Betty Parshall hunted for the historic rock of the Visitacion by scrutinizing outcroppings and hillsides. Russel Morine looks for the origins of the neighborhood name Little Hollywood. Cynthia Cox listens to old-timers for the stories she cannot find in the books.
Together, they are united in their search for the history of Visitacion Valley, a working class neighborhood in the southwestern edge of San Francisco.
Most outsiders, who pass through the neighborhood only on their way to Monster Park or the Cow Palace, might be turned off by reports of violence at the Sunnydale public housing projects or think there is little reason to linger.
But local history buffs want to change that perception. Parshall, Morine and Cox, along with Edie Epps and Jackie Fishtrom, are working on a book due for release later this year. They love Visitacion Valley for its walk-able size and friendly neighbors.
"We all have a strong connection to the neighborhood and want to make sure things are preserved," said Morine, 37, who moved to Visitacion Valley about eight years ago from neighboring Bayview, where he grew up. "We want to make sure this ends up in history."
For example, Little Hollywood -- the section of Vis Valley sandwiched between Bayshore and 101 -- may have been named for various reasons: the palm trees were planted and stucco bungalows were built in the style of 1920s Hollywood, or because movies were filmed there, or because Mae West once lived there, Morine has learned. He has not yet found a definitive answer.
He leads a tour of the neighborhood with Cynthia Cox. Cox moved to the valley in 1998, after looking for a place where she could afford to buy a house. She liked the feel of the neighborhood, and now lives in a Queen Anne house built by a Swedish ship captain in the 1890s.
Here, "people really care and work hard to make it better," said Cox, 55, who developed the first Visitacion Valley tour for San Francisco City Guides in 2003. "People remember it as it was."
The book expands on an oral history project that the group presented to the community last summer. After the book is completed this June and handed over to Arcadia Publishing, the authors want to continue gathering local lore with the hopes of creating a permanent collection, perhaps at the neighborhood's branch library, which is yet to be built, pending funding. Stories they have unearthed so far include the tale of sisters who settled their father's estate by cutting the family Victorian into pieces that were moved and now scattered around; and the fleeing bank robber whose getaway car flipped upside down, spilling stolen cash from the trunk.
Parshall, 69, has lived in the neighborhood for most of her life. As a child, she remembered playing on open hillsides covered with spring wildflowers -- "sheets of color."
Roughly bounded by Highway 101, Bayshore Boulevard, Mansell Street, Visitacion Avenue, San Bruno Avenue, McLaren Park, and the San Mateo County line, Visitacion Valley has a population of about 16,000.
More than half the residents are Asian American and Pacific Islander, 14 percent white and 14 percent black, according to Claritas, a San Diego market research firm that analyzes U.S. Census figures.
According to local lore, Franciscan friars traveling to San Francisco in 1777 became lost in heavy fog. When the fog cleared, they found themselves in a beautiful valley -- named Visitacion Valley because the discovery was on the same day as the feast of the Blessed Virgin, or because they saw a vision on a rock, legend holds. This is the rock that Parshall looked for, and she has since learned it resides in someone's backyard. As the valley developed, residents grazed cattle and started nurseries. In 1942, the Sunnydale public projects were built and became home to many returning servicemen after World War II. Geneva Towers, built in 1966, served as low-income housing until the 20-story buildings were demolished in 1998.
The rise of shopping malls in the 1950s hurt the then-thriving main street, which once boasted many clothing stores, a jewelry store, hardware store, other retailers and restaurants.
Longtime residents say the neighborhood fell into further economic decline starting in the late 1970s with the departure of Southern Pacific, a major employer, followed by S&W Foods and Schlage Locks in more recent years.
Often, people don't know where Visitacion Valley is, or think it's "way out there" or else raise concerns about safety in the area, said Jackie Fishtrom, 68. She moved there in 1997, but beforehand was a frequent visitor because her family has lived in the neighborhood for decades.
Early every morning, she walks to Candlestick Cove, a round trip of about 4 miles. She says she always has felt safe and has met many neighbors on her walks.
On a recent weekday, the group interviewed Viola Rusca, 85, who has lived in the valley her entire life. The women sat at the kitchen table in the home of Epps, who lives in the house where she was raised. They traded stories about old-timers and old places.
Like residents of a small town, they talked about people they were related to, what street they lived on, their maiden and married names and what school they went to.
Rusca brought a bag full of scrapbooks, pamphlets, articles and other valley history. On her class photo, she placed a butterfly sticker on the plastic sleeve by her face. "When I'm gone, my kids will know where I am."
Epps, 52, said she feels blessed working on this project, with others with the same affection for the neighborhood. "It's our hidden secret."