The 600 and 700 blocks of Natoma (more of a long alley than a true street) in San Francisco’s SOMA District probably don’t appear in any history of, or guide to, this city. And yet they contain a tale of our home’s 19th and early 20 history that bears remembering. A tale told by–of all things–the doors of Natoma. Such as this one.
That must seem a bit odd to you. Why is this door below street level?
The answer has to do with humanity’s sometimes careless relationship with the environment.
When the original San Francisco 49ers (the 1849 version) arrived here on their way to the Gold Rush, not only did they rush off the boats, sometimes the crews and captains joined them, abandoning their careers and their ships in the almost always futile chase for the shiny yellow metal. The South of Market area had been little more than swamp, so to make more land available for construction, San Franciscans simply threw all of their trash, including the broken down or broken up ships, into the swamp, covered that with landfill, and then covered that with buildings.
There exist many reasons why that was a terrible and dumb thing to do, but I shall content myself with only one: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The quake knocked down almost everything in the neighborhood. To our credit, my predecessors in this city rebuilt the place so quickly that nine years later we hosted one of America’s biggest international expositions of the previous century. In the part of SOMA where you will find Natoma, anything still standing got knocked down, covered over with more trash and dirt, and replaced by two- and three-story houses.
Another bad idea.
Now we’re talking about garbage, wood and landfill piled on top of garbage, wood and landfill piled on top of a swamp. In simple English, really soft earth that will sink under a considerable weight.
Such as two- and three- story houses.
These doors used stand in the usual and logical places where street-level doors should stand. But the buildings slowly sank (and yet remained sound and habitable!), driving the doors below the street. The most extreme example is 623 Natoma, highlighted in an excellent SF Chronicle article by Gary Kamiya (who gets the credit for inspiring this post). This is how 623 appears today:
Your eyes do not deceive you; you have to pull up the trap door to get down to the front door.
What I don’t know is if the buildings will continue to sink. The possibility exists that the gunk underneath has become sufficiently compressed to have become stable.
After all, this is San Francisco.
And The Next Big One will come. Eventually.
Vonn Scott Bair