San Francisco is undeniably gorgeous, even when blanketed thickly with fog, carrying a misty, wet chill in the air. The Golden Gate Bridge peaking out from the dense, low-hanging clouds reminds us of its dominant presence and symbolism. Rolling green hills to the North meet the foggy bay to create dramatic natural scenery, as the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco lands on the bay to the South. The top of the peninsula that houses the picturesque hilly city with bay windows and steep streets is approximately 7 miles wide and 7 miles long, of which is where the city gets its colorful self-inflicted joke of being “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Indeed San Francisco is, at times, seemingly separate from the rest of the world, but it can also be an island of idealism. Throughout our stay in this beautiful, pastel-painted city, it displayed an ever-lasting hope for progress, humanity, the environment, and our nation as a whole.
The weather here can come as a shock to those that are unaware of the area. The climate is known as a Mediterranean Climate, as it is on the same latitude as the Mediterranean Sea. (This same climate is mimicked in the southern hemisphere on Chili’s coast, and there is an intriguing affinity from San Fran with this mirror image climate, often referencing Chili as being a sister land to the Bay Area.) But while that climate ushers in an array of wild flowers in bloom as early as January, it also ushers in a chill in the air almost year round. There are so many outdoor activities to do, places to walk, and vistas to take in that one needs to carry multiple layers with them to add or subtract to their bodies throughout the day. The car became the trunk that could carry all things, from clothes, to hiking maps, to dog-approved towels to protect the seats after a particularly dirty, but fantastically fun, day at the beach. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area stretches along both sides of the San Francisco Bay, as well as along the ocean on the Western side of the city, all the way down to Fort Funston. It maintains some of the most beautiful sights, trails, and beaches one can see in our nation. The organization has also taken control of many of the former military bases in and around that area, leaving you to be hiking on a hill, with water crashing against the cliffs below, only to turn a corner and see an old WWII battery shelter dug into the mountain.
The history of San Francisco is fascinating to me because it has been a constant reinvention and triumph over catastrophe. Native Americans lived in the area until 1775, when the Spanish ventured northward from Southern California to conquer the land. Building the Presidio military base in 1776, they also established a Catholic mission. (One can find these many Catholic missions, some still in operation, all along the California coastline.) Americans finally showed up from the East around 1846, and in 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierras, inspiring the gold rush of 1849 (and the name of the San Francisco 49ers, by and by). The now famous Union Square served as a hub for the Union Army during the Civil War, and Mark Twain wrote many stories of his adventures here. The Transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, brought the first wave of immigrants. Chinese men sailed across the Pacific to help build the railroad, settling the now famous Chinatown, the then largest Asian settlement outside of Asia. Once completed, the train brought in the Irish, of which blended well with the similarly minded Catholic Hispanics. Together they built parishes and schools that still dominate San Francisco’s skyline and culture. Portuguese cattle farmers settled the coastal plains with cattle ranches, as the terrain was similar to theirs back home, and mixed into the metropolitan area when needed as locals. A massive earthquake in 1906, followed by a widespread fire, forced the city to rebuild, continuing to bond this immigrant population, empowering them to rise above tragedy. It paved the way to restore the Victorian, bay window architecture that is now so synonymous with San Francisco. The WWI era brought Russian and Italian immigrants, specifically of Jewish decent, but not all. People were fleeing the increasingly war-torn Europe, and San Fran had proved itself to be a welcoming community. WWII brought a large amount of military activity to the area, including a Japanese Internment Camp at the famous Alcatraz prison. The signs of WWII and the former military presence are prevalent throughout many parts of this coastal region. My dad, who served here in the Army just before the Vietnam War, discussed with me that many soldiers were shipped out of San Francisco on “soldier ships” to serve their time in the jungle, sailing out to the vast Pacific under the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering if they would ever see their homeland or family again.
With this high level of military activity, as well as an active immigrant population, I can understand how the infamous counter-culture of San Francisco developed. The innovators of the Beat Generation moved out to San Francisco from New York in the early ‘50s and embraced a way of life that lead directly into the psychedelic hippie culture of the late ‘60s. Environmentalists embraced John Muir’s vision of the future, and the Black Panthers organized just across the bay in Oakland. The ‘70s and ‘80s ushered in a movement to mainstream gay culture, while the ‘90s found new life in the dot.com industry and completely revitalized silicon valley, as well as the distraught downtown area, now known as the SoMa District. The recession hit San Fran hard, but the city is seeing its second technological boom, with social media and internet icons, such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter all making their company homes on the peninsula. Studio apartments in SoMa can go for $4,000 a month, and houses in neighborhoods are renting for $7,000 a month. With each decade of the last 70 years breathing new life and prosperity into the city’s hills, one could say that San Francisco is one of the luckiest, toughest, and strongest cities in the nation.
All of these influences, from Native Americans, to Spanish conquerors, to the Union Army, to Chinese laborers, to Irish Catholics, to Russian, Italian, and Vietnamese refugees, to the defiant, counter-cultural neighborhoods, all the way to the computer savvy tech boom… it can all be felt in the heartbeat of this city. This rhythm intermingles with tourists graciously, understanding that those tourists are now a part of its fabric and lifeblood as well. The Embarcadero embraces its maritime history, with the Ferry Building repurposed as a market, and the piers to the North beckon tourists to eat fresh seafood near a WWII ship, sea lions, and Ghirardelli chocolate. Nestled amongst the authentic Italian restaurants of North Beach resides the City Lights Bookstore, evoking images of beatniks in black turtlenecks reading poetry. Take the revitalized streetcar through Chinatown to Union Square to shop at high-end stores now on “Maiden Lane,” formerly a street known for its brothels and Barbary Coast roughness. Take a train West and see the historic Latino district of the Mission and stroll the striking politically charged murals throughout the neighborhood. Head into the Castro to view the streets lined with rainbow flags and take in a film at the classic theatre. The Haight still embraces the infamous Haight Asbury hippie movement, but that street corner is oddly juxtaposed by its closeness to the “Painted Ladies” row houses, some of the most pristine restorations of the Victorian houses of San Fran. Golden Gate Park and the Avenues provides museums, the AIDS Memorial Grove, and a plethora of ethnic restaurants, all leading you straight to the ocean, where surfers in wetsuits sit on the sand. Hikers explore Lands End and the Sutro Baths, taking in the majestic views of the Pacific Ocean from the cliffs rising above the crashing waves.
San Francisco is a place that has a large amount of influences coming from multiple points of view, colliding in quite a small area. But they have figured out how to all live together peacefully, joyfully, respectively, and with care. Because of this fact, residents now get to feast on the fruits of their labor. It is a fantastic place to live. (And the rent rates prove it.)
This is the first of three posts regarding San Francisco. The two following will contain human interest stories, details on museums and neighborhoods, and a review of the outdoor spaces of the area.