Period Piece is Lucy Schiller's recurring feature on the hidden histories of San Francisco. Give her a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org if you know of some hot dirt on olden times in the city
Few wander into Mission Creek’s small houseboat community. It’s hard to find, unless you live in the luxury condos across the channel or are tailgating in a nearby parking lot for a Giants game. But tucked under the I-280 ramp floats a tiny neighborhood, an undiscovered fixture of San Francisco.
On a recent visit, I am shown a residence festooned with skulls and racks of antlers, another with windowboxes full of carnivorous plants, and another with a ghoulishly grinning blowfish decorating the front door. Neighbors here include stingrays, anchovies, pelicans, seals, and – according to one resident – an on-again-off-again sea lion visitor of rather large proportions. During the small-scale tsunami in March, the floating community felt their homes rise up by about three feet. When asked if any families lived in the boats, one resident responded sharply, “Yes. We’re all a family.” It couldn’t get any quainter, really.
The short waterway has a long history. Before the white settlement of San Francisco, Ohlone Indians lived and boated along Mission Creek’s course, which was then much wider and longer, stretching almost from Twin Peaks to the Bay. Fast-forward some years and butchers were sending unwanted guts downstream, railroad companies were slowly paving it over to make way for new transportation networks, and Del Monte was setting up shop, using cheap labor to offload and can fruit in massive volume.
Today, a few of the creek’s residents are descendents of the dockworkers who worked to unload shipment after shipment of bananas. The houseboat community first began taking form in the early 1960s, with many of the original members moving from neighborhoods only a stone’s throw away.
Now, the small settlement seems comprised of individuals filling strangely specific roles – I met and heard of the caretaker, the doctor, the weaver, the ex-taxi driver-current waterway historian. A small but productive community garden grows on a nearby bank. Needless to say, all who live here hold their patch of water very dear.
And it has changed considerably. In the still-recent past, San Francisco’s skyline gleamed through the boats’ kitchen windows; façades of the Berry Street condos have replaced that view. Mission Creek Park, a winding green space running parallel to the creek, is also a recent development. The inherent charm of living on a houseboat in the middle of the city is pretty obvious to outsiders, and residents worry about being slowly bought out by folks less devoted to the existing community. After recently renewing a lease with the Port Authority, however, the boaters should be sitting pretty till at least 2043, to the nightly sounds of shrieking egrets and Giants fans alike.