March 2006 San Francisco
I worked my way through paramedic school by doing remodel construction here in San Francisco. The demolition phase was always hard and a little dangerous, but sometimes it involved a bit of urban archaeology. Every now and then items emerged from behind the walls or under the floorboards: coins, tools, hand-written prescription bottles, a stash of bourbon, eleven mummified cats over one garage ceiling, and a rusty loaded handgun. Often there was a carefully stashed newspaper, just to mark the date that the walls were finished. The one in my house on Haight St was from 1874. Money? Sure, sometimes that might appear, but that was not the kind of score that people shared or talked about.
One of our projects involved a ballet studio on Polk street; the owner wanted a sound studio created beneath the dance floor. Building nothing below something is not the natural order of things, so it must be done carefully. The first phase was not complex, just unbelievably dirty and labor-intensive: excavating a several hundred cubic yards of dirt and debris from underneath the occupied structure before making a useful space out of it. Who else to turn to but the day-laborers? We hired six of the shortest, hardest-working guys we could find, gave them plenty of five-gallon buckets and switched out the dumpster every other day.
They would disappear down below, mole away and hand fifty-pound buckets of mostly sand up to the sidewalk level all day long. Slowly they lowered the floor until there were lightbulbs overhead, salsa music blaring, and a place to cook lunch. After almost two months of this, they were down eight or nine feet, exposing the support columns and the original basement brick walls.
I had not given much thought to why this had been backfilled with sand if it had already been a useable space at one time. Slowly the hombres uncovered a layer of ash and charred timbers. Over the next few days, twisted wires, a pulley, melted kitchen utensils, melted copper, an axe-head, and broken dishes began to re-surface. Then broken, warped window glass and a mass of melted bottles. More charcoal, and finally a stack of newspapers, sheltered by some stonework.
It was a large, fragile stack of ashes, completely oxidized but intact. The San Francisco Chronicle it was, reduced to the darkest shade of gray, while the ink had burned to a shiny, pure black. I read whatever I could – it was all legible, but rarely a whole story or page. Just as one might expect – local politics, advertisements, cable car hits horse carriage, obituaries, a visiting delegation from Japan, etc.
Then a date from the top issue: December 12, 1905. Nice, I finally knew when this place changed…no actually it burned…why did they fill it in with sand?…Why are there still belongings here?…1905?…Oh, yeah…the Earthquake hit four months later. I remembered reading that all of the city north and east of here burned to the ground, and that the Army dynamited all of Van Ness Street (the next street over,) so the firemen could then use it as a firebreak. Their actions saved the rest of San Francisco from burning, but it seemed that this house was on the wrong side.
The next day the amigos called me over to show me a find – a porcelain doll’s head, obviously with a higher melting point than the bubbled window glass attached to it. The head was all that remained of the doll, but she still had her teeth and the German maker’s imprint on the back. Probably a well-kept doll for a well-kept girl who must have left home in a great big hurry, if she got out at all.
Photo by Jason Chinn.
Tags: urban archaeology