Hayes Valley: Before The Freeway

Photos at Fell & Octavia, in 1953 and 2019

Four photos of a car accident in February 1953 capture a unique 360-degree view of an important San Francisco intersection at the cusp of substantial change. In that year, Fell Street was already a one-way westbound thoroughfare, but Octavia was a standard-width street that ran from Market St all the way north. By the end of that decade, huge swaths of Hayes Valley would be demolished to make way for the huge double-decker Central Freeway and its on- and off-ramps. The construction of the freeway, along with its later removal, shaped the streets, landmarks, and long-term economic story of Hayes Valley.

Looking north on Octavia, at Fell St. Photos: OpenSFHistory/wnp28.2956.jpg (1953), Ben Zotto (2019)

The entire row of buildings on the right side of the older image were razed for construction. The Central Freeway opened to traffic in 1959. It operated until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which damaged the structures, leading to its closure and removal north of Fell in 1992. The small, popular Patricia’s Green park seen at the right of the contemporary photo opened in 2005, as part of the larger Octavia Boulevard project. It features rotating sculptural installations, seen here as a huge “tree” of white cubes.

The nearest couple structures at left, including a corner café, were replaced by the apartments at some point, but several buildings visible beyond are still there. The view from those windows has been a rollercoaster of changes in the last 70 years.

Looking west on Fell, at Octavia St. Photos: OpenSFHistory/wnp28.2958.jpg (1953), Ben Zotto (2019)

The tower at Sacred Heart church (at Fillmore St) anchors the distant center of both images. Most of the left side of this block of Fell St disappeared to make way for the Fell Street off-ramp. The large corner apartment block at left and the adjacent two-story Victorian (barely visible) were allowed to remain. The Fell St off-ramp was the final segment of the Hayes Valley freeway to close down, and after it was removed the land remained unbuilt for a decade (it spent time as both a commnunity farm and an art resource). Visible now in the contemporary view is ongoing construction work on a five-story, 108-unit affordable housing complex.

Looking south on Octavia, at Fell St. Photos: OpenSFHistory/wnp28.2957.jpg (1953), Ben Zotto (2019)

Octavia Boulevard and the edge of Patricia’s Green (foreground) dominate the contemporary view, but in 1953 this was an intersection of two standard-width streets. A Mohawk Gasoline station is prominent on the southeast corner. That station, along with all the structures into the distance on the left side of the older view were in the freeway right-of-way, and demolished. Octavia Street itself kept this traditional configuration, running adjacent to the freeway, until the extra-wide Boulevard was installed in 2005, incorporating both the surface street’s right-of-way and much of the freeway right-of-way.

The older apartments on the right of the view survived the freeway. The slightly taller Avalon Bay Apartments visible beyond in the new view sprouted up recently where the Oak Street on-ramp flyover had been located.

Looking east on Fell, at Octavia St. Photos: OpenSFHistory/wnp28.2955.jpg (1953), Ben Zotto (2019)

The sturdy and attractive Victorian apartment block at the corner was lost to the freeway, as were some buildings visible on the right. Very little remains to match up between these views; several other structures on Fell Street were replaced during this interval, unrelated to the freeway. Just visible at the center distance of both photos (clearer in the older image) is the landmark 1937 art deco “Western Furniture Exchange and Merchandise Mart” building on Market Street (today’s Twitter headquarters, among other tenants). One nice side-effect of the creation of the park is the visibility of City Hall dome from new sightlines in the neighborhood (left skyline in contemporary photo).

Location of the Fell & Octavia intersection indicated on the city grid before the freeway (left), while it was present (center), and today (right) after the installation of Octavia Boulevard and Patricia’s Green. Images: 1938 aerial view by Harrison Ryker (David Rumsey), 1987 aerial view (Congress for the New Urbanism), and Google Maps.

For more historic Hayes Valley then-and-now photography, have a look at this survey across 110 years. If you want to be involved in shaping the neighborhood into the 21st century, please join the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association.

Historic photos above are courtesy the Western Neighborhoods Project and OpenHistorySF. Contemporary photos and text are copyright 2019 by Ben Zotto. Ben posts SF photos including occasional then-and-nows on Instagram. You can reach Ben at: bzotto at gmail.