Forest Hill Station/Laguna Honda Boulevard

Dirty Harry hurtles down stairs at Forest Hill Station during the ransom run.

Detective “Dirty Harry” Callahan hurtles down the stairs at Forest Hill Station.

Wikipedia tells me this MUNI Metro station near the Forest Hill and Laguna Honda neighborhoods is the oldest subway station west of Chicago. This venerable subway station also had a cameo appearance in the first Dirty Harry film where Detective Callahan puts his cardio endurance to the test running from the Marina District to Forest Hill as part of an intricate ransom drop set up by the Scorpio killer. But I never knew this part of San Francisco existed until 1986, when I started to venture to neighborhoods far from home with my high school friends who lived in Forest Hills/Twin Peaks.

Since I lived close enough to Saint Rose Academy to walk to school, I wasn’t familiar with the trials of a multiple MUNI commute. I quickly learned the ropes joining my friends after school to catch the 24 Divisadero to Castro Station and then taking the metro train underground to Forest Hill. We’d then congregate at the bus stop across from the station, waiting for the elusive 36 Teresita. I don’t recall anything particularly crazy happening during our after-school journeys but I remember some of their tales as if I’d experienced them myself. There was the bus driver who had it in for G. and refused to stop if she waited alone at the remote stop closest to her house. (If he was driving she would have to race down the hill to where an elderly Chinese woman was waiting.) Or the time waiting on the platform for the train when the man announcing the upcoming trains injected a choice expletive into his update. (No one has hacked into the Computerized Voice Lady Announcer to do that yet!) One of my favorite stories was how one day the 44 O’Shaughnessy arrived in front of Forest Hill, packed to the gills with rowdy kids from McAteer High School just up the hill. Instead of filing out of the bus doors, someone popped the emergency release on one of the windows and the kids proceeded to jump out of the bus through the window.

The original Laguna Honda Hospital building.

The original Laguna Honda Hospital building. Photo: Allan Ferguson

More than two decades later, I started frequenting Forest Hill Station regularly again. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her living situation had to change as her condition worsened. In 2009, we were fortunate enough to secure a place for her at Laguna Honda Hospital/Rehabilitation Center—the only publicly funded long-term care facility of its kind in the country. I started making weekly excursions to visit her via Forest Hill Station, this time joining the hordes of commuters traveling from downtown at peak commute hours—not as much fun as traveling with my teenaged peers. Back in the day, we’d never ventured up the hill to investigate the hospital grounds or the building reminiscent of a haunted castle. But now I was becoming very familiar with this antiquated structure. It was my first experience with the “Florence Nightingale” style wards, where residents lived in dormitory-style rooms with beds lining a central walkway. The halls were fusty from more than a century of use paired with ever-present steam heat from clanking radiators. But the funky interior was part of what gave the place its a personality—there were personal touches and real sense of community absent from most hospitals and care facilities.*

Sutro Tower rises over Laguna Honda Hospital

Sutro Tower rises over the new hospital building at dusk.

But ever since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, the hospital’s days were numbered. No one thought this historic building would survive another big shake. Fortunately for my mother and other residents, a modernized structure had been approved and funded and was nearing completion by the time my mom moved there. In the fall of 2010, she and the other residents were moved to their new quarters in an amazing feat of organization and coordination on the part of staff and many volunteers. As with any move, there were things that took some getting used to—like the new elevator access structure and the sterile expanse of hallway you had to travel through to get to the residential towers. But the new “neighborhoods” with private and semi-private rooms and a shared community area were a nice change as were the sitting rooms with views of the swaying eucalyptus jungle surrounding the building. And the expanded outdoor therapy area with a greenhouse, community garden, and farm animals was wonderful addition for both residents and visitors.

Forest Hill Station at Laguna Honda BoulevardI still make regular treks out to Laguna Honda—although not as frequently as I did during mom’s first couple of years there. Forest Hill Station seems unchanged from when I first came out here as a teen, although the side entrance and newsstand from Dirty Harry’s time are long gone. Coming home, I usually wait for the bus at the same stop where my friends and I congregated. Even though you can now check the status of the next MUNI arrival on your phone, it’s still a windy stop on a busy street with a cave-like bus shelter that has been used as a toilet so often that no one wants to use its intended purpose. It can be miserable waiting here on a windswept foggy night, but on those infrequent Indian summer evenings when the sun is low but the air is warm, you can ask yourself (and answer in the affirmative) that you are definitely lucky. Punk.

*To read more about the history of Laguna Honda Hospital and the unique style of care offered there, I highly recommend the book God’s Hotel, by Victoria Sweet, MD.

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5 comments

  1. The 36 is still elusive. I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot when I get it.

  2. Great contrast between time periods and reasons to travel there. I especially appreciated the sensory details of the last paragraph!

  3. Wow, Shannah, the smell of the old place came rushing back to me like it was yesterday. Loving your travels.

  4. I lived in West Portal and went to school in Pac Heights, so made the 24/streetcar trek everyday. Occasionally the trains would break down and I’d have to get off at Forest Hill and walk home- I remember being scared walking up all those stairs alone! It hasn’t changed….

  5. Yes–but now you have krav maga under your belt for walking up those stairs. But I agree–it’s not a very pleasant staircase and the train breakdowns–well, that’s still a common enough occurrence!

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