Block of Time: O’Farrell Street

My latest adventure in  what I’ve come to call “location-based storytelling” was featured earlier this month in a San Francisco festival of “locative media & urban community” called City Centered, sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, and KQED.   My installation, “Block of Time,” was a site-specific radio documentary/cell phone tour/super-hyper-local-journalism experiment, on the 900 block of O’Farrell Street between Polk and Van Ness .

old man waller
A passer-by stops to hear a story about this street corner, where "Old man Waller" had a dairy barn 120 years ago. Call 415-448-6948 and you can hear it too. Now the same spot is home to an appliance store, but the odd farm animal still shows up around here now and then. (Call 415-690-7964 for that story.)

It was a wonderful afternoon, with all sorts of people lingering in the street,  peering into the nooks and crannies of the block (marked by red balloons) and listening to the stories hidden inside.

So what happened?

Imagine one of those audio tours you’d take in an art museum, or through a historic neighborhood, where there are little numbers next to notable paintings or buildings, and you can dial them up to hear more about them.  Block of Time is like that, with one difference: the place you are touring has no obvious historic or artistic value.  And that’s the point.  The 900 block of O’Farrell Street is totally non-descript.  But every place has a story, you just need to know where to look.

If  you’d like to hear the stories yourself, check out the map below.  You can click on each pin to find the number to call for a story about that place.  Of course, the stories are best heard in situ, when you’re surrounded by the world that created them, so I recommend printing out the map and heading out to O’Farrell between Polk and Van Ness for an urban adventure.  (At the bottom of this posting, I’ve put a list of the phone numbers and their corresponding addresses for easy reference.)

Compulsive journalist that I am, I searched historical documents and maps, and interviewed dozens of people who’ve lived and worked on the 900 block over the years, to find interesting material.  Some of the stories were inspired by Harriet Lane Levy’s memoir 920 O’Farrell Street, depicting her childhood on the street in the 1870s, and tracing her memories all the way up through the  1906 earthquake.  But I also pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, called random apartment call-boxes, stopped people on their way home from work, and poked my head into businesses to find tales worth sharing.    All in all, I curated and edit more than 20 stories, all under two-minutes each, connected to different spots and buildings along the street.  They spanned time from 1867 to the present.

Red balloons marked the spots on the street where each story was “embedded,” and signs at those spots gave you a phone number to call.   Each number you called took you to a different short story about what you were looking at.  (The phone numbers and audio message system were generously donated by MobileCommons.   Thanks to Jed and Michael who made this tour possible!)  It was as if ghosts from the street’s past, present and future history were talking to you over the phone lines.  Magic….

Listening to the story of the pigeon spikes on the second story window sill of this building. Call 415-935-0944 to hear it for yourself.

The stories ranged from the complaints of a 19th century dairy farmer who once had a cow barn on one street corner, to the tale of a suicidal cab ride chauffered by the current owner of the Thai Restaurant that is now next door.   Some tackled big things like crime, immigration, and the American Dream. Others were bits of historic neighborhood gossip.   All together, they captured the layers of stories that shape and are shaped by one city block.  One of my advisors, Leslie Rule of KQED, called it “narrative archeology,” a term I love.

I learned so much in the process of creating this exhibit: about new storytelling forms, about community (an over-used word in a well-meaning place like the Bay Area, which gained new meaning for me on Sunday), and about how many narratives teem inside a random city block.  As a radio reporter, I’m used to crafting stories about things that are unseen and far away from the people who hear them.  Those stories can sometimes feel abstract, piped in from a studio far away.  But with this location-based radio project, I knew my listeners would be looking at the exact spot where part of the story took place.  And something transformative happened when people heard stories about places they had a physical connection to.

The streets we walk through everyday are a living archive of urban affairs, and the human dramas– large and small, political and personal, tragic and comic– that make our world what it is.   That fact is felt viscerally when you can listen to a story that shaped the very place you are standing.

They say empathy requires walking around in someone else’s shoes for a day; Block of Time might be the soundtrack to that walk.  As one visitor put it “I walked around the rest of the day with bigger ears and eyes.”

Because stories are everywhere. You just need to know where to look.

For more info:

Easy Reference List of Phone Numbers:

A guy who–literally–hangs out here….
Call: 415-742-1906
Year: now
Location: 951 O’Farrell St.
A prom night stop on O’Farrell Street…
Call: 415-347-5986
Year: circa 1980
Location: O’Farrell St.
The camera watching you in this parking lot…
Call: 415-323-0996
Year: Now
Location: 900-998 O’Farrell (AMC Theater Parking Lot)
The pigeon spikes on the second story window sill
Call: 415-935-0944
Year: 2008-now
Location: 951 O’Farrell
A Mississippi ex-pat who found refuge in this building
Call: 415-935-3958
Year: 1986-now
Location: 935 O’Farrell
The writer who will never forget this house
Call: 415-763-5998
Year: 1867-1906
Location: 920 O’Farrell
The “corner office” gang…
Call: 415-236-0974
Year: 1990-now
Location: Northeast corner of O’Farrell and Polk
A cab ride the owner of this restaurant can’t forget…
Call: 415-367-3138
Year: circa 1985
Location: 925 O’Farrell
A family legacy inside these walls for 3 generations…
Call: 415-997-8924
Years: 1937- now
Location: 903 O’Farrell
A fowl discovery on this sidewalk…
Call: 415-690-7964
Year: circa 1972
Location: sidewalk in front of 903 O’Farrell
Country living on O’Farrell and Polk…
Call: 415-448-6948
Year: circa 1875-1906
Location: 903 O’Farrell
Pots and pans and the American Dream…
Call: 415-236-2997
Year: 2008 – now
Location: 925 O’Farrell
A trip that started and ended in this building…
Call: 415-938-6964
Year: 2009
Location: 951 O’Farrell
Shifting sands on this corner…
Call: 415-236-2953
Year: circa 1870
Location: Northwest corner of O’Farrell and Van Ness
The policeman who used to walk this block…
Call: 415-236-0946
Year: circa 1980 – 2008
Location: O’Farrell Street
Extra sensory perception in the house that used to be here…
Call: 415-483-1284
Year: circa 1880
Location: 916 O’Farrell
The faces above this corner…
Call: 415-323-0951
Year: Circa 1890
Location: 900 O’Farrell
The music in the street…
Call: 415 – 236-2949
Year: circa 1881
Location: between 920 and 922 O’Farrell
Pickets and Cadillacs…
Call: 415-742-1933
Year: 1927, 1963, 1980s
Location: 1000 Van Ness (Northeast corner of Van Ness and O’Farrell)