I took two months off between my last job and my new one, with a vague goal to unwind and to get to know my city more. I had no idea how much there was to learn, and how much I’d enjoy it.
Here are some places I visited, some things I discovered, and some facts I learned about San Francisco in November and December, A.D. 2012.
I arrived at The Walt Disney Family Museum by foot, overdressed, drenched in sweat, having underestimated San Francisco’s fickle weather once again. This made me start my visit in a way every museum must secretly dream of—straight from the gift shop. I grabbed a fleece adorned with a museum logo, a hat with barely-recognizable silhouettes of the seven dwarves, and—as ridiculous as it might have seemed—wore them out. Thus branded, I started my exploration of the place I’ve heard of for ages, but never before bothered to visit.
Who would’ve expected some random “family museum” in the faraway Presidio to amount to much? Certainly not me. But what I found were great exhibits, incredible production values, and so much to learn and enjoy even for a non-Disney fan like myself. Unexpected bonus? An entire big room devoted to World’s Fair 1964–65 in New York—exactly a week after I finished reading a book about it.
But wait, there was a secondary unexpected bonus too: A little gallery in Building 103 just next door—talking about the San Francisco Bay before the Golden Gate Bridge—and a friendly tour guide graciously walking me through the whole thing minutes before closing.
Of other museums I visited around the same time, I loved the little exhibition put up by SPUR (San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association), outlining ten crucial diagrams in city planning history. Further down the same block, the always-wonderful California Historical Society followed their Golden Gate Bridge anniversary exhibition with a rich collection of photos of rural California. And the Cartoon Art Museum—also nearby—was worth checking out as well, if surprisingly tiny. (It was an exhibition of mass transit photographs at the Harvey Milk Photo Center that ended up the only one disappointing me.)
A stroll through my own backyard unearthed the Argonaut Book Shop, overflowing with books and artifacts focusing on the joint histories of California and San Francisco. I walked out with four volumes, including my first Herb Caen book and a coffee table collection of aerial photos from the 1970s. (Truth be told, I limited myself to four, and could’ve easily walked out with four, eight, or even twelve more books.)
My friend mentioned Green Apple Books in Inner Richmond, and that too was a nice two hours of browsing through the volumes new and old. I visited the legendary City Lights again as well. Those three bookstores are now my favourites in the city.
“A library is a hospital for the mind,” as the saying goes. One can never have enough books, and done with bookstores, I finally made a trek to the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. On the sixth floor I discovered something of a little temple for people like me: The San Francisco History Center is filled not only with tons of S.F. history-related books, but also physically imposing volumes of hand-drawn Sanborn insurance maps from the early 20th century, and some exhaustive vertical files on plethora of subjects. I requested the Embarcadero Freeway and freeway revolts folders, and just minutes later my fingers were leafing through some of the original plans of unbuilt highways, dreamed up by city planners and drawn by engineers. I’m not exaggerating when I say they gave me goosebumps.
If that wasn’t enough of a draw, some floors of the library featured mini-exhibitions on fascinating subjects, including the centennary of San Francisco Muni public transit, and the Chinese accents in the construction of the Bay Bridge.
That was the public library. As it turned out, some of the private libraries I learned of and visited were just as amazing.
California Historical Society, mentioned above, has their own research library accessible to members, open Wednesday to Friday from noon to 5pm.
Early December, I took my friends to California City, CA—a forgotten place at the edge of the Mojave Desert, not as much a ghost town, but rather an unglamorous vestige of 1960s real estate rampancy. Information about California City is rather hard to find, but U.C. Berkeley’s impressive Bancroft Library gave me access to incredibly enlightening 1970s folders unearthing many of the city’s secrets. (Expect a separate essay about this fascinating subject soon.)
The biggest discovery was, however, the Prelinger Library, maintained by Rick and Megan Prelinger. Opened for everyone Wednesday afternoons, it felt like a direct extension of my personal collection, and thus my personal interests; a treasure trove of books and paraphernalia covering urban design, technology, ecology, you name it. I was also lucky enough to meet Rick and Megan themselves. They helped me in my research, and it was them who directed me to the Bancroft Library mentioned above.
How did I hear of the Prelinger Library to begin with? By attending the 7th annual Lost Landscapes of San Francisco event at the Castro Theatre, put together by Rick. Once again (but first time for me), the theatre lit up with newly digitized home movies, promotional videos, and other filmed historical ephemera to an eager audience shouting out loud their own San Francisco stories and sharing their moments of geographical recognition (“This must be 16th and the Mission!”) as the mostly-silent movies flickered on the screen.
(Some of the previous Lost Landscapes are available online. A viewing party is in early stages of planning.)
Ignite San Francisco was another event happening at around the same time. As always with ignites—rapid-fire five-minute talks where the slides advance automatically—there were hits and misses, but just like with the Lost Landscapes, it is sometimes as much about the audience as it is about the speakers. And the audience was great, I was happy to have been a part of it, and please say “hi” if you attend future ignites. I will do my best to be there, too.
Same goes for Pop-Up Magazine, at least assuming that I manage to get tickets again. I understand this bi-annual event sells out really fast. The idea—imagine a printed magazine performed live—is easier to summarize than elaborate upon. The website tries to be helpful (“Each evening of Pop-Up unfolds like a magazine. Short reviews, dispatches, and provocations anchor the front, longer features follow in the back. Our theme is no theme.”) and I feel there’s no way I can improve on that. The important point: many of the presented talks were fantastic, many sparked new ideas, and (spot the theme) I found like souls with many people in the audience afterwards.
I also attended a seminar at the Long Now foundation, an interesting space with an interesting premise. Lastly, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco hosted one of my favourite authors—Steven Johnson—in a hilarious conversation, and will soon host another one: Tracy Kidder. It’s worth subscribing to both of their mailing lists. (SPUR also hosts many interesting events.)
After seeing The Master at the strangely remote UA Stonestown Twin multiplex, I realized that I have now attended a showing in every single San Francisco movie theatre. A cause for reflection or celebration? Doesn’t really matter, because soon after that a friend invited me to a screening of the Miracle on 34th Street at a theatre… in nearby Oakland.
And what a theatre it was! A bona fide movie palace, dripping with art deco ostentatiousness. I was so impressed that night (I wrote about it in more detail in my review) that I followed it by some research, and found out that the Paramount Theatre actually offers backstage tours, every other Saturday.
I attended the first one available, photo camera in one hand and a pen in another, and summarized it in a little photo essay. It does the theatre little justice, though, and I would encourage you to check it on your own.
Speaking of impressive buildings, the incredibly informative and wonderfully funny Architecture Walking Tour shares stories of many more of them in downtown S.F. proper, and is worth the $20 ticket price. Even limited to literally just a block or two within the city, I found the tour a great mixture of indoors, and outdoors; of past, present, and future; of crucial big events and lively minutiae.
On top of all that, despite living in San Francisco for years, it was only that tour that alerted me to the existence of POPOS—privately-owned public open spaces, a layer of delightful hideouts and secret mini-parks shying away from the public. Some of the ones I discovered that day and since have been small revelations, and a POPOS map put together by no one other that SPUR will give you a head start. If you live or work in downtown San Francisco, POPOS might change your life.
The last two months of 2012 were sprinkled with many more delightful discoveries like that—as if there was a parallel San Francisco that slowly decided to spill out its secrets to me and my camera.
How about that little park right next to the Transamerica Pyramid? You can blink and miss it as you’re strolling by, but try not to. It’s wonderful and filled with redwoods providing a respite from the nearby jungle of skyscrapers.
In the park, on the other side of the fountain, there’s a plaque commemorating what must be one of the most touching San Francisco stories ever—of Bummer and Lazarus, a pair of unlikely canine friends, roaming the brand-new streets of the then-young city.
I am not sure if it is technically a POPOS, but One Maritime Plaza in the shadow of San Francisco’s oddest skyscraper, surrounded by small, warm gardens dotted with interesting sculptures, was another surprising discovery.
So was the fact that television (or at least one variant of it) was invented in San Francisco. Right here, in this unassuming building at the base of Telegraph Hill, with a plaque in front telling the whole story.
Did you know there’s a building in San Francisco designed by Frank Lloyd Wright? I didn’t. Unfortunately, only one, and hidden on a side street to boot.
Many of the above discoveries are roughly in the same area in the city’s financial district. To thank here is another random photo project of mine, in which I have been visiting, time and again, the Embarcadero Center—the unlovable, brutalist, concrete jungle of office and commerce buildings just next to the city’s waterfront. I will cover those excursions in a future photo essay, but one note belongs here.
As I was looking at the Embarcadero Center website, I noticed one photo with an interesting, if seemingly impossible, vantage point. Was it shot from a ferry? From a boat? Was it digitally altered?
I tried to reverse-engineer it with Google Maps, and in that process I learned about the existence of Pier 7—a well-maintained excursion into the bay somewhat hidden from the public (or at least from me), doubly romantic in the autumn rain accompanying the sunset, and with a great view of the Transamerica Pyramid and the rest of the skyline. It might just become my favourite of the remaining San Francisco piers, stealing the crown from Pier 14 on the other side of the Ferry Building.
And no, let’s not forget the Ferry Building. One of San Francisco structures so rich in history, so eager to reinvent itself, I can’t help but be inspired by it every time I’m nearby. During those two months, it was a home base for my morning runs, a trusted source of afternoon sustenance, and a time-and-again place for evening reflection.
Just like I did with Robert Moses’s creations in New York, I brought a Ferry Building history book with me… to the Ferry Building, learning its convoluted and fascinated story while observing traces of it all around me—the book my tour guide, the building my tour.
The ferry to the nearby Angel Island does not, alas, depart from the Ferry Building, but from the more annoyingly touristy Pier 41. I’ve been to the island once before, hiking its beautiful slopes, but the repeated visit revealed two previously missed destinations.
One was the incredibly moving Immigration Station, telling the story of Chinese expats who, detained for days, weeks, or even months, turned in their desperation to carving poetry in the station’s walls.
The other gem? A little, easily overlooked, but delightful Quarry Beach, with wonderful view of the city’s skyline and both spans of the Bay Bridge. Close enough to see home, far enough to feel like vacation.
I had some inkling that San Francisco, like probably every other big city, had many layers: culture, food, history, urban design, politics. What I didn’t expect was how rich they were, and what I wasn’t prepared for was their fractal nature—every new discovery unearthing two more; every person met leading to more people with similar interests; many places and stories hidden in plain sight until I knew exactly how to look to notice them.
I was supposed to travel during these two months—Hawaii, Chicago—but the city excursions engulfed me so much I simply forgot about that. And even though it seems I crammed a lot into those 50-or-so days, I know now I only scratched the surface. My adventures are not complete, and will never be. Some of the things on my primordial, small to do list (riding three cable car lines end to end, visiting the tiny Fire Department Museum and the Museum of Vision, participating in the bike tours of San Francisco) will have to wait a bit longer, and two or three dozen new ones will now compete for my time and attention.
One December afternoon, wearing my hat with inconspicuous seven silhouettes on it, a barista at a coffee shop pointed to it, and asked “Wait, where is this from?” I said “The Walt Disney Family Museum. It’s pretty great. You should check it out.” She looked at me with the friendliest expression of compassion I ever witnessed, and said “Oh, I have. I volunteer there. Too bad not many people know about it.”
That might have been my favourite second of the entire two months—that moment of fleeting, mutual recognition that there’s so much more to San Francisco for everyone: if only you care, and if only you explore.
Those two months now feel but a prelude. Here, at the beginning of 2013, I’m only getting started. Let me know if you’re in.