I live in Cow Hollow, between the posher Pacific Heights, uphill and South, and the yuppier Marina, downhill and North. Cow Hollow is bordered on its other extremities by the Presidio and Russian Hill. According to Google, Lombard and Green make up the long sides of Cow Hollow’s rectangle, Lyon and Van Ness the short. The Cow Hollow Association has a different view of things, however, and I’d rather not get in the middle of a knife fight between Googlers and a group that holds its annual meetings at the Saint Francis Yacht Club.
The neighborhood is known for its cute, mid-price boutiques and restaurants and is full of nail salons, dog bakeries, and yoga studios. It is an affluent, comparatively crime-free area with beautiful Victorians and the continuous renovation thereof. It’s also, based on my experience, very homogenous. If this were the only place one visited in San Francisco, one might assume that everyone in the city was white, made a decent salary, had a dog and/or a young child, and loved brunch. It’s a lovely, quiet, leafy place to live, a neighborhood that some San Franciscans wouldn’t know by name: most of the time, I just tell people I’m in the Marina.
Cow Hollow is also where the Marina set comes to drink. The bar scene at the crossroads of Fillmore and Greenwich is known as the “Bermuda Triangle,” a place defined by drunken hazes and long lines for a late night slice. Although some have attributed the term to Herb Caen, I learned of it when reading Armistead Maupin. In Further Tales of the City, Maupin wrote: “Nubile computer programmers and other innocents had been known to pass this mystical nexus and never be heard from again” (1). I’ve never been in the bars at the Bermuda Triangle, but I ‘ve passed by on a Saturday night or three. It makes more sense, in that context, why the Marina gets a bad name. But we’ll leave the bitter cultural wars of San Francisco for another post.
Washerwoman’s Lagoon, located near the corner of Franklin and Lombard, was one of the few bodies of fresh water in the city (2). In the 1850s, Chinese entrepreneurs and “thrifty” locals came here to do their laundry by hand: paying someone else to do one’s washing was exorbitantly expensive in the Gold Rush days. The only other option was to ship garments to Hawaii or China for cleaning (3).
Dairies popped up starting in 1861 to take advantage of the spring-fed pastures (2), with approximately 30 operations established by the early 1870s (4). The city removed the cows and banned livestock around 1891, when the area became too populated and conditions at the dairies deteriorated (2). One media account detailed the poor sanitation of the Cow Hollow area during a visit with city officials sometime before 1900. It quoted Health Officer Dr. Keeney, head of the tour: “If some one were to start out and search California from end to end, they could hardly find a more unsuitable place in which to keep cows than ‘Cow Hollow'” (5). Personally, I wonder whether the Pac Heights la-di-das wanted slightly more respectable neighbors than a bunch of farmers and their bovine friends and subsequently leaned on the local government to make some changes. They might’ve plotted it all out at the Saint Francis Yacht Club, if it’d been around then. It’s probably better, however, that we don’t have a tuberculosis outbreak or an open sewer “waterfall” hereabouts (5). Still, I know I’m not the only one wishing for more urban farming in San Francisco.
Existing in a strange in-between space, neither fully residential nor urban, not the Marina and not Pac Heights, Cow Hollow is an oasis for those of us who like our cities without a side of sirens. The neighborhood represents one facet of the contradictory, difficult elements that make San Francisco so interesting and so challenging. It’s a sheltered place, both safety-wise and in that it’s easy to be here without questioning why it is the way that it is. But it doesn’t have to be so. Furthermore, we should not forget the importance of the neighborhood in the history of the city. When San Francisco was growing too fast to sustain itself, Cow Hollow provided its residents with locally-grown, fresh food: a precursor to the locavore movement over a century before it was even a thing.
(1) Maupin, Armistead. Further Tales of the City. New York: Harper Perennial, 1982. Print. Page 98.
(2) Snyder, John. “Cow Hollow.” San Francisco Secrets. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999. Print.
(3) Unknown Author. “Washerwoman’s Lagoon.” Except from This is San Francisco. Via Found SF. Web. 1 February 2021. http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=WASHERWOMAN’S_LAGOON.
(4) O’Brien, Robert. “And They Called It ‘Cow Hollow.'” San Francisco Chronicle, January 1947. Via Found SF. Web. 1 February 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=AND_THEY_CALLED_IT_%22COW_HOLLOW%22.
(5) Unknown Author. “Cow Hollow Sanitation Scandal c. 1900.” Via Found SF. Web. 1 February 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=COW_HOLLOW_SANITATION_SCANDAL_c._1900.