About the book
Octavia Boulevard is a San Francisco neighborhood long overshadowed by an ugly double-decker freeway damaged in 1989 in the Loma Prieta earthquake. I moved there shortly before that expressway was replaced by a Parisian-style boulevard, the first road of its kind built in America in forty years.
In many ways, Octavia Boulevard is a microcosm of San Francisco, a showplace of the city’s ingenuity — the boulevard has kaleidoscopes on the corners for pedestrians’ entertainment, for just one example. But Octavia Boulevard also exemplifies the city’s failure to use its wealth and creativity to solve ingrained social problems, to help the disenfranchised and unfortunate. Day after day, I wondered how San Francisco had money for such frivolities while homeless men slept outside my door, in the alcoves of the Baptist Church around the corner, and along the reconstructed boulevard.
My book, Octavia Boulevard, tells the stories of these homeless men and also the story of life of the building I lived in during the neighborhood’s transformation, covered with fusty gray paint and overlooking the ruins of the freeway when I moved in, and the friendships – family, really – forged over the next few years among its residents — people like Mae West, an 80-something blind woman who worshipped at the African American Hebrew Cultural Center and shared her faith in the future with me; Noel, an aged Guatemalan who knew the city’s raucous past and loved to tell stories about it; Ann and Alexandra, the baby she adopted from Vietnam, the building’s only child; Robin, an iconic San Franciscan who once owned one of the city’s hottest nightclubs and was perpetually planning his resurrection; and Jul, our landlord, a complex fellow who could be our hero one day and our nemesis the next.
Octavia Boulevard also celebrates San Francisco — its wonderful food, weather, culture and traditions — but most of all its people, characters like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who spoof the Catholic church while raising thousands for nonprofit charities; artists like Lief, creating beauty from driftwood, clay and cloth, and the quirky misfits with whom I shared my morning coffee at the Laguna Sidewalk Café.
Progress happens. In San Francisco, progress is king, inevitable as weather. Yet, as with so many human endeavors, progress brings unintended consequences. Some people prosper. Others suffer. Octavia Boulevard tells a small part of that story. In short, an allegory of life in America’s most self-indulgent yet perpetually fascinating city.