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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?