The angel’s in the details

Flipping that old saying to promote “120 years: SFMTA Photo Archive 1903-2023” now showing at the Harvey Milk photography center, 50 Scott Street, adjacent to Duboce Park. (N stops right there at East Portal of the Duboce Tunnel, the 22 and 24 are nearby.)

SFMTA’s blog post for the exhibition has details we won’t repeat here.

The angel's in the details
Detail from John Henry Mentz photo taken July 1903 on 24th Street just west of Rhode Island Street. SFMTA Archive

You should go. And when you do, try to focus on the people in many of the 50+ printed photos on display, especially the older ones originally captured on glass plates or 8×10 black and white film. (We know it’s hard to take your eyes off the equipment, but try!)

The detail is spectacular. Zoom in with your eyes and wonder what these riders’ and workers’ lives were like back then. For example, the mother and her “angel” son above ready to ride downtown in 1903 on a “dinky” electric streetcar identical to Muni’s preserved 578. They’re on Potrero Hill at the end of what became the 35-line, on 24th Street at Rhode Island Street, on what is probably the steepest unassisted streetcar grade in US history, more than 15%. (The next block of 24th to the east is twice that steep and is today the only full width San Francisco street still paved in Belgian block.)

The angel's in the details
The complete image, from Mentz’s original 8.5″x6.5″ glass plate. SFMTA Archive

For the kid, this has to be as exciting a start to a streetcar ride imaginable. The mom could be equally excited, or perhaps apprehensive. Either way, on this slope, she has to hang onto the seat to keep from squishing her kid. Another nicely dressed woman is at the other end of the car, just in case…

This is one of the oldest images in the SFMTA Photo Archive, but you’ll find people photos from every era…groundbreaking pioneers in transit, front-line workers at their vehicles’ controls, in the shops, on the streets. Pixels on a screen can’t do these images justice. They cover 12 decades of San Francisco transit history.

Definitely worth a trip. And if you can’t make it, at least peruse the fabulous SFMTA online archive, where you can search by year, by route, and many other ways. It is a guaranteed rainy-day rabbit hole.

The exhibit “120 years: SFMTA Photo Archive 1903-2023” is open Tuesday-Thursday 3:00pm-8:30pm and Sat 11:00am-4:30pm through February 3, Harvey Milk photography center, 50 Scott Street.


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