The policy of social distancing means there aren't many people around when we go out for a walk, and we avoid those few we see. The streets and plazas and neighborhoods feel empty, and traffic signals seem useless.
But we're having lovely weather, and the place still looks nice. The skies lately remind me of that fine old song by Joni Mitchell, ". . . ice cream castles in the air, and feathered canyons everywhere . . ."
The new Transbay Transit Center has a roof garden. This is good because it covers four city blocks. It's nice to have four blocks of places to catch city buses and commuter buses that go outside the city. It's even better to get a big public park in the bargain.
The bit of greenery shown here is a collection of "living fossils," plants that were around long before people were. I find this reassuring, and I'm not sure why. Plants elsewhere in the park exemplify cloud forests, desert landscapes, Australia, and other cool stuff.
It's not all plants. There's a climber for kids, a plaza with cafe tables ringed by food and drink vendors, and a flat lawn with a stage incorrectly described as "amphitheater." All very cool.
I took this pic standing on a pedestrian bridge that connects the park to the fourth floor of an office building. We hit the coffee bar and sat out on chairs such as he one you see. We had our choice of chairs, which was unusual in the busiest part of town. This happened because everyone has been told to stay home through March 22, 2020.
We went out anyway. In our hearts we are from New Hampshire: "Live free, or die!"
Next stop: Japan.
Oceanside cliffs are common in and around San Francisco. This one is just around the corner from the Golden Gate. It's kind of awesome to stand here and think that if you head due west, the next land you reach will be Japan.
The National Park Service has placed the Land's End Lookout here so you can have a cup of coffee and a sandwich while contemplating the immensity of the globe.
You can also learn a bit about the history of this spot or pick up a sweat shirt in case you came here thinking all of California is sunny and warm.
On a really clear day, you can see three tiny triangles on the horizon. They are the Farallon Islands. The water between here and there is the Gulf of the Farralons. It is home to the largest population of great white sharks in the world.
This is a great to to be glad you're on dry land.
San Francisco's historic cable cars are popular but misunderstood.
They are not trolleys. Trolleys are powered by electric lines overhead. Cable cars are powered by a system of cables that move constantly in channels beneath the street. The gripman operates a clutch that grips the cable, causing the car to move, and releases the cable to stop the car.
They aren't used for transportation any more. There used to be fourteen lines fanning out over the eastern portion of the city. They were invented because there were accidents involving teams of horses pulling heavy loads up the steep hills in the city.
Now there are just two lines. The Powell Street car runs from Market Street, up and over Nob Hill and winds up a Fisherman's Wharf. At either end you can watch a turntable turn the car around to go the other way. It is hugely popular with tourists
The California Street car (pictured above) starts near the Embarcadero, runs up and over Nob Hill and ends at Van Ness Avenue. The latter half of the ride is mostly residential and there's no tourist destination. Usually there's no waiting in line for this one. Just hop on!
I suppose every now and then someone rides them just to get from here to there, but mostly they are museum pieces, and delightful ones at that, although they are expensive.
Landmark has announced it will close the Clay theater, which was built in 1910 as a movie house---no backstage! Reportedly they have lost money for years on this single-screen neighborhood theater, showing new art-house films and cult classics.
Elsewhere in the city, Landmark is doing well. Its Embarcadero Cinema emerged from a re-do with luxurious seats and upgraded food and beverage service. Landmark has announced it will refurbish the Opera Plaza Cinema, which needs it. Both are multi-screen houses.
There is hope the Clay will be saved by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which has saved the Vogue (1912) and the Balboa (1926). The Castro (1922) survives in all its glory thanks to community support. A few others survive around the city, mostly divided into multi-screen theaters.
As you can see in the foreground, Potrero Hill is a traditional San Francisco neighborhood with attached houses, small apartment buildings, and street trees. It even has a neighborhood bar with hard-boiled, private-eye vibe. It's less dense than many places. Here, people park in front of their houses.
As you can see in the background, Potrero Hill has a commanding view of downtown, or at least the newer part, south of Market street. Most of those big buildings went up in the last ten years. The building boom was driven by The tech industry's need for office space.
I've heard that in just a few years the city built space for 15,000 people to live and work. And yet people still get squeezed out of gentrifying neighborhoods. Partly that's because tech hubs down the peninsula---Mountain View, Cupertino, Redwood City, etc.---refuse to build housing. Instead they remain true to the vision of their founders: houses on lots of a half acre or more.
Of course there are also neighborhoods in San Francisco that refuse to allow building higher than three stories.
And we all complain about traffic.
We took a walk in Muir Woods, a bit of primeval forest just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is what northern California looked like when the Gold Rush of 1849 touched off a building boom. Only a few places like this are left.
These old-growth Redwoods were designated a National Monument in 1908. Since then the National Park Service has done its usual excellent job of preserving the site while also making it available to the public. Most importantly the Park Service provides information: signs, talks by rangers and volunteers, publications, and website.
Since Muir Woods is near several big cities, and tourist destinations, it is extremely popular. Therefore "making it available" has meant charging admission to cover increased costs of protecting it, providing shuttle buses, charging for parking, and now parking by reservation only.
I love the woods, and I have nothing but praise for what the National Park Service does here, but the whole situation reminds me of a lyric by Joni Mitchell, "They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum."
To spend an afternoon watching the Smuin Ballet company dance to the music of Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, and Carl Orff, is to see humanity perfected.
Watching these dancers do such difficult things so that we can feel joy and sadness and wonder makes me think maybe we're not such a bad species after all.
The Fall, 2019, show starts off with new work by Rex Wheeler set to Dave Brubeck's, "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and other classic recordings. These are fun, full of chuckles and surprises.
The show also includes James Kedelko's "The Man in Black," a suite of dances set to songs from Johnny Cash's last album, The Man Comes Around, (2002). Listening to Cash sing songs like "If You Could Read My Mind" and "Hurt" moves us into the realm of classical tragedy. They are that deep.
Kedelko's dances put three men and one woman into costumes fit for line dancing at a cowboy bar, right down to the boots. Those boot heels play percussion on some numbers. The blending of vernacular dance with the power of classical ballet matches the intensity of Cash's recordings.
The company keeps alive the legacy of its founder, Michael Smuin, with his dance to Carmina Burana, a choral work from 1936, based on a collection of poems from the middle ages. The dance is as startling as the music. I would have to see it again to comprehend its symbols, rhythms, and physical daring.
As usual at a Smuin dance series, never a dull moment.
We enjoy going to the neighborhood movie houses in San Francisco, though there are fewer each year. I've lost count of how many have closed since we moved here twelve years ago. I wrote about one, The Clay, last year. It's still up and running and is thriving on art films and midnight showings of The Room, The Rocky Horror Show, and Halloween.
We recently went to the Balboa to see The Rock, the 1996 action flick set in San Francisco. Among other things, the movie is a contest to see who can deliver the best tough-guy line. Competition was intense between Ed Harris, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery , but, judging by audience reaction, Connery was the favorite.
However, the biggest cheer of the night was for the aerial shot of the bay blanketed by fog. Fog rules!
The retrospective showing was organized by two columnists for the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub. They hosted a trivia quiz before the movie started and handed out prizes. Then a guy in full Scottish tartan marched down the aisle of the theater playing "Scotland, the Brave" on bagpipes.
"Well," I thought, "why not?" Later my dear one suggested to me that this may have been a subliminal effort by local Scots to boost Connery's profile with the audience . . . as if Sean Connery needs an boosting!
This pedestrian mall interrupts Buchanan Street in the neighborhood called Japantown. This is where immigrants from Japan settled in the early twentieth century, but back then these blocks where covered with typical San Francisco Victorian-style houses.
All those houses were bull-dozed as part of an urban renewal project in the 1960s. That was possible because the neighborhood had been ruined by the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Today this development covers six square blocks and includes shopping malls, hotels, churches, and cultural institutions. The Buchanan-Street mall includes several sculptures by Ruth Asawa, a renowned artist who as a child was interned along with her family.
Although it was never again a Japanese neighborhood, Japantown became a living history museum for the Japanese community.
The store on the right is Soko Hardware. "Soko" was the immigrants' nickname for San Francisco.
In a neighborhood called Pacific Heights, Upper Fillmore, or Western Addition, depending on who you talk to, this hospital replaced two blocks of Victorian homes. It was designed in the Brutalist style, which is the architectural term for unbelievable masses of raw concrete.
It's not a hospital any more. Sutter Health/CPMC built an even bigger hospital eight blocks away. This building is now used for a variety of outpatient services: dialysis, cancer treatment, podiatry, etc.
One might wonder what is going on upstairs in all those old hospital rooms. A Google search of the address, 2333 Buchanan Street, yields this from AirBnB: "Rent Apartments in CPMC Lab from $20/night." Just for the record, that works out to $600 per month in a city where small studio apartments go for around $1,500 per month.
I wonder if the neighbors in their stately homes dream of getting rid of this monster. Could it even be done? How does one take down a building made of poured concrete? Dynamite?
While taking a walk in the Presidio the other day, I was treated to this spectacle. Looking through the trees along the path and over Presidio Parkway, I watched fog slide in from the straits, slip under the Golden Gate Bridge, and cover the north side of the bay. Eventually it covered the roadway of the bridge, leaving the towers visible.
Meanwhile the south side of the bay, where I was walking, stayed clear. In fact I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Presidio and enjoyed warm, sunny weather, while the bridge and the bay remained shrouded. Sometimes the fog does that: goes just so far and stops.
Fog's gotta do what fog's gotta do.
Most of us first learn about Alcatraz Island from movies such as Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood and The Rock with Nicholas Cage. Most of us think of it as a prison. But, as the National Park Service delights in telling visitors, it is also a sanctuary for endangered species of birds, a museum of military history, an ancestral site for the Ohlone people, and often recently, an art museum.
Thanks to the Presido Trust, we rode the ferry out to the island to see an exhibition called "Future IDs at Alcatraz." The work shown is the result of helping people in prison imagine replacing their prison ID with another ID card when they are released. The project challenged them to imagine a new identity and create a pictorial representation of it.
I'm no expert in this field, but intuitively it seems right to add this exercise in imagination to the job-training, counseling, and parole-supervision that help people re-join society.
Four years ago, we visited the island for another art exhibit "@Large". That one featured work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was then under arrest in his country. He sent instructions for the installation, without sending any art objects. There have been other exhibits on the island, but those featuring art that comes out of imprisonment have a special resonance.
By the way, I did not use any filters to create the photo, taken from the boat on the way to the island. There was some mist in the air that morning, and it created the impressionist style.
Sam's Grill has been around in one form or another since 1867. It's one of a handful of businesses remaining from the Gold Rush era. There's also Tadich's Grill, The Mechanics' Institute, and, of course, Levi Strauss.
A few years ago Sam's was set to close and a group of customers banded together to buy the business. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, they remain anonymous. Since then there have been management changes and even a lease to renegotiate, but Sam's endures.
Stories like this keep turning up. Borderlands Books on Valencia Street was set to close when customers and neighborhood folks showed up with cash and expertise to keep it open. At the time this was referred to as "the public radio model."
We may be witnessing a merger of the non-profit and the for-profit. Sometimes, it seems, we don't believe in survival of the fittest. Maybe we don't want to live in a world populated entirely by the fittest.
We celebrated the holiday by going to hear the Golden Gate Park Band play "Music Celebrating American Independence." This year that included "America Forever" by Malinda Zenor, "Lassus Trombone" by Henry Fillmore, "Armed Forces Medley" arr. by Roc McNaughton, and others.
Now in its 137 season, the band is sponsored by San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department and is compromised of members of American Federation of Musicians Union Local #6. It plays free concerts on Sundays from May through September. To my ear they sound mighty fine.
It is such a pleasure to hear instruments play without amplification. The soft passages are perfectly clear; the loud passages are easy on the ears. The band shell lets them be heard perfectly throughout this section of the park.
I sat back and felt proud of my country.