by Robert Andersen
An exile takes an intimate look at his favorite city.
When the Golden Gate Bridge observed its 50th anniversary in 1987, so many pedestrians thronged the (nautical) mile-long roadway in reenactment of its celebrated Opening Day processional that Bridge District engineers feared the span was actually in danger of collapse. All that weight from an onslaught several hundred thousand strong literally flattened the span’s majestic arc, an unprecedented feat, and for a time it looked as though the suspension cables might not support the grave overload. Fortunately the Bridge was rescued from the human be-in, saved from its siren-song saturnalia.
That close call from too much of a good thing could well be said to apply to San Francisco itself. More than just another tourist mecca, The City of St. Francis is routinely idolized as America’s Favorite City, held sacrosanct as a Prized Destination on the order of Paris and Rome, and the millions who annually make the pilgrimage West of the West, to gaze at that storied cleft in the Pacific Coast Range—portentously proclaimed The Golden Gate in 1848—have all but flattened the hills, put the cityscape in jeopardy of collapsing into yet another venue for the generic and the ersatz.
Picture that human gridlock on the Bridge and increase the number thirty- or forty-fold and you have an idea of the standing-room-only multitude drawn to this diminutive place. San Francisco comprises no more than 44 square miles (the nub of a peninsula, the cuticle of your right thumb, a rough square some 7 by 7), a good 35 of which remain terra incognita so far as visitors go. That leaves the nimbus, a microclimactic 9 square miles—roughly the size of the Downtown and North Beach—to accommodate the twenty or more million (taking up the slack from New Orleans) who yearly throng its hotels and convention centers. Never have so many seen so little. Or been so devoutly in lockstep.
San Francisco suffers tourists, suffers from tourism, even as its pleasure dome economy is reverse engineered to better siphon the tourist dollar.
And now that The Big Easy is in extreme duress a veritable hydraulic mining operation seems to be in operation, more dross more dollars. The City preens for the visitor even as it hits her up for spare change. Topography can still elicit awe, and the sightseeing remains exhilarating notwithstanding a determined effort to remake the downtown into a Las Vegas rendition of midtown Manhattan. But the “imperial city” has been downsized by its contado, its hinterland, and the Bay Area as a whole is an ever-burgeoning megalopolis, as red giant swollen as its namesake is dwarf star shrunken. These days, as a flyover will attest, The City seems diminished, ornamental, a pendant to a vast urban agglomeration. If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to keep your eyes wide shut, the better to adapt to the superannuated effect. All you have to do is walk The Embarcadero to realize that The Port Of San Francisco stands cargo cult forlorn, that the days of the great seaport are vanished into memento mori, a wharf-rat burlesque for the tourist, a Cape Horn square-rigger for the denizen.
The tourist venues are well demarcated, a Barbary Coast of the mind, and very few denizens will be caught sardined at Fisherman’s Wharf, patronizing The Cannery or Ghirardelli Square, gawking on Columbus, leering on Broadway, ferrying to Alcatraz, serpentining down Lombard, queing for the Cable Car, running the gauntlet of the demented and predatory at Market and Powell. Save for the Ferry Building and Golden Gate Park points of contact between denizen and tourist are few indeed, the Marina and Ball Park say, and a native earns points for never having been near Pier 39 or Chinatown.
The town has many tourist-traps well set, and the visitor is expected to admire the view but not to peer too closely at the shlock and meretricious which abound, not to mention the outright bad, ugly and depraved. In fact the Homeless hardly figure in this urban legend. Mercifully the fog can erase many offending sightlines, and the hot air of the Visitor’s Bureau can always send the I Love SF balloon aloft “halfway to the stars.”
Too many love this place, which is why its heart has seen better days. I’m not referring to the Beats or the Hippies or the Gays or the Yuppies or the Geeks, whose respective dionysian sagas proved short-lived, their eureka moments played out in bummer endings. The City has endured too many zeitgeists, not the least the bonanza that keeps arriving at SFO, and since it began as a mining town this place strives to live up to its cutthroat origin, does its utmost to fleece the unwary yearning for El Dorado and shanghai those in forlorn search of The Barbary Coast.
San Francisco is a century old in its post-Earthquake reincarnation, and if it has seen better days in that turbulent span it still stands between the seismic devil and the deep blue sea, commanding sights unsurpassed on this planet. Atop Twin Peaks is where the first-time visitor usually finds the rapture, has the conversion experience, comes down with serious denizen envy. Why not bliss-out here, where you can readily morph into a Free Spirit and the Good Life is yours for a mere seven figures. An endless Summer of Love awaits. In other words San Francisco is camera and cliche ready, and if you want to spare yourself the aggravation and expense of actually alighting there is no end to the guidebooks that depict this City by the Bay as a paradise found. Omnes Habitare In Civitati Sancti Francisci Volunt goes the official conceit—everyone wants to live in the City of St. Francis.
Or at least travel there once, which is why you’ll find yourself on my native ground eventually, taking in the views while a thousand and one superlatives gleaned from the travel mags relieve you of having to confront this place for yourself. So much hagiography that flattens the arc of urban life into a postcard thin relic, collapses the roadway leading to parts of the City only the indigenous or intrepid can locate. A Golden Gate of another sort. To love this town is much too easy. Buy a t-shirt. To really love this town takes real loathing. Fuck Frisco. Call it tough love.
Denizen San Francisco, the city of neighborhoods sequestered by hills and valleys boasting fanciful facades juxtaposed in gravity-defiant heroics, the Mediterranean city-state favored by the frigid fog-bound Pacific, the good-time city of the urban saved and damned, the enthralling enervating performance art mural of personas and identities and credos and lifestyles—this cubist polyglot fractal microcosm is in my blood and bones, and if it is to not to be loved to death it needs to become your visceral city as well, active not passive, an aerobic experience not a pre-packaged expectation. Leave the guidebooks at home, likewise the preconceptions. They’re much too precious to bear the grave overload of a city trampled by several millions daily.
You’re going native, which means pounding the pavement, suffering the Muni, tackling some daunting hills, putting those calf muscles to the test as you descend into valleys which haven’t seen a tourist in years. Despite appearances this city is one of toil and moil, so carbo-load at one of those trattorias in North Beach, you’re going to need your stamina to carry you up and over, on this the Native Son tour. Of course you need a native guide, yours truly at your service, who promises to force-march you until this place becomes almost second nature. We have a lot of ground to cover, much of it vertical. So excuse yourself from the Prisoner-of-Wharf compound and locate on your map the San Francisco that exists just the other side of Mon Amour.
Anti-tour I should say, since I’m not given to lockstep, and I’m not as well-versed in local lore as I should be. In other words you are on your own anyway, and if you have a map of the city—a real map, not one of those cheesy tourist jobs that feature a desolating Empty Quarter—feel free to do your own thing. We won’t, for example, be going south and southeast to that blithely voided Quarter, to Bayview or Ingleside or the Excelsior or Hunter’s Point or the Outer Mission or Visitacion Valley or Crocker-Amazon, neighborhoods deemed too hardcore, too residential, or too blighted to be considered fit for tourist inspection. But no Native Son tour would be complete without a visit—much of my adolescence was spent in this far-edge city—but suffice it to say that it remains outside the pale, even to the indigenous (just as I did not venture into Pacific Heights until I was in my mid-twenties).
Rather we will hew to the geographic center before heading toward Ocean Beach, making a great circle trek that will provide a slice-of-life of this byzantine pastiche. After all, save for eight months this past year, I haven’t lived in San Francisco since 1973, and this Rip Van Winkle effect caused me to embark on my own magical mystery tour, to walk these walks relatively unencumbered, terra incognita indeed, in order to see what was (still) there and what not.
So fair warning, if I invoke the Native it does not mean that I am pulling rank or conning you about an intimate familiarity I do not possess. Much of this place is new to me too, which is why I refrain from pretending to know half of it. The City of Destiny eludes me but the City of Memory I know only too well. For four generations my family has been here, starting with my Scottish great-grandfather, who sailed through The Gate in search of real gold in 1849, Year One in the annals of San Francisco. Fortunately he never got beyond earning his keep in town, though family lore finds him a vigilante in rough justice days.
My grandmother grew up atop Telegraph Hill, where Coit Tower is today, my parents were born and raised in The Mission and Noe Valley, and I was born atop Buena Vista Hill and raised on the slope of Billy Goat Hill. My uncle and brother served in the Fire Department as battalion chiefs. Hence the genii loci cut me a lot of slack, and what I lack in state-of-the-art savvy I make up in proprietary if not suzerain passion. It is your birthright as a San Franciscan to take possession of this place, to be more than a little possessed about this place, to worry its future and take undue pride in its past, nostalgia being the original San Francisco treat. So while The City is in a holding pattern, awaiting the next zeitgeist surprise (who knows what sleek beast will issue from the biotech future going up in Mission Bay), let’s finish our morning coffee at Martha and Brothers, at the corner of Duncan and Church, and set-off on our walkabout.
Lets go vertical straight off, straight up Duncan, past Sanchez, to where the cars parked at 90 degrees seem poised to rollover at the touch and the panting hill climber can barely reach the stairs leading to Noe Street. Take a deep-breather and take in the view, already a captivating panorama in depth—that’s lofty Bernal Heights across the way, Portrero Hill in the middle distance, the Bay and the East Bay Hills beyond, and Mount Diablo, the highest point in the Bay Area, looming Olympus-like in the far distance.
Bernal Heights and Portrero Hill are flourishing neighborhoods, both have wonderful views from wide angles not often publicized, and both are well worth the detour. Hollywood has an affinity for Portrero Hill, the movies Sweet November and Jagged Edge were filmed there. And Bernal Heights has come into its own as a charming village, its rooflines clustered Italian hill town fashion, ceding higher ground to the grassy upper slopes, the summit affording a view nearly the rival of Twin Peaks. That siren at the top still goes off at noon at Tuesday, but not quite in the full-throated doomsday way it did in civil defense days. But we’re heading rather to that inviting Sausalito-like hillside perched to our right so we go laterally, promptly descending, then ascending again four blocks later, finding ourselves—another breather—on Laidley Street.
You can marvel at the architecture, three and four story designers on the upslope, old-fashioned craftsmen on the down, and by all means avail yourself of that built-in stone bench a good friend thoughtfully provides. If I were to live in the City I would want to be on this street. This mini-enclave nestled in the lee of Billy Goat Hill is truly out of the way, truly San Francisco—the views are spectacular—and truly unto its own. That Victorian Mansion that silhouettes the slope in bravura fashion—it can be seen for miles, a beacon to mariners—was built as a brothel, and in its heyday, before the Earthquake, it provided ship to door service to its seafaring clientele. Long abandoned, it served as our very own Halloween spook-house when I was a boy growing up just down the street.
If you progress another block, still on Laidley, you abruptly change one panorama for another, and now you can quite clearly see the southeast quadrant, including the Bay and the container terminals, the Hunter’s Point Crane (the world’s largest), and the rugged San Bruno Mountains, which act as a montane barrier to complement the saltwater one, making San Francisco into a city-state almost as unique as Venice, and certainly as self-contained. Many a native never left the confines of this urban island. Save for vacations to the Russian River, and summer day-trips to San Mateo Park to escape the fogbelt, my parents never set foot outside the City. The indigenous truly were, San Franciscans to the core, and if it made them parochial and insular it also made for a generosity of character and spirit—the jeroboam not the jeremiad—that still inflects the civic culture.
Backtrack to Laidley and Noe and find the Henry Street Stairs. Halfway up this fairy-tale dell, where we lose the urban and revel in the arbor vitae canopy, envying those lucky few whose gingerbread houses are nestled stairside, we encounter redwood trees, young trees but redwood all the same, a sight so welcome so unexpected so glorious as to constitute an epiphany. San Francisco does not have redwood trees (save for transplants in Golden Gate Park), you have to go across the Bridge to Mill Valley to find a stand at Muir Woods. But here they are, already tall and amply branched, that inimitable musk suffusing the hillside, not a tree hugger but you want to for the spirit-of-place these marvels represent. Eucalyptus, as we will see, abound, thrive here, love San Francisco with a passion, but they are not native, and redwoods are the quintessential natives, lofty and regal, enchanted coastal dwellers, primal denizens of the fogbelt, and to find them here in the geographical center of the City, in a place that hasn’t seen one since Castanoan days, is nothing short of a benediction.
At the top of the stairs—another breather, these stairs are a workout all their own—we find a view that is thrilling in the full sense of the word, and as we follow Beacon Street as it ramps up the side of this ever precipitous ever ascending hillside—not for nothing was this called Billy Goat Hill—we behold the City of St. Francis in all its sacred and profane glory. Forget the tour buses threading through the traffic jam atop Twin Peaks, you have this aerial prospect all to yourself.
Now called Diamond Heights, it was Red Rock to us as kids, and before there were any houses or streets up here there was endless boyhood adventure to be found in this vast undeveloped tract of hill and dale. You could get lost, particularly in the sylvan glens, the City disappearing altogether, but you could also spend countless hours mesmerized by the cityscape below. Picture this hillside covered with golden poppies dancing in the wind, the fog avalanching down the summit, branching into salients, this one for the Noe Valley, that one for Glen Park, and you get some idea of the magical kingdom this was to those of us who lived on its flanks. Today there are houses, some spectacularly perched, and ubiquitous condominiums, and a shopping center, and streets named Topaz and Gold Mine—usually chill fog-gray in summer— that can only hint at the riches we mined in these hills during the halcyon years of the “White City.”
Before we head down to Glen Park—we won’t get any higher in elevation on this tour—savor this view, commanding isn’t the word. For my money this is the best view in San Francisco. That’s the Beaux-Arts dome of the City Hall, recently restored to gilded glory, and there’s the Bay Bridge and the Bay and Berkeley across the East Bay, the scabbard-like Campanile framed against the lofty Berkeley Hills, and there’s the sprawling Port Of Oakland and of course there is the invasive species Downtown, a hodge-podge of vertical sleek and kitsch, a sight unknown in White-City days, when the low rise downtown seemed to genuflect before the hills and the Mediterranean look of the city couldn’t have been more pronounced. Now it takes a postmodern sensibility to admire this high-rise city of mammon. I confess I find much of this visually repugnant, but then I had the spirit-of-place come over me when I was quite young, on a brilliant azure day when the poppies danced and the grass windrowed and there far below was that Mediterranean city gleaming as if carved from marble by the Renaissance masters. Once seen in that pentecostal light there is no forsaking that prelapsarian San Francisco.
But enough reverie, we backtrack to Laidley and follow it out until we come to Chenery, which leads us down into a pocket neighborhood, Glen Park. There is a bookstore—Bird and Beckett—and a bar—The Red Rock—and a restaurant—Chenery Park—wedged into this cubist-like three-way convergence at the bottom of the hill. A perfect trinity: the bookstore is excellent, and inviting, and holds jazz jam sessions late Friday afternoon; the bar is laidback, and welcoming (one of my haunts of record), and features a jazz trio on Tuesday night and a jazz quintet on Friday night. Chenery Park is the ideal neighborhood bistro, an American in Paris, and its animated, indeed syncopated atmosphere fairly conducts Gershwin. Indeed, its more than cordial welcome and spirit-uplifting tempo, not to mention its superb American cuisine, make it a must for visitors otherwise stuck downtown. The Glen Park BART Station is a block away, fifteen minutes from your hotel. Do yourself a favor and take an outbound train.
We return to the Noe Valley via Chenery, diagonal onto Whitney (a nod to 248), pausing to admire the view at Randall before descending into the flats, passing the Upper Noe Valley Rec Center on 30th (another nod), then onto Church Street, until, at 29th, we encounter the imposing edifice of St. Paul’s. I attended the grammar school here and served as an altar boy when the Latin Rite meant rote latin: ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meum. The school building is a brand new one, the old one was cut-from-stone, befitting an education in 1950s black and white, and the Church has recently been seismically upgraded at great expense. The interior owes the inception of its glorious restoration to the movie Sister Act, which was filmed here. Although its doors only open on Saturday and Sunday now there is a resplendent epiphany awaiting the visitor inside.
San Francisco was situated in intimate proximity to the City of God in the Fifties and early Sixties, its myriad spires reaching into the heavens. Irish and Italian immigrants and their native-born offspring made up the bulk of the population, and it is fair to say that the parish and not the neighborhood was the defining orbit of one’s existence. You attended mass at St. John’s or St. James or St. Kevin’s or St. Phillip’s, to name the parishes contiguous to St. Paul’s. The boundaries were gratuitous, readily solved if you wore a parochial school uniform, the panoply of which attested to the sheer multiplicity of spires, the seismic devil testing the faithful now and then, the City of St. Francis very much a Catholic one, Roman spoken here, Omnes Habitare indeed.
Those soaring spires that loomed so majestically below Diamond Heights belong to St. Paul’s, a gothic masterpiece, and the built-to-last edifice conveys something of the bricks-and-mortar zeal of the Irish-American wing of the Roman Catholic Church in America. And no doubt reflects the post-Earthquake (dedicated in 1910) determination to rebuild San Francisco bigger and better than ever. Certainly no expense was spared on the inside, munificent in all its architectural and ecclesiastical details, from the massive pillars anchoring the vaulting cruciform ceiling to the ornate marble altar to the hauntingly beautiful stained-glass windows depicting the Passion of Christ that bask the elegant handcrafted well worn pews in a quasi-medieval light. The movie only gives a hint of the timbre of the place, resonant in all the senses (to sing in choir the Latin High Mass was one of the highlights of my boyhood), not least the olfactory, a vestigial incense wafting, a century of benediction, and the wonderful rose window catching the afternoon light and dispersing into a myriad of light petals, an aesthetic afflatus that reaches spiritual proportions. Churches and cathedrals leave me cold, but this one still stirs the soul. Perhaps I am still an altar boy in here, it’s 5:20 AM and tenebrously dark and I am groping for the switch, let there be light, and suddenly the revelation, gloria in excelsis, the one true church indeed.
From Valley Street continue on Church past the garish blue Church of San Francisco, a movie theater when I was very small, now an evangelical mission, and come to Duncan, across the street from where we started this morning, and read the menu posted by the door at Incanto. This is the heart of Duncanville, an enclave of the good life nestled tongue in cheek in the Noe Valley. Incanto refers to Dante, invokes the Dante of the Paradiso that is, and above the transom we find a rendering of its final stanza, the sun and the moon and the stars. Here is where we will dine this evening, feasting on that stanza transliterated into carnal delight, Italian wines and cuisine of an exceptional caliber.
For eight months I was in here almost every night, thanks to residing directly across the street on Duncan. This place is near and dear to my heart. Justifiably it is regarded as one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area. Owner Mark Pastore is a serious candidate for local hero in my book because he has lifted from the dirt—literally tons—a great good place that aspires to the heavens, not just in its Dantesque reach, but in its profane/sacred raw/cooked bread/wine patron/communicant reverence for all things gustatory and communal. Incanto doesn’t just serve dinner, it serves a potlatch, a ritual feast, and the care and attention to detail that go into that meal are extraordinary. You can’t sit at the winebar night after night and not be impressed with the sheer artisanry that goes into those liturgical pairings. No wonder Dante is the patron saint, this is terza rima in culinary action, three exceptionally gifted principals—Mark, Chris Cosentino (chef) and Edward Ruiz (wine director)—whose respective “lines” on things produce an exacting medley of tastes, sensations and experiences, the poetry of the human comedy, Incanto at its best. Precisely the sacerdotal tone to the place, its liturgical trappings it were, conduce to a revelation of sorts, that it can’t get much better than this and remain earth-bound.
But we’re hungry and Incanto won’t be until this evening so we cross Church and head to Chloe’s on 26th. This tiny eatery is vastly popular, something of a crowd always milling around (sign in and await the summons), 20 minutes on weekdays, 45 to an hour on weekends. Chloe’s serves breakfast (all day) and lunch, bountiful portions, and found this writer inside (there are only seven tables in, three out) almost every day. Enough said.
Just up the street on 26th is the Fire Station. The San Francisco Fire Department looms quite large in the civic culture—firehouses ranked with churches as places of worship when I was growing up, and Lilly Hitchcock Coit put up a rather conspicuous tower in homage. The phoenix is the official symbol, since San Francisco burned down several times in the 19th century, and of course you know what happened a hundred years ago. The all-male Irish and Italian force of my uncle and brother drilled to fight another Great Fire—this time there would be water pressure—but today’s multicultural force, led by a woman no less, is looking at a different worst case scenario, this one a West Coast 9/11. If ever a city was designed to go up in flames it is San Francisco. Just like that tinderbox that went up in smoke with regularity in the 1850s, the San Francisco of the highrise presents a danger of surpassing magnitude. The Great Fire destroyed much of the downtown, another conflagration might well burn the city clear to the ocean, thanks in no small part to the rowhouse construction that vanquished the sand dunes that made up the real Empty Quarter west of Twin-Peaks. Golden Gate Park is green today because John McLaren willed it so, a feat just as great as building the bridge itself.
But the fog hovering over Twin Peaks reassures, so after Chloe’s you walk it off by going up Church to 24th, past the Noe (aka “The Office”), a dive in the old tradition, a bar with a following and too many tvs (better love the Giants) that is unpretentious in the extreme. A good place for a draft in other words. Beer, not wine, was the signature beverage in San Francisco in blue-collar paradise days, and there seemed to be a bar on every other corner. In fact San Francisco was renowned as a beer-making town and Lucky Lager and Hamm’s and Olympia and several other West Coast brands were brewed south and east of Market. Long before microbrews came into vogue then The City was slaking its considerable thirst with the homebrew, and even today the vestigial neighborhood bar continues to uphold a tradition of bottoms up, bar dice, and the patronage of those stalwarts for whom beer on tap is still the beverage of record.
A few blocks more of the flats until we come to the ascent side of Church. Of course we could ignore the No Trespassing signs and walk the tracks of the J Car as they wind along that intriguing backyard conduit to Dolores Park. Everyone does it, a more or less flat shortcut, but we’re made of sterner stuff, ergo up the hill we go, two long blocks, not as severe as those streets to our immediate left, beyond cardiac strength, where the cars are parked at an angle that defies not so much gravity as amazement. How do you dare get behind the wheel. At the crest take a breather and take in the view, the Noe Valley behind us, the Mission below us. From the corner of Church and 20th, where Dolores Park starts, we find the downtown presents a blockbuster facade, a wall of high rise buildings pleated accordion-like, a pullout diorama that takes the postlapsarian city and turns it into a pomo fairytale.
The Park is idyllic—sit on the terraced hillside and admire the view—and usually sunny—this is the Banana Belt and the “beach” starts just a few steps from the J Car Stop. Welcome to The Mission. Take the diagonal across the Park and we are a block and a half from the Mission Dolores, where this place began in 1776. The Mission is worth the visit—the cemetery even more so—but we’re heading down 18th, past the ever popular Portofino restaurant, past the long line at the Tartine French Bakery, past Valencia—where postcollegiates roam on bicycles, inked up, molting from their suburban skins altogether, urbanized, acquiring street cred—down to Mission Street, the New Mission theater the landmark of record, gone to seed along with most of this stretch back to 20th, once the Mission Miracle Mile, now in need of a miracle to turn back the clock to its glory days.
But this is raw, vibrant, crowded, Spanish-speaking, though the inflections come from Central America, not Mexico. San Francisco has always been a little Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and immigrants from those countries continue to gravitate toward the City of St. Francis, not always kindly disposed to the new arrivals, though what restaurant could survive without them, not to mention the hotels downtown. Indeed, dotcom conquistadores began moving in in the late 90s, in the process evicting the indigenous, causing an uproar that only subsided when their El Dorado proved as chimerical as that which put this town on the map in Gold Rush days. Ironic that La Mission should be their chosen destination, The City come full circle as it were.
But before we complete our own circle, by going up and going down Dolores to Duncan, beauteous palm-lined steep-graded Dolores, we head down 20th to Alabama, to the Atlas Cafe. The Atlas is the cafe of record for those in their twenties and thirties waiting for their ship to come in, artists and filmmakers and graphic designers and no end of would-be-writers pounding away on their laptops. This encroaching colony of gringos, expatriates from the straight and narrow, these denizens brave the animosity of latin gangs and the criminal class to hang-out here on the far frontier of San Francisco, in the warm sunny Mission, to do their thing, the inscriptions on their bodies attesting to their iconoclastic personas, a performance art mural every bit as fascinating as the celebrated walls found a few blocks over.
Morning coffee at Martha’s, then up Duncan to Sanchez, over to 24th, up to Douglass. This is the Noe Valley, urban living at its “liveable” best, white, prosperous, parochial, “echo” children perambulated by Guatemalan nannies, nesting couples gay and straight. Once a blue-collar paradise the Valley has become the great good place of the blue-jean professional, commuters south to biotech South City and high tech Silicon Valley, telecommuters working out of their tables at Martha’s, multitaskers ensconced in the fine cafe at the corner of 24th and Douglass. Those decorous Victorians and cozy craftsmen on Sanchez cost a bundle now but in the 70s they went for a song.
The Irish-Italian working class that inhabited this sunny enclave—and the adjacent Castro and Eureka Valleys—since the 1870s and 80s vanished into the fogbelt in the 1960s. In fact the City as a whole emptied out in less than a decade, the fate of the black Fillmore being salient, and telling, all but obliterated by urban renewal, razing the Western Addition, fully a tenth of the housing stock, well over a thousand Victorians biting the dust, sending its denizens (working the docks and the shipyards during the War) packing, to Hunter’s Point and West Oakland. Call it the Great Firesale.
No small irony, Japantown, a sprawling mall-condo complex that never caught on, least of all with its nominal honorees, those Nisei who lived here before WWII internment, occupies the site of the storied jazz and jive neighborhood. Too, the Yerba Buena Project got underway in the early 70s, razing skid-row and the old waterfront, evicting the marginal and the derelict (hello homeless), erecting the Moscone Center and the Museum of Modern Art in the 80s, turning South of Market into SoMa in the tech-driven 90s. And the Sunset and Richmond are now largely Chinese, thanks in no small part to the systematic efforts of Chinatown realtors in the early 70s to relieve the housing pressure in that beset quarter by going door to door buying up entire blocks in the fogbelt.
Once primarily Jewish and Russian, the Russian of the Czar and the Eastern Rite, the Richmond today speaks the lingua franca of Cal and Stanford. The well-educated sons and daughters of restaurant workers and laundrymen (largely Cantonese, the dialect of the original settlers of Gold Mountain) have presided over a recreation of Chinatown on ideogram-rife Clement and Irving Streets, the extended family in tow as several generations crowd its food stalls and restaurants. While the Gays were making their celebrated influx into the Castro, liberated from their forbidden city in Polk Gulch, the Chinese were quietly moving en masse out of theirs, to the Pacific rim of San Francisco, thereby closing the gap between East and West. Today the old Chinatown has burgeoned to become the new North Beach, as immigrants continue to arrive by container and visa, awaiting their second generation elevation to the middle class and a much coveted flat in the avenues.
Douglass Street is something of the ridgeline, traversing the rim of the three Valleys, taking us by street and stairs down and over to Market, up long steep 17th Street to the crest at Clayton. Take a last look at the Bay because once on the other side we are facing the Pacific. That’s beautiful Mount Sutro—topped by its execrable radio tower—thick with towering eucalyptus, Golden Gate Park demarcating the flatland, and the Ocean in the distance.
Welcome to Cole Valley. Bowl-shaped, this inviting hillside steps down amphitheatre-like to the Park and the Panhandle, allowing its residents the privilege to bask in relative serenity, effectively sequestered from the rest of the City. In fact the Downtown, accessible by the N Car via two tunnels, is out of sight out of mind, Buena Vista Heights and Twin Peaks vanquishing its high-rise reach. Rather the gravitational pull of the University of California’s Medical Center atop Parnassus shapes this Valley, which turns into the Inner Sunset a bit farther west. UC ran out of Parnassian room a long time ago, which is why its writ now reaches all the way to the Bay, Mission Bay, a vast tract (out of tourist range) awaiting the completion of the new research campus, a hefty investment in the biotech future.
Atop 17th we continue to Cole, then down the hill a few long blocks, admiring the rambling three-story homes along the way. We will stop at Zaszie’s for breakfast—this walk is best on early Sunday morning, with brunch the reward for the famished (sign up and long await the summons)—and return to Reverie (a block farther) for afternoon coffee out on the rear deck, then Eos Wine Bar for an early evening dinner. The Haight is a few blocks away, never one of my favorites, not in the Summer Of Love, a bummer then if you were at all lysergic free, and certainly not in its gentrified Present. But the signature railroad flats—crashpads then—remain, aging totems of that gadarene rush to mind-blowing abandon.
Instead we find Parnassus and divert up the hill toward UCSF—the University of California at San Francisco. This is the Medical Center and Medical School, one of the most prestigious in the country, and as we pass the impressive edifice nestled in the lee of Mt. Sutro we catch glimpses of the fabulous view from on high, the Park and the top of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and the ridge lines of the Marin Headlands. This too is one of topography’s great good gifts to the City, and if by some fluke you find yourself invited to the Chancellor’s House high atop Mt. Sutro—facing east to the Bay—by all means avail yourself of the empyrean view, surely the most breathtaking in San Francisco.
Once down the hill we will catch the N Car, Ocean Beach the destination, a chance to experience the Muni, the denizen’s ride of little choice. At least we aren’t sardined, stuck in the tunnel, and the stop-start ride through the avenues, from 9th to 48th, provides a breather, not to mention a chance to see the Sunset, sand dunes willed into precursor subdivisions, well named since the fog that arrives in June really doesn’t lift until September, though there will be (increasingly it seems—record temps here too in June and July) days here and there that cruelly tantalize, lasting just long enough to showcase a California summer idyll found inland north and south.
The Fog is the great denizen of the Sunset, a summer visitor that settles in for the season, and for three plus months San Francisco becomes Fog City, the cool gray place, socked in west of Twin Peaks, receding and advancing, all the way to the East Bay, a momentous convergence of frigid ocean and hot interior air responsible for a mercurial phantasmagoria, the enveloping mass giving way to the eerie gossamer, the lava flow yielding to opaque stillness, the fog bank lurking offshore in late morning moving inexorably inland in late afternoon, summoned by the prevailing westerlies, its gathering momentum heralded by fog horns just inside The Gate, pouring over the hills and chuting through the valleys, thickly blanketing the City in a minatory pall by nightfall. Behold The Fog: bracing and chilling, oppressive and invigorating, pervading and unrelenting, visibility in miles, yards, feet, zero. Peasoup. Golden Gate Park revels in the sodden visitor, becomes a Chinese landscape painting, alluring and adumbrative and not a little noirish in its wafting wispy ethereality.
Summer was painful as an adolescent, literally since Fleishacker Pool—the world’s largest and coldest, manned by shivering lifeguards in rowboats—was a goosebump ordeal, and sometimes the fog was so thick you could find yourself in the 57 degree ocean water without the edge of the infinity pool in sight. The steam showers were a wonderful recompense, as were those at Aquatic Park, twenty minutes of high pressure bliss, the sublime pore-opening pay-off for courting hypothermia in Pool or Bay. But diving and surfing required more than a wetsuit. Rather a steadfastness and stoic resignation was called for, as the fog would sit on the coast day after day, week after week, a spirit dampening that extended to the onslaught surf at Ocean Beach—its sand a dull dank gray as well—and the deadweight collapse of ghostly green waves riven with rips and expletives.
At 48th there’s an outdoor cafe—you’ll need water—and then we’re up on the ice-plant girded bicycle path leading to the windmill-dominated western end of the Park and the Beach Chalet. Breathe deeply, the salt air and iceplant and Monterey cypress ferment into a respiratory nirvana, breathing as intoxicant adventure. Having been in many a seaport courtesy of the US Navy, I can safely say that I have never quite experienced anywhere else this heady ozone—this pungent admixture of brine and vegetation—so captivating, so tonic, so suffused with seaside allure.
The Chalet has some remarkable WPA era murals downstairs, upstairs is the restaurant, usually packed to a din, but with a fine view of the ocean. Use the bathroom here, since we have a long walk ahead. At Fulton cross the Great Highway to the ocean-side esplanade. The Great Highway was once unimpeded, almost six miles of straightaway, Bonneville West, and its pedal-to-the metal length unsurpassed as a proving ground for teenage mettle. The esplanade has seen better days, but as we walk in the direction of the Cliff House we can watch the surfers in Kelly’s Cove, Seal Rocks (devoid of sea lions, long ago decamped to Pier 39) announcing the start of the steep cliffs that extend several miles, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Welcome to the Pacific Ocean, with its cataract surf and Far East bound horizon.
But if you thought there’d be something more enticing than nondescript condos heralding land’s end—let there be fog—you’d not be far wrong. Playland-At-The-Beach it was called, a multi-acre expanse of adventure, amusement, and boyhood lark, a wooden trestle rollercoaster, a Fun House, a Hot House, a penny arcade, a merry-go-round, dodger cars and tilt-o-whirl and the diving bell, which took you below into a tank of rays and sharks. There were scary rides and fun rides and stomach-roiling rides, and who cared that the fog was this thick, you got to ride the slide in the Fun House stretched atop a burlap sack, and the large spinning disk always threw you off into the padded sidewall, and the heavy-metal bottles never seemed to collapse in a heap no matter how hard you threw the ball. In other words Playland was a too expensive anachronism that ran down at the heels in the late 60s, biker heaven, and bit the dust in the early 70s, Laughin’ Sal side-splitting no more.
Indeed, as we walk up the hill past the Cliff House, a great space gone wrong once more, Sutro’s, a grand crystal palace in the Victorian tradition, a Baths extravaganza at the turn of the 20th Century—an ice rink, exotic plants hothouse, and memorabilia haunt when I was a boy—looms in memory as well, the arson-fire that destroyed it in the late 60s leaving little more than the foundation of its great pool to convey the enormity of the engineering marvel this natatorium was, on a scale that rivaled those of ancient Rome. Adolf Sutro, the “King of the Comstock,” mayor and philanthropist extraordinaire, built this wonder in 1898, and for five decades its seven pools delighted native sons and daughters, its vast labyrinthine design, with grand staircase and theatre showcase—seating for thousands—never failing to enthrall. All the more reason then to mourn its signal loss to a City that could have saved it from its incendiary fate. In the late 50s a cable car ran from the Cliff House to Point Lobos (featuring manmade caves), affording a bird’s eye view of the surging ocean and the pleasure dome. Now all that is left is a steep path leading down to the threnody pool filled with brackish seawater, a Roman ruin after all.
Thus this ever-ascending hillside is barren save for spectacularly perched Louie’s. If you can get the far corner table, the view of the Marin Headlands and the outer channel leading to the Golden Gate is superb. Have breakfast, a very good breakfast, and watch in rapt earnest as tankers and container ships take on pilots for the demanding entrance to the Golden Gate, navigating through the strait via the treacherous “potato patch,” a maneuver made perilous by the fog that powers through the Gate. Many a ship never made it, and a few of those wrecks can be found at low tide on the other side of Point Lobos.
Continue on up the hill to the red light, then cross the street until you find yourself at a park entrance just down from the Seal Rock Inn. This is Sutro Heights, a little-used public promenade laden with horticultural riches, Mr. Sutro’s garden, a legacy of the great man himself, whose mansion once stood here. Some of the statuary remains, and the flowers and shrubs are exquisite, memento mori as it were of its heyday, when the grounds welcomed the public and the view was prized as one of the most magnificent in San Francisco, Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park and the Pacific coastline clear down to Pedro Point and Montara Mountain visible on a clear day. Indeed stand here and be transfixed, by the Pacific, by the Park, by The Farallones, by Ocean Beach, by Mt. Sutro, by the fact that all those houses, avenue after avenue terracing down to the sea, sit atop The Great Sand Waste. Those dunes were a natural wonder in their own right, and they extended all the way to Adolph Sutro’s other domain, the towering hill named after him. Indeed a nod to him, for the majestic Sutro Forest owes its planting to his noblesse oblige as well.
Now backtrack to El Camino Del Mar and cross at the stoplight, heading toward that weathered cypress forest that backdrops the view from Louis’. Come out by the USS San Francisco Memorial and partake of a vista of singular grandeur. The Marin Headlands across, the Golden Gate Bridge to the right, and the Pacific to the left. On a clear day this view is spellbinding, truly the most spectacular this side of El Capitan and Half Dome, and on foggy days it lends credence to the fact that San Francisco Bay wasn’t discovered by ship at all, but by an inland expedition. Indeed, the Headlands look as though they are still waiting to be explored, Old California well before the Spanish, scarcely a tree in sight, stark and rugged and uninhabited, land’s end plunging to the sea in big sur fashion, not a condo in sight. Today part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it was for many years an army base, Forts Baker and Cronkhite, and the coastal artillery guarding the entrance to the Bay was mounted inside massive concrete revetments. As a consequence you are looking back in geological time, when the waters flowing from Mount Shasta in the north to Mount Whitney in the south—the Sierra runoff making up the Sacramento and San Joaquin—finally broke through to form the beauteous funnel—looking to a pristine spine of the Pacific Coast Range, culminating in Mount Tamalpais, that towering anomaly twisted by the Pacific Plate into a gravid right angle, a vast area of almost wild that is only a nautical mile away from one of the most densely populated places on earth.
It is hard to imagine the Golden Gate without its Bridge. Indeed, it seems as much a natural wonder as its glorious site, and to think that it was built in the depths of the Depression, under schedule and under budget, by men with nothing to lose but the shirts on their back is as impressive as the feat itself. The span—red going to red-orange—is more than a bridge, an engineering marvel, a triumph of vision and tenacity, linking the Imperial City to its Redwood Empire. It is as well emblematic of the city beyond the automatic signifier, rather as improbable as the place itself, Fremont’s grandiose Golden Gate—named after the Golden Horn linking Asia to Europe—heralding the arrival a year later of “Argonauts,” as the gold-seekers of 1849 were known. Fremont was the 19th century Bill Graham, a self-promoting impressario with a keen eye for the next big thing, and the fact he could trumpet the flea-bitten hamlet of Yerba Buena as a city of destiny, another Rome (name change the same year (1848) to San Francisco to better attract commerce), was a leap of imagination far-fetched only to those lacking his self-importance as an agent of manifest destiny. But Fremont struck gold a year before it was discovered in the American River. The Golden Gate Bridge is as much his legacy as those who designed and built it.
The Pacific itself is a revelation from this height, and its oft-told waters—think of Dana, think of Melville, think of London and Stevenson and Michener and Theroux—begin here at the epigraph as it were, the heady passage from Bay to Ocean, where the tidal current is fierce, where The Headlands and Lands End converge at The Bridge, threading the needle into the gleaming hilltop City, while outbound the channel passes Point Bonita to dispatch shipping to Alaska and Australia, China and Japan, Hawaii and Guam.
This is the geographic motherlode, the one place on the West Coast of North and South America where Nature conjured its ideal antipodes, safe harbor and thrilling, dangerous coastline, where the ships that made it inside the Gate could revel in the sight of a city built for their arrival. Think of those Argonauts who came in around the Horn, those sailors whose clipper ships set new records under sail, those marines and soldiers and sailors who came in under the Bridge from Pacific battlefields at the end of WWII. Their epiphany is ours. Indeed, from our boyhood perch on these steep cliffs we watched ships come and go, freighters and tankers and warships and troopships, fishing boats and sail boats and pleasure craft of all sizes and shapes, the Gate sending and receiving, in brilliant sunshine and mournful fog, a spectacle that never failed to enthrall.
Below this prospect was our boyhood haunt, cliffs and coves given to double-dare, climbs and swims perilous and very nearly fatal. No wonder this area was closed to visitors. Before it was reopened as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area it had been our “private” domain—no trespassing enforced by the police—and we covered every square inch from Point Lobos to China Beach, climbing, fishing, swimming, cooking hot dogs, the fire concealed by the thick cypress, by the thick fog, by the fact the police could never find us in the caves or out on the rocks or scaling the sheer cliffs. Suffice it to say that of all the memories I have of growing up in San Francisco the ones that most resonate are the ones that find us sneaking into the cypress forest and disappearing into boyhood adventure at Lands End.
The USS San Francisco Memorial, with its beatific overview of the Pacific (looking toward Guadalcanal and the great naval battle the night of November 12-13, 1942), commemorates the courage of the officers and men of the USS San Francisco, a heavy-cruiser that slugged it out with a Japanese battleship, and survived, barely, to fight another day. From the evidence of its swiss-cheese flying bridge (you’re standing on it) the large caliber shells that took the lives of so many officers and sailors—Rear Admiral Callaghan and Captain Young, the commanding officer, among them—were no match for the fighting spirit of the ship, which miraculously made it back through the Gate a few months later.
Today the sight of naval ships passing through the Gate is an infrequent one. Save for Fleet Week the US Navy has disappeared from its once-prized bastion, as surely as if the UN, born here in May 1945 (The San Francisco Conference), had assumed sovereign control and declared the Bay Area a model for the rest of the world, war no more. Indeed, a Spanish galleon could appear off Fort Point and demand a garrison surrender, so thoroughgoing has been the spiking of the guns. Hence the Army has surrendered up the Presidio, Fort Mason, the Oakland Army Depot, Forts Funston, Baker and Cronkhite; the Navy has struck the colors at Treasure Island, Port Chicago, Mare Island, Alameda Naval Air, Hunter’s Point, and Moffett Field; and the Air Force last used the runways at Hamilton Field in the 1960s. This wholesale demilitarization is nothing less than astonishing—most of it occurring in the late 80s early 90s—and its effect on the very identity of San Francisco—think liberty-port Market Street, or the Sixth Army at the Presidio, or the troopships embarking from Fort Mason, or the Navy at Treasure Island (“TI”)—has been profound, a virtual evisceration. Indeed, it’s as if the military had never been here in the first place. This thorough-going extirpation from the civic consciousness—swords into ploughshares indeed—leaves San Francisco a city-state on the order of Monaco, beholden to the casino-economy, tourism the mainstay now, indeed a kind of latter-day Yerba Buena, an irenic reversion to an idyll by the Bay.
One last look at the Pacific and then back down Camino Del Mar to Clement, up the hill alongside the perimeter of Fort Miley (Veterans Administration Hospital), to 34th Avenue and Lincoln Park Golf Course. We are walking up to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a replica of the famous museum in Paris, donated by Alma Spreckels to honor the American dead of World War I. The site is spectacular, with its sylvan view of the Gate and the Bridge and the Downtown, and the museum, built in the early 20s, is a classical beauty, almost too good to be true, a Parisian mirage set down in the middle of a golf course, itself a thing of beauty, municipal links that feature unique hazards, zero visibility and monumental views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the steep falloff to the Pacific Ocean in lieu of rough. The Museum underwent extensive repair and seismic upgrade after Loma Prieta, and has added several amenities—a cafeteria and theater—since I used to be a frequent visitor, in the days when austerity extended to the collection, for the most part second and third tier. But there is a Rembrandt that is soul-stirring, and a Van Gogh and Monet and Renoir, and the visiting exhibitions promise to make the Museum into a Palace. And let’s not forget the Rodin, a copy of the Thinker, cogitating in solipsistic fervor in the colonnaded courtyard.
El Camino Del Mar continues on down the hill, past the two most beautiful holes in golf. The eucalyptus and cypress canopy is inviting, and the leisurely stroll toward exclusive Sea Cliff soul-stirring in its own right . It doesn’t get much prettier than this, this spectacular perch by the Pacific, and the enclave-like Sea Cliff district, with its stately homes, only adds to the Amalfi-like epiphany.
Pick up Lake Street and at 23rd Avenue take a right, crossing the street at California, finding the perfect hole-in-the-wall, La Pizzetta, with its superb thin crust pizzas and homemade desserts. This was my pizza of record, and I would walk miles to get here, treating myself to an hour in one of the tables in the window, savoring everything about the place, diminutive only in size. On weekends find yourself here in mid-afternoon, between crowds, with the fog settling in, relax and enjoy one of the real delights of living in SF.
Back on Lake Street, serene handsome Lake Street, and count down the avenues until you find yourself facing the bridge traffic at Park Presidio. Once across the four lanes (the countdown in seconds—you’ve got 19—is a bit unnerving) take a diagonal in front of the facing apartment building and find yourself in Mountain Lake Park. The Lake is just beyond the playground, and small though it be, seemingly manmade to boot (it is not), it figures rather large in the history of San Francisco, since it was the site of the encampment of Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, whose 1600 mile expedition from Mexico to Monterey, with 240 civilians in tow, is easily as remarkable a trek, perhaps more so, as the one by Lewis and Clark. On March 27, 1776, San Francisco saw its first “tourists,” as Anza and a small scouting party stood atop Point Lobos, awestruck by its commanding view of the outer Gate and the coast from Point Reyes to Point Pedro—a “prodigy of nature which it is not easy to describe.” Too, they later climbed a white cliff, where Fort Point is today, and looked across the future site of the Golden Gate Bridge in equal astonishment: “From here we saw the pushing and resistance which the outgoing water of the estuary makes against that of the sea, forming there a short of a ridge like a wave in the middle…We saw the spouting of whales, a shoal of dolphins or tunny fish, sea otter and sea lions.”
Their peregrinations brought them to Native Sons—“who were very gentle and obliging”—and they “arrived at a beautiful arroyo which, because it was Friday of Sorrows, we called the Arroyo de los Delores.” Thus was Mission Dolores established, completed in 1791, and Civitati Sancti Francisci was christened in panegyrics only too familiar. From Padre Font’s diary we find this telling passage: “Although in my travels I saw very good sites and beautiful country, I saw none which pleased me so much as this. And I think that if it could be well settled like Europe, there would not be anything more beautiful in all the world, for it has the best advantages for founding in it a most beautiful city.”
The City Beautiful is hidden from the trees here, and Anza and Font would have been equally amazed, and delighted to find not sand dunes—“it lacks only timber, for there is not a tree on all these hills”—but an enveloping forest, of eucalyptus and cypress grown up beside their camp by the lake. Thanks to the Presidio, and its adjacent golf course, this is a sylvan retreat of no little beauty, and the park itself lopes along for several inviting blocks (continue on to Pacific Heights). My then two-year-old son and I logged many hours here, beside the sandbox, my bicycle-borne incursions into the women-and-children only playground met with stares of incredulity and even expressions of anger, Why Wasn’t I Working, back in the day when liberation had not yet crossed the gender divide when it comes to parenting. Now in San Francisco you’ll find couples of every hue and gender-bending description, men alone and men paired, in infant harness, pushing strollers, biking their progeny, child-raising in state-of-the-art hands-on preciocity, no masculine hangups here, no longer any baleful space between male and female, but a kind of cloying fusion especially pronounced among the professional classes.
After Lake walk across 7th to California to Clement. This is the heart of New Chinatown. If you crave dim-sum then you’re in heaven. Find Green Apple Books at 5th and Clement and browse to your hearts content, lost in the funhouse of books, new and used, a treasure trove much the best bookstore in the City. Take 5th over to Geary, to Balboa, to Arguello, up to 7th and find yourself in Golden Gate Park. You’ll want to walk all 1000 acres on your own, suffice it to say that we follow the road leading to the new De Young, the old one a victim of Loma Prieta. Either you love the new one or dearly mourn the old.
Where once Amundsen’s tiny sloop Gjoa jousted with the massive windmills by the beach, now, further inland, in the grand concourse, you can find an unloaded container ship inexplicably come to ground, its twisted superstructure and truncated bow attesting to its egregious navigation. Answering to the “new museum” appellation, the aesthetics of gross tonnage, the De Young in its celebrated Herzog and de Meuron do-over, this vessel, duly perforated, dimpled and cantilevered, copper going to verdigris, represents the City of Destiny at its pretentious worst.
Simply put the museum, much lauded by the critics, is out of its element (and missing its star attraction, the Brundage Asian Art Collection), and no amount of verbal artistry can camouflage the obvious, that its overweening bulk is a visual affront that sucks the oxygen out of the Park. A copse of redwood trees in compensation? Take that John McLaren.
We complete the circle at Canvas, across the Park on 9th, laptop commando heaven, or we just stop in to use the pissoir, then pick up quiet Hugo at 7th and walk back to Arguello, then onto to Carl, finally to relax in outdoor bliss at the aptly named Reverie on Cole. Across the street is the N Car Stop. You could really push the circle to your physical limits by retracing your steps back over the 17th Street hill all the way to Duncan and Church. Good luck. Or you could slip into Eos Wine Bar and call it a day. By now you’ve walked in excess of eight miles, much of it vertical, and have taken in some extraordinary sights along the way, perhaps the most beautiful, if exacting, walk in urban America. Indeed, you’ll want to savor that coffee at Reverie while entertaining one of your own.
The 1906 Earthquake and Fire—the Great Fire—gave urban planners and visionaries much to salivate over—think of David Burnham in his Twin Peaks aerie designing The City Beautiful, modeled on Paris—but the rebuilding was too frenzied to do more than lift a few ideas from their sketch books. Since my father was born in 1907, my mother in 1908, the San Francisco Experience for them was coeval with the rebuilding effort, the emergence of the White City, and my own birth, in 1945, meant I would witness its brief heyday and its long slow decline into the City of Memory, the one Herb Caen—the late Mr. San Francisco— found more to his liking. Like two tectonic plates grinding away, that City of Memory and the City of Destiny lock horns, the inertia of zeitgeist fatigue giving way suddenly to the next big thing, the bonanza effect all over again. In 100 years San Francisco has witnessed a rebuilding twice. The White City gave way to the Windfall City and the zeitgeist became the time-frame of record. At 100 San Francisco shows signs of significant wear and tear.
The City of Memory seems solid, earthquake proof. The City of Destiny looks more and more vulnerable. To tourism, to terrorism, to immigration, to a host of global effects not on the agenda of the San Francisco Conference in 1945. In the meantime the City remains a pedestrian paradise, and since you are destined to come here anyway you may as well commit this place to memory. Tourist traps hardly suffice; to denizen the City Of Memory takes going out of your way, leaving the comfort zone and striking out on your own, on your own two feet. You’ll never discover this place otherwise. Like those mariners who sailed by fogbound, you’ll never know what you missed.
Robert Andersen is writer living in Kittery Point, Maine.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.