“When I moved to the neighborhood in 1975, it was very quiet,” said Peter Linenthal, a self-described visual anthropologist whose interest in cultural history extends from Kushan and Ghandara antiquities to his immediate surroundings on rapidly growing Potrero Hill.
“There was a couple living here who I think was part of the Free Angela Davis committee. We found some letters in a drawer,” he said of his own home which, records confirm, was built before the 1906 earthquake and retained running water in the aftermath, serving the neighborhood during the disaster
As director of the Potrero Hill Archive Project, Linenthal is the go-to person for people seeking and discarding old photographs and residence histories, usually when people are renovating or piecing together family histories. It was that work I had intended to dig into with him, but when a mutual friend introduced us and Linenthal opened the door of his home, it was clear there was going to be far more to tell about his San Franciscan life as an artist, illustrator and children’s author.
“I’ve certainly travelled but sometimes I feel like I should’ve lived someplace else,” said Linenthal from the top floor of the unit he owns and occupies with his husband Phillip Anasovich (the couple has been partnered since 1984). Purchased in 1975 for $50,000, with its nearly 360 degree view of The City and the sun illuminating the building’s original 1905 detailing, a tabby cat completes the scene: It’s hard to imagine a better place to live, period.
“I heard Carlos Santana used to practice in the basement. I’m not sure if it’s true, but there are acoustical tiles on the ceiling,” he said.
When Linenthal was a kid, he set up a museum in one of the rooms of his parents’ house.
“I’ve always been interested in visual and tangible stuff,” he said. “My parents were both literary people and I remember thinking, they’re just words, it’s not real.”
Linenthal’s father, Mark Linenthal, was a poetry professor at San Francisco State University. “He testified in the Howl trial,” in which Lawrence Ferlinghetti was accused and found not guilty of obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poem. “He stood up for what he valued, free speech and for art,” he said, beaming. “He argued that to call it obscenity was to take a narrow view; rather, it changed the expectations for what a poem could be, which I thought was a nice way to put it.”
His mother was the writer Alice Adams; it was she who encouraged him to write children’s books. “I appreciate my parents a lot now, but I think the visual is important. I love books, don’t get me wrong,” he said. One look at his overflowing shelves leaves no doubt about that: not only is he an author but he’s the landlord of Christopher’s Books, Potrero Hill’s neighborhood booksellers.
“They’re really super tenants and a great part of the community,” he said,
Linenthal co-authored with Abigail Johnston two books of Potrero Hill history for Arcadia Publishing as well as his own series of striking graphic board books for tiny eyes (the first was titled Look Look!). Closest to his heart is Jaya’s Golden Necklace: A Silk Road Tale, which combines his interest in art and children’s visuals with his enthusiasm for Kushan culture, particularly its coins, which started him collecting antiquities from Central Asia.
“On their coins, they had Greco Roman gods like Helios and Indian gods like Shiva and Iranian gods like Inanna. It would be like if we had Shiva on a US coin, that would be really surprising,” he explained. “On one of the coins there is a representation of Buddha which is rare. The archaeologist I’m working with on the catalog thinks we have some stuff that nobody’s seen.”
Linenthal is also interested in local archaeology: He pulled bits and pieces out of a box of stuff collected from a site in nearby Dogpatch where a foundation is being dug.
“The ground was marsh land filled with debris from the 1906 earthquake,” he said as he handed me a railroad spike and a chunk of thick, smooth glass, the kind of finds people bring to him in his capacity as the Hill’s archivist.
“I’m a little afraid that we’re becoming the colorful, groovy neighborhood with a lot of development around it,” he said. He’s working to save four brick buildings on the site of the old PG&E plant.
“They want to save the 300-foot smoke stack. That’s great. It’s from the ‘60s and doesn’t seem that old to me but the buildings go back to the early 1900s,” he said. His neighborhood has been fighting a proposed development in the Corovan building for awhile now. “It’s just too big. It would create a wall coming from downtown.”
The once-blue collar neighborhood, with its history of grazing and shipbuilding, Moloken and Slovenian settlements, Irish and Italian immigrant arrivals and 1970s revolutionary outposts is changing yet again.
“When I moved here, Goat Hill Pizza had just opened and it was really the only place in the area,” he said. “It’s still a nice neighborhood in many ways. There’s something about the hill that gives it a coherence.” I take one last long look at the view from the Hill before descending the steep flight of stairs.
“My mom wrote a book, The Last Lovely City. It’s about San Francisco,” said Linenthal. “It is lovely. It’s a beautiful place. It’s just so interesting to find out more about it.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.