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Posts Tagged ‘Castro San Francisco’


I dreamt long last night of San Francisco,
As I have done on so many nights since
I left my heart there twenty years ago,
I trust these verses will you too convince.

I stood upon summer brown Bernal Hill,
Watching the golden city laid before me
Like a lover spread ‘cross a crumpled bed,
In no sweeter place would I rather be.

Standing astride the stunning Sunset steps
As Karl the Fog weaves his cool, wondrous spell,
Slicing Sutro Tower in half before,
In a heartbeat, it returns and all’s well.

Hanging for dear life from the cable car
I crest the hill on Hyde at dawn of day,
Siren song from all the foghorns moaning
As we hurtle down to the glistening bay.

Eating popovers by Pacific shore
Among the tourists and locals well dressed,
Humming to O Sole Mio on a Saturday
While wrestling a ristretto at Trieste.

Hailing Emperor Norton and his doting flock,
As they follow him on the Barbary Coast,
Waiting two hours in Mama’s breakfast line
For bacon, eggs benedict and French toast.

Hunting for tie-dye tees in Hippie Haight,
Paying homage to Harvey on Castro Street,
Reading a whole novel on the F Streetcar
As it clanks and clatters to a Market beat.

Drinking a cool, tall glass of Anchor Steam
With ghosts of Ginsberg, Neal and Kerouac,
In North Beach’s celebrated beat retreat
With Joyce’s peering portrait at my back.

Gorging on Gilroy’s garlic fries at the yard
As gulls circle above to claim what’s left,
Pablo slams a mighty walk off splash hit
To leave downhearted Dodgers fans bereft.

Sharing tales of shows at the Fillmore West
In Martha’s line for coffee and muffin,
The Blackpool boat tram glides past and waves
To Lovejoy’s ladies taking tea and tiffin.

The scent of jasmine on our Noe porch,
Sea lions honking on the wharfside pier,
Sourdough crust with Coppola chardonnay,
And that bracelet of bridges held so dear.

These and other images engulf my mind –
Painted houses, murals and gleaming bay,
Neighbourhoods full of music, food and fun –
I mourn the undue advent of the day.

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For years we had avoided San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

On our second trip we had walked from 17th Street along Mission to 5th where, leg weary, deafened by traffic noise and not a little relieved that we’d survived the ordeal, we slumped into Lori’s Diner on Powell and Geary. All I can really recall from that morning was a wary wander down Balmy Alley, home to the largest collection of murals in the city.

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And for several trips after that, we kept away from the area, spending our time in the northern and western parts of the city, with only occasional forays into the adjoining Castro district and Dolores Park.

Why?

It was not as if we did not like the culture or food of the area – indeed, burritos, enchiladas and margaritas might just be our favourite culinary combination.

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No, our reluctance to set foot east / south of Market stemmed from an anxiety that we might not be as safe, especially after dark, as in other parts of the city. Violent gangs and gun crime were – and remain (a man was killed near 16th and Guerrero only three days ago) – a constant feature of life in the Mission.

So we stayed away.

We actually considered renting an apartment on Valencia three years ago, because apart from being edgy, the neighborhood was also meant to be “hip”, San Francisco’s party capital. But, once again, we were deterred by its negative reputation.

So we stayed away.

But this continuing omission on our San Francisco CV was no longer tenable, especially as we have rented apartments in the adjacent neighborhoods of Noe Valley and Bernal Heights in recent years.

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How could we convince ourselves, and others, that we were locals in spirit if we did not embrace the Latino and Hispanic heart of the city on our doorstep?

So, finally a year ago, we ventured tentatively into the area again by taking a delightful sunny Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia from 24th Street, crossing to Mission at 16th and walking back up to 28th Street and our apartment.

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A political demonstration outside the BART station on 24th Street was winning the battle for the attention of passers by with a handful of religious preachers on the opposite corner, but the atmosphere was restrained rather than confrontational. Cafes and restaurants were overflowing and Latin rhythms abounded. Coffee at the Borderlands bookstore was followed by a margarita at West of Pecos, where we were tempted to reconsider our plans for dinner that evening. A mariachi band serenaded the sidewalk diners.

We marveled at the murals on Clarion Alley, many of which reflected the current tensions in the city over gentrification (not least in the Mission), sky-rocketing housing prices and the closure of public parks at night.

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We repeated the expedition again this year, starting with a hike over Bernal Heights Hill, descending Alabama Street to the vibrant Precita Park Café for a Mitchell’s ice cream before crossing Cesar Chavez Street and into the neighborhood.

Next year, we will be staying in the same Bernal Heights cottage for a total of six weeks, and look forward to renewing acquaintance with the Mission district regularly. Several restaurants, including Taqueria La Cuembre and Cha Cha Cha, have taken our fancy. 

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We might even eat there after dark too.

And it is time we met the Tamale Lady.

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One of the most endearing but infuriating features of San Francisco’s characteristically quirky public transport system are the historic streetcars that run along the F Line between the Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf via Market Street and the Embarcadero.

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Redolent of a bygone age, they are fascinating historical constructs that appeal primarily to tourists because anyone, local or frequent visitor alike, who has travelled on one, knows that they are built neither for speed nor comfort. One journey my wife and I took from Church and Market to Fisherman’s Wharf last month took an hour and twenty minutes, admittedly extended due to roadworks on Market. 

But, at the best of times, expect a rough, cramped, hot ride that goes nowhere very fast. 

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Whilst there are a number of home-grown, or rather home-built, cars, many have been imported from all over the globe, including as far afield as Tokyo and Melbourne. As I write this now, five and a half thousand miles and eight hours away, streetcars from the following cities are operating inbound towards Fisherman’s Wharf: Louisville Kentucky, El Paso Texas, Juarez Mexico, Detroit Michigan, Brooklyn New York, Boston Elevated Railway, Cleveland Ohio and Milan, Italy. Other cities to have “donated” vehicles from their collection include Birmingham Alabama and Cincinnati Ohio.

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There’s even one from the seaside resort of Blackpool in the north west of England, one I may well have sat on in decades past! We first encountered it in its new San Francisco home whilst waiting for the gleaming, modern MUNI Metro J Church train a couple of blocks from our Noe Valley apartment!

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Many “experts” opine that your best chance of boarding a cable car (which, by the way, costs three times as much for a single journey as a streetcar) is a few blocks away from the Powell Street and Hyde Street termini. That may well be true, but if you wish to ride a streetcar, your best chance of a) getting aboard at all, and b) finding a seat (though the likelihood of you feeling ill may actually be lessened by standing up), you would do well to start at either end of the route (especially alongside Walgreen’s at Fisherman’s Wharf), as the following photograph taken aboard the Baltimore bus at Church and Market would indicate.

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In conclusion, do NOT prise yourself onto one if you need to be somewhere any time the same week (sorry, I exaggerate to make a point). But if you have plenty of time on your hand, do not get stressed very easily and enjoy being part of history, go ahead, sit back and – ahem – enjoy the ride.

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It may no longer be the political and social heartbeat of the LGBT community in San Francisco (so many have moved out to adjoining neighbourhoods), but the Castro still displays its roots proudly.

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Following lunch at the Church Street Café, we sauntered up Market to the intersection with 17th and Castro before turning into Castro Street itself. The number and size of rainbow flags seem to proliferate with every visit. And the full to bursting hanging baskets complemented them perfectly against a soft sky.

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Few tourists intruded on what was a very businesslike atmosphere.

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But humour cohabits with commerce in the upscale  food, gift and clothing stores  that adorn the  main drag  (no pun intended) and adjoining streets.

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It might not flaunt its roots nowadays quite as obviously as arguably Haight Street does, but you might still think twice about subjecting your maternal grandmother from Kansas  to the sights in some of the window displays.

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The most striking building on the street remains the glorious Castro Theatre, which I’m assured by locals is even more spectacular inside. Well, finally, we will get the chance for ourselves to test that opinion by attending the double bill of  Romeo and Juliet (the Leonardo di Caprio version) and Strictly Ballroom on Saturday (escaping the predicted heatwave for a few hours).

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It is run a close second by the beautiful frontage of the Fork Café a few days away from the movie theatre.

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Setting off back down Market Street you might almost miss the brightly coloured mural commemorating those who have died of AIDS since the disease first began to decimate lives in the early eighties. The question in the segment of the mural highlighted above remains as poignant and pertinent today.

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Exiting Castro Street at its western end onto Market Street, one cannot fail to be impressed by what I believe to be the largest rainbow flag on the planet, flying over the plaza that commemorates the legacy of the great Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in the country. His influence continues to blaze where people are discriminated on the grounds of whom they fall in love with.

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I have already referred in part to our first full day back in San Francisco (early rising and the trip to the Church and Market branch of Safeway) in the previous two blog articles. With a full month to play with, this was no time for dashing from one tourist attraction to another, but rather to acclimatise ourselves to the neighbourhood.

After breakfast in the apartment, inevitably of granola and sourdough toast, we ventured up the hill on Church Street to 24th Street, the principal retail and dining area of Noe Valley.

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What struck us immediately were the luxuriant flower displays, especially of bougainvillea, draped over shop fronts and garage forecourts alike. Accustomed to visiting in the spring, we had not witnessed their splendour before now.

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Our already full event calendar acquired another entry when we discovered that the Noe Valley Summer Fest was to be held on Saturday 15th of the month, the same day as the first day of the North Beach Festival taking place over that weekend. With the Stern Grove Festival in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, we were going to be busy! Thankfully, the Giants game against the San Diego Padres on the following day was an evening affair.   

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After coffee, served in large bowls, in La Boulange on the intersection of 24th and Sanchez, and a brief reconnaisance of those shops that held our interest, we embarked upon the steep climb up Noe Street to Dolores Park for one of the stellar views across the city.

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Aside from the obvious photo opportunities it affords, Dolores Park is a hugely popular venue for picnics, sunbathing and people watching. And what people watching! There has been a long running feud between members (literally!) of the gay community and city authorities about nude sunbathing, rendered sensitive by the presence of the fun and funky Helen Diller Children’s Playground in its centre.

But the still relatively cool morning meant that the occupants of the park comprised nothing more threatening than a couple of fully-clothed ageing hippies, impossibly cute Shih Poos and workmen (not so cute).

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We made our way courageously (adults are not permitted without being supervised by a child) over the spongy bridge in the middle of the playground towards the majestic Mission Dolores, oldest surviving structure in the city, before branching left to the J Church MUNI Metro tracks that wove alongside the western fringe of the park.

We had a lunch of peanut butter (Janet) and turkey, egg and cheese (me) bagels and iced lattés at the Church Street Café. I am under strict instructions not to post the photos of our respective half-eaten meals, so readers will have to make do with one of your author instead (which some might say was more likely to frighten those of a sensitive disposition).

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Observations and photographs from the afternoon stroll down Castro Street to follow.

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Many readers will be familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “we really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language”. And we can all cite examples of words and expressions that mean different things to, say, a New Yorker and  a resident of Birmingham (that is the city in England, not Alabama).

The problem is compounded by the ugly, boorish impact of business speak (mostly the fault of Americans but, going forward, I will not belabour the point).

A tannoy message this afternoon in the Church and Market branch of Safeway in San Francisco trumped them all:

Guest Attention in the Liquor Display Case

Immediately this raised a number of questions in my mind.

For starters, when did we start calling customers buying their groceries “guests”, unless the poor subject of the announcement was one of the gentlemen of the street that haunt the vicinity, who saw the premises, specifically the “liquor display case”, as a potential resting place for the night – a case of “killing two birds with one stone” if ever I heard one?

And I know everything in America is meant to be bigger, but how large must this “case” be if a “guest” has, deliberately or otherwise, found themselves inhabiting it, unless they have ejected its intended contents first? And that’s not going to happen is it?  

But what if the individual is an unsuspecting shopper of smaller than average stature who has inadvertently got trapped in the case whilst trying to reach the Southern Comfort bottle on the top shelf? Will this not render Safeway liable for huge compensation payouts under equality legislation?

And come to think of it – how many of those words that I have used above, for example “quip”, “tannoy” and “trumped”, would be readily understood by my American friends?

Possibly all.

Or perhaps none.

I just don’t know – unless they tell me of course.

We both trot out our own everyday expressions in conversation with each other without a thought (and why should we?) of whether we are going to be understood. This is more of an issue for my compatriots because we naturally assume that residents of other nations should be conversant with our god-given language.

But in the final analysis I just hope that that poor “guest” – bum, dwarf or whatever he or she might be – has been rescued by now. If not, they’re likely to be approaching severe frostbite.

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‘Tis the night before the start of our our tenth – and longest – stay in San Francisco. And the first to be spent in summer in the enchanted city.

We spent a week in the southern neighbourhood of Noe Valley last spring, and whilst much of that time we were elsewhere, we enjoyed its relaxing, civilised atmosphere so much that, when we had to decide where to rent an apartment for four weeks in June this year, we chose it above other likely candidates such as the Mission and the Sunset . This will enable us to acquaint ourselves more with the neighbourhood and adjoining districts as well as providing a good base for visiting other parts of the Bay Area, familiar and previously unexplored alike.

So where is Noe Valley? And what we have let ourselves in for by living there? It sits immediately south of the Castro and east of the Mission in a sunny spot protected from the fog by steep hills on three sides. Its borders are broadly defined as between 20th and 22nd Street to the north, 30th Street to the south, Dolores to the east and Grand View Avenue to the west. Our apartment is on 28th Street between Church and Dolores.

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A look at a map of the greater San Francisco area would suggest that it is relatively remote, and it is undeniably off the tourist trail. But public transit and local roads render it easily accessible to downtown and the South Bay respectively. The J Church MUNI Metro line was our constant companion on our previous trip and will be so again, at least for the first half of our stay before we hire a car for the trip to Tahoe.

Noe Valley is a quiet but cosmopolitan residential neighbourhood with a classy small town feel. Its preponderance of comfortable, even affluent, young families has lead to a change in its nickname from the hippie-inspired “Granola Valley” in the seventies to “Stroller Alley” today. But it also attracts couples and singles of all persuasions, notably gay and lesbian migrants from the Castro. A healthy number of artists and writers complete a sophisticated demographic. The population of approximately 21,000 comprises 70% white, 15% Hispanic and 7% Asian, with the remaining 8% coming from all corners of the globe.

It is blessed with a significant number of classic two storey Victorian and Edwardian homes. Broad streets and brightly coloured exteriors have the writers of guidebooks reaching for words like “cute” and “quaint”. Property prices are inevitably expensive.

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The neighbourhood gets its name from José de Jésus Noé, the last Mexican alcade (Mayor) of Yerba Buena, the original name for San Francisco. He owned the land as part of his Rancho San Miguel but sold it to John Meirs Horner in 1854. Horner laid out many of the wide streets we enjoy today, and the name “Horner’s Addition” is still used for tax purposes by the city assessor’s office.

The main development of what was traditionally a working class neighbourhood came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Today, its interest for outsiders lies essentially in the eclectic shopping and dining experience to be found along the stretches of 24th Street from Castro to Church and Diamond to Dolores. Coffee shops, restaurants, one of a kind clothing and gift stores and bookshops abound, along with one of the best farmers’ markets in the city.

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This will be our fourth apartment – the first two were in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle (NOPA) – and, as with previous years, our aim is to blend as far as possible into the local community for the duration. With four weeks at our disposal on this occasion, our “live like locals” strategy has more chance of success than in previous years where we have stayed for no more than a fortnight. We are particularly looking forward to hiking up Bernal Heights, Twin Peaks and Buena Vista Park, as well as reacquainting ourselves with the Mission.

But the extended stay still enables us to satisfy our tourist cravings and revisit the usual suspects such as Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Park , Beach Blanket Babylon and Haight Ashbury, and, of course, three pilgrimages to AT & T Park to support the Giants in their (currently faltering~) hunt for back to back World Series titles. Any trip would not be complete without expanding our understanding of the Bay Area, so Berkeley, the Zoo, Castro Theater and the de Young Museum, all places we have criminally neglected until now, are on our list.

Having always , with the exception of our first visit in October, visited in spring, we will be also be able to throw ourselves into four of San Francisco’s celebrated annual events – the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, North Beach Festival, Stern Grove Festival and San Francisco Pride.

Our last two vacations have coincided with Crosby and Nash and Elvis Costello gigs at the Warfield. This year, we move to the waterfront at Pier 27/29 where we have tickets for the concert being given by the Steve Miller Band and the Doobie Brothers at the America’s Cup Pavilion. And finally, a short detour to Tahoe is also scheduled.

I hadn’t actually realised until I wrote this just how busy we are going to be!

San Francisco – your “wandering one” is coming home again.  

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