No one was wearing a replica jersey at this Super Bowl block party in 1982.
Photos of the gathering on Douglass Street in San Francisco, recently discovered in The San Francisco Chronicle archive, offer a trove of curiosities that date the scene: Multiple ashtrays on the table. An extension cord snaking through a yard. And a small box of a television, with antenna ears extended toward Sutro Tower, in the middle of the street.
There are subtle differences as well. Team merchandise is nearly nonexistent. Signs are homemade, not passed out by a local cable station. And — here’s the big one — with no devices invented yet, people are making eye contact. A combination of joy, stress and disbelief can be seen, as a team that no one thought would experience greatness sits minutes away from history.
With the San Francisco 49ers in 2020 just one game away from a pro football championship, I searched The Chronicle archive for a party on Jan. 24, 1982, the date of Super Bowl XVI, when the 49ers dynasty began.
The newspaper sent two photographers out to capture fans enjoying the game. Miranda May and Harris Miller had scheduled their Piedmont wedding on Super Bowl Sunday, figuring the 49ers — the team’s record was 6-10 a year earlier, 2-14 for two years before that — had zero chance to make it. (The couple hauled a TV into the reception so guests could watch.) At the Rivet bar in Ninth Street in the city, bikers hung a giant bedsheet sign that read “Forty F—’ Niners” facing the street.
But if you have a time machine handy, the party on the 100 block of Douglass Street in San Francisco was the place to be. Chronicle photographer John O’Hara captured the crowd coming out of their houses, dragging sofas and coffee tables into the middle of the street, under the sliver of shade from a homemade banner (“JOE #16 DWIGHT #87 49ERS #1”) hanging above the telephone lines.
“Jerry Barbieri, who by halftime had taken off his shirt and was running around in the street at every 49er score, spent most of the afternoon screaming ‘We’re No. 1, we’re No. 1!,’” Chronicle reporter Gary Swan wrote. “One resident came out of his house to see what the ruckus was about, looked at the block party, shook his head and muttered, ‘They’re crazy.’ But by the start of the third quarter, he had joined the wild crowd in the middle of Douglass.”
Those were my memories of the first Super Bowl victory. At age 11, I was just old enough to pick up the mood of the adults around me and their continued stress of the last five years. Spiked crime rate. The assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Jonestown massacre. San Francisco was getting a negative national reputation that didn’t match the beauty of the region that I was able to see with my own eyes.
But then, on a football field, of all places, there was an incredible release. The adults in my orbit were happy, as if one thing (sports) had to do with the other (all the other problems in their world). And it was infectious. Suddenly this population that was suspicious of each other and suspicious of the future had a reason to look each other in the eyes again, and a simple new language to bond with any stranger. Just pass someone on the street and say “Go Niners.”
The photos should make us happy, not just because they remind us of the past, but because this kind of joy is still with us in the present. San Francisco is now more isolated from the rest of the nation than it was in 1982. Technology has conspired to make us more isolated from each other.
But as we learned with the Giants and Warriors, and now the 49ers again as they try for their sixth Super Bowl win, that Douglass Street Super Bowl party mood is something we get to revisit.
After the win over the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, I put one of my favorite 49ers T-shirts (a Chronicle cover of the last Super Bowl win in 1995) on under a sport coat, put on a 49ers hat and enjoyed one of my favorite commutes into San Francisco in years.
Eye contact and a nod with everyone wearing 49ers gear on my ferry. A “Go Niners” and a fist bump with a cop directing traffic while I was on my bike. Longer conversations with colleagues at work.
As I get older, these interactions are what I appreciate even more than the result. That knowledge that hope is the most valuable emotion — even greater than the moment of victory — because it’s one we share as a community.
While John O’Hara appeared to leave before the game was over, it’s not hard to imagine that scene. San Francisco has changed. That working-class neighborhood is hard to recognize now. But almost four decades later, we’re still celebrating like it was 1982.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @PeterHartlaub