Carole Gilbert with 1940s-era PCCs at Muni’s Geneva Division. Telstar Logistics photo.
Sometimes a job is just a job, and sometimes a job has the practical effect of making life a little more pleasant for everyone else. Cops and firefighters are often lauded for this, but Telstar Logistics recently had the opportunity to meet a few of San Francisco’s most under-celebrated civil servants: Carole Gilbert and the paint crew at Muni’s Geneva Division.
Why give a shout-out to a bunch of painters? Who work for a public transit agency?
Simple: the folks at the Geneva Yard keep the city’s vintage streetcars looking so spiffy–and that’s a service tens of thousands of San Franciscans have come to appreciate. The streetcars used on Muni’s F-line, which runs from the Castro District to Fisherman’s Wharf, are all unique. The fleet consist of three basic types: one-off historic cars drawn from cities around the world; a dozen or so Peter Witt cars from the 1920s that were acquired from Milan, Italy; and 28 PCC cars from the 1940s.
The PCCs are particularly fun to see, because each has been painted in the historic colors of a city that once operated PCCs in regular service. So, for example, there’s a green one from Brooklyn, and a yellow one from Cincinnati, as well as an orange one from Boston, a red one from Los Angeles, and a grey one from Philadelphia that looks like a package of cream cheese. As we wrote a few years ago, “Watching these old streetcars pass by is always a time-warp. They’re colorful, elegant, functional, and (no surprise here) very popular, which is why they’re a terrific addition to the fabric of the city.”
Carole Gilbert and company deserve much of the credit for this. Gilbert is Muni’s streetcar paint shop supervisor, and working with her team of nine full-time painters at the Geneva Yard, she maintains the appearance of Muni’s vintage streetcars and oversees the historical research that ultimately results in each PCC car receiving its unique look.
Carole Gilbert leafing through the rare “Traction Extra #2” book she keeps under lock and key. Telstar Logistics photo.
This research usually begins with a copy of a rare book called “Traction Extra #2 – The President’s Car” that Gilbert keeps under lock and key in a filing cabinet near her desk. Inside the book, historic color photos of PCC streetcars taken during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s provide the reference images Gilbert uses to select paints and create custom logos and graphics.
Neat trick, eh? Not surprisingly, Gilbert never envisioned herself becoming a stylist for vintage streetcars. She studied art in college and for a time planned to teach ceramic sculpture. Destiny had other plans, however, so after a stint as an auto body painter, she landed at Muni in 1986–where she’s been ever since. And though she’s also responsible for maintaining the appearance of Muni’s modern fleet of Breda light rail vehicles, Gilbert has a soft spot for the vintage cars. “I like the older streetcars,” she says. “All the detail makes them much more interesting.”
But does she have a favorite? One colorful old streetcar that she prefers over all the others? Gilbert was reticent on this topic, but with some prodding she eventually offered up the secret: “The Blackpool Boat Car,” she confessed. Naturally.
Muni painters Carlos Montez (left) and Willie Alexander (right) help keep the vintage streetcars looking so colorful. Telstar Logistics photo.
Keeping the old streetcars running and looking good takes a lot of work–it’s a jungle out there on the city streets, and the cars take plenty of abuse. During our visit, for example, we saw streetcar No. 952, a vintage New Orleans streetcar, having work done in the body shop to repair a rusted lower window sill.
Telstar Logistics visited the crew from Geneva Division in late December. Since then, we’ve been paying closer attention whenever we see one of the vintage F-line streetcars rolling down Market Street. As technological artifacts, they’re as fabulous as ever, of course. Yet they look different to us now. Having had the opportunity to meet the people who keep them rolling, these old machines also seem a lot more human.