The idea of sustainable living off the grid isn't new. In fact, people in San Francisco were doing it in the late 19th century, when they started moving into abandoned street cars along Ocean Beach. They modified the cars, created sidewalks, and eventually the area was dubbed "Carville."

Writing in The Bold Italic, Tom Kubik takes us back to an era when San Francisco's Ocean Beach seafront area — known today as the Outer Sunset — was a bunch of empty sand dunes. As the city modernized, the Market Street railway abandoned all its old, horse-drawn streetcars in this windy, foggy wasteland. But to some impoverished city residents, these cars became home. They would push the cars together, pile them on top of each other, and even build rooms around them.


Eventually, there was a kind of promenade through Carville, complete with a boardwalk and almost 50 of the modified streetcar homes. It became, according to Kubik, a rather hip part of town.

It helped that eccentric millionaire (and mayor) Adolph Sutro was intent on developing the area, building a gorgeous public bathhouse and garden on Ocean Beach next to his mansion overlooking the water. Sutro also helped make the area more accessible by building a streetcar line that ran from downtown, along Clement Street, straight to the beach.


According to Kubik:

Now, the only known remains of Carville-by-the-Sea are near 47th Avenue and the Great Highway. The unsuspecting, wood-sided, quaint house is made of three cars. Two cable cars adjoined make the second floor, while one equine car is the guest bedroom.


San Francisco is famous for creating homes and whole communities out of reused buildings. After the 1906 earthquake, the city provided hundreds of homeless families with temporary "earthquake shacks," intended to give shelter for a few years while people got back on their feet. But in true San Fran style, residents didn't want to give up their beloved shacks, and many had them moved to different regions of the city so they could keep living in them. A few of those shacks are still around today.


One could trace this civic spirit all the way back to the 1849 Gold Rush years, when most of the city was made up of tents and corrugated iron shacks. Sure, the entire tent city burned down three or four times, but it was easy to rebuild when all you needed was some canvas and rope.

Read more about the Carville community on the Bold Italic; photos by Tom Kubik

Historical images from San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library


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