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Archive for June, 2013


As our month’s stay in San Francisco’s Noe Valley sadly draws to a close, here are a few photos we took of the neighbourhood.

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Flowers and Festivals

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Bougainvillea sprouting everywhere

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Saturday morning Farmer’s Market

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Can never leave here without parting with our money

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Excellent local bookstore

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Constant lines outside Chloe’s café 

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But we preferred this one – the Eggs Benedict has it!

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Famous movie location  (“Sister Act”)

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Excellent coffee and bagels at Martha’s just a block away

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If we run out of anything, there’s always the corner store

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Many who have read my pieces on San Francisco will have concluded that Haight-Ashbury is my spiritual home, and they are probably right, principally because of the music that exploded out of there in the mid-sixties. But it is the cultural movement that pre-dated the hippies by a decade and more that most plays to my sensibilities.

The Beats, with their emphasis on free expression in literature, poetry, music, theatre and lifestyle (sex and drugs), were, whether they knew it or not at the time, the major inspiration for those young people in London and other urban areas in Britain who flocked to coffee bars and folk clubs in the late fifties and early sixties, just at the time that I was becoming aware of wider societal issues. Moreover, many of the rock stars that, a decade later, I worshipped, for example Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane, learnt their trade in the coffee houses of the Bay Area, heavily influenced by the events a few miles away.

Although the Beat Generation originally emerged in New York with the early works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, it was San Francisco’s North Beach, the “Little Italy” neighbourhood nestling beneath Telegraph Hill and rubbing shoulders with bustling Chinatown, where it arguably took root.

And, although North Beach may not quite be the Italian enclave it was half a century ago, the influence of the Beats remains to this day. Certain landmarks are place of pilgrimage for both my generation and anyone who believes in free expression and alternative perspectives on the issues of the day.

My walk begins at my favourite San Francisco watering hole, Vesuvio, interestingly still called a café rather than a bar, and not just because it is where Neal Casady, inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s classic Beat novel On The Road, first met the writer at a poetry reading in 1955.

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A few groggy steps across Jack Kerouac Alley stands one of America’s most famous and important bookstores, City Lights, which celebrates its sixtieth birthday this year. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, now 94 and San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate, and Peter D. Martin, first opened its doors at around the time of the coronation of the new Queen, Elizabeth II, across the Atlantic.

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I never leave San Francisco without visiting the bookstore and coming away with at least one book. Many of the more interesting and challenging books on the city’s past, present and future are published by City Lights and they are not easy to get hold of elsewhere. Two and counting at present on this trip!

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With the addition of The Beat Museum on Broadway in 2003, the devotees’ experience of the area has been enriched still further. Aside from the fascinating exhibit in the museum itself, the adjoining shop sells an amazing collection of books, DVDs, posters, t shirts and other Beat memorabilia. Whilst I managed, at least on my previous visit, to resist the blandishments of a signed book by Wavy Gravy at $45 (but there’s still another trip), I still bought another. If distance makes visiting the museum itself out of the question, they run an excellent online store too.

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Although I am not qualified to say whether Broadway, which cuts across Columbus, has the same caché as it once had (though I think I do know the answer to that), there can be no question that the days of Lenny Bruce’s risqué comedy act at the hungry i and Carol Doda’s historic breast baring at the Condor are long past.

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North Beach is still awash with coffee houses, many of which were haunts of unemployed writers and musicians in the heyday of the Beats. Café Trieste is perhaps the most prestigious with its live opera, oh so cool attitude and blisteringly strong espresso. Seats are hard to come by for all those reasons – well, at least inside! 

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I think it’s only fitting that we should finish back at Vesuvio – I hear that Bob Dylan has dropped in for an espresso.

And I’ll leave you with an image that describes the Beat’s relationship to polite society like no other.

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Not so much a hike, more a leisurely uphill stroll.

The view to the east from the deck of our apartment is dominated by Bernal Heights Hill, a rocky outcrop with stunning 360 degree views of the Bay and inland areas.

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Staying in Noe Valley, this was one of our local “things to do”. We set out from the apartment, joined Cesar Chavez Street, crossing Mission and Folsom before turning right up Harrison into pretty Precita Park, the starting point for the walk. Inevitably, dogs outnumbered humans in this neat green space adjacent to the Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School.

The walk began from the southwestern corner of the park, the steepest part being up tree-lined Folsom Street with fine views of the City through the treetop leaves.

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The top of Folsom merges left into Bernal Heightd Boulevard and the entrance to the park.

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You are immediately aware that this is dog territory as the profusion of signs describe the best trails, advertise dog walking and grooming services and, less happily, contain heartfelt pleas for for the restoration of lost animals to their owners.
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The route to the top takes a gentle, winding path, though the adventurous or merely mad might be tempted to clamber up the green-brown hill itself.

The dazzling vistas begin by the entrance and become increasingly spectacular as you ascend the path.

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No tourists, and, by my understanding, few local residents, make this journey, but they are missing a treat. Step aside Twin Peaks, this is by far the  best vantage point to enjoy the San Francisco panorama.

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Downtown, the “bracelet of bridges”, Mount Davidson, Twin Peaks  and Candlestick Park are all clearly visible from this spacious peak. The wide expanse stretches almost into the bay itself.

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On the opposite side are Noe Valley, Diamond Heights and Glen Park, nestling under the benign family of Twin Peaks and Sutro Tower.  

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We can almost reach over and touch our apartment, two minutes walk from the stately St. Paul’s Catholic Church, where the movie Sister Act  was filmed.

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At the summit we felt even more like human intruders in doggie heaven, and the canine armies continued to assemble as we passed through the small car park beneath it.

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We dipped down Anderson Street into Cortland Avenue, the main shopping and dining thoroughfare of the Bernal Heights neighbourhood, and after an excellent lunch at the Progressive Grounds coffee house, took the surprisingly short and relatively flat walk back into Noe Valley. This would – and may – warrant a separate article in itself, but suffice to say that we found it a delightful spot. 

But the final word goes to the characters that dominate this wonderful open space.

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Washington may have had its Art Buchwald, London its J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber”) and Dublin the mercurial Myles Na gCopaleen, but few cities can have been as fortunate as San Francisco in having a chronicler (no pun intended) as prolific, urbane and popular as Herb Caen who wrote in its daily newspapers about life in the city, for almost sixty years.  With more than 16,000 columns of over 1,000 words each, lifelong friend, author and restaurateur, Barnaby Conrad, estimated that if “laid end to end, his columns would stretch 5.6 miles, from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge”.

Herbert Eugene Caen was born on 3rd April 1916 in Sacramento, though he claimed to have been conceived on the Marina in San Francisco during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition as his parents spent the summer there “complaining about the cold”.

He joined the Sacramento Union as a sports reporter in 1932 on graduating from high school.  Four years later he was hired to write a radio column for the San Francisco Chronicle, beginning an association that was to last for 50 of the next 61 years.

On the scrapping of the radio column he persuaded the editor, Paul Smith, that he could write a daily column on the city, and  It’s News to Me duly debuted on 5th July 1938, appearing thereafter for six days a week.

When the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1942 he joined the Air Force, assigned to communications, and reached the rank of captain.  Returning to his Chronicle column, he continued to record and comment upon the foibles of local government and personailities.

Caen often referred to San Francisco as Baghdad-by-the-Bay,  a term he coined to reflect the city’s exotic multiculturism.  A collection of his essays bearing the same title was published in 1949, going through seven printings.  In 1953 he published the book Don’t Call it Frisco after an Examiner news item of the same name on 3rd April 1918 when Judge Mogan, presiding in a divorce case, stated that “No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles”.  Emperor Norton had previously raged against the use of the term and issued one of his imperial proclamations to that effect.

However, a year later, Caen left the Chronicle for higher paid work at the San Francisco Examiner, for which he worked until 1958 when he was persuaded to return to his former employer on the promise of a better salary.  His “homecoming” column was published on 15th January of that year.

In 1976 he published One Man’s San Francisco, a fine collection of some of the best writing from his columns.  In 1988, the fiftieth anniversary of the column was marked by a special edition of the Chronicle’s “Sunday Punch”.  At the age of 75 he decided to slow down by reducing his output from six to five days a week!

Caen was hugely popular and a highly influential figure in San Francisco society.  He was described by the Chronicle as a “major wit and unwavering liberal who could be charming, outspoken and, at times, disagreeable.”

He called his work “three-dot journalism”, in reference to the ellipses by which he separated his column’s short items, all composed on his “Loyal Royal” typewriter.

His writing was imbued with a gentle, dry wit and an intimate knowledge of the politics, society and culture of his adopted city and the wider Bay Area. Hardly a show, party or any other significant event in San Francisco was complete without Caen’s gregarious presence, and his clever, sometimes acerbic, comments on it the next morning in his column.  Conrad said that “he seemed to know everyone in the world; he somehow made them honorary San Franciscans and let us, his readers, have the privilege of knowing them, too”.

His witticisms and plays on words would fill another ten features, but here are a few:

  • “the trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around”;
  • “I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there”;
  • “cockroaches and socialites are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything”; and
  • “the only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever”.

The Bay Bridge was “the car-strangled spanner”, City Hall “Silly Hall” and Berkeley was “Berserkeley”.

Whilst many of his invented words have passed into history, others have become not only synonymous with San Francisco but entered the everyday language.  On 2nd April 1958, in a Pocketful of Notes, he reported on a party hosted by 50 “Beatniks” which spread to “over 250 bearded cats and kits”.  This is the first known use of the word.  And during the Summer of Love in 1967 he contributed more than anybody to popularising the term “hippie”.

In 1996 he was the recipient of a special award from the Pulitzer Prize Board which acclaimed his “extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of the city”.  On 14th June of the same year 75,000 people, including Walter Cronkite, Robin Williams, Willie Mays, Don  Johnson and Mayor Willie Brown who presided over the event, celebrated Herb Caen Day.

He espoused many liberal causes over his career, including a life long opposition to the death penalty.  He was also one of the first mainstream newspaper men to question the Vietnam War.  But it is to his beloved San Francisco that we return for one of his most passionate campaigns, namely to have the hideous and excessively busy Embarcadero Freeway, or “Dambarcadero” as he called it, demolished.  Success came, but from an unexpected source.  The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged it so severely that the decision was taken to pull it all down.  A three mile sweep  of the Embarcadero is now named “Herb Caen Way” in his honour.  The wide promenade is the most eastern street in San Francisco, curving round its northeast corner, proceeding along the waterfront, and ending near AT & T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, the team Caen adored.

Despite a terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, Caen continued to write almost until his death on 1st February 1997, though his output understandably shrunk over time. His funeral six days later was held in the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, attended by 250 people with hundreds more outside listening to the hymns and eulogies over loudspeaker.

Caen had willed to the city a fireworks display which was given in Aquatic Park in front of Ghiradelli Square, concluding with a pyrotechnic image of a typewriter on the bay.  This tribute was attended by many of his friends and fans, who gathered on Herb Caen Way… on the Embarcadero, lit candles protected from the wind by dixie cups, and walked north along the waterfront to Aquatic Park.

And all this for a local hack!

John Steinbeck wrote that he “made a many-faceted character of the city of San Francisco….It is very probable that Herb’s city will be the one that is remembered”.

But the last fitting words should be left to Caen himself:

“One day if I go to heaven…I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco'”.

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For fifteen years I believed unquestioningly the received wisdom that San Francisco Zoo was to be avoided at all costs. Underfunded, rundown and more concerned about entertaining its dwindling number of human visitors than caring for its residents, the its reputation had plunged to an all-time low. And then, on Christmas Day 2007, a member of the public was savaged to death by an escaped tiger, the same animal that had bitten a keeper just twelve months before. Among locals, confessing to liking it became nearly as criminal an act as admitting to paying a visit to Pier 39. And it was too far removed from the tourist bus trail to lure outsiders to its Ocean Beach location.

But today, on reading that the zoo was making a comeback, we set aside any such prejudice and took the combined J and L Muni lines to Sloat and 47th to join the young families and school parties that appeared, understandably, to represent the main customer base.

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The first thing that strikes you is the beautifully lush setting. And there has, and continues to be, a tremendous amount of work being done in recent years to rebrand and remodel the Zoo around different habitats and focusing on conservation. As someone who has two world class wildlife parks on his doorstep – the John Aspinall Foundation zoos at Howlett’s and Port Lympne in Kent in England – I wish them well and applaud the passion that was evident in the friendly, welcoming staff.

To recommend a zoo as the perfect place to take the kids is like proposing that an aquarium is the best spot to encounter tropical fish. But the children’s zoo here is a delight. It is a spacious and clean where the children are encouraged to learn about, and engage physically, with the inhabitants, all of whom are only too willing to be petted – and fed. A steam train that picks up a thrilling speed on its short route and an indoor carousel provide added excitement.

Photographed below are just a few of the adorable characters that live at the Zoo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many animals actually out on display, particularly in the afternoon, than I did on our visit. Generally, they are taking a siesta or just merely playing hard to get. Some, for example the snow leopard and beaver, made themselves unavailable, but the vast majority were clearly visible and untroubled, even stimulated, by the interest shown in them by the public.

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Now Singapore it is not. Nor Toronto. Nor even San Diego.

But it is a zoo that is trying hard to heal a reputation that had been seriously harmed in a market where the alternative “big beasts” like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, hold all the aces. And it is doing so in the right way by concentrating on conservation.

TripAdvisor places it 87th out of 520 attractions in San Francisco which, on my limited mathematical analysis, means it is in the top sixteen percent, which, in one sense, is not too shabby. But a city zoo, especially one in such a lovely setting, should be doing better. It deserves greater support from prospective benefactors, San Francisco residents and out of town visitors alike.

And yes, we did see both the baby sumatran tiger and giraffe!

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No words (apart from these) but just photographs taken on an afternoon stroll through San Francisco’s Chinatown neighbourhood.

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What better antidote – not that one was needed – to a day spent in hippie heaven than a morning in San Francisco’s Union Square. Now I’ll confess that it is one of my least favoured parts of the city, even more so since the demise of the large branch of Border’s Books, only to be replaced by the Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW) store (which my wife, by the way, adores).

But, in the right light, and provided you don’t actually have to go into any of the designer stores, I can endure, if not quite enjoy, a couple of hours there.

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I stepped across the threshold of Macy’s for only the second time, and even then only to take the escalator to the eighth floor to experience the outstanding views of the entire square from the outside seating area attached to The Cheesecake Factory.

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The predominance of grey and supporting cast of green contrast dramatically with the garish hues on display on Haight Street less than 24 hours before, but the austere layout, especially of the the Kremlin-esque Westin St Francis Hotel (below), whilst not conforming to “my” idea of San Francisco, is not disagreeable when the sun co-operates.

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We could almost have been in any European city as we sat outside the Emporio Rulli café on the Stockton Street side, though the huge Macy’s frontage soon disabused me of that fantasy.

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Fortified by her latté fix, Janet was ready to take on DSW whilst I sought photo opportunities that had escaped me before (just how many pictures of cable cars cruising down Nob Hill can one man take?). Hearts, beefeaters and Betty Boop provided satisfying alternative subjects – but no, I couldn’t resist the full to bursting cable cars as they stopped in front of me almost pleading to be photographed.

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Janet’s re-emergence from DSW was uneventful – apparently this was merely a reconnaisance trip – and we settled for lunch and more people watching in the Bancarella café on the Powell and Geary corner of the square.

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Union Square still doesn’t figure in my top 20 San Francisco locations but I learnt to appreciate, if not love, it a little more after this visit.

I might even summon up the courage to shop in Macy’s before this vacation is over.

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