Posts Tagged ‘SFFD’

Stretching from Pier 45, home to the marvellous Musée Mecanique and historic ships, the US Jeremiah O’Brien and USS Pampanito, to AT & T Park at 2nd and King, San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront thoroughfare is one of the city’s crowning jewels.

Its most prized asset is the great San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, or as it is more affectionately known by locals and other supplicants, the Bay Bridge. The widest bridge in the world, and also one of the longest at more than seven miles, its two decks carry nearly a quarter of a million passengers each day. It may not command the same celebrity status as the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering on the opposite side of Alcatraz, but the views, especially from the recently reopened east span, are stunning.


But the Embarcadero is not all about the Bay Bridge as the following photographs demonstrate. Sinbad’s at Pier 2 is a fine seafood restaurant.


One of its more unusual features is Cupid’s Span, a quirky but imposing sculpture, in the two acre Rincon Park, a welcome spot to rest feet wearied by the unforbidding pavement along the water’s edge.


The main rival to the Bay Bridge in the affections of locals and visitors alike is the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street.

Once the City’s principal transportation hub and beautifully restored between 2003 and 2007, it is now home not only to two storeys of premium office space, but also a permanent gallery of stalls selling locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, wines, meats, flowers, chocolate and pastries, as well as one of a kind gift items, many related to the kitchen and garden.


The historic streetcars trundle along the Embarcadero with their packed hoardes of tourists seeking fun at Fisherman’s Wharf, bargains at Union Square and Westfield or vintage movie going at the Castro Theatre.


Apartment blocks and offices loom above the constant traffic.




In a city renowned for the quality of its restaurants, Red’s Java House is never going to attract any Michelin stars, but it provides good honest fare for fans heading for or returning from a Giants game. It may be basic and unpretentious, but it boasts as many passionate advocates as Michael Mina at the Westin St. Francis Hotel or Quince in Pacific Heights.


In summer, extravagantly colourful hanging baskets complement the profusion of palms along the roadside.



Back to the Bay Bridge with a SFFD fire boat sailing under it.


Finally we reach AT & T Park at the end of the stretch of the roadway named after legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen who wrote extensively about the Embarcadero and his beloved Giants.


Read Full Post »

One of the most distinctive landmarks on the San Franciscan horizon, visible from most of the eastern half of the city, is 210 foot high Coit Tower on top of Telegraph Hill.

This is the story of the eccentric woman whose lifelong dedication to the city’s firefighters culminated in bequeathing a third of her fortune for its construction.

Lillian Hitchcock was born on 23 August 1843 at West Point, New York, the only child of Martha and Dr Charles M Hitchcock, a distinguished army surgeon, who had operated on the leg of Colonel Jefferson Davis. She moved with her parents to San Francisco in 1851.

Two days before Christmas that year she was rescued from the upper floor of the hotel in which she and her father were staying. Thanks to the firefighters from Knickerbocker Engine Company No.5. she was unharmed, fuelling a lifetime’s devotion to the same crew in their red shirts and war-like helmets.

This was in an era when fire carriages were designed to be pulled by hand. Firefighters lined up along a rope and pulled, like tug-of-war teams, in order to haul their engine to the fire. They would often be in competition with other companies to get to the blaze first. Such was the case when “Lillie” first saw her opportunity to repay “her men” for saving her when she was only eight years old.

Seven years after that event, the pretty, tomboyish 15 year old was walking home from school when she spied an underhanded Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 falling behind the Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3 companies in responding to a fire call on Telegraph Hill.

Intelligent and quick-witted, Lillie hurled her school books to the ground nd rushed to help, finding a vacant position on the rope and calling out to other bystanders to help get the engine up the hill.  Largely through her intervention, No.5 was the first to the fire.

Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), wrote that it “was the story of Jeanne d’Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Saragossa and the Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again” as she “exerted her feeble strength and began to pull, at the same time turning her flushed face to the bystanders and calling “Come on you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”

From then Lillie became the Knickerbocker Engine Company No.5 mascot and honorary firefighter, swinging into action at the sound of every bell. She was elected an honorary member of the company on 3 October 1863, making her the only woman in the US to belong to a volunteer fire station. Her energy and speed were the envy of even the fittest of firemen. She rode frequently with No. 5, especially in street parades and other celebrations, bedecked in flowers and flags.

She wore a diamond-studded fireman’s badge reading “No.5” for the remainder of her life, started signing her name with a 5 after it, and even had its emblem embroidered on her bedsheets (some have suggested her undergarments too!). If a fireman fell ill she would sit with him in his sickroom, and provide floral tributes for the families of those who died.

By the age of 18 she was the “undisputed belle” of San Francisco according to Chief Bowlen.

Stories abound about her eccentric lifestyle. She was believed to have been engaged at one point to two men, wearing their engagement rings on alternate days. But she had resolved to marry wealthy easterner Howard Coit, a caller at the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange. Even after they had tied the knot in 1868, she continued to attend firemen’s balls and played poker with the men who nicknamed her “Firebell Lil”? She smoked cigars and wore trousers long before it was socially acceptable for women to do so, gaining her access to men-only establishments in North Beach. She is reputed even to have shaved her head to make the wigs fit better.

Her position in polite society did not prevent her from following her heart and dashing from parties and weddings in her barouche at the call of the doleful clang of a fire engine. Embarassing though this was for her respectable husband, she was generally regarded as an amiable eccentric and ladies either ignored or humoured her.

She was an “accomplished singer, dancer and guitarist” and enjoyed fine food, dining often at the famous French restaurant The Poodle Dog. She also kept her own recipe book.

Like her North Carolina mother, she was a southern sympathiser during the Civil War, spending the early war years there before moving to Paris where she became a notable figure at the court of Napoleon III, on one occasion marching into a prestigious masked ball dressed head to toe as a firefighter. She also travelled extensively in the east, particularly India, where she befriended the Maharaj.

But the lure of her adopted city, and in particularly its firefighters, was too much and she always returned to it, often bringing with her gifts from her regal contacts, notably rare gems, objets d’art and souvenirs.

Her long-suffering husband died in 1885, leaving a $250,000 estate. This was the trigger for Lillie to return to her wilder days, accompanying five men on an overnight camping trip and disguising herself as a man in order to lurk around the grubbiest dives at the waterfront.

Anxious to witness a prize fight she arranged for a pair of boxers to perform for her in her suite in the grand and elegant Palace Hotel in which she spent much of her later years. After she had the room cleared of furniture and breakables, the two men stripped and begun to pummel each other. Lillie watched this perched on a plush chair atop a table. After several rounds, and as the men had hit each other to a virtual standstill, the referee pleaded that the match be declared a draw, to which Lille retorted they should continue until a “bloody knockout”. The Boston Globe hailed the event as “pioneering a new way of life for women” but the New York Globe was appalled, labelling it a “staggering shock”.

In 1904 a distant cousin, angered by her refusal to let him manage her financial affairs, broke into her room whilst she was entertaining a Major McClurry with the intention of killing her. McClurry stepped in and saved Lillie but was injured and died of his wounds. With the scandal still fresh, she left San Francisco and spent the last two decades of her life abroad.

She inherited a further $60,000 and property from her grandfather.

She died on 22 July 1929 at the Dante Sanatorium in San Francisco, bequeathing the city $118,000 (estimates vary from $100,000 to $125,000) to “be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved”.

After lengthy deliberation, during which two of its members resigned on the grounds that Lillie had actually hated towers, the Coit Advisory Committee used the funds to build Coit Tower on the site of the first west coast telegraph 5 years later.  In addition, it also erected the statue of three firefighters, one carrying a woman in his arms, that Lillie had commissioned herself, in Washington Square Park.  It is this statue that she had intended should be the one to adorn Telegraph Hill.     

Because of the association with Lillie, the shape of the tower is generally, and not unreasonably, felt to resemble a fire nozzle.  However, Arthur Brown Jnr, who also designed City Hall, refuted this suggestion. Other theories, including one not unrelated to her affection for the men she rode with, have been postulated, but none of these are any more plausible.

She remains the unofficial patron saint of all firefighters in San Francisco to this day.

Read Full Post »

We were stood on the corner of Waller and Stanyan, alongside the McDonald’s parking lot and opposite the historic Stanyan Park Hotel. It was 10.20 on a sunny if cool Saturday morning in April. The shops in Haight Street a block away were drowsily coming to life, and a gaggle of skateboarders and assorted “heads” were making their way over to Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park to hang out for the day.

After ten years of inexplicable resistance, we had finally decided to give the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour a try. Having read our e-mail confirmation carefully we were confident that we were at the appointed meeting place. But the time was beginning to concern us. Whilst both our e-mail and the official website had expressly stated that the tour began at 10.30am, we had collected a leaflet the previous day quoting 9.30am.

As 10.25, 10.30 and 10.35 passed without anyone joining us, we began to speculate on what might have happened. Was it really a 9.30 start and we were horribly late? Had the tour been cancelled because we were the only participants (and if so why hadn’t we been informed)? Or was the guide merely delayed? I rang the telephone number quoted on the e mail with no success.

As frustration turned to irritation at 10.40, a balding, middle-aged man approached us and enquired whether we were on the tour. He had received a telephone call to say that the guide was running late due to a burst water main near her flat.  A Kentuckian, he was accompanied by his 20 year old daughter, as well as his son and his girlfriend, both of whom were studying at San Francisco State University.

Five minutes later our ears were assailed by a cheery “good morning” emanating from behind us on Waller Street. On turning around we were greeted by a diminutive woman dressed from head to toe in black, apart from the psychedelic leggings flashing intermittently from beneath her huge coat, shuffling towards us. This was Izu, our guide for the next two and a half hours. My heart soared (I may have been alone in this reaction) – here was someone who had palpably lived and breathed the hippie dream in the sixties and, equally importantly, was still doing.  This was going to be fun – and I was not to be disappointed.

Having made her apologies, referring, not for the only time, to “hippie time”, she squealed with delight at the sight of my Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” t-shirt. We were instant soul mates and, given my familiarity with the history and music of the era, she regularly sought my input, which, whilst being very gratifying personally, might have annoyed the remainder of the group who weren’t as well informed beforehand. The son’s girlfriend spent most of the morning hiding behind his back and when gently challenged on this by Izu, insisted that she was not feeling well. I’m not convinced she wasn’t just a tad intimidated by Izu’s earnest, energetic approach.

Izu’s credentials to conduct this tour were impeccable. She  had lived in the Haight for a month during the Summer of Love, and despite returning home to New York immediately thereafter, had been resident in the neighbourhood for many years.

One of her most endearing traits was that she had retained her broad New York accent which, incongruous though it might seem, gave an added charm and piquancy to her feast of anecdotes. I particularly delighted in her repeated pronounciation of Haight-Ashberry, proclaimed in a manner that could be heard from several blocks in any direction. 

Armed with our free gift of a Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour button badge we set off down Waller Street, pausing at the SFFD’s Fire Station 12 which, uniquely, carries the Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” logo on its engines. We learned too about the Human Be-In, the influx of young people from all over the United States and the invaluable social service provided by both the Diggers and the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic.

Whilst we stopped at properties that had been lived in by such counterculture luminaries as Janis Joplin (several), Country Joe and the Fish and Jimi Hendrix, as well as Charles Manson, the highlight for me was the Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury. Now, I have stood outside this pad many times but, with Izu at my side, I didn’t feel as uncomfortable, as much of a stalker, as I had done before. It helped that Izu knew both the current tenants and their neighbours – well, actually, she appeared to know everybody in the vicinity! We barely passed a shop, café or homeless center without her stopping to hail its occupants.

Whilst I went along with every photo opportunity arranged by Izu, I did draw the line at taking one of the Haight-Ashbury sign – been there, done that, not cool. I think we fell out briefly at that point!

Many San Francisco walks are more like hikes, especially when they involve negotiating its unforbidding hills, but this one is leisurely and laid-back. We barely walked more than 100 yards before Izu asked us to gather round to listen to her stories, not only of the music scene but also the general history of the Haight. She was aided by a canvas shopping bag, from which she intermittently plucked vintage photographs.

The tour culminated in a visit to the recently opened Haight Ashbury Museum of Psychedelic Art and History, a center designed to showcase the arts, music and creativity of the era. Depending upon your point of view, it was either impossibly cluttered or incredibly comprehensive. Izu alerted us to historic posters, photographs and newspaper extracts from the hippie Haight.

The slogan of the museum is The Hippies Were Right!, a mantra repeated by Izu throughout the tour. As the (larger) badges extolling this theory illustrated, this relates to concern for the environment, emphasis on organic products, peace and love rather than war, sustainable housing and fuel efficiency, and, capping it all, “more fun and less unnecessary work”. I for one find it hard to argue with any of that.

The tour ended with heartfelt hugs outside the museum and clichéd, but utterly necessary, poses for the cameras.

In summary, this was a relaxing and thoroughly entertaining walk. In fact, the word “walk” doesn’t adequately describe it. It was a “show” in which Izu, in her inimitably animated, slightly wacky style, conveyed a vast amount of information and observation on both what was arguably the neighbourhood’s golden era and how those ideals are being implemented today.

Anyone who is deterred by the prospect of becoming preached at on the virtues of free love and rampant drug taking should really not be worried. Whilst Izu, inevitably, relates stories of excessive LSD, marijuana and heroin usage, she takes every opportunity to explain her vehement opposition to drugs. Nor does she gloss over the many unsavoury elements of the period.

So go with an open mind and you will be rewarded. But first listen to some live Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane whilst you are searching for that old kaftan, transfer a few flowers from your garden to your hair, throw on any piece of jewellery you can find, get on the bus and make your way up to the corner of Waller and Stanyan on a Tuesday or Saturday at 10.30am (yes, that’s 10.30am hippie time).

And remember…………….the Hippies Were Right!

Read Full Post »