Before It Was SoMa: Artist Frank Koci On The Neighborhood’s 20th Century Transformation”

Beat artist Frank Koci describes decades of his SoMa experiences in this interview from 1978.

The work of San Francisco Beat-era artist Frank Koci, born in 1904 in Czechoslovakia, “represented a remarkable union of naivete and canny sophistication,” wrote Thomas Albright, reviewer and author of Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980: An Illustrated History

Before he turned to painting, the young Koci, new to America, worked as a merchant seaman, cowboy, farmhand, silent film and theater extra. He was still actively painting when Oral History Project staffer Isabel Maldonado interviewed him in August 1978 at his Clementina Street apartment.

A South of Market resident, he had watched as Yerba Buena Centerconstruction got under way, displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses, most permanently. Early on, the neighborhood was called South of the Slot because of the Market Street cable cars. When they were long gone, then it became South of Market. And, in the ’80s, in a nod to New York City’s SoHo district, people in San Francisco started calling the area SoMa.

Frank Koci died in 1983.

What’s it like living in South of Market these days?

Seven years ago, I was living at the Westchester on Third Street between Market and Mission. There’s nothing there now — the city tore everything out, but it took them three years after I moved before they started knocking things down. And it took me a long time investigating to find this place in Clementina Towers. You have to buy your own furniture here, but I had the money to buy it, not like some of those bums who go from check to check, drinking it up, and then there are the misers and drunkards with a couple of religious fanatics thrown in, and also several pretty nice people. You’d be surprised how many practically geniuses you find on the skids in San Francisco.

26 x 7 inches, oil on crate.

Tell us about coming to San Francisco.

I came to this country when I was 17 and spent my first two years in Shiner, Texas, where I learned how to milk cows for $30 a month. Then I moved to Los Angeles and that’s where I got a few of these X-rated movie jobs and worked for Charlie Chaplin, a great guy to work for, and all that — I get a little tired of rehashing that in interviews. 

When I came up to San Francisco in 1923, I really didn’t live anywhere, just bummed around. But I do remember South of Market then, all small, ramshackle, broken-down rooming houses with at least three or four bootleggers on every block. Every pool hall, every skid row had its characters. They were recognized for their eccentricity or fighting ability or how much wine they could drink or how many times they’d been in jail. I came here with a shirt and a pair of pants, and it was so goddamn cold here, you know, a typical San Francisco summer. I looked for work, but I only picked up a day’s work here and there, mostly as a day laborer where you wait for the truck driver to come over when he needs extra help.

Howard Street between 6th and 7th, 1927 (Photo: San Francisco History Center/SFPL)

Or I’d get a day or two on banana boats, the boats that came in at what we call Shit Creek [Islais Creek] — yeah, that’s where they pulled the switch. And the life of the working man was the shits. Excuse the language. 

Then I left San Francisco again. You always leave. I started out to become a hobo and I finally succeeded. I bummed across the country working, but I was a hobo — a guy that travels and picks up work here and there. Hobos even had an organization and the hobo paper.

Were there a lot of people South of Market when you came in ’23?

Yeah, lots of people. San Francisco is where you either come to finish off —the end of the route — or to begin. I remember over on Howard Street, where there’s nothing standing now, there were 39 restaurants on one block. 

Did they cater to low-income people?

Boy, this language. If anyone back then had asked, “Do you cater to low-income people?” they’d have said, “What the hell does that mean?” Look, this was a place of cheap restaurants where you could get four eggs and a fried potato, two pieces of toast and some coffee for 10¢ or 15¢. During the Depression, it got even cheaper.

16 x 16 inches, oil on plywood.

On the corner over there was the Niagara Hotel, run by Germans. It had a saloon, probably a bootlegger and maybe a bookie there, too. And there was an employment office on the corner.

There were about 10 employment offices around here, but mostly they’d ship you out to jobs away from San Francisco. When you’d come out here, you’d find there weren’t any jobs anyhow, so they’d ship you wherever they’d like, to lumber camps and ranches. Guys would use it as free transportation.

Then, in wintertime, this place would fill up with lumberjacks and whistle punks [water boys], mule skinners and ranch hands and people who work in camps or Hetch Hetchy. Around November, they’d all flock here and take all these cheap rooms. They had silver dollars in their pockets and they’d rattle them.They’d see a guy real hungry and they’d get their jollies shaking their pockets in front of him — well, it’s the nature of the beast.

How did Los Angeles compare to San Francisco at that time?

When you were broke in Los Angeles, you could hit every restaurant and they wouldn’t give you anything. I came here and the first restaurant I went to, Gough Bay City Grill, they said, “Sit down, son.” The guy who called me son was two years younger than me, but he gave me a big bowl of minestrone soup and all the French bread I could eat and wouldn’t let me pay. I said, “This is my town.”

Frank Koci in front of Clementina Towers in South of Market, where he lived on the seventh floor in a $225-a-month apartment — complete with a balcony. (Photo by Bill Carlson)

And now? Anything wrong with San Francisco?

There’s nothin’ wrong with San Francisco.You move 4,000 miles east to New Hampshire and you get the same things, the same hot dogs, the same pizza parlors, the same punks on the street.

Some people think we got magic here— the little cable cars will shoot you up to the stars — but the morning fog will kill you it’s so cold. Hollywood has its movie stars and back East they have the prize fighters and here we got the gripmen on the cable cars.

But wrong? Living here, South of Market, the most agonizing part is the noise — it’s just part of the scenery and they keep pushing and pushing, doing it since I moved in. 

What is the noise? Does it have to do with clearing the land for Yerba Buena Center?

They’ve been down there, right there on that corner since January 18, but this corner has nothing to do with Yerba Buena. The workmen just enjoy the tearing down. They’re the most sadistic bunch of city employees. They work two shifts. At 6 p.m., they change shifts when the ninnies go home — all the guys with their insurance papers and their portfolio baskets, running around to catch the train. 

After they clear out, the boys come back and work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. I had a half pound of cotton in my ears and my radio and television going it was so loud.

The 1978 view from Frank Koci’s apartment was a sea of cars and empty space where flats, small apartment buildings and businesses were razed for the Yerba Buena Center development. Inset: Frank Koci. (Photo by Bill Carlson.)

And now we have another thing: the rock-n-roll music. They have a place across the street where they teach that stuff. I’m surprised they teach it — it comes natural to monkeys. The minute these boys over there find out that the shorthairs like me are goin’ to bed, they open up, and go on to midnight. 

Once, when there wasn’t too much complaining, they went until 7 a.m. People stay here for a while and they say, “How can you stand it?” I say, “Well, what are you gonna do?” This kind of place somewhere else costs $250. I pay $225, and I get this balcony, too. They keep tearing stuff down.

There was the last Chinese laundry here. The owner held out and got $6,000. I have a friend, an artist, who was the last person on the block at Howard and Third. He refused to move but he finally gave in and signed a contract. They gave him $6,000. He put the money down on a house in the Mission. That night they wrecked his place. I got $2,500.

What did you do with it?

Put it in the bank. What else to do with it? A poor man puts money in the bank and then waits until he dies and then the state takes it away. I’m spending my money for essential things, like my own art.

24 x 24 inches, oil on plywood. 

When did you start to paint?

I started painting when I worked at CBC Studios in Los Angeles. I was a janitor there, but I had the opportunity to get into the place where they painted all kinds of sets for shows like “Queen for a Day” and Art Linkletter. 

I started using the paints in my spare time and had my first show in Hollywood — I made $4. I told a critic I’d show him my best work, but he said, “I’ve seen your best ones and they’re the worst ones I ever saw in my life. With you, it’s the opposite of throwing pearls before swine.” I says to him, “That’s good. I like real good criticism. ”Then, I took all my paintings and burned the hell out of them. 

Worst in the world? Best in the world? Who’s the critic? Picasso said that if you want to learn painting, learn from children because they’re uninhibited, haven’t been brainwashed. Look at people like Miró— they draw something like what a kid draws. It’s identical except dozens of critics get together and say it’s great.

Koci — a Beat marching to his own bold beat— sold his paintings cheap to pay the rent

[Editor’s note: The original Central City Extra article included a sidebar about Koci’s art written by John Burks, a seminal editor at Rolling Stone and professor at San Francisco State University.]

The guy at the cash register looks like Popeye’s pissed-off older brother. He speaks in a Count Dracula accent so gruff, so thick, I assume it’s a joke until I discover it isn’t. Popeye presides at a North Beach gallery a few doors down from City Lights Bookstore, serving up salty insights concerning Beatnik art and Beat philosophy to gawking tourists. 

Popeye’s rant is multidirectional — he speaks against God, against the feds, WWI and WWII, always returning to the deplorable quality of the art he is selling and the fools who buy it. “But anyway,” he cackles, “it’s cheap; we don’t commit extortion, just theft.” The price tags run $3.28, $12.99, $4.44, $5, priced according to the size of each painting, cheap even by early Sixties’ standards. 

“Vot are you doing looking at dat monstrosity?” Popeye shouts from across the room. “Utter shit.” Next painting: “Keep moving, don’t look! Idiot, idiot! Dat painting iss insult to art!”

Only when my gaze falls upon a work signed “Koci” does he shut up. These Kocis are, to my eye, remarkable and totally unlike anything else in sight: hints of Rousseau, Matisse, Roualt, screwy angularities in the dense, cartoonish tracings, vivid splotches of sunshine, lots of people. All kinds of people — peasants, pimps, killers, bishops, big money guys, dried-up crones, juicy nurses — all headed for cosmic collision.

15 x 18 inches, oil on siding.

After a few visits, I make the connection: “Popeye” is in fact Koci … Czech-born Frantisek (Frank) Koci, an ex-merchant seaman, ex-actor, ex-cowboy who washed upon The City’s shores determined to become an artist. This South of Market denizen, whose early paintings did sell for as little as $3.28 and $5, would live to see his work featured in several galleries and museums, selling for thousands. 

To this day, there are said to be competing collectors who have stashed away hundreds of Kocis hoping to reap zillions, should a Koci Revival ever occur. No sign of such a revival has yet appeared. 

At his peak, Koci painted as fast as he could. His small South of Market apartment was jammed with dozens of partially completed paintings. He raided dumpsters all over town, seeking anything he could paint on: plywood, tiles, crating, siding. He had no choice but to work cheap. Nobody was going to pay $250 for an individual painting by an unknown Beat artist. But they’d happily lay out $7.29 for a piece of Beatnik art commemorating their trip to the coast. 

All Koci had to do was sell 30 such paintings to cover that month’s rent. 

In broad terms, you can describe Koci’s paintings as a series of “peoplescapes,” wherein people are shown having relationships (some fleeting, some enduring) with fellow humans. A better term is probably “preludes” — wherein each painting sets the stage for something momentous that will occur in the very next frame. In the best Kocis, the tension is palpable.

Sent from my Tricorder

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