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San Francisco 1955
April 20, 2013 9:34 PM   Subscribe

San Francisco in 1955 in color "Shot by filmmaker Tullio Pellgrini, the 20-minute movie gives an up-close-and-personal tour of the city from Pellgrini's automobile. His narration is charmingly earnest in a way that's promotional of the city's virtues while never stepping over into being particularly phony or cloying."
posted by Long Way To Go (34 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great stuff. Sadly, this video is how I discovered that my brand-new Roku no longer carries any Youtube channel, since they just killed the "VideoBuzz" channel. That's the whole reason I bought it in the first place. Great work, Roku.

I'm pissed off.

Those of you who are considering the purchase of a TV streaming device would be well advised to get something else besides a Roku.
posted by Fnarf at 10:23 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The sign said pop. 774,000 .. today it's 805,235 for the city-county proper. It looks like SF was built-out by 1955 and everything since has been surrounding counties.
posted by stbalbach at 10:36 PM on April 20, 2013


I'm fine with the playland being gone, but I would like to have that sky tram back.

It looked like the buffalo paddock used to NOT have fences.

The twin peaks area looks wrong without Sutro Tower.

I just went to the Tonga room at the Fairmont Hotel for the first time. I knew it was old, but I didn't know it was that old.

There is a unsettling lack of bicycles in this video.

I wish he had driven thru the mission a little.
posted by Hicksu at 10:48 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


@Fnarf: Once way back when in the dark, dark, ancient cordcutter history of about 24 months ago I had an AppleTV and a Roku both in use because the Apple TV alone did Youtube and the Roku did Hulu but neither one did the other. Now that the AppleTV has added Hulu I'm afraid that no matter how much I want to root for it, the Roku gets me less functionality for $99 than I get from the $99 AppleTV.
posted by sourwookie at 10:52 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The City's beauty has not diminished in 60 years. Pellgrini did a good job, for a non-native (no-one from around here would have said "motorman" instead of "gripman").
posted by ogooglebar at 10:52 PM on April 20, 2013


Where are all the homeless?
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:06 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, sourwookie, I wish you'd told me that three weeks ago!
posted by Fnarf at 11:11 PM on April 20, 2013


Wow, a crazy time before history when the locals actually rode the cable cars to get to places they needed to go.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:22 PM on April 20, 2013


There didn't seem to be many cars on the roads.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:32 PM on April 20, 2013


A. It's funny how when the narrator is saying "one of the most colorful and romantic cities in the world.." and the image on the screen is a landscape of uniform white boxes, looking neither colorful nor romantic.

B. I wish they still had this style of narrator around.
posted by bleep at 12:14 AM on April 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


- "The once-gay resort of the nineties!" (7:00, in reference to the Cliff House)
- People didn't stop at stop signs then either.
posted by alexei at 1:36 AM on April 21, 2013


"The once-gay resort of the nineties!"

Cliff House + Sutro Baths, opened 1896.
posted by stbalbach at 2:26 AM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


It would be fun to re-create the film by driving down the streets and taking the same film as best
one could...and then putting the original sound to it and see how well it matches up today.
posted by quazichimp at 2:44 AM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This was a great film to watch, many thanks for sharing.

It looks like SF was built-out by 1955 and everything since has been surrounding counties.

That's pretty much right. As I recall (from living history lessons in Specs'), there was a movement around World War I/II to expand the providence of San Francisco county to include more of the bay area. City planners were quite happy with the city's termination at San Bruno Mountain, leaving South San Francisco for heavy industry, smokestacks (and tax incentives, no doubt).

That growth restriction initially drove development out of the city, to port and railroad communities in the East Bay. At the beginning of World War II, bedroom communities from Daly City to San Jose came into their own – as did much of Southern California. Much of that was driven by the heavy industry and technology companies funded by the war effort. Hence why San Francisco looks a lot like Europe (mixed-use developments, flats, etc), and the rest of California looks like LA (suburbs, ranch homes, freeways).

One of the most fascinating descriptions of old San Francisco are in Ansel Adams' Autobiography:
"Born in his family's San Francisco flat in the Western Addition, Ansel's father moved them to be near healthy ocean air. The family home, built on the sand dunes at the western edge of San Francisco facing the Pacific Ocean, was surrounded by gardens and an adjacent green house."
It was hard to imagine the Western Addition with sand dunes. Thanks to San Francisco's enduring focus on lush green spaces like Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, and the similar appearance of the Marin Headlands and Tamalpais, it was easy to assume that San Francisco had been quite lush itself before transforming in a little metropolis. Apparently not. Adams paints the West side of the peninsula being composed of sand dunes and rock.

The restrictions on growth and development almost certainly led to the high population density that the city sees today. (High population density is well-known to drive cultural innovation and creativity). Also, those restrictions were (from what I heard back in 2004ish) the primary driver behind the Mission Bay revitalisation, and the substantial amount of money that is going into that area. There was a brief moment in the 60s apparently where there was a big redevelopment push in the North and Western areas of the city. However, in general, there has been relatively little development.

San Francisco had a history of literally creating land. The first was downtown and North Beach – composed of wrecked ships. The second being the landfill (apparently from the earthquake wreckage) that built out the Marina District. The third being Mission Bay, which was a dumping site. Land that literally did not exist 150 years ago is now some of the most valuable in the country.

Mission Bay is the first exception to the lack of recent development in San Francisco – because there was literally no land left, and someone realised (correctly) that as tech went online, adjacency to the hardware and software talent of Silicon Valley was enough, colocation was not necessary. (In fact, the software startups of today seem to have more in common with the media companies of the city...).

The second exception would be The Presidio, which the Financial Times said in 2009 is, a neighbourhood unlike any other in the US, and perhaps the world. The Presidio is the antithesis of Mission Bay. Rather than reformatting the area for greatly increased density, and as a space for modern architecture in a relatively staid city, the Presidio Trust actually began reducing the total volume of square footage of buildings in the community. Having lived there for a while at the start of the transition, it is easy to say that The Presidio is the finest place in the world that I have lived. But again, such significant restrictions on development that it takes someone with a wallet the size of the Star Wars franchise to do something even on a moderate scale.

The film is great, for it shows how little has changed in over half a century. Much of the infrastructure and development was already there then. There's quite a bit of vertical development on the east side of the city, and some substantial renovation and redevelopment in small pockets, but overall it looks the same. What is very different is how the city feels. In the film, the city feels like a typical 1950s American city, reflecting the values that one would expect from that time.

Supercharged with an infusion of creative thinking and global culture during the sixties, the feeling of the city today is something else entirely. Americana feels largely secondary in San Francisco, which is comfortably at home amongst the other global cultural capitals, whilst simultaneously being completely divorced from their other characteristics of size and national power.

I'll leave with a brilliant high-resolution photography of the city immediately after the 1906 earthquake.
posted by nickrussell at 4:17 AM on April 21, 2013 [15 favorites]


@Fnarf: Install the Plex channel for Roku. Then, sign up for a free Plex account. Follow the instructions for adding videos to your queue. I use it all the time for watching youtube and other video site goodness on my Roku; it works like a charm.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:18 AM on April 21, 2013


This is a stupid question, but how could a hires photo like that have been taken in 1906?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:09 AM on April 21, 2013


There is a unsettling lack of bicycles in this video.

Don't think that too many adults rode bikes during that era.
posted by octothorpe at 9:11 AM on April 21, 2013


The modern digital scan of the original picture is in high resolution. The original photograph was of course analog and probably taken with a large format camera. The "resolution" of that was the tiny silver grains in the film and is probably greater than the digital scan.
posted by Long Way To Go at 9:48 AM on April 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wow, a crazy time before history when the locals actually rode the cable cars to get to places they needed to go.

The system isn't maintained for transportation purposes; there are only a handful of cars in total now. But yes, the thing that strikes me about SF is that given how compact it is it should be far, far easier to get around in than it is. Of all American cities it's unquestionably most suited to public transportation and people's insistence on having cars instead is nothing short of a tragedy. SF would be a paradise if the streetcars went everywhere and didn't have cars choking it up and making what ought to be a quick run of a couple of miles up the peninsula into a major expedition that you have to set aside a sizable chunk of your day to accomplish.

The Market St trams are an absolute joy, though.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:58 AM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here's how nickrussell's photo was taken. The film negative was 22" x 55".
posted by eye of newt at 11:11 AM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Could Darwin have been right?"

Thanks for this!
posted by trip and a half at 12:22 PM on April 21, 2013


Highly recommend a live screening of Rick Prelinger's Lost Landscapes (more here) - I think this film was excerpted in the one we saw last year.
posted by stevil at 12:28 PM on April 21, 2013


This is a stupid question, but how could a hires photo like that have been taken in 1906?

eye of newt answers your question, and in 1906 film was pretty common, but going back even further to when they just spread emulsion on glass, photographers could get almost infinite resolution because there were no grains or pixels - just the photo chemicals spread on a surface. I read a story years ago about people looking through archival photos and being amazed that they could keep zooming in on a streetscape until they could read headlines on newspapers held by people in the photo. I guess then the major limitation would be the quality of the camera lens.
posted by LionIndex at 12:44 PM on April 21, 2013


Have we had this? A Trip Down Market Street Before The Fire (archive.org). It's probably worth reposting even if we have, as this is a recent, much improved transfer that fixes the frame roll problems the earlier transfer had.

I almost posted this in the Edwardian England thread the other day -- it's basically the same period, if a different continent -- but got distracted.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:02 PM on April 21, 2013


I grew up north of the City, and didn't spend that much time there. But I know some of it pretty well, and it was downright eerie seeing a 1950s version of the 1990s version I learned. I imagine, if I went back now, it would look almost as strange.

Several things really struck me about this video. Driving, for instance, seems to have been an exceptionally casual thing, where lane markers were a vague suggestion, and stoplights were a rarity. People turning left across traffic just, well, kept driving, threading themselves right through it. The intersections are full of cars that seem almost random in their placement and direction. But everything's moving pretty slowly, not at all like modern traffic speeds.

The zoo was heartbreaking; the elephant in particular looked absolutely miserable. Poor thing. I've never been to the SF Zoo, but I sure as hell hope they've brought their enclosures up to a more reasonable standard. Lions and elephants on bare concrete is a travesty.

I found it pretty amusing how he was constantly ragging on the cablecars for being old.... sixty years ago.

I watched the whole thing, and enjoyed it very much. This was a great find, Long Way To Go. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Malor at 1:02 PM on April 21, 2013


Great film. I was practically drooling over the cars. Also, I wonder how he mounted his camera to his vehicle.

And, I agree with others, the driving was practically chaos.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 1:34 PM on April 21, 2013


This is wonderful! My grandparents lived in San Francisco after WWII until they moved to Redwood City in 1948, which was then mostly dirt roads. I'm going to send a link to this to my aunt.
posted by apricot at 3:31 PM on April 21, 2013


Too much scenery, not enough people. Cars are cool, though.

Pass.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:43 AM on April 22, 2013


It was kind of sad, realizing that most of those people in, for instance, those train cars at PlayLand were either very old, or dead.
posted by Malor at 12:12 PM on April 22, 2013


I remember Playland and I'm still kicking. I was born 7 years after that film was shot, and my earliest memories of the city, which start in earnest at about age 3 or 4, are pretty much what you see here, with slightly newer cars. The busses & streetcars, the zoo & Playland especially take me back. He really didn't catch the feel of Chinatown in the 60's though, which was a thing to behold for a little kid.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:30 PM on April 22, 2013


Devils Rancher, I'm the same age as you, but I grew up in the East Bay, so my memories of the City may not be as vivid. In thinking about what's changed and what's remained the same, I was struck by one aspect that's come full circle: the look of the Embacadero. When I was young, the Embarcadero Freeway had always been there, but I never realized what an eyesore it was until they tore it down after Loma Prieta.
posted by ogooglebar at 8:00 PM on April 22, 2013


I haven't been since '98- I really need to go spend a few days cruising my adolescent & teenage stomping grounds. I've re- connected with a guitarist from my high school band who ended up being pretty active in the metal scene there in the early 80's & we need to get together & play, anyway. I'ma start gearing up for a trip.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:08 PM on April 22, 2013


Highly recommend a live screening of Rick Prelinger's Lost Landscapes...

I came in to recommend this too. I didn't make it to the 7th episode (which stevil linked to above) but to the one the year prior. Thoroughly enjoyable, especially since they're usually presented at the Castro Movie Theatre.

While anyone can access audio of the screenings (which seems not that useful), only members can access video of past screenings. I'm a Long Now member so if anyone really wants to see any of those, let me know and I'll hook you up.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:16 AM on April 23, 2013


Several things really struck me about this video. Driving, for instance, seems to have been an exceptionally casual thing, where lane markers were a vague suggestion, and stoplights were a rarity. People turning left across traffic just, well, kept driving, threading themselves right through it. The intersections are full of cars that seem almost random in their placement and direction. But everything's moving pretty slowly, not at all like modern traffic speeds.

I think there's a parallel to be drawn here between driving then and cycling today.
posted by alexei at 1:30 PM on April 25, 2013


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