Last April, a plaque was installed to officially commemorate the Carolina and 20th streets stairway as “Jack Balestreri Way,” after the man who built them. The late Jack Balestreri was the last known living laborer to have worked on erecting the Golden Gate Bridge when he died in 2012 at the age of 95. Starting from when he was 17 years-old in 1933, he spent three years working for a cement company constructing the iconic bridge, donating part of his earnings to make the staircase in what was then called “Goat Hill”. In 2013, the City passed an ordinance establishing the Carolina Street stairs as Jack Balestreri Way. It took four years to deliver the plaque honoring its creator, about the length of time to build the Golden Gate Bridge.
“My grandparents lived in the Potrero District, having moved there at the turn of last century,” said Gayle Balestreri, Jack’s daughter. “My dad was born in 1916, and was one of five children. He wanted a lot on Carolina Street, and so half of his salary from work on the Golden Gate Bridge went to the lot and the other half went to the construction of the stairs. My dad didn’t actually own the lot until my grandfather passed away in 1980.”
According to City records, Jack Balestreri was born to Sicilian immigrants and started working at a machine shop when he was just seven years old. He was a Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 104 member for 70 years, and an avid baseball player, competing professionally for the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League, among other teams. While working at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard during the 1940s he met his future wife, Marina Balestreri.
At the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge’s opening in 1987, Balestreri and a group of remaining bridge workers and their families were invited by Mayor Dianne Feinstein to a celebration, where he was given a key to the City.
“We were the first ones to cross the bridge during the celebration,” recalled Gayle Balestreri. “There were bands playing, and it was an exciting thing to see. Because no one had blocked off the Marin side, people ended up trying to cross from both ends. There ended up being 92,000 people on the bridge at once and it dropped down by 11 or 12 feet. The bridge was fine, but it took us an hour and half to get off.”
Jack Balestreri is remembered as a good neighbor and one of the quiet people who helped build the City. According to his daughter, her parents lived in the Ingleside neighborhood in the 1950s, but maintained the Carolina Street lot, where they grew fruit trees and produce, which they’d share with neighbors. They also kept goats, hiding them from municipal personnel. When Balestreri died in 2012, community members petitioned the City to name the stairway after him, an initiative independent of the Balestreri family.
The April commemorative plaque ceremony was attended by District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, neighbors, Marina Balestreri, Gayle Balestreri and her aunt, Victoria Vercellino, among others. A reception was held at nearby residence for immediate neighbors and family members.
Marina Balestreri still resides in San Francisco, in Ingelside Terrace near Stonestown. She married Jack Balestreri at the age of 19, and lived in Potrero Hill until she was 34. In addition to cousins who are in the Bay Area, Jack Balestreri’s 97-year old sister lives in Sunnyvale. Gayle Balestreri, her younger sister and a brother stay elsewhere in California.
The Golden Gate Bridge, the City’s most prominent landmark, cost more than $35 million to build. McClintic-Marshall Construction Company, a subsidiary of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, began construction in 1933. The American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of the Wonders of the Modern World. Balestreri passed away a month before the bridge’s 75th anniversary. He’d have turned 101 this year.