March 29, 2000

The Quest to Save Dogpatch/Dot-coms and developers arrive in tiny, funky, SF.

San Francisco Chronicle - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

The brand-new San Francisco -- young, hip and wired -- is about to overwhelm another remnant of the city that was: an old, funky and obscure neighborhood called Dogpatch.

Most San Franciscans have never heard of Dogpatch, a tiny slice of Victorian houses and gritty industrial sites between Potrero Hill and the bay.

Dogpatch is only five blocks long and five blocks wide, but it's a little district with attitude, tough and charming at the same time. It's the only district in the city with a working shipyard, its own railroad station and Dogpatch Ale, its own brand of beer.

It has both dot-com outfits and the San Francisco headquarters of the Hells Angels.

"It's a slice of San Francisco that is still San Francisco,'' said John Borg, a graphic designer who lives in a converted warehouse on Illinois Street. "It's a relic that has somehow survived.''

But Dogpatch can't last: Pacific Bell Park, the city's newest jewel, opens Friday, just blocks away. Construction crews are hard at work on Mission Bay, the largest redevelopment project in the city's history, right on the Dogpatch frontier.

The city is serious about a light-rail line down Third Street, and Mayor Willie Brown is talking about blocks of highrise condos and apartments.

"We are on the cusp of a tsunami of change sweeping down Third Street from Pac Bell Park,'' said Borg.

The Port of San Francisco has plans for an "opportunity area'' for commercial development of Pier 70, the oldest, largest and most historic industrial complex left in San Francisco. Pier 70 is where Dogpatch meets the bay.


All along Tennessee and Minnesota streets, the heart of Dogpatch, new live-work buildings are going up. On Minnesota Street, a 115-year-old cottage was torn down during the winter to make way for something new. All that is left is a pile of bricks.

It's a new world, even here, as new money comes pouring north from Silicon Valley and south from Multimedia Gulch.

"It's sad, and it's exhilarating,'' said Brian Dunham, the president and chief executive officer of, a new technical firm that opened its headquarters on Third Street last fall.

"It's sad because companies that have existed for years are being moved out by supply and demand,'' Dunham said. "It's exhilarating because what we are doing is all new and filled with a kind of healthy stress. It's two worlds colliding.''

Borg, who loves the neighborhood with a passion, hopes the two worlds can co-exist in some fashion.

CO-EXIST IN SOME FASHION. PRESERVE IT, NOT PAVE IT "You can't stop it,'' said Borg, "It's gonna happen. What you have to do is work with people and preserve it, not pave it over.

"You don't want this to be a tourist destination, you want it to be for San Franciscans.''

Borg and his friends, who include Archie Green, who is both a retired shipwright and a retired professor of folklore, and Christopher VerPlanck, an architectural historian, are interested in various ideas to save Dogpatch.

A historic district perhaps; placing it on the National Register of Historic Places; or getting state or city landmark status. "It is a special place,'' says Borg, that could be erased "in a mad rush to develop the neighborhood.''

Even city landmark status, said VerPlanck, could slow any demolition, if only for six months. Now, the area has no protection. If the Doggie Diner symbol is seen as a landmark, what about Dogpatch?


Some of the neighborhood's past is a mystery, including the name "Dogpatch.'' Some say it was named for packs of wild dogs who lived there; others claim its gritty look made it seem like the hillbilly town "Dogpatch,'' where Li'l Abner lived in a comic strip.

Gene Knox, a retired construction worker who was playing pool and drinking a shot and a beer at the Dogpatch bar the other night, thinks all these ideas are wrong.

"It was just 22nd and Third Street, you know?'' he said. "Then one of the dudes came up one day, and he said, 'You know if anybody asks, this place is called Dogpatch. That's the name.'

"His name was Curtis Brown, and he was my friend, and that's the truth.''

The other truth is that the neighborhood was at the edge of the city in the middle of the 19th century, so far away that when a gunpowder company wanted to build a factory, the city fathers made it go way out by Potrero Hill, so if the place blew up, nobody important would be hurt.

Next thing you knew, the Pacific Rolling Mills moved out to Potrero Point just after the Civil War. Then came other enterprises, iron mills, a sugar refinery, even a whaling station.

In 1882, the famous Union Iron Works moved to the area. Any old San Francisco working family knows about the Union Iron Works, one of the great industries of the day. It's been the Bethlehem Steel Yard, the Todd Yard, Southwest Marine and now San Francisco Drydock, still in the ship-repair business, the oldest operating civilian shipyard in the United States.

People who worked in all these places lived nearby, and what is now Dogpatch is what's left. There was also a slice of the neighborhood called Irish Hill, with boarding houses, saloons and homes. But it was bulldozed years ago.

Along Minnesota and Tennessee streets, on 20th and 21st, the working families built houses, often with their own hands.


Some of them were called "Pelton's Cheap Dwellings,'' which became popular as the result of a circulation stunt by the editors of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, which ran plans for low-cost homes right in the paper, usually on Saturdays, then, as now, a slow day in the newspaper business.

The cost of a house, not including land and labor: $585.

Amazingly, 13 of these beautiful little houses still remain in Dogpatch. There are other Victorians, a regal Queen Anne with a tower, even. Not to mention the oldest existing San Francisco public school.

The tide of industry rose over the city; hard to imagine now in these high-tech days. Mission Bay was the railroad hub, alive with steam engines, commuter trains and streamliners like the old Daylight and the Lark. The shipyard was the industrial heart of the city.

The American Can Co. made tin cans right there on Third Street, and the sounds of industry, machines roaring, the shriek of steam whistles, the crash and roar of another age, carried out over the city day and night. The shipyard worked around the clock. World War I was busy, but World War II was the zenith.

Back in those times, says Green, there must have been 100,000 men working in the industrial trades in San Francisco: iron workers, steel men, shipwrights, riveters, welders, teamsters, carpenters. There were 10,000 union shipwrights alone. "Skilled trades,'' said Green. He knew. He was there himself, a working man.

After the war, of course, it all declined. Time passed Dogpatch by. At one point, in the '70s and early '80s, it was pretty dangerous in Dogpatch. "A lot of loud people, you know?'' said Knox.


People still talk about the Palm Cafe, on 22nd and Third, run by "a dirty-talking old woman they called Tugboat Annie,'' said Mike Apicelli, who bought the place and changed the name to the Dogpatch Saloon. "Oh, man, she was famous,'' he said.

Dogpatch gradually changed, some think for the better. New people moved in and fixed up the old houses. A few years ago, Dogpatch "was not as nice as it is now,'' said Phil Gardner, who likes it as it is just now.

On 20th Street, there still is a bit of the old Dogpatch, a row of bars favored by shipyard workers, big men who stop by for a drink after work, the occasional Muni driver who stops by to heat up popcorn in the microwave, and on some afternoons, a lingerie show. Not the place you would bring your finicky Aunt Janet.

But up the street and down the block, the new world is closing in fast. The neighborhood is organizing: There is a Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, and a newly minted Pier 70 advisory group, formed to help the port find a suitable use for the fine old buildings on the water side of Dogpatch.

Nobody is being fooled: This is ground zero for San Francisco's development boom.

The only chance to shape the boom, the activists say, is to work out a plan, a strategy, "enlightened planning'' Borg calls it.

The past is all around in Dogpatch. Late last week, toward the shank of the evening, people noticed a new sight just north on Third Street, lights as bright as the sun, nearly. It was a dress rehearsal for the opening game at Pac Bell Park, and it was the future. It's coming to Dogpatch, ready or not.