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District 4: Sunset surprises

By Betsey Culp

If you don’t live in the Sunset, you’re likely to dismiss it.         

“Wholesome,” pronounces the Examiner’s Ilene Lelchuk, “the most westerly, most foggy, most conservative part of San Francisco.” “There are few places in San Francisco that could be termed unpleasant,” Deborah Bosley and Jamie Jensen add in “The Real Guide,” but neighborhoods like the Sunset can certainly be described as monotonous — clean, quiet streets, spread out across a large area, and leading eventually to Ocean Beach, the largest and least arresting stretch of San Francisco’s shoreline.”

But if you’re a resident of the rectangle that stretches from 19th Avenue to the Pacific, and from Lincoln to Sloat, you probably hold a very different opinion. Maybe it’s the light, clear and all-illuminating as it reflects off the ocean. Maybe it’s the unpretentious stucco houses standing side by side along street after street. In any case, Sunset people tend to be passionate about where they live. One native son of the western fringes described his return home after visiting his parents in Palm Springs: “As the taxi entered the Sunset, I rolled down the window and eagerly began to scoop in the fog.”

This is not to say that all of District 4 is the same. It’s a place of vignettes: A young blond scraping down his surfboard on the sidewalk in front of his house in Ocean Beach. Four generations celebrating the 90th birthday of the mater familias at an Italian restaurant on Taraval, presenting her with a bright red blanket — to take to ’Niners games. The handsome scion of an old San Francisco family hopping on his bike at 27th Avenue and pedaling like a madman, dodging cars and yelling at drivers, all the way to his job at SF General. A trio of Chinese American teenagers bent over the engine of an old Chevrolet.

The pooh-pooh-ers are right. Compared to the eastern shores of the city, the Sunset is quiet — a good place to raise kids. And indeed, 20 percent of the residents are under the age of 30. At the same time, its voters tend to be older than the citywide population, more religious and slightly more affluent. About 58 percent of them own their own homes, compared to 45 percent citywide. Not surprisingly, they tend to vote for conservative candidates and issues.


In the case of the Sunset, there are many but’s to roil the political waters. Most obvious is its ethnic composition: some 45 percent of all residents are Asian. Most — one third of all residents — are Chinese American, compared to 18 percent for the city as a whole. But while 71 percent of the Caucasian residents go marching off to their neighborhood polling place, only 16 percent of these Asians are likely to vote. Or were likely to vote in the past. Imagine the pundits’ consternation if an issue managed to jump-start these stay-at-homes.

It’s possible that such an issue will arise this fall. Like most people who live on the other side of the peaks, District 4 residents tend to feel slighted by City Hall. They worry, for example, that their children’s needs are going unserved because their parks and schools need TLC. They know that the attention they seek has been going to other, more insistent parts of town. A case in point is the recent proposal to build a 43-unit affordable housing project for teachers on the Parkside Elementary School playground. Housing on a playground! Neighbors complain that they had met with school district officials for three years, making plans to rebuild the school, with no inkling that the housing project was in the offing. Supervisor and candidate Leland Yee has plunged into the brouhaha: “According to a Park and Rec survey, the Sunset/Parkside has the least amount of space available for children to play. We need to preserve open space.”

In this district of single-family homes and precisely laid-out streets, housing is tight and traffic is troublesome, just as they are elsewhere. If any of the seven candidates can convince the residents that he can bring home their bacon, he’ll be a shoo-in. And if he’s Asian, and particularly Chinese, he might even entice non-voters to emerge from their tunnel-entranced homes.

Voting statistics from the past few years’ elections label this a conservative district, but the Sunset has a history of innovation that suggests it was actually ahead of its time.

Take the rows and rows of uniform houses that inspire so much derision. The brainchildren of a developer named Henry Doelger, they popped up like mushrooms beginning in the 1920s, obscuring the sand dunes that once extended the beach far inland. On the Western Neighborhoods website (http://www.outsidelands.org/), Steve LaBounty quotes a “romantic newspaperman” who watched the growth process: “There was only one way to sell homes out in the Sunset District of San Francisco in those days; you hammered a few nails along with the carpenters and when a prospective buyer came along, off came the coveralls, and presto, instant real estate salesman.” In the 1930s and 1940s Doelger and his brother Frank became early Joe O’Donoghues of sorts, often churning out two houses a day. (After World War II Henry moved on to Daly City, where he created the Westlake subdivision.)

But the comparison with O’Donoghue ends with speed of construction. Doelger houses, which originally sold for about $5,000, were built with ordinary families in mind. Framed in redwood, they were built to last. Constructed cookie-cutter style to cut costs, they found variety in a catalogue of trim from English Cottage to Modernistic. Architects Sally and John Woodbridge add that plans for the subdivision called for underground utilities and nearby commercial strips with enticements for merchants.

In the 1960s the Sunset led a fight that turned city transit on its head just as the Doelgers had revolutionized moderate-priced housing. As automobiles surged onto San Francisco’s streets following World War II, state planners projected a network of freeways linking the bridges and major parts of the city. A key link would have paralleled 19th Avenue. In a heated campaign that resembled later neighborhood opposition to the Central Freeway, residents said no, no way, never, not at all, forcing the Board of Supervisors to back out of the program. Instead of an elevated concrete thoroughfare that would have blocked sunlight and divided the neighborhood, the western side of the city is served by a broad, sometimes clogged esplanade lined with homes. San Franciscans ever since have opted for less efficient but more human-scaled road systems.

This November in the Sunset, there won’t be the kinds of fireworks that greet some of the races in other parts of the city. The roster is a rather subdued lot. Farthest left stands designer and cabinetmaker Jeff Rogers, a relative newcomer to San Francisco politics. Consultant John Shanley, once on the staff of State Senator Quentin Kopp, stands for protecting homeowners and neighborhoods from outside incursion, either by developers or by the city. Darryl Honda, “unbought and unbossed,” is running on experience derived from owning one of the city’s “most customer-friendly video stores.”  Vietnamese immigrant Vu-Duc Vuong has long been active in local and national affairs; he’s a professor of social work at SF State and founder of the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement.

In what may be an odd display of ethnic fence-sitting, Our Mayor has endorsed two candidates, Arab-American small businessman Ron Dudum and Chinese-American small businessman Tom Hsieh. Dudum told the Bay Guardian, “If you’re going to get anything done in this city, you’ve got to work with Willie Brown.” Hsieh speaks of restoring a voice to the Sunset, of ensuring delivery of the Sunset’s “fair share of services.”

Incumbent Leland Yee is the carpetbagger, having moved to 24th Avenue about a year ago rather than challenge Mark Leno in District 8. He’s been endorsed by former mayor Frank Jordan and DA Terence Hallinan, but his positions on the Board of Supervisors have always been too independent to align him consistently with Tom Ammiano. Nor would such a liaison serve him well in this district.

Instead, Yee is riding through this election like a mild-mannered Lone Ranger, joining forces with no faction. It’s likely that he’ll win. And if he does, he may be part of another Sunset innovation, for occasionally, in districts here and there throughout the city, faint rumblings are rising of new alliances that are neighborhood-centered and issue-linked, something more akin to the grassroots Neighborhoods Alliance for Political Awareness than the conventional progressive/moderate paths of the past.