This view of San Francisco reveals a lot about its history. The large domed building in the upper left corner is the Palace of Fine Arts, a pavilion left over from a world's fair the city hosted in 1915. That event was crucial to the city's recovery from the earthquake and fire of 1906 that nearly wiped it off the map.
The cluster of tall buildings to the right of the Palace is the Financial District, As soon as San Francisco become a city due to the Gold Rush of 1849, it became a banking capitol, the "Wall Street of the West." As banking grew through the 20th century, the buildings grew taller. You can see the pointy building known as the Transamerica Pyramid.
The cluster of tall buildings further right went up mostly in the last five years. They represent the explosion of the tech industry in the last twenty years. The tallest of them, and the tallest in the city, is the Salesforce Tower.
Across the middle of the picture, the low buildings with red roofs are part of the Presidio, which was a U. S. Army base from the time of the Civil War until 1994. Before that it was base for the army of Mexico when California was its territory. And before that it was the Spanish El Presidio de San Francisco, established coincidentally in 1776. Now it is a national park.
The railing seen across the bottom of the picture is part of one of the newest structures in the city. It's on a bridge spanning the highway below. A section of that highway has been covered with tunnels. Soon we will be able to walk over them from the Main Post of the Presidio down to the park along the Bay.
So I think it's fair to say, until the bridge was completed last year, no one had ever seen this view of the city.
San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department takes care of big things like Golden Gate Park, Dolores Park, several golf courses, and a marina, as well as medium-sized things such as Alamo Square, Alta Plaza Park, and Lafayette Park.
Then there are the mini parks, nameless patches of green that turn up in residential neighborhoods inviting the passerby to pause and take a breath before moving on.
This one occupies about two building lots. On the left of the photo you see the wall of an adjacent house. to the right, just out of view, is the small Victorian house I wrote about recently. In fact, you can see a bit of this park in the photo of that house.
Though I have no credentials in landscape architecture, I will say these mini parks seem to be little masterpieces of design. In the photo you see a densely planted area. It has a path meandering through it. Behind me as I took the photo, the rest of the park is a a sparsely planted shade garden beneath mature trees.
I found no list of mini parks on the website for Recreation and Parks, but a search for "Mini Park" turned up a long list of articles about individual minis. The variety is amazing.
San Francisco is famous for its grand Victorian houses. For instance the "Painted Ladies" around Alamo Square are three and four stories tall, have become a tourist attraction, and are featured in an annual open-house walking tour.
But throughout the city there are pockets of lesser Victorians. On a walk yesterday, I chanced upon this little gem, just one-story tall and probably 25 feet wide. Nonetheless it has a fancy cornice to make it look taller, a hood over the door, a bay window, and lots of trim. The proud owners have given it a three-color paint job.
Local historians can date a house by its decorations. After the Gold Rush of 1849, the city was built up with plain square houses. In the decades that followed, as businesses flourished, new houses became more ornate.
Bay windows became popular after small factories were set up south of Market Street, where they could be fabricated. They were then carted to the building site and attached to the front of the house.
It's amazing to see so much ornament lavished on such a small house. It's even more amazing to see a one-story house surviving in a city where every square foot becomes more precious every day.
When we first walked down this section of Pine Street, I wondered why the builders of these houses put the front door so far above the street level. Why not just put it down one floor and call it a three-story house?
I met some folks who are local history buffs and asked about this. To begin with, those garages are not original. These houses were built in the late 1800s. Cars showed up about 40 years later, and garages were added.
Furthermore, these houses were built at the peak of a hill. At that time, the street was higher, much closer to those front doors. Later, the city re-graded the streets to flatten the peaks and make this neighborhood less hilly. For the homeowner that meant, "Build a longer stairway!"
We were walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco when we came upon this. The Embarcadero is where you embark. Once upon a time that meant getting aboard all kinds of ships. Today that means boarding a ferry to take you across San Francisco Bay.
The whole point of building (and rebuilding, and maintaining) the Embarcadero was to let you keep your feet dry while walking to the dock and stepping aboard the boat. As you can see, that's not working so well any more.
That fence between us and the splashing water is a recent addition. Behind it is a set of stairs that used to descend to sea level so you could tie up a small boat, step out of it and walk up to ground level. The city fenced off the stairs because now it's a rare day when more than two of them are dry.
To be fair, this picture was taken on a day when we had a king tide, defined by Wikipedia as ", , , the highest tides. They are naturally occurring, predictable events." So the Embarcadero is not like this every day. On the other hand, this is now predictable.
Christmas in San Francisco is complicated.
In some ways it seems normal. Macy's provides the backdrop at Union Square, center of the downtown retail district. People scurry about on foot and in cars.
The Christmas-tree lights on the palm trees seem normal, but the trees themselves are not. All trees in San Francisco are exotic species. In its natural state, this peninsula was nothing but sand dunes.
The white shed on the right, glimpsed beneath the trees, is part of the ice-rink concession, another exotic import. There is no naturally occuring ice here, but we have three ice-rinks downtown.
In the upper-right corner there seems to be an angel topping the giant Christmas tree, but she really stands atop The Dewey Monument, placed in 1901. At the time it seemed like a good idea to celebrate the admiral's victory in the Spanish-American War. So our angel celebrates war rather than peace on earth.
In the lower left corner a crane and fencing around a construction site have become familiar sights over the past three years, and they will be there for a while yet. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is digging a tunnel for a north-south subway line. We have several major transit projects underway that seem to be taking a little longer than expected.
So we celebrate the season in our improvised, incoherent, semi-imaginary city, where so many things seem to be coming soon. Merry Christmas to all. Be of good cheer.
Relentless in its quest for innovation, San Francisco has introduced curling. In a city that has not seen naturally occurring snow or ice in decades, this is nothing short of visionary.
Such wonders do not happen overnight.
Long ago, an ice rink opened at the Embarcadero Center for a few weeks in December and January. It remains a popular holiday destination under the sponsorship of . . . you guessed it: Hawaiian Airlines!
More recently the merchants around Union Square duplicated the success of the Embarcadero by opening their own December-January ice rink.
And this year, ever-eager for public-private synergy, the city's Parks and Recreation Department has teamed up with a contractor to open the Winter Park at Civic Center. As you can see by the monumental architecture in the background, this one is in front of City Hall, and it has outdone the other two seasonal ice rinks by offering curling lessons.
What's next in a city that seems determined to astonish? Just thinking out-loud here: we have the hills for urban skiing.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the neighborhood adjacent to Lafayette Park in San Francisco. That house on the left has wreaths with red bows in the windows.
The FedEx truck has stopped at Octavia Street, and, if you look very closely, you can see the driver returning from a visit to Danielle Steele's house on the right.
Hers is the one with the hedge that envelopes the first floor. It looks like the setting for a novel by Jane Austen, or rather it would if it had rolling green lawns around it.
Instead, it is perched at the top of a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. I should say almost at the top. Lafayette Park sits a bit higher, which is how I was able to take in the view and snap this photo.
I sometimes tell myself I am walking by a fellow writer's house. Then I remember her books have sold 800 million copies. I have some catching up to do.
Ms. Steele has turned up before in my blog. The proprietor of the Argonaut Book Shop has an amusing story about her, as I mentioned in my blog post on the shop.
The San Francisco Bay Area is rightly famous for its tech industry. Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber etc. . . . and those are just the consumer brands. There are also business-to-business brands like Oracle and Salesforce.
Everyone has their favorite phone, tablet, laptop, app, website, and so on. Everyone also has their nominee for dubious achievement by a tech company. Mine is the insulated cup with a built-in USB port so you can plug it into your computer and it can tell you if you're drinking enough water.
And then there's this robotic coffeebar. It's exactly what it sounds like. You can stroll into this place, tap the app on your phone that orders your drink and pays for it, and watch as a robot makes your latte, mocha, or whatever.
I've been trying to think of possible advantages for the customer.
1) Assures him he is cool.
2) Liberates him from having to deal with a barista who says things like, "How's your day going so far?"
3) . . . honestly, that's all I can come up with.
For the owner, I assume the robot is cheaper than employees.
I've posted a lot of pretty pictures of California and have had fun writing about what was in them. Today is a different story.
This is not a cloudy or a stormy day in San Francisco as seen from our apartment. This is a day when the city and much of the Bay Area are enveloped in smoke from the deadly Camp Fire 200 miles away.
In less than forty-eight hours, the Camp Fire destroyed the town called Paradise ("nestled among the Ponderosa pines") and became the most destructive fire in the history of California. That's saying a lot after last year's wine-country fires. As I write this, the wind in Butte County has picked up and over 100,000 acres are blazing.
Here in the city, we are experiencing four days of "very unhealthy" air quality. Flights have been cancelled at SFO. All are advised to stay indoors with the windows closed. Fortunately our temperature is in the low 60s, so we're not tempted to open up and let a breeze through.
In the photo, the sky is gray at 1:15 p. m. The tall buildings in the picture are two blocks away. On the hillside beyond, we can see every single house on a clear day, not so much today.
Simultaneously two major fires are burning north of Los Angeles.
Climate change plays a part in postponing our rainy season and encouraging these giant firestorms. According to officials at Cal Fire (the state's fire-fighting agency), another cause is people building houses on the edges of the forests.
To protect those houses, we have put out every small fire for decades. In doing so we have not let the forests go through their natural cycle of burning underbrush. Now, when a fire starts, extraordinary amounts of fuel are on the ground.
We went down to Santa Barbara for a few days to visit friends and catch a concert with Pat Metheny (more on that later), and we stopped overnight in Morro Bay on our way back to San Francisco.
That big thing in the back is Morro Rock, a volcanic mountain (aka lava plug). From the motels near the edge of the bay, it's about a twenty-minute walk out to the base of it. Astonishing as it is, it is one of nine in the area. The road out to the town passes several of them.
The other fun thing to do in town is walk along the docks and visit those little dark things floating in the water. Here's a closer picture of one:
The California sea otter, once on the verge of extinction, has rebounded nicely along the central coast. Further north and further south, commercial fishing won't tolerate them, but people have found it in their hearts to allow these scrappy little mammals a little space in which to chow down on abalone.
FOR GUITAR GEEKS ONLY: Back to that Metheny concert. He opened the show playing solo on that 42-string harp guitar custom made for him by Linda Manzer. It's four instruments in one, and he makes good use of it. A real crowd pleaser.
He played most of the show on his Ibanez signature model, a real workhorse guitar.
He brought out the Roland synth guitar for one number. His solo sound like horns. That was pleasant.
For me the real treat of the evening was the nylon-string archtop he used for a soulful solo and a couple of numbers after. Nothing flashy. I think non-guitar players may not have been aware of the difference. But I heard a range of expression not available on the others.
,I knew it would be fun to see Tea with the Dames (British title: Nothing Like a Dame), but I didn't know how much it would mean to me.
In this documentary film, four great actresses spend an afternoon talking about their lives and careers. They are: Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.
It was fun because they and the actors, directors, and playwrights they worked with were the artists I learned about when I took courses in British drama in college and grad school. They were the artists we saw on stage when we visited London.
So it was wonderful to hear them swap backstage gossip and reflect upon the roles they played. It was intriguing to hear them talk about their friendships, rivalries, and husbands.
But the part that mean the most to me began when Eileen Atkins recalled riding to a theater for a performance and feeling so afraid she wanted to die in a crash rather than go on stage. In the conversation that followed, all the others spoke of feeling terrified every time they went on stage, or in front of a camera for a scene in a film or TV show.
These are the greatest British actresses of their generation, trained in some of the greatest theater schools in the world. If they could feel insecure about their work, I thought, no wonder I've been skittish about putting my first two books out for the world to see.
By the way, it helped that we could see the film in the Clay Theater (1910), a lovely old neighborhood movie house.
This place cracks me up. The words over the door say, "The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute." It is a serious institution in that field. But then there are those oval windows above the entrance.
I've wondered if the institute just happened to buy or lease a building with that eccentric, but strangely appropriate, feature. Or whether they had this one built and went along with a whimsical gesture by the architect.
The history on their website refers generally to raising funds for buildings since its founding in 1959, but makes no mention of this particular building. However, they do use an image of the windows in the background of their header.
Accidental or deliberate, this is another of those instances in which reality is not believable. If any novelist set a scene at an eye research facility and described it as having a pair of oval windows, most readers would say, "Do you expect me to believe that?"
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
Argonaut's website says it offers "fine and rare books in most fields." That is a fine business to be in, and a rare one. It's been around since 1941 and is now operated by the son of the founder, Robert Haines, jr.
The shop gets some tourist trade because it appears in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, or, rather, the original Argonaut did. It was six blocks away on Kearny street. And, in fact, they didn't film the scene with Jimmy Stewart in the store. Rather, they recreated the inside of the store on a soundstage in Hollywood. Still . . .
Haines still does a thriving business, as you can read about in this recent interview. It seems that in the era of ebooks, fine and rare books are valued more than ever. Haines tells a great story about the store's more recent brush with fame. It seems Danielle Steele, a San Francisco resident, dropped by one day.
True confession: I've never seen the inside of this store. Most of my books are paperbacks, nothing fine or rare about them, except the stories and thoughts inside. However, I have an idea for getting someone a gift so I just might walk through that door in the next couple of weeks.