Hidden Gems of San Francisco

Black Sands BeachBlack Sands Beach

The weather has been great this fall and if you like to go to the beach in San Francisco on a beautiful day, you know to expect throngs of people. But where does one go on a hot day to find a beach that might offer a little solitude even on the best beach day? Black Sands Beach across the Golden Gate in Marin is an excellent option.

If you were at Baker Beach and you looked across towards Marin, you’d see a beautiful scalloped beach staring back at you, that is Black Sands Beach. It is remarkably easy and fast to get to and it is like an entirely different experience than going to the beach in the city. No crowds, no trash, but no facilities either. Also to get there, one has to hike up and down a fairly steep trail. But don’t let the hike put you off, it isn’t that steep, it isn’t precarious at all, and the whole way down you can see the beach ahead of you.

...a beautiful scalloped beach staring back at you, that is Black Sands Beach. It is remarkably easy and fast to get to and it is like an entirely different experience than going to the beach in the city.”

The Drive To Black Sands Beach

To get to Black Sands Beach, you must drive, or ride a bike. If you can’t drive or bike but wish to take transit you can go to the beach just before Black Sands Beach called Kirby Cove. Kirby Cove is just west of the Golden Gate Bridge, so you can take Muni to the far side of the bridge and walk due west past Battery Spencer. You will see a dirt road with a gate across the entrance, that is the road you want, at the bottom is Kirby Cove, a small campground and some more of Spencer Battery, and a nice small beach. There are no facilities here either so bring what you need and haul out your trash. But back to Black Sands Beach, drive over the Bridge and take the Alexander exit and head toward Marin Headlands, you will go past Kirby Cove and keep driving towards Hawk Hill. The drive is beautiful, so have your camera ready. When you get to the Hawk Hill parking area, go all the way to the end and you will see a small one-way road heading down the hill. Take that road, slowly and carefully, all the way, enjoy the incredible views and when you see a parking lot on the left, that is where you will park. There are trash cans here, and an out-house of sorts, but these are the only facilities. If the parking lot is full, you can park on the side of the road.

The Drive ContinuedRoad to Black Sands Beach

From there the way down is clear, the trail is fairly wide, it isn’t dangerous, and you are never walking on the side of a cliff. On the way down you might see rabbits in the underbrush, the plants growing here are all native species (no ice plant) and you can even spot Yerba Buena (the original namesake of San Francisco) plants growing along the trail. Their roundish leaves taste and smell like vanilla-mint and they have delicate white flowers. Stay on the trail though, because there is a lot of poison oak growing here. There is but one tree along the trail but several big bushes offer shade along the way.

The TrailPath at Black Sands Beach

Once down at the beach, you can go either left or right. Keep in mind that this is a clothing optional beach and if you would rather keep your beach visit G-rated, then the vast beach area to the right is a good choice. Chances are though, that there are very few people here and the beach is several miles long, so it’s not that big of a deal if you aren’t fond of nudity when it is half a mile away. If you head to the right, past the G-rated area, it looks like the beach ends and the hill flanks out onto the sand. Hopefully you brought some sneakers or other sturdy shoes, because climbing up and over the rocks, and the beach keeps going like this for a few miles. Little scalloped bays, separated by steep but small hillocks. The coves get smaller as you go, but there are less people the farther you go as well. Notice along the way, that there are several small waterfalls cascading down over multi-colored rock walls and shallow caves, flowing from up-hill springs onto the sand below. The black sand and the multi colored boulders and cliffs remind one of the volcanic black sand beaches of Hawaii. There is a good sized colony of Harbor Seals that live primarily a little to the west by the Point Bonita Light House, but quite often you can see their heads bobbing up and down just outside the breakers off shore from the beach here. They are shy and reclusive but on quiet days I have noticed that they are very curious about people on the beach. We had one follow us for more than an hour as we hiked along the different coves. But don’t try to engage a seal though, harbor seals are endangered and when they feel an area has become threatening, they simply leave and never return, so leave them in peace. You can also spot dolphins fairly often, and watching the ships come and go from San Francisco Bay is interesting. You have a much closer view of the ship traffic than you would from say Baker Beach.SF from Black Sands Beach

It takes about 30-40 minutes to get to the sand from the beginning of the Golden Gate Bridge, including hiking time. Bring whatever you might need, food and drinks, sunscreen, as well as good hiking shoes. If you are considering climbing over the natural barriers that separate the many coves heading west, then don’t bring more than you can easily carry, it would make the hike difficult. If you don’t wish to explore the hidden coves, the main beach areas are simply beautiful and you will not feel like you have missed out on anything. Please remember that whatever you bring, you need to take it out with you when you leave. This beach is fairly pristine and should be kept that way for everyone to enjoy.

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104

December 2014

Presidio Branch Library
Presidio The Presidio Branch is one of the city's most historic libraries. With library service established in 1898, Presidio was the sixth branch of the San Francisco Public Library system. The current building is an Italian-Renaissance-style landmark building that was completed in 1921, designed by G. Albert Lansburgh and funded by Andrew Carnegie.

The completed historic renovation includes a restoration of the building's beautiful, ornate exterior terra cotta façade and stairs. Interior renovation highlights include new pendant light fixtures that fit with the historic grandeur of the building, refurbished original wood shelving, and the designation of a new teen area in the library. Other features of the project include an interactive learning area in the children's room and the refurbishment of the downstairs community meeting room. The addition of new restrooms, more computers and more functional and ergonomic staff work areas were also part of this project.

San Francisco’s Public Libraries

The Carnegie Libraries still stand out

This month’s Hidden Gems are our own San Francisco Branch Libraries. Though figuratively hidden in plain sight, I literally passed by my branch library for most of my 20 + years in my Upper Market neighborhood without so much as a notice or a care. When I did finally open my eyes and discover my “little library” some years ago, it became and has become a place for me to take a break from the day to day noise of life, where I can enrich my life and expand my vocabulary, and a chance to see our tax dollars serving our collective good. In a world that is systematically hollowing out the middle class and starving social support agencies, our libraries stand as a testament that we were once a more civil and socially-conscious society. Google may have captured and digitized every written word of every book of our collective known literary universe, but what is lacking is the brick and mortar public good of a public place. You might have a Kindle with all the latest digitized literary works, but I will take a bound book that I can hold, that I can dog-ear, and that I can sleep with any day of the week. Books are more than just the written word, they are a connection to the past and to the future. So get out and hold a real book, imagine who might have held it, or who might one day read it, smell the pages as you turn them, and revel in the publicness of our Libraries in our City by your Bay.

Richmond Branch Library
Richmond The Richmond Renovation was completed on May 16, 2009. Richmond/Senator Milton Marks Branch was the fourth branch established within the San Francisco Public Library system. The first location of the branch, in 1892, was at 809 Point Lobos Avenue (now Geary Boulevard) and Parker Avenue. In 1914 a new Richmond Branch opened at the current location, the first library building in San Francisco constructed with Andrew Carnegie grant funds.
In December 2000, the San Francisco Landmarks Board nominated Richmond Branch Library for designation as a city landmark. Funded by both a City bond measure and $6 million in Proposition 14 State bond funds, a newly renovated, seismically safe, accessible and technologically updated building opened in 2009

The Richmond Carnegie Library, designed by Bliss & Faville in the Classical Revival style and built of sandstone and reinforced concrete, was the first of seven Carnegie branch libraries built in San Francisco.

Some quick history: In 1877, Andre Smith Hallidie called a residents meeting and advocated the creation of a public library for San Francisco. So it was that a board of trustees for the Library was created in 1878 through the Rogers Act, which was signed by the then-Governor of California, William Irwin; funds for the new Library came from a property tax created by the Act. The San Francisco Public Library opened in 1879 on Bush Street at Kearny Street. Albert Hart was the first SF librarian hired. In 1888 the Library moved to the Larkin Street wing of City Hall at Civic Center. The first three branches opened from 1888 to 1889, in the Mission, Chinatown, and Eureka Valley. In 1889 the Library became a Federal Depository by nomination of Senator George Hearst.

Golden Gate Branch Library
Golden Gate Valley Architect Ernest Coxhead designed this Classical Revival building which resembles a Roman basilica with its long narrow rectangle and curved apse visible on three sides. It is situated in a residential area in the Marina District. This is the fourth of the seven Carnegie Branch Libraries built in San Francisco. All seven buildings continue to operate as libraries

In 1906, plans for a new library building in Civic Center were presented by architect Daniel Burnham. These plans were put on hold after the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed about 40,000 volumes, nearly 25% of its holdings. The library moved to temporary quarters while a new building was designed and built. In 1917, the new main library building, designed by George W. Kelham, opened in the Civic Center. Ten major murals by California Tonalist Gottardo Piazzoniwere installed in 1931-1932; four more were completed in 1945.

Construction on the current Main Library began on March 15, 1993, at a cost ofUS $109.5 million. The building was completed in 1995 and opened a year later on April 18, 1996. The old main library, which was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, was rebuilt as the new Asian Art Museum.

The New Library grew to over 376,000 square feet (34,900m2) and climbed upward with six floors above and grounded by one below. The new library is more than twice as big as the building it replaced, featuring over 300 computer terminals, room for 1100 laptops and costing the City nearly $140 million.Library visitations doubled in its first year open, from 1.1 million to 2.1 million, and the number of library card holders nearly tripled.

Chinatown Branch Library
Chinatown Branch Library, built in 1921 by architect G. Albert Lansburgh is a Carnegie library originally named the North Beach Branch. It is the third branch in the system. Located in Chinatown, on Powell Street between Washington and Jackson, the name was changed in 1958 to more accurately reflect the community served. In 1972, the Chinese language, and the Chinese American Interest collections were started in response to the needs and interests of the Chinatown community. In 1991, public and private funds were obtained for a major renovation and expansion of the Chinatown Branch Library. The branch was seismically retrofitted and expanded to twice its original size with a community meeting room and story-room available to use for programs and special events. The Grand Reopening was held on June 15, 1996.

There was much criticism, though, that the City Librarian Kenneth Dowlin would rather throw away books then let them clutter his library. It was said that he didn’t care so much about books but instead wanted a monument to high tech, a tourist attraction. The atrium dramatically and, some say, deliberately reduced the amount of floor space available for shelving the library’s collection which, critics conclude, resulted in the destruction of well over 200,000 books that were buried in a landfill. The new shelves were all the same height so thousands of books were thrown away because they were too tall. More books were destroyed by the new library than were burned in the 1906 fire. The card catalog both ancient and extremely large was going to be sent to the landfill, but a citizen group sued and saved it at the last minute. The research collections of one of the finest research facilities on the West Coast were gutted,all of which occurred far from public sight or review. Later, under intense pressure that included then Mayor Willie Brown, Ken Dowlin, whose policy it was to weed and subsequently destroy the books, was forced to resign in January 1997.

Luckily, our branch libraries were spared this drama and intrigue and remain beautiful refuges sprinkled around our neighborhoods, always there for us to use. The voters of San Francisco approved theBranch Library Improvement Program, which kicked off with a first round of retrofits and renovations in 2000, and now our libraries look better than they have in many years.

Sunset Branch Library
The Sunset Carnegie Library, designed by architect Gustave Albert Lansburgh in the Classical Revival style, was the fifth of seven Carnegie branch libraries built in San Francisco.

Lansburgh drew two plans, one rectangular with interior stairs much like Mission and Noe Valley, the other octagonal. The octagonal was judged "quite impossible" and the other plan approved with slight revision.In this version of the Classical Revival, the central entrance is recessed within a loggia formed by three tall round arches supported by two segmented Corinthian columns and two pilasters. Names of authors, many Western, are inscribed under the sills of recessed arched windows. 1305 18th Ave.

Andrew Carnegie Libraries

From the late 1800sto the early 1900s, wealthy businessman Andrew Carnegie dedicated millions of dollars to building libraries throughout the world. In 1901, San Francisco received $750,000 of these funds, leading to the creation of seven branch libraries over the next 20 years.

Nestled within San Francisco’s neighborhoods, the Carnegie branches are elegant but never ostentatious. This was by design, as Carnegie stipulated that his libraries should be straightforward, single-story buildings that emphasized function over form.

All of the Carnegie Libraries in San Francisco still serve as libraries and all are San Francisco Landmarks: Chinatown Branch, Golden Gate Valley Branch, Mission Branch, Noe Valley Branch, Presidio Branch, Richmond Branch, Sunset Branch.

Mission Branch Library
The Mission Branch Library was the first branch in the San Francisco Public Library system. It was opened in 1888 in a storefront two blocks from its present location. The fire following the 1906 earthquake stopped four blocks north of Mission Branch. The current building at the corner of 24th and Bartlett Streets was built under the supervision of architect G. Albert Lansburgh and funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Cost for the building and furnishings was $50,877. The building opened in December 1915.

A major renovation of Mission Branch Library was begun in 1997. The renovation included seismic, electrical, and ADA upgrades. The first floor was completely redesigned, and the main entrance was relocated from 24th Street to Bartlett Street. The reopening was May 5th 1999

Eureka Valley

The Eureka Renovation was completed on October 24, 2009.

The first branch building was the second branch in the system and opened on January 2, 1902. It was named the McCreery Branch in honor of Andrew McCreery who donated the land and paid for construction. It was damaged in the Daly City Earthquake of 1957 and demolished. The site was used to construct a new building designed by Appleton and Wolford at a cost of $192,335 and opened on December 20, 1961. It was named the Eureka Valley Branch. In 1981 the Library Commission officially changed the name of the branch to Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library to honor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Harvey Milk served as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors until he was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978. In 2006 the City honored Jose Sarria, the first openly gay man to run for Supervisor (in 1961) by renaming the section of 16th Street adjacent to the branch as Jose Sarria Court. Jose Sarria is best known for founding the Imperial Court System, one of the cornerstones of the GLBT community.

Noe Valley Branch Library
The Noe Valley Carnegie Library, designed by John Reid Jr. in the Classical Revival style, was the third of seven Carnegie branch libraries built in San Francisco. Located at 451 Jersey St.

Excelsior

The Excelsior Branch Library was the 10th branch established in the San Francisco Public Library system. Initially a "library station", the first branch library was installed in rental quarters at 7 Bauer Street. In 1925 the branch was located on Ocean Avenue and later at 4465 Mission Street. The current building at 4400 Mission Street was opened to the public October 1, 1967. The branch was designed by architects Appleton and Wolfard and built for $248,000. The branch was the first to be renovated under the Branch Library Improvement Program and reopened on July 8, 2005.

Glen Park

Glen Park Branch Library first opened in January 1927, at 700 Bosworth Street. The branch was located at that site for almost 38 years, until the building that housed it was demolished during construction of Interstate 280. Glen Park Branch was then housed in several different locations over the course of 42 years until a multiuse building was constructed in the neighborhood at 2825 Diamond Street. Part of the new building was designated just for the library. The branch opened on October 13, 2007 and became the sixth branch to be renovated through the Branch Library Improvement Program.

Park

Park Branch opened on October 29th, 1909, and is the oldest existing San Francisco Public Library building. Park Branch was built with City funds: $7,000 for the land and $27,000 for the building. Designed by the McDougall Brothers, the two-story neo-classical brick and terra cotta building is set 30 feet back from the street to complement the primarily residential area around it.

EXPLORE SAN FRANCISCO is a local co-op of tour guides who offer food tours, history tours, running tours, and custom tours of all sorts. 415-504-3636 info@exploresf.biz http://exploresf.biz

November 2014

Public Tennis CourtsGolden Gate Park Early Map

San Francisco is home to an extensive park system which contains a surprising number of public tennis courts in varied settings. Many are surrounded by stunning panoramic vistas that only San Francisco could serve up. Many of these courts seem to barely be used, while others are wildly popular. All the courts have a story to tell as many of them are over 100 years old, dating back to the era when tennis first became a worldwide phenomenon. Although tennis as we know it is an old sport, the roots of tennis are older still...

While evidence is thin on the ground, the game of tennis is believed to hark back thousands of years, with several indicators suggesting the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans played precursors to tennis. For example, the Arabic word for the palm of the hand is rahat, similar to the word racket, while the Egyptian town Tinnis again bears a resemblance to tennis. More substantial evidence emerges from around 1000, when French monks began playing a crude courtyard ball game. This sport, played against their monastery walls or over a rope hung across a courtyard, took on the name je de paume – ‘game of the hand.’ According to this theory, the word ‘tennis’ was coined by these monks, who would shout the word ‘tenez’, the French for ‘to take’, “take that”, while they served the ball.

In 1850: Charles Goodyear invented a process for rubber called vulcanization, which made the material used to make tennis balls significantly bouncier. As a result, tennis could now be more easily played by the masses, outdoors on dirt, clay, pavement or grass. At that time, the game was more often than not called “Lawn Tennis”. By this time, the foundations for modern tennis had been paved, and this sport surged in popularity

A few years later, in London in 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield patented the first rules and equipment for tennis, which he called Sphairistike, the Greek for ‘playing at ball.’ The ubiquity of croquet at the time meant there was a ready supply of smooth outdoor courts, which proved easily adaptable for tennis. Tennis soon spread to Russia and Asia.

It wasn’t long before tennis arrived in the United States in the mid-1870s separately and independently in at least six different places.The first formal lawn tennis club in the Americas seems to have been formed in 1876 in New Orleans, after English merchants in the city on business brought the game over with them.But whether the first lawn tennis court in the Americas was set up in San Francisco (as many claim), in Nahant, Mass. (north of Boston), or Staten Island (New York), in Canada, or even at Camp Apache in the Arizona Territory, or elsewhere – all possibilities – the game quickly became popular with the leisure class, on Army posts, and wherever British merchants and diplomats traveled, which in the 19th century was everywhere.

Coinciding with the spread of tennis was the era of public park creation. In fact, there were two distinct periods in the history of American park building, each defined by a distinctive attitude towards "improving" nature: the romantic approach, which prevailed from the 1860s to the 1880s, emphasized the beauty of nature, while the rationalistic approach, dominant from the 1880s to the 1920s, saw nature as the best setting for uplifting activities such as and education and athletics, including tennis. Public parks were being installed in cities worldwide about the same time as San Francisco was evolving into a full-fledged city.

In 1865, when San Francisco's Daily Evening Bulletin asked its readers if it were not time for the city to finally establish a public park, residents had only private gardens and small urban squares where they could retreat from urban crowding, noise, and filth. Five short years later, city supervisors approved the creation of Golden Gate Park, the second largest urban park in America. Over the next sixty years, and particularly after 1900, a network of smaller parks and parkways was built, turning San Francisco into one of the nation's greenest cities.

As a result of the popularity of tennis and the concurrent building of parks throughout the city, San Francisco became home just shy of 150 public tennis courts. These beloved courts, free to the public, and rich in history, are yours to use whenever you like (Please note that the Board of Supervisors under Supervisor Weiner closed the parks at night.) Being on public land, they are free from the threat of development and should enrich our communities for generations to come. The same cannot be said for the Bay Club, which looks like it may be soon torn down to make way for condos.

If you would like to explore our city’s tennis courts here are two good places to start:

SF Tennis League http://tennissf.com/

Tennis Maps http://www.tennismaps.com/index.asp?regionid=64

Here are the some of the city’s most popular tennis courts:

Golden Gate Park Tennis Complex

The largest tennis complex in the city was built in 1901, 5 years before the great earthquake and fire. The park’s 21 hard-surface tennis courts are nestled between the Conservatory of Flowers and the Children’s Playground. The trees deter the wind from ruining your serve, and courts are typically first come, first served. Players of all levels go for pickup games and private and group lessons ($50 and $20). It’s also the site of the annual City Open.

Alice Marble Tennis Courts

It can get windy on top of Russian Hill in George Sterling Memorial Park, but the views of downtown, Alcatraz, the Marina, and Golden Gate Bridge make it worth the occasional wild serve. The four courts have modern Laykold flooring that provides more cushion and bounce absorption than your average clay court.

James Moffet Tennis Court

Venture to the Outer Sunset’s Parkside Square, where you’ll find four courts in top condition. They’re largely occupied by longtime neighbors who have been playing here for most of their lives, and as such, the regulars are a little protective of their turf. Hard flooring provides high-bouncing balls, and the surrounding pine trees give off a nice scent.

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104

September 2014

Golden Gate Park: Prayerbook Cross and Peaks & PondsPrayerbook Cross

Until the 1870’s there was little more than sand dunes, known as the “Outside Lands,” where Golden Gate Park now stands. Since its inception, visitors have enjoyed many beautiful and prominent attractions that adorn the park, such as the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden and the newly designed deYoung Museum, with its 144-foot tall observation tower. There are also many hidden gems located throughout the 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park (“GGP”).

Prayerbook Cross is the tallest monument in GGP and at close to 60 feet high it goes nearly undetected sitting on a perch above Rainbow Falls. Upon its dedication in January 1894 the cross was visible to ships entering the Golden Gate.”

The best way to discover the seldom-seen peaks, ponds, and monuments —Prayerbook Cross, Stow Lake, Strawberry Hill, Hippie Hill, Heros’s Grove, the Lilly Pond and Elk Glen Lake (although the elk are no longer present), to name just a few — one needs to get off the beaten path and explore the amazing interior trail system throughout GGP.

Prayerbook Cross is the tallest monument in GGP and at close to 60 feet high it goes nearly undetected sitting on a perch above Rainbow Falls. Upon its dedication in January 1894 the cross was visible to ships entering the Golden Gate. The sandstone cross commemorates the first English-speaking Christian service, held at Drakes Bay on June 24, 1579, and the first use of the Book of Common Prayer in California, conducted by Sir Francis Drake’s Chaplain, Francis Fletcher. The Church of England gifted the sandstone Celtic cross designed by English architect Ernest Coxhead. Mr. Coxhead also designed a bridge across Stow Lake giving way to Strawberry Hill Island.

Stow Lake, created in 1893, is the largest of ten lakes in GGP. Visitors can rent paddle-boats from the boathouse and circumnavigate the tranquil lake while passing a traditional Chinese Pagoda and taking in the rushing Huntington Falls, a 110-foot, artificial, waterfall. In the center of the lake is the island of Strawberry Hill. At 430 feet Strawberry Hill is the highest peak in GGP. As its namesake suggests, wild strawberries once flourished on the island. Strawberry Hill is now home to many nesting birds including the great horned owl.

For an up-close look at Prayerbook Cross and the many other wonderful sights tucked into the wooded trails of Golden Gate Park, join San Francisco Scenic Running Tours on their newest tour. “Peaks & Ponds” is a 6-mile guided running tour along the beautiful trails in Golden Gate Park. Visitors and locals alike will be amazed by all of hidden gems, just off the beaten path! Our scenic running tours are a great way to see the sights while on a run. The Peaks & Ponds scenic running tour is scheduled on Thursdays at 2 pm and Saturdays at 9 am.

Explore San Francisco and San Francisco Scenic Running Tours are a locally owned co-op of guides with a passion for discovering the City’s “hidden gems.” For more information on running tours in SF, check out the website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz/scenicrunning.php or call 415-504-3636, ext. 3.

June 2014

24th Street, The Heart of the Mission

While the recent onslaught of Ellis Act evictions diminishes the character of the City and destroys the ecosystem in favor of a more suburban beige experience, the south Mission neighborhood anchored by 24th street, el Corazón de la Missión, is the latest neighborhood under relentless attack. In solidarity, let’s take a look at the some of the traditional iconic eateries serving some of the best food in the Mission.

… their own Tamal Calabacitas Con Crema. Stuffed with savory squash and smothered in tomatillo sauce, this perfect vegetarian option didn’t leave me wanting for grandmother’s pork tamals!”

Although our food tour routes change each time, often Explore SF’s Mission-South Food Tour highlights the neighborhood’s Latino gems, beginning with Roosevelt Tamale Parlor. Under new ownership they successfully blend the traditional—the Famous Round Tamal—with contemporary such as their own Tamal Calabacitas Con Crema. Stuffed with savory squash and smothered in tomatillo sauce, this perfect vegetarian option didn’t leave me wanting for grandmother’s pork tamals! Next, La Palma Mexicatessan, a family owned institution famous for their fresh masa, fundamental to Latino Christmas gatherings. Try huaraches, similar to sopes, sandal-shaped and filled with chicken, bean, or cactus, they’re superb fried in a bit of olive oil and served with a glass of pinot. Don’t miss the chicharrón at La Espiga De Oro, made with a thick layer of pork under the skin. You’ll never accept snack “food” companies’ offerings again! painted ladies in the Mission

Next up, is pan dulce from La Victoria Panaderia, a 60 year old institution offering baking classes for kids. When I get Gay Married this June, I’ll have the Mexican Wedding Cookies and other pastries catered here! After sweets, we always take our tour groups shopping. While Casa Lucas is popular, I tend toward El Chico Produce, for no defensible reason. Both are well-stocked and locally owned, so I avoid sending dollars to Pleasanton, Monrovia or worse, Austin (Namaste). Both offer freshly made tortillas, an assortment of queso fresco, canned and packaged goods from North, Central and South America, as well as an array of dried chiles, a staple in my kitchen. Out front, keep an eye out for peddlers selling ēlōtl—roast cob corn slathered with mayo, queso fresco, and chile limon. Bellmar La Gallinita Meat Market is our next stop for “street tacos,” a must for any Mission food tour. Though begging for a fresh coat of paint, it’s the only place to get tacos sesos con limon—beef brain tacos with a slice of lime. Less adventurous eaters opt for the skirt steak or pork. From here enjoy Precita Eyes Artists cooperative and the Balmy Alley Murals.

La Palma Mexicatessen

Pulled Pork Chile Colorado, my favorite recipe, all ingredients sourced on 24th St. (Embarrassingly easy to make)

15 dried New Mexico or California chiles

5 dried anchos, arbols or japones (med to hot)

3-4 dried pasilla negros

Handful of dried smoked chipotles or Liquid Smoke (Yes, I cheat!)

1-2 c stock

2 med onions, chopped

4 lbs pork butts, visible fat removed

Wash, stem, and seed chiles. Soak overnight or quick boil and steep for 30 min. Discard liquid (too bitter). Puree in a blender with onions and some of the stock. Press through a sieve to remove skins and seeds. Cut pork into fist-sized chunks. Arrange in slow cooker and cover with sauce. Cook for 6-8 hours. Shred the pork with a fork. Season to taste with liquid smoke, smoked paprika, salt and pepper.

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. Info on touring SF: ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104

April 2014

The Redstone Building: From Red-Light District to Realtors-Ambition District

Chile Lindo

I have always thought that the Redstone Building has good karma. Located on 16th Street between Mission and S. Van Ness, it was originally built in 1914 as The San Francisco Labor Temple. It was the headquarters of labor union activity during a time when San Francisco was a spirited union town. In 1968 the building was sold and renamed The Redstone Building. In 1997, an artists' coalition, the Clarion Alley Mural Project, acquired a grant and permission from the owner to depict the building's history through various murals that line the entrance. Years later, in 2004, the Redstone Tenants Association obtained landmark status for the building.

The Mission's small business owners have a story to tell, and that story is what gives a neighborhood character and vibrancy”

Chile Lindo is a 10 ft x 20 ft empanada and coffee shop in the Redstone Building. It was originally the Labor Temple's barbershop. I acquired the storefront in 1995; it's been Chile Lindo since 1973. After numerous ups and downs over the years, the empanada shop has become a community icon.

Why do I think The Redstone Building has good karma? Because of the building's community: activists, artists, nonprofits, and small businesses. Overall, we are a supportive group. In spite of the whirlwind of changes that have buffeted this landmark over the years, today the tenants' frame of mind echoes that of its founders. The prevailing raison d'être among the tenants is to improve the conditions of the underprivileged. Considering the growing rigidity of our unyielding society, such a community offers a welcome support system.

The corner of 16th and Capp has seen many a transformation and an array of characters. It's gone from red-light district to realtors-ambition district. Today, it is not unusual to see real estate developers in their suits and ties pointing out the neighborhood's charm to potential buyers, rubbing elbows with anti-eviction activists wearing protest t-shirts …all waiting for a cup of coffee from Chile Lindo.

I have always welcomed everyone in my empanada shop and I pride myself on the diversity of my customer base: Mission district old timers; the immigrant melting pot from Mexico to China to Palestine; the city's spectrum from techies to artists to activists; and the income gamut from homeless to very well-off.

When Chile Lindo gets visits from Explore San Francisco's Mission District Food Tour - North, the attendees are just as interested in the food as the neighborhood's history. The Mission's small business owners have a story to tell, and that story is what gives a neighborhood character and vibrancy. Small business owners don't just watch the shop, they cultivate relationships through conversations. Regulars vent their troubles one day, and the next day they celebrate their triumphs. The conversation continues.

It takes years to build the layers that tell a story and make up the history of a community. Then it seems that in no time it is being bulldozed. Up to now, the Mission has seen many chapters. However, it had managed to remain, over the years, a working class neighborhood. Now that it's being gentrified quickly, the layers of history are sinking under the rising skyscrapers that are in the works. With any luck, the supportive community that prevails in The Redstone Building will continue to exist and I will continue serving the community as only small businesses can—with the human touch.

Explore San Francisco, a co-op of guides who explore the City's "hidden gems." Info: www.ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or 415.793.1104

March 2014

Uptown Tenderloin: City’s Architectural Boiling Pot Adagio

Usually when walking through the Tenderloin, most folks are either clutching their purses and wallets tightly while sidestepping the homeless, or making a beeline for the latest foodie discovery. Looking at your surroundings is a wise self-preservation technique in what has been referred to as “the worst neighborhood in the city.” Originally called St. Ann’s Valley, this area was completely destroyed during the 1906 earthquake. The neighborhood was rebuilt with more density, and more concrete. Prior to 1906 there were many single family homes with a smattering of hotels and apartment buildings, after 1906, building codes in this part of the city required safer and more fireproof structures. Wood was out and concrete was in.

Along with the higher density and bigger buildings which now had to compete for more tenants, came a smorgasbord of architectural styles, instead of a Victorian neighborhood, something new was born out of the ashes. The name at that time was the “Uptown Tenderloin.”

Along with the higher density and bigger buildings which now had to compete for more tenants, came a smorgasbord of architectural styles, instead of a Victorian neighborhood, something new was born out of the ashes. The name at that time was the “Uptown Tenderloin.”

Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary Street

Next time you happen to be in the neighborhood, take note of some of the spectacular architecture in this historic neighborhood. Some of the city’s most beautiful buildings (and some of the city’s tastiest bites) can be found tucked in among the many nondescript apartment buildings and neighborhood liquor stores.

Admiral Hotel
Admiral Hotel, 608 O’Farrell St

A leisurely 45 minute stroll down just two streets reveals some true architectural gems “hidden” in plain sight. Starting at Van Ness and Geary, head east a few blocks opposite the one-way traffic on the south side of Geary, and just past Larkin Street, look across Geary, and gaze at the spectacular Alhambra Apartments (860 Geary Street). Built in 1913 in the Moorish style by native SF architect James Francis Dunn. Born and raised in a working-class, largely Irish, South of Market neighborhood by a widowed mother, Dunn was self-taught as an architect — but remarkably well taught. His buildings can be found all around the city. This apartment building is a beautiful example of some of his best work. The romantic penthouse and dome of the Alhambra are where the legendary Rudolph Valentino reputedly entertained his paramours.

Alhambra Apartments
Alhambra Apartments, 860 Geary Street

Continue down Geary past Leavenworth and look across the street at the exotic Alcazar Theatre (650 Geary Street). This Moorish/Byzantine masterpiece was originally built as a Shriner’s temple in 1917 by architect T.Patterson Ross.

Castle Apartments
Castle Apartments, [Maybeck] 825 Geary Street

Into Little Saigon now but still on Geary Street, 825 to be exact, is the Castle Apartments, 36 units and designed by the famous Bernard Maybeck himself and finished in 1928 this building is currently for sale for a mere $10 million dollars. On our weekly Little Saigon and Tendernob Food Tours we traverse this neighborhood and eat some of the most exciting food in the city. Besides the fact that traveling in a group is safer and more fun than venturing into the Tenderloin without guidance. We know of eateries here that will change your opinion of this part of the city forever more. Some of the places here are amazingly superb, join us!

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website or call them at 415.793.1104

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 2014

THE HIDDEN NIGHTCLUBS OF CHINATOWN

On a recent walk through Chinatown, someone asked me about the stained glass windows adorning the top floor of a non-descript hotel at the southwest corner of Grant Avenue and Pine Street. I didn't know much other than what I had heard growing up, which is that itbelonged to an old "bar" that used to be on the top floor. What bar it was and why they would spend so much on windows nagged at me, so when I returned home, I started to do a bit of research.

Having lunch in Chinatown with my mother and uncle the next day, I asked the two of them if they remembered what ig was. My Uncle told me the building was once home to Andy Wong's Chinese Skyroom from the early '40's until around 1960. As luck would have it, while strolling through Chinatown, we happened to run into a friend of my mother. Her name is Jan, and she along with her mom, Penny told me that Andy Wong's Chinese Skyroom was owned by Jan's dad, Andy Wong!

napkin from Chinese SkyroomAs it turns out, the Chinese Skyroom (now the Grant Plaza Hotel) was one of many Chinese nightclubs that flourished between the late 1930's until the late 1950's. Much more than a "bar", the Skyroom opened in 1940 as a full nightclub with an all-Chinese revue that catered to primarily a non-Chinese audience. Dinner, drinks and a song, dance and variety floor show were all part of the Golden Age of the Chinese-American nightclub.

On Grant Avenue alone, there were many well known clubs including Eddie Pond's Kubla Khan (at 414 Grant Ave., now a camera shop), Club Shanghai/Shanghai Low (453 Grant Ave. now a souvenir shop), the Dragon's Lair (521 Grant Ave. Look for the City of Hong Kong sign), and the Lion's Den (950 Grant Ave.most recently the Grand Palace Restaurant). Other noted nightclubs not on Grant Avenue included Shanghai Lil's (1020 Kearny Street, an office building) and the most famous of all the Chinese-American clubs, Charlie Low's Forbidden City (363 Sutter Street, now renumbered to 369 Sutter Street).Wongettes-Chinese Sky Room

Looking down Grant Avenue on a cool foggy evening, if one were to squint (and use your imagination), you can almost put yourself into Chinatown circa 1945, with the well dressed patrons spilling into and out of these many glamorous, long gone venues. Listen carefully, and you can still hear the music and laughter as you stroll the streets and alleys of Chinatown.

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City's "hidden gems." Info: www.ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or 415.793.1104

December 2013

Hidden in Plain Sight: 1906 Earthquake Shacks

On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, at 5:12 am, the ground under San Francisco shook violently for 65 seconds. Earthquake damage was severe, but the ensuing fires were truly catastrophic. Burning for three days, they destroyed over 500 city blocks in the heart of the city. Overcome by shock, panic, and confusion, over half of the city’s 400,000 people ended up homeless.An earthquake shack today

In a remarkable project financed primarily by donations to a relief fund, 5,610 tiny cottages were built to house the homeless. These cottages, now called “earthquake shacks...”

As word traveled around the country about the horrific event and the hundreds of thousands of homeless and helpless people, trains loaded with supplies began heading toward San Francisco. In the first three days, the Presidio issued 3,000 tents, 13,000 ponchos, 58,000 pairs of shoes, 24,000 shirts. Its on-site bakery distributed large quantities of bread. In addition to distributing food and clothing, the Army ran 21 official refugee camps. These camps were organized and maintained in military fashion, and were among the safest and cleanest of the refugee shelters.earthquake shack being moved into place

The 250,000 left homeless after the earthquake established camps in parks, on military reservations, and amidst the ruins. The army helped organize these camps into small tent towns, where people quickly established the routines of everyday life; children formed playgroups, and dining halls and camp fires became the center of social gatherings. In a remarkable project financed primarily by donations to a relief fund, 5,610 tiny cottages were built to house the homeless. These cottages, now called “earthquake shacks,” were placed in rows in parks around the city. Rent ranged from $1 to $2 per month. Although many refugees moved out as the city rebuilt, many were housed more permanently in these small green houses built from redwood and fir by union carpenters. The idea behind these small cottages was to lease them to the homeless refugees, then once the cottages were removed by their tenants, all leased money was returned. By the end of 1906, the city began encouraging people to find vacant lots and remove the shacks from public land. By 1908, these camps were disbanded as the cottages were moved onto the owners’ private property, providing the opportunity for many to own their first homes.

Today, no one knows for sure just how many of these shacks still exist. Because the shacks were so small (typically 14 by 18 feet), many people cobbled together three or four shacks to make a home. In 1984, one home was declared a city landmark when the renter discovered that her house was really three shacks cobbled together: 1224 - 24th Ave.

Another group of four earthquake shacks was discovered in the Sunset District a few years ago on Kirkham Street near 47th Avenue. The Western Neighborhoods Project is working to preserve these shacks and make them available for public viewing. Several shacks are to be found in Bernal Heights and the Excelsior.

Although fun to find, they are easily missed, and some blend in very well to their surroundings. There is an unverified shack on Pearl near Duboce, and in the famous Clarion Alley filled with beautiful murals there are two shacks in the middle of the block. On our Mission-North Food Tour, or our Explore The Mission Tour, we point out these hidden gems and many others. Join us sometime as we explore San Francisco.

Explore San Francisco, a co-op of guides who explore the City’s “hidden gems.” Info: www.ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or 415.793.1104

November 2013

Tres Beaches Tour

Ocean beach at low tide
West view of the Cliff House—only seen at low tide from the sandy beach between the Sutro Bath Ruins and Ocean Beach

Run on our beaches like never before. During certain times of the year, our guide at Explore SF takes you on the packed sand to experience a magical low-tide journey. Get an up close look at mussels, sea urchins, and starfish without wearing a snorkel, mask, or fins. Hundreds of hidden rock formations appear out of the sand. Peak deep into the many caves, usually underwater. Run between majestic boulders and rocky reefs. See remnants of historic shipwrecks that line the SF coastline.

The beach behind the (Sutro Baths) ruins is called Kelly's Cove, known for its challenging surf conditions. On low tide this cove connects to Ocean Beach. We run on the stretch of sand directly behind the Cliff House. The view is unique, as many people don't get see the Cliff House from the ocean side.”

One of the unique segments of the route starts at the Sand Ladder on Baker Beach. On normal tide days, we would run through the Sea Cliff neighborhood to get to China Beach. But on super low tide, the two beaches are connected. We go from one beach to the other without ever entering the neighborhood.

Another amazing portion of the course starts at the Sutro Bath Ruins. The beach behind the ruins is called Kelly's Cove, known for its challenging surf conditions. On low tide this cove connects to Ocean Beach. We run on the stretch of sand directly behind the Cliff House. The view is unique, as many people don't get see the Cliff House from the ocean side.

One of the best reasons to do the Tres Beaches Tour is that you will see and hear the meditative surf throughout most of your run. So put on your sunscreen and sneakers to experience Baker, China, and Ocean beach with San Francisco Scenic Running!

San Francisco Scenic Running at Explore San Francisco specializes in leading groups on guided trail runs through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Presidio. Our guided trail runs are fitness oriented and informational. We are passionate about exploring the amazing trail system throughout our City. We want to share this passion with fellow runners who are interested in escaping the urban running environment. While taking in the natural wonders of this City, we provide tidbits of San Francisco's rich history. 

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City's "hidden gems". For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104

October 2013

TAKE A BITE OUT OF HISTORY AT CAVALLI CAFE

Cavalli's first location
Cavalli's first location

Santo Esposito bought Cavalli Cafe seven years ago and has never closed for one day. Why? He did not want to mess with history and a location that has been open since 1934, "Why change the name? And why change the phone number?" His cafe is famous for its cannoli (and other Italian pastries) and strong Italian coffee. He works fourteen-hour days, down from eighteen when he first started, because he now has help baking his delicacies. His customers are tourists, locals, and Italian expats. The cafe is one of few places in North Beach where almost always one can hear the lovely romance language of Italian being spoken at all times.

Cavalli's Liberia morphed into more than a newsstand. He sold books, records, ravioli and gnocchi makers, "people couldn't live without it." Cavalli figured out how to broadcast Italian radio live to his customers. "Italians had no idea what was going on in Italy," added Santo, "look at the pictures." Sure enough, there is a picture of Italians gathered around Liberia Cavalli in 1931 listening to one of fascist Benito Mussolini's fiery diatribes.”

 

Georgio Cavalli
Georgio Cacalli

But what hangs over Cafe Cavalli more than the aroma of coffee and cannoli is the larger than life persona of one Giorgio Cavalli. Cavalli came from Lacarno, the heart of the Italian region of Switzerland, and when asked what Cavalli meant to San Francisco, Santo replied, "What did Cavalli mean to the United States?" Cavalli came to San Francisco in the late 1800's. In 1887 he started the first Italian-Swiss newspaper, L'Elvezia, which he managed and published with great success until 1904, when he sold the newspaper to the Righetti Brothers. In 1895, George became a Notary Public and opened an office on Montgomery Street where he worked until his death.

Cavalli's second location
Cavalli's second location

During that time he wrote various books of entertainment and instructions for the immigrants from Switzerland, among them "The Book of the Immigrant" and an "Italian-English Grammar" for the study of the English language. Also a translator, he spoke 8 languages: German, Italian, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovenian and Greek. Eventually he opened a Liberia, or news stand, for the throngs of Italian immigrants who were homesick for Italian news. His first location sold Italian papers and magazines, and moved several times through the years; its third location is where City Lights Bookstore is now and its fourth location now houses the venerable North Beach watering hole Vesuvio, on Broadway and Columbus.

Cavalli's third location
Cavalli's third location

What the Swiss-Italian businessman realized is that not only San Francisco Italians, but also the entire Italian immigrant population of the United States, were starved for Italian news, so he began publishing an Italian language weekly then daily paper around the turn of the century. He was the Italian version of William Randolph Hearst without the saber rattling, "People come here every day and tell me stories." Cavalli was a neighborhood icon who shipped his papers to every Italian enclave in the United States, and his legacy is still handled by Santo, "I get a phone call every day from every little mountain (village) in the United States, asking me about Italy. How do I spell this? Where do I go on vacation? Cavalli is the father of the Italian people in the United States." He loaned money to widows for funerals, he gave money to the poor, and mediated disputes between businessmen, neighbors and couples in need of guidance. He was like The Godfather's Vito Corleone without the gangsterism.

Cavalli's fourth location
Cavalli's fourth location

Needless to say, Giorgio Cavalli was an operator, "He was a very smart man," Santo muses, "there would be no North Beach today without him." After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the US-based Italian diaspora wanted to return to Italy. But Cavalli teamed up with some very powerful Italians to keep them here. "He and Gianinni (A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America) got together so the Italians wouldn't leave here," Santos said. Simply put, Giannini loaned Italians money to rebuild their homes and businesses, while Cavalli implored people not to make the voyage back to Italy, making North Beach the first neighborhood to come back from the quake and abandon its tent city in what is now Washington Square.

Cavalli's Liberia morphed into more than a newsstand. He sold books, records, ravioli and gnocchi makers, "people couldn't live without it." Cavalli figured out how to broadcast Italian radio live to his customers. "Italians had no idea what was going on in Italy," added Santo, "look at the pictures." Sure enough, there is a picture of Italians gathered around Liberia Cavalli in 1931 listening to one of fascist Benito Mussolini's fiery diatribes.

Angiolina Cavalli
Angiolina Cavalli

The Italian community eventually Americanized, and the need for an Italian language paper published in America diminished. The Internet has made importing Italian magazines and newspapers cost prohibitive (don't ask to plug your computer in at Cavalli, there are no outlets but there is wifi). But, Cafe Cavalli represents more than lovely Italian delicacies. "People left their souls in here. People still come by and tell me things," says Santo. "Restaurants like the Gold Spike come and go, because they're just restaurants, but people have respect for this place. Other places, they just disappear." The Cavalli legacy is still intact. In March of 1916, George Cavalli passed away and left Libreria Cavalli to Angiolina, one of his seven sisters. She changed the name to A. Cavalli & Company. She is now deceased, but her niece who is currently 106 and lives in an assisted living facility on Geary Street came in for a visit, "she speaks perfect Italian, and she had her first Cannoli here." Santo regrettably asked her if she could handle a cannoli at her age and got an icy stare.

Old timers and hipsters alike treked to Cafe Cavalli on the day this reporter drank coffee and chatted with Santo. The last thing Santo said was unforgettable, "everybody who comes here has something to say about this place, (and it usually is) that Cavalli should be around for another one hundred years." We can only hope, Santo.

A.Cavalli Cafe, 1441 Stockton Street @ Columbus, 415-421-4219, http://www.cavallicafe.com

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City's "hidden gems". For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104

Italian Americans listen to Italian radio broadcasts  of fascist Benito Mussolini
Italian Americans listen to Italian radio broadcasts of fascist Benito Mussolinit

 

September 2013

Hidden Gems of San Francisco

The Last Dance Hall

The Gold Rush of 1849 saw the beginnings of San Francisco as a world-class city, California as a state, and the personal fortunes of many an adventurer.  The gold of “them thar hills” passed through the assay offices on Gold and Balance Streets, where miners exchanged gold for coin, and then eagerly flocked to saloons, brothels, and gambling halls that sprang up in the surrounding streets to spend it.

…the Great Quake and Fire of 1906 turned saloons, brothels, opium dives, shanghai dens and gambling houses to ash in what clergymen likened to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Oddly, the Hotaling building, a whiskey warehouse, was not destroyed. A popular ditty from the era, “If, as they say, God spoke and spanked the town for being so frisky. Why did he burn down all the churches and save Hotaling’s Whiskey?”

San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast was located in what is now the Financial District, Chinatown, and the Jackson Square area.  Miners and sailors roamed in search of excitement, providing easy pickings for pickpockets, cons, crimps, pimps, and shanghai dens where patrons drank Mickey Finns, awakening as sailors on sailing ships

The most popular of all the Barbary Coast’s red-light attractions were its dance halls, especially where “dancing” could take many forms…

The most renowned of the Barbary Coast establishments was the Bella Union.  While a gambling hall, it also operated as a melodeon theater, featuring what the San Francisco Call described in 1869 as “songs and dances of a licentious and profane character” and “obscenity served in superior style.” 

The Bella Union reeled in would-be revelers with broadsheets offering “Plain Talk and Beautiful Girls! … No back numbers, but as Sweet and Charming creatures as ever escaped a Female Seminary!  Lovely Tresses!  Lovely Lips!  Buxom Forms!”

This Barbary Coast party went on for decades, until the Great Quake and Fire of 1906 turned saloons, brothels, opium dives, shanghai dens and gambling houses to ash in what clergymen likened to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Oddly, the Hotaling building, a whiskey warehouse, was not destroyed. A popular ditty from the era, “If, as they say, God spoke and spanked the town for being so frisky. Why did he burn down all the churches and save Hotaling’s Whiskey?” Why, indeed.  

Entrepreneurs were determined to resurrect the area, which had become a great tourist attraction, and soon more than 300 dance halls operated in the space of about 6 blocks.  The Bella Union dance hall had burned to the ground, but quickly reopened at 555 Pacific Avenue as the Hippodrome in 1907. With its cut glass swinging doors and (once-lascivious) bas relief panels by sculptor Arthur Putnam, it was the centerpiece of the “International Settlement” on Pacific Street (or Terrific Street, a nickname).

At the turn of the 20th century, these dance halls were the origin of national dance crazes: the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, and many more.

Today, this block is barely recognizable.  Many buildings have been replaced; the Hippodrome is the only building left with a hint of Barbary Coast character.

The Hippodrome is the home of the Artist and Craftsman Supply, where an old tunnel has been unearthed that may date to the Barbary Coast times. On our Explore North Beach tour I take my guests into this tunnel and reveal a few other hidden gems not mentioned here.

Happy exploring!

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104

June 2013

 

Hidden Gems of SF

Explore San Francisco: Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown boasts a significant number of temples dedicated to a variety of gods and family ancestors. I’ve visited a number of them, and am always impressed at how willing the volunteers and staff are to chat with visitors about the particulars of a given temple. Many of these temples are a walk up to the third or fourth floor of a family association, the potent odor of incense wafting throughout the hallways I make my way through. My favorite is the Kong Chow Temple, dedicated to the God of War and Literature, an unlikely combination that works within its context!

The woman behind the front desk eyed me suspiciously, at first, but eventually relaxed. As there were a large number of worshipers in the temple, I stood off to the side on the balcony for a few moments to observe, and then decided to return when there were fewer people in the temple.”

Kong Chow Temple to the God of War (and Literature) 855 Stockton at Clay St 788-1339 Open seven days weekly, 10 AM – 4 PM. Take the elevator to the fourth floor above the Post Office.

Guan Gong, a historical figure who lived from CE 220-CE 280, fought to prevent political disintegration of the Han dynasty. He was captured in battle and beheaded. After his death, he became revered for his loyalty, righteous, bravery and benevolence. Subsequent emperors honored him, and he eventually gained status as a god of both war and literature.Interior Kong Chow Temple

Like many temples in Chinatown, Kong Chow is handsomely appointed according to the temple’s theme — in this case, statuary of soldiers’ dresses for battle with their war horses at the ready, relief carving of battle scenes, and in the center, an imposing figure of the God of War on his throne, ready to receive worshipers.  Incense urns are arranged throughout the temple, and a fireplace to burn Joss-paper offerings to the ancestors sits off to the right. A balcony open to the outside rounds both sides of the corner.

My first visit to the temple was in the weeks prior to the lunar New Year, and the temple received a steady stream of worshipers, far more than the other temples I’ve visited. I have enough experience to know that non-Chinese tourists are not always aware that these are working temples, not museums, to be entered quietly and respectfully. The woman behind the front desk eyed me suspiciously, at first, but eventually relaxed. As there were a large number of worshipers in the temple, I stood off to the side on the balcony for a few moments to observe, and then decided to return when there were fewer people in the temple. 

I returned a few weeks after the holiday. The woman seemed to recognize me, and when I acknowledged “no pictures,” she smiled and waved me in.  A younger woman working at the temple asked me if I would like to pray, and took me through the entire ceremony of lighting the candles and incense and then said “talk to the Buddha!” I kneeled in front of the statue for just a bit, and when I attempted to get up, she said “No! Talk longer!” After a bit, she folded some Joss papers and told me to light them, say a few prayers — quickly — and toss them into the fireplace. This was my first time making an offering to the ancestors! I ended with tossing my fortune, thanked the staff and left. A few weeks later I returned with a small tour group. The woman recognized me, and as there were no other worshippers there, she handed me the candles and incense and told me to show my group how to pray! Her lighthearted snicker told me that I more or less got it right!

If you want to pray, the incense and candles, which are bundled in the correct number, will cost you $5, with an extra 50 cents the staff will tell your fortune. A donation of a few dollars is always appropriate. Come later in the afternoon, after about 2:30, when it is less crowded, be polite. And always remember that these are working temples, be respectful. After all, you would not enter a church during Mass and approach the altar chatting away and snapping photographs, or would you?

On our Explore Chinatown Tours on Saturdays, we take our guests to this temple, where they have the opportunity to take part in the ceremony; it is an honor and a thrill. 

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104

May 2013

Explore San Francisco: The Mission

Any exploration of the Mission starts with, well, the Mission—Mission Dolores, which gave its name, ethos and style to this sunniest part of San Francisco.

Our most ancient continuously used structure, Mission Dolores is always worth a visit, for its deep sense of history and tranquil gardens. The Mission basilica also holds a secret, a true buried treasure: murals painted in 1791 by enslaved Ohlone artists, on a wall which was subsequently covered by an altarpiece and hidden from view for the next 200-plus years...but that’s another story.

Within a few blocks of Mission Dolores, it’s possible to see two surprisingly excellent examples of what happened when Mission Style met the Jazz Age: Mission High School, which opened in 1927 (3750 18th Street), and Everett Middle School, from 1928 (450 Church Street).

John Reid, Jr., … was the designer of twenty schools, including Parkside School, Commodore Sloat, Galileo High and Horace Mann. … He was also particularly known for his understanding of how to design buildings to resist earthquakes; it’s notable that none of the buildings he designed have been destroyed or significantly damaged by subsequent quakes.”

You know all about the 1920s, right? Speakeasies, Model A Fords, the Charleston, silent movies...and the golden age of public school building in San Francisco. After all, the adorable children of the post WWI baby boom (the smaller precursor to our current Boomer generation) needed classroom space, as well as new schools to embody new ideas about education. To cope with this demand, San Francisco was lucky to have the talents of John Reid, Jr., who served as City Architect from 1919 to 1927, and was the designer of twenty schools, including Parkside School, Commodore Sloat, Galileo High and Horace Mann. Reid’s approach was to be “solely concerned with making schools supremely fit for children.” He was also particularly known for his understanding of how to design buildings to resist earthquakes; it’s notable that none of the buildings he designed have been destroyed or significantly damaged by subsequent quakes.

Another of John Reid’s signature qualities was his ability to produce buildings appropriate to their cultural and historical context. Each of his schools is different, designed with its environment in mind. Naturally, Mission Dolores would color Reid’s approach to these nearby projects; in addition, the Spanish Colonial Revival style was sensationally popular in California, and eventually far beyond, from 1915 on through the ‘30s. So, when they opened in the late 1920s, these two schools were carefully planned, lovingly crafted, appropriate to their location and also extremely trendy. Doubtless there were at least a few bob-haired “baby flappers” among the student body.

Whether you see any ghosts or not, Mission High and Everett are well worth a walk-by. You’ll need some distance to see Mission High’s Spanish Baroque tower with its mini-dome covered in glazed tile, but you’ll want to come closer too, to see the details of the cast terra cotta ornament emphasizing the entry and highlighting the upper windows, in an ornate style known as Churrigueresque.

Everett offers a more intimate experience, with a design influenced by the romantic Moorish element of Spanish architecture. Viewed from across the street, the building’s massing and zigzag cornice suggest its Art Deco-era provenance. Its close-up details offer a series of colorful, exotic delights: leafy column capitals, lantern-like filigreed light fixtures, painted rafters and most spectacularly, a tiled entry that resembles a series of matching, exquisite Persian carpets.

Happy exploring!

Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website or call them at 415.793.1104

April 2013