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Posts Tagged ‘Hayes Valley’


In a little over a month my wife and I will be returning to the place we regard as our second home (financial considerations dictate that it will never be our first) – San Francisco. In fact, this will be our twentieth anniversary since we first laid eyes on the imperious Golden Gate Bridge, sampled clam chowder in a sourdough bowl or cracked open a fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant.

After our initial trip in 1995 ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/you-were-so-right-louis/ ), it would be another three and a half years, and a further three years after that, before we settled into what became a routine of bi-annual visits. We would combine our stay in the city with a skiing trip to Tahoe and a few days elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Invariably, after the eleven hour flight, we would stay the first night in a budget hotel, having dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue (but not without a visit to Tower Records first), followed by drinks at the Vesuvio Café nearby. Breakfast would be taken at the Eagle Café on Pier 39 the next morning, and I would buy my holiday reading at the Barnes and Noble bookstore (now long since closed) in Fisherman’s Wharf before driving over the Bay Bridge.

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On returning to the city we would stay in a hotel, making the small step up (or was it down) from the Tenderloin to the Civic Center on our second trip before heading to the Holiday Inn at the Wharf for three of the next four vacations.

With each passing visit, we became less inclined to rush around ticking off the guidebook highlights, and began to venture off the beaten path and discover those places, within the city and wider Bay Area, where the only (other) tourists we might encounter were getting wind burn from the top of a tour bus.

It didn’t concern us that we hadn’t jumped a cable car for five years, stepped foot in Nordstrom or Macy’s or taken the rough ride across the bay to Alcatraz. Of course, we didn’t avoid all of the more celebrated spots, always finding time, however short the vacation, to eat at the Cliff House, shop on Haight Street, drink in North Beach and ramble round Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon.

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San Francisco quickly became the place where we wanted to live. Without the riches required to buy our way into residency, we would have to content ourselves with alternating between staying in the city (spring and autumn) and the UK (winter and summer) for three months at a time – and only then when we had both retired.

For now, it was a matter of a week here and a fortnight, and, more recently a month, there.

We wanted to “live like locals”, and staying in someone’s (second) home was a good starting point. There would be no maids knocking at the door in the morning anxious to clean the room, no loud, drunken conversations outside the room at 3am and no lift bells ringing or washer / driers humming at all hours.

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So in 2010 we abandoned the lazy predictability of hotel living and rented an apartment in Hayes Valley, following that up a year later with similar accommodation in the Western Addition, a short stroll from Alamo Square. The migration west from downtown, however, took a sunny south easterly turn in 2012 when we chose Noe Valley for our base. It was during our second residence there that we discovered Bernal Heights ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-hike-up-bernal-heights-hill/ ).

Much as we had enjoyed living in the other neighborhoods, we immediately felt an affinity with the quirky, artsy, small town feel of Bernal and rented a cottage there last year. Our first impressions confirmed, we will be returning to that same cottage twice this year for a total of six weeks.

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It might not have gone unnoticed that our original bi-annual visit strategy has now become annual – and, at least for this year, twice a year!

Over the past two decades, our time in the city has taken on a different, more relaxed tenor. It has become a familiar and habitual part of our lives, somewhere we have now spent more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

Moreover, we try, as befitting aspiring locals, to engage  more with the city and its residents on a regular, deeper level. During those interminable months in which we are incarcerated nearly six thousand miles away. we maintain a daily interest in the life of the city, and indeed, I comment on it in a number of online forums.

In addition to my Facebook presence, through which I now enjoy a number of personal as well as virtual friendships (even bumming (pun intended) prime seats at AT & T Park to see “our” Giants), I started a blog on the last day of 2010 which focuses on the history, culture and characters of San Francisco.

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And I plan to explore our experiences in more depth in my upcoming book Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco, scheduled to be published towards the end of this year.

In our temporary home in the city we neither have to pretend to be what we are not, nor do what we or others feel we ought to do. We can watch the Bay Area news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores in the morning, stroll out to a neighborhood café for brunch, swing by the local wholefoods store and return to the apartment for a bottle of wine on the patio.

All dining options are also possible. We might have dinner in the apartment or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might brave Muni on a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach – or even Union Square. We are under no pressure to conform to a set tourist pattern.

What has happened is that our version of San Francisco has shifted, not only geographically but also psychologically, from the waterfront to the southern neighborhoods. In a sense, our journey has mirrored the historical expansion of the earlier city residents from Yerba Buena Cove to the hills.

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But, of course, there is still room for those sights that first enthralled us as much as they have millions of others. They are still only a short drive, bus or taxi ride – or even walk – away. We still make a conscious effort to revisit those attractions we might have neglected on recent trips – for example we plan to explore Coit Tower and Grand View Park again after an absence of a few years – as well as sampling new locations altogether such as Glen Canyon, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill.

If that sounds as if living in San Francisco has become routine, less exciting, even a chore, that could not be further from the truth. We have become, in a modest way, San Franciscans, interested in its history, politics, culture and, undeniably, its sport (Go Giants!) – just as we do at home.

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I invariably turn to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, for an authoritative, maybe definitive, view on such matters. Here he ruminates on what makes a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

Increasingly, our hosts  marvel at our knowledge of, and adoration for, the city. I doubt, however, that the more strident members of online forums would agree with Caen’s loose, but characteristically generous, sentiments here, but I like to feel that we have moved beyond being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to warrant that title of “honorary San Franciscans”.

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All things must pass

All things must pass away

And so, little more than a week ago, we had to leave our temporary residence in Bernal Heights for “home” in the UK.

But I do not want to put that experience to one side just yet (and we will be returning next year), without paying one final tribute to the neighborhood.

So here, in this fifth and final article in the series, are this visiting Englishman’s ten reasons for loving Bernal Heights.

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A cautionary note for residents before I start.

In a little under a fortnight we could neither cover every blade of grass, trip over every upturned pavement slab, nor eat at every café or restaurant, so this will be no more nor less than a personal account of those people and places we actually encountered.

Where I have written on a subject in one of the previous posts in this series, I have tried to keep it short.

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For ease of reference they are listed in alphabetical order.

1. Accessibility

A few years ago, the thought of staying so far from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square would have been unthinkable. After all, many of the maps produced by the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau do not stretch as far as Bernal Heights. And few guide books even make passing reference to the neighborhood (the Alemany Farmer’s Market might just get a mention).

But once we had swapped hotel for apartment living, we have moved progressively further out. Hayes Valley begat the Western Addition begat Noe Valley begat Noe Valley again. The gentle hike up to Bernal Heights Hill from Precita Park last year, followed by lunch in Progressive Grounds, was enough to convince us that this is where we wanted to base ourselves next time.

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Accessibility was not the problem it might have seemed. The 101 and 280 freeways were barely three minutes drive from our cottage, the 24 Divisadero Muni bus ran along the bottom of our street and there were several other lines operating through the adjacent Mission district. Having become attached to the J Church Muni Metro line during our stays in Noe Valley, we often walked over to 29th Street to catch a direct line downtown.

 

2. Architecture 

One of the things that most charmed us about Bernal was the sheer variety of housing. No long rows of Queen Annes, Bay Windowed Italianates or Sticks here, but a real diversity of property. Their relative smallness and, in many cases, quirkiness, made wandering around the area a fascinating and often surprising adventure.

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The fact that Bernal Heights featured as low as nineteenth in a recent survey of the number of single millionaires living in each San Francisco neighborhood (Noe Valley next door came third, and even the Mission, evidence of its growing gentrification, was sixth), reinforced this impression of the relative modesty and affordability of the area.

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Though it would still be out of our price bracket!

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3. Cafés

Having seduced us to stay in Bernal Heights in the first place, Progressive Grounds was first on our list of watering (and feeding) holes on our arrival.

And it was also the last!

Our final meal in the city – scrumptious grilled lavash wraps and coffee – was bought there and carried ceremoniously up to the hill where we consumed it whilst continuing the perennial debate about the identity of each downtown building – now you see Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, now you don’t.

We had encountered Martha’s, or Martha and Brothers to give it its official name, on both 24th Street and Church Street during our stays in Noe Valley, and were delighted to find that there was a branch on Cortland. Strong coffee, excellent pastries and outstanding service were on offer, and the tables outside were perfect spots for watching Bernal go about its business (and counting the number of 24 buses that passed by in each direction).

It would be a real shame if Starbuck’s was to take over the Badger Books site or any other vacant lot in the neighborhood in the future.

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We ate good, wholesome breakfasts at both the Liberty Café and Moonlight Café (the interior of which is pictured above). Although the former enjoys a stronger, city-wide reputation, we were particularly impressed with the latter. Perhaps our expectations had been lower (you order at the counter rather than be served at your table), but we were pleasantly surprised.

And last, but by no means, least, we called in at the Precita Park Café for Mitchell’s ice cream during a Sunday afternoon walk around the northern slope. This is undoubtedly somewhere to explore further on our next visit – the food looked delicious.

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4. Diversity

The traditional equation of a single ethnic grouping with many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods has been diluted in recent times. I have already mentioned the influx of affluent white tech workers in the historically Hispanic and Latino dominated Mission. And the edges of the boundary between North Beach and Chinatown have become increasingly blurred.

In the past three hundred years, Bernal Heights has been inhabited by Native Americans (the Ohlone), Latin Americans, Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, African Americans, Filipinos and other Asian nationalities, so it is hardly surprising that there is a refreshing ethnic mix in the community, one that hasn’t been quite so evident to us anywhere else in the city.

And this diversity was not only about ethnicity.  Young families, the elderly and lesbian and gay couples were all in evidence.

The visible contrast in the demographic between Bernal and neighboring Noe (“Stroller”) Valley, was especially dramatic.

 

5. Dogs

I wrote about the apparent “dogs rule” phenomenon on Bernal Heights Park in my article last year, and we were able to enjoy it at close hand on this trip. The top of the hill must sometimes seem like the canine community center for all of San Francisco.

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But it was the excitement of those tied up outside the Good Life Grocery every time I called in that provided the most entertainment and could not pass without stroking them. I can report that I still have all my fingers.

The absence of a doggie companion was the only thing that prevented us from feeling truly at home during our stay. In fact, at one point I feared we might be contravening some by-law by not owning one of our own, at least, walking half a dozen of somebody else’s.

 

6. Friendliness

I referred to the warm greeting we received everywhere we went in one of my earlier articles, and I’m pleased to report that we continued to be treated well throughout the remainder of our stay. The only establishment that we didn’t feel entirely welcome was the Wild Side West, though we liked the quirky back garden.   

I should add that we had been a little apprehensive about staying in the neighborhood before arriving in the light of the shooting of Alex Nieto only a few days before we left the UK. However, we detected none of the tension (perhaps we were too far away), and felt completely safe at all times, including late at night when we often walked back from Mission Street.

 

7. Hill

We could while away hours on the hill, picking out landmarks in all directions, having a picnic and watching the dogs at play. For us, it is a far superior viewing point than Twin Peaks, which most of our compatriots, and many residents for that matter, will only have visited.

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Our only regret is that we omitted, as we had planned, to go up onto the hill at night – another reason for returning as soon as possible!

 

8.Library 

Again, I have already recounted the story of my visit to the library to print some documents. This is somewhere else I would want to spend more time in the future.

 

9. Restaurants

We only ate out twice in the evening in the neighborhood, but both were outstanding experiences.

On the recommendation of Emperor Norton himself, who lives in the neighborhood, we dined at Piqueo’s Peruvian restaurant on Cortland on our second night. It was fortunate we had made a reservation as it was packed, even though it was Wednesday. Granted that it is small and intimate (and just, perhaps, a little too dark), but we were, nonetheless, impressed by its popularity.

And rightly so.

Service was attentive and professional and our food was excellent. It took a lot of convincing to persuade my wife that we shouldn’t return there rather than try somewhere else.

But we did eat somewhere else.

Acting on another local resident’s recommendation, we had our last meal at Vega, a family-run Italian, again on Cortland. We had made a reservation for 8pm. On arrival, we were told that we might have to wait a few minutes while previous diners finished off. We were offered the small table by the front desk (and the open front door!) which we politely declined, preferring to wait for a table in the main dining room.

For that we received a free glass of wine each!

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After we had finished our starters, we were asked by the waiter if we would mind moving to another table for two for the remainder of the meal in order to accommodate a larger party that would necessitate putting tables together. We were happy to do so.

Our reward this time – a free glass of sparkling wine each!

Sadly, we weren’t inconvenienced any further and so had to pay for the bottle of wine – and food – we had actually ordered.

The meal was excellent, though the short walk back up the hill to the cottage was somewhat less enjoyable in the circumstances.

 

10. Stairways

Again, I have already written about these in a previous post. Suffice to say that this was another charming feature of the neighborhood, offering stunning views and keeping us fit (if I keep saying/writing that I might just believe it).

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The only thing we don’t miss?

Climbing up from Mission Street via the Eugenia Stairway late at night to get back to the cottage.

No, I lied.

We do miss it!

Au revoir, Bernal.

A bientôt.

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During our tenth visit to San Francisco last June, we took the short walk one morning from our Noe Valley apartment to Bernal Heights, ascending the hill from Precita Park, having lunch at the Progressive Grounds coffee house and buying provisions for our evening meal at the Good Life Grocery before taking the surprisingly short stroll back to 28th Street.

We enjoyed the superlative 360 degree views from the top of the hill and the ambiance of this “village within the city” so much that we vowed to base ourselves on our next trip in what has subsequently been dubbed the “hottest neighborhood in America”.

That trip is now imminent.  After a week’s skiing in Tahoe, we arrive on the first day of April (St. Stupid’s Day) at our Bernal cottage where we will be staying for the next two weeks.

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This will be the fifth year we have rented an apartment in one of the neighbourhoods. In addition to Noe Valley (twice), we have also stayed in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle (or the Western Addition to traditionalists).

Although we will be doing some things that are unashamedly “touristy” (after all, it is those that attracted us to San Francisco in the first place), we have striven increasingly to “live like locals” when in the city. And a good starting point to achieve that aim is to stay in someone’s home (albeit their second one).

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No maids knocking at our door early in the morning anxious to clean your room, no loud conversations going on outside our room at three in the morning and no lift bells ringing or washer/driers humming at all hours.

Our time has taken on a different, more relaxed, you might even call it ordinary, tenor, one that more closely mirrors our home life. Being in San Francisco has become such a familiar and habitual (in the best sense of the word) part of our lives, somewhere we spend more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

What has happened is that OUR version of San Francisco has shifted both geographically and metaphorically from the waterfront to the neighborhood we have chosen to live in for a few short weeks (oh, that it could be more).

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If all we want to do is “hang out” at the apartment in the morning, watch the news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores, before strolling out to a local café for lunch, followed by food shopping and a return to the apartment for a glass or two of wine on the outside private deck, then so be it. We might then have dinner in the apartment – or try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might decide to take a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach.

We feel no pressure to conform to the expectations of others, to be perfect tourists (if that is not an oxymoron), although, inevitably, as the trip draws to a close, the realization will again dawn on us that we haven’t seen and done as much as we would have liked!

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But what of our stay in Bernal?

It would be disingenuous to claim that we will be spending the majority of our time in the neighborhood. But we will be exploring the celebrated stairways and gardens, not to mention every square inch of the hill itself, and patronizing the cafés, restaurants and stores (but, sadly, not Badger Books). And we could not visit without seeking out bargains at the Alemany flea and farmers’ markets.

I will be posting photos and thoughts on my blog and other social networks throughout, and would welcome any feedback from neighbours.

But, firstly, ou sont les neiges?

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One of the pleasures of renting an apartment in San Francisco is that, should friends or family be in the vicinity, they can call in – just like at home. However, on the first occasion that we “entertained” another couple from the UK, things did not quite go as smoothly as planned.

We were renting an apartment in the increasingly hip neighbourhood of Hayes Valley. Our friends had been based at a hotel on the Wharf for four nights before moving on to Las Vegas for the remainder of their two week vacation. We had hired a car for the week to enable us to chauffeur them around many of the unashamedly tourist sights they had not been able to enjoy on their only previous visit, on shore leave from a cruise ship.

We had already crammed in brunch at the Cliff House, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands and Sausalito, taking Highway 1 to Monterey and Carmel, Golden Gate Park and a typically uproarious performance of Beach Blanket Babylon. We had also eaten at the Crab House at Pier 39 and the Stinking Rose – I did say it was touristy didn’t I?

On Sunday, their final full day, we had arranged that they would come to the apartment in the evening for a traditional English roast dinner.

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We had prepared this meal dozens of times at home without any mishaps. However, there was a new dimension which had potential to derail the event.

We were cooking it in an American oven.

Many readers will now be thinking – “so what was the problem”?

The problem was that we didn’t have a great track record when navigating our way around an American oven. Despite half a dozen holidays spent at my cousin’s house near Orlando, we had never quite been able to master it. I would not recommend a pizza “cooked” in the microwave – that’s about the level of expertise we had acquired over the years.

It all boils down – no pun intended – to the difference between broiling and baking food, the timing mechanism and our inability to read the cooking instructions on the packaging properly. It seems (fairly) simple now (broiling cooks from the top and baking from the bottom), but we got ourselves into terrible difficulties in the past with this. It would have been sensible, of course, to have researched it beforehand or just asked somebody.

But we didn’t.

The upshot was that this particular chicken resisted our attempts to cook it at the required speed and consistency. The prospects for crisp roast potatoes later on were looking equally bleak.

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Meanwhile, back at the Sheraton Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, our friends were anticipating a culinary treat a few miles to the south west. Little did they know that they were likely to be feasting on a plate of boiled carrots, broccoli and potatoes – or a pizza (delivered, not microwaved).

But we set aside our embarrassment and sought help from our landlord, who had the good sense to live in the apartment above with his partner and two adorable labradoodles, Taylor and Cooper (named after two all-American movie stars). Taking the back steps, with a passing nod (and perhaps prayer) to the Buddha sat among the bushes, I found the whole family in the kitchen preparing their own dinner.

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Awkward?

Not at all. They were only too happy to explain the workings of the oven to us.

And the dogs saw it as a great opportunity to hoover up any scraps from previous meals.

There followed ten minutes of frantic switch turning, knob pressing, opening and shutting of doors and perusal of instructions, accompanied by a series of exasperated but elegant expletives, before they concluded that:

a) they had no more idea of how the oven worked than we did; but

b) it was, in fact, broken.

Huge relief on our part in one sense, but………

Our friends’ taxi would be calling at the hotel reception shortly and the odds on them eating this meal before being served lunch on the plane were shortening by the minute.

Our landlord promised to call their handyman immediately, and it was duly fixed whilst we were out the next day, but tonight’s plans were looking shattered.

Until…………

In a gesture of generosity beyond his landlord responsibilities, especially with his own evening meal in an advanced state of preparedness, he offered to cook the chicken and potatoes for us in his own oven. He was anxious too to prepare it exactly as we would have done it. This included parboiling the potatoes which we managed triumphantly on the hob of our own cooker – before handing them over for roasting along with the chicken.

There would be an inevitable delay in dishing up, but the Beringer White Zinfandel softened the blow whilst we waited.

Eventually, about an hour later than originally planned, the back door swung open to reveal our heroes, wearing aprons that left little to the imagination, striding across the floor as if waiting on a banquet with, respectively, a gloriously cooked chicken on a silver platter, surrounded by a generous mound of crisp, steaming roast potatoes.

They had been cooked to perfection, which is more than could be said for the carrots and broccoli that we had vainly striven not to overcook whilst awaiting the main event.

Sensibly, Taylor and Cooper had been confined to quarters for this ceremony.

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The evening passed off well, nobody was poisoned, and despite the inconvenience to which we had put our landlord, we still got our deposit back!

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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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Having been back in the City for the past three days and nights, I am pleased to report that we are making great progress on the primary objective of this trip –  visiting locations we had, criminally, either  not patronised at all or given short shrift to on our previous eight trips.

The only part of Nob Hill we had explored previously had been the top floor restaurant of the Fairmont Hotel during an evening excursion on our very first (coach) trip 17 years ago. Whilst we contrived this time to try to access the Top of the Mark in the period between breakfast and lunch services, it gave us the opportunity to spend more time in the stunning Grace Cathedral, with its dazzling stained glass and murals.

A walking tour of the Civic Center took in a visit of awesome City Hall, which including access to Mayor’s office as well as the supervisors’ meeting chamber. The irony of a constant procession of (heterosexual) couples making their wedding vows within feet of the bust of Harvey Milk could hardly be lost on anyone aware of the ongoing debate about gay marriage in the country in this election year.

A return visit to flower bedecked Macondray Lane, likely inspiration for Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series of books, has been another highlight.

I don’t know whether it is the responsibility of the oh so lucky residents or the municipal authorities, but somebody really ought to repair that iconic wooden stairway before it rots away completely. That said, it did take my weight comfortably, so it may be more robust than it looks.

A few more random reflections on the trip so far:

1. As I start to write this on Opening Day, and look forward to Opening Night, when we will be part of the MLB experience for the first time, can there be another town that loves its sports teams more? Even major financial institutions fly Giants flags from their stratosphere stretching rooftops and vagrants -with little else to call their own in this world – besport team baseball caps or fleece jackets.

2. There may be no better place in the city to spend $5 than Hyde Street Pier with its collection of historic ships, notably the Glasgow built Baraclutha or the paddlesteamer ferry, Eureka, that once brought more than 2,000 commuters a day from Sausalito and Oakland?

3. We have, by using the J Church line from the Embarcadero to our apartment in Noe Valley, finally discovered the fabulous Muni Metro system – doh!

4. But we won’t desert the Muni buses or the crazy, clanking F Streetcar service, both of which provide the perfect stage for San Franciscans to play out their anxieties or set the world to rights.

5. Noe Valley is proving an excellent place to stay. It has the feel of a suburb but, because of the J Church Muni Metro, allows swift access into town. Both Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle, where we stayed in the past two years, much as we liked them, still felt as if they were “in town”.

6. The main thoroughfare in Noe Valley, 24th Street, provides an eclectic array of shops and restaurants, and it is interesting how the Mission at the eastern end morphs into Noe Valley as you travel west along the street. Tacquerias give way to smart cafes and trolleys to strollers –  a fascinating example of how San Francisco’s neighbourhoods coexist so fluidly.

7. On our first morning we walked into town via the Castro, the former Irish catholic neighbourhood that, since the sixties and seventies, has became the focal point for the gay community. As with other areas it boasts many beautifully renovated residences.

Enough for now – the Haight and the Giants beckon!

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Anyone with the merest acquaintance with this blog will observe a strong bias towards the city of San Francisco in it. If the heading of “A Golden Gate State of Mind” and accompanying photograph did not immediately give it away, the preponderance of posts on the city certainly will.

So what, you ask, is the attraction of what San Francisco based Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “this far-out city on the left side of the world” to a cricket loving, warm beer drinking Englishman?

Well, that is a very good question (I do wish you hadn’t asked it).  It’s not sufficient to say it is because I “love” it.  After all, there are many things that I love – my wife, my father, my football team, my favourite rock band, skiing, fish and chips, and the BBC Breakfast presenter, Susanna Reid (I’d be grateful if you didn’t tell my wife about that one) – the list goes on.

But “love” – like “great” – is an overused – or rather over abused – word today. In fact, I may have proved this conclusively in the preceding paragraph. Everyone will have places that they “love”, whether it be Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New York or even Leysdown-on-Sea. Few of us would deny “loving” their favourite holiday haunts, particularly if they return to them time and again.

So I think you deserve a more substantial explanation than that. After all, it took me nearly 43 years to finally feast my hungry eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, even though I had venerated the city from afar for nearly three decades before that. So what do I find so special about it now?

Before I answer it – and I’m not prevaricating, honest – I think it is worth considering what it is about a place that makes us become attached to it. After all, isn’t it nothing more nor less than a collection of natural features and man-made buildings?

I suppose that many of us, including myself, claim that we “love” the place in which we were born and / or raised. It is this emotional attachment, linked to childhood memories, that, I believe, is the crucial factor here. And the acknowledgement of that attachment may not manifest itself without the aid of age and distance.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “there’s no place like home” may be cliches but they still have a sturdy ring of truth. James Joyce – that incomparable chronicler of place – could not, as he himself admitted, have written so profoundly or entertainingly about Dublin had he stayed there instead of leaving it to work and live in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.

My last post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/walking-with-our-mutual-friend/) conveys my affection for my own home town of Rochester in Kent, and an earlier one (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/to-my-home-county/) describes the pride I have in being a Man of Kent, a grateful product of its rich embrace of coast and countryside.

So our attachment to place begins, as with so many of our passions, with our childhood experiences.

But I digress. We’re not in Kent(as) anymore, Toto. You want to read about why I “love” San Francisco. Well, I presume you still do or you would have given up by now. So here goes.

I could cite the stunning beauty of the bay and its glittering “bracelet of bridges”, the gorgeous skies, the cute, clanking cable cars, the abundance of fresh seafood in its classy restaurants, the diversity of its music and theatre scene, the richness of its ethnic neighbourhoods, the thrilling exploits of the Giants and 49ers, and, of course, its renowned tolerance and reputation as a haven for the otherwise discarded and disaffected – all of these are part of it.

However, thousands of other visitors have been equally captivated by most, if not all, of these qualities. It is not for nothing that many leave their heart in San Francisco.  But their “love” is invariably on loan, perhaps until the next trip or another geographical gigolo snatches their affection. Mine is permanent, organic, forever.  

So what is it about this place that has lured this individual into spending what time he can’t reside in it dreaming and writing about it?  Why has this place gotten hold of my heart” where other cities I delight in visiting, such as Venice, Florence, Barcelona, Dublin and New York have not? And why, with relatively little time left, and  just as I am about to resolve to go somewhere else, does it sing its siren (or is that sea lion) songs to me, steering my boat back into the dock of the bay?

For much of my life it was a platonic, long distance affair.  It started with the Summer of Love (1967) when San Francisco snared the imagination of many people across the globe, including one 14 year old English schoolboy an entire continent and ocean away. Intrigued by the love and peace mantra, he was inspired by Scott McKenzie and the Flowerpot Men to commit fashion suicide by wearing paisley shirts and, on at least one occasion, flowers (almost certainly plastic) in his hair, to football matches that year – fortunately, it pre-dated the skinhead era or he may not have been given such an easy ride!

Three years later, the music of the Bay Area, in the form of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service began to fill my head. “Everyone’s favourite city” had become the epicentre of my cultural universe. However, another two and a half decades passed before I set foot on San Francisco’s ever shifting soil.

And, for me, Haight-Ashbury, from whence that dazzling music came, still represents, more than any other location in the city, MY San Francisco, and where I gravitate to on every trip, however short. Free concerts by the Dead on flat bed trucks in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park, tie-dye shirts and the pungent waft of marijuana smoke remain enduring images of that time.

And there is just enough of that atmosphere – at stores like Positively Haight Street, Haight-Ashbury T-shirts and Pipe Dreams, as well as Sami Sunchild’s Red Victorian (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/great-san-franciscan-characters-14-sami-sunchild/) – to keep me enthused as I saunter down Haight Street today.

That is not to say that other parts – the Tenderloin and Civic Center no less than the trendy neighbourhoods and tourist honeypots – are not equally “real” embodiments of the modern city, all too real some might say. Though I embrace them all, the Haight remains the heart of my San Franciscan experience. Its only failing is that it does not aford bay views!  Or does it? I really must check on my next trip!

Another earlier post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/my-san-francisco-top-ten/) summarises those parts of the city that captivate me most, so I will not bore you by repeating them here.

It’s not just the physical sights and sounds that appeal, but the literature (Armistead Maupin, Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Dashiel Hammett, Jack London) and history (the Barbary Coast, the earthquake and Great Fire, the cultural movements of the fifties and sixties) that fascinate me too.  And has there been a better chronicler of a city anywhere than Herb Caen(www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/great-san-franciscan-characters-6-herb-caen/), renowned columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle?

Indeed, it was Caen who wrote half a century ago in one of his many ruminations on what made a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

I like to think that I fit into Caen’s San Francisco “newcomer” category, though I’ll settle for being the “sophisticated tourist” who is “charmed and fascinated” by the city.

I have used the word “home” in a number of features on San Francisco, and that, I think, is the key here. That is not to say that it replaces the town in which I was born and raised – though, equally, it might – but rather that the city engenders those same feelings, not just of comfort and security but also of confidence and pride that allows me to engage with it on all levels. Venice and New York do not. Nor even does “dear, dirty Dublin”, despite my Irish ancestry.

Back where we started then.

And my wife and I have deliberately fostered this feeling in recent years where, by staying in apartments in different neighbourhoods – Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle, and for our upcoming (ninth) visit, Noe Valley – we aim to “live like locals”, whilst continuing to take in the traditional tourist sights too (our stays are still too short to omit them, even if we wanted to). It is another of San Francisco’s virtues that we can do both.

How many of us can say that anywhere, at least beyond the place in which we live, that we can call it “home”?

Do you have any place that exercises that same grip on you?

I’ll end with Herb Caen again:

thank God or Allah or whoever it was that blessed this small, special, annoying, irresistible place at the tip of a peninsula and the end of the world.

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