In early January, Una and I headed north over to San Francisco to visit my sister, who was in town for a conference. I figured it might be a nice opportunity to share some thoughts about “the City.” Since first visiting in 1998, I’ve been to San Francisco many times — and yet, for some reason, I’ve never really thought about subjecting it to the Where Fools Fear To Tread treatment. I’m not entirely sure why — perhaps it’s because I’ve been to it so many times already. I usually reserve sharing my hastily formed impressions of places with which I’m less familiar. After all, being too informed about a subject puts one at dangerous risk of having nothing of interest to say.
It’s certainly not because I never think about San Francisco. Although only the forth most populous city in California, my thoughts certainly turn to it more often than they do larger, closer (and similarly canonized) California cities like San Diego or San Jose. I worked for many years at Amoeba, in Hollywood. I was hired and fired by San Franciscans. Many of my co-workers were San Franciscan — something they seemingly never tired of reminding anyone willing to listen. I also have friends in Los Angeles who dream of moving to San Francisco someday. So far, they’ve only gotten as far as Alhambra — literally a lateral move. Anyway, I drew this map for them so that they could find their way around, should they ever get there. Below is a slightly more useful one.
SAN FRANCISCO AND ME
Growing up in the country, I romanticized cities from afar. I didn’t have a word for it, then, but I was an urbanophile (which the red dotted underline tells me isn’t an actual word). If a book, film, or television series depicted alleys, fire escapes, brownstones, skyscrapers, or taxicabs — I was captivated. Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids, the children’s books of Ezra Jack Keats, and The Wiz, were, to me, what My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite, or G.I. Joe were to other ’80s kids. Growing up outside of a college town in Central Missouri, the only cities with which I had firsthand familiarity were St. Louis and Kansas City — which struck me as very dissimilar places. This is somewhat strange, in retrospect, because I made little effort to differentiate depictions of North American cities in pop culture. The pastel-tinted Miami of Miami Vice was an exception — but Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York City, and San Francisco all easily blended together in my imagination.
I wanted to hit the “fast forward” button on my town, and transform Columbia into a city, although there was little evidence that it was even moving in that direction. Our ten-story Tiger Hotel, built in 1928, had been the first skyscraper built between Kansas City and St. Louis, but decades had passed since then in which a proper skyline should’ve arisen and hadn’t. Instead, we had only a few mid-rise dorms, hospitals, and housing projects. Imagine my excitement when, one day, I saw a sign near Stephen’s College advertising the existence of a subway. Imagine, too, my disappointment when I ran inside but instead of a station platform found only mediocre submarine sandwiches.
I knew a little of San Francisco as a child. I knew from a relatively early age that it was the city with the Golden Gate Bridge although, since I still wonder, I probably wondered then what was so special about that particular suspension bridge. I mean, it’s a lovely bridge but why isn’t Sutro Tower, which rises over the city like Barad-dûr, just as celebrated?
In 1986, I saw Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in the cinema, a film in which the action is set in San Francisco (which is also the home of Starfleet). I’m pretty sure that I knew what Alcatraz was before the 1989 Unsolved Mysteries episode, “Alcatraz,” because what child hasnn’t fantasize about escaping from an island prison? Then there was Rice-A-Roni, a boxed-food mix that advertised heavily on television when I was growing up and, viewers were informed, is “the San Francisco treat.” The jingle for the food product concluded the ring of a trolley bell in case you needed further proof of the advertiser’s claim. And when I was a teenager, I read works by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, having become curious about beatniks and the Beat Generation after reading old issues of Cracked and Mad Magazine in which they were satirized.
I first visited San Francisco with a college friend, Seth, with whom I was driving around the west in a circuitous route that crisscrossed the Plains, the Rockies, and the West Coast of which Jack Kerouac might’ve approved. We visited Seth’s sister, Gina, who lived in, I think, the Castro. When we arrived at her place, we gingerly stepped over a man sleeping in the small foyer of her building. Gina said that he lived there and was nice, or cool, or something to that effect. We later went out. I don’t remember where — but given Gina and Seth’s musical tastes — it was almost certainly a Britpop club. What I do remember, vividly, is eating a massive, foil wrapped Mission burrito afterward. San Franciscans think that everyone has heard of Mission burritos but in reality, almost no one from outside of Northern California has. It was, in fact, the first time that I’d ever even heard of the Mission. The burrito was good, though. In fact, I remember thinking that it was one of the best things I’d ever eaten. We’d almost certainly been drinking beer. Odds are, too, that we’d smoked some cannabis. Those factors, along with the cold and damp weather, certainly elevated my appreciation for this culinary experience. Still, have you ever had a burrito that you remembered eating 25 years later?
The next day we walked through Haight-Ashbury for some reason — probably to “see the sights.” I remember we went to some middle class kids sitting on a sidewalk yelled at me for not wanting to “change the world” by giving them what little money I had in my wallet. We also went to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I bought a Greek Fisherman’s cap and observed the sea lions and their human counterparts. We rode a trolley.
That’s about all we saw during my first visit, as far as I recall, but I’ve been back since. Even though San Francisco is further away from Los Angeles than San Diego, Las Vegas, or even Phoenix — none of those hold for me nearly as much appeal. In fact, if I could avoid ever going to Las Vegas or Phoenix ever again, I’d be completely fine with that. I’ve driven, flown, and taken the train to San Francisco and none of those options are especially appealing. Only truly sick people enjoy the relentless masochistic unpleasantness of airplane travel. The six or so hour drive along Interstate 5 is pretty dull unless you get a thrill from endless ranches punctuated by the occasional truck stop. The train would be the obvious choice if only it took less than twelve hours — and then only got you to Oakland or Emeryville. Someday, I’ll work up the nerve to take a bánh mì bus. What I’m really looking forward too is the California High-Speed Rail line — currently on-track to open in 2033, which by my calculations, means closer to 2043.
We decided, for this trip, to fly from the Hollywood Burbank Airport (located — despite its name — in the San Fernando Valley and not, therefore, Hollywood) into the San Francisco Airport (located about ten kilometers outside of the City and County of San Francisco in unincorporated San Mateo County). The best that can be said about flying in and out of the airport formerly known as Bob Hope is that it is less unpleasant than flying in and out of the airport still known as Los Angeles International Airport — which holds the distinction of being the busiest American airport without direct rail service — although that will change when the LAX People Mover opens later this year. After that, I could theoretically take the people mover to Metro‘s the K Line to the E Line to the 92 Line. Or, I could do as I do now and just take the LAX Flyaway Bus.
GETTING AROUND SAN FRANCISCO
I suspect strongly, though, that if we’re still above ground in that distant future when the California High Speed Rail is completed that it will be the main choice for travelers between the two cities — and, hopefully someday, extend from Vancouver to Santiago. In the mean time, although getting too San Francisco is a bit of a drag (unless you’ve got time to drive up the coast, ride a bike, or you can charter a hot air balloon), getting around inside San Francisco is an almost joyful experience — especially compared to most other California cities.
The website Walkscore assigns San Francisco a walk score of 89, a transit score of 77, and a bike score of 72. There is BART, MUNI, and if you’re a first-time tourist, the trolleys. I was pleased to see that BART had swapped out its disgusting cloth seats. However, they’ve been replaced with cushiony vinyl seats — which, from the smell of it, still contain the same fart sponges inside that they did before. With vinyl seats, one can at least better gauge whether or not they’re wet but what transit rider wants big, puffy, cushions that are dirtier than a couch thats been tossed from a frat house? If you can stand, I highly recommend it.
As of 2019, there were 69 kilometers of dedicated bus lanes, making bus service in San Francisco pretty good — although bus stops are sometimes not even marked by signs. At our first stop after leaving the BART station, a bus driver assured us that we were standing in the right spot for the bus that we wanted to catch. He told us to make sure, though, that the driver saw us. I thought that this was odd. Wouldn’t a bus driver who sees people standing at an unsheltered bus stop in the rain assume that we weren’t there to install a rain gauge? Just to be safe, I waved my hand at the driver — which he seemed to mistake for a mere friendly gesture and would’ve driven off had not the driver from the other bus stopped in the street, jumped out, and yelled, “YOU HAVE TO STOP!” at the top of his lungs. At this point, the driver of our bus stopped, the other bus driver smiled and waved, and we boarded our bus — piece of cake.
Walking is still my favorite way to get around San Francisco. San Francisco is tiny — just 121 square kilometers. A reasonably able bodied person could walk across it in under two and a half hours. One could walk across it diagonally in under four hours. It is smaller in area than several Los Angeles County cities, including Palmdale, Lancaster, Santa Clarita, and Long Beach. It is, however, for more pleasant to walk through because somehow the good folks of San Francisco have figured out, in most of the city, that there are better uses for land than surface parking lots. In fact, where they could’ve presumably created lifeless seas of asphalt devoted to the storage of empty automobiles — San Franciscans instead have not just storefronts and housing but pedestrian-centered amenities like promenades and plazas, and parks. One of my favorite activities in San Francisco is to aimlessly ramble, stopping here and there for a bite or a drink when it seems like a good idea to. And so, one drizzly evening, Una, my sister, and I, rambled through Yerba Buena Gardens, onto the newish elevated Salesforce Park, along the water by the Bay Bridge and Ferry Building, in and out of an Irish pub, and finally to a ramen place before returning to our hotels.
I’ve never biked in San Francisco but as of 2021, there were 68 kilometers of protected bike lanes and 126 kilometers of off-street paths and trails. There is, naturally, also a train to and from the airport. Weirdly, though, 70.1% of San Franciscans own a car (compared to just 45.6% of New Yorkers) and only 34% regularly use mass transit (compared to 56% of New Yorkers). Maybe it’s because of all of those car chases in San Francisco films and television programs — or maybe its just because there are a lot of freaks — and what’s freakier than owning a car in a city?
CUSINE OF SAN FRANCISICO
Aside from Rice-A-Roni and Mission Burritos, San Francisco’s biggest culinary association is probably with sourdough bread, which — although it didn’t originate there — is apparently popular there in part because of the climate conditions are conducive to baking it. That, and it’s one of the tastier breads — and not just the official bread of the COVID-19 Pandemic. All of those reasons are why a proper Full Californian Breakfast includes sourdough avocado toast.
There is a bakery, in Los Angeles’s Cypress Park neighborhood, called Frisco Baking Company. It was founded by San Franciscans. This means that referring to San Francisco as “Frisco” is not actually a shibboleth for distinguishing real San Franciscans from outsiders — despite what Friscans will assure you. What’s more, when ever people tell me that a pronunciation will reveal to others that I’m not from “there,” I am not bothered, because I’m not a spy who is trying to trick people into thinking that I’m from somewhere that I’m not. That said, I would never refer to San Francisco as “Frisco” unless it were in response to someone who, with even greater provocativeness, referred to Los Angeles as “L.A.”
Speaking of “L.A.,” have you heard about its rivalry with San Francisco? If you have, you are from San Francisco. If you have not, you are probably from anywhere else in the world. Surely this is the most one-sided rivalry since the days of Salieri and Mozart. I’ve literally never met anyone in Los Angeles who has expresses any sort of disdain for San Francisco — although I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I’ve only every been to one sporting event in which a Los Angeles area team played one from the San Francisco Bay — and that was a match between Galaxy and the Earthquakes. But my sense is that the rivalry goes deeper than sports — but then, what doesn’t?
I had heard of the “rivalry” but, honestly, didn’t believe that it was real until 2015, when I was in Berkeley to see Belle & Sebastian with friends. David Ulin’s book, Sidewalking (the cover of which was adapted from two of my maps) had recently been released and I looked for it at three book stores. None of them had it in stock, which puzzled me. Sidewalking is not some obscure self-published ‘zine by a literary unknown. Ulin has written or edited quite a few books over quite a few years — most of which deal with California, and Sidewalking was published by the University of California Press — a publishing company founded in 1893 — in Berkeley, no less. But it wasn’t just Sidewalking that wasn’t to be found. Not one of these book stores had a single book about Southern California at all… in their California sections. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around something so stupid that I struggle to make an analogy — but imagine if every bookseller in Austin refused to carry any books about Houston, San Antonio, or Dallas.
Since many San Franciscans insist on referring to their city as THE city, I suspect it has to do with San Francisco and Los Angeles’s qualifications as a city — or even, what makes a city a city. Los Angeles’s population overtook San Francisco’s more than a century ago, so it’s doubtful that any San Franciscans alive to day are still fuming about that. Besides, there are 38 more-populous cities in North America alone. But population isn’t everything — there’s also density. In the 2010 Census it was revealed that the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim urban area was the most densely populated in the US, ahead of number two San Francisco-Oakland — but that’s too recent a statistic to explain this long “rivalry” and besides, Los Angeles is famously “nineteen million metropolitans in search of suburbia.” Angelenos living in the subdivided garage of a Victorian era mansion will denounce the construction of a duplex ten blocks away as “Manhattanization.” But maybe the truth is in this different approach to urbanity. Los Angeles is a city despite itself — even going so far as to downzone from a residential capacity of ten million to four million (and, in the process, creating the nation’s worst homeless crisis). San Francisco, on the other hand, seems to be trying to convince New York City that it’s not like other California cities — and really, it’s not. And there’s a lot that Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose seem to be learning from San Francisco — both good and bad.
When city haters talk about why they hate cities, they will provide a litany of reasons. Whether or not they are valid could be debated. Cities are noisy and polluted, they say. And yet, I once stood at the edge of the woods in Missouri at night with someone from Los Angeles and she was terrified by the din of frogs, bugs, and owls. And rural Missouri is home to at least ten lead superfund sites, the TCDD-contaminated Time Beach ghost town, and considerable agricultural pollution. Cities are plagued by crime, they say, and yet two of my favorites — Tokyo and Seoul — are among the most city-ish of cities and neither is especially noisy, dangerous, or filthy. Neither, it should also be noted, suffer from a lack of vibrancy, either. San Francisco ranks somewhere in the middle, as far as those measurements go. According to the FBI‘s violent crime statistics for 2019, San Francisco is ranked the seventh-most violent city (and Oakland, number five). Los Angeles, for the record, is 72. As far as noise pollution, the World Hearing Index ranked San Francisco at 25th out of 50 quietest cities — ahead of Los Angeles at 32 — but noisier than far larger cities like Chicago, Houston, New York City, Seoul, Berlin, and Tokyo.
There is one metric, anecdotally, at which San Francisco seems to beat all other cities — or, at least, all other cities that I’ve ever visited. San Francisco’s sidewalks are covered with more human excrement than any I have ever seen. We arrived during a torrential rain — the sort of rain that is supposed to clean a city. To quote Travis Bickle, “Thank God for the rain, which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks.” Seemingly, though, it will take more than a mere atmospheric river, in San Francisco’s case. I searched up “San Francisco poop map” and to my amusement, horror, and surprise, such a thing exists. And it’s called San Francisco Poop Map A.
There are surely some people who can convince themselves that poop everywhere is just part of the city’s rugged “charm.” Just as surely, there are those who can convince themselves that building more public restroom’s would be an affront to the perfection of God’s Kingdom and that we should wait until death to enjoy our rewards for life amongst the feces. Both, I suspect, are in their own separate ways, equally misguided shills for Neoliberalism, which its adherents would have us believe, will lead to benign corporate benefactors picking up the slack from reduced government services. And yet, every quasi-public restroom in San Francisco seems permanently adorned with an “out of service” sign — since minimum wage-paid restaurant service workers understandably don’t want to take on the janitorial needs of the city. And I have never seen a public restroom in San Francisco — paid for by the city, benevolent philanthropists, or sponsored by corporations. The internet tells me that there are, in fact, about 140… in a city of over 800,000 residents… that, in no COVID years receives about 26 million tourists. I wonder, perhaps, if that’s not enough. Maybe, this city — with the fourth highest GMP in the US — can spare a few bucks on some facilities.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SAN FRANCISCO
Whatever one may think, now, it’s fair to say that San Francisco was definitely California’s first true city. Contrary to popular belief, there were huge metropolises in the Americas prior to the Spanish Conquest. However, indigenous Californians nearly all lived in small villages. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans lived in the San Francisco Bay region since at least 3000 BCE. When the Spanish arrived, they encountered the Yelamu, who lived in several villages on the peninsula.
Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed all of California for the Spanish Empire but sailed right past the bay before turning back at Russian River and missing it again on his way home. Subsequent Spanish and English explorers also missed the bay, which when glimpsed from the foggy sea can appear solid where there is in fact water. It wasn’t until 1769, when Catalonian explorer Gaspar de Portolà i Rovira arrived in an overland expedition, that a European set eyes on San Francisco Bay. Spain established the Presidio Real de San Francisco there on 29 June 1776, its second in Alta California following the presidio of San Diego. The Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded there on 9 October 1776.
In 1821, both the presidio and mission were ceded to the newly independent Mexico and a community developed known as Yerba Buena. The Mexican period was short-lived, though, and in 1848, the US invaded and conquered a third of the country, including all of California. Statehood was hastily granted in 1850. By then, thanks to the Gold Rush of 1848, San Francisco was suddenly booming. In 1848 alone, the population increased from roughly 1,000 to 25,000, making it by far the most populous place in California. By contrast, in 1850, San Diego was home to about 650 people and Los Angeles a mere 1,610.
The discovery of silver in the 1850s fueled more immigration and migration and by 1860, the population had more than doubled, reaching 56,802. The first transcontinental railroad arrived in 1869 and the 1870 census counted 149,473, making it the first West Coast city on the top ten most populous American cities — which, no doubt, is part of the reason San Francisco still resembles, in many ways, an outpost of the Northeast more than it does Fresno or Sacramento. In the 1870s, San Francisco overtook New Orleans. In the 1880s, it climbed past Cleveland and Cincinnati.
San Francisco began to slip in the population rankings in the 1890s. The first train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, operated by Southern Pacific, had opened in 1876 led to many San Franciscans migrating south. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway arrived in Los Angeles in 1887, fueling its first real estate boom as many migrants from the Middle West and East — and immigrants from China, India, Japan, and Mexico — began to favor Los Angeles in growing numbers — not just for the weather (which I don’t like as much as San Francisco’s, personally) but because anti-union bosses found it harder to operate in labor-controlled San Francisco than in “open shop” Los Angeles. Meanwhile, San Francisco was surpassed in population by Buffalo. The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire devastated the city. San Francisco would never again appear in the Top Ten.
LITERARY SAN FRANCISCO
It’s been established that many San Franciscans are unlikely to have read any books by Angelenos or that even acknowledge the existence of a California south of latitude 35°45′. Luckily, though, San Francisco does have a rich literary history and one of my favorite things to do there — or in any city — is visit its bookstores and libraries. San Francisco has 27 branch libraries and even more bookstores. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to more than three dozen publishers. The Beat Generation were, first and foremost, authors — and although Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs all met one another in New York City; Ginsberg, Huncke, and Kerouac all moved to San Francisco, where they were key figures in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s. San Francisco’s best known bookstore, City Lights Bookstore, opened in 1953 and was named after the 1931 Hollywood film of the same name. Its name is so well known, that it inspired other bookstores that I’ve also shopped, like Iowa City‘s Prairie Lights Bookstore (opened in 1978) — but not, the internet has just regretfully informed me, Los Feliz’s Skylight Books, which is apparently named after a small live theater located behind its predecessor, Chatterton’s Bookshop. I didn’t visit City Lights on this trip but I spent some time there last year, before my San Francisco-loving friends for whom I made the San Francisco neighborhood map (and one of whom is a librarian) dragged me to their home away from home, Vesuvio Cafe, an historic bar located on the other side of an alley from the book store that first opened in 1948.
BARS OF SAN FRANCISCO
Books and bars go together like peas and carrots and some of my fondest, if foggiest, memories of San Francisco are rooted in them. I can’t remember what all of them were, naturally. I’ve popped into a few because walking is the most rewarding way to traverse San Francisco (just mind the turds) and there is a truly enviable bar density. You walk, you get thirsty, need to pee, or need to rest for a minute and there’s inevitably a great bar to pop into and eventually, out of. And there’s seemingly really good pizza slice everywhere, which it’s a good idea to re-up with between stops at watering holes.
I remember one in North Beach were I was taken in by a colorful bunch of barflies. I asked them how long they’d lived in San Francisco and one defiantly replied, “I don’t. I live in North Beach!” There were a bunch of Bavarians singing loudly for much of the night and when friends came to drag me away, the barflies tumbled outside, calling, “Come back tomorrow!” I didn’t. I’m not even sure if it’s there anymore. It was across from Vesuvio, if memory serves (and it may not).
One this visit, Una, my sister, and I popped in and out of a few bars walking here and there. Sometimes I’d have a stout, sometimes a cider. In the past I’ve had Irish Coffee, invented in 1952 at the Buena Vista Cafe. At one I had my first beer cocktail which, if memory serves, had Grenadine or something in it. In Los Angeles, for reasons unknown to me, I have been asked if I’m from San Francisco when I order a Fernet-Branca. I do know that Fernet-Branca is most popular in Argentina. No one in San Francisco has ever asked me, after I order Fernet, whether or not I’m Argentine or local — but I get the sense that it’s very popular. When I ordered some this time, Una tried it, made a face, shook, and said that it tasted like medicine. Yes. Yes it does.
SAN FRANCISCO SOUND
After the Beat Generation, the next big moment in San Francisco culture was the development of the San Francisco Sound — which was closely associated with folkies, hippies, freaks, and flower children. You’ve seen the documentaries about the ’60s. When they get to San Francisco, you see shots of young Bohemians and Scott McKenzie‘s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair” inevitably plays as a narrator with a voice like Peter Coyote‘s waxes nostalgically about magic and innocence and change in the air. The most iconic band of the bunch is surely Jefferson Airplane, which in a later incarnation sang that they “built this city on rock and roll.” Being true San Franciscans, they never specified which city because “this city,” like “the city” is what San Franciscans would like to think we’re all in agreement on. Similarly, “the Bay” means the San Francisco Bay, and not one of the other 1,285 bays. But because this song was popular when I was in the Death Metal capital, which happens to be on a bay, I somehow convinced myself that the song’s DJ (in reality, Les Garland), when he mentions “your favorite radio city, the city by the bay, the city that never sleeps,” I came to the decidedly unlikely conclusion that the Starship were singing about Tampa-St. Petersburg.
I think it was Kasey Kasem who disabused me of my silly supposition when, on his Weekly Top 40, he hipped us youngsters to the fact that Starship had formed out of Jefferson Starship, which in turn had formed out of Jefferson Airplane. Eleven year old me was gobbling up anything psychedelic that I could find so I, of course, came to appreciate Jefferson Airplane — and, eventually, other San Francisco Bay Area bands of that era like The Ace of Cups, The Beau Brummels, Blue Cheer, The Chocolate Watchband, Count Five, Country Joe & the Fish, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fifty Foot Hose, Flamin’ Groovies, The Great Society, Moby Grape, Powder, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone. For some reason, though, I could never get into The Grateful Dead. I actually once thought that I heard a song of theirs that I liked but it turned out to be The Jerry Garcia Band. There’s no point in trying to “get into” a band that you don’t like, though, any more than there’s some reward for trying to get into a medicinal digestif that you hate the taste of.
The San Francisco Sound faded away in the 1970s and yet, there are San Francisco bands that I am not surprised are from San Francisco like The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Deerhoof, Faith No More, 4 Non Blondes, Girls, Jellyfish, Negativeland, The Residents, The Tubes, and Xiu Xiu. There are groups, too, that I know are associated with San Franciso Bay Area, even if I don’t necessarily hear anything overtly San Francisco Bay Area about them — bands like American Music Club, Journey, Red House Painters, and Tower of Power. Then there are performers I have to be reminded are associated with San Francisco, like Dave Brubeck, The Doobie Brothers, Huey Lewis & the News, Los Tigres del Norte, Malo, Metallica, Pointer Sisters, Romeo Void, The Rubinoos, and The Steve Miller Band. There’s Red 7, who I have to be reminded are neither Peter Gabriel nor Phil Collins-era Genesis. And then there are bands from San Francisco that mainly San Franciscans like, bands like The Avengers, Crime, Tuxedomoon, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 (although the latter were also popular in Iowa City).
Of course, I’ve seen a few San Francisco Bay act perform live, too, including The Aislers Set, Digital Underground (at what Shock G/Humpty Hump called “Mini-Freaknik”, Erase Errata, Mark Kozelek, and Numbers. I saw the Bay Area’s Sky Faction and Starry Eyed Cadet perform in San Francisco, for bonus points. I was also in a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club video, wearing a yellow Denim T-shirt, although I don’t think that you can make me out. I had become a fan after seeing them perform as if headlining Glastonbury with about five other people at a supper club. And Ride, although not from San Francisco, played one of my favorite shows ever when they performed at the Warfield in 2015. Although we didn’t see any live music on this trip, we did pass by the Fillmore after giving up on finding breakfast in Japantown and headed south. And, like any right-minded person, I made a San Francisco Bay Area playlist that I listened to almost exclusively.
Hip-hop is a bit of a different story as far as Bay Area music goes. Rappers are generally keen to remind you of where they’re from, what their name is, and (although less frequently now), what the year of their recording is. Sometimes you have to connect the dots. Oakland’s Luniz, in “5 On It,” sampled “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” by Club Nouveau, who were from Sacramento but who grew out of Oakland’s Timex Social Club. Too Short rapped that he came from “the city of dope” that “couldn’t be saved by John the Pope,” which I guess listeners were supposed to know meant Oakland, or, erm, Oaktown. MC Hammer had a song called “Oaktown,” which was more straight forward. Other rappers like E-40 and Mac Dre adopted a mannered rapping style that signified, we came to know, that they were from the Bay Area. They said things like “hella” and “hyphy” and tried to make “Mobb Music” a thing but, for reasons I don’t really understand, they were all very popular in Kansas City, where many music stores often had Oakland sections, and where many local rappers sounded like they were from Oakland (although not, it should be noted, the underrated Mass 187, who sounded decidedly like they were from Houston).
Finally, although few listeners today would associate it with hip-hop, Freestyle music, was born in New York where it was popularized by Puerto Ricans and often referred to as Latin Hip-Hop. By the time it blew up in Florida, it had shed a lot of its hip-hop aspects and was described by some as “synth salsa.” Long after it vanished from the charts, it was kept alive by Filipinos, in many case from the San Francisco Bay Area, including Jocelyn Enriquez, Damien Bautista, Kuya, Pinay, Buffy (Solango), Kim Del Fierro, Sharyn Maceren, One Vo1ce — most of whom recorded for either Burlingame’s Classified Records or San Francisco’s Velocity Records.
SAN FRANCISCO DIVERSITY
San Francisco is a highly diverse city. There is no “racial” majority. As of 2020, 41.9% of residents were non-Latino whites of any ethnicity. San Francisco is home to the country’s third-most Jewish population, per capita, after New York City and Los Angeles. Most are Russian Jews. Russian is the most-spoken language after Taishanese, Cantonese, Spanish, and Tagolog. Judaism is the second most practiced religion, after Christianity. Multiracial San Franciscans accounted for 9.9% of the population. 5.3% were black. .7% of the population identified as Native American or Alaskan Native. .4% were Pacific Islanders. 8.4% of residents self-identified as being of an “other” race. 15.6% of residents were Latino of any race — primarily Mexican and Salvadoran.
33.9% of San Franciscans were, as of the last census, Asian — primarily Chinese (mostly with roots in Guangdong or Guangzhou), Filipinos, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean. San Francisco is home to a Chinatown, a Little Saigon, and a Japantown — which is where Una chose to stay.
Japantown is nice. It covers about six blocks and is fairly dense with Japanese businesses and restaurants — none of which seem to open early enough for breakfast, however. We stayed at the Hotel Kabuki, which afforded a view of the Yoshiro Taniguchi-designed San Francisco Peace Pagoda and, next to it, the Japan Center.
We met up with my sister and walked around Chinatown. A woman tried to convince us to buy some shíshī that looked like they weighed a couple of tons. “Just lift with the legs,” I thought to myself. One half of a young white couple exclaimed, to our amusement, “There’s gotta be a boba place around here!” I’m sure there is some boba in Chinatown — if perhaps less than there is outside — just as sure as I am that there are Taiwanese there. However, if China would just recognize Taiwan‘s independence (declared in 1895) you wouldn’t have an epidemic of sad young people stumbling around Chinatown looking for Taiwanese beverages and only finding Jasmine green tea.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the most famous in the world. It’s said to be the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest outside of China — and who am I do dispute that? It is so large, in part, because it is so old. Most East Asians favor Los Angeles over San Francisco because it is the largest American city across the Pacific from Asia and is home to a uniquely Pan-Asian Angeleno culture. Los Angeles has the US’s largest Burmese, Indonesian, and Mongolian populations. It has the largest communities (outside of their respective homelands) of Cambodians, Filipinos, Koreans, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese. And while there are an estimated 437,680 Chinese in Los Angeles, the percentage San Francisco’s Chinese population — some 22% — is the largest in the US.
The distinction between Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Chinatowns is due, in large part, to the fact that many of San Francisco’s Chinese came during the Gold Rush and to work on the railroads and back then, San Francisco was the primary point of entry on the West Coast. Smaller numbers made their way south, finding agricultural work or jobs in the region’s numerous by comparatively tiny Chinatowns. San Francisco’s Chinatown was established and thriving whereas in Southern California, a mere two hundred or so Chinese were often scapegoated or worse. Several of Orange County’s Chinatowns were burned to the ground and in Los Angeles’s Old Chinatown — later completely obliterated to make way for Union Station and the Hollywood Freeway — nineteen Chinese were brutally lynched by a mob in 1871. Although a new Chinatown arose in the 1930s, close to have of Los Angeles’s Chinese arrived after the 1968 enacting of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and many of those favored the suburbs over Downtown Los Angeles’s Chinese enclave.
Despite its age and size, San Francisco’s Chinatown feels insular. There are, not surprisingly, the tourist-oriented shops but it feels inward looking — unconcerned, largely, with how tourists might perceive it and uninterested in drawing them in beyond the trinket shops and restaurants. Elderly people gambling in Portsmouth Square are seemingly equally unconcerned by the presence of pigeons or police. Many people loudly clear their throats and spit. Even more just quietly go about their business.
QUEER SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco has long famously been a center in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transexual rights movements. It was the birthplace of the nation’s first lesbian rights organization, Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955. Guy Strait and José Sarria formed the League for Civil Education around 1960 and in 1961, Sarria became the first openly gay person to run for public office in the US when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Adrian Ravarour founded Vanguard which protested for gay rights in 1966. That same year, a group of trans rioted and protested police harassment at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria. Margo Rila and Frank Esposito organized the bisexual rights group, the Sexual Freedom League, in 1967. The Cockettes formed at the Kaliflower Commune in 1969. The Castro emerged as San Francisco’s gayborhood in the 1970s. The San Francisco Bisexual Center opened in 1976. In 1977, when Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. He was assassinated by a former city supervisor in 1978 who, upon release from prison in 1984, killed himself the following year.
SAN FRANCISCO CULTURE
If I ever enjoy a longer stay in San Francisco, I’d love to take advantage of its many arts organizations and museums. I visited the Cable Car Museum once but the intense smell of oil (following an oily meal in Chinatown) made it extremely difficult for me not to vomit and I had to seek refuge in a nearby library. I did thoroughly enjoy the exhibits at the airport — something more cities should do to make flying in and out of airports a less miserable experience. Yes, SFO has art exhibits, thanks to the SFO Museum Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum and Library.
Some day I’d like to check out the American Conservatory Theater, the Asian Art Museum,the California Academy of Sciences, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the de Young Museum, the Exploratorium, the Morrison Planetarium, the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, the the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, and Steinhart Aquarium (all of which I’m listing, primarily, so that I’ll have a list for next time).
SAN FRANCISCO IN RADIO, TELEVISION, AND FILM
I always wish that airplanes offered curated music and video playlists based on where they were flying. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to get a dramatized taste of a place before I go there. Before Dragnet, Jack Webb made two radio series, Pat Novak, for Hire (1946-1947) and Johnny Madero, Pier 23 (1947). Pat Novak, for Hire is truly amazing — and certainly one of the best programs Webb was ever part of. Although good, there are only two episodes of Johnny Madero, Pier 23 known to exist today.
As far as television series, I have seen every episode of Monk — many more than one time. This will probably surprise few people who know me and who are also familiar with the show. I loved Sledgehammer when it aired — although I have no idea whether or not it holds up. I have a feeling I’d enjoy The Streets of San Francisco because I like most 1970s crime dramas, clavinets, and Karl Malden. I just know there’s got to be an episode about a random sniper and probably some sick spree killer.
Someday, I should make a point of watching the Taiwanese series, 雙城故事, because it’s always interesting to see American culture through a foreign lens… and because a map of San Francisco seems to feature prominently in the life of the main character.
I’ve seen quite a few more films set in San Francisco, although not, in some cases, primarily filmed there. It’s a backdrop in some of the best Hollywood productions. Vertigo, which I saw at a young age, has always been one of my favorite films. Alfred Hitchcock famously fell for San Francisco in 1939, when he was filming Rebecca. He returned to the San Francisco Bay area and Northern California for Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Birds (1963), and Family Plot (1976). Hitchcock probably loved San Francisco for some of the reasons that I do — and for the same reasons that many film noire were set there. Foggy, urban, and dark — it’s a natural setting for noir (although there’s something to be said for finding the noir in sunny Southern California) Some of my favorites were filmed (or at least set) in San Francisco, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), Out of the Past (1947), Woman on the Run (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), and The Bigamist (1953).
Other San Francisco films I’ve enjoyed, to varying degrees and which should be offered on all flights to the city include Point Blank (1967), Bullitt (1968), The Love Bug (1969), Dirty Harry (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Conversation (1974), Basic Instinct (1992), Kuffs (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Other Sister (1999), The Room (2003), and Zodiac (2007).
Honestly, the climate is one of my absolute favorite things about San Francisco. The quote “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” is often attributed to the great Missourian author and wit, Mark Twain, although he probably never said it. Because the quote is clever and about an American place, it’s wrongly attributed to Twain in the same way that it would be attributed to Oscar Wilde were it about summer in Glasgow, which some say is the nicest day of the Scottish year.
Twain did write, after first visiting San Francisco in 1863:
“The birds, and the flowers, and the Chinamen, and the winds, and the sunshine, and all things that go to make life happy, are present in San Francisco to-day, just as they are all days of the year.”
And Wilde wrote, after first visiting San Francisco in 1882:
“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.”
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One thought on “Where Fools Fear To Tread — A Snapshot of San Francisco”
The supposed rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles is a curious thing. As you mention, it does seem to be mostly a one-way street running north to south. As I recently wrote, that animosity toward all things L.A. is perpetuated by “northern California elitists who all seem to carry the burden of an undeserved superiority complex.” They must believe that their own shit on “the City” sidewalks don’t stink.
Whatever. I’m not terribly troubled by it. They are both great cities. San Francisco does have better bread. But L.A. has much better burritos.