Bernal Heights Library – Yesterday and Today

Bernal Heights - 1940
Dedication of the WPA built Bernal Heights Library, October 20, 1940
Bernal Heights Library, Cortland Street, May 12, 2021
Bernal Heights Library, Cortland Ave., May 12, 2021

The Story of Two Photos

The photos above are looking west down Cortland Avenue in San Francisco. The top one is from the parade for the opening of the Bernal Heights Library. It is October 20, 1940 and is like traveling in a time machine. Who are these people? What is that band and what did it sound like? Who is the woman in front, seemingly running the show? Why do the cops don’t have guns and look like they actually know people? Why is everyone in the crowd white? So many unanswered questions.

Bernal Heights is one of those neighborhoods that resembles a small village. Many of the homes were built soon after the 1906 earthquake with lumber scraps from down at the shipyards. Cortland Ave is similar to a main street in small town America with all the shopping essentials available in walking distance. It is still quaint in this way however has changed a lot in the last twenty years as it has been gentrified, often beyond recognition.  Needless to day, there are a lot of fine dining options.

However, the Bernal Heights Branch Library is still standing. It has changed over the years, but it does not seem to be going anywhere. The inspiration for this post is from an awesome website that I stumbled upon – It is a website or wiki of all the projects that were created from the New Deal. The list is long and the buildings and projects are impressive. Americans, to this day, can appreciate and benefit in many ways from all these projects. It is truly amazing what was accomplished  in such a short period of time considering the circumstances. All these awesome libraries made of stone, with east facing windows to catch the morning light. What a great place to read!

While my grandfather on my mother’s side, the hard driving businessman, admonished the WPA, and called it “we poke along” thinking that the whole project was a waste of taxpayer money, nothing could be further from the truth.  He may have been perturbed that program funded those “lazy artists” and other creative people.  Interesting, that that while the Buicks and Cadillacs that he financed are all in  rusty graves, the WPA projects are probably mostly standing. The incredible murals by Diego Rivera and other artists are sprinkled all over San Francisco.

The Bernal Heights Library has had a history of murals. When we lived there in the 1990s the mural was by Precita Eyes and was explicitly political. There was a homage to the Native People and the great Chilean activist and musician Victor Jara was there singing a protest song with his guitar.  In the last ten years, the mural was redone and like the neighborhood was toned down with a  much more generic and oblique looking approach.  Fortunately, there is a display in front of the former mural for historical purposes I guess. The Bernal Library was built according to the times of what I library should be.  Later, like all buildings, it was made ADA compliant and a ramp was put in. To improve upon it I can see not too many upgrades except for the fact that as with all the libraries they forgot that pigeons love all those little nooks. The usual metal pointy deterrents where installed. But pigeons always get their way until they get hit by a car.

When Joe Biden says “Build Back Better” you have to really wonder how that is going to all work out. Is he imagining the creative projects of the 1930s? Is he talking about putting artists and other creatives on salaries? Or he mostly talking about pouring money into large construction companies and corporations with a lot of overcharges. Time will tell. The concept of building an infrastructure for renewable energy could be the lasting and most profound achievement. Time will tell. It could take a parade down Cortland with a strong woman in front and lots of drums in the rear to get the ball rolling.