In San Francisco, a literary and supposedly progressive city, numerous alleys dedicated to late, great California writers are mostly given the names of men. Among them are alleyways named for Ambrose Bierce and the two Jacks, Kerouac and London. Located on these alleys are a few of the city’s 25,000 storm drains that, when blocked by trash and organic matter, can cause flooding in the streets and in homes.
Last fall, I started taking responsibility for some of the drains near my home. This wasn’t my own civic-minded initiative. Since 2016, all San Franciscans have had the opportunity, through a standardized, city-administered program known as Adopt-A-Drain, to help keep drains of their choice free of litter and debris.
After choosing a drain located on the Lower Nob Hill alley named for hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, I was prompted by the online registration system to give the drain a name. Call it a watershed moment. A wave of inspiration hit me, and I named my first drain for playwright Lillian Hellman.
It isn’t necessarily novel to imagine men’s landmarks for women, but that doesn’t make it any less important to keep imagining a better version of what we already have. I set about adopting other drains on alleys named for men—most within a 45-minute walk of where I live—and naming them after some of my favorite San Francisco women writers.
Adopt-A-Drain was developed (at no cost to the city) by nonprofit volunteer project Code for San Francisco, a tech-driven subset of the national Code for America initiative, which was also created in San Francisco. The city’s drain guardianship is modeled on Boston’s Adopt-A-Hydrant program, through which residents commit to shoveling away winter snowdrifts that could block hydrant access in the event of a fire. Chicago has a similar snow-clearing program, and many cities have drain adoption efforts as well. Most charming is an initiative in Honolulu where islanders can claim responsibility for tsunami sirens.
In that tradition, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) distributes complimentary brooms, rakes, dustpans, long-handle pickup tools, leather work gloves, and high-visibility vests to residents who claim a drain of their own. The PUC provides drain-clearing safety guidelines, too: Wear city-issued apparel, and maybe your own reflective clothing as well. Sweep from the sidewalk to avoid standing close to traffic. Don’t pick up needles or anything toxic.
You might call all of this part of the public good, in that individuals can collectively improve their community together. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, journalist and urban studies doyen Jane Jacobs noted, “A successful city neighborhood is a place that keeps sufficiently abreast of its problems so it is not destroyed by them.”
The windy afternoon I picked up my drain-tidying supplies was the first day it had rained in San Francisco in roughly six months. Leaving the water department loading dock, I slung my new rake over my shoulder as I walked through the Tenderloin, looking out for localized flooding. It took me a few days to survey and clear my own drains before the worst storms rolled in, and by the time they did, I’d scooped mounds of silt-covered leaves away from obstructed grates. As a longtime downtown renter, I don’t have a lawn. But clearing my drains, I began to understand the satisfying appeal of yard work beyond my humble efforts at container gardening.
I adopted my first drain—I now have five—for the same reasons, vague and specific, that I do a lot of things: I care about my neighbors, and where we live. Taking care of a couple of catch basins is much like serving as a poll worker on Election Day, or being part of a civilian corps of disaster preparedness volunteers. (In fact, adopting drains earned me a second city-issued vest and set of gloves; the first came courtesy of the fire department, which offers a free emergency preparedness training focused on helping civilians survive the next major earthquake.)
As I told friends about naming and unclogging catch basins, one acquaintance asked me whether individuals should be responsible for maintaining municipal infrastructure. The question was framed with more confusion than confrontation, but regardless of intent, I disagree with its premise—it’s everyone’s responsibility to pitch in.
Here are the drains that I have adopted and christened in honor of SF scribes.
Mary Jane Megquier, 105 Jessie
Mary Jane Megquier preceded journalist Ambrose Bierce in San Francisco by more than 15 years. She chronicled everyday city life during the height of the Gold Rush in letters written to her family, which are collected in the book Apron Full of Gold. Agreeing at the last minute to accompany her indebted physician husband Thomas to a land where he might make enough to pay down his outstanding accounts, the industrious Mainer sewed herself a pair of trousers for the sidesaddle journey across the Isthmus of Panama.
Once settled in California, Megquier wrote to the children she’d left with relatives back East about her life in “the good city of San Francisco,” explaining the toll of running a boarding house: frying potatoes and boiling steaks for her guests, making half a dozen beds a day.
Her wrists weakened from the work, and she developed erysipelas in her fingers, but she also still managed to play whist every night and often stayed out late dancing. “If I had not the constitution of six horses, I should have been dead long ago,” she wrote amid descriptions of ships arriving daily and major events such as the May 1850 fire, one of several devastating conflagrations to level swaths of the city during the first years of the Gold Rush, and the gallows execution of José Forni in 1852.
Inclement winters have always felt jarring in this otherwise temperate city. In December 1852, Megquier wrote to her daughter, “For two long, long weeks, we have scarcely seen the sun.” Torrential storms had caused widespread destruction—one man lost thousands of head of cattle, “whole trains have been drowned”—and the hardy, frustrated Mary Jane Megquier was forced to pass on an invitation to a Chinese theater production due to unceasing rain. There are no drains on Ambrose Bierce Alley, but one nearby, located at the corner of Jessie and New Montgomery, is named for Megquier.
Diane di Prima, 255 Columbus Avenue
One of the most positive unintended consequences of the 2016 presidential election was renewed interest in the often out-of-print Revolutionary Letters, Beat poet Diane di Prima’s actionable works that read like a roadmap to a life well lived. I’m fond of “Revolutionary Letter #11,” which instructs us to be mindful of our utilities even during a rebellion:
When you seize a town, a campus, get hold of the power stations, the water, the transportation,
forget to negotiate, forget how
to negotiate, don’t wait for De Gaullle or Kirk
to Abdicate, they won’t, you are not
“demonstrating” you are fighting
a war, fight to win, don’t wait for Johnson ot
Humphrey or Rockefeller, to agree to your terms
take what you need. “It’s free
because it’s yours.”
Now in her mid-80s, di Prima has written more than 40 books, including two memoirs, and been awarded prestigious endowments, honorary doctorates, and numerous lifetime achievement awards. So much of her oeuvre embodies a loving, radical, resilient San Francisco spirit—she’s lived here since 1968—that it’s difficult to imagine the city without her outlaw influence. In her speech to accept the honor of being San Francisco’s fifth Poet Laureate, di Prima thanked “all sentient beings” and told the crowd, “There isn’t a thing that’s happened that hasn’t helped to put each of us where we are.” The drain named for her is located on the southern side of Jack Kerouac Alley, where the short passageway meets another street named for a man with a troubling legacy, Columbus.
Lillian Hellman, 745 Pine Street
In her time, Lillian Hellman was one of the nation’s foremost dramatists, the writer of plays so popular several were adapted into major motion pictures, and an outspoken supporter of social and political causes, with her progressive views often prominent in her scripts and stories. After being blacklisted from Hollywood in 1948, she appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 and refused to name names.
Hellman was also Dashiell Hammett’s partner in activism, life, and work for three decades (until his death in 1961). The Children’s Hour, Hellman’s groundbreaking play about two teacher friends accused of lesbianism, opened on Broadway the same year that Hammett published The Thin Man, his final novel, in which one of the main characters, Nora, is based on Hellman. The drain on the northwest corner of Pine Street and the one-block alley named for Hammett is named for Hellman.
Shirley Jackson, 449 Bryant
Entering names into a city-administered database is hardly a revolution, but it’s better than nothing in a city where two of our public monuments are named for women, and where bureaucratic hurdles are notoriously unreasonable. A recent debate about what type of sculpture should honor the late SF-born poet Maya Angelou offers but one example of the difficulty of getting anything codified and approved here, whether it’s the design details of a public art project, permits to run a wine bar, or a desperately needed center to help unhoused folks move into permanent housing.
It took me less than a minute to name the drain on the eastern side of Jack London Alley at Bryant Street for Shirley Jackson. Jackson, most famous for her short story The Lottery, grew up along the tree-lined streets of Burlingame that would eventually inspire her sinister takes on small-town life.
But it was the wealth of 1870s San Francisco that perhaps most shaped the life of Jackson, who was born in 1916, the year Jack London died. Jackson’s great-great-grandfather Samuel C. Bugbee was the city’s first architect, and built elaborate homes for the Big Four robber barons for whom many San Francisco landmarks are still named: Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford. As Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin writes in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, “Jackson never saw any of her great-great-grandfather’s creations, except in pictures: all the Nob Hill mansions were destroyed in the fire that resulted from the great earthquake of April 1906.” That didn’t stop her from using those homes—and the drama surrounding them—as inspiration in her bewitching novels across domestic comedy and literary suspense genres, including The Haunting of Hill House and The Sundial.
Charmian Kittredge London, 2 Jack London Alley
Across the alley is another drain, which I named for Charmian Kittredge London, author of numerous stories and articles as well as four books, including two about the early 20th-century tourism-driven changes in Hawai‘i. The lifelong Californian was also Jack’s widower, collaborator, and biographer. She typed up everything he wrote, but not as his mere stenographer. According to her biographers, Charmian London enjoyed equitable statue in their creative literary team, adventuring around the world and collaborating with Jack on well-known stories including the urban-escapist novel The Valley of the Moon, based on the couple’s real-life ranch in Glen Ellen that is now a state park.
Jane Jacobs also wrote that neighbors might not have much in common besides geography. In present-day San Francisco, this depends largely on whether people can afford to live here or not, which relies on a number of complicated variables including municipal regulations (e.g., rent control, the ease of permitting new housing development) and economic mobility and privilege (if you could afford it here when you arrived, and if your income keeps pace with cost increases).
But Jacobs also noted that most people care what happens on their block, in the streets near where they live. Everyone benefits when one person abates smells and messes by hosing down a sidewalk, or replants a dead tree and restores shade for humans and a home for wildlife. Everyone benefits when a drain doesn’t overflow, and arguably, neighbors as well as those passing through an area benefit when some history is reimagined and restored. “Neighborhoods in cities do need to supply some sort of means for civilized self-government,” Jacobs insisted.
In taking on the ancient practice of sweeping up, I’ve come upon lots of weird, timeless ephemera: discarded papers, a lone sandal, a whole lime wedged into a drain grate. I also run into neighbor-friends passing by, and I have an excuse to study subtle changes along side streets. I take notes, and I consider what it means to be part of something bigger than my own little life. It’s what politically minded San Francisco writers and artists have been doing for centuries, regardless of their gender.