by Lester Zeidman
Originally published in The Potrero View in August 2015, and also online.
Staffers during early days of The Potrero View.
The idea of starting a print newspaper today would be seen as quaint. The ease of communicating in the Internet age is sharply different than the challenge faced 45 years ago by five Potrero Hill residents who wanted to keep their neighbors informed about important goings-on.
Bill and Jodie Dawson, together with Lenny Anderson — whose conscientious objector status during the draft required him to do “community service” – Micky Ostler, and Rose Marie Sicoli, took up just that challenge. In January 1970 they launched, out of the Dawson’s Connecticut Street house, a newsletter they called “Hills and Dales". This precursor to The Potrero View was written on a legal-sized sheet of paper. Its articles were typed on a blue stencil and printed on St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church’s mimeograph machine. The handout was distributed through local businesses, free. At the time it was the only way to effectively disseminate local news to immediate neighbors.
Hills and Dales came out sporadically, but its founders remained convinced of the need for a community newspaper, and began broadening its scope to cover the social issues of the day. Wanting to become a real newspaper, one that could get City Hall’s attention, the group turned for guidance to Eileen Maloney, a transplanted New Yorker who had newspaper experience at Long Island’s Newsday, and San Francisco’s Progress.
The founders met with Eileen on July 13, 1970. By the end of the meeting Eileen was on board as editor. Thanks to her, the Potrero Hill Mob, as they called themselves, produced the first issue of The Potrero View on August 1, just three weeks after that fateful evening.
The new name was Ostler’s inspiration. He was looking out his window one morning, and the title “The Potrero View” came to him. It simultaneously acknowledged the community’s “famous view” and “our point of view.” As there’d be a political slant to the paper, the Mob wanted all to know — especially City Hall — that this newspaper was from Potrero Hill.
Gone were the days of typing stencils for mimeographing. Articles were typed on IBM Selectrics, headlines were created with rubdown type, and photographs were made into screened prints. These elements were pasted on layout sheets, which were delivered to the printer by hand, via car or bicycle, as late as midnight before the day the paper was scheduled to go to press. This laborious process continued more or less without the aid of computers until the late-1990s.
“A regular neighborhood newspaper is the first step in the effort to bring this community together in order to solve our common problems,” read a statement in The Potrero View’s first issue, which was published “in the hope that Potrero Hill might come together.” The Mob grew. By the end of 1970, many new volunteers were participating, mostly unnamed, until the first staff box appeared in November 1970. The staff numbered seven people, six listed as “contributors.” Realizing money was needed to continue functioning the Mob suggested that readers subscribe for a mere $2 per year.
Ruth Passen became a contributor in the January 1971 issue and was promoted to “staff” in February. The first display ads appeared in that February edition; none of those original advertisers exist today. Chip’s Liquors, “ask for Big Lou” – 18th and Connecticut streets – DeRosa Bros. Grocery, which celebrated its 50th anniversary, having opened in 1921 at 20th and Arkansas; The Fabulous Greek at 17th and Kansas, claiming to be “S.F.’s most talked about cocktail lounge”; and The Hollander, a restaurant on the corner now occupied by Goat Hill Pizza, whose advertisement was printed upside down.
When Maloney left the paper in the spring of 1971, “we were thoroughly schooled in her writing, editing and design styles,” wrote Lenny Anderson on the occasion of her death in 1997, “and we tried to remain true to what she taught us. But none of us ever matched her ability to cut to the jugular and get the story.” Lenny himself left the paper a year later.
By August 1971, the View was eight pages; the staff had to work hard to fill those extra column inches. Since a free press can also include a fun press, a recipe for “Carp Carousel,” which appeared on Page 8, instructed readers on stuffing a fresh carp with chocolate cake and goat milk, boiling it “until tender” and serving the dish with lima beans “as a treat for the kids.” Lovely. The View returned to four pages the next month.
By May 1972, the Mob had outgrown the space available to them on Connecticut Street. Their plea for help resulted in an “overwhelming response.” They landed on the ground floor –which was part basement as well – of an annex to the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, where they remained for the next 32 years. Riding this wave of success, they asked readers for a filing cabinet.
Political ads also appeared in the June 1972 issue, including a “Re-elect John Burton for Congress” ad, along with Potrero Hill’s own Bob Gonzales advocating for the same seat. Shirley Chisholm bought an ad for her “outrageous” run for President, but the View recommended Democrat George McGovern in the June primary. George did not buy an ad.
The View, which today is San Francisco’s oldest continually published neighborhood newspaper, abruptly disappeared October 1972. The November issue asked readers if they’d missed the paper and admitted to a month of reflection on what’d been accomplished and where money might be found to keep publishing. The original members of Hills and Dales had disappeared from the staff box. However, Ostler and Sicoli continued the relationship they’d developed working together on the paper; they married in 1978. New Mob members appeared who would last for decades: Janet Cox, Ruth Goldhammer, Peggy Ohta, Bob Hayes, Jon Greenburg, Vas Arnautoff, and Larry Gonick, among others, all joined Ruth Passen as regular contributors in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
The December 1972 issue announced that McGovern had lost the election but won Potrero Hill in a landslide, with 62 percent voting for him. President Nixon, who would resign the office within two years, garnered less than 20 percent of the vote. As with all subsequent elections, Passen traveled to City Hall to retrieve voting results for individual precincts. Hill precinct votes were tabulated and laboriously typed out – tab, space, space, type – and noted in the View. In the same issue was the beginning of a new tradition; the appearance of the View Holiday Cookie Recipe. No fish or lima beans were involved.
It’s hard not to see the present when you visit the past. Early Potrero Views contained many articles that reflect today’s on-going concerns. A plea for more mental health services; a lack of support for a potential “southern crossing” of the bay; and the aftermath of an oil spill were all noted in February 1971. By June 1972, a regional vote was held to decide the fate of the southern crossing, with a front page editorial titled “Southern span yes or no.” The eight-lane freeway was estimated to cost $556 million and included a Bay Front Freeway that ran from San Mateo to the 280 freeway entirely on the bay. The View recommended a “NO” vote.
Last year the View printed an article headed “The Scents of Potrero Hill.” It warmly described various aromas produced on the Hill, including First Spice Mixing Company at Mariposa and Arkansas streets, equating the scents emanating from that establishment to that of a restaurant. In [ttps://archive.org/details/potreroview28unse August 1971], a View article titled “The Smells of Potrero Hill” had a little more to work with. “Ours is a more or less pleasant odor,” said Mr. Markham of First Spice Mixing, and then indicted his neighbor across the street at the Safeway Coffee Plant, on 1501 Mariposa Street, as the worst olfactory offender. “’The smell of coffee isn’t bad’ remarked a kind receptionist, who gave the View a free cup of the stuff,” and told them, “What you ought to do is check out that spice factory across the street.” The Hill suffered what were known as “smell spells.” The article mentioned a number of companies in “Butchertown” that were to blame: Royal Tallow and Soap Co., at 429 Amador Street; James Allen & Sons, a meat processing plant at Third and Evans; Pacific Rendering Co., “next to the dump,” prompted the View to describe the aroma there as “viscous;” an employee declared that, “They pay me $16,000 a year so I don’t give a damn what it smells like.” Another local offender was the Pioneer Soap Co. at 18th and Carolina, which processed tallow and phosphates to make industrial and laundry soap – “Globo” – which created what the View termed “a musky smell.” It was acknowledged that little got done “until the smells reached Telegraph Hill.”
The Potrero View followed up in December 1971, and reported that the Safeway Coffee Plant would “alleviate or possibly eliminate the odor” by September 1972, citing a petition from 29 Hill residents to the Bay Area Air Pollution Control District. The View also reported in February 1976 about the Best Foods Plant at 18th and Bryant, “a source of noxious odors to Potrero Hill residents since 1940” and their efforts to correct the problem.
Muni wanted to acquire eight acres of land in the “Dog Patch” area, reported the View in January 1972. The following month, a front page box apologized to the “people living near the proposed Muni car-barn” for referring to the area as Dog Patch, stating that it was in fact “a concerned and active part of the Potrero Hill and in no way resembled the chaotic community of Li’l Abner comic strip fame.” The front page also announced Enola Maxwell had been named the new executive director of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House after a five-month vacancy; at three different meetings board of directors “wrangled” with Ms. Maxwell’s supporters. The final vote, however, was “marked by unity and cooperation.” Maxwell headed the Nabe with vigor and charisma until her death in 2003.
The paper continued in 1972 with more pleas for community help, and hopefully more money. “Right now this unique and remarkably local monthly is heading for the roughest period of its young life.” By now, staff had declined to “lately well under ten,” though 13 people were mentioned in the staff box. But the View continued on and by August announced its second birthday party at McKinley Park, with music, painting, and a glue-in.
[Enola] Maxwell had a “modest proposal” whereby black people would refrain from being arrested for the summer. “Black people are the greatest supporters of the local police. We provide high-paying jobs for many people in the law enforcement field.” She noted in the article the “strange relationship” with law enforcement. “[Black people] claim fear of the police, yet were it not for Blacks the police force could be drastically cut.”
Pete Chiotras celebrated his store’s 50th anniversary on Rhode Island Street. “It was one of three Momma and Poppa groceries on Potrero Hill which remain with the original families,” noted the article, as well as Pete’s new “powerful” German Shepard dog that took up station near the front door. Concerns about future hold-ups were diminished.
September’s front page declared the “View Shindig” a “Shining Success” and in fact, the community seemed to be actually coming together. View staff cooked more than 400 ears of corn; people shared food, music, and fun. Bob Saporiti and Friends were to play an acoustic set, “but due to technical difficulties played electric and turned in a fine set of rock n’ roll.” A centerfold of pictures depicted people enjoying themselves at Potrero Hill’s favorite park.
“And the View even picked up a few new subscribers and certainly some new friends,” stated the article. Nineteen people were named in the staff box. It wouldn’t be the last party at McKinley Park. The 1973 gathering was cancelled, but in 1975 the View declared their recent party a “Huge Success” but hinted broadly that “Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone else sponsor” another party?
A year later, 1973, a new neighborhood identity seemed to be jelling, with the Dogpatch Community Development Association and Youth Council about to be forced to move as a result of the Muni car barn being “Plopped on Dogpatch.” Dogpatch was described as “a community of 500 located at the bottom of Potrero Hill; it has 95 percent unemployment.” Tempers flared when Dogpatch resident James Holley shouted “You’re gonna put a cable car barn in the middle of Dogpatch when Muni doesn’t have one black repairman.” Apparently they did just that but the color of the Muni workforce changed as well.
The September 1973 issue debuted the masthead we’re familiar with today. Giacomo Patri, who expanded on Jan Sabre’s original sketches, designed it, and in 1978 added more waves to the bay. In the issue The Peace & Freedom Party announced the formation of a “food conspiracy” and The Mob declared “Our Hills Aren’t Safe.” By now, The Fabulous Greek had morphed into The Downbeat and Allen’s Bar-B-Q was serving “eastern ribs and beef” at 300 Connecticut. Artist Ruth Cravath finally completed her statue of St. Francis at Candlestick Park, delayed due to the placement of a halo on the statue.
The View had successfully raised awareness of a lack of traffic signs on the Hill; it even got new supervisor Quentin Kopp to advocate for a stop sign at 18th and Connecticut. In November 1971, the paper reported that residents had erected their own homemade STOP signs; the Department of Public Works removed them. By April 1972, the Board of Supervisors approved a new sign in spite of DPW objections. In March 1974, a proposal to add stop signs was carried by Supervisor Bob Gonzales; the View covered every detail. An editorial titled “Citizen Power” applauded a group of “angry citizens” from Arkansas Street who were “not interested in waiting for body counts” and successfully petitioned to “stop the carnage.”
The December 1973 issue came in at just four pages. The price of a subscription was now $2.50. Advertisers were holding steady. In February, O’Keefe’s Tavern at 24th and Rhode Island placed a small ad touting its attractions: “'40s records, $.05 Juke-Box, Fireplace. Comfortable booths. Open since ’33.” Those of a certain age will tell you that O’Keefe’s was THE place to go on Potrero Hill. With music, dancing, and always a good crowd — a swinging crowd, if you will — with that ‘40s music. Open weekends until 11 p.m.! Others of a certain age, albeit a bit younger, will mention the Garden of Earthly Delights at Mariposa and Mississippi, which advertised briefly in the View during 1973, as a very interesting place to go and have fun with live music and beer and wine. It stayed open much later.
Finally, 1974 saw a marked jump in advertisers. In December, there was one meat market; a new shoe repair shop, Toe Up at 1419 18th Street; a plant store; and six grocery stores, including the new Good Life Grocery advertising potatoes at “9¢/lb., Fresh Eggs, Large AA, 75¢/doz., and Home Made Breads, 49¢ and up.” The store claimed that its low 15 percent mark-up was the source of it low prices and their slogan: “The More You Shop, The More We Stock,” a tagline that never appeared again.
For The Potrero View, the more people who read the paper, the more it could produce and attract volunteers. The View consistently pleaded for more volunteers and delivery people but was also consistent in its content. There were editorials on issues important to the neighborhood; announcements and meetings were meticulously detailed; book reviews and sometimes a chess column appeared; sports events at Jackson Park and The Potrero Hill Recreation Center on Arkansas Street were reported on. There was a “Culture” column detailing fashion and music performers on the Hill; and a “Features” section detailing local events and profiling people, such as the Russian Molokans who had made the Hill their home since the early 1900s. There were stories on new businesses that were reviving the 18th Street commercial strip. Labor issues were always reported on, like the ILWU strike in 1971. The Victoria Mews development, which started as a “mystery” in 1972, was followed through the entire Planning Commission debate and inspired the formation of the Potrero League of Active Neighbors. The “Wisconsin Site,” first mentioned in October 1970, generated content well into the 1980s and beyond. Now known as Parkview Heights, it created plenty of controversy and kept the View’s typewriters humming for a long time.
The Pickle Family Circus came to the Hill. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to clean up the Tenderloin by moving its seedy businesses to southeast Potrero Hill generated the headline, “Feinstein to Discuss Porno at Meeting.” (June 1977). The fight to establish district elections went on for years. All of it was chronicled in The Potrero View.
It looked like The Potrero View would survive after all. A front-page editorial in September 1975, still pleading for help, indicated that 5,000 papers were being published monthly and noted that 110 people had worked on the paper over the past five years. “View articles have even penetrated City Hall, bringing swift action from some Supervisors.” The goal of the original Mob had been achieved!
In October 1976 the first full-page ad appeared: the Factory Store at 17th and Mississippi streets announced its “Grand Opening Sale (Save 50% & More!).” New stores and restaurants, like Goat Hill Pizza, Daily Scoop, Good Life Grocery, and S. Asimakopoulos, with its delicious souvlakia, emerged as regular advertisers. Dog Patch became comfortable with being called “Dogpatch” as more articles appeared referencing that small enclave. By the mid-1980s, the View carried more than 60 display ads in 16 pages.
In 1982 an editorial board was formed consisting of Passen, who had been editor since 1978, Vas Arnautoff, and Judy Baston, who was associate editor from 1986 until her retirement in 2000. In 2006 Passen retired as editor and publisher; Steven Moss took over the reins.
Forty-five years after its first issue, The Potrero View is a rich compendium of the Hill’s history, describing all of the facets of community life as it was then, as we try to process it into what our lives are now. A newspaper is a time machine; a physical manifestation of a place and point in time. No issues of the original Hills and Dales newsletters have yet been found, but the Potrero Library has hard-bound volumes containing some thirty-some years’ worth of Potrero Views; all issues are in the process of being scanned for viewing online. Check out Archive.org, search for The Potrero View, and you can revisit the people, places, and times that make up a detailed history of the Hill. Take a walk around the Hill and visit the places and parks where many good times were enjoyed. That history is still with us; you can touch it and even feel it. And, yes, sometimes you can even smell it.
Rose Marie Sicoli-Ostler and Abigail Johnston contributed to this article.