“In Colma, you will find two states of being that San Franciscans put off for as long as possible: death and suburbia.”
That's how we put it in this week's edition of SF Weekly, which explores the symbiotic, but also surprisingly confrontational, relationship between San Francisco and Colma, the vast necropolis to the south.
Like Shel Silverstein's Giving Tree, Colma has, for centuries, been tapped to meet The City's needs. The once-bucolic scrap of pasture served as our potato farm and cabbage patch — you knew you were getting close when you could smell the putrefying sauerkraut from the plants.
Then it was a hog farm — you knew you were getting close when you smelled The City's rotting garbage, which was carted in to feed the pigs.
Colma was also the site of boxing matches, gambling, drinking and carousing unwelcome in San Francisco. And, finally, it serves as the repository of our mortal remains. Colma, in fact, incorporated as a city so San Francisco couldn't repurpose its graveyards into housing, which happened here.
In any event, if you live in Colma, you're probably dead. The dead outnumber the living here by a factor of 1,000-to-1. So you'd think life would be pretty straightforward.
But it's not.
To start with, the Colma BART station is not in Colma. Colma's fire department isn't in Colma. And, in fact, Colma doesn't really have a fire department.
Colma City Planner Michael Laughlin — he is the only one — explains this via a AAA map he keeps handy for just such an occasion. This city was incorporated, expressly, to keep San Francisco from muscling in on its cemeteries. But, oddly, a gaping unincorporated zone remains in the heart of Colma. And so the BART station sits on unincorporated San Mateo County (as did prior occupants of that space: A turn-of-the-century boxing gym and, old-timers tell us, a World War II-era brothel).
B Street is part of Colma proper. A Street is in the unincorporated zone. As such, Colma's tidy suburban brick roads and underground utilities abruptly cease in the middle of the street. Colma residents on the borderline naturally assume they live adjacent to Daly City. But they don't.
Living in an unincorporated section of town, and not knowing it, can lead to frustration. People residing here dropping in at Colma's Town Hall to pick up a business license or construction permits are rankled when they're redirected to the county seat in Redwood City (and confused, because the county requirements differ from Colma's city requirements). It's not unusual for someone who has already been to Redwood City to be directed erroneously to Colma, where they are sent, once more, to Redwood City.
In an emergency at the Colma BART station, which is not in Colma, the first responders may well be the police force from Broadmoor, a nearby unincorporated zone within Daly City. (A fire in Broadmoor, in turn, may be handled by the volunteer Colma Fire Protective Services, also housed in the unincorporated zone).
So, yes, cops from one unincorporated zone may be dispatched to handle matters in another unincorporated zone. Or BART police may get involved. Or Colma police. Or Daly City police. Or South San Francisco police. Or San Mateo County sheriff's deputies.
Not all that long ago, this actually happened. A vehicle chase originating in Daly City became a virtual police convention as it weaved through incorporated and unincorporated swaths of the county.
That incident concluded in a cemetery. As everything does, in Colma.
Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer at SF Weekly, a sister publication of The San Francisco Examiner. Visit www.sfweekly.com for his story on Colma's relationship with San Francisco. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.