© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

The past comes alive at Potrero Hill’s Annual History Night

22 Fillmore tracks being laid at 18th and Connecticut - 1905
John Henry Mentz, Photographer | SFMTA Photo Archive
22 Fillmore tracks being laid at 18th and Connecticut - 1905

Potrero Hill is a quintessential San Francisco neighborhood. A village within the city. It’s got a view that never disappoints. Its houses are built on serpentine rock that’s rumored to hold magical powers. And it’s got a community feel, despite perpetual change. For our series Culture Keepers, we’re introduced to one small group of neighbors working to collect stories, and preserve the shared history of ‘The Hill.’ 

It’s a crisp fall evening and I’m at St. Teresa’s church, for the annual Potrero Hill History Night. Rosemary Ostler, whose family has lived on the hill for more than 75 years, guides me through the crowded church basement room to a table covered with large black and white photos depicting neighborhood scenes from the past.

“You have to come over here and see these pictures,” she says. “That's my dad in the hat. Then he pulls this one up. That's my mom hanging out of the window. And my brother thinks she was telling him, go next door to the store and buy some salami!”

Volunteers dish out slices of Goat Hill pizza while neighbors obsess over local history.

Leslie Castellanos says, “I'm just a junkie for old things. I studied some archaeology in college. I'm just, I have an active imagination. I love this stuff.”

There’s one person in the crowd I know pretty well: my mom, Penny Blair. Our family lived on the hill from 1973 to 1986.

“Six of us lived in the house we lived in, along with many cockroaches,” she remembers. “And actually it was the house where I believe the Potrero View started, in the basement there.”

That’s the neighborhood newspaper, which is still in print!

As people take their seats for the evening’s main program, Keith Goldstein, president of the local merchant association, warms up the crowd, finding out who has lived on Potrero Hill the longest. A couple of people have more than 80 years here.

The audience is roused by the headliner, former mayor of San Francisco, Art Agnos, who tells the crowd he came to Potrero Hill in 1967. Agnos, as you can imagine, has a lot of stories to tell.

There’s the one about Mother Theresa knocking on his door in the middle of the night, looking for a favor. And one about his human rights trip to El Salvador with the neighborhood priest.

“Before I tell you that story, I just wanna acknowledge Peter Linenthal, who's really a Potrero Hill treasure,” Agnos says. “And tonight is just one last example of that.”

He’s referring to the man who quietly organizes History Night.

I meet up with Peter away from the hubbub of History Night. He has another old photograph to show me, this one of the house I grew up in on Connecticut Street from 1905.

Peter is the Director of the Potrero Hill Archives Project, and he got into local history just like the rest of us.

“I was hoping I could find a picture of my house, like a lot of people are looking for.”

284 Connecticut Street, 1985 and 2023, at the corner of 18th and Connecticut Streets.
Molly and Kim Salyer
284 Connecticut Street, 1985 and 2023, at the corner of 18th and Connecticut Streets.

He says, when he moved to Potrero Hill in 1975, a neighbor named Julie Gildin had started an oral history project. “She was particularly interested in the Molokan Russian community that had moved to Potrero Hill after the 1906 earthquake. So I joined the archive project, and we were interviewing Molokans, and then it expanded to other long-time residents, and old photos began to appear.”

Over the decades, volunteers for the project have recorded around 100 interviews, representing the wide variety of lived experiences of hill residents.The group has projected old images out of neighborhood windows, and is making a community cookbook.

“I'm just curious about what I don't know and I want to find out more,” Peter explains. “I think the research we do and the interviews that we do… are all valuable. It all just kind of adds up.”

Peter says before the pandemic he’d go to big weekend gatherings for history lovers at the Old Mint. Now, he’s inspired by groups like the Western Neighborhood Project and Shaping SF.

History Night is the main event each year for the Potrero Hill Archives Project. But keeping history is precarious. Even though a lot of their footage is at the Main Library, Peter tells the crowd that proper storage, and making use of the archive, are pretty big challenges.

“History is not a museum, it’s a conversation.” And he makes a plea to move the archives out of his basement. “So if you should know of 600 square feet that a nonprofit could have long term, tell me about it. Thank you.”

When I ask Peter why he’s so keen on this stuff, his answer was pretty universal.

“It's a human instinct, I think, to be interested in the earlier days.”

This story was made to be heard click the play button above to listen

This story aired in the January 18, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

I was born and raised in San Francisco and grew up in SF Unified, listening to KALW. An avid traveller and cultural adventurer, I spent the 15 years leading up to the 2020 pandemic running youth hostels around the Bay Area and exploring as much as possible. More recently I've completed my MA at SF State in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts. I'm passionate about culture and community, and believe joy and pleasure are radical routes to social progress.