SF Oddities: The Roman Columbarium: House of the Living Dead

Posted in digital journalism, SF Oddities, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome with tags , , on May 1, 2008 by lenzbreakr

The Roman-style Columbarium, located smack dab in the middle of San Francisco, is perhaps the oddity of all SF oddities. 

Built in 1897, the Columbarium-meaning “dove cove”, as the structures were originally used by the Romans to house domesticated doves-opened its’ doors to the public to provide an alternate option when passing into the afterlife. Cremation was popular at the time-after all, who wants to be stuck underground in a wooden box forever?

The Columbarium gives each member of the departed their won physical, tangible space (essentially a small box) in which they can display personal items, photographs or just about anything they or their loved ones would like to represent their lives. 

Some choose to display only their names and the dates of birth and death. 

Others include pictures of loved ones, toy figurines, and miscellaneous trinkets and objects that represent personal tastes.








In 1910 the city of San Francisco outlawed cremations, meaning the Columbarium, and its on-site crematory were now without use. In 1923, the city passed another ordinance requiring all bodies to be moved from cemetaries within the city, such as the cemetary that previously stood on the grounds of Lone Mountain at USF.

While the Columbarium was saved from demolition, it succumbed to racoons, pigeons, water, and even growing mushrooms and other fungi from 1934 to 1979. Fortunately, just a few years later they hired a man named Emmitt to clean and paint the deteriorating Columbarium. 

Emmitt turned what could have been an unfulfilling task into his life’s work. He took an immediate curiosity to the odd structure and over the course of the past 21 years has physically invested all his strength and effort into restoring the now beautiful Columbarium, painting, cleaning, restoring, giving tours and just about anything you could imagine on the grounds. Here is what it looks like on the meticulously kept inside.

















In the pictures above, each small box is a person’s resting place.

Emmitt explained to me that having such a place makes dealing with the death of a loved one much easier to cope with. Rather than deal with funerals and cemeteries, things that conjure dark and negative images, the Columbarium brings life and air to something that is normally stagnant and dead. When I told Emmitt that I thought the Columbarium looked liked someone’s big house, he replied,

“It is a house, a house of the dead”.

This is a truly unique place, as the San Francisco Columbarium is the only remaining Roman-style Columbarium in the world. It’s a place in which people can think outside the box, while at the same time being dead, and inside a box. 


SF Oddities: The Palace of Fine Arts

Posted in digital journalism, SF Oddities, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome with tags , , on April 28, 2008 by lenzbreakr

I have discovered, in the Christopher Columbus sense of discovering, yet another SF oddity; the Palace of Fine Arts.

The Greek and Roman inspired “palace” is made up of a central standing domed structure (currently under renovation) that is surrounded by a series of colonnades.

Adjacent to the large looming structures is a small man made lake filled with seagulls, ducks, geese and turtles.

Below is a slideshow of how it looked when I was there on a magnificent day with my magnificent girlfriend Alicia (plus some added effects thanks to slide.com)

The history behind the creation of this misfit structure is amazing.

The Palace was built to be part of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, essentially a world’s fair, which was aimed at celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, and San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire. (www.sanfranciscomemories.com)

The architecture is stunning.

Walking underneath the structures feels just like being in Manhattan; your neck is craned upwards at the sky and you feel like you have been warped into the world of Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

A few years after the world-renowned fair, the beautiful structures were abandoned; once America entered the Depression and WWII, they succumbed to neglect, abuse, and they served as military posts among other odd things-much different than what was their original intention (i.e. Dutch Windmill).

Luckily, restoration efforts in the 1960’s led to the palace being completely rebuilt to its original condition.

There is no doubt that the palace is an oddity; its out of a completely different time period and a completely different side of the world. I’m not sure if it looks more out of place in pictures taken during modern contemporary culture, or in pictures from the early 20th century, when San Francisco was still developing.

All in all, the Palace of Fine Arts might not offer a great amount of in-your-face excitement, but it will without a doubt provide a great place to relax, have a picnic, or just simply walk around outdoors on a nice San Francisco day. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone interesting….I sure did…..


This is “Dog”.

Dog was born and raised in the Mission district of San Francisco.

He is 44 years old. 28 years of his life have been spent in prison.

When I spotted Dog he was bent over on his hands and knees at the edge of the lake seen above.

At first I couldn’t make out what he was doing. However, as I got closer I realized that he was reaching into the lake to pick up trash.

While this act in itself is not out of the ordinary, I was somewhat perplexed and immediately curious about this crouched figure and his eco-friendly deed.

As he stood up I approached him and said “excuse me”. He didn’t hear me at first I soon noticed because he had headphones on, so I repeated myself only this time louder, “EXCUSE ME, SIR”.

After a semester of David Silver’s zen, the word “shy” no longer exists.

Dog turned around and i greeted him with a friendly handshake. “Hi, I’m Miles”.

He seemed a little hesitant and somewhat weary but he shook my hand and we immediately jumped into conversation. I asked him, “what were you just doing? why were you picking up that trash was it yours?”

He explained to me that the trash was not his, but he felt that since he had been in prison for so much of his life, picking up trash was something that he could now offer to give back to the community that he once took from.

Dog went on to tell me that he used to be involved with gangs, and was addicted to PCP and crack cocaine. However, through being in and out of prison for most of his life, he has gained an intense new spirituality that he follows to guide him down the right path. Today he is in an everyday battle to steer clear of the negative demons all around him, and somehow figure out the human formula for happiness.

For Dog that path has been trying. He talked about how in and out of prison over the course of many years, people have constantly provoked him and tried to bring him down to a lower level.

The worst example he gave was of a time when a group of men attacked him on the street in the Mission, stabbing him eight times with a phillips screwdriver.

Picking up trash is just one way for Dog to maintain his higher ground, something he seems to now have a very strong grasp of.

He preached to me about learning compassion and love and knowledge and how those things can enable each and every one of us to achieve limitless possibilities. These ideals, along with his spirituality and faith have kept Dog out of prison for two years now.

His goals are simply to be happy, and to re-establish contact with his 9 year old daughter, who he put into foster care when he began his most recent prison sentence.


While I was walking and picking Dog’s brain, we ran into a woman who offered us free tickets to the Exploratorium that lies on the palace grounds.

We graciously accepted the tickets and proceeded indoors to the short line leading into the exploratorium.

Dog got to the ticket window first and when he tried to enter, the staff member questioned him about whether or not he had a receipt for his ticket. When Dog admitted that he did not, the power-tripping peon proceeded to tell Dog that he could not enter.

I immediately interjected, eagerly lending a hand to my new friend.

“Well I have one of those tickets too. A lady outside gave them to us and she paid for them, why can’t we go in?”

The peon looked at me dumbfounded. He assumed that I didn’t know Dog, and that he was probably doing the rest of the museum-goers and myself a favor by kicking him out, seeing as he looks like and indeed is an ex-con.

“Is that policy in writing?”, I blurted. “WHY DO WE NEED A RECEIPT?”.

At that moment Dog turned and began to head for the door. Simultaneously the staff members’ supervisor emerged from a back room. I didn’t even wait for her to ask what was going on.

“Excuse me we have these tickets but we don’t have a receipt, are we NOT allowed to go in?” I questioned.

“No,” she responded. “You can go in”.

By this time Dog was already out the door and I was fuming over the blatant discrimination I had just witnessed. I walked away from the ticket window, pondering my next move, trying to calm myself and keep from saying something inappropriate.

After all, I do have a bit of a temper.

After composing myself, I again approached the ticket window, interrupting a conversation between the same staff member and another paying customer. I looked him right in the eyes and told him that the man he just turned away, unjustly and for no reason other than his own stereotypes, had only moments earlier been picking up trash on the exploratorium grounds under his own free will.

I said that just because perhaps someone doesn’t look sophisticated does not mean they don’t have every right to be in such a place as the exploratorium. I told him that he should think about this in the future, and then I walked away.


There is more to this story, but it will have to wait for now. The moral is that sometimes the best gifts come in the most unsuspecting packages.

Take a risk. Wherever you are, there could be something amazing. It’s just up to you to find it……

The Balboa Theater- a quiet movie haven by the beach

Posted in digital journalism, web 2.0 with tags , , on April 28, 2008 by lenzbreakr

The Balboa Theater, located on Balboa st. and 38th ave. in the outer richmond district of San Francisco, is a diamond in the rough.

Well, maybe not a diamond, but certainly a gem compared to mainstream movie theaters.

While San Francisco does have several other awesome independent theaters, i.e. the Roxie, the Bridge and The Red Vic, there are none further west than Haight street, and if you want to have a slower, more relaxed experience than the human autobahns of Haight and the Mission district, the Balboa Theater will surely serve your needs.

The Balboa theater only has two screens, meaning that there are limited crowds compared to multi-plex cinemas such as the AMC on Van Ness, which has upwards of 15 screens. The Balboa Theater offers shorter lines, good seats (its never so full that you have to sit in the very front or back) , and if you need to use the bathroom during the movie, you might make it back to your seat before the closing credits.

Opened on February 7th 1926, the original owner, Samuel H. Levin, sought to make the theater more oriented towards the family. The theater’s website links to the Western Neighborhoods Project, a site dedicated to the history of certain San Francisco neighborhoods. The site quotes Mr. Levin saying,

“In building theaters nearest the home, it is my aim to provide entertainment for them of a standard worthy of family patronage. In the New Balboa, as in all my theaters, I seek to supply the comforts and intimate surroundings associated with the higher ideals of home life”.

These ideals seem to be upheld to this today, accounting for the fun and accommodating vibe that can be felt when inside the theater.

Part of this vibe certainly has to do with the friendly staff at the Balboa Theater. Right when I walked in the door, I met Omar (right). Omar has been working at the theater for two years now, and he agreed that the easy going and friendly atmosphere in the theater were a factor in his decidion to want a job there. He explained that because every employee is required to learn and perform a myriad of tasks on any given day-from loading film onto the projection reels to sweeping floors-a close knit sense of community is shared between them. This picture was actually taken in the projection room, and if you look closely you can see a movie actually playing in the background.

At $9.00, a ticket at the Balboa theater is about $1.00-1.50 cheaper than the average movie ticket. If you’re an early bird, a ticket to the first showing of each film costs only $6.50, every day. Even if it weren’t such a bargain, the Balboa Theater would still be an awesome and fun place to catch a flick. And if you’re a USF student, don’t be lazy; the theater is just a quick free ride away on the 31.

Riding the N-Judah

Posted in digital journalism, public transportation, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome on April 21, 2008 by lenzbreakr

This past weekend, after sitting down with my friend Nick for some tasty BBQ wings and a pint at Gordon Biersch restaurant, I decided to spend the day riding a mode of public transportation I rarely use.

I first thought of taking the BART around town, but the ride is expensive compared to the free ride I get on the MUNI with my USF bus pass. It also has a limited amount of stops within San Francisco compared to the MUNI.

The cable cars are dominated by tourists, and there is no real sensible route to take for me personally to get to work, school, or home.

As I weighed my options, I looked to my left at the breezy bay and remembered that the N-Judah train runs along the Embarcadero. I’ve only taken a MUNI rail car once before, but I knew that the N cut across a major section of the city and wound up at Ocean Beach, not too far from where I live.

Riding on the N is a different experience than the noisy BART or the smelly, slow buses. The train was relatively clean and smell-free, traveled at a decent pace-part of the route runs underground where there are no traffic lights or intersections-and it cuts through certain parts of the city that you might not visit every day.

A trip on the N can take you anywhere from the Embarcadero, to Civic Center, Van Ness St., Portola, the Sunset, and Ocean Beach, just to name a few. Check out the entire route I took below.

CommunityWalk Map – journey on the N-Judah

After doing some research, I found out that the N is the busiest line in the MUNI system. In the early 20th century, it was a heavy rail car vein through the city, and it maintained its immense ridership through the 1970’s when the MUNI rail system was created. According to the Transit Effectiveness Project, currently over 45,000 people ride the N-line each day.

Below is a video of our journey. You should take your own. It’s guaranteed to be different and fun in its own way. Make sure you have some free time to relax and go wherever the tracks take you…

USF Digital Journalism

Posted in digital journalism, university of san francisco, usf, web 2.0 with tags , , , , on April 17, 2008 by lenzbreakr

Over the course of this semester, six Digital Journalism students at the University of San FranciscoAustin, Brigid, Emilia, Jake, Laura and myself– have been blogging about various interests at USF, in Golden Gate Park, and most recently about the city in general.

Led by Media Studies Professor David Silver, the small group has quickly learned new technologies, developed investigative reporting skills, and found our own personal writing voice and style. We are now on the way to becoming expert bloggers. Here is what we’ve found…

CommunityWalk Map – USF Digital Journalism Explorations

SF Oddities: Hippy Hill

Posted in digital journalism, golden gate park, SF Oddities, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2008 by lenzbreakr

San Francisco is home to many strange little quirks and nooks and crannies. One of the most interesting I’ve discovered in my time here is the tiny little area of Golden Gate Park known as “Hippy Hill”.

Here is a map showing you the hill’s location in the city.

Hippy hill is much more than its name implies. It is not just a hill. Hippies are only the beginning.

There is a certain amount of legend and mysticism surrounding the hill. There is not much of a documented history of the hill, at least in USF’s Gleeson Library. A book search with librarian Joe turned up plenty of info about the summer of love and counterculture in San Francisco, but the story of hippy hill seems to be passed along more by word of mouth than by print.

Nestled in the trees between the Conservatory of Flowers and legendary Haight street, hippy hill has been both a home and haven to what I can only describe as San Francisco’s “alternative” lifestyles. Nearly any lifestyle is acceptable on the hill; you can be homeless, a drug addict, a hippy, a musician, gay, straight, transgender, you can be a rocker, you can be a roller, you can be a rapper, you can be a stoner. It’s ultra liberal San Francisco at its’ finest. Literally, anything goes.

Early in the morning, the hill is unsuspecting, and by the looks of things, you would never imagine what has transpired on the same ground over the course of the past 40 years.

According to Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, in the late 1960’s, the hill and nearby haight-ashbury was “…a ghetto of bohemians who wanted to do anything—and we did, but I don’t think it has happened since. Yes, there was LSD. But Haight Ashbury was not about drugs. It was about exploration, finding new ways of expression, being aware of one’s existence”.

While today the counterculture movement in the city might not be as strong as it was in the sixties, there is still a definite and noticeable difference in the culture of the park, even when compared to the rest of the city. While San Francisco is progressive in nature, and while many Americans might find SF residents to be down right scary compared to their more conservative way of living, the limits and boundaries of what is socially acceptable is pushed even further at hippy hill.

Drug use on the hill is common and frequent.

Improvisational drum circles form on the weekends where various vagrants, bums, and many times the average bongo geek can come together and fill the park with energy and a constant beat for hours on end.

Many homeless live in Golden Gate Park. Some are mentally insanse-I have personally witnessed a loud and almost violent display made by a homeless man that seemed to be in the midst of some epic battle with an imaginary villain. While at times they may offer some entertainment, many homeless people live permanently in the areas surrounding hippy hill, and that is no joke.

Despite some controversial activities, hippy hill is not a hostile place. In fact, I like to think of it as a peaceful place where diversity and tolerance goes unspoken, a place where boundaries and borders do not exist. Although illegal activity does occur, the police rarely intervene or arrest anyone at the hill, and on many occasions I have seen parents with their small children, playing and having a great time amidst the wacko’s and acid-trippers. There is something about the hill that is so inviting, some special aura that was created during the summer of love, with the words of Janis Joplin and the jams of the Grateful Dead. Millions must have flocked to this one grassy hill over the years. Revolutionaries. Poets. Beats. Musicians. Hippies. Mothers. Fathers. Children. Daughters. Druggies. Scholars.

But why?

Maybe you should take a trip and find out for yourself.

Here’s a little bit of my journey….

USF Artist Showcase @ SF Minna Gallery

Posted in digital journalism, university of san francisco, usf, web 2.0 with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2008 by lenzbreakr

On Monday April 8th, the artwork of former and current USF students was showcased at an event in downtown San Francisco at the Minna art gallery. The house was packed and the music was blasting-a great atmosphere for the opening of an art show. Tons of people turned out to show support for their friends and fellow classmates, and just as importantly, to have a good time.

The work of two artists in particular, Eric Butler and Claudine Lema, was particularly interesting. Butler, a recent USF graduate and former media studies major, uses a style he developed from grafitti art, and also draws on influences from current fashion, taking colors and patterns that catch his eye and transforming them into his own. Eric is an extremely easy going and smooth guy, and his attitude is reflected through the free flowing lines featured in his artwork. Unfortunately, the space Eric was given did not properly accommodate the layout he envisioned presenting his artwork in. The placement and layout of his pieces is essential in order for the viewer to fully understand and appreciate them. However, his work spoke for itself and nonetheless was impressive.

Claudine Lema, a current USF undergrad and media studies major, displayed some psychedelic pieces that got the mind twisting and turning to the beat of the house DJ. Her work is very unique and she incorporates found objects into her pieces as well. Her signature piece featured a naked woman with meaningful words subtly hidden in and around her flowing hair, representing the organic side of humanity. The woman was cleverly juxtaposed against a series of wires and circuitry, representing the mechanical nature of the 21st century. Claudine’s charisma matches the depth found in her artwork, and the messages within her pieces contain elements of her self and entire being that we can all adopt and implement in our own lives.

An event like this just goes to show the amazing work that independent artists and students can create if just given the opportunity and the physical space to display their work. I’m sure Eric and Claudine were very proud of the result, and it was great to see the amount of support and encouragement they recieved from their peers.

Check out the video from the 111 Minna Gallery student showcase below. Then it will all make sense….