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Mission and Surrounding Neighborhoods Before Human Settlement

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Before the fancy restaurants opened there, before the Victorian buildings came into being, and before there was even a Mission District (or a Spanish Mission), the area around 20th and Valencia streets was land that edged right against the waters from San Francisco Bay.

This was hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But in her large-scale topographical map near the corner of 20th and Valencia, artist Ulrike Palmbach marries this historic perspective with a few present-day street grids. The result is a bird’s-eye kaleidoscope of contour lines and colorful swirls — of reds, greens, browns, and blues — that excavates San Francisco’s not-so-distant past, before Europeans settled here.

Notwithstanding the work’s title, which was applied by the artwork’s commissioner, Palmbach says her map, which she researched thoroughly using historical documents, showcases the city as it would have looked to Native Americans. Its most unusual feature may be its accurate detailing of the waterways that bifurcated San Francisco in different directions. Palmbach’s research shows that San Francisco Bay crept close to the Mission District — to the point that, at high tide, ships would arrive near the area, as happened with the ship that delivered the very house that Palmbach lives in.

“I’ve lived in the Mission, in this house, for 30 years, and I’ve always heard there used to be these waterways — and that the Bay came almost to Van Ness,” Palmbach tells SF Weekly while standing in her home studio, which is just several blocks away from the map. “That was interesting to me. This house that I’m living in came on a barge in 1870. And I was wondering how did they get it here. And apparently, at high tide, because of the waterways, they could bring it almost all the way to 22nd and South Van Ness.”

Palmbach, who was educated at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin (Berlin University of the Arts) in her native Germany, focused on sculpture for many years before turning to drawing after the gallery she worked with was forced out of its downtown San Francisco building.

“I’m not a latent muralist — that’s not my tradition,” she says, “so I thought I’d do something that’s different, and that’s specific for this geographical spot.”

One sign that Palmbach’s map, which went up about two months ago, has already had an impact: The workers who installed the map behind its glass casing raved about it.

“The workers who put it up said, ‘This is so cool!’ ” she says. “And they all had their pictures taken with their hardhats on. And I said, ‘Thank you’ — because that’s who I made it for. It’s not for the big art world and for the commenting. It was fun to do.”

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Jonathan Curiel

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