In a former life I had the curious experience of living in Milton Keynes for 14 months. Curious because as a New Town it was built from scratch 45 years ago around the American grid and block system of town planning, in stark contrast to the windy roads and mish-mash of housing you typically find in Britain owing to a millennia of urban evolution.
On this basis alone the archetypal San Francisco grid system should have seemed familiar to me, but not so. The districts of Milton Keynes differed quite subtly to this outsider in terms of demographic and if you had dropped me somewhere blindfolded I would not have known which district I was in. The regions I visited in SF on the other hand seemed to have much stronger identities, perhaps owing to their relative maturity.
In my previous San Francisco blog I described my experiences in Chinatown and the Italian North Beach district – areas defined by their distinct national identity. I followed them up with visits to areas strongly defined by other demographics such as sexual identity and wealth. Come on MK – get with it! (Cue the complaints…)
On arrival in Castro it turns out I knew more about the place than I had realised. Castro can arguably claim to be not only the LGBT capital of SF but the gay capital of America. Having watched the excellent film Milk a few years ago I should probably have remembered this. The film documents the life of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay politician who lived in Castro and championed gay rights in the 70’s, becoming a figurehead for the community until his assassination in 1978.
His legacy is there to be seen. Over four decades later and the largest gay community in the country just seem to get on with their lives without a whole lot of fuss, and shouldn’t that be the end-game for any revolution? Sure I saw plenty of LBGT businesses but not so many rainbow flags and I was left wondering whether they had just simply moved on. After all, in a gay community where acceptance is the norm who needs a flag? What statement do you need to make and to whom? I found it all most reassuring.
A few blocks to the north you become aware of a gradual hippification. This is the Mission District, once described as The New Bohemia on account of the increasing number of creative types and alternative lifestylers setting up home there. Here it seems, anything goes. Many street corners in SF carry the aroma of cannabis and it took a while to realise that the drug is legal here. In The Mission you can inhale it for free by just standing still.
We visited this laid back area on a Sunday but I can imagine that every day might feel like a Sunday here. Carmen thought she saw Carlos Santana during our visit and my doubts were quashed when uncle google later confirmed that the musical superstar is in fact a local resident. Shakira and Beck also hail from these parts, while artists of the visual kind also ply their trade here.
A chance encounter with Clarion Alley literally illustrated the artistic leanings within the local community. This feature sums up the communal intent quite succinctly.
The murals were attracting a lot of viewers and a camera crew were taking an interest around the corner.
Political statements mingled with … well, who knows…
This one would have made a decent Yes album cover
The artwork wasn’t restricted to Clarion Alley. The Woman’s Building – a female owned and operated community centre – was adorned with what they themselves call a MaestraPeace. I found the artwork OTT but there is no doubt that it has certainly put the building on he map.
Onwards and upwards (everywhere is upwards in this city) to the neighbourhood of Alamo Square. Once again in SF you enter a different district and the character changes from one side of the road to the next. Gentrification has attracted the upwardly mobile set – or possibly vice versa. Either way the area feels distinctly middle class and a local bylaw seems to make dog ownership compulsory. Carmen was excited by this.
I can’t over-state the dogginess encountered here up through to Pacific Heights and then down into Cow Hollow toward the bay. This event nicely sums up the local passion for canine company:
…so much so that it was clearly too much for some people. Time for action…
…suitably polite for the respectable residents of these streets, lined with fine wooden Victorian houses and well tended gardens.
As if to cement the area’s pedigree I came across these globe artichokes – growing out of a bed in the sidewalk. I can’t think of a more visual stamp to signify “upper middle class”.
By far the most famous houses here can be found at the summit of the hill next to Alamo Square Park, not to mention on any number of fridge doors around the globe courtesy of their postcard depictions. Aptly coined “Postcard Row” this picturesque line of Victorian homes (also known more decorously as the Painted Ladies) provides a pretty foreground to the high rise skyline of downtown beyond in the distance.
Typically for this roller coaster of a town just when you think you are at the top of the highest summit looking down on the poshest houses a higher and posher neighbourhood comes along.
The wealthy complexion of Pacific Heights is plain to see. Grand period houses are spotlessly maintained and there are a number of foreign embassies and elite schools here.
For all of its polish I can’t really take to Pacific Heights. It’s too perfect. There are too few people on the streets. It’s just too manicured – a place for show rather than for living in. The shops are pretentious and the sort of places that bored wives of stupidly rich men go to for emotionless retail therapy when they aren’t having an affair with their young tennis instructors.
Carmen spotted a pedestrian she recognised from a band and that’s no surprise given the number of successful actors and musicians who call Pacific Heights home. Danielle Steele has a mansion here and with some of the worlds most expensive real estate it’s no wonder there’s a “Billionaires Row”. Pity the poor folk who can only afford to live on Millionaires Row…
Just down the hill towards the bay in Cow Hollow (affluent, but not in the unimaginable realms of Pacific Heights wealth) there are more signs of the dog worship I mentioned earlier. Not one but two bakeries for dogs – bonkers. A number of dog outfitters also…
It seems that people here must have everything they need and so a market has developed for things they really don’t need to satisfy their desire to spend dollars and keep up with the neighbours. I have my own opinion on this…
You may conclude that I’m some embittered socialist for begrudging affluent people their vices but having seen the abject poverty of the tenderloin district a mere 2 miles away I can’t help thinking that they could put their disposable wealth to more compassionate use.
Based on my wanderings it seems that the higher you rise in society here the higher you live. Can physical altitude be proportional to social standing? Maybe it’s as simple as saying that the richest people can afford the best views. Those with money get to live high up. Those without just get high.