Stories in the Sand – FOREWORD


Foreword by Harold Gilliam

Author, Journalist, Environmentalist


Let’s face it. The Sunset is not San Francisco’s most glamorous district.


It lacks the panache of Telegraph Hill, Union Square, Nob Hill, or the Embarcadero. As a tourist destination it’s hardly in the same league with Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Russian Hill, Chinatown, or even the newly transformed South of Market.


Yet the Sunset is a solid, substantial family neighborhood with its own history, traditions, institutions, and landmarks. Before moving here, I had lived in Pacific Heights, Telegraph Hill, and the Haight-Ashbury, and like many people I chose the Sunset to settle down and raise a family.


After 50 years in the Sunset, I thought I knew everything there was to know about it.  I was wrong. Lorri Ungaretti, who grew up here, has done a years-long job of intensive research, pored over innumerable documents, interviewed dozens of old-time residents, and written what must be the Sunset’s definitive history.


You will learn here, for example, about how the area was originally thought to be a desert of uninhabitable sand dunes and about the original settlers who nevertheless braved wind, fog, and sandstorms to “homestead” in the dunes. It was then federal land that was considered to be “out west” from San Francisco. The effort of the city to claim these “Outside Lands” was a decades-long legal battle with the federal government before the boundaries of the city were finally extended to the ocean.


It was Mike de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, who envisioned the possibilities of the Sunset and promoted the idea of a world’s fair in the new Golden Gate Park, at the Sunset’s northern boundary. The fair drew millions of people in 1894 and encouraged commercial and residential building in the adjacent district. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that the subdivisions were extended westward to Ocean Beach by such builders as Henry Doelger, who specialized in standard-design homes affordable to young families. Doelger showed his high opinion of the Sunset by building a home there for his own family.


A few sand dunes remained, however, through the 1950s, and Ungaretti remembers trudging through one of them as a child living across the street from Lincoln High School. Long-time 
residents told her that in the early days the roar of the lions at the San Francisco Zoo could be heard at night across the district. Some of them remembered how the kids used to play in the “mountains of sand” and frequented swimming holes at places where creeks from inland were dammed by the highest dunes en route to the ocean.


Like most histories, this one is not all sweetness and light. Ungaretti describes how restrictions on who could rent or buy in the neighborhood were written into original house deeds and discusses a statewide battle over whether racial minorities could legally be excluded from residential areas such as the Sunset. The practice involved a statewide election and ultimately became a test case in the courts. 


Ungaretti profiles some of the people who lived in the Sunset years ago. For example, the award-winning tennis player Alice Marble grew up in the Inner Sunset and had an adventurous life. We also learn about the neighborhood’s registered landmarks and other fascinating buildings, including St. Anne of the Sunset, the large church that can be seen for miles and features a frieze conceived and created by a Bay Area Dominican nun.


If you’re a resident of the Sunset, I would recommend an observation by writer Wendell Berry: “You don’t know who you are, until you know where you are.” Read this book and find out who and where you are. 


 —Harold Gilliam, 2012

Winner of the 2011 Bay Nature Award