The City of Love: How I left my heart in San Francisco
(This is a long post about my love affair with San Francisco which started in 1965)
San Francisco first hit my radar way back in 1965 when “California Dreamin’ ” by the Mamas and the Papas hit the British charts. Knowing nothing about LA or indeed California, anywhere that offered warmth in winter seemed like a good place to be to me. By the time Scott McKenzie was singing “San Francisco (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)” a hit in the spring of 1967, I was hooked. This was one USA state I had to visit. Haight-Ashbury frequently featured on the television with its flower-power, incense-burning, acid-dropping, tie-dye-wearing, peace-and-love-vibe hippies during the summer of love (1967) and I fell in love with the whole enchilada. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s I too became an incense burning, peace-loving hippy myself, though it was an awful lot more years before I would get to San Fran.
The next time the city nudged its way into my life was in 1972 when I was working for a brief spell in Zürich as an au pair and came into contact with a group of Americans from California who were over in Europe to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Falling in love with a gentle, flute-playing, blonde haired surfer from San Francisco made me yearn to visit that golden state again. All too soon he took off for India and I returned home to the UK, alone. The years passed and the USA was no longer on my ‘must see’ list and San Francisco faded from my dreams. The summer of love was long past…
Wind forward several decades. It was the dull period after Christmas and before spring arrives. All the leaves were brown, those that were left sodden on the ground that is, and the sky was an interminable grey so when I was given the opportunity to finally escape the dreariness of a British winter and discover if in fact it was safe and warm in California I didn’t need asking twice. And so it was that on 31st January 2009, only a few days before Heathrow was closed due to heavy snowstorms, I landed in a balmy 17°C SFO with glorious cloudless blue skies and duly caught a shuttle into the city of love. Too excited to sleep despite the fact it was 1:45 in the morning UK time, I found an authentic Mexican restaurant and ate tepid beans and tostadas with frozen pomegranate margaritas (a sort of alcoholic slush puppy). Not great food, but who cares.
San Francisco is a densely populated city and made up of many different neighbourhoods which are spread about on the 50 or so steep rolling hills that make up the city limits at the north end of the peninsula.
It’s difficult to choose what to see and do on a first visit, so I happily wandered around the touristy spots – riding the cable cars, taking the F-line historic street cars between Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf; window shopping in Union Square and walking down through Chinatown and the Financial District to the Embarcadero; taking a bus over the Golden Gate bridge and taking photos of the views of the city; catching a city tour around Castro, Pacific Heights, and Alamo Square with its pastel ‘painted ladies’ and up to the top of twin peaks for a sunset view of the city; sipping Italian sodas outside Rose’s Café in Cow Hollow.
How I loved it all! It seemed such a vibrant city, full of life and colour and noise: clanging cable cars, barking sea lions, screaming fire engines, and smells: steaming, cooked crab and sour dough permeating the air in Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinese spices in Chinatown, espresso and garlic in North Beach, not to mention the intense smell of celery on the #30 bus when dozens of Chinese elders got on with their bags overflowing with produce from the market mingling with the stale, oddly perfumed odour of smoke, sweat and cigarettes of a bag lady with a bulging overcoat.
All too soon my whirlwind visit was over and collecting the hire car we headed south out of the city to follow Highway 1 all the way down the Californian coast to San Diego. But that’s another story…
One year later I was back in San Francisco for another week. This time I was more organised and knew exactly where I wanted to go. We arrived in time to watch the Chinese New Year Parade so claimed a spot on Post Street to watch the bands and floats and dragons dance by. We started to walk back to Fisherman’s Wharf as all the cable cars were full, but after staggering up Nob’s Hill with our knee joints groaning in protest we managed to climb on a Powell and Mason car and ended up at the Buena Vista for dinner. Most people visit this bar for its Irish Coffees, supposedly the birth place of the drink, and I have to agree that having sampled several (to ensure consistency of course) they are pretty damned good. The food is OK too as long as you don’t mind sharing a table with strangers.
I was happy to explore further afield this time and armed with a Muni passport for the week made it easier to get around, though you always end up walking further than you think, and those hills are most unforgiving on the knee joints. A ferry to Sausalito blows away any jet-lag and provides you with a wonderful view of the city from across the bay. Alcatraz doesn’t interest me in the slightest, though I got a close-up of it on a bay cruise, which was interesting only in that it gave me an opportunity for a photo of the underside of the Golden Gate Bridge. A large glass of Sonoma Pinot Noir with oysters Rockefeller (baked with parmesan and spinach) was a fine end to the day.
Several hours on a slightly chilly day were spent in SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) which is very interesting and had amazing black and white photographic exhibitions including the f.64 group, a group of seven San Fran photographers, and Dorothea Lange – ‘The Crucial Years’ (SF Waterfront strike in 1934). Another one which I particularly liked from the ‘Rich and Poor’ series by Jim Goldberg, entitled “No Photo” showed an elderly Louis Callaghan sitting in an armchair in a domestic sitting room along with this hand-written quote. As I stood there with aching feet, I understood the sentiment.
Time is creeping over me, creeping in, making me older.
I can hear it in my voice. It is inevitable.
Today I look out of the window and see the beauty that is outside, but I cannot participate.
I am just too God-damned old!
These lyrics from Amy Dixon-Kolar (a singer-songwriter) grabbed my attention too:
Rosa sat so Martin could walk
Martin walked so Barack could run
Barack ran, he ran and he won
So that all our children could fly
The original quote from which these lyrics derive is: “W.E.B. Dubois taught so that Rosa Parks could take a seat. Rosa took a seat so we all could take a stand. We all took a stand so that Martin Luther King Jr. could march. Martin marched so Jesse Jackson could run. Jesse ran so Obama could WIN.” by Cleo Fields, former Congressman and State Senator from Louisiana
I hadn’t realised that a modern art museum was so versatile and this one is well worth a few hours of your time.
One of the best things about San Fran is its transport system – $2 gets you a ticket on a Muni bus or a street car and you can use it for up to 90 minutes which allows you to transfer along routes. Or you can buy a passport for the day or several days which allows you to use the cable cars as well. In this way I got to the Golden Gate Park, which is too far to walk to from the city, and spent another day wandering around the grounds, the lovely Victorian Conservatory as well as the Californian Academy of Sciences – well worth the entry price for the Planetarium alone. And a great place to go when it rains, as it sometimes does in winter.
Sorry Mama Cass, it’s not always warm in California.
The Coit Tower, a 210 foot high Art Deco landmark in North Beach is another good place to go. You can get there by a steep walk up some steps or a #39 bus up Telegraph Hill – famous for its wild parrots, though I didn’t see any. The views are good from the base of the tower, but I urge you to go inside to look at the wonderful murals painted by artists who studied under Diego Rivera, before paying $5 to go up in a rickety lift to the top, where you have 360°panoramic views of the city and bay. Incredible!
North Beach is the Little Italy of San Francisco and full of hundreds of stores that specialize in breads, speciality meats, olive oils, chocolates, coffee roasting and pastries. You can even do a Food Walking Tour here to sample the tastes of the neighbourhood and that was very tempting.
The most well-known restaurant is probably “The Stinking Rose” which focuses on garlic infused cooking, including ice-cream. My husband is an ice-cream addict so I must take him there some day.
Happy to amble amidst all the wonderful smells I eventually came across a mural – “The Wall of Sound” by Bill Weber on the corner of Columbus, Broadway and Grant and then I found the mural in Kerouac Alley on the Café Vesuvio near the City of Lights Bookshop – a great bookshop if you are into the “beatnik” generation, progressive politics and poetry. The area around Broadway is very seedy though, due perhaps to the number of “adult” clubs in the street.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a ‘marmite’ area, I happen to like it and always stay there as it is close to good transport links and the bay. It is full of entertainers – musicians, artists, jugglers, mime artists, singers, face painters and people creating animals with balloons, etc. There was even a “bush” man who hid behind some shrubbery and then he used to leap out at unsuspecting tourists giving them a fright and coercing a bit of spare change from them. And lots of Dungeness crab, and sour dough…the sound of seagulls, and the smell of the ocean.
I enjoyed my second visit to San Francisco; the city welcomes you with open arms and that’s just the street beggars of which there are many. The Tenderloin is one neighbourhood to steer clear and surprisingly it’s not that far away from Union Square. SOMA – south of Market (Street) is another, and though you will find the homeless sitting or lying all over the city they are probably not the ones to be most wary of.
As the visit came to an end I left San Francisco thinking that I knew her pretty well now. So far she hadn’t disappointed me, though I still hadn’t got to Haight-Ashbury – another time perhaps.
So what happened on my third visit? Was it a case of too much? Can you get tired of one city? The weather on the whole was better than previously as the Bay area was in the midst of a heat wave in February so it wasn’t that which depressed me.
During the first couple of days I was out in San Mateo so had to access the city by BART from the airport. Maybe this is what changed my view. Coming in from outside the city limits is a bit of an eye-opener. Concrete freeways slice up the hills and divide neighbourhoods and litter is everywhere! Passing through Daly City and looking out at the hillside at the hundreds of box like homes on the hillsides brought back the song “Little Boxes” to mind.
If this song hadn’t been written about this place then it was surely a contender. Later my friend “Google” revealed that the folk singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds had indeed come up with the lyrics when she drove past the post-war developments around Daly City.
The one thing I wanted to achieve on this trip was to visit Mission Dolores or Misión San Francisco de Asís located at the crossroads of the City’s Mission District, Castro District, the Lower Haight, Noe Valley, and Upper Market Street neighbourhoods. I have developed a ‘
bit of a thing‘ obsession about the Californian missions.
It is the oldest original intact mission in California and the oldest building in San Francisco, but sadly doesn’t seem to attract that many tourists, possibly because it is somewhat out of the usual tourist areas of the city.
Exiting the BART at 16th Street Mission, I had my next shock. The area was full of homeless people, sitting on benches or lying around on the street. Two were having a very animated conversation waving their arms around and shouting. I was a little unnerved.
My original plan had been to cruise around the Mission district which supposedly has an attractive Latin American flavour and contains the largest concentration of murals in the city. It does, and Clarion Alley is a good example. Except it has been rather ruined by random tagged graffiti over the top of the murals and taking out my camera there gave me the jitters. I felt as though I was the only tourist around and my camera was shouting “come and take me”. I stuffed it into my rucksack and left.
The Bay still glitters in the sun, the brightly painted Golden Gate Bridge still majestically spans the bay, cute cable cars still run between Powell and Hyde and Buena Vista still serves the best Irish Coffee, but for me the sparkle has gone.
Endlessly eclectic San Francisco feels a little weary and dilapidated, and in some neighbourhoods she feels positively threatening. The number of homeless has definitely increased, even in such a short space of time – harassing you with their cardboard signs as you emerge blinking into the sunlight from a BART station – and seniors searching through recycle bins for plastic bottles to return at 5c a piece upsets me, thinking about my own elderly parents. Having lunch in a courtyard where a legless man spins his wheelchair around the court asking for a hand-out, makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable and puts me off my meal. The smell of the unwashed on the buses is overpowering.
Watching elderly street performers on the wharf desperately trying to earn a buck or two makes me sad. I know this sounds squeamish and I realise I am being selfish, but this is not my city and not my country and I am not responsible for the mess some of these people have got themselves into, and nor am I responsible for a government that doesn’t properly look after its poor and sick and disabled. I can’t afford to give to all and so I give to none. I resent being constantly harassed and feeling guilty about being here on holiday when being here is obviously no holiday for so many of San Francisco’s inhabitants, suffering the mortification of self-deprecating scrawled cardboard notices while begging on the pavements.
Don’t feed me, feed my Rizla habit
Money for Beer – “No” – Money for tequila, “Yes Please”
San Francisco has the air of a rather faded and jaded movie star. Is this the reality of a former superpower on a historical cusp, the obverse of emerging cities like Brazil and Shanghai? Perhaps it is my own fault – I peeled away the layers, I wandered away from the tourist spots where life is fairly sanitised and the fascination for checking out the all too familiar icons takes precedent. Is my love affair over? Have I lost my rose-tinted glasses?
I think San Fran is a bit like the song “Hotel California” (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave)…and I still never made it to Haight-Ashbury.
This post is a contribution to Fandango’s Flashback Friday. Have you got a post you wrote in the past on this particular day? The world might be glad to see it – either for the first time – or again if they’re long-time loyal readers.