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Posts Tagged ‘photography’


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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I have a confession to make.

Not a particularly damning or embarrassing one I would hope – but perhaps I ought to let you be the judge of that.

I have a fetish for street name signs.

Not the solitary, dull, diffident, street level signs we have in the UK, but those in the United States where they perch high above the road at intersections, invariably two or more pointing in different directions. Those too that sometimes portray a particular feeling – of romance, magic, nostalgia or even incongruity – through the marriage of the actual names.

And some – for example, Haight and Ashbury and Twelfth Street and Vine – assume a mythic status in the eyes of millions, evoking a meaningful moment in time and space.

Their position in the air often brings into the play other interesting or attractive features such as a pretty house, a bush, other signs, celebrated natural features, and always the ever fascinating dance of the clouds.

And if you don’t buy such fanciful gush, then you cannot deny that, at the most basic level, they at least serve a practical purpose in indicating where you find yourself at any one time, and help you to negotiate your way between specific places.

So I have gathered together a handful of some of the most interesting I stumbled across on my rambles round the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco over the past couple of weeks.

So here goes.

If you come across your street or house, I hope you receive it in the respectful spirit in which it is offered.

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My home county of Kent has long worn the accolade of the “Garden of England” lightly but it also boasts an enviable heritage, including many fine castles. Below are photographs and brief descriptions of some of the most celebrated.

There is only place to start – with the great twelfth century Norman keep in my home town of Rochester, beloved of Charles Dickens. Standing on the east bank of the River Medway, it was besieged four times during its first three hundred years, but has survived, if much changed and as a magnificent ruin, ever since. Open to the public all year round, its pigeon poop encrusted turrets offer outstanding views of the river and beyond.

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Romantic Leeds Castle, described by the historian Lord Conway as the “loveliest castle in the world”, is approaching its nine hundreth anniversary, though the modern structure dates largely from the nineteenth century. More than half a million people visited the castle and its maze, aviary, grotto and golf course in 2010. As the third picture illustrates, all the public rooms are beautifully decorated for Christmas.

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Tonbridge Castle, with its magnificent twin towered gatehouse, is another product of the Norman invasion, and whilst it might not attract the volume of visitors enjoyed by Leeds, it occupies a prominent position alongside the River Medway towards the northern end of the high street, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the attached public park .

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The principal attractions of Sissinghurst  Castle are the stunning gardens created by novelist Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, in the nineteen thirties.  The adjoining buildings may not resemble everyone’s idea of the traditional castle (it was originally a mansion set within a working farm), but, along with the imposing prospect tower, the beautiful brickwork and hanging foliage are  a delight. 

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My personal favourite is achingly beautiful Scotney Old Castle, whose ruins are the very essence of the dreamy fairytale English castle. Technically, Scotney Castle is the name of the “modern” house at the top of the gardens, but it is the older, smaller version,   complete with lily pad decorated moat, that entrances visitors.

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These are but a few of the beautiful castles and manor houses that are dotted around the Kent countryside. I am conscious that, on this occasion, I have omitted the mighty “Gateway to England” at Dover, Anne Boleyn’s home at Hever and the neighbour on the coast at Deal and Walmer. And I haven’t started on Knole, Chartwell, Groombridge Place and Ightham Mote.

I can see this becoming a series in its own right.

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

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Flowers and Festivals

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Bougainvillea sprouting everywhere

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Saturday morning Farmer’s Market

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Can never leave here without parting with our money

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Excellent local bookstore

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Constant lines outside Chloe’s café 

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

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Famous movie location  (“Sister Act”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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