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Posts Tagged ‘Cable cars’


Next time your cable car teeters tantalisingly on the intersection of Powell and California, hop off and take the short uphill hike to Nob Hill, so named for the grand edifices built and once occupied by the wealthy railroad barons and other nineteenth century entrepreneurs. It is still home to some of the most prime real estate in the city.

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Fairmont Hotel – survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire and

hosted the signing of the UN Charter in 1945

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Lobby of the Fairmont Hotel 

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Majestic Grace Cathedral – home to two labyrinths, glorious

gilded bronze doors and fine stained glass windows

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California Street cable car – quieter than the Powell-Hyde and

Powell-Mason lines – but no less fun!

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The Bay Bridge complements the buildings that frame it

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One of the many fine murals in the Grace Cathedral

depicts the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

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Serene Huntington Park  watched over by

the Grace Cathedral

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Mark-Hopkins Inter-Continental Hotel – the glass-walled bar on its 19th 

 floor known as the “Top of the Mark” provides one of the great views of the city

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Those “little cable cars” climbing “halfway to the stars” are one of the best loved and most iconic experiences for any visitor to San Francisco.  But few tourists hanging onto that lead rail as the Powell-Hyde car plunges down to the bay, or commuters perched atop Nob Hill on a California Street car about to sweep past the swanky hotels en route to the Financial District, will be aware that there was a time, shortly after the Second World War, when they became an endangered species.  Or even less so of the fact that they were saved for future generations through the foresight and resilience of a genteel, middle-aged lady from the eastern slopes of Telegraph Hill.

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The devastating earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed much of the cable car system and triggered the rapid expansion in construction of electric streetcars with overhead wires, the first of which had been built in 1892.  And once it had been shown that the latest municipal buses, unlike the streetcars, could negotiate the steep hills, the continued viability of Andrew Hallidie’s invention was called into sharp focus.

By 1944 there were only five lines left in operation – the three independently owned by the California  Street Cable Railroad (Cal Cable) and the Powell-Mason and Washington-Jackson lines owned by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni).

On 27th January 1947, in his annual message to the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Roger Lapham, a New York businessman who had been elected with a mandate to streamline the city’s finances, announced that the “city should get rid of its cable cars as soon as possible”, claiming that they were losing $200,000 a year.

Lapham’s vision of “super buses” replacing the cable cars met with little public favour, and the San Francisco Chronicle encapsulated the opposition’s argument in its editorial of 3rd February when it wrote that: “bus lines would be a good deal less expensive. But against this saving should be weighted………the market value of an institution which helps make the city stand out among cities of the world”.

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But the strongest advocate for their retention came in the unlikely form of prominent socialite, Mrs Friedel Klussmann, who, outraged by this pronouncement, immediately began to mobilise opposition through the equally improbable auspices of the California Spring Blossom and Wildflowers Association and the San Francisco Federation of the Arts.

On 4th March, within sight of the Mayor’s office, she held a joint meeting attended by leaders of 27 women’s civic groups and formed a Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars, collecting more than 1,000 signatures in the first four hours of its campaign for an initiative charter amendment, a figure that was to rise to 50,000 by the end of the battle with City Hall. Despite the increasingly desperate arguments emanating from the Mayor’s office, the Board of Supervisors voted 7 to 4 to place Measure 10 on the November ballot.

Neither Mrs Klussmann nor her Committee were mere soft-hearted sentimentalists, and they put forth a robust rebuttal of the economic argument for closure in a detailed press release that spoke about the “$34,630,522 of new money” generated by tourism in the previous year, adding that San Francisco “is constantly striving to interest the rest of the world in its historical and colorful background, of which the cable cars are the No.1 attraction”.  The loss of the Powell and Market turnaround would be a blow to the city’s identity that “cannot be measured”.

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As Life Magazine put in in its 24th February edition: “It was as though Venice had proposed ridding itself of its gondolas”.  Visiting celebrities, including Elenor Roosevelt, publicly endorsed Mrs Klussmann’s campaign.  Newspapers were inundated with letters of support for the cable cars and accounts from passengers of their grim experiences waiting for and riding buses.

Measure 10 compelling the City to maintain and operate the existing cable car system was passed overwhelmingly by 166,989 votes to 51,457.  In her victory statement Mrs Klussmann said: “It is wonderful to know that San Franciscans appreciate their famous, efficient and safe cable cars”.  The Committee was galvanised again in 1950, 1951, 1954 and 1971 to fight further cost-cutting measures, with modest success.

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In the same year Mrs Klussmann also founded San Francisco Beautiful (www.sfbeautiful.org), the “only organisation in San Francisco whose sole purpose is to protect and enhance the city’s urban environment”, working to “improve the quality of daily life, strengthen communities and empower citizens to maintain the character of the city’s parks, neighbourhoods and streets”.  It continues to do excellent work today, not least through its Friedel Klussmann grants made to organisations that “seek to maintain or enhance San Francisco’s unique beauty and livability”.

When she died at the age of 90 in 1986 the cable cars were decorated in black in her memory.  On 4th March 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of the Committee’s initial meeting outside City Hall, the Friends of the Cable Car Museum dedicated a mural to Mrs Klussmann at the cable car barn.  The turntable at the outer terminal of the Powell-Hyde line was also dedicated to her.

So next time, dear visitor, when you skirt the ridge of Russian Hill on a clanking, rumbling Powell-Hyde cable car and catch your breath at the bay vista spread out before you, spare a thought for the prosperous, middle-aged lady, whose vision and courage sixty years ago ensured that you can have those unforgettable experiences today.

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I am particularly indebted to Walter Rice and Val Lupiz’s excellent article The Cable Car and the Mayor (www.cable-car-guy.com/html/cclm.html#top) for much of the detail provided above.

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Only after we returned from our latest trip to San Francisco did it occur to me that, during the ten night stay, we had neither visited such perennial favourites as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts or Alamo Square, nor taken a single ride on a cable car.

How can you travel nearly 6,000 miles to one of the most popular cities on earth and not take in its most iconic locations I hear you say? Surely, you are missing out on the greatest experiences it has to offer?

That is not, however, the way I see it. Rather than accept that this represents poor planning and an opportunity missed, I rather view it as a sign of our growing maturity as visitors to San Francisco. The fact is that we no longer feel the need to tick off as many of the guidebook recommendations as possible, tiring us out unnecessarily in the process.

The nature of our time spent there is increasingly taking on a different, more relaxed, you might even call it ordinary, tenor, one that more closely mirrors that of how we live at home.   Being in San Francisco has become such a familiar and regular part of our lives, somewhere we visit more often even than the places we love in our own country, that it has assumed that status of our second home, and, therefore, somewhere we neither  have to pretend to be what we are not, nor have to do what we feel we ought to do.

Choosing to stay some distance from the tourist enclaves of Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf, as we did in Noe Valley this year, allows us to do as much, or as little, as we feel on any given day.

If all we want to do is to hang out at the apartment in the morning, watching the Bay Area news on TV whilst catching up on household chores, before strolling out to a neighbourhood café for lunch, followed by gift and food shopping and then returning to the apartment for a glass or two of wine on the outside private deck whilst watching the world go by, then so be it. We then might eat in in the evening – or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might decide to take the metro downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach.

The point is that we are at liberty to do as we wish, not as we feel we ought to do to make the most of the trip and the not inconsiderable expense. Of course, it has been the happy conversion from hotel to apartment living over the past three years that has enabled us to do this.

And if it sounds to you that living in San Francisco has become less exciting for us, even routine, even a chore, then you could not be further from the truth. Whilst I can comfortably claim that we now feel at home in the city and, for myself in particular, probably did so before I ever visited it, I am tempted to suggest even that we have become, in a small way, San Franciscans, interested in its politics (with a small “p”), culture and, undeniably, its sport – just as we do at home.

And remember – those wonderful attractions are still a short drive or a bus or taxi ride away.

Nor is it the case that we no longer go sightseeing – far from it. On our recent trip we may have bypassed some of the more renowned locations, but we made a conscious effort to sample new, and nearly new, experiences, some of which were long overdue. These included a tour of City Hall, exploring Nob Hill, the Castro and Hyde Street Pier in depth, reliving the Summer of Love on the Flower Power Walking Tour, sunbathing in Dolores Park, and spending an afternoon in the excellent California Palace of the Legion of Honour.

Attending two Giants games at AT & T Park and a thrilling Elvis Costello concert at the Warfield, as well as eating out at more traditional restaurants such as John’s Grill (in the Maltese Falcon room) and the Daily Grill (Lefty O’Doul’s was too busy) added real richness to our stay.

And we still found time to take in several of our favourite spots – Golden Gate Park, including the Japanese Tea Garden and Stow Lake, Sunday brunch at the Cliff House, dinner at the North Beach Restaurant, Beach Blanket Babylon, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building and the depressingly under threat Gold Dust Lounge.  And, of course, a spot of DSW shoe shopping for my wife in Union Square – now, heretically, resident in the former Border’s bookstore (the shoe shop, that is, not my wife – though she might like to be).

Having read the above, perhaps the vacation wasn’t quite as relaxing as I first thought!

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“I’m coming home again…..never to roam again” the song continues. Well, sadly, I will be roaming back to the UK in no time, but not until I have spent the next fortnight back in the “one in all the Golden West”.

Many of my previous posts attest to my love for The City, especially  http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/my-san-francisco-top-ten/ .

Those of you who have stayed the course with me will be relieved to learn that I’m not going to dribble on about cable cars, bay views and hippie Haight in this post – well I might find myself unable to avoid rapping a little on the last one……..man.

No, as our upcoming ninth trip approaches, this post looks ahead to some of the less touristic experiences that await us. Some are perennial joys whilst others will be savoured for the first time.

In the best “traditions” of TV reality shows (so I am reliably informed), they are presented in no particular order:

1. Eating Sourdough bread

Taking that first bite from an authentic sourdough loaf will almost certainly be the first, and last, taste sensation of our visit. Whilst, allegedly, I can purchase sourdough bread from a farmer’s market or wholefoods supplier in the more enlightened towns and cities of the British Isles, it will not be made from the Boudin “mother dough” and, therefore, not carry the unmistakably tangy taste of the San Francisco original.

If you want to read more about the genesis of the Boudin sourdough, you can do worse (just) than read my article at:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/great-san-franciscan-characters-13-isidore-boudin/

2. Riding on the MUNI

“I get sourdough bread but MUNI – are  you crazy?” I hear any resident or informed visitor exclaim. “The “service” is totally unreliable, the drivers insolent and a sizeable number of its customers are so weird that they’d fail the audition for any self-respecting freak show”.

Ah, but there be the rub, me hearties. It is the “all human life is there” quality that makes it so endearing – provided, of course, that you’re not planning to be any place soon or are of a squeamish disposition.

I wrote about one particularly entertaining and ingenious tableau in my diary from last year’s vacation:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/western-diary-day-17-hittin-the-heights-and-muni-delights/ .

3. Watching the Giants play an MLB game at AT & T Park

Two actually – the (Pittsburgh) Pirates on Opening Night, complete with fireworks, on Saturday 14th April and the (Philadelphia) Phillies two nights later. An earlier post documented my initiation into baseball, and following the San Francisco Giants in particular:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/bitten-by-the-giants-baseball-bug/

Visiting the City that little bit later this year has meant that we can finally graduate from attending desultory pre-season games featuring squad players to joining a full house crowd at a “real” game, or rather two, with heavy hitters, or rather pitchers, such as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Oh, and eating those fabulous garlic fries – and taking cover from the dive bombing seagulls towards the end of the game.

4. Getting to Know New Neighbourhoods

After successful stays in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle in the past couple of years, we are staying further south this year by renting an apartment for the first week in Noe Valley, or “Stroller Valley” as it is affectionately known for the preponderance of resident families with young children.

We aim to “stay local” as much as possible that week, exploring unfamiliar neighbourhoods such as Noe Valley itself and semi-mountainous Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill and Twin Peaks, as well as re-familiarising ourselves in particular with the Castro and Mission districts, much neglected on our previous trips. In fact, we are venturing further out of the City than we have ever done before, though public transport will whisk us briskly downtown should we, in the unlikely event, crave a fix of the wharf or corporate shopping at any time (that said, our two appointments with the Giants will steer us towards the bay on those days).

5. The Flower Power Walking Tour

For all my reverence for the Dead, the Airplane and the late sixties San Francisco music scene, I have resisted, in the past, signing up for the flower power walking tour of Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be too clichéd, preferring to truck around the area on my own. But the testimonials are so compelling, and the bona fides of the individuals conducting the tour so intriguing (they lived through the Summer of Love), that I now anticipate it with relish.

6. Exploring the Old and Public San Francisco

Aside from our initial, guided trip 17 years ago, we have never explored Nob Hill in any detail. We have clanked past it on the California and Powell/ Mason and Powell/Hyde cable cars (sorry, I know I promised I wouldn’t mention them) many times but given little heed to Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park or the grand hotels – until now.

We will aim to combine that with a morning skulking as much of the public buildings that comprise the Civic Center as we are permitted to enter. I am particularly keen to visit the public library.

7. Breakfast with KRON4

Preparing for the day ahead in San Francisco has never been complete without the accompaniment of local TV station, KRON4, informing me of the weather prospects, the state of the “Bay Bridge commute” or the latest Giants news. Whilst Darya Folsom is my favourite presenter, I’ll also confess to having followed Sal Castenada’s traffic reports on rival station KTVU too for many years.

8. Skiing the Sierras

The full story of our miscalculation over the short skiing leg of our trip in Lake Tahoe will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that the outcome is that we will finally be forced out of our customary torpor and ski somewhere other than Heavenly this time. Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood beware.

We return to the City for the final three nights of the trip, staying in a hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. Our sixth performance of Beach Blanket Babylon and meals at two of our favourite eating places, the North Beach Restaurant and Cliff House await. And much else besides.

So, San Francisco, “open your Golden Gate”, don’t let this supplicant !wait outside your door”.

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I need hardly start with an account of the weather.  Despite repeated warnings of rain this was yet another bright, clear day.  Equally predictably, we would have had a long wait for the MUNI bus on Fulton had we not decided to press on by foot.  At Scott we mounted the steps into Alamo Square where, not for the first time, we marvelled at the very San Franciscan dog play area in the park.  One of our guides on Janet’s birthday bus tour had informed us that there were more dogs in the city than children, and we have no reason to dispute that assertion.  Moreover, they are treated royally, not only with their grooming parlours, retail stores and cemeteries but this lush spot of green and glade.  And how they seemed to enjoy the privilege!  There must have been at least 20 cavorting and canoodling whilst their owners caught up on the local gossip.

Cutting back onto Hayes we caught a no.21 bus to Powell and Market where we waited for a cable car.  We mounted a Powell and Hyde car this time, disembarking at the top of “the crookedest street” on Lombard.  With this being our llast full day we were unashamedly being “touristy”, walking, rather than driving, down the street and into North Beach.

Taking one last look at, and photo of, Club Fugazi, home of the wonderful Beach Blanket Babylon, we walked onto Columbus Avenue searching for a lunch venue.  We eventually tried Caffe Puccini, and a good choice it was as both my chicken foccacia and Janet’s eggplant sandwich testified.

We strolled back through Grant Avenue in Chinatown, where Janet committed an uncharacteristic extravagance by buying a lovely set of matching turquoise bracelet, earrings and necklace, though she did balance the books somewhat by purchasing just one pair of shoes at DSW Shoes in Union Square.  Whilst she was drooling over her favourite San Francisco store I slipped into the Rasputin record store a few doors down Powell and bought, after negotiating the bizarre lift from the second to fourth floor, Jefferson Airplane‘s Thirty Seconds over Winterland and a New Riders of the Purple Sage DVD and CD package.

We caught the F Streetcar back from Powell (the one from Milan which has a really interesting interior) to Fisherman’s Wharf in oder to collect the car we had hired from Dollar for our final 24 hours in San Francisco.

But first we were both in need of a cold drink, and not just any cold drink but one from Starbucks.  Now, I am not the company’s greatest fan – I find the coffee too weak and milky – but I love their cold concotions, especially a coffee frappuccino, though, having sampled Janet’s strawberry smoothie on this occasion, I might be converted.

We picked up the car and returned to the apartment to finish packing (Janet) and complete the day’s diary entry (me), before getting ready to go out for our final meal.  Last year, when we stayed in Hayes Valley, we had intended to frequent Hayes Street Grill but never did.  We made up for this time and, arriving after the ballet crowd had left, we found it quiet, well apart from the two couples on the adjoining table who were American equivalents of what we call in Britain “hooray Henrys”.  It was worth the wait, however, and certainly one of the best meals of the vacation. 

Janet had warm goat cheese salad with toasted pecans followed by Mexican sierra, a meaty white fish, with fries and sechzuan peanut sauce, whilst I had wild Half Moon Bay smoked salmon with cucumber salad and creme fraiche followed by grilled local fish (I can’t recall the name of it) with fried and lemon and caper butter.  We were saved the 20 minute walk up the hill by our good friend the no.21 MUNI bus.  Garbage duty was our final act on our last night in the apartment.

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We were greeted this morning by yet another brilliant, clear blue sky, although the temperature was significantly lower than it had been for several days.  MUNI for once served us well as we boarded a no.5 bus to the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market.  Riding a San Francisco cable car, preferably standing in the lead position at the front, is one of my favourite activities, yet this was the first time on this trip that we had boarded one.

The combination of a long line, people pushing in and my desire to nab that lead position meant that we had to wait until the sixth car, a Powell and Mason, before we could leave downtown.  Once we disembarked we headed for the Hollywood Cafe on Taylor and North Point for breakfast.  I would thoroughly recommend this establishment – the service was outstanding and my Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon and shrimp was excellent.

Such a meal may not in retrospect have been the best thing to have done immediately prior to tackling the Greenwich Steps up to Coit Tower, but we managed it, if rather slowly.  On such a crystal clear day the views were stunning, so much better than they had been nine years previously when we had last visited the landmark.  Following a viewing of the fabulous artisanal murals we took the elevator up to the viewing tower – how does that attendant cope with riding that 7′ by 4′ by 3′ (approximately) tin box all day?  It is worth the trip but not if you suffer from claustrophobia.

Having negotiated the Greenwich Steps on the way up to Coit Tower, it was only right to take the even lovelier Filbert Steps down in the heart of Telegraph Hill.  We failed to spot or hear the wild parrots (though we did see them on the following day on Lombard Street), but the smells and sights of the flower laden gardens was delightful.

Landing back on earth on Sansome we walked along the street until we reached the Transamerica Pyramid where we entered the mini-Muir Woods that is the Redwood Park.  This is a nice spot to rest your weary legs after traipsing the unforgiving streets of the Financial District, although the shade of the trees did render the grove rather dark and chilly.

After resting briefly we walked onto Market where we walked to, firstly the Embarcadero Center and then the Ferry Building.  As we were thirsty at this point we dived into the Ferry Building Wine Bar, fortunately part way through the middle of the first innings of the San Diego Padres versus San Francisco Giants baseball game which was being shown on the TV screens.

We, or rather I, needed no invitation to find seats with a full on view of the game that Giants were already winning 3-0 after a Buster Posey two run homer.  As we worked our way through a carafe each of Sonoma chardonnay and Anderson Valley rose, Tim Lincecum led the Padres a merry dance, clocking 13 strikeouts in an eventual 8-4 victory for the Giants.  No surprise that, but being engaged in conversation at our table by the very winemaker, Eric Sussman, whose wine we were drinking at the time, was an unexpected and interesting experience.

Prising ourselves eventually from the wine bar we caught the F Streetcar from Ferry Plaza back to Fisherman’s Wharf where we waited interminably for a cable car from Hyde Street back to Powell.  Fortunately, the no. 21 bus was waiting for us at Market to transport us back to the apartment.  Initially, we had planned to eat out, but our weary legs won the argument and it was pizza at home instead.

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