Bicycling Memories of Potrero Hill

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Cycling Potrero Hill can demand more than a strenuous climb or two…or three. It can be an adventure, intended or not. I first discovered the Hill as a bike messenger after moving to San Francisco in 1982. A notable neighborhood feature is that while it’s a hill, it’s shaped like a mountain. Most San Francisco knolls have up and down slopes. The Hill’s contours, uneven ridgeline and dead-end streets require cyclists to properly navigate it to avoid having to make an extra climb. A navigational error can add an unnecessary steep ascent.

In the previous century, before the technology industry proved itself “disruptive,” a messenger might pick up several small packages in Financial District high rises, sprint south to make deliveries in South-of-Market and Showplace Square and then climb the Hill’s steep pavement, usually up to 18th or 20th streets. Along the route there might be a package to be retrieved on the Hill for delivery back Downtown. And the rider might stop for some needed calories at Chiotras, the Hill’s historic “corner store not on a corner.” 

To make a pickup in the Mission District, the messenger would wind down what’s truly the world’s crookedest street and over the freeway. Or the courier might ride the other direction to deliver in Dogpatch, Bayview, Candlestick Park and beyond.

Somewhere on the Hill’s upper northern slope a courier might pause to view the Bay Area; the draw was most often the Downtown skyscrapers. Less than half an hour earlier he’d been in those buildings; now they looked far away.  In this moment of serenity, the high rises seemed almost otherworldly compared to the noisy, jampacked streets they occupied.

My courier work introduced me to the Hill, but it was my career in mosquito control that took me everywhere in the neighborhood. A mosquito control technician rides their bike on every City street, except the Presidio, to inspect sewer basins. If the basin contains water, the technician drops an organic larvicide into it to kill mosquito larvae. 

In my eight years as a mosquito control tech people occasionally asked me what I was doing. Whether I was in Pacific Heights or Potrero Annex-Terrace, San Franciscans seemed to respect the difficulty of this public service task that wasn’t bothering anyone. Except baby mosquitoes.

Messengers and mosquito control techs find money, tools and other valuables on the streets. One Indian summer afternoon in 2015, I was working mosquito control on Carolina Street. I shifted into low gear to complete my climb to 22nd and Carolina streets, a 320-foot high peak. Approaching the intersection, I saw a box sitting in the middle of it. As if to reward me for climbing to its peak, the Hill had given me a case of wine! 

With bungee cords, I carefully strapped the case to my rear rack and walked my bike down the hill. At Potrero del Sol Park, I rendezvoused with co-workers and gave them a few bottles. Later, one colleague went online to look up the prices. The case’s total value was more than $600, making it my most valuable “ground score” ever.