The university where I work is sprawled across the city on multiple campuses. This has some up-sides: I can take one of the university shuttles to many locations in San Francisco, which is often handy, and they all have bike racks, so if I’m feeling lazy or especially traffic-phobic it’s easy enough to ride to a campus location near where I’m headed and use the bike for the last leg. It has some down-sides: my department is also spread across the city on various campuses, and so I can go months without seeing some of my co-workers, or for that matter, my department chair. And there are often days when I am expected to be at multiple campuses. On one terrible day I had non-negotiable meetings at five different campuses. I didn’t get a lot of work done that day.
My main work site is at Laurel Heights, which is a weird little neighborhood in San Francisco. Like most of my regular destinations in the city, it has the word “heights” in the name, and this word is not an affectation in San Francisco. Getting there involves some climbing, although it’s not as bad as where we live. Nobody offers an elevator option for bicycles in this neighborhood.
Laurel Heights is the site of a former cemetery, Laurel Hill Cemetery, which was surrounded by cemeteries in an area formerly known as “the silent city.” In San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, even the cemeteries were damaged, with shattered tombstones strewn about. In the next few decades, the cemeteries became run down and were viewed by local business owners as discouraging development and encouraging juvenile delinquency. To be fair, there had been advocacy to remove cemeteries from San Francisco since the 1880s, as they were viewed as health risks. In 1937, a ballot initiative, Proposition 43, passed. It allowed the city to move all the cemeteries (or more accurately, the remains interred in them) and open the land they’d been located on for development. Most of the bodies were transferred to Colma on the San Francisco Peninsula, City of the Dead, San Francisco’s necropolis. “It’s Great to Be Alive in Colma!” is the town’s actual motto.
Some of the rest of the bodies were victims of the time; remains from the Chinese Cemetery were wrapped in canvas and sent to China by Pacific Mail Steamer. I have a friend whose great-whatever-grandparents arrived in San Francisco after dynamiting the path of the railroads across North America, and whose family has lived in San Francisco ever since, only in his generation finally moving out of Chinatown. He is more native San Franciscan than anyone else I know. Doubtless some families like his found their dead relatives sent across the ocean.
As a result of all this, most of the neighborhood was developed long after the rest of the city, and it is an odd 1950s modernist enclave in a city famed primarily for its Victorian houses and their look-likes. The building I work in was built and then abandoned by Firemen’s Fund Insurance Company, and it may now be part of a medical center, but it still looks like an insurance company headquarters inside and out. It is huge and black and sprawling and can be seen looming over its neighbors from as far east as Nob Hill. Across the street is a huge Muni depot, always filled with hundreds of buses. Laurel Heights contains one of San Francisco’s few strip malls, although in keeping with the city’s style, the only national chain store there is a Starbucks, and it is anchored by two excellent independent grocery stores. I end up doing most of our grocery shopping on my lunch break, and I now have an extensive collection of panniers, insulated bags and cargo nets to haul everything home on the bike. This was complicated by finding bags that would fit on the rack under the child seats that I’m always swapping on and off, and is worthy of another post.
I like working in Laurel Heights. Before we moved into university housing, we lived here as well. It is a very quiet corner of the city, and although it is on the wrong side of the fog line, it is less pounded by relentless fog than the Sunset (a misnomer if there ever was one; you’ll rarely see the sun in the Sunset). Unlike the campuses with hospitals, it is always quiet here. And although I wish we had a library on site, there are still many amenities. Like all medical center campuses, it offers a cafeteria serving cheap, healthy, and rather unappetizing food (I’m not sure why this is, but it’s been the case at every hospital I’ve ever worked, including the Panem Institute in Copenhagen and Cook County Hospital in Chicago). The Laurel Heights cafeteria has a nice view of the city. There is a child care center on site, and I was able to walk downstairs to visit and play with my daughter every day when she was enrolled there as an infant. And although this is one of the few campuses without a bike cage, bike parking options are more than respectable, although they get crowded fast. We have a lovely view of Golden Gate Bridge from the mail room.
There are weird quirks about working here, some of which are annoying. The neighbors ferociously resisted the university moving to the site; I am told by my dentist, who’s been here forever, that there was suspicion that we would all be torturing monkeys and releasing strains of smallpox (I don’t know anyone who does either of these things). As a result, every window in the building is glued and bolted shut permanently, even though there are no wet labs on this site and the only viruses in the entire building are on the computers. It would be nice to be able to open a window.
My office overlooks a small garden and parking lot. When an older colleague stopped by once, he laughed out loud at the view from my window. He is a San Francisco native, born at UC Hospital long before it was converted to classrooms and offices or condemned. And he has been working at this campus since it opened, in a swank office with a drop-dead view of Golden Gate Bridge befitting his stature as the director of California’s Poison Control System. He told me that years ago, right outside my window, when they were repaving the parking lot, he suddenly saw a bulldozer stop dead and every worker swarm over to it like ants at a picnic. It turned out that the bulldozer had hit a tombstone. They searched for some time but never found an associated body. But now I have yet another good reason not to drive to work.