The little streetcar route that spurred the development of an SF neighborhood turns 100

One century ago, San Francisco’s West Side resembled photos of the Sahara desert: Sand dunes stretched far into the horizon.

One century ago, San Francisco’s West Side resembled photos of the Sahara desert: Sand dunes stretched far into the horizon.

Then came Muni’s L-Taraval line, and everything changed.

Today the Sunset District and Parkside neighborhoods are home to roughly 70,000 people, according to city data. The seed of that development is one little streetcar route that connected downtown to the dunes, said Rick Laubscher, president of the Market Street Railway nonprofit and museum.

That means before L- Taraval there was no Riptide bar, no Kingdom of Dumpling. No Parkside Tavern, and no Gold Mirror restaurant.

“It really did build out the Parkside and Sunset,” Laubscher said. “None of this would exist without the streetcars.”

On Friday the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will celebrate the centennial of the L-Taraval. That’s 100 birthday candles for the route that now runs from the Embarcadero to the San Francisco Zoo. Now trains called “light rail vehicles” run along the line where their precursors, streetcars, used to roam.

And the L-line is still changing.

The L-Taraval Improvement Project will see Taraval Street repaved, new concrete boarding islands installed so passengers don’t have to disembark directly into the street, and new trees and landscaping installed along the line, according to the SFMTA. That project will be complete in 2021.

“The improvements will help the system run more reliably, improve safety and incorporate design and public art elements that will make the corridor even more inviting for years to come,” said Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesperson.

In the meantime, the agency plans to celebrate 100 years of public transit on Taraval Street by showcasing a traveling exhibit of historical streetcar photos from the SFMTA Photo Archive, and “giveaways” for L-Taraval riders during their morning commute this Friday. The agency is also asking for L-Taraval fans to tag their photos on social media with the hashtag #100YearsontheL, to join in the celebration.

To see SFMTA’s L-Taraval photo collection, click here.

“What made the L special,” Laubscher said, “was that The City as a matter of policy wanted to use investment in transit to develop what was an open part of San Francisco.”

Simply put, the L-Taraval’s story is perhaps best summated with a single word: Build.

When it first hit the tracks on April 12, 1919, the L-Taraval was seen as a shuttle, Laubscher said. Riders would take another streetcar line, the K, from downtown through the newly opened Twin Peaks Tunnel to West Portal. Nearby on Ulloa, you’d catch the L-Taraval.

Above, the Market Street Railway nonprofit and museum tweeted photos of the L-Taraval’s different vehicle designs through the years.

There wasn’t much out there at that point, save perhaps Carville-by-the-Sea, a collection of streetcars which were converted into homes in the late nineteenth century, which remained until roughly the 1930s, according to local history website

It wasn’t until October 15, 1923, that the line began running all the way “to the ferries,” Laubchscer said. And in 1937, using federal Works Progress Administration funding, the line was extended all the way out to what was then called The Herbert Fleishhacker Zoo.

Even an aerial photo taken by Harrison Ryker in 1938 showed a dearth of development along Taraval past 36th Avenue. The Doggie Diner head mounted near the line’s termination wouldn’t come for another 80 years.

Referring to the aerial photo, Laubscher made another observation.

“What don’t you see at the curbs? Cars. There were none. You wanted to get downtown, you used transit,” he said.

Roughly a century later, locals still show their love for the old streetcar line. Albert Chow, owner of Great Wall Hardware on Taraval Street and president of the neighborhood group People of Parkside Sunset, said his group, POPS, used to feature an L-Taraval streetcar as its logo.

Even though his group has had public disagreements with the SFMTA over the details of the L-Taraval Improvement Project, Chow said the L-Taraval was key in developing the central commercial corridor of the neighborhood.

In fact, Chow, who hails from San Francisco, remembers fondly catching green-and-cream colored L-Taraval streetcars to get to his first job — at 15 years old, Chow was a busboy at the Golden Dragon, a restaurant infamous for a 1977 gang shooting that saw five killed.

“People used to come in and ask us ‘How did the shooting go down?” he recalled. “I’d go, ‘This guy died here, this guy died there. (The Joe Boys) and their cohorts, they ran through the kitchen back here!’”

Despite the restaurant’s reputation, Chow credits the L-Taraval with keeping him on the straight-and-narrow.

“Staying out of trouble, making my own money, learning the value of the dollar,” were all possible thanks to the L-Taraval, he said. “It was wild back then.”

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