds, yeah — at least." She says police often simply don't have contact information for owners or a way to track them down — and that filing a police report improves your chances of getting your bike back. Bikes that can't be returned are eventually given to charity. 8. There are many ways to help protect your bike ... Some perfectly reasonable bike commuters use not one but two U-locks, and safeguard their wheels using cables or locking skewers. There are also companies that sell heavy chains, tracking devices and even a lock that sprays noxious fumes if it's cut. One person I met for this story moved all the furniture out of her bedroom except the bed so her bike could sleep behind the same door she does. Another locks up her bikes in her garage with a camera pointing at them, so she can look in on them when she wakes up worried. 9. ... But one that's often overlooked is having pictures and the serial number. If your bike is stolen, your chance of getting it back is much better if you've snapped a few pics — including one of the serial number, which is usually engraved near the pedals when you flip the bike over. 10. Bike rental kiosks aren't just for tourists. You might expect hardcore cyclists to sneer at the cruisers you can now check out from automated stations around the Bay Area. But more than one seasoned rider told me if they're pedaling to a place where they wouldn't feel great locking up their own bike, it's worth it to just rent one instead. Thank you to Robin Lee and Carolyn Thomas, who sent in the questions that prompted this episode. Thank you also to the many people who did not appear in the podcast, but who kindly made time to talk — among them Canaan Vallejos, Mailee Hung, Will Rose, Bryan Hance at Bike Index, Brian Wiedenmeier at SF Bicycle Coalition, and Eric Lonowski at Box Dog Bikes.

Why Are San Francisco Houses So Close Together?

In San Francisco, the houses are quite cozy — sometimes mere inches apart. We can hear our neighbors' wailing babies, their band practice and even their showers. This design is pretty common in cities across the country, but Friedel Pretorius, this week's Bay Curious question asker, couldn't help noticing it here. "I like walking around San Francisco and just observing all the different houses," says Friedel. "And I noticed that a lot of the buildings in San Francisco are really close together, like less than a foot." She wants to know why they are so close and how they ended up this way. "There's always rot and maintenance that old houses need, and I just wonder how are they built and how are they maintained," Friedel says. Charles Fracchia has the answer. He's the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and has written several books on San Francisco history. I meet him in the Jackson Square area, just north of the Transamerica Pyramid, where some of the city's oldest buildings still stand. His bushy white eyebrows peek out from circular rimmed glasses that give him a scholarly look. "So you notice every one of these is on a lot next to each other, basically back to back," says Fracchia. "There are no side yards or gardens." We're looking at a series of brick buildings, two to three stories tall, very plain. He tells me this tight style of building was common in old European settlements, too. "Ancient towns and cities had a wall around them. So you wanted to compress your real estate as much as you can," says Fracchia, offering Paris in the Middle Ages as an example. He tells me cities were designed this way to protect against invaders. I ask him how San Francisco made this idea its own, and he ushers me into a nearby private dining club he's a member of, to show me some framed paintings of what the city looked like before it was a city ... before it became squished together. "Here's the one I really wanted to show you," he says. "You notice there are just a handful of buildings over here. So very few buildings." We are looking at a painting dated from 1846 to 1847. It's right before the Gold Rush and right after the U.S. took over California from Mexico. At that point, there's not really much to the city — it's mostly sand dunes and it looks like peaceful, rolling countryside. But even with so few people, there was a city council. They convinced the federal government to give them the land San Francisco sits on. And then, Fracchia says, they started divvying that land up. "They did this late in 1846, when they hired O'Farrell to do the survey," he says. Jasper O'Farrell was an Irish-born surveyor. O'Farrell Street in San Francisco is named after him. He designed ranchos and other towns in California. "When he was given the job, there are about, let's say, 500 people in the settlement of Yerba Buena," says Fracchia. O'Farrell had no idea what the future held for this little settlement and he had to guess how big the city would become. With little direction from the city council, he was given free rein to design it however he fancied. He started with a grid — a format already in place by the Mexican settlers. Fracchia then points out another drawing of an early map of the city with streets running perpendicular to one another. The map has a bunch of teeny boxes, and each box represents a city block. Each of those blocks is divided into six smaller lots called varas — a Spanish unit of measurement. After O'Farrell finalized his map, the city started auctioning off these varas. The ones South of Market were going for cheap: $12.67. But those close to downtown were pricey: $50 to $100 per vara. And as they are auctioning them off, the Gold Rush happens. All of a sudden, there's a huge demand to cram together an exploding population. A lot of people need to fit into not much space. The varas got subdivided into smaller lots, some less than 25 feet wide. "It's a very typical real estate operation in large U.S. cities," says Fracchia. "You can get more money by splitting the lots up." But 25 feet is not that much space. Another local historian, William Kostura, says that it was just enough room for a parlor and a staircase. So in most cases, houses were built to take up the entire lot. To build these houses, the walls had to be built first, on the ground, and then lifted into place using a system of levers and pulleys. This still happens. In addition to the unique building techniques, Fracchia says the small lots also influenced the architecture of the buildings. "That gave way to the shape of San Francisco flats or houses. You know, a long narrow corridor called a railroad flat. Little rooms off that. You don't have any kind of expansion," he says. A lot of these houses were often built with small gaps separating them — like 1 or 2 feet — to allow light to come in through the side walls. Maintaining those walls can get tricky. How do you fix a house when you can't get to the side? Ben Ladomirak from Teevan works on all sorts of houses in San Francisco, and he tells me he's done everything imaginable. "There is nothing that exists on a home that we haven't done," he says. He comes across houses that are super close together all the time, but he says "none are wide enough that you could get a person in there. I mean, I might be able to get a tiny person that's not me. But all jokes aside, you can't get in there." And that means that he can't paint them — which causes problems. "UV damages the paint, which then makes the paint peel, which then makes the wood split and crack, which lets the water in, and it's really water that does the damage," he says. This doesn't happen that often because most walls are shaded from the sun. But when it does happen, it's a big deal. If Ben thinks the wall is rotted out and the building might fall down, he has to do something. "The only way we'll be able to deal with it is from the inside of your house. We cannot get to it from the outside," he says. "Imagine everything on the wall being stripped down, all the sheetrock out, and you have the vertical studs that you can see. If they are damaged, you are doing the best you can from the inside of your house." So he fixes the wall from the inside, but Ben also needs to protect the outside. He does this by connecting the roofs of the two buildings, or by making sure one roof overlaps the other. Then, you just have to hope that your roof keeps the water out.

'Frisco': It's Not Just for Tourists

FRISCO. Just try dropping that word into conversation these days and see what kind of response you get. Chances are good the nickname will be met with a healthy dose of side-eye, a grimace or even a slap on the wrist. Frisco is the nickname we love to hate. Oakland native Rena Yang wanted to know: why? Listen to the story above, or read the web version: Why Do Some Hate the Nickname 'Frisco'?

There Were Once More Than 425 Shellmounds in the Bay Area. Where Did They Go?

ou may associate the Emeryville shoreline with shops, or the Scandinavian furniture store Ikea. But what you may not know is that before this place was a commercial mecca, there was a different man-made structure that towered above Bay Area residents: a shellmound. Driving down Shellmound Street may tip you off, too. It did for Bay Curious listener Paul Gilbert, who used to live and work in Emeryville. He would cross Shellmound Street every day for years. "And somewhere along the way I'd heard the story that there used to be a Native American mound of shells somewhere along the shore," Gilbert said. So he asked Bay Curious: "What's the story behind Shellmound Street in Emeryville, and what happened to the Native American shellmounds that I heard it was named after?" What are shellmounds? Shellmounds are man-made mounds of earth and organic matter that were built up by humans over thousands of years. They were created by the people native to the San Francisco Bay Area. The mounds served many purposes. "Shellmounds are created by my ancestors as ceremonial places and as burial sites," said Corrina Gould, spokeswoman for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan and co-director of Indian People Organizing for Change. Lisjan is one of more than 40 native groups that call the greater Bay Area their home. As colonizers and settlers came to Northern California, they lumped these distinct indigenous groups into one. These days this larger group is most often called Ohlone. Gould said innumerable burials were found in shellmounds: "Children buried with their mothers who had been lost in childbirth. Elders with babies." These bodies were then covered with layers of soil, shell and rock. Growing bigger over time, the shellmounds transformed the flatlands by the bay waters into an undulating, awe-inspiring scene. The shellmounds also served as an active space for the living. "People would come and they would trade with each other, and they would have ceremony at the top of these mounds," Gould said. Archaeologists have found remnants of communal fireplaces, workshops and homes on the mounds. They were so central to community life that it seems there wasn't even time for topsoil to build up or for grasses to grow, said UC Berkeley anthropology professor Kent Lightfoot. Their height, sometimes taller than 30 feet, served as a focal point to navigate across the bay waters, or to communicate with other tribes. "You could send signals to other people across the bay because you could see their fires," Gould said, which could, among other things, warn groups about toxic red tide. "There's all of these things that are in these mounds that tell us this rich history of our people for thousands and thousands of years," she said. Gould is referring to remnants of daily Ohlone life, like the foods that sustained them: not only the mussel, clam and oyster shells that give the mounds their name, but traces of salmon and sturgeon, deer, and acorns from the ample oak trees. How many shellmounds were in the Bay Area? The San Francisco Bay Area was a popular place to live for Native Americans. Natural resources from both water and land were abundant here. The area from Point Sur in the south to the Carquinez Strait in the north was one of the most densely populated places for indigenous people north of Mexico, with roughly 10,000 inhabitants. All these people meant a lot of villages, and therefore a lot of shellmounds. But as colonizers and settlers came to California in the 1700s and 1800s, the native population was devastated. They were killed by newly introduced diseases, starvation and massacres. These killings were at times funded by the state of California and the U.S. government. Native people began to disappear from their traditional land. When their houses of willow branches and tule reeds decomposed, the shellmounds were all that was left to mark where their villages once stood. In 1909, a UC Berkeley archeologist named Nels Nelson counted 425 shellmounds around the Bay Area. He thought there had been many more, too, that were already worn away by water, time and development. Corrina Gould believes that of the shellmounds Nelson documented in 1909, roughly four can still be seen, in such places as San Bruno, Fremont and Richmond. What happened to the shellmounds? Let's take a look at the Emeryville Shellmound as an example of a larger trend. This shellmound was the biggest one recorded in the Bay Area, more than three stories high and 350 feet in diameter, Gould said. That's larger than a football field. But if you look for the shellmound today, you won't find much above ground. In the late 1800s, developers lobbed off the top of the shellmound to create a dance pavilion. At its base, they constructed an amusement park. Decades later the shellmound was leveled completely to make way for a paint factory. And in the early 2000s, this once-thriving native village became a thriving outdoor shopping center. Flattening shellmounds like this happened across the Bay Area. But Gould emphasized that the shellmounds are still here, albeit underground. "It's important for us to preserve and protect what's left," Gould said. "Even if you as human beings can't see it on top, we know that the layers of our shellmounds go way deep underneath the land." The soil where shellmounds once rose is distinct. It's a dark, rich color from organic material, with white pockets colored by remains of shells. It is still possible to find human remains underground, too. During the construction of the Emeryville shops in the early 2000s, construction crews and archaeologists uncovered human bones. Gould said the shellmounds are beneath landmarks that Bay Area residents pass by daily: under a Burger King in downtown Oakland, or Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. The rich soil from the above-ground parts of shellmounds was used to pave roads, fill in parts of the bay and fertilize gardens. Many of the human remains, such as bones and artifacts, have ended up in museums. UC Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology has more than 5,000 sets of human remains from the Bay Area. A "set" could represent the remains of one or multiple people, or even just an isolated component of a person, according to a spokesman for the museum. Two years ago, Gould and other Ohlone people viewed the Hearst Museum's collection of human remains. "From the top of the ceiling to the floor there was all these trays with our ancestor remains up and down," Gould said. "I'll never forget that experience that this institution is holding these humans, and for what purpose? And how many is too many?" "They were the ancestors, you know, my direct relations." Gould choked up as she spoke, describing her reaction after the visit: "I lay down in bed for three days and couldn't move. And it still hurts." What's happening with shellmounds now? Gould and other Native American activists are fighting to acquire land where the oldest Bay Area shellmound, nearly 5,000 years old, once stood: West Berkeley. The space is currently an asphalt parking lot at 1900 Fourth St., between the Fourth Street shopping corridor and the bay. It has been designated as a Berkeley landmark since 2000. Developers have sought to build housing here in recent years, but their proposals have been rejected by the city of Berkeley. Gould hopes eventually the land will be overseen by Ohlone and other Native Americans. Her vision is a space with native plants, a circular dancing structure for Ohlone ceremonies, and a 40-foot-tall mound with a spiral path and information about the Ohlone. Gould and others regularly hold intertribal prayers here. Over her decades as an activist, Gould said Ohlone events have grown stronger, and the crowds have grown larger. She sees this as part of a larger Ohlone resurgence: being consulted by the Hearst Museum that houses bones of their relatives, reviving dance steps no one has followed in 100 years, and learning traditional languages — not spoken in generations — from tape recordings. Her hope is to renew more Ohlone ways, just as she hopes to build a new mound on the site of an old one, once flattened.

There Were Once More Than 425 Shellmounds in the Bay Area. Where Did They Go?

Why Is Part of Alameda Island in San Francisco?

Bay Curious listener Lori Bodenhamer has noticed something odd whenever she pulls up a map of San Francisco online. "My little shortcut to get to Google Maps is I just type in 'SF Map,' and then Google pops up," Bodenhamer says. "And it outlines S.F. in red, and I noticed there were some bits of red in Alameda." And it's not just Google Maps being wonky. Maps from the San Francisco Planning Department confirm that a piece of Alameda Island is inside San Francisco's borders. To understand how this is possible, we have to go back hundreds of years to when California was part of Spain. The Peraltas It starts in 1820 when the Spanish government gave Luís Maria Peralta a land grant of more than 40,000 acres in recognition of his 40 years of military service. Known as the Rancho San Antonio, it covered present-day San Leandro, Oakland, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley and Albany. Basically, the Spanish government gave him the entire East Bay (even though Native Americans, including the Ohlone and Bay Miwok, had already been living there for centuries). Peralta never actually lived on the Rancho, but he split the land among his four sons, who settled the land, built homes, raised cattle and fostered the growth of a thriving, Spanish-speaking community. In 1848, California was ceded to the United States by Mexico, and in 1850, it became a state. For existing landowners like the Peraltas, this created several headaches. U.S. squatters settled in California without respect to who had owned the land under Spanish and Mexican rule. Squatters were such a problem that Antonio Peralta, one of Luís' sons, was shocked in 1851 to find two men actually interested in buying some of his land. William Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh bought 160 acres from Antonio in 1851 for $14,000, and they would use the land to found the city of Alameda. But Antonio still had problems. The U.S. government made Spanish and Mexican landowners go to court to prove their claims, and it wasn't until 1874 that Antonio finally received a patent from the government affirming his claim to his land, including the piece he had sold to Chipman and Aughinbaugh. The Navy Pushes Alameda Into San Francisco The story picks up in 1956 when the U.S. Navy makes an eminent domain claim of about 50 acres of submerged land underneath San Francisco Bay off the coast of Alameda. (The Navy would end up revising their request down to just shy of 40 acres.) The Navy was looking to expand the Alameda Naval Air Station, which had opened just before the start of World War II and served as the launching site for the first major bombing raid of Japan after Pearl Harbor. The Navy had regularly filled in parts of the bay to expand the air station, but when they did it this time, they crossed over the invisible line underneath the bay that separates Alameda from San Francisco. Thanks to the Navy, there was now a tiny piece of San Francisco attached to Alameda Island. But no one at the time seemed to care much about this border breach. What they did care about was who the federal government would have to pay for taking this piece of land. The state of California said it was the proper beneficiary, but two East Bay women saw it differently. Carol Heche and Elinor Petersen claimed that the submerged land actually belonged to them, and therefore they deserved payment as the descendants of the founders of Alameda — William Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh. Petersen said she purchased the estate of Aughinbaugh's daughter, Ella, and Heche was Chipman's granddaughter. "She was very proud of their heritage, and she was the historian of the family," says George Gunn, curator of the Alameda Museum, about Heche. "She claimed that their property extended out into the bay." This was the women's central argument. According to court records, the women traced their claim through their Alameda ancestors and back to the original Peralta land grant from the king of Spain in 1820, which was, according to them, "bounded on the southwest by the sea." "In Spanish laws, the lands bounded by the sea, are lands that extended to the deep navigable waters of the sea," Petersen wrote in a court filing in January 1962. This begs the question of what exactly the "deep navigable waters" included and how far out these women claimed ownership underneath San Francisco Bay. "I don't know how far out I own," Petersen said in court in August 1962, according to a transcript. "It doesn't really make any difference, because the Federal Government is protecting it for me, and I have a fine Government and I'm not worried." But she and Heche were certain that they owned the part of the bay the Navy had taken, and they believed fervently that their claim had been confirmed by the 1874 patent, as shown by this exchange between Petersen and Judge Alfonso Zirpoli at a pretrial hearing in December 1962: ZIRPOLI: The only question involved is whether or not your land comes within this patent. PETERSEN: It does. ZIRPOLI: If it does, you are entitled to judgment in your favor. PETERSEN: Absolutely does. ZIRPOLI: If it doesn't, you are not. PETERSEN: It absolutely does. ZIRPOLI: I think it is as simple as that. PETERSEN: It does, absolutely, every bit of it. But it actually didn't. While the Spanish land grant may have implied ownership out into the bay's "deep navigable waters," the 1874 patent explicitly described the southwest border as, "... along the Bay of San Francisco, at the line of ordinary high tide." Zirpoli ruled against the women and denied their request for a new trial. Petersen and Heche appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled against them. "A boundary line at 'ordinary high water' or 'ordinary high tide' cannot, by any process of interpretation, be located somewhere on or under the surface of the water a mile or more from the line of high tide or high water," the appeals court wrote in its February 1964 decision. A year later, the federal government cut the state of California a check for $13,619.55 for the submerged land it had claimed nearly a decade earlier. And Heche and Petersen walked away empty-handed. Who You Gonna Call: San Francisco or Alameda? After the Alameda Naval Air Station closed in 1997, the Navy began transferring the land to different entities. In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to take over 624 acres, including the border-crossing sliver. "From the VA's perspective, it really doesn't matter if it's Alameda or San Francisco County. It's federal property," says Larry Janes, who's overseeing the development of a new VA hospital and national cemetery on the former naval base. Neither San Francisco nor Alameda zone the geographic oddity—which spans about 30 acres—and the VA has promised never to develop that part of the land because it's home to an endangered bird species, the California least tern. There's currently no regular public access to that part of the former base, but our Bay Curious question asker, Lori, couldn't help but wonder what would happen if a crime was committed out there. Whose jurisdiction would it fall under? "We actually have a contract with East Bay Regional Park District police," Janes says. "And we have our own VA police as well, and we work with the Alameda police, so if we needed backup from Alameda, we could go to them as well." Janes says the VA is talking to the city of Alameda about putting in a recreational trail that would hug the coastline around the sliver, so sometime in the future, anyone could walk from Alameda right into San Francisco and stand on land that was disputed all the way back to the king of Spain.

Ghost of a Legend: How a San Francisco Civil Rights Icon Was Made a Monster

"What are the most haunted places in San Francisco?" That's the question that Bay Curious listener Kelsey Poole asked us a few weeks ago. Which is how I found myself standing with her on the steep streets of San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood as the sun went down — on the San Francisco Ghost Hunt. A Tennessee transplant to the Bay Area, Poole is actually already a fan of going on ghost tours when she travels, as a way to learn the history of a city she's visiting — plus "you get some spooky stories that keep you up at night," she says. But she'd never done one in San Francisco. (Want to go on a ghost hunt with the Bay Curious team on Nov. 1? Details and tickets here!) The Ghost Hunt tour is led by performer Christian Cagigal, who leads us through these streets in full 19th century dress, top hat and clacking cane. From tales of ghostly apparitions to aristocrats meeting grisly ends, every corner brings another ghoulish story from San Francisco history. There's one stop on this tour we discovered, however, that tells a real-life story bigger than any Halloween legend: at the corner of Octavia and Bush streets, the place known as Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park. The ghost of Mary Ellen Pleasant — a 19th century entrepreneur who once lived in a now-vanished mansion nearby, and actually planted the eucalyptus trees above our heads — is said to still haunt this unlit corner. Her spirit is said to summon chills, frighten dogs and even throw eucalyptus nuts at passers-by. (For the record, we escaped unscathed that night.) Pleasant, Cagigal tells us, was born into slavery in the South and came to San Francisco in the mid-1800s — defying white society's constraints to not only amass great wealth, but to use her power to advance the cause of civil rights in the city. Yet she was also described as a witch, a "voodoo queen" and even a murderer. What's real here? "Her life is so enshrouded in mystery because she was her own spin doctor," says Sacramento writer and performer Susheel Bibbs, who has studied Pleasant's story for decades. Pleasant wrote three autobiographies — but each one contradicts the other on basic facts, such as the year of her birth. We do know that she was born in Georgia, and was raised in Nantucket, Massachusetts, "in indenture," says Bibbs. There on the East Coast, the young Pleasant became a crucial figure in the civil rights fight, secretly teaming up with abolitionists and rescuing escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. Her double life actually including presenting as a white woman when she could. "She was very used to being covert," Bibbs says. The death of her first husband left her rich, and she arrived in San Francisco in 1852 — still passing as white. She invested this sizable fortune in property by establishing boardinghouses and laundries: services that a town full of prospectors relied on. In these spaces, she learned the private secrets of powerful men, and used them as another kind of currency, to rise in society. While wealthy white people of San Francisco knew her as the white boardinghouse proprietress, the city's growing black community knew her real identity. To them, she was known as "The Black City Hall," who brought the Underground Railroad to the West and helped black people find employment. And almost a century before Rosa Parks, Pleasant challenged San Francisco's segregated transit system in court, winning black people the right to ride the streetcars. "My cause," Pleasant wrote in one of her memoirs, "was the cause of freedom and equality for myself and for my people. And I'd rather be a corpse than a coward." After the Civil War, over a decade after she arrived in the city, Pleasant finally checked the box that said "Black" on the census of 1865. While this undoubtedly caused a stir, Pleasant continued to move in wealthy white circles. But by the 1880s, the wild, mud-caked San Francisco that Mary Ellen Pleasant the capitalist had carved her way into had itself transformed into a "very much more overtly racist" city, says Bibbs. Across the nation, emancipated slaves became a convenient scapegoat for the economy's woes — and as a wealthy, older black woman, Pleasant now inspired suspicion, even fear. The press coined a racist nickname: "Mammy Pleasant." Whispers grew that she had some otherworldly hold over the wealthy white people she was close to — especially when Pleasant became entangled in the scandalous 1883 trial of Nevada Sen. William Sharon, accused of seducing and then abandoning a young woman. "It was like the O.J. Simpson trial" in notoriety, says Bibbs. Lawyers for Sharon claimed that Pleasant, as the young woman's friend, had used dark forces to manipulate her into entrapping the senator. And rather than rejecting the rumors, she defied them — encouraged them. She carried a voodoo doll in court, claiming she would use it to bring about his death. Wild thing is, he soon did die during the trial. Pleasant's status as a "voodoo queen" grew, cementing her reputation as a quasi-mystical figure in San Francisco. To the public, voodoo meant blood magic and malevolent intent. To Mary Ellen Pleasant, however, the real voodoo — vodoun, or vodun — was actually her religion from her ancestral homeland of Haiti, says Bibbs. Scandal followed scandal. When her business partner, a Scotsman named Thomas Bell, was found dead in Pleasant's mansion in 1899, his widow collaborated on a full-page smear piece in the San Francisco Chronicle with the headline "The Queen of the Voodoos." The press had used the language of the supernatural to describe her for years — but now, they made her into a flat-out monster, accusing her of witchcraft and heavily implying she murdered Bell. It's telling who gets a legend — and who gets a ghost story. Mary Ellen Pleasant was demonized in her own lifetime. Yet in a system so loaded against a black woman in the public eye, playing with rumor, as she did, was perhaps the only way to play the game — even if it was ultimately her undoing. She died in 1904, in her 90s, and her obituary in the San Francisco Examiner was titled: "Mammy Pleasant Will Work Weird Spells No More." How we're remembered depends on who's telling your story. And with such varying accounts, "one could not tell who she was," says Bibbs. "Was she the ... mother of civil rights, or was she a murderess?" Or as Christian Cagigal put it in closing on the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, under those eucalyptus trees she's said to haunt: "When there's three versions of your life story. We don't know what to do with your life story.... And we forget your story." He keeps Mary Ellen Pleasant on his ghost hunt, he says, "so we might start to remember."

Ghost of a Legend: How a San Francisco Civil Rights Icon Was Made a Monster

The San Francisco Origins of Green Goddess Dressing

California's iconic Green Goddess Dressing may be herbal and delicious — but its name has a not-so-savory history. Reported by Sasha Khokha. Bay Curious is made by Olivia Allen-Price, Jessica Placzek, Paul Lancour, Ryan Levi and Suzie Racho. Additional support from Julia McEvoy, Ethan Lindsey, Erika Kelly, Julie Caine, David Weir, Amanda Font, Carly Severn and Katie McMurran. Holly Kernan is Vice President for News. Theme music by Pat Mesiti-Miller. Ask us a question or sign up for our newsletter at BayCurious.org. Follow Olivia Allen-Price on Twitter @oallenprice.

Should Californians Allow Rent Control to Expand? Prop 10, Explained

Proposition 10 aims to overturn the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing act, which limits rent control throughout the state. Produced by Jessica Placzek. Featuring KQED's Guy Marzorati. Bay Curious is made by Olivia Allen-Price, Jessica Placzek, Paul Lancour, Ryan Levi and Suzie Racho. Additional support from Julie Caine, Ethan Lindsey, Katie McMurran and David Weir. Theme music by Pat Mesiti-Miller. Ask us a question or sign up for our newsletter at BayCurious.org. Follow Olivia Allen-Price on Twitter @oallenprice.

Back To Top