San Francisco Treat

Posted May 8th, 2009 at 4:24 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck, the great American novelist, wrote, “San Francisco put on a show for me.” And it is still true much of the time, though perhaps a little less predictably, for the countless visitors to California’s “City by the Bay” today. There are still plenty of geological and meteorological curiosities, examples of iconic architecture, and delightful eccentricities. But also a growing shabbiness that I hadn’t noticed on previous visits.

Since San Francisco is a city of hills, there are plenty of good vantage points to photograph the skyline

Anyone who has spent much time in San Francisco understands its enticing ambiance: the dappled lemon light or the swirling summer fog rolling, in Steinbeck’s words, “like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city’; the pelting rain or the multiple rainbows that burst above at once through the streaming sunshine. And there is the city’s unique topography of roller-coaster hills and lush green parks, and the dignified and tightly packed “painted lady” houses, rouged in creams, pinks, and roses. As O. Henry, the famed short-story writer, so scrupulously pointed out: East is East “and West is San Francisco” ─ a city that, even more than star-studded Los Angeles, seems to encourage people to “do their own thing.”

While the rest of California curls around it, San Francisco is tightly compressed onto a 121-square-kilometer (46.6-square-mile) peninsula. Thus San Francisco can only go up, not out, and that’s a twofold problem:

The populace likes things as they are and doesn’t want a lot of new buildings ─ especially high-rises. And there’s the little matter of earthquakes. More about them in a bit.

This is a classic San Francisco view, showing handsome row houses against a backdrop of the cityscape

San Francisco’s compactness makes it a frightfully expensive place to live, and certainly to buy a home or rent an apartment. Yet almost no incentive could lure the city’s citizens to the suburbs. “It’s so livable,” San Franciscans say. Behind the Victorian doorways are some of the most creative living arrangements in the nation: opposite and same-sex partnerships, roommate groupings of all descriptions, and fewer nuclear families than in other American cities. Fewer than half the married heterosexual couples in town have children, and schools are relatively lightly populated. Adult San Franciscans seem especially dedicated to careers, avocations, club memberships, entrepreneurship, and cultural affairs.

It’s doubtful that these beautiful hotels and office buildings along the Embarcadero would not had risen had an ugly freeway run along the path

While most Californians drive cars that belch exhaust, San Franciscans whir about on electrified trolleys, motorless cable cars, and gliding BART subway trains. And bicycles, even on those hills. Although every house and every place of business in the city’s 20 or so neighborhoods seems to have one or more cars squeezed in front of it ─ with wheels angled to the curb to prevent run¬aways down the pitched avenues ─ trucks are a rarity, and traffic moves rather briskly. One or two freeways lurk among the city’s eucalyptus trees ─ outraged citizens scuttled another one destined for the Embarcadero, the long roadway along the Bay ─ but they use them mainly for jaunts to the airport, nearby wine country, or to Southern California’s cities and desert. In town, they dash up and down the city’s 43 identifiable hills ─ two of the hills present a 31.5 percent grade! ─ usually without much complaint.

Per capita, San Francisco has twice as many neighborhood restaurants as New York, and San Franciscans spend more money each year dining out than do residents of any other American city. One can go from high tea to dinner featuring every cuisine from Zairian to ancient Mesopotamian ─ American chain fast-food joints are rare. They also enjoy a seemingly infinite supply of laundries, corner pubs, coffee and “smoothie” bars, body-piercing parlors, and eclectic art galleries.

This is one of the newest additions to San Francisco’s museum scene. It’s the Academy of Sciences’ “living roof” with biotic domes that metaphorically lift a piece of the park and put a building underneath it

By the way, the city should always be called “San Francisco,” not “San Fran” or “Frisco,” if you want to keep peace with a native. The city and its people consider themselves too civilized to accept a nick¬name. Surprisingly for a Californian city, there are tens of thousands of indigenous San Franciscans to be found, even several generations of them. San Francisco remains the magnet, the crown jewel, the place with “character,” although surrounding Bay Area cities have added a museum here, a gallery there, a restaurant row, a glittering new skyscraper, or a hockey team. San Francisco’s ballet company, for instance, is the nation’s oldest, second-largest, and among the most enthusiastically supported and endowed. Quite simply, San Francisco is “The City” for 10 million people from California’s agricultural Central Valley to the Oregon line.

Uniquely, San Francisco is also the nation’s most tolerant urban place. The city openly encourages mixed-race and homosexual pairings. Indeed, in 2004 in a stunning act of civil disobedience by a top elected official, Mayor Gavin Newsom directed city agencies to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; that lasted a month until state courts put a stop to the practice.

The Castro Theater is more than a movie theater. It’s a center of activity in the largely gay Castro District

Beginning with its acceptance of homosexuals forced out of the military services during World War II, as well as those who had endured “gay bashings” in other cities around the country, San Francisco ─ and especially the Castro neighborhood out toward Twin Peaks on Market Street ─ became universally recognized as the nation’s gay capital. It was here that the sewing of the gigantic AIDS memorial quilt sponsored by the NAMES Project ─ perhaps the largest community art project in the world ─ began in 1987 and continues today. Estimates of the actual number of openly gay citizens in San Francisco vary, but they have become a powerful, entrenched political and social force here as nowhere else in America. The presence of 100,000 or more avowed gay individuals also accounts for the remarkable percentage of single people in San Francisco (at or above 40 percent in most surveys).

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside Asia

The clout and power of another minority group, the Asian community, is also growing strong in San Francisco. Asians outnumber blacks in San Francisco by more than two to one ─ and Hispanics by the same margin ─ and many forecasters predict that they will be the city’s largest ethnic group by 2020. In many neighborhoods outside Chinatown, Asian banks and restaurants offering “fusion” Asian-American or Asian-European cuisine are flourishing. In addition, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians have swelled the number of Asians beyond the confines of Chinatown and Japantown.

The Peace Pagota in the city’s Japantown neighborhood was a gift from San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka, Japan, in 1968

San Franciscans bemusedly tolerate an endless variety of entertainment presentations, streetcorner evangelists, motorcycle menageries, and the gaggles of beggars and sleeping-bag assemblages on the streets and in the parks. Driving through Golden Gate Park the other day, Carol and I noticed a well-dressed drummer, whacking away on a full set of snare drums, in a field far from anyone who could toss him a coin. “Only in San Francisco,” we both remarked.

Someone took an old hotel in a rundown part of town to display funky “art” out of several windows. But the street scene below, of grimy homeless people sleeping on grates, is anything but artistic

The homeless situation, however, is beginning to wear on the patience of even San Franciscans. For reasons (other than that tolerance) that no one can seem to explain, since San Francisco is no balmy place to spend a night on the street, the city is a magnet for homeless people, and the many missions can hardly keep up with the demand for beds and services. San Francisco’s own daily newspaper, the Chronicle, has referred to the situation as “squalor in the streets,” adding that the city budgets more than $200 million annually to address the problem. Tourists leaving even the finest hotels downtown find themselves stepping around and over a sad assortment of the displaced. It is disconcerting to sightsee and conduct ordinary business among people who are swilling alcohol, begging, relieving themselves, cursing and shouting and talking to their demons. “You walk down Market Street and step over comatose bodies, debris and human waste,” the Chronicle quoted a visitor. “It’s just not a pleasant experience.”

The problem only intensifies, critics say, because the city is committed to “breaking the cycle of homelessness” rather than instituting a New York City-style sweep to rid the streets and parks of people wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags. More recently, locals blame the charismatic, 41-year-old Mayor Newsom, who, they say, is spending too much time out of town, talking up his run for governor, than tending to business back home.

You’d never know that a counter-culture revolution, albeit brief, took place at this corner and in nearby parks

But San Francisco’s fabled tolerance does not always equal permissiveness. After the beatnik craze of the 1950s in North Beach (only in San Francisco could one attend a “Be-in”), the neighborhood around the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in the 1960s became the center of San Francisco hippie “flower power.” But it was purged of most vagrants and drug dealers when the Haight’s “peace and love” devolved into decadence and violence. Tour buses still roll along Haight Street, and visitors can still spot a few “head shops” that sell hashish pipes and patchouli oil for incense burners. Otherwise, the little shops and Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream parlor look no different than stores elsewhere in town.

Most San Franciscans loathed the Transmerica Tower when it was designed and built. Now, they adore it

So many interest groups have coalesced ─ around issues, causes, ethnic groups, and sexual orientations ─ and grown in political power in San Francisco that any change can trigger paroxysms of protest, even over such minor issues as the closing of a tattered greasy spoon or the removal of a single parking space. For example, in 1971 many San Franciscans mightily opposed, then jeered as unsightly, the 260-meter (853-foot), pyramidal Transamerica Corporation building that rose on Montgomery Street ─ the “Wall Street of the West.” Of course, that tower ─ along with the city’s cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Colt Tower ─ is now one of the most treasured and photographed landmarks in San Francisco.

The Golden Gate Bridge is said to be the most-photographed structure on earth

A heavily unionized city (even body piercers have a union), San Francisco is accustomed to perennial civic and labor unrest. The people of the city accept this as a tolerable price for its numerous charms: the freshest seafood, sourdough bread, and exotic international cuisines; (nippy) ocean bathing; world-class theater and art, ballet and opera; the lushest landscaped parks west of Philadelphia; and everyday vistas that prompt even lifelong San Franciscans to gasp in amazement. In 1997 the Chronicle extolled the “glory of living anywhere in the Bay Area,” where there is always a convenient peak offering a spectacular view. “From the hilltops,” gushed the newspaper, “the congestion that makes metropolitan life maddening becomes invisible.”

San Francisco temperatures, while averaging out to a pleasant sixty degrees or so, can swing wildly with no notice. “The coldest winter I ever spent,” goes one refrain, “was a summer in San Francisco!” Spared the desert winds that can sizzle Southern California, San Franciscans swelter only in late September and early October’s Indian Summer, when the air is mysteriously still and humid. Otherwise, dressing in layers is wise advice, for a toasty day can turn dank and frigid in an instant when the fog rolls in. How foggy does it get, and how often? It’s notable that there are 26 separate foghorns and other fog signals in the San Francisco Bay alone. In wintertime, waves of rainstorms sometimes roll off the ocean, to be followed by inexplicable periods of climatological perfection.

Perfection? What about those earthquakes? Only tourists ask such questions, as natives are calmly stoical on the subject. Their attitude is: “What will be will be.” However, that has not stopped them from strengthening the city’s buildings or nailing bookcases to the wall, or staying clear of grocery stores and pottery shops when the occasional temblor turns one’s footing to jelly.

Citizens wearily admit that San Francisco lies within trembling distance of not only the great San Andreas Fault but also several parallel fault lines in the earth’s crust. You’ll sway 10 feet at the top of a downtown skyscraper during a quake. (On a previous trip to town, Carol and I stood on the roof of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, high, high above San Francisco. Carol was photographing the skyline, but all either of us could think about was earthquakes.)

The Great Quake of 1906 left little standing in the eastern part of the city. Masonry structures, including grand hotels, collapsed, and fires consumed wooden buildings

Yes, the Great Quake of 1906 killed perhaps 1,000 people (the actual number is inexact because many undocumented residents were killed in Chinatown) and destroyed nearly every structure east of Van Ness Avenue. “City practically ruined by fire,” read the last message coming from the city’s main telegraph office nine hours after the quake. “No water. It’s awful.”

But it was the fires from ruptured gas mains and fallen lanterns, not tremors or giant cracks in the earth, that produced such horrific loss of life. What about the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 that flattened part of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, darkened the city for days, and sparked fires that consumed much of the Marina District? More lessons learned, say the natives. And what about the “Big One” that many seismologists believe to be inevitable, perhaps in the foreseeable future? Would downtown skyscraper office space have quadrupled in 20 years if smart money were worried about such things?

What will he will be.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, gorgeous at dusk, wasn’t so attractive after whole chunks collapsed in a devastating earthquake in 1989

Ferries at one time carried 50 million passengers annually from one point to another across the Bay. In its heyday, the great 1898 Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, with its familiar clock tower and steel-framed concrete piers, was the busiest transportation terminal in America. However, with the opening of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936, ferries no longer served as the only link across the Bay. And when the Golden Gate Bridge was finished a year later, a trip up U.S. Highway One no longer required a ferry crossing from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Marin County shore. The bridge, which can sway more than 7.5 meters (25 feet) in a gale, rise two meters due to expansion on a hot day, and drop five meters on a cold one, is a triumph of modern engineering—especially considering the swift currents of the 200-foot-deep water below. So popular is the Golden Gate Bridge today that one survey found it was the No. 1 attraction among foreign visitors to the United States.

This old postcard shows Mission Delores, one of a string of Catholic missions built up and down the coast when California was part of Mexico

To go back the city’s beginnings, in the 1500s, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing under the Spanish flag, and Sir Francis Drake, the British explorer, both managed to miss San Francisco Bay as they poked around the California coast ─ perhaps because of the fog. It would not be until 1769 that the first Spanish galleon sailed into the bay that American adventurer John C. Fremont would later call “the Golden Gate.” Seven years later the first Spanish colonists arrived from Mexico. They established a presidio (fort), a mission (one in a string of 21 along El Camino Real ─ the Royal Highway ─ from San Diego to Sonoma), and a pueblo adobe village.

Not until Mexico gained control of California many years later did the settlement get a name, Yerba Buena (“Good Herb”) ─ not San Francisco, honoring the Franciscans’ founder. The Spanish paid the place little mind save to keep a wary eye on the Russians, who had established a thriving trading post 111 kilometers (60 miles) north at Fort Ross. Besides, the land surrounding Yerba Buena was largely covered with sand, including gigantic dunes stretching six miles from the ocean, clear across the peninsula.

By the time Mexico lost California to the United States in 1848, following a brief and disastrous war over Texas, Americans had already settled much of Northern California and changed the city’s name to coincide with the name of the bay that surrounded the peninsula.

In 1897, streetcars ─ not cable cars ─ rumbled near a new monument marking California’s admission to the Union in 1850

San Francisco became a port of moderate importance with about five hundred souls, and 150 buildings and tents. But in 1848, James Marshall, a sawmill operator, found gold on a farm owned by John Sutter more than a hundred miles (almost 200 kilometers) away in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. The discovery quickly ended the city’s days as a muddy shantytown, where one downtown corner was marked with a sign reading, “This street impassable, not even jackassable.” Gold fever, too, quickly roused interest in full-fledged statehood for California. After vigorous debate over whether the territory should enter the Union as a free or slave-holding state, California was admitted as a free state in 1850. In the two years that followed, 125,000 more Americans left their homes in search of the Spanish Conquistadors’ elusive City of Gold, making the arduous journey across the continent, by ship around Cape Horn, or over the swampy Isthmus of Panama and then by ship to San Francisco. Ironically both Sutter, the owner of the mill on which gold had been discovered, and Marshall, the discoverer, would die penniless after the frenzied prospectors overran the goldfield.

Though not a nugget of gold was ever unearthed in San Francisco, it was the City by the Bay that was transformed into the true City of Gold. San Francisco supplied the transportation, foodstuffs, clothing ─ including Levi Strauss’s blue-denim work pants with copper buttons and rivets ─ tools, whiskey, bawdy entertainers, and financing that fueled the boom.

These were raucous times, during which the city’s abundance of singular characters and unconventional lifestyles was most likely born. Boom times, too, from which emerged a self-confident, world-class city that could afford to create Golden Gate Park, a giant horticultural showcase atop those dunes in the western part of the city. In 1894, Golden Gate Park was the site of the first of three great San Francisco world’s fairs.

One of San Francisco’s favorite tourist attractions, the cable car, turns around prior to another ascent of one of the city’s steep hills

Mobility around the city was greatly enhanced with the development of the cable car ─ the ingenious invention of Andrew Hallidie, a transplanted Englishman who was already making cable for use in the mines. After he successfully demonstrated that streetcars might traverse the city’s hills by simply grabbing on to an endlessly moving cable running beheath the street in 1873, eight separate cable-car companies sprang up, and the idea was copied in cities from Sydney to Washington. Not just the middle class benefited from the cable cars. So did the wealthy who built mansions on Nob Hill and financed housing developments in what would otherwise have been inaccessible hillside areas.

The stunning building that houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit opened in 1905 and survived the Great Quake a year later

These were the days when San Francisco was by far the dominant city of the West Coast ─ Los Angeles was little more than a sleepy citrus center. The early years of the 20th Century in San Francisco were marked by the explosive growth of unions, built upon resentment of the city’s capitalist elite. Strikes, rioting, wild newspaper wars, and waves of reform swept the city. Then came the terrifying ’06 Quake that would destroy four-fifths of the city and leave an estimated 250,000 residents homeless. But within three years thousands of homes and businesses were rebuilt, and as a symbol of its rebirth, San Francisco’s flag features a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Alcatraz Island, whose federal prison was deemed “escape proof” because of the cold, fast-moving waters of the bay, looms behind Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill

Along came the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and the art deco Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Offshore, Alcatraz Island ─ long a military prison ─ was turned over to the Federal Government to house the “worst of the worst” federal prisoners. Such infamous criminals as Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Baby Face” Nelson, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Robert Stroud were among the new inmates.

This is one of 20 or so murals painted on fences and garages in a Mission District street called “Balmy Alley”

The years since World War II have solidified San Francisco’s reputation as a cultured, comely, and occasionally kooky place. The beatniks were followed, in the 1960s, by the New Left protesters ─ centered, actually, across the Bay in Berkeley ─ the hippies, and the psychedelic “San Francisco Sound” rock groups like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Writer Joan Didion wrote that San Francisco was the flash-point of the nation’s “social hemorrhaging” during the hippie years. Then in 1978 came citywide disquiet following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay supervisor, by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor. White and Milk seemed to embody the fractiousness of San Francisco politics, as each represented a different ward and vocal constituency. ‘William Saroyan once described San Francisco as “an experiment in living.”

This is San Francisco new and old. Both are beloved

San Francisco might give Paris and Venice a run as the world’s favorite city. No visit seems to cover it all. When one must leave, it’s with the feeling of privilege at having met this unforgettable grande dame. Suave yet naughty, winsome yet brawling, seagazing as well as seagoing, courtly yet avant garde, San Francisco seizes the senses. Tony Bennett, the great crooner, in his famous rendition of the song about this city, left his heart here. It’s little wonder, for, even in its current run of frowziness, San Francisco is a siren, whose song once heard is not forgotten.

Red Rockin’

On one of our stops heading east from San Francisco, Carol got the chance to snap some lovely photographs in and above Sedona, Arizona, an increasingly popular resort area tucked in a valley below some stunning red-rock formations. I thought you might like to see some of her images, so Internet guru Anne Malinee has replaced Carol’s slide show in the column to the right with her Sedona photos.

Got Some ID, Bud?

Finally, in my last opus about the evils of air travel, I forgot to mention a brief but charming moment during our layover in Los Angeles. While Carol was tapping away on her computer, I strolled down the concourse to a little burrito joint and ordered a beer. The perky waiter, about my age, looked at me with what I thought was a twinkle in his eye, and said, “See your ID?” “Yeah, right, sure,” I replied with a chuckle, since it’s been a couple of generations of time since I’ve been “carded” to be sure I was old enough to buy alcohol.

“Seriously,” the waiter replied. I pointed to my gray hair and his, but he just shrugged his shoulders. “Policy,” he said. “Everybody shows ID. Saves us the hassle.” I fished out my license, he gave it the most cursory examination in alcohol-regulation history, and I got my beer. And it put perhaps a bit more spring in my step the rest of the day.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Frowziness. Shabbiness, down on its luck.

Hippies. A youth subculture, originating in San Francisco in the 1960s. These “flower children” sang of peace and love, but much of their utopian innocence was lost when drugs infested the movement.

Please leave a comment.

Share and Enjoy:

co.mments digg Furl Ma.gnolia NewsVine Reddit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


May 2009
« Apr   Jun »