Rural Renewal

Will paving one of S.F.'s last dirt streets improve or ruin east Bernal Heights?

Retired cemetery maintenance man Ray Balcioni cherishes life on the rustic eastern slope of Bernal Heights, where he has lived for 60 years. Of course, that life might not please those with urbane aesthetic sensibilities; it includes free-range skunks and raccoons in the yard, jury-rigged electric wiring in the house, and wild blackberry and morning glory vines in the fertile swath created by the outflow of a neighbor's septic system.

But Bernal Heights has meant open space and a slower-pace lifestyle for several generations of Balcionis. And now Ray fears his recently arrived, urban-striver neighbors -- with their meaningful work and their bare wood floors -- will take that lifestyle away.

And they probably will.
Later this month, city workers will move their equipment less than a block from Balcioni's house and begin paving Brewster Street, one of the last dirt roadways in San Francisco.

The paving project is part of a neighborhood-overhaul plan hatched during two years of monthly meetings between Bernal Heights neighborhood activists and city planners. The overhaul is being funded with $6 million of a 1989 San Francisco sales tax increase aimed at citywide infrastructure improvements.

When construction is done in a few months, Bernal Heights will offer residents a sort of sourdough and streetcar version of rural living, rather than the junked-car and septic-system one it has provided.

Buried power lines will have replaced those now dangling across streets, and workers will have erected dozens of acorn-shaped street lamps of the sort found on Market and Mission streets.

City workers will have widened, buttressed, and paved Brewster Street; built a half-dozen National Park Service-style wood-and-cement staircases on nearby slopes; and stretched modern city sewer and water pipes through the area.

Whether the project is seen as civic improvement or yuppie abomination apparently depends on the length of one's connection with the neighborhood, which perches over Highway 101 near its intersection with Interstate 280.

"This used to be a great place for raising children," laments Balcioni, whose white hair, heavy frame, and eager red face liken him to a mild-mannered Boris Yeltsin. The neighborhood, he says, "was full of chickens and goats. I used to follow a skunk home from school. Now, once in a while we still get a raccoon, but that's it."

Four generations of Balcionis have lived on the Heights' east slope, a hodgepodge of dirt inclines with street signs, overgrown empty lots, and subcode houses built at odd angles.

Over the years, residents carved dirt roads through private property, built makeshift stairways up sections of hillside, and periodically laid new straw on a network of dirt pathways to keep from slipping during the monthslong muddy season.

When city inspectors working on the neighborhood renovation saw that his house wasn't up to code, Balcioni was forced to spend $3,000 on rewiring. And a neighbor on Brewster Street is having her septic system removed as city workers install modern plumbing throughout the neighborhood.

"I think they should have just left our hill alone," says Balcioni, lounging in the living room of the tar-papered bungalow he's lived in since the 1930s.

But more recent arrivals on Bernal Heights take a different view.
"We're going to have historic fixtures," boasts Mary Nennig, 51, a Kaiser nurse who bought a pine-floored Victorian at the north end of Brewster Street 2 1/2 years ago. "I think it's very positive."

If the new fixtures can be considered historic in some ways, they will not much resemble the period, just after the Civil War, when poor European immigrants began settling Bernal Heights.

Then, the area was nicknamed Nanny-Goat Hill after the grazing animals that populated it. It was later called Dogpatch Hill for the packs of strays that roamed there. Later still it earned the nickname Red Hill, in honor of the dozen or so leftist bohemians who moved to the area during the 1960s.

The area's formal name of Bernal Heights originated in the 1830s, when Mexican land grant baron Jose Cornelio Bernal built a home there for his daughter on the crest of his Rancho Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo estate.

Eastern Bernal Heights' rustic charm and lack of infrastructure have for decades enticed San Francisco's city planning types.

During the mid-1960s, those planners dreamed of turning the area into a patchwork of "vest-pocket parks," and nature-walk pathways filled with city-planted shrubs and trees.

In 1979, a group of city bureaucrats wrote a 144-page study recommending new sewers, water lines, street grading, and a laundry list of other improvements. And in 1989, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency did a "revitalization" study that again suggested infrastructure improvements.

About a decade ago, back-to-nature artists and intellectuals who became Balcioni's neighbors during the mid-'60s began desiring urban amenities such as water pressure, reliable sewer systems, and fire protection, says Jay Johnson, who moved 22 years ago to his art-filled house on the dirt path known as Joy Street.

About six years ago, rising San Francisco real estate prices squeezed a few dozen architects, writers, and other wealthier residents onto Bernal Heights' east slope. The new residents were even less tolerant of low water pressure and muddy streets than the bohemians had been.

Those wealthier newcomers provided the impetus for the Bernal Heights improvement program begun last August, and now that construction is near completion, city planners envision a parklike neighborhood in which residents greet each other on new, winding stairways, talk politics as they putter in the planned community gardens, and sleep soundly, knowing city firetrucks and ambulances can reach their houses on widened and paved Brewster Street.

"Some people say we're paving over paradise here," says city landscape architect Brian Gatter, who is overseeing the project. "That's nonsense."

Sage Schaan, a 17-year-old high school student who lives on Brewster Street, agrees. He'll be glad when he can step from newly laid pavement -- instead of mud -- into his black 1980 BMW convertible.

"Now, it's hella messed up; you can't do nothing unless you wipe off your shoes before you get into your car," Schaan says. "When everything's done there'll be wires underground, nice light posts -- I think it's great.

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