The Doric Column

August 6, 2001

The House on Bryant Street
Another Gold Rush
AIDS, Family Style
Ashes in the Wind

The House on Bryant Street

"On a winter morning in California of 1848,
a man named James Marshall spied something
in a riverbed. Gold. It was gold he lifted
from the cold water. America would never be
the same.

"Today business school professors and self-styled
futurists like to proclaim the global economy as
though they invented it. But the global economy
is at least as old as the California Gold Rush....
In 1492, the European met the Indian; two races,
two civilizations confronted one another. But the
discovery of gold in California gathered the entire
world in one place for the first time in history."


Every day I stand in front of the house on Bryant Street in San Francisco where my brother lived for 13 years, and where he died.

The house, captured in pen and ink, hangs on the east wall of my living room. It was magnificently framed both in its original construction and in its representation on my wall. It is a small, elegant Victorian mansion built, my brother told me, by the owner of a burlesque theater, for his mistress. It will always be my favorite house in a city of extraordinary Victorian houses.

I first saw the house in 1973 during a camping trip out west. On our way down the coast my companion and I picked immense blackberries from roadside bushes in Oregon. Chuck's kitchen in his garden-level apartment in the house on Bryant Street was up to the task of converting the produce into a pie. We must have eaten the pie in his garden next to the carriage house, beneath the cascading bougainvillea.

Bryant Street is located in the city's Mission District. The district was built up around Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city, the "Mission of St Francis of Assisi" which gave the city its name. Mass was first celebrated here five days before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

The Mission District has always been an area of ethnic congregation, beginning with the Ohlone Indian tribe that spoke a language called Ramaytush. The tribe was wiped out by smallpox during the Spanish conquest. They were followed by Yankees, Swedes, Germans, Irish and Italians, and later by immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. And by bohemians. And more recently by dot-com'ers.

Bryant Street was named after Edwin Bryant. Bryant was an officer under the command of John Charles Fremont, the great 19th century explorer known as the "Pathfinder." Earlier in his celebrated career Fremont had conducted a reconnaissance of what is now Minnesota, with the French scientist Joseph Nicollet. A native of Kentucky, Bryant joined Fremont's expedition to California in 1846 as a second lieutenant. He was appointed alcalde or chief magistrate of San Francisco in 1847, but returned to Kentucky after just a few months in office.

In 1848 Bryant published What I Saw in California By Wagon from Missouri to California in 1847 [Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, Inc, 1967], his journal of crossing the plains to the American West. The journal became the foremost trail guide for the Forty-niners, preceding Fremont's own Guidebook for English gold seekers headed for California (1850).

Bryant was a newspaperman who had been a medical student. He combined scientific curiosity with his professional practice. Just before James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill, Bryant wrote: "The vast interior of North America, with the reputed Eldorado on the shore of the Pacific, furnishes, however, much that is worthy of the inquiry, examination, and admiration of the naturalist, and much that is calculated to awaken and please the desultory curiosity of the mass."

In another passage, he foresaw the disappearance of the buffalo decades before it became a reality: "The bones of buffalo, whitened by the action of the atmosphere, are seen every few yards ... but none of the animals have yet been discovered. It is probable that the large number of emigrants who have preceded us, have driven the few buffaloes which descend the Platte so low as this, into the hills. The bleaching skeletons of these animals are strewn over the plain on all sides, ghastly witnesses deposited here, of a retreating and fast perishing race."

The presence of death runs throughout Bryant's account of his travels westward. Today, to me, the San Francisco street named after him and the Victorian house on it are part of a personal chronology of death.

It is now 20 years since Chuck, on a visit to the Twin Cities, told me of the strange goings-on in his community of gay men. The apprehension he felt was evident in his voice. Indeed, practically as he spoke the first case of Kaposi's sarcoma in a gay man was reported from San Francisco General Hospital, just up the hill from Bryant Street, in June 1981.

Chuck was concerned about the swelling in the lymph nodes under his arms. A biopsy showed nothing unusual, and he was relieved. But he was being stalked all the same.

He didn't know it at the time, of course, but he had only a few Junes left.

Another Gold Rush

"For months now, newspaper and television
reporters have been coming to neighborhoods like
this one in San Francisco. Little more than a year ago,
these buildings housed dot-com dreams of sudden,
vast wealth. Now look, the reporters say--there are
vacancy signs in the windows.

"America is a nation of dreamers, land of adventures
and schemers, hustlers and visionaries. When you win
the golden cup in America, become a Rockefeller or a
Carnegie, Presidents know your name and teachers tell
their children about you; you summarize our nation's
meaning. But when you lose, we pretend not to recognize

The first time I ever heard the word gentrification was in San Francisco in the early 1970s. I knew that it had a negative connotation. It was often preceded, in speech and print, by modifiers like "creeping."

The city's ornate Victorian houses in poor neighborhoods were targets for gentrification beginning in the 1960s, during the rise of the counterculture. They were bought by developers on the cheap, restored or renovated, and sold or rented at prices working class families could not afford.

Today the term "displacement" is favored over gentrification. With the term comes a new protest movement in a city known for spawning protest movements. The anti-displacement movement targets traditional heavy-handed development and the new digital culture.

The California Gold Rush had a late 20th century reincarnation in the dot-com boom South of Market Street, an area that has come to be known as "Multimedia Gulch."

Billed as ground zero for interactive media, Multimedia Gulch boasted more than a thousand multimedia firms and a workforce of 40,000 just a year ago. It was a magnet for young, creative tech-savvy talent in the "World's Most Wired City."

A friend of mine is one of those remarkable talents. He helped develop websites for Big Yellow, AT&T, and General Electric working in Boston and New York before moving to i-traffic in the Gulch a couple years ago.

The arrival of the dot-com'ers in droves in the late 1990s followed in the city's long tradition of attracting the likes of "gold miners and beatniks, hippies and gays, immigrants and yuppies" by one account. They were not particularly well received: "The dot-commers are accused by some of destroying the art scene, the music scene, the restaurant scene. They've pushed up rents and pushed out the old and the poor, critics say. They've made it hard for bohemians to live as they are accustomed. ["San Francisco quakes as dot-coms move in", Seattle Times, May 7, 2000]

And they brought "gentrification at Net speed...."

The displacement protest crystallized at Bryant Square, an office complex on Bryant Street. Developers wanted to demolish a building that housed artist studios to make way for what the San Francisco Bay Guardian called a "five story Soviet bloc-style concrete monstrosity." The project was pitched as "smart growth" for new technology. Mayor Willie Brown and the Planning Commission came under fire for alleged political favor-doing when they approved it.

Bryant Square fueled the Mission Anti-Displacement Movement, the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project [MYEP], and Gentrification 2001. MYEP advocates vandalism against pricey Yuppie autos like BMWs and SUVs, called "muscle cars" for their tendency to muscle their way through the narrow streets of the Mission.

Urban archaeologist Rebecca Solnit describes what she sees as a social upheaval in the nation's cities, made worse by the rise of the digital culture, in her book Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism [Verso Books, 2000]

"San Francisco has been for most of its 150-year existence both a refuge and an anomaly," Solnit writes. "Soon it will be neither. Gentrification is transforming the city by driving out the poor and working class, including those who have chosen to give their lives over to unlucrative pursuits such as art, activism, social experimentation, social service. But gentrification is just the fin above the water. Below is the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable. The technology boom and the accompanying housing crisis have fast-forwarded San Francisco into the newest version of the American future, a version that also is being realized in Boston, Seattle, and other cities from New York and Atlanta to Denver and Portland."

But the high-tech boom has gone bust with a vengeance, and the rise in rental and housing prices South of Market has eased. In a city known for its quakes, "cracks are appearing everywhere," in the growing number of bankruptcies and rapidly rising vacancy rates and layoffs. A headline in the San Francisco Business Times reads: "Multimedia Gulch turns into Multimedia Mulch." [April 2, 2001]. One real estate firm managing director said: "It's Armageddon down there."

From gold to Armageddon in a year. Only in America. Only in San Francisco.

AIDS, Family Style

It was during my visit to San Francisco in July 1984 to report on the Democratic National Convention that my brother gave me the news.

We were having lunch at a restaurant in Twin Peaks. It was one of his favorite restaurants at the time. And he knew the city's restaurants. Boy, did he know the restaurants.

After we finished our meal he said he needed to tell me something personal. He said that he had been having night sweats, coughing spells, nausea, fever, and bouts with diarrhea for some months. He had come to the conclusion that he had AIDS.

I leapt to his rescue. I tried to caution him about self-diagnosis. He would have none of it. He knew what was happening to him. It had been happening the same way to his gay friends and acquaintances. His symptoms were the gasps of a dying immune system.

I tried again to explain them away. "No," he said, looking into me, shaking his head.

It was a riveting moment. There had been another, some 14 years earlier, in his flat on Downey Street, when he told me he was gay. These were the moments that perhaps more than any other helped me to understand the limitation of words. In the former instance I said something saccharine like "I just want you to be happy." This time I was in full retreat.

The previous April the U.S. government announced that Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health had succeeded in replicating the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), believed to be the cause of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome -- AIDS. This meant that an HIV blood test could be developed. But as Gallo told Newsweek years later: "You had a lot of great scientists coming in during this period, and there was a lot of good work. But then we'd see reminders in the faces of all the infected people that we'd done nothing for them. I'd say: 'We have a blood test now.' That was a life-saving public health advance, but they'd say: 'What's a blood test to me? It only defines me as infected.'"

The physician I was working for at the University of Minnesota, a cancer geneticist of note and a friend of Gallo's, was convinced that a whole host of factors were behind AIDS, including poor nutrition. It was a period of as much speculation as evidence in the trying to understand what was going on.

A month after returning to the Twin Cities I received a phone call from Chuck's friend John, owner of the house on Bryant Street. He said that Chuck was in the hospital with an infection. "It's AIDS related."

Although AIDS was still mysterious, the infections associated with it were well understood. Cryptoccocal meningitis is a form of meningitis that rarely infects healthy people. Crypoccocus is a fungus found in soil contaminated with droppings from pigeons and other birds. It preys on people with suppressed immunity. It commandeers the meninges, the membranes that line the brain and spinal cord. The standard treatment is amphotericin B taken intravenously. The powerful antibiotic shoots holes in the cellular membranes of the fungi. In people it can produce headaches, fever, chills, irregular heartbeat, double vision, and sometimes convulsions.

Cryptoccocal meningitis put my brother on a lifeline. He would never leave it alive.

Ashes in the Wind

The most vivid memory I have of Chuck, in his final months, was during a visit in March 1985. The family pilgrimage to Bryant Street had been going on for seven months by then. It was my turn to be with him.

He had moved from his garden apartment to the main floor some years earlier. He shared it with his partner, an African-American fellow originally from Buffalo, New York.

Despite his upbringing in a small Minnesota farming town, Chuck had a gift for design and arrangement. He had impeccable taste, and it showed in every room. I'm sure the impresario who built the house for his mistress would have approved its late 20th century manifestation at my brother's hands, a thoughtfully appointed environment accented by fresh-cut flowers. The materials that made up the house's contents were all natural: wood, clay, ceramic, metal, fabric, bamboo and the like. Plastic had been banned.

I was sitting on the back deck reading a magazine. The deck had limited exposure to the San Francisco sun. It was hemmed in by facades of more recent construction decorated with Latino murals and graffiti.

But at that moment I had the sun. So did he as he emerged from the kitchen. He stood there for a minute or so, saying something I don't remember. He had just returned from the hospital after gaining the upper hand in a skirmish against pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, yet another opportunistic infection. His drug arsenal and medical equipment cache had grown. They clashed with the natural matériel of the living space.

He stood there in the sun, looking good, I thought. His brown hair, well arranged, looked auburn with the sunlight on it. His skin, though pale, did not show the raging in his body. He was untethered from his IV pole for the moment. He stood there in the San Francisco sun, which this day cast not a harsh but a soft light on the city, filtered by high clouds. He looked good in the soft light.

It was a mirage. Three months later, at age 38, his body and spirit separated. My father was there to bear witness and to join with his partner and friends in the champagne toast to celebrate his life. The toast took place by candlelight in the garden Chuck tended. A week later I participated in a memorial service in the living room of his house. It was a simple service of scriptural readings, poetry, personal reflections, and tears.

His friends attempted to fulfill his last request and distribute his ashes on Mount Tamalpais. He wanted his remains to have a vista of the city he loved, a vista we often shared when I came to visit. They were met with "No Trespassing" signs and turned back. The procession of ashes to the mountain from the city's devastated gay community, where up to half the men were infected with HIV, had public health officials concerned.

Eventually Chuck did get to the mountain top, his ashes scattered by hand and wind over its rocky crest. His partner, the fellow from Buffalo, visited our family in Minnesota before HIV/AIDS eventually claimed him. He, too, died in the house on Bryant Street, surrounded by loved ones.

In their last months, weeks and days, they were among many who benefited from the network of organizations that became known as "the San Francisco model" of AIDS care, a collaboration that included community-based organizations as well as city and state agencies, hospitals, and health care providers.

Paul Volberding, a graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School, established the first AIDS clinical service -- at San Francisco General Hospital. In June 1983 he opened "Ward 86," the first hospital ward devoted to treating people with AIDS. Now at the city's Veterans Administration Medical Center, the renowned AIDS researcher and clinician saw his first case of AIDS his first day on the job 20 years ago.

"Like a disaster in slow motion, AIDS has taken 18,600 San Francisco lives, far more than the city lost in wars and earthquakes and fires combined," wrote San Francisco Chronicle reporter Sabin Russell last June in "AIDS at 20: A Disease That Changed Our World."

"Once thought of as a 'gay disease' afflicting only the hip, urban centers of America, AIDS is now unmasked as a global killer whose toll has passed the 20 million dead of the Spanish influenza of 1918. It has cut a swath through impoverished African states and is now threatening the teeming populations of India, China and Southeast Asia."

Chuck left Minnesota in his new Volkswagen beetle in January 1969, searching not for wealth but for some connection not found here. He didn't know as he drove west from the Twin Cities that his personal journey would dovetail with momentous events in a great city's history and the rise of a global epidemic.

Neither did Edwin Bryant know, when he traveled westward from St. Louis in 1846, that the "Eldorado" he noted in his journal was about to be discovered, after a fashion, and that San Francisco would soon be known throughout the world.

California's "City by the Bay" will always be a destination for people searching for something -- the golden cup, adventure, an audience, a connection of some kind.

The restless search that has drawn people to San Francisco for 150 years is a counterpoint to the world of the Ohlone who lived along Dolores Creek a few centuries ago. The Ohlone lived life moment to moment, we are told, not in history or religion or futurism or dreams but in the here and now. The original "people of the west" lived in harmony with the land. They never ventured far from home.

But that world is long gone. The new people of the west that make up the city's neighborhoods -- the Fillmore, the Castro, Haight-Ashbury, North Beach, Chinatown, the Mission -- are a vibrant, dynamic and mobile ethnic mix.

"The Mission" is the title of a film produced in 1994 by KQED public broadcasting and narrated by award-winning author Isabelle Allende. The film "uncovers the common threads that run from its origins as a Native American village, through its many successive incarnations: Spanish mission settlement; Mexican ranchland; Gold Rush boomtown; earthquake refugee camp; and finally, home to immigrants of all stripes, especially Irish and Latinos."

What Allende says of the Mission is true of the city:

"If you look closely, you can see a picture of what America has been . . . and where it may be headed."

    --William Hoffman

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.

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The Doric Column



E. F. Darlin. "Mining Scene - View of Coloma [Sutter's Mill]," 1859, oil on canvas. California Historical Society. Fine Arts collection. San Francisco was the quintessential boom town, growing from just 600 in 1848 to 25,000 in 1849, the year after gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in the Sierra foothills. 150 years later the technology boom in the city's "Multimedia Gulch" south of Market Street threatened traditional neighborhoods. Like the first boom, this one busted, too, only sooner.