I am often asked by friends who don’t live here why I love San Francisco. They hear the stories of the grittier side of life in the City, and wonder why I don’t long for some hundred acre wood action, where the only sound outside is the pitter patter of footsteps back from some sedately wonderful night out, and the pace of life is gentler and more serene. I spent my years in the wilderness, I did my time in the middle of nowhere.
For a while I thought it was ‘me’, that I wanted the perfect isolation of a swamp on the Oregon coast (I downplay the sheer amount of rain up there), or the vast open spaces of the Dakotas, or the pristine forests of Washington State, and the lake side living of Minnesota. For a while I did. For a moment I only felt safe when there were as few people around me as possible. A two horse town with no groceries for 80 miles felt like the epitome of safety, and safety was what I longed for.
The trouble is the more sparsely populated and smaller the town, the more insistent the questioning and the more nosy the neighbors. I rarely see the same faces twice in San Francisco. There are a few regular faces that I meet on a day to day basis, and I count some of them as my friends, or at least people I look forward to seeing, but I could easily avoid people if I wanted to. It is easier to live quietly in a full city, than a tiny town.
Now I live a few blocks away from the more gritty blocks of the ‘Loin, my day to day negative interactions (i.e. being chased) have decreased. Yes, it gets crazy out there, yes, sometimes that bothers me, but a door between me and the insanity, and a slightly less grouchy part of town has resolved that. I generally feel safe, and when I don’t there is a steel floor to ceiling gate and a front door between me and the rest of the world.
Even when people do get nosy, and people are people, so trust me, they do, it is somehow less accusing, less hostile and more accepting here. San Francisco is a place where so many people and cultures meet, to be unaccepting is to be socially unacceptable, and this makes me feel safe. It is not just the sense of safety and acceptance that makes this place so special, it is also that San Francisco has that special ‘it’ factor. Every time I walk outside I look around and I love what I see. From the distant emptiness, to the vastness of the ocean, the ugly skyscrapers and the pretty old buildings, from the parks and the green spaces to the plazas and the concrete and beautiful little shops selling pretty things that make life more beautiful even to walk past, and the loving care of the scores of eateries and food vendors, San Francisco is a pretty city.
I don’t think I could ever live in a city that was not on the ocean. I need those marine winds and cooler temperatures, I need to see the water, I need to see a horizon that never ends and is blue and vast. I need to smell the salt in the air and see the little boats bobbing along lonely on the waves under cotton puff clouds. I need the fog, and the sailors, and the culture that embraces the salty goodness of those who sail and move and wander like I do, even if I am standing still. Joni Mitchell once sang, ‘crown and anchor me’ in her song Blue, and like the ink she sings about, the ocean gets under the skin and marks you. I was always meant to live on a shoreline. I have no tattoos, but I dream of a little Sailor Jerry swallow marked on my arm carrying a letter home in its inky beak marking me forever as someone who belongs to the four winds.
San Francisco might not be the kind of place that some people find comfortable, but quite simply I have never loved a place as much as I love San Francisco. I love it like a country, like a state of mind, like a reason to breathe. San Francisco is a member of the family and like many family members, whilst loved, almost unconditionally, has points where it is necessary to retreat into the privacy of indoor life to let the dust settle. Part of what I love about San Francisco is my Victorian era apartment with the bright white painted walls and the pretty windows and the fact that once inside, I can think about the others who retreated here and loved its walls and its sanctuary just as much as I do.
That said, San Francisco life outside of the sanctuary of the best little apartment that ever was, has much to offer. Here is my top ten things that I love about San Francisco.
- Japantown Culture. Even for people who are not long term hardcore Japanophiles, there are few inner city areas of San Francisco that are as peaceful and laid-back as Japantown. One of the last remaining Japantowns in the USA, these few blocks near Western Addition act as an oasis of calm wa, serenity, peace and general happiness. From the Japan Center Mall to Peace Plaza’s cherry trees, the darling little Forest Books bookstore, run by the delightful Greg Wood, and the clean and well-priced Nijiiya Japanese Market, it is a delight. My food allergies don’t let me have fun, but the sheer joy sparked by the mochi donut shop, various cool restaurants – including Patti Smith’s favorite when she is in town “On The Bridge” that sells Japanese family restaurant style deliciousness, the takoyaki vendor, Japanese style crepe slinger, boba tea makers and matcha desert confectioners make for happy people and a peaceful atmosphere devoted to all things good. Japantown has beautified a part of town that lacks a good view, or naturally pretty buildings. I feel immensely at home there, and when I want to take the pace of life down a few notches that is where I go to walk, browse manga in Kinokuniya and feel happy that Nihonmachi still exists.
- The Beat Museum on Broadway The Beat Museum has the best beat and alternative collection of used and new books and ephemera in town. Cooler and cheaper than City Lights, with a huge collection of well priced prints from alternative culture, it is a mecca for those of us who are partly attracted to San Francisco because it was the cradle of all things beat and pop culture – Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsburg . The museum is a delight, the management passionate about the subject matter and always willing to show off their unique collection to visitors.
- Bookstores San Francisco is home to City Lights bookstore and publisher, which is an attraction in itself. Tourists gather outside in Jack Kerouac Alley to take photographs by the street art, and stand where Ginsburg, Dylan and the beat boys once stood and moodily smoked French cigarettes. It has the most history but it is far from being the only bookstore worth a visit. I’ve already mentioned Forest Books in Japantown, and The Beat Museum bookstore for a more focused collection, but the vast array of independent and wonderful bookstores is a good way to get out and see the city and come back home with something good to read. I like Russian Hill Books on Polk, Kinokuniya for its magnificent manga collection, and Green Apple Books in Richmond to the east of the city.
- The view from the top of any one of the hills…. What goes up sometimes goes down. San Francisco is insanely hilly. I sometimes wonder who looked at this steeply undulating topography and decided to build a city here! As much as the hills have given me thighs of steel, they also provide some magnificent views. I barely have to walk five minutes to see the water from the top of a nearby mini mountain. Seeing San Francisco spread out before me gives me immense joy.
- Pretending to be a tourist and walking along the Embarcadero Pier One has the best collection of food vendors in town, including the best gluten free bakery ever. Mariposa Bakery has brought me great joy. I can’t participate a lot in San Francisco food culture because of my food allergies and celiac disease, but I can find a vegan gluten free treat here now and again. The Farmers Market at the weekend is pure joy, especially for people watching purposes. If I feel up to the crowds I sometimes walk up to the Embarcadero, looking out at the boats and the sea lions, and head down Pier 36. Pretending to be a tourist, dodging the insistent pearl in an oyster sellers, and watching the painted ponies go round and round on the carousel, whilst catching some sea air is one of my favorite things to do.
- The best weather on the planet …. if you happen to like it cool to cold, and rather foggy. I don’t like hot weather. I don’t like very cold weather. San Francisco is a Goldilocks zone of ‘just right’, at least for me. We get sun in winter, it never gets unbearably hot, nor horribly cold. We could possibly do with a little more rain, but hey, can’t blame SF for the effects of global warming. Bring on that heavenly marine layer, baby!
- Compassion Whether you need it, or want to make a difference, San Francisco is a compassionate place. It is not perfect, but there are more people here who care and who fight the rising tide of apathy and cruelty than there are heartless bastards who want to make those who are suffering suffer more. Chesa Boudin at least cares. The Coalition on Homelessness cares. People might not be living that old San Franciscan hippy dream but the dream is also not totally dead.
- Chinatown The City has one of the most vibrant and enjoyably alive Chinatown areas I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. I love going to North Beach, wandering around Chinatown and heading down to the water. It is so uniquely San Franciscan whilst being a celebration of Chinese and Asian American culture that wandering around makes me hopeful that America can get a handle on the anti-Asian hatred, and who doesn’t like hope…or good food.
- Drooling over Victorian houses that look like real life dolls houses. Oh they are so beautiful! A little walk around Haight Ashbury or the little enclave around Lombard (the twisty street), or even where I live reveals some of the most gorgeous architecture in the United States. The houses are chocolate-box pretty. Architectural daydreams are free and provide a good work out, especially if I head towards Lombard!
- The Presidio National Park It is the City and it is also not the city. I go there to escape the crowds, walk on grass, have a picnic and generally breathe. There are also coyotes so be careful and don’t approach them!
San Francisco has more to offer than the shock horror stories from the press who object to point 7 – the compassion, and allow their immoral outrage full rein. We are our own little eco-system, both quintessentially American and also quite different in our attitudes and way of life. San Francisco is set apart even from California as a whole. I think it has been brewing a long time. Maybe it is the sea, perhaps it was because we attracted the beat generation as a place they could live and congregate, and then the hippies with their freedom and lsd. San Francisco is artistic, freethinking and culturally diverse and more than that, San Francisco is home.
(All photographs my own. No copying please!)