Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Days 502 to 506: San Francisco

"Wake up!" My happy sleep was disrupted by Danielle. She was in a mild state of tizzy. "I think I've felt an earthquake!" she said.

I tried to process this. "Uh... Don't be ridiculous. San Francisco gets these all the time. It's no big deal. Go back to sleep."


That was my own personal experience of San Francisco's largest earthquake in 25 years: being irritated that Danielle woke me for it. The day before, we'd been discussing earthquakes and San Francisco's propensity for having them, and I assumed Danielle was just being over-active in her imagination. She says she woke to find the entire building - we were Airbnbing it, staying on the 1st floor of a two-storey block - shaking quite vigourously, with her in-tune earthquake detector immediately alerting her as to what was happening. Which was better than my earthquake detector: for the only other earthquake I've experienced, South Korea's record 5.2 in May 2004, I just thought some particularly large lorries had driven by.

It was a far bigger earthquake in 1906 that was responsible for the San Francisco we see today. Measuring upwards of 7.8 on the Richter Scale (it actually pre-dated the Richter Scale so it's just an estimate), it left the city a smouldering, burnt out wreck as a result of a chain of fires that spread across the city. Oh well, not much else to do but to rebuild. And San Francisco did a pretty good job.

Well, they did for a while, at least. The above all date from fairly early in the 20th Century, either comprehensive reconstructions of severely damaged buildings, or new buildings in their own right. Walking around the city is mostly a delight, full of charming pieces of architecture like these. Even near where we were staying, which was in a pretty nondescript district about half-an-hour from the centre, had stuff like this.

Danielle and I stayed in San Francisco for five nights (the earthquake took place on the second) and we're happy to say it didn't disappoint us. The city comes with a reputation, and fully lives up - and down - to this. It's famously liberal, and that atmosphere was evident on the streets, with a cosmopolitan population, same-sex couples hand-in-hand, and a range of exotic looking piercings and tattoos. Perhaps this range of people influence the range of neighbourhoods that abound. San Francisco truly is a city of neighbourhoods, and in a walk through the city they can change in the blink of an eye. On our first exploration downtown, we arrived by the metro system  - the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) - to Civic Centre on Market Street. Immediately, we thought, "Where the hell have we come to?" The streets were run down, a lot of homeless people were sitting or wandering around, shops were closed, and it didn't seem like a place you'd want to come at night. We walked along Market Street - which is a bit like the Broadway of San Francsisco - and all of a sudden we were in a pleasant, deluxe-even, shopping district, with shops that excited Danielle. A short walk later, still along the same street, and we were in the Financial District, and soulless glass towers surrounded us. And then  - the Ferry Building, right by the bay, with lots more homeless people hanging around the park opposite, but the waterfront being filled with organic shops, cool locals, and meandering tourists like ourselves. This abrupt change of personality continued throughout our San Francisco experience. Chinatown would turn into an expensive residential neighbourhood, which would become a broken-down dodgy area, which would become a street filled with Italian restaurants, which would become a tourist-packed waterfront, and so on. It was a little like taking a ride in Disney World, turning a corner to enter an entirely new scene.

As the above might suggest, the homeless are quite prevalent in San Francisco. We've seen rather a lot of homelessness in America - every city we've been to has had quite an alarming number of vagrants, of all ages, colours, and sex - but San Francisco is the clear leader. Certain areas seemed like entire communities of homeless people had set up shop. There are many reasons people become homeless, but it was clear that mental illness was a common factor here, drugs likely being an influence too (we saw a very blatant drug deal being done during a wander). Some people were clearly very disturbed, needing the kind of help that a dollar given in sympathy can't provide. It seems America as a nation is unable to provide it either, despite its vast wealth and resources. Without a support network - from both family and from state - some clearly very ill people are left to fend for themselves on the streets, utterly bedraggled, muttering incoherently, or just slumped in a corner somewhere. I've only really seen it on this scale in places like Delhi and Cairo, and even then probably not as conspicuously. San Francisco has become a magnet, it seems, for homelessness: the city doesn't only appeal to tourists.

There are some obvious stand-out attractions in San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge is clearly the main one, and my review of it will follow shortly. Another is Alcatraz, the former high-security prison island in San Francisco Bay. Alas, tours of it are very popular, as we discovered upon failing to get one - we were two weeks off. We had to console ourselves with viewing it from a distance, and getting a little closer during a boat tour.

The boat tour - which we got a $10 discount for being Scottish! - also took us round the Golden Gate Bridge and its 1930s rival, the Bay Bridge. The Bay Bridge was originally on my Wonder list, on its very early drafts, mostly based on it being really long. That's why I removed it, because although a handsome-enough bridge, that's pretty long, it's hardly the stuff of legends. It's not even one bridge anyway, but two bridges (one of which is a modern replacement) connected by an island. Still, seen from the San Francisco side, the suspension part is impressive to behold.

The boat tour also makes evident a quite surprising thing about San Francisco - it has a really ugly skyline. Take a look at this - what a blight on the landscape.

While San Francisco did a great job of sorting itself out after the 1906 earthquake, the inspiration seems to have vanished post-World War 2, and this collection of drab blocks appeared. Trust me, they look no better close up. The Hyatt hotel is a particular "highlight". You get the sense the architect(s) really thought they were building something cool and edgy. Well, it's got plenty of edges at least.

I have a kind of dirty secret liking of the Transamerica Pyramid though. The tallest building in San Francisco, at 260 metres, it's a ridiculous thing, but at least it's not anonymous. It's what happens when you cross ancient Egyptian style with concrete and a 1960s and 70s total lack of style.

Fortunately, pull back a little from this view, and San Francisco's beauty shines. It's not a city about skyscraper skylines, it lets nature do the talking. San Francisco is a city of hills, it has 49 named ones with Wikipedia kindly providing a list, and the hills define the city. 

San Francisco's hills are exhausting and wonderful. Taking a creaky vintage tram is the most enjoyable way to traverse them, struggling to scale the heights and then plunging down the slope, with the driver hauling on the brake in order to avoid a catastrophic loss of control (it's all for show, but who cares?). We walked up some, and I can confirm that they are steep. The hills combine with the bay setting to make San Francisco spectacular - even if it was a ghastly industrial city without any form of culture, San Francisco would still look great. That it has a tangible buzz, pretty homes, lots of parks, thriving scenes in all kinds of stuff, a world class bridge, and a delightful charm that belies its youthful city status all adds up to make the city worthy of its reputation. Compare neighbouring Los Angeles, and there's no comparison. L.A. is sprawling pancake of a city, spread too thin to have any substance; San Francisco is packed full of flavour. Granted, not all the flavours will be to your palate, but at least they're worth sampling.

After a few days exploring the city, admiring the Golden Gate Bridge, and wishing we could visit Alcatraz, our final day in San Francisco was spent out of it. We went in a wine tour of the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, sampling about ten different wines in three different wineries. My favourite was the fifth one, I forget its name.

I'm happy to add San Francisco to the list of American cities with a big reputation that deliver, together with New York, Chicago, and Sioux Falls... hmm, maybe not Sioux Falls. If we'd had more time (and money...) we'd have happily stayed longer. But it was time to move on, to something entirely different: Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. After surviving the riots of St Louis and the earthquake of San Francisco, what would Vegas have in store for us? (The Hoover Dam holds back 10 trillion gallons of water, so hopefully it's not related to that.)


  1. So let me get this straight: you were in San Francisco, where you experienced an earthquake, rode the vintage tramways, and yet didn't take part in a police car chase bouncing through the hilly streets in a 1970s muscle car while listening to funky music? A missed opportunity there.

    1. I witnessed a drug deal though. That must count for something!


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