No Escape?

No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a trip to the prison island of Alcatraz – a curious emblem for a city whose brand is based on freedom and opportunity.

My journey starts at Pier 33 and the queues at the ticket office confirm that pre-booking was essential. The Alcatraz Flyer completes the short journey within 20 minutes and on a clear sunny day like today it’s a pleasure to sit on deck and watch the now familiar shoreline fronted by the Embarcadero and topped by the Coit Tower, from a different perspective.

Go directly to jail
Go directly to jail

As Alcatraz looms large it appears to take on a Tracey Island look. At 12 acres the island isn’t massive but is dominated by purposeful looking construction. The water tower in particular has the look of a 1950’s conceived rocket ship.

Thunderbirds are Go!
Thunderbirds are Go!

On arrival I’m surprised to see graffiti daubed on the dockside building. This dates back to 1960s when, following the closure of the penitentiary, the island was occupied by American Indians demanding the return of the land to native peoples. This makes more sense when you understand the long history of displacement of indigenous tribes by latter-day settlers in this area.

Can we have it back please?
Can we have it back please?

After an inordinately long rambling introduction speech from a tour guide visitors are issued with an audio guide and headphones.

The prison was built to inter the hardest criminals and opened in 1934. Incarcerates were hand picked to serve their time here if they had caused problems at other jails or if they were high profile criminals deemed worthy of the tightest level of security. Mobster Al Capone was the highest profile inmate to fall into this category.

I haven’t seen inside any other prisons (honest!) so my judgement may be skewed but the prison experience can’t have been a good one. Three levels of closely packed cells must have made for a hot-house of intensity.

Life on the Jailhouse Rock
Life on the Jailhouse Rock

There was no privacy with “just” bars separating inmates and guards.

Nowhere to hide
Nowhere to hide

The cells themselves were spartan and, should an inmate to be allowed to keep a cat, swinging it would only have made it angry due to the tight dimensions on offer. Of course, nowadays your average London estate agent would pass this accommodation off as offering minimalist light-rich open-plan living in an exclusive location, but, like your average London flat, a spell inside here cannot have been fun.

One bedroom en-suite studio
One bedroom en-suite studio

Given the excitement and dynamism of “America’s favourite city” incarceration on Alcatraz island – a modest giant’s stride from the mainland – must have been incredibly tough on the criminals. They would have clearly seen the harbour lights across the water and at new year wine-soaked celebratory voices would be carried across the water on a favourable wind. Few prisons can have taunted their inmates so much with what they were missing.

So near yet so far
So near yet so far

Everyone knows that Alcatraz’s great claim to fame was its supposed inescapability. A number of attempts were made but the reputation for security was well deserved. Cells have walls on three sides and thick bars on the other. The cell block is secure and the complex surrounded by high walls, barbed wire fences and scrutinised by armed guards posted in lookout towers. Then there’s the fact that the Island is separated from the mainland by treacherous currents. So nobody escaped then…

No Escape?
No Escape?

The authorities would claim so but in 1962 an ingenious escape attempt was made. Three inmates, Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin used modified spoons to remove air vents from their cells and enlarge the holes so they could squeeze their bodies through. Preparations for this must have taken place over some considerable time and cardboard grate covers were made to disguise the ongoing deception while accordion playing drowned out the chiselling.

On the night of the escape papier-mache heads with real hair were positioned in their beds and after squeezing through the air vents the escapees climbed the network of pipes behind their cells to gain access to the rooftop.

They made it as far as the water where they departed the island on improvised rafts fashioned out of a waterproof rain coats. The official line is that they drowned in the bay but the bodies were never found and a popular theory is that they made it ashore and fled to Mexico. We don’t know what happened but without any evidence Alcatraz still claims to have never lost a prisoner. Group 4 should take note.


In an effort to prevent prisoners planning breakouts some measures were taken to make life inside tolerable for the “guests”.

Letting off steam
Letting off steam

The recreation yard was cramped but afforded inmates fresh air and exercise – much valued privileges. All sorts of games were invented in an environment where boredom was the enemy. A policy was adopted to provide a superior quality of prison food in order to maintain morale.

Diet of crime
Diet of crime

This simple measure probably made a lot of difference to lifers who would have had experienced worse fare in other joints. The menu was undoubtedly better than the inedible guff doled out on my American Airlines flight UA0959 a few days earlier. That said, unlike the canteen at Alcatraz, my aircraft wasn’t equipped with tear gas cannisters that the flight attendants could set off at the first sign of unrest. It’s my guess that American Airlines only baulked at this on the basis of cost however.

Still better than airline food
Still better than airline food

The island wasn’t just home to the criminals. A community of prison guards and their families also lived here and children would catch a boat to the mainland each day to attend school. The old staff houses are in a varying state of repair but gardens testify to the contrasting existences for these two communities, separated in freedom and lifestyle like peoples either side of the Berlin Wall.

Guardeners World (sorry...)
Guardeners World (a criminal pun…)

It’s hard to imagine life on the domestic side of the divide now that the island is populated only by colonies of sea birds. People say the complex feels spooky. I don’t know about that but it certainly doesn’t lack in atmosphere and any visitor would be leaden hearted not to visualise life as an inmate and feel a pang of hopelessness.

Abandon all hope...
Abandon all hope…

My visit has lived up to the hype and this is certainly a must-do activity if you are in the area. I can’t help thinking that Alcatraz was intended more as a statement of authority by the government ahead of a truly efficient addition to the prison system infrastructure. The irony is that since closing in 1963 its re-emergence as a film set and tourist attraction has transformed it into a true asset for San Francisco. I wonder what the old lags think of that…

Welcome to Fog City

Once every year or two I make it to some place so overwhelmingly fascinating that there isn’t enough time to transcribe all of my collected thoughts and feelings into any organised blog format. Last year I was completely blown away by my visit to South Tyrol and that never made it online. This April having found myself in San Francisco I pledged to try to carve out some lucid narratives from this immersive pea soup of a city.

Pea soup is a good place to start seeing that SF is referred to locally as “Fog City” on account of its routine morning envelopment in the clouds that roll across the bay. This moniker seemed apt even as my plane descended over the bay, although it was actually cloud cover that lent the effect of glowing circuit boards through a dry ice mist, like some opening sequence to a film in the Blade Runner genre.

San Francisco opening credits
San Francisco opening credits

Prior to my departure I realised that I was casually aware of more points of interest in this city than almost any other US city, perhaps barring New York – my only previous US destination. Here’s a list of things most people in a British high street might have heard about:

WordCloud

About how many other US cities can you name eight defining characteristics? This is a multidimensional city in the truest sense, and over the week I came to realise that these headlines barely scratch the surface. I’ll aim to share some of my experiences with you…

As a visitor the first thing that strikes you is the hills. Having studied in Sheffield I know what a hill looks like but SF seems to consist entirely of them and they can be crampon necessitatingly steep. It takes a stubborn insistence to persevere with the US grid system in such terrain but I’m glad they did because of the many fabulous viewpoints you get from hilltops down the plumb-line straight Romanesque roads.

All roads lead to Alcatraz
All roads lead to Alcatraz

Another side effect of “mountain living” is a local regulation that requires all parked cars to point their wheels into the curb, as a failed hand break here is going to end badly.

Hand brakes need a hand
Hand brakes need a hand

Not that there’s necessarily a need for a car here as there’s a pretty good public transport system within the city area at least. Aside from the regular bus and tram options there are three charming “Cable Car” routes whereby 100 year old wooden Street Cars are hauled along rails via a subterranean moving cable that the driver engages to or disengages from to effect movement. It’s astonishingly simple and effective.

Rules of engagement
Rules of engagement

Once a staple of public transport but now used mostly by tourists a trip on these venerable old timers is certain to plant a broad smile on your face.

The old ways are best
The old ways are best

The service started 140 years ago and it is remarkable to think that the United States didn’t exist 100 years prior to the opening of this line. Just as impressive is that the cars manage to ascend these inclines at all and what a pleasure to be able to stand on a running board with the wind in your hair as the car clangs it’s way from Union Square and on up toward Chinatown.

Springtime cherry blossom in Union Square
Springtime cherry blossom in Union Square

The sun is out in Union Square and so is the cherry blossom. This is the kind of urban escape that so attracts city workers, offering a space to unwind during a lunch break, meet friends, read a book or sit down with a coffee and watch the world go by. The clang of the street car bell is meant to alert pedestrians but I suspect locals consider it more a comforting anchor to the history of this resilient city – a soundtrack to San Francisco.

Welcome to Chinatown
Welcome to Chinatown

As the street car hauls itself up the hillside I know we are approaching Chinatown before the red lanterns come into view because there are strained strains of what turns out to be an old man attempting to play unsuitable western music on his Ehru stringed instrument. It’s charming for the first 3 seconds but he sticks at it. Even in the depths of the most awful tat shops selling alcatraz fridge magnets I can make out the refrains of Happy Birthday and (inexplicably in April) We wish you a merry Christmas. Then there’s a gunshot followed by silence. In my murderous head.

I'll give you a tip: Stop playing
The cat strangler of Chinatown

Chinatown is kind of what I expect, and highlights for me were the grotesquely tasteless furniture shops (glass table suspended on dolphins anyone?) and the elderly Chinese people chatting away in the street. The fruit and fish shops were a fascination also, although I remain mystified that a community can sustain so many self service laundries…

Kitty heaven
Kitty heaven

Onwards and upwards, the steep incline leads onto the North Beach district which has an altogether different feel. The area has packed in a lot of history. It once attracted leading figures from the beatnik generation including Jack Kerouac and though these times are long gone they are not forgotten. Many famous people have lived here including celebrity couple Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Today it’s the strong Italian character that dominates although not in the same overtly tacky way I experienced in Manhattan three years ago.

A strong cultural identity
A strong cultural identity

The Italian community has been here for many generations and it’s just like any other pleasant neighbourhood except with cafes, restaurants and churches you might expect in the grandmother country.

St Peter and Paul catholic church
St Peter and Paul catholic church

The coffee houses and pizza outlets here are superior and numerous. They provide fuel for the final ascent up the now impossibly steep Filbert Street leading to Telegraph Hill. Here you can catch far reaching views between the trees to skyscrapers, endless blocks of low-rise, the bay bridges and – just about – Alcatraz. Atop the hill stands the iconic Coit Tower built in 1933, a lookout post funded by the remarkable Lillie Coit who left funds for the development in thanks to SF fire fighters.

Vying for attention, a hippy lady interspersing flute music with poetry reading in the vain attempt to connect to bemused tourists onlookers who weren’t really getting it. Sharing her astral plain nearby a bearded man tries to engage passers by in environmental discussion while wearing a cardboard tree secured to his head with a band. This side show makes for an entertaining departure and hints at an environmental subculture in these parts. It may also be a sign that light drug use has finally caught up with these two.

If you're going to San Francisco...
If you’re going to San Francisco…

A steep walk down the steps leading east of Telegraph Hill reveals an unexpected delight and perhaps the highlight of an already dazzling day. A tree shrouded corridor links the gardens of beautiful wooden hillside homes into a hidden kingdom of tranquillity, light years from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. A local man encourages me to explore a small communal garden and as I sit on a bench amidst flowers interspersed with quirky ornamentation a cacophonous series of squawks herald the arrival of vivid green and red parrots. My, what a racket, but they are as beautiful and characterful as they are rumbustious.

House on the hillside
House on the hillside

I later learn that these are famous fellows, immortalised in Mark Bittner’s film “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”. This retrospective research also leads me to think that the man who welcomed me to this magic grotto was – Mark Bittner. And then – a sublime moment to cap it all. The parrots have departed leaving only the sound of wind in the trees and a shaft of warm sunlight beams generously through the treetops into my little world, where I am joined by the tiniest lightest hummingbird. It hovers for a few seconds, wings ablur, body stationary, as if pausing for thought, before darting off in pursuit of early afternoon nectar from the intensely perfumed orchids dotted around in the undergrowth. Did that just happen?