By Judy Goddess
Sam Gilbert remembers an idyllic childhood growing up in the Richmond District in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“We were a close-knit community, like a village,” he said. He recalls a safe, almost suburban neighborhood, where the children roamed free.
Gilbert wanted to celebrate that past and hear from others who had grown up during those years. So, 10 years ago, he started a Facebook group where he and others who had lived in the Richmond during those years could connect and reminisce.
The group, “I Grew Up in San Francisco’s Richmond District, ca. 1950-1975,” focuses on the Richmond of his youth, not on what is happening in the community today.
Gilbert grew up on 10th Avenue between Anza and Balboa streets.
“It was a special street with detached homes, leaded glass windows, front yards, and large backyards,” he said. But it wasn’t only the houses or their siting that made the neighborhood unique.
“Our street was integrated, half the children on the block were Black, the others white; there were few Asians and Hispanics.”
While the children may have attended different schools – Gilbert attended the French American Bilingual School and University High – they all played together, exploring the neighborhood on their skateboards, roller skates and bikes. Back home, in their own part of the community, they played war games and practiced their pitching.
“Our parents didn’t worry about us,” Gilbert said. “They knew where we went and who we played with. It was a lively neighborhood; every day was something new.”
Almost 3000 people belong to the group. Some, Gilbert noted, have clear recollections of the neighborhood before he was born.
Members post school photos and ask for help in identifying former classmates. They reminisce about favorite teachers. Others ask about long-gone stores.
“Corner markets have a particular hold on our memories,” Gilbert said. “They were part of growing up. We got to know the owners and their families. They represent so much more than just a place to buy a quart of milk.”
It is those personal stories that Gilbert likes and that draws people to the group. It is the discovery that you and someone you didn’t know have something in common. They form a new connection; they are reminded of a part of their life they had forgotten.
But it’s not all sweetness and light. Those were the years of redlining when minorities were discouraged from buying into the Richmond.
“One man, a Japanese veteran of World War II, wrote that the only way he could buy into the neighborhood was after some of his army buddies spoke to the real estate agent,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert tries to keep the site positive and focused on the past, but that presents a challenge.
“People romanticize the past; they idealize the innocence of their youth which they contrast with a present they view as terrible,” he said.
It’s a difficult tendency to fight. Gilbert, who “loves the City the way it is today,” didn’t anticipate the negativity he has found.
“They want to talk about the present: the Washington High School murals, closed streets that makes driving difficult, small cottages replaced by large buildings,” Gilbert said.
While it’s difficult to stop these conversations, he tries.
“We direct them to another site if that’s what they want to talk about,” he said.
While Gilbert hoped his Facebook group would connect people with similar histories, he has found that it also attracts people who grew up in a quite different Richmond – surfers and the beach crowd, families from blocks that weren’t integrated. The differences certainly make for “an active site,” he concluded.
Gilbert, a consulting manager/editor for two large projects and a sometime gardener, keeps a busy schedule. But, while managing the group has its challenges, he enjoys the opportunity to reminisce and learn more about the Richmond of his youth. And, importantly, “it’s a great escape from conversations on coding.”