Saturday, October 31, 2009

How the Other Third Lives

Pocket Park, Steiner and Eddy

Date: October 24, 2009
Neighborhoods Covered: Hayes Valley, Lower Haight, Western Addition, Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights, Laurel Heights
Streets Completed: Perine Place, Cherry, Jordan, Commonwealth

To a degree that I don't think is true in other cities, the neighborhoods in San Francisco weave into and out of each other with amazing (and sometimes alarming) ease, their boundaries so elastic as to all but disappear entirely in many cases.

For example, from the park pictured above, you can walk north on Steiner into the heart of several public housing developments, south on the same street toward Alamo Square (with its iconic Painted Ladies and hilltop park), east on Eddy into more public housing and, ultimately, the all-too-human heart of the Tenderloin, or west on same past beautifully maintained, no doubt pricey Victorian homes.

And so it is that on my walk last Saturday, I saw three totally different worlds in the course of a few hours and a few miles. From the hipster, urban, well-off-but-not-insane world of Hayes Valley, I passed through the Lower Haight (more of same, roughly speaking), the eastern side of Alamo Square (wealthier, but still not exorbitant in San Francisco terms), the slightly worse-for-the-wear stretches of public housing in the Western Addition, the getting-richer southern end of Pacific Heights, the no-holds-barred, you-can't-be-serious real estate explosion in Presidio and Laurel Heights, and then that sequence in reverse.

It was, in a word, surreal.

Granted, the Western Addition's cramped projects aren't exactly cheek-by-jowl with, say, the house at Jackson and Cherry that--no joke--takes up the majority of the block. There's a geographic divide between the wealthiest and the least well off, but it's not a huge one. I can't and won't say whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

At any rate, while I'm so used to living amidst the two lower thirds of the city's wealth spectrum that neither the public housing nor the "middle class" homes (I use that term very, very loosely: we're talking about SF, after all, where it's entirely possible for a 1-bedroom condo to run you $799,000), I was stunned by the houses in the collective Heights, and by the neighborhoods themselves.

If, like me, you're accustomed to the look and feel of things in the parts of San Francisco that don't have "Heights" in their names (Bernal being the one exception), it can be jarring to spend time in those lofty neighborhoods. Not only are the houses large (sometimes ostentatiously so: see above) and fancy, but they actually have things like yards, and walls that are not in contact with--or even in proximity to--those of their neighbors' homes. Furthermore, here in the heights there's an almost suburban vibe, with far fewer people on the sidewalks, much less noise, and far less visible activity.

And then there are the holiday decorations. During my tour, a week before October 31, the homes in Presidio and Laurel Heights were what I can only describe as lousy with Halloween decorations. Seriously. Every third house had at least a few token pumpkins or fake gravestones on the lawn, and many of them had enough festive gear to keep those weird Halloween pop-up storefronts in business. It was amusing at first, then slightly bizarre, and then back to amusing. But still a little bizarre. I'm all for holiday spirit; I'm just totally and completely unused to seeing it expressed with such vigor and in such profusion, at least not for this holiday.

Of course, as soon as I headed east on California Street, the decorations (and the giant homes, and the yards to decorate) all but completely fell away. Walking south on Pierce, I glimpsed a few construction paper pumpkins and the like taped to windows, but nothing more elaborate. Though I looked out for festive bits and pieces in Hayes Valley, I saw precisely none.

By the time I was in my own neighborhood once again, I felt like I'd just been jumping around wildly in space and time--from the heart of a city in 2009 to suburbs somewhere else entirely 20 years ago and then back to here and now.

I came home oddly tired.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On the Fort

Fort Mason Chapel

Date: July 11, 2009
Neighborhoods Covered: North Point, Marina
Streets Completed: Shafter, Pope, Franklin, Franklin East, Franklin West, Quadrangle, Bay, Moulton

Faithful Walking San Francisco readers know that I regularly risk looking like I'm lost, vaguely crazy, or up to no good in order to walk streets that aren't necessarily easy to walk. I've stopped counting how many clearly dead-end, one-block streets I've walked, for example, though I have to say that, by this point, I feel like I've mastered a certain air of nonchalance when strolling such streets, as if such a thing might make the folks who see me pass think nothing of my presence. And, of course, I spend a good chunk of each walk on streets that don't even begin to offer me an excuse for being there: no houses, no open businesses, no clear route to somewhere logical.

So it was that I found myself on Saturday fairly literally walking circles through Fort Mason. My intention, which I thought would be easy, was to finish the last little bit of Franklin Street that juts into the fort. Truth be told, had I left it at that, the quest would in fact have been a pretty simple one: walk in, turn around near the flagpole, walk back out. But no.

While I'm here, I thought, I might as well explore a bit and check these other little streets off my list. Based on looking at my map, this seemed like a reasonable thing to do. (This seems to be developing into a theme these days, no?) What the map doesn't entirely get across is how weirdly intertwined these streets are, how they splinter off into echoes of themselves and then into other streets entirely. It's not quite Bernal Heights, but it's also not exactly a model of military precision.

Here I am, for example, having walked to the end of MacArthur (which, of course, is not actually the end, because it picks up again IN THE PRESIDIO, which is all the way across the Marina--seriously, U.S. Army, could you not come up with another war hero to honor with a street?), which leads me to Franklin West, versions 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. I was stubborn enough to walk all of them, which meant passing twice the fellow picking bottles and cans out of the recycling bin behind the Conservation Corps building and passing three times the guy playing football with his kids on the green in the middle of the officers' housing circle. Three. Times. Don't mind me, sir. Nothing to see here.

My seemingly lunatic walking habits aside, though, Fort Mason was a sweet delight. It's one of those parts of San Francisco that feels like it could still be in the 1940s, save for the few signs of modernity (cars, ugly 60s-era block housing for enlisted men, a flag with 50 stars). It was also something of a mini-UN, at least when I was there. In McDowell hall, I saw folks congregating for what looked (based on their dress) like an Indian wedding. On the lawn outside the hostel, a gaggle of 18-to-20-somethings chattered away in French. In the community garden, old Chinese ladies smiled at me as I wandered through the rows shooting photos.

By the time I finally finished the last of my numerous laps to finish every last stretch of street on the fort, I was ready not to be walking anymore, but I had promised myself to finish Bay Street, with the bribe of a cupcake from That Takes the Cake on Union if I did. So I soldiered on through the Marina, around the Palace of Fine Arts, and eventually back, sloggily, across Lombard Street.

The cupcake was worth it, but by the time I finished it I was clearly done for the day, and it was with a weird flash of glee and a big sigh of relief that I boarded the 22 at Union and Steiner and let something other than my own two feet take me home.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Not My Valley

Valley Street

Date: July 6, 2009
Neighborhoods Covered: Noe Valley, Mission (kinda)
Streets Completed: 28th Street, Valley

Sometimes ridiculous things bring me down. The other day, for example, I had dropped some stuff off at Scrap for a client and was driving back toward Bayshore when I passed a furniture outlet of some sort that displayed on the sidewalk out front a loveseat-and-chair set upholstered in a garish floral velour-esque fabric. Most people would simply drive past, think, "Eh, wouldn't want that in my house" (unless they did, in which case I'll just say that our tastes differ), and never think about it again. But not me. Nope, this living room set got me thinking about how there's so much ugly and cheap (and not the good kind of cheap, which is to say inexpensive but not bad) stuff in the world, how maybe someone would buy this terrible set because it was the only thing they could afford, how depressing it would be to live in a house with this furniture, and on and on. This conversation in my head lasted well onto Potrero, which is to say, entirely too long.

Anyway, I thought back to the ugly living room set as I was trudging up Valley Street the other day.

To be clear, Valley is actually a lovely street, as the photo above suggests, and nothing about it smacked of awful furniture. But the farther I got from Church Street, the more I thought, "Wow, I don't think I could live more than a few blocks away from a major street, especially on a hill, because, man, what's around here, anyway?" Cue the tumbleweeds.

Allow me to be the first to admit that this line of logic is jagged at best. In all of what is officially Noe Valley, I don't think it's possible to ever be more than, what, seven or eight blocks from either Church or 24th Street, so it's not like we're dealing with the Outer Sunset here. (Sorry, OS, but it's true.)

But at the same time, Noe Valley is steeply hilly enough that it's easy to feel that you're deep into somewhere other than San Francisco when, in fact, you're on, say, Valley and Castro. The fact that you can see downtown San Francisco glittering in the distance enhances (for me, at least), its not-entirely-city feel. And if I've realized anything about myself by now, it's that I'm a city girl, so the thought of living somewhere that doesn't necessarily feel like it's part of a metropolis kind of sets me on edge.

The flip side of this, of course, is that neither Valley nor 28th featured the hallmarks of many city (and particularly Hayes Valley) streets: no smeared dog poop, no sprinkles of broken glass from busted car windows, no visible grime, no ridiculous tags on things like mailboxes and garbage cans. They did feature plenty of charming houses, and flowers in bloom, and a calming quiet. I can see how they'd appeal to others.

Me, I'll stick with my sweet little urban alley where, for better or worse, it's impossible to feel like I'm anywhere but in the thick of things.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Slips and Tangles

Franconia Street

Date: July 4, 2009
Neighborhoods Covered: Mission, Bernal Heights
Streets Completed: Mistral, Treat, Franconia, Brewster, Macedonia, Wright, York

Here’s what I think happened: when, in the course of San Francisco’s development, it came time to lay out Bernal Heights, a bunch of city planners got together and got wasted. Soused. The sort of drunk that makes things that aren’t especially funny seem hilarious, and that seriously impairs logic and good judgment. And then they planned the streets.

Because how else can we explain the fact that streets like Brewster and Franconia begin and end multiple times? I’m not talking starts and stops and gaps in between; that’s true of many streets in the city (I’m looking at you, Stevenson). I mean they possess more than one “End: Brewster” sign and tangle around madly from start to finish. (Generally, streets begin with “000: Street Name” and terminate in “End: Street Name.” Just once.)

I had a map as I walked yesterday, but really, fat lot of good it did me. What took me into Bernal in the first place was my desire to finish Treat Avenue, which starts (ingloriously) in back of Best Buy and ends halfway up Bernal Hill. Accomplishing this required me to take a detour onto Folsom to cross Cesar Chavez, and then walk along Precita for a block or so. But wait: not the Precita I’d already walked, the Precita on the other side of Precita Park. For the record, I eventually finished this version of Precita, too, even though I am not officially required to walk both sides of a street. (If I were, I’d never, ever be done. Ever.) Because, hey, it was there, and it took me where I needed to go.

Anyway, I got Treat out of the way and then took a look at my map. I noticed a few small streets feeding off of Alabama a few blocks up and headed toward them. First block and a half of Mullen: all good. And then the Franconia steps appeared. A quick glance at the map suggested that I could walk up them, finish off Franconia fairly quickly, and return to where I’d started on Mullen.

In short, I was wrong.

The reality is that Franconia and its neighboring and intersecting streets splinter off in crazy and totally unpredictable ways, as if the drunken city planners decided their routes by tossing a bunch of broken Pick-up Sticks in the air and then tracing around them wherever they landed.

A while back, an astute reader, in response to my perplexion around Stevenson Street’s multiple starts and stops, noted that there was a good chance it was once an unbroken stretch of road, and that the development of the areas through which it runs could likely explain its now-fractured nature. But it seems that the same can’t really be true of the streets in Bernal, because geography gets in the way. It’s not possible, given the rises and falls of the hill, and the patches of forest in between, that, say, Franconia was ever one (even relatively) straight line that was broken up by the arrival of houses. So why maintain the charade of it being a single street? I’m mystified.

At any rate, I made it out of Bernal Heights eventually, and finished a small handful of streets in the process, then reveled in the straight shot that is York Street. (Of course, it’s a crazy tangle in Bernal, but smoothes itself out once it crosses Cesar Chavez.) Through the Mission, I walked to the whines and pops of fireworks, though it was still much too light to actually see them. By the time York ended at Mariposa, though, things went fairly quiet, so it was the strains of X’s “Fourth of July” on my iPod that led me home:

Dry your tears and, baby, walk outside/It’s the Fourth of July.”

Saturday, July 4, 2009

I See Dead People

San Francisco Columbarium, Loraine Street

Date: May 16, 2009
Neighborhoods Covered: Hayes Valley, NoPa, Lone Mountain, Upper Haight, Lower Haight
Streets Completed: Grove, Parsons, Willard North, Edward, Almaden, Loraine, Rossi, Beaumont, Lone Mountain, Oak

One of the things I've enjoyed most about this whole insane venture is coming across parts of the city I not only haven't seen before, but in fact did not know existed. Westwood was a prime example of that, and I experienced a similar frisson of excitement when I came across the tiny streets of Lone Mountain and the shrine to dead people therein.

You may know that, due to its relatively minuscule size, and to the fact that land values are freakin' sky high, the deceased are no longer buried in San Francisco, but are rather interred in Colma, the for-all-intents-and-purposes necropolis just south of the city. (OK, I just exceeded my quota of big words for this post, so henceforth--dammit, I mean from now on--I'll attempt to stick to nothing more than two syllables.) The only visitable cemetary I know of within the City and County of San Francisco is the one in the Presidio, which is reserved for veterans and which, I believe, is full. (As always, you are encouraged not to take my word as the last one on this or any other matters of official San Francisco history. But in this case, I might be at least kind of right.)

Anyway, here I was tooling around Lone Mountain (not, evidently, to be confused with either the Inner Richmond, USF, or Laurel Heights) when I noticed a dome poking out from the end of one of the tiny, single-block streets. I assumed at first that said dome belonged to the Greek church I'd passed while doing the Terra Vista loop a while back, but no. It turned out to be the San Francisco Columbarium--which, it turns out, is a place for the ashes of those who choose to be cremated. Who knew? (Clearly I didn't.)

Though I didn't go inside either of the buidings on the premises, I did spend some time walking around outside, which left me feeling ever-so-slightly creeped out (because, hey, death is death) but mostly pretty peaceful. It's a nice spot, though there's some sort of large-scale construction happening behind it, so who knows how long that'll last. For now, though, it seems a much more preferable option, should you happen to kick in SF, than burial in Colma. No offense, Colma.

I left after a while and kept walking, past baseball games in the nearby park, past a baffling number of classic cars (not gathered in a car show-kind of way, just intermittently parked), up and down the staircases and hills that justify the neighborhood's name. By the time I finally dragged myself to Oak Street to head home, I was exhausted, and the slog up (and down, and up, &c) Oak was, if I may, a pain in the ass.

But still. I thought about the walk, thought about what I'd seen, and remembered why this craziness still seems like a good idea: because sometimes, when I least expect it, I find a columbarium.

Plus Ca Change

Larkin and Broadway (-ish)

Day unknown (I have officially stopped counting; I do know the date, though: April 4, 2009)
Neighborhoods Covered: Civic Center, Tenderloin, Russian Hill, North Point, Polk Gulch
Streets Completed: Larkin, Polk

Those of you with a keen sense of time by now have realized that my Quixotic plan to finish this Walking San Francisco project in a year became null and void approximately, oh, four months ago. There are big swaths of streets I've finished, but there are even bigger swaths I haven't even looked at on my map, let alone set foot on. So the walking continues.

And although I've been hideous about updating this blog for the past *cough cough cough* months, I have actually been walking during that time, though in random spurts. What appears below is the post I meant to put up, oh, 3 months ago. Following this one, I'll post another belated report (from June), and, finally, will get myself up to date by writing about today's walk. Thanks for sticking around.

April 4, 2009
Perhaps because it forms the heart of San Francisco’s Little Saigon, with more small stores and businesses in its southern reaches than its neighboring streets have, Larkin presents less of a Midnight of the Human Soul experience as it wends through Civic Center/the Tenderloin than do Polk Street, to its west, or Hyde, due east.

That’s not to say you’re unlikely to encounter the usual suspects (human and/or animal waste on sidewalks; staggering individuals, possibly dressed in a manner that allows for easy and rapid undressing; grime; &c), but, to Larkin’s credit, they’re slightly less abundant than you might otherwise expect.

As with so many of San Francisco’s streets, both Larkin and Polk hit the extremes of income and, if we might extrapolate, human happiness as they coast from one neighborhood to the next. One the one end, the ‘Loin, where unhappiness and things gone very, very wrong are often on display. On the other, Fisherman’s Wharf via Russian Hill, where you can almost smell the money in the air. (What you smell on the southern end is markedly NOT money.) Roundabouts Geary, things can go fairly rapidly in one direction or the other depending on, well, which direction you take.

My trip up Larkin and back down Polk was in sharp contrast to the last walk through the Tenderloin I did, which was, like the perennial 7th grade challenge, grosser than gross. This time around, things seemed fairly staid and normal. On Larkin, the most excitement I witnessed was a waitress literally running two blocks to hand back a sweatshirt a patron had just left in her restaurant. On Polk, I saw a line of tourists on Segways and mobs of Russian Hill dwellers spilling out of coffee shops and bars all along the street. In all, pretty tame stuff.

My only direct interaction with Polk Street’s seedier side was the young woman, clearly messed up on something, who took way, way too long deciding what kind of donut she wanted at Bob’s (for the record: my pick for best donut in San Francisco). When I finally reached the counter, the woman behind it sighed and said, “She’s not well.”

Luckily, and not surprisingly, the donut was worth the wait, and it made me happy enough that my return trip along lower Polk left me unfazed, standard ‘Loin miseries on display notwithstanding.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Back in the Saddle

Kensington and Ulloa, the day going

Day ??? (I'll get back to you on this)
Neighborhoods Covered:
Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset, West Portal
Streets Completed:
Dorchester, Allston, Granville, Kensington, Claremont

Oh, Walking San Francisco. How I've neglected you. I'll spare you the excuses, both because I'm not entirely sure what they might be (too busy attempting to decipher boys? buried in work? burned out on writing and, why not, while we're at it, walking?) and because they don't ultimately matter all that much. What matters is that, save for a few random smatterings of streets, I've been a lax Walking San Franciscan, and that's not right.

So yesterday I gambled that the fog oozing through the central parts of the city would burn off near the ocean--or at the very least not get any thicker--and decided to stroll a bit of the Great Highway. It wound up being closer to a sprint than a gambol, as I had plans to go hang out with Mary for a few hours and didn't have a lot of time to spare in the interim, but I did manage to cover Fulton to Lawton and back again. Not too shabby for half an hour or so, especially taking into account my initial pit stop at the Beach Chalet.

I was delighted to find that the vest I wore was definite overkill, and that even with the wind coming off the ocean, it was warm and dry. A perfect beach day--or as perfect as they get here, given that, unless you happen to be drunk on youth and beer and the exhilaration of riding a cable car on wheels, you're probably not going to go swimming around these parts.

After I left Mary's later in the afternoon, I decided to walk some more, because the day was still unbelievably nice, and, from 33rd Avenue, the beach seemed like no more than a few blocks away. (And, indeed, heading west--and downhill--on Kirkham, it felt pretty close; the return/eastbound/uphill trip on Lawton was a slightly different story.)

Here's how the Outer Sunset can conspire against you (which is to say, me) on days like yesterday: the sun is so bright and perfect that it actually seems like a gigantic dollop of lemon yogurt, and, as 5 o'clock creeps up on you, the sky deepens just the subtlest bit to the blue of an unvisited hyperlink. Without an iPod singing in your ears, you can hear the ocean well before you reach it, can hear the gulls forming their posses above the dunes, can hear the rhythmic hum of skateboard wheels as neighborhood boys ride in huge, swooping arcs down the middle of the street, pressed on by the slope down to the water.

And in this almost-fantastical proto-Golden Hour, as you pass little beach cottages with sand dollars lined up on their porches and driftwood perched in their windowsills, you feel a tug back to your beachy youth and think, I could live out here. You ignore for the moment the relative dearth of stores, restaurants, non-residential establishments of any sort and just daydream for a while about having a surfer boyfriend and waking out here at the edge of the world every day with the sound of the Pacific in your ears.

But then you remember that this sunny idyll never lasts, and that life out here can be cold and dark and damp for much of the year. Can be and is. And so the OSu becomes like New York: a place you love to visit, and one that seems to be crawling with attractive men (surfers in the former case, cute Brooklyn hipsters in the latter), but not somewhere you'd really be happy to live.

So I walked back uphill, shedding bits of faulty-logic daydreams along the way. Back to the car, then to West Portal to fetch Indian food for dinner. Having to wait 45 minutes for my order was actually a good thing, as it gave me the chance to finish a small handful of the little streets that weave uphill through, for lack of a better description, the Mt. Davidson foothills. At Ulloa and Kensington I stood in the middle of the street for a few minutes and watched the sun set, thinking heavily about how quickly the end of the day is starting to come now. By the time I wended my way back to the restaurant, the sky had gone dark.

Not long after, I stood on the Israeli's front steps in Noe Valley--miles from the ocean, near the crest of a hill--and brushed sand from my toes, then shook out my socks and closed the door behind me.