Oldest San Francisco
Today we’re going on a tour of San Francisco institutions that have been in operation the longest. They are all entries in the new book, “Oldest San Francisco,” by Alec Scott.
Hana: First we visit the oldest recording studio in San Francisco to learn about this beating heart of the Tenderloin.
Knock on door
Hana: Hyde Street’s Studio manager Jack Kertzman knocks on the door of Studio A before entering –
JK: So we have Jonathan from the band Quench in with our engineer Will Chasen
Hana: They’re laying down a drum track to fill out the rest of a song. Since the dawn of the “San Francisco Sound,” this has been the City’s soundboard.
JK: It’s been nearly every day, probably 340 days a year that there is music being made in these rooms
Hana: Walk down the labyrinthine hallways, and you see gold records, and photos of artists from the studio’s early years.
JK: Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Phil Lesh, and Neil Young…
Hana: And more recent folks.
JK: You see Cake, Chris Issak, Joe S, Train
Hana: Here’s the guy in charge.
MW: I'm Michael Ward. I've been the current owner of Hyde Street Studios for 43 long years.
Hana: He and Jack are a bit of an odd pair. Michael’s got a tight, receding silver ponytail, and wears socks with his sandals. His cream waffle henley and faded blue jeans are worn in, just right. Jack’s got a faded lip ring scar, a green and black checkered shirt and brown lumberjack boots. But their dynamic is part of what makes the studio still hum. The first time he came into the Studio, Michael was an outsider, looking in. It was the late ‘70s. Michael had cobbled together a DIY recording studio at his home, and had come to Hyde Street — then “Wally Heider Studios” — to grab some tape for his at-home setup.
MW: I came down, stood out in the lobby. I think the Pointer Sisters were in there. The door was open and whatever was happening, they weren't happy.
MW: You know there was constant tension, apparently, between the suits and the freaks.
MW: I felt like, you know, a geek. Someone who was outside the magic circle.
Hana: A few years later, he got a call that the studio was available and he took advantage.
MW: Basically we just moved in, first and last month’s rent.
Hana: Since then, he’s had many opportunities to stand inside the “magic circle.” It’s where engineer Joe Bagale mans the board today, and welcomes KALW in.
Joe: right on, very cool, welcome to it, this is studio D.
Hana: Michael says, a lot of the most well-known artists come out of Hyde Street recorded in Studio D.
MW: Somebody said anyone who reaches this point, you should understand what has happened in this room. Merle Haggard and all the people that have done records in here.
Hana: Musicians like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Herbie Hancock. Michael says, some artists have almost too much reverence for the musicians who’ve come before. Take Chapito Areas, the percussionist from Santana.
MW: I had to be in the room with him because he said there were ghosts in here.
Hana: But the ghosts don’t bother Michael. He doesn’t rest on his laurels, or spend too much time bemoaning all the other studios in San Francisco that have shuttered.
MW: All that preserving stuff, you know, that — as the saying goes — plus a dollar and a half gets you a cup of coffee. It's not the stuff that really profits you to think about daily, I don’t think.
Hana: Michael and studio manager Jack Kertzman — are more concerned with the living.
JK: The bands that you get in here, the artists that you get in here are, you know, feeling the frustrations of the city or the joys of the city and they're using San Francisco to influence their music, and it's kind of keeping this as a unique breeding ground for, for interesting music.
MW: I'm concerned with what I'm doing and making it functional for them and me. Forever and always.
Hana: That “magic circle” is still spinning.
Hana: Now, we're going from downtown and heading south into Noe Valley. On a block at the edge of the neighborhood, there’s a three-story beige apartment building that always has a crowd in front of it — even on a cold day. It’s Mitchell’s Ice Cream, the oldest known ice-cream maker that’s still owned by the original family based in the city. It’s been serving cones and sundaes from its shop on the building’s ground floor since 1953.
Hana: Ask customers their order, and you’ll hear some expected choices...
Coffee and marble fudge
Strawberries and cream in the little Giants helmet
…but you’ll also hear about the international flavors the shop’s famous for...
I have a feeling it’s going to be ube
And I’m getting the horchata flavor with the tropical four
Pint of avocado and cone of avocado
…and some inventive mixes...
Chocolate peanut butter with mango, and it’s really good.
Hana: KALW sampled some flavors and learned more about Mitchell's story. You can hear Mitchell’s before you can see it. There’s the crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside, under the polka-dotted sign, and workers calling numbers from a loudspeaker. Inside the tight space, customers grab a number from a red dispenser, then crowd up to the glass freezers, where workers scoop from deep tubs of ice cream, grab cones, and make shakes and sundaes. In the production room just behind them, the shop’s workhorse machine churns out a batch of purple ube ice cream. Overseeing everything is operations manager Marlon Payumo. He is originally from the Philippines.
MP: I came here in 1988…not knowing what to expect.
MP: I didn't have any money. I only had about $300 in my pocket.
Hana: When he heard that an ice cream shop was hiring, he applied.
MP: Brian Mitchell interviewed me on the spot…he hired me right away.
Hana: And Marlon’s been working at Mitchell’s ever since. But It wasn’t always easy.
MP: When I first came to this country, I didn't speak English. I barely finished high school when I left my country. Barely. I was about 19 years old then. I was actually nervous every time a customer would come and order. I didn't know what to say! My heart starts pumping. It was pumping hard. I was nervous. Oh, gosh.
Hana: But he rose up, to supervisor, then assistant manager, to now serving as operations manager.
MP: I met my wife over here, too.
Hana: He’d been working at Mitchell's for a year when she came in for a job interview.
MP: Thirty-two years later, she's my wife… we are both the operation managers at Mitchell's at this point. We've been working for the company more than half our lives. We grew up here, we grew up at Mitchell's, they became our family.
Hana: He says that's a good fit for the Mitchells, who run a family-oriented business.
MP: We are the Mitchells. Our last name is not Mitchell, but we're living like the Mitchells because they wanted good people to run and operate their company.
Hana: Larry and Jack Mitchell opened their shop in the same small storefront on San Jose Avenue in June 1953, starting out with 19 flavors.
MP: When they started, you know, they just wanted to serve a premium quality ice cream. Standard flavor I must say.
Hana: But during the '60s, the Mitchells were working with a broker.
MP: He imports fruit from different countries, I believe.
Hana: And he convinced them to buy some mango that he had brought back from the Philippines. This is why they claim to be the first shop in the Bay Area to offer mango ice cream. At the same time, the area around Mitchells was diversifying, with more people from Latin America, and the Philippines moving in.
MP: Filipinos during the seventies, early seventies or so, started immigrating to the Bay Area…they heard that mango from the Philippines are being used here in San Francisco, at Mitchell's Ice Cream. They got curious, they got excited. When they tried it, it was good, it was delicious, they liked it!… after that, uh, other tropical flavors was brought in too. Like ube, macapuno, langka.
Hana: …purple yam, a coconut variety, and jackfruit, all from the Philippines. An employee who immigrated from Peru suggested the Mitchells try making an ice cream fromlúcuma, a Peruvian fruit.
MP: When we started producing that flavor, it became a big hit, lúcuma. It tastes like maple.
Hana: Other additions include Mexican chocolate, horchata, and Japanese Hojicha — roasted green tea.
MP: So it's, it's limitless at this point. Whatever, you know, we listen to people's requests. Opinions. We're open.
Hana: And with customers from so many backgrounds, there’s inspiration everywhere.
MP: That’s the best thing about Mitchell’s. It’s so diverse.
Hana: That, and seeing generations of Mitchell’s fans develop.
MP: Working for so many years, five days a week, you get to remember faces. I’ve seen kids walking in here with their mom, and then years later, you see them with kids of their own. We celebrated our 70th year about a few months back, that was just a testament. It just shows. How much Mitchell's are loved how much we're supported by the community.
Hana: That and seeing generations and generations of Mitchell's fans.
Hana: For our next story we are heading just about two miles away to the corner of 18th and Castro Street. Images of the rainbow flag are ubiquitous here. They’re hanging in store windows, they stud the escalators in Harvey Milk Plaza, and even make up the stripes in the crosswalk.
We’re visiting from Australia right now, and as soon as we got off the train at this stop, the first thing we saw before the naked people was the flags. And we kind of went “okay, cool, we’re in a good spot. We’re in the right place.”
Hana: But as we’ll learn, the rainbow flag has only been a symbol for the queer community for 45 years. In the '60s and '70s, LGBTQ people from around the country flocked to San Francisco. It was just more queer-friendly than other places. Cleve Jones is a human rights activist.
CJ: There was a conversation – ongoing – about the need for a unifying symbol for this emerging community and movement.
Hana: Some people were using the pink triangle as a Pride symbol. But that was used by the Nazis as a badge of shame for gay people.
CJ: We needed something positive and unifying.
Hana: Gay rights activists as well as Supervisor Harvey Milk urged artists to design a symbol for the 1978 Freedom Day Parade — now called the Pride parade. The parade decorations committee made two enormous flags to fly at UN Plaza during the parade — 30 x 60 feet each — so big that they could not be carried by hand.
CJ: Oh it was just gorgeous…you know when the wind took it, and the sun broke through the morning clouds, it was extraordinarily beautiful. I’d never seen a flag that large, and um the colors were just so vibrant, it really took my breath away. The most lovely part of that morning was just standing on the sidelines and seeing all the people in the parade, came walking …between the two flags…We just watched as thousands of people walked beneath them and looked up and their faces were just transformed. There was just such a joyousness to it that I’ll never forget.
Hana: One of those original flags is on display at the GLBT historical society museum,on 18th Street at Castro.Andrew Shaffer works at the museum. He says receiving the original rainbow flag was almost a religious experience.
AS: When we were installing it, I got to — very delicately, wearing gloves — just touch a little piece of the fabric. And it sort of felt like touching like the Shroud of Turin. Like this is kind of our queer origin stories. And it felt like touching something that is almost magical.
Hana: But the flag is very real. It lives in a glass display case, in all of its eight glorious original colors. The size is impressive, even though only about one third of the original flag remains.
AS: Yeah, as we're walking up to the flag, you can see obviously the colors first, but as you get closer, you can see they're kind of discolored.
Hana: It’s made of cotton muslin. Forty-five years later, it has an almost fuzzy quality.
AS: No one makes a flag out of this kind of fabric.
Hana: The people who made it hand-dyed each stripe. It kind of looks like tie dye.
AS: The colors are faded, there's spots, there's imperfections. This does not look like a mass produced object. You can tell it's made with love.
Hana: On that original flag design, there were eight stripes, and each color had a meaning:
AS: So pink for sex, red for life, orange was for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, turquoise was for art and magic, blue for serenity, and purple for the spirit.
Hana: Andrew says, the rainbow flag just captured the zeitgeist of the moment. Two years earlier, in 1976, people rallied around the American flag during the Bicentennial of the United States.
AS: The rainbow flag did the same thing for queer people where it was something that we could grab onto and say like, this is going to bring us all together. I think it sort of maps to that moment in queer history where, again, things look like they could be getting better. You know, we were electing openly queer people. We were passing anti-discrimination ordinances. And yes, there was resistance and pretty heavy resistance, but there were good reasons in 1978 to believe that the next decade would be a lot better than the previous decade.
Hana: Today on Castro Street, people have a wide range of feelings about the rainbow flag.
It’s gone real commercial.
Seeing the rainbow flag for the first time was a jaw-dropping experience.
I don’t really think I have, I don’t have a lot of strong opinions about the flag.
Hana: The flag as a symbol has also changed with the times. Subsets of the LGBTQ community have made their own flags — including the pink, blue, and white trans flag, and the bear flag, in earth tones. Some people criticize the symbol, saying it has been co-opted by capitalist interests. But at some point, Andrew Shaffer of the GLBT Historical Society Museum says he began to understand that, for many people, the symbol of the rainbow flag means “I will be safe in this space.”
AS: And so to, to be charged with now taking care of like the object that made all of that possible is, is a pretty awesome responsibility. And it's also, I think, a delight to be able to share that with so many people.
Hana: Cleve Jones has said this symbol could not have been created anywhere else.
CJ: It was something special and unique and wonderful about San Francisco, our history, our geography, our architecture, the air, the way the fog comes down the hills, it’s a wonderful place.
Hana: Now, from The Castro we are going to head north all the way until we meet the ocean. On the edge of Aquatic Park, there’s a building with a big white wall, and a red door. From the street, it would be easy to walk by and have no idea what’s behind it.
But this unassuming facade houses the oldest swim and rowing club in San Francisco.And the front door faces the Bay. Everything about this club is oriented to the water. It’s 7 in the morning, and several members of the South End Rowing Club are just coming in from swimming in the bay.
Yeah, I think most of us who swim in the mornings, it's about this time and it's San Francisco, so it's always beautiful, right? Sometimes it's foggy, sometimes it's lit up. There's just no better place in the world to swim.
I second that.
Hana: Inside, club president Fran Hegeler is still in her bathing suit.
FH: Sorry about that. My swim got a little longer than expected. The current was really strong.
Hana: The main building of the clubhouse is 20-ft high, with wood floors, dim light, and a museum smell.
FH: … and everywhere you look are boats: long boats, wooden boats, rowboats.
Hana: …and oars all along the walls. It’s kind of a combination gym and social club.
FH: So come on. Let me just show you this first. So, um, this is our bar area. We have a little bar. Come on. These are handball courts.
Hana: As she continues the tour, she runs into a group of about eight swimmers going up the stairs only wearing towels.
Oh my god, it's a birthday swim! Woo! Oh yeah! Allie, happy birthday! Awesome!
FH: So, there's a tradition here at the South End Rowing Club, and that when it's your birthday you swim in your birthday suit. That happens here. A lot.
Hana: Fran says, the South End Rowing Club and its 2200 members are living history.
FH: These boats, they are active boats. We work on these boats, we take them out. We row them. Can I just say how proud I am to be president of this club on its 150th birthday? It's the coolest thing. Seriously. So it started in 1873.
Hana: The first clubhouse was in China Basin, close to where the Chase Center is today. It started as a rowing club.
FH: So the club has kind of evolved to be what it is today through the sort of social glue that emerges from shared experiences of being out in, on the water.
Hana: Jim Hentz was born and raised in San Francisco.
JH: I'm second generation down here. I was just a little kid, and my father brought me down here, put a swimsuit on me, took me out to the end of the pier and threw me in. He said, “Start kicking.” So I've been around here all my life.
Hana: Nina says, when she joined a year ago, she thought she’d swim and use the gym.
NG: And instead I have become a rower and a handball player, which is not what I expected. But the club communities are really, really great and you just kind of find your people in unexpected places. Not everybody gets to row around Alcatraz and make it back to their house for a 9am meeting. So I feel pretty special with that.
Hana: Jeff Cooperman says swimming with others from South End is different from going to the gym, because it’s a shared experience.
JC: Just being out in nature, going on little adventures every day and that's it's a special thing. We’re all friends. It’s a very big community.
Hana: President Fran Hegeler says she thinks that comes from it being an all-volunteer organization.
FH: literally everything is done by volunteers here
Hana: That builds patience.
FH: and you recognize that you've got to pull your weight and sometimes you've got to pull more than your weight. People don't have institutions where they get that anymore. I really think that's true. And I know myself that I didn't realize I was starved for it until I had it. And now I have it. And I can't imagine life without it.
FH: I want you to say hi to Aaron.
Madam president. All rise. Department 19 is now in session.
FH: President of the board of supes right here.
HOST: That’s Supervisor Aaron Peskin. The club’s a short distance from his home in North Beach.
AP: I just roll down the hill. Come down here, have some coffee, swim around, take a hot shower, no sauna necessary this time of year, and then suit up and go to City Hall.
Hana: At the dock, Nina, who we met earlier, and her partner Pranay Desai, are prepping a fiberglass two seater, a Coastal Double, to take out for a morning row. Fran says, places like the South End Rowing Club matter in a city where people don’t always know their neighbors.
FH: We are social creatures. And so when you come to a place where you can do what you love to do with other people who love to do what you love to do, and they embrace you and they are curious about you and they support you, and it's not about what you look like or how much money you make or how good you are at something, it's like, “Are we doing this together?” And it is transcendent, in my opinion. And it's a pretty rare thing, you know.
All the places we went to today are featured in Alec Scott’s new book, “Oldest San Francisco.” They were reported by our 2024 Audio Academy cohort and this show was produced by KALW Senior Editor Lisa Morehouse.