Archive for February, 2011

One of the most controversial and radical religious and social leaders of his time, the Rev. Cecil Williams has been an influential figure in San Francisco public life for the past half century.  Combining spirituality, left-wing politics and unstinting social activism he has been a inspirational spokesperson for the poor and margininalized in the city and across the country.  

He was born on 22nd September 1929 in San Angelo, Texas, one of six children.  After graduating from Huston-Tillotson University in 1952, he was one of the first five African American graduates of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University three years later.

He bacame the pastor of the GLIDE Memorial United Methodist Church at Ellis and Taylor in San Francisco in 1963.  Its mission has been to “create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization”. 

Diversity and compassion have been at the heart of Williams’s work.  People of all races, ethnic backgrounds, social classes, cultures, ages, faiths and sexual orientations are welcome to join in the Celebrations held every Sunday at 9am and 11am to “experience the energy of spiritual liberation coupled with the fusion of jazz, blues and gospel performed by the renowned GLIDE Ensemble choir and the Change Band”.  An example of this is contained in the following video:


It is the practical demonstration of his belief in diversity that has earned him both veneration and notoriety.  In 1965 he became the first minister to perform  same sex marriages long before the battles of the past decade and he was also instrumental in forming the Council on Religion and Homosexuality in 1964.  The church provided healing and comfort for the LGBTQ community in 1978 in the aftermath of Harvey Milk’s assassination, and it was the first  in the US to offer HIV testing after Sunday services during the AIDS epidemic of the eighties.

In 1967 Williams courted further controversy by ordering the cross removed from the church’s sanctuary, stating that it was a symbol of death and that his congregation should celebrate life and living instead.

Rev. Cecil Williams Mike Kepka / The Chronicle

His contribution to the struggle for civil and human rights is unquestioned and prompted him to host political rallies in which Angela Davis and the Black Panthers spoke in the seventies.  He has also arranged lectures by Bill Cosby and Billy Graham.  Other prominent public figures that have frequented and supported the church’s work include Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Maya Angelou and Warren Buffett.

Under his leadership, GLIDE Memorial became one of the most prominent liberal churches in the US, and now boasts a diverse congregation of over 11,000 members.  It is the largest provider of social services in the city, serving over 3,000 meals a day, providing AIDS / HIV screenings, innovative adult education programs, creative arts and mentoring for youth,  computer and job skills training, drug and alcohol recovery programs and giving assistance to women dealing with domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues.  GLIDE Health Services was hailed by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a model for national healthcare in March 2008.

Williams retired as pastor in 2000 in accordance with United Methodist Church rules.  However, the local congregation and affiliated non-profit foundation hired him in the newly created role of Minister of Liberation, thus enabling him to continue officially serving the community and church.

He was married to school teacher Evelyn Robinson from 1956 until their divorce in 1976.  They had two children, Albert and Kim.

He has been married to Janice Mirikitani, who co-founded the GLIDE Memorial Church with him and who has worked with him on many social programs, since 1982. 


The church is credited with helping Will Smith and his son get back on their feet in the 2006 film, the Pursuit of Happyness.  His autobiography I’m Alive was published in 1980.

In recent years he has received numerous honors and awards, including Southern Methodist University’s Most Distinguished Alumni, the National Caring Award and an appointment as Chairman for the Northern California Dr Martin Luther King Jnr Birthday Observance Commitee at the personal request of Dr King’s widow.

The challenges for Williams and his church are no less demanding than they were when he became pastor neary fifty years ago, and are best expressed, along with a restatement of his original vision, by the GLIDE website:

“a suffering economy, poverty, drug abuse, violence, and despair continue to persist in San Francisco as they do across the country. By working to combat these problems, GLIDE serves as an oasis in a desert of hopelessness, marching to the edge where victories for social justice are won. GLIDE is a place where old, destructive ways of being are thrown out and new ones created. Where names are named and love is celebrated and a simple call goes out to all races, classes, genders, ages, and sexual orientations: It’s recovery time. It’s time to love unconditionally”.

I trust we can all say “Amen” to that.

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Snow at sea level? It could happen this weekend.

For all the picture postcard scenes that San Francisco has to offer, rarely, very rarely, are they draped in the white stuff.  But this weekend, according to the above article in the San Francisco Chronicle, there is a distinct possibility that, for the first time in 35 years and only the twelfth time since 1856, snow will fall in Chinatown and Union Square.

In one sense I am glad that this may come – and go – more than a fortnight before I visit the city, but I am equally disappointed that I will not be able to witness this extraordinary meteorological sight at first hand.  I’ve no doubt, however, that cameras will be a-clicking in all parts and I will have to content myself with seeing the photographs.

I hope this phenomenon, along with the seven feet that have fallen in Tahoe over the past ten days, heralds a mild, sun-drenched March and April!

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Jerry Seinfeld once said that a “bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence that people are still thinking”.  If that is true, and I rather incline to the view that it is, then ignorance has claimed another modern victim. I learnt this morning by e mail that the giant Border’s bookstore in Union Square, San Francisco is about to close.  I’m not sure what date it will finally shut its doors, but I do hope the sale that began yesterday will still be in full swing when I visit towards the end of next month.

An oasis of culture in my least favourite part of the city, I have always looked forward to spending an hour, and a few dollars, there when on vacation.  It was one of the first bookstores in my experience that appeared to actively encourage customers to stay awhile and browse through the books and magazines before purchase.  Equally, it possessed a (Seattle’s Best) cafe that was always packed, even in the minutes leading up to its midnight closure. Thankfully, that has become a model for the diminishing number of bookstores in the UK in recent years.

In one sense I am hardly surprised – the Border’s bookstore in Oxford Street in London closed a couple of years ago, replaced by yet another tacky youth “fashion” emporium.  And another San Francisco branch – in South Beach – went out of business in October. Both were victims of the economic downturn in general and the rise of internet based competition.

Now, I can’t abdicate responsibility for my own part in the demise of the bookstore.  I can never pass one without going in – after all they are increasingly rare sights -but it is as often these days to check the price of books I want before rushing home, going online and buying them at massively discounted cost at Amazon.  I have resisted the allure of a Kindle or similar e-reader up till now, although the convenience might prove too much of a temptation before long.  What I will never lose the love for, however, is the feel and look of books and the generally civilised atmosphere of bookstores. 

At least I can still comfort myself with visits to the City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, Barnes and Noble in Fisherman’s Wharf and the Booksmith in Haight-Ashbury on my forthcoming trip.  I just hope I’m not lamenting their demise too before the next time I take that eleven hour flight west.

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In an era when cheap prostitution was rife in San Francisco, Tessie Wall’s brothel in the then fashionable Tenderloin district was a beacon of elegance and good taste, making her the best known and most successful parlor-house madam in town.Teresa Susan Donohue was born south of Market Street of Irish Catholic parents in May 1869.  A “flamboyant, well-upholstered blond” with blue eyes, she weighed 250 pounds, neither uncommon nor unpopular for a lady in her profession at the time.  She was a ribald, hard drinker with a big heart and is alleged to have outdrunk boxer John L. Sullivan.

Her first husband, a fireman, died in the early nineties, leaving her to support herself and a young son.  To make ends meet she entered the household of wealthy banker Judah Boas as a domestic servant, graduating to a dance hall girl.

In 1898 she opened her first brothel at 211 O’Farrell Street but this was  destroyed by one of the many fires triggered by the earthquake of 1906.  Undaunted she reopened it in a three storey brick building with terracotta facing at 337 O’Farrell Street.  It was a grand affair with the first floor comprising a saloon whilst upstairs was a large, mirrored ballroom, dining room, kitchen, twelve bedrooms and several parlors.

She usually had between ten and fifteen girls, most under twenty years of age, on call at any one time, charging around $20 a “trick”.  The brothel’s proceeds were doubled by the sale of liqour and champagne.

Clients were met at the back door by a black maid who ushered them into the parlor to meet Tessie.  As he entered the main receiving room he would be confronted by a needlepoint motto that read “If every man was as true to his country as he is to his wife – God help the USA”.

Tessie would invariably call out “Company, girls!”, heralding the sedate entrance of several prostitutes.  Whilst the client made up his mind he was expected to buy drinks for the company and put coins into an automatic music box.  Tessie had strict rules on manners and bad language.

She astutely befriended many in the police department.  Indeed, her fame and popularity were never better displayed than at the annual Policeman’s Ball held in the Civic Auditorium.  Bejeweled and elegantly attired, she would hang on the arm of Mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph before she made her grand entrance by planting herself at a table reserved for other ladies in her profession, slapping a $1,000 bill on the bar and exclaiming “Drink that up boys!”.

Although earning $5,000 a month, her penchant for horse racing, and antiques to furnish her establishment, prevented her from ever becoming rich.

The city’s brothels were closed in January 1917 on the orders of the Navy Department in an attempt to prevent sailors fighting in the war from enjoying themselves on leave.

She had married her second husband, gambler, pool hall owner and Republican boss of the Tenderloin‘s vice activity, Frank Daroux, in 1906, but after he had been unfaithful to her and sought a divorce, she shot him twice in 1917 because, she claimed, “I Loved Him, Damn Him”.  However, she was released when he refused to press charges.

She retired to a small apartment in the Mission, which, unsurprisingly, became a speakeasy at Prohibition.  She died in 1932, leaving many of her most prized antiques.  The massive gold-plated Napoleon bed that Daroux had bought her in 1900 for $1,000 was sold at auction for just $105.

She once claimed that she would rather be a lamppost on Powell Street than own all of San Mateo County.  Well, San Francisco does get you like that doesn’t it?

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In my recent post California Dreamin’……and of Nevada too, I promised, or rather threatened, to burden you with my plans for the San Francisco leg of our upcoming trip.

We have rented an apartment in NOPA (North of the Panhandle) for a fortnight this time, hiring a car for the first week and buying a City Pass, which includes a seven day MUNI passport, for the second.  This will be our eighth trip, the first few of which were only for a few days, so the temptation to revisit the same haunts was strong back then.

But now we are more experienced visitors, and whilst I suppose we cannot shake off the tourist tag, we aim to “live like locals” as much as we can.  We will, of course, still frequent favourite spots such as Golden Gate ParkHaight-Ashbury, AT & T Park, Golden Gate Bridge, Beach Blanket Babylon and the Cliff House, but the emphasis is increasingly on new places and experiences as well as return trips to attractions we have not been to for some years.

With the car we intend to take the opportunity to venture beyond the city to Berkeley, Tiburon / Angel Island and Santa Cruz / Half Moon Bay, none of which we have done more than drive through in the past. 

Time permitting, we would also like to explore part of the northern coast, for example Point Reyes and Bodega Bay (Mendocino may be a little too far).   Given that we will be experiencing our first NHL game between the Sharks and the LA Kings, we will give downtown San Jose a look in too. Monterey / Carmel, the Napa Valley and Alcatraz (by day and night) have seen enough of us in the past, so we will spare them this time.

Back in the city the focus will be more on revisiting sites we have missed on recent trips such as Twin Peaks, Coit Tower and the Palace of Fine Arts / Exploratorium.  In addition, there are places that we have, shamefully, bypassed before that we must visit this time, including the Grace Cathedral, City Hall and the redwood grove at the Transamerica Pyramid amongst others.

New cultural experiences will include seeing our first show at the Castro Theater (Singalong Wizard of Oz?), visiting SF MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and the de Young Museum, none of which we have done before.

I am sure I will be adding to the list over the next four weeks but these are the “must-dos” at present.  Whether we succeed in meeting the challenge will be revealed in the daily blog I hope to maintain during the trip.

In the meantime, if anyone has read this and thought “yes, that’s fine but you have just got to go to………….” please let me know.

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Well, I was about to post on here that I wouldn’t be posting on here for a few days as my wife and I were visiting her parents in Lancaster for a long weekend to celebrate her father’s eightieth birthday.   Why should that present a problem I hear you ask? Are you expressly forbidden from venturing into cyberspace whilst you are there?  Well, no.  Or do they not have internet access, or, heaven forfend, computers, in the northern regions? No, that wasn’t the issue either.

It was the fact that because we were travelling by rail for a change, leaving the car to put its feet up for a few days (though it is forbidden to have any parties), we had to keep to a minimum the amount of luggage we were taking.  And I had made the painful and heroic sacrifice of deciding to leave my laptop at home.  The fact that it is currently unwell and not fit to travel is entirely irrelevant.

I was not contemplating the prospect – the absence of a computer rather than the weekend itself I should quickly add – with much relish.  But the more discerning or awake of you will have observed that the previous paragraphs were written wholly in the past tense.  Yes, I have swerved that calamity, a trifle drastically you might think, by purchasing a netbook this morning!  Having  installed it with a surprising minimum of fuss I can take it with me tomorrow. So, I may still not post as much over the next few days, but there is a chance.  You’ll just have to keep hittin’ on me to find out.

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In my very first post on this blog I said that, despite its user friendliness, it would take me some time to get to grips with the technical demands of the site.  This has been no more apparent than in my feeble attempts to replace the pretty but irrelevant image that I inherited into one that reflects my subject matter.

Having spent weeks thinking that I needed to change the background rather than the header and getting some bizarre results, I have finally succeeded.  I will replace it from time to time with other photographs that I have taken of “everyone’s favourite city” but, for now, those Painted Ladies look mighty fine to me.  Hope you agree!

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Five weeks tomorrow (Wednesday) my wife and I will be flying out to our second home, San Francisco, California, USA.  I use the word “home”, not in the sense that it is where we are permanently domiciled, but rather as the place where we feel most “at home”.  This will be our eighth trip to the City by the Bay and we could not be looking more forward to it.

Since the millenium we have, in the Spring of every even year (’00 to ’10 inclusive), spent 3-4 weeks “out west”.  Each vacation has followed a similar pattern – a week or so skiing in Heavenly, Lake Tahoe at the beginning and  week or two in San Francisco at the end, with three or four day visits to other locations sandwiched in between for a few days – these have included Vegas, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Following last year’s vacation we decided that life was too short to have to wait two years for our next skiing and SF fixes, so, at least for now, it has become an annual event.  Our long term aim, finances permitting, has always been that once my wife has joined me in Retirement Row, which may still be a few years yet, we will spend longer in San Francisco / Heavenly, upwards of three months at a time, twice a year. 

But for now it’s three and a half weeks, starting with the customary first night stay in San Francisco followed by the drive to South Lake Tahoe on the following day. Ever since the night in 2002 when we thought we could make the trip from SF to Tahoe immediately following an eleven hour flight, and then, after negotiating a heavy rain-splashed evening commute out of town, spent seven hours crawling through a four foot snow storm (of which more another time), we have seen sense and stayed in the City before venturing out refreshed the next morning. 

Besides, we have developed a routine, now I suppose it warrants being dignified with the word tradition, for that overnight stay that sets the scene for the entire vacation – dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue in North Beach followed by a scan of the shelves in the City Lights Bookstore and a few drinks in Vesuvio’s in the evening, and breakfast at the Eagle Cafe on Pier 39 the next morning, along with half an hour in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Fisherman’s Wharf stocking up on any vacation reading before we head off to Tahoe.

We are only skiing for four days this year, though it’s four more days that we would have anticipated when we left there last March.  So we are hoping for perfect spring conditions – they snow is already there, all we need now is the sun.  And the best meal of our entire trip last year was at the Riva Grill on Ski Run Marina, so we plan to eat there again.

After five nights we fly from Reno to Vegas where we are meeting my wife’s parents, both of whom are now 80 and still hitting “Sin City”! Just three nights there but, as ever, action packed – Cirque de Soleil Viva Elvis show in the Aria, possibly another show yet to be booked and a trip to the Hoover Dam with a deluxe cruise on Lake Mead. And then there’s at least two of those nights spent tackling  feisty “Whiskey Girl” cocktails at Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar and Grill.

With such tasty appetisers cleared away we move onto the main course – San Francisco.  Last year we eschewed a hotel for the first time and stayed in an apartment in Hayes Valley for two weeks.  This will now be the template for the future.   We wanted to “live like locals” as much as possible, and staying in someone’s home is a good starting point – no maids knocking at your door in the morning anxious to clean your room, you can eat in as often or as little as you want and, if you have a washer and dryer, you are never short of clean clothing!  The last facility is particularly important this year since Virgin Atlantic has halved the cabin luggage allowance since our trip last year.

We are staying in a much larger apartment this year on Fulton Street, half way between Alamo Square and Golden Gate Park.  Not only is it more spacious but it comes with a huge TV, computer and, rarest and most precious of all in San Francisco, a designated parking space.

I will post separately about our plans for San Francisco but our emphasis this year will be on new places and new experiences, though I’m sure that we won’t be able to resist returning to many of our favourite haunts such as Beach Blanket Babylon (already booked for our fifth visit), the Cliff HouseHaight-Ashbury and AT & T Park.

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As may already be apparent to anyone who has kindly read any of the first four entries in this series, my writing ship has been steering clear of political waters.  And, certainly for the foreseeable future, that will continue to be the case. 

At the outset I envisioned alternating between the serious and the populist, but as I consider future subjects I find myself drawn towards those individuals that most closely embody the word “character” in the sense of being “an unusual or amusing person” (OED), rather than those whose deeds have  been commendable but whose persona has been dull.

That is not to say that the occasional politician or other staid public figure will not gatecrash (formally, of course) the party at intervals, but the focus will continue to be on people whose lives and achievements reflected a colourful personality.    

So in coming features you can expect to read about such characters as Mrs Friedel Klussmann, “the woman who saved the cable cars”, Herb Caen, the legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Lillian Hitchcock Coit, the fire engine follower whose bequest to the city funded the construction of the tower that bears her name and Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter whose dramatic murals adorn parts of the city.

In order that the features retain an interest for anyone stumbling upon this blog I would also very much welcome any requests for future subjects.

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