Unearthed footage shows long-missing 1960s San Francisco

A view of Powell Street in the 1960s in San Francisco.

Nass / YouTube

If, like most of us, your understanding of life in San Francisco in the 1960s is drawn from popular culture, you probably imagine a bustling city. Civil rights and anti-war protests marching through Town Hall, Jimi Hendrix distorting “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of LSD-fueled crowds in the Panhandle, or maybe a Mustang GT growling through town, chasing crooks.

But if you’ve lived here, you’ll probably remember the most serene everyday scenes of city life, captured in incredible retouched images shared this week.

The video, from the mid-1960s (we couldn’t determine the exact year, let us know if you can) and from the Prelinger Archives – a collection of historical footage highlighting American cultural history , with an emphasis on everyday life – shows the streets with a camera attached to a cable car. It was retouched in high definition magic by YouTuber Nass.

“The restoration is done first by an artificial intelligence algorithm to increase the HD resolution,” Nass told SFGATE, “after a process of stabilization, color correction and cleaning at the end to increase [it to] 60 frames per second.

The footage begins by showing the views from Nob Hill down California Street, towards the bay, then towards Powell Street, where the old red neon Starlite Roof sign can be seen on the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

We then see a policeman guiding the car to a corner of Jackson on Hyde Street, before returning to Union Square, where shoppers mingle at the foot of the Westin St. Francis hotel in Powell and O’Farrell, a corner that has look very the same today. We then head north on a quiet side street on Hyde Street. At the intersection of Union Street, we see Searchlight Meats, a market still open today, but without the white and green neon sign.

Businessmen clad and wearing a cable car pass in the opposite direction at 2:30 a.m., revealing that the mode of transport was once used by bona fide commuters, not just tourists.

The cars in the video may reflect the era more than the buildings. Numerous VW Bugs can be seen everywhere (Disney’s “The Love Bug” was released in 1968, popularizing the exploits of “Herbie” in San Francisco).

The real treat in the video, however, may be the car seen at point 3:28.

This red vehicle rolling down California Street is not just a car, but the iconic Amphicar 770, a German amphibious curiosity that was both a boat and an automobile. Only 3,878 units were made and production ceased in 1968. However, as they watched these cable cars go by, they might have thought they were looking to the future.

James C. Tibbs