Spirits of the City

The More Things Change … Division Street

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

Most of once-gritty SoMa has received the massive money makeover that has Botoxed out so many of San Francisco’s wrinkles. Where boarding houses and pawn shops once huddled, gleaming glass monoliths now reach arrogantly for the virtual sky, like Towers of Algorithmic Babel.

But one South of Market street has remained untouched: Division. That functional, off-the-grid street under the freeway is simply too shadowy, grimy and downright ugly to attract much more than big-box stores and homeless people.

Division follows a former stream bed of the old Mission Creek, a twisting water-way that once started in the Mission and emptied into Mission Bay. Thanks to that sinuous stream, in the late 1860s, the area around Division became home to one of the strangest communities in the history of San Francisco: Dumpville.

Dumpville was a scavenger colony, located — naturally — on top of San Francisco’s main garbage dump. It started at 6th and Channel, and gradually expanded west and south until it covered more than 20 acres. For more than 20 years, its population of 150 older men, most of them Italian, eked out a precarious livelihood under the control of a “dump trust” of six men.

Dumpville featured a very early version of a recycling center. Residents, who lived in favela-like shanties, collected broken glass to sell to merchants in Chinatown (who would send it back to China), and smelted tin cans in a “quaint hut” surrounded by a 10-foot pile of cans.

It was not a bucolic existence. Mission Creek was so viscous and vile-smelling it was called Shit Creek. Nonetheless, Dumpville remained in existence until 1895, when the authorities tore down its shanties.

Today, just two links with that vanished era remain. There’s truncated Mission Creek, which dead-ends into a culvert just east of 7th Street. And there are still homeless people on Division Street.

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