The first meeting of the Sunset District Improvement Club probably didn’t go as its organizers intended. Although the neighborhood association quickly became an influential voice in city politics, history suggests that it was borne from controversy and neighborhood discord.
The San Francisco Call, 9/1/1985
In 1895, the Sunset District was lacking in population and political clout. The Sunset Tunnel wouldn’t open until 1928, and the growing population west of Twin Peaks and south of the dairy farms in the Haight had two pressing demands: creation of a networked sewage system, and improved streetcar service to connect them to downtown. According to local history archive Outside Lands, the new club needed a name to set itself apart from the "already established South Side Improvement Club, which was made up of absentee millionaire real estate speculators and land developers."
Organizers of the meeting put their best face forward: the La Grande Hall at the corner of H Street (Lincoln Way in 2015) and 9th Avenue “had been newly whitewashed and adorned with flags, bunting and magic-lanterns,” reported the September 1 San Francisco Call. “Attendance was not large, despite the fact that about 800 invitations were issued and a special train provided.” In all, the four-car train carried only 14 passengers.
Club president W.H Jones introduced Sunset resident Thomas U. Sweeney to explain his “plan for sewering this district,” but Sweeney wasn’t in the room. A committee appointed to retrieve him “returned in a few minutes and reported that Mr. Sweeney had gone to bed and refused to get up.”
George T. Gaden, a representative of Mayor Adolph Sutro, tried to speak up, but was shouted down by Jones, who ruled him out of order. Gaden pressed on, which led Jones to preemptively adjourn the meeting, shouting “that there should be no discussion of the railroad question while he presided.”
Gaden kept gabbing about the railroad question, “a cause of bad feeling between the Ashbury Heights and Sunset Valley people.” The conflict? Sunset Valley compromised with streetcar operator Southern Pacific to run cars every half-hour, but the Ashbury contingent “had stood for 15 minutes’ car service.”
The Call, 6/27/1896
By June of the following year, the Sunset Improvement Club had established itself; the June 27, 1896 edition of The Call reports that the association was back at the La Grande Hall celebrating a big win: the Board of Supervisors appropriated $11,000 (about $308,000 in 2015 dollars) to grade the district “bounded by H and D Streets (Lincoln and Fulton) and Seventh and Twentieth avenues.”
Several supervisors were in attendance for “an excellent literary and musical programme,” which included “‘Give Us Light in Sunset District,’ in which the need of electric-lights in the vicinity was poetically set forth.” The following February, Supervisors voted to extend streetlights from H to K (Lincoln to Kirkham) and from 12th to 16th avenues.
The Call, 12/10/1896
Emboldened by political success and steady increases in land values, the club’s next major proposal was to extend 19th Avenue from H Avenue to Ocean Avenue, creating "a level and scenic route" that would connect Golden Gate Park with Ingleside Racetrack, two of the city’s most popular recreation destinations. The Call reported that the roadway would be “secure from the rolling-sand nuisance” that can still close Great Highway today.
Creating this “belt line” would quickly boost property values in the Outside Lands, noted The Call, and “it would increase the attractiveness of San Francisco by adding to its picturesque drives.”
When the city's charter changed to permit at-large voting for supervisors in 1900, neighborhood associations became more active and were regularly reported on post-earthquake, with The Call publishing associations' scheduled meeting times and minutes.
The Sunset District Improvement Club continued to play a key role in attracting infrastructure investment and improving services for area residents into the 20th century. As more neighborhoods developed, new associations split off to serve the interests of their constituencies, eventually leaving the parent organization with far less power. Today, Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People, and other organizations continue the tradition.