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Cesar Chavez Design Workshop Tonight; Precita Creek Past and Future

February 24, 2009

As noted by other fine blogs, the meeting is tonight at 6:30 at Leonard Flynn Elementary:


Which ironically enough is the building on the left in this photo from 1940 (looking west on Cesar Chavez / Army @ Harrison — note crazy street alignment was they widened it from 40 to 100 feet…)

And the lovely vista that Cesar Chavez and Harrison is now:


The old Precita Creek went right underneath where the school would go:


Blue is the creek, orange is the old Serpentine Ave, and red is the old Pioneer Race Track. Serpentine seems to have been laid out along an old stone wall that marked the southern border of Potrero Viejo.

Anyway, Precita Creek now runs through a giant storm drain under Cesar Chavez.

Precita Creek was one such arroyo. It fell from “Sun Valley” (south of Noe Valley), was joined by springwater and runoff from Bernal Heights, and at high water cut a 30-foot wide path across the southern Mission District, along today’s Cesar Chavez Street. Its waters dispersed on the way to Potrero Hill, and eventually ended up in Islais Creek’s vast estuarine bog.  By the 1860s, the area near today’s Precita Park had become a small village. Some 30 houses lined the creek, drawing their water upstream and using the creek as an open sewer. The marginal water flow in the stream was inadequate to properly carry the sewage off, and as a sanitary measure, the city built the first box sewer.

This sewer was thirteen feet across and ten feet tall, a wooden hallway big enough to drive a carriage through. The sewer was made large enough to carry storm flows–the volume of water that comprised a 30-foot wide creek. During dry season, the box was nearly empty, except for a trickle of liquid at the bottom. A couple years after its construction, an internal inspection found the box to be a stinking mess. Solid wastes had built up where laterals, or residential hookups, connected to the big box. Strange foliage grew in the darkness, fertilized by the human waste and compost that congealed on the floor. Indeed, the ecosystem inside the box was so efficient at removing nutrients, the water flowing out at the east end of the sewer near today’s General Hospital was clean enough to drink.

It was in 1878 that the city decided to straighten out Serpentine, build Army St and build a sewer underneath:


SECTION 1. The Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco are hereby authorized and empowered… To receive and accept from the owners or claimants of the lots and lands lying contiguous to “Precita creek,” from the Old San Jose Road to the San Bruno road of said city, a deed or deeds of a tract of land, not less than sixty-four feet in width, and without abrupt curves or short angles, to be located on a line to be located by and to be satisfactory to said Board of Supervisors, for the construction of a sewer therein, and for the purposes of a public street.

In this 1888 photo, overlooking Mission from Bernal, you see the new Army St.  You can just make out the Valencia and Mission St bridges going over the creek coming down from Twin Peaks.

(Anyone have a better resolution scan of this photo?)

It took a while to get the people to hook up to the new sewer however, despite the  threat from diptheria (nearly 1000 children died in an 1876-77 outbreak.) From the 1889 San Francisco Municipal Report:

During the past year I have designed a system of sewerage for a district covering from five to six hundred acres, embracing portions of the Potrero and Mission. This, I venture to say, is about the only district in San Francisco that has a thoroughly designed system, and where any attempt has been made to carry out the details. In referring to this matter I would respectfully call the attention of your Honorable Body to a point in this connection which I have spoken of before your committees, namely, the necessity of opening Potrero avenue trom the old line of Serpentine avenue through to Army street. This is necessary to complete the drainage system referred to, as there is no other available method of disposing of this sewage, and as it at present will discharge in front of private property. Arrangements cannot be made too rapidly for its accomplishment.

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