Growing up in Noe Valley

K. Ripp, Wikimedia

Noe Valley. I lived there once, on the hill, on the street that cleaves Twin Peaks, in a house with a window that pictured the world – San Francisco Bay, the neon Dutch Boy sign with the child mechanically waving a paint brush, cargo ships resting like driftwood, waiting to dock.

The city’s roar and diesel fumes swirled through my grandmother’s open front window on winds from the ocean. We watched TV, black and white Crusader Rabbit cartoons, played on ratty oriental carpets, broke the faux Chippendale furniture, ignored the framed prints from Sears, and relied on the house’s skylights to illuminate the gloom. When someone asks “where are you from,” images of growing up in the 1950s in Noe Valley rush in before I answer, then I tell them the truth in those two words, words that once named my universe.

In that Irish enclave where my family had lived for several generations, my Great Aunt Eva lay dying of old age and widow’s despair in the back bedroom. My father, his bony body spent, curled up drunk on the bedstead in the basement. Next door, Mr. Anderson, the neighborhood bachelor, pruned shrubs in his front garden. He had a hot house in the back, propagated cuttings from the nursery in Golden Gate Park where he worked, shared the strongest ones with my grandmother. He called the four of us kids “the weeds.”

Our side of the hothouse—a fence divided our yards and the structure, but the long narrow hothouse was there first—it served as a playroom. We invited the neighbor kids back there and ran through the flower beds and Grandma’s thoughtful plantings: calla lilies, coral bells, primroses and iris in spring. We climbed on the playhouse roof, careful not to get pricked by the climbing Cecile Brunner rose that provided pink bouquets for our yellow tea table. Mr. Anderson, his watery blue eye trained on us through the crack in the boards, knocked on the wood when we said bad words or socked each other.

My first crush, Michael Esterbrook, came over from across the street in his coonskin cap. We played saloon, Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone. I’d be Miss Kitty from “Gun Smoke” and try to trick him into a kiss, but my brothers were always there, lifting butterfly cocoons from the Shasta daisies or prying quartz rocks from the birdbath to use as ammo, distracting us. I put nasturtiums and white iris in my hair, sucked nectar from the flower tubes. Michael never kissed me. I kissed my pretty dolls as I lay them in their tole-painted toy beds.

Sometimes my grandmother called us in from a back window and we’d trudge with her, all four of us kids, down to the grocery store at 24th and Castro. She’d buy lamb chops at the butcher shop, chat with the neighbors. We’d ogle the pig’s head in the shop window, peek around the paper 3-D glasses to study it’s milky eyes, get free slices of baloney from the butcher, wait for the 11 Hoffman bus to carry us back up the hill with our sacks of canned food. Back to where I’m from.

View from Twin Peaks today

Noe Valley garden, similar to the one where I grew up.
Our “playhouse” was hidden in the far back corner.
Courtesy: Noe Valley Voice

1903 image of the area of Noe Valley where I grew up.

Westerly view up 30th Street from Noe, in 1926, when it was just dirt paths.
Photo: Greg Gaar Collection, San Francisco, CA

Me on our family’s Hudson Hornet about 1952.

Axford House at 1190 Noe Street at 25th.
Built in 1877 by William Axford, owner of Mission Iron Works.
A block from James Lick Jr. High School where my mother attended
and where I later went. We had some of the same teachers.
Photo: David Green

 1937 James Lick school yard,
about the time my mother went there.
Twin Peaks in the background

School yard today. When I went to Lick
the big yard was for the boys. There’s a fence and small
lower yard on the right near the building that was for the girls.
We played jump rope and hopscotch. Back in the day,
pre-Title IX , adopted in 1972 and requiring equality in sports,
physical education was separate — and decidedly unequal.  

Italianate row on Vicksburg St.,
at the “bottom of the hill.”
Courtesy Alan Ferguson 

Many of the historical images in this post are from What is

It’s a wiki that invites history buffs, community leaders and San Francisco citizens of all kinds to share their stories, images, and videos from past and present. There are over 1,800 articles presenting primary sources, essays, and images from San Francisco history… and site managers hope you’ll add to it to help it grow!

Images and stories about Noe Valley can be found at:

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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