Scott Mc Kenzie sang way back in 1967 that if you were going to San Francisco, you should be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Well… walking around the “Paris of the West” today you would be hard pressed to actually find anyone with flowers in their hair or with that glazed look in the eye accompanied by the silly smile of free love and world peace. More likely, you will run into a huge number of tourists from all over the world, shopping and talking loudly while bumping into each other without so much as a glance to the person they bumped into. You will, however, catch a whiff (or two… or twenty) of the occasional breeze with a suspicious scent of burning rope as you walk along the streets which shows that although most things do change over time, some things will always stay the same. Hooray for stability!
San Francisco was founded in 1776 by the Spanish conquistador Juan Bautista de Anza during the Spanish colonial expansion to Catholicize (it’s a word!!!) the indigenous population of the Americas and take their gold (what do indians know about the value of gold anyways, right?). The Spaniards built the Presidio of San Francisco and the Mission San Francisco de Asis at the entrance of the bay and began to populate the area rather quickly. Soon after in 1821, the land became a part of Mexico and the small Spanish colony began to take the shape of a city with streets and the original name of Yerba Buena. Not much later than that, after the Mexican-American war, Captain John B. Montgomery claimed Yerba Buena for the United States and renamed the city San Francisco.
The rest of the San Francisco story includes great legendary tales of the California Gold Rush, the wild west, the San Francisco Plague of 1900 and the 1906 earthquake that brought the city to the largest devastation ever known in history of any city in the world. But we won’t get into deep details here. Let’s instead talk about the Barbary Coast because, well… it’s pretty colorful.
The Barbary Coast was the “cultural” center (and by “cultural” I mean brothels, saloons and other such places of sin and decadence of the famous Old West) of San Francisco. It catered to the 49’s (no, not the football team. That came MUCH later… focus people!!) who arrived during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Tens of thousands of people flocked into California looking to find gold. Such a large amount of people in such a short time completely overwhelmed the local government who was not equipped to handle the sudden influx. Lawlessness and vigilante justice were common and the Barbary Coast attracted all kinds of criminals. Many of these criminals came from the New York City gangs from the Five Point and Bowery districts (yep… the ones in that movie Gangs of New York). A group of around 60 of these Easterners created a gang called The Hounds and they thrived on extortion, murder and prostitution. Others came from places as far away as Australia, China, and Italy. All of them congregating into individual groups for protection against the others. Add to this the old west outlaws such as Black Bart and Joaquin Murrieta and you have what can be called the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in this galaxy (Star Wars fans, eat your heart out).
Along with the criminals also came entrepreneurs with grand ideas for the future of the city. Bankers (Wells Fargo), builders (Pacific Railroad), chocolate confectioners (Ghirardelli)… all came to San Francisco looking to capitalize on the gold rush. These entrepreneurs helped to build the city of San Francisco and to make it the center for trade in the Pacific and bay area. The Chinese converted Old Gold Mountain into a thriving Chinatown that still flourishes to this day and the Italians built their own “Little Italy” right next to it.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America and holds the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. It draws a huge number of tourists every year and I can say without any fear of mistake; it is a tourist trap but oh, so worth it! As you walk through Chinatown you are struck by the colorful shops and the smells of food that surround you. English is not a language you will hear often. Instead, you will hear Mandarin and Cantonese everywhere. Even the street performers – for which San Francisco is notorious – in this area are old Chinese men playing a homemade version of the Erhu on the side of the streets for whatever cash you can give them. They quietly smile as they play their instrument and you are again shocked by their chosen repertoire. At one moment you are hearing this beautiful long-noted Chinese folkloric piece and the next song is “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In”. All on the Erhu. They certainly have a sense of humor.
Next to Chinatown is a much smaller neighborhood that goes by the name of Little Italy. It is settled in the area of North Beach and has the most vibrant night life in the city. Here you can find a large number of authentic Italian restaurants and bakeries where the food will just knock you off your feet.
Some notable Italian-Americans came from this neighborhood including the baseball great Joe DiMaggio. Today, the Italian population on North Beach has decreased considerably due to gentrification and the rapid expansion of Chinatown but you can still see the Italian flags waving on the buildings and hear the beautiful Italian language being spoken here and there.
Down by the docks from Little Italy you arrive to Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39. This colorful section of town gets its name from the old Italian fishermen who populated North Beach and made their living fishing and selling their catch wholesale. Today it is the busiest and most touristic part of all of San Francisco. Probably in the entire Western United States. It is full of sea food restaurants and kiosks that will allow you to choose your raw fish and crab and have it cooked and prepared right in front of you. You can also order a delicious clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl that on a cold and breezy day must feel as good as…. yeah.
Next to the Wharf is the Hyde Street Pier where various historical ships (including a three mast sail ship and a World War 2 submarine) are moored. I was told that on one of the wooden docks next to Pier 39 there is a colony of sea lions who like to lounge around in the sun and pose for pictures but sadly, they were nowhere to be seen during my short visit. You can see the island of Alcatraz however and even though it is no longer the home of the Federal Penitentiary (today it is a museum) it still has that dark and looming feeling about it when seen from a distance.
In my newly minted section of “Where NOT to Go”, I will warn all of you dear readers about Lombard Street. Also known as the Crooked Street. What would seem to actually be a pretty cool thing to see is actually quite uneventful and well… boring. Not to mention the huge crowds getting in your way and ruining all your pictures. It is a flower bed lined street that sharply winds its way downhill for the course of a few blocks. Really… that’s it.
The truth is, there is no good angle to shoot it from at street level and the police are constantly screaming at people to get out of the street to allow for vehicular traffic. If you absolutely must see it because you are a street designer or architect or God knows what kind of street fetish you have…. then go… I won’t stop you. But if you prefer to spend the energy that it will take you to get up there doing something else, I definitely recommend doing something else. ’nuff said ’bout that.
A worthy climb is the climb to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. This towering (yes, it’s a tower) structure overlooks all of San Francisco. It was built in 1933 and follows the art deco architecture of the interwar period. Inside, it displays richly painted murals by 27 artists and has an elevator which will take you to the very top of the tower where you can see magnificent views of the city in every direction. The tower was built with the money left to the city by Lillie Hitchcock Coit who was a rather wealthy woman who liked to hang around firemen. No, really! She did! She was an avid firefighter and volunteer in the mid to late 1800’s. She also liked to dress like a man and go down to the North Beach gambling saloons that only allowed men and loved smoking cigars. a colorful character indeed. When she died, she stated in her will that she wanted one third of her fortune to be used to beautify the city of San Francisco. After much deliberation about how to spend it, the City Board of Supervisors decided to build a tower. And what a tower it is! The line may be a little long to get on the elevator and the walk up the steep hills to get to the tower may give you spaghetti legs for the next few days but it is totally worth it.
Finally, the place most people think of when they say San Francisco; We arrive to the Golden Gate Bridge. Considered one of the wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Golden Gate Bridge is a 1.7 mile (that’s 2737 meters to my Euro friends) long suspension bridge that links the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula with Marin County, California by crossing the Golden Gate Strait. The bridge was designed by Structural Engineer, Joseph Baermann Strauss (no relation to Richard or Johann, by the way), Leon Moisseiff, Irving Morrow and Charles Alton Ellis. Today the name you hear the most is Strauss because he was a very good at self promotion and at downplaying the contributions of other Engineers but in truth Strauss was the least involved due to his lack of knowledge on suspension bridges. But being the boss has its benefits and for many years the names of the other Engineers were not even known.
Construction of the bridge began in the middle of the Great Depression in 1933 at a cost of over $35 million and continued until its completion in mid 1937. During the construction, movable safety nets were placed underneath the bridge to catch any workers who might suddenly lose their footing. The nets were able to save 21 lives from falling 200 feet into the freezing waters of the San Francisco Bay. These 21 men became very proud members of what was called the Halfway to Hell Club.
The grand opening of the bridge lasted a week in May of 1937. More than 200 thousand people crossed it by foot or roller skates before it opened for vehicle traffic and today more than 110 thousand motorized vehicles cross it on a daily basis.
In terms of photography gear I took along my Nikon D7100 with the basic 18-55 mm kit lens equipped with a circular polarizer to keep the glare down. For comfort, I kept the camera hanging neatly by my side with the Fastfire camera sling strap allowing me to walk all over the city without the heavy camera hanging around my neck. If you haven’t switched to a sling strap yet you really have to make the jump. It will change your life.
In conclusion, San Francisco is a beautiful and vibrant U.S. city that flows with people day and night. Its cable cars that go up and down the steep hills carrying people to and fro, its temperate climate that hardly ever exceeds 80 degrees and very rarely goes lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit and its proximity to great vineyards of the area make it a great destination for sightseeing and experiencing the richness of this earth we live in. The eclectic architecture all around makes the city an interesting amalgam of cultures, styles and vibes. A must-see city in the west of the United States that will leave you wanting to spend more time there to explore the things you were not able to see the first time around.
…and if you thought I was not going to say hello, you still don’t know me well enough. 😉