San Francisco is a magnificent folly of a city, a surrealist's vision or child's dream, but always humane and always on a human scale.
Fresh from a stay in LA, where it can seem as if you need to hop in your car just to brush your teeth, in San Francisco, we walked, Raven and I. We walked and we walked and we walked. From the barred gates of our hotel, exiting upon the dirty but not-quite slum-like Mission District, down to the old port and the glittering, tourist-infested Fisherman's Wharf. Up hills and down, through Chinatown and along Columbus. And always, I found myself gaping in delighted surprise, laughing and shouting for joy, boring poor Raven with variations on the phrases, I love this city! and This is so beautiful.
My pleasure was as a child's at Christmas, as a teenager's when the object of their desire says yes.
How could I not call out that I was in love with with this extraordinary assembly of construct and landscape?
If you've never been, there are two key features of geography that define — that bind and constrain, and so, liberate — San Francisco.
First, it is a small peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. Like the Montreal, or any island city, there are practical limits to its physical size. Although the city proper only boasts a population of around 800,000 people, it is the second densest city in the United States; further significant growth would require paving over its parks or building a lot more high-rise condos than it has now.
Second, that small geographical area is extremely three-dimensional. More than fifty sudden and steep hills dot the peninsula, like a perverse god's challenge to human ingenuity. Look on my landscapes, ye builders, and despair!
Seriously, the city's geography is crazed, a madwoman's sketch of a potential city-scape or a stoned teenager's impossible dungeon, designed to test his buddies to destruction. No rational planner would look at that landscape and muse that — why yes! — here is an ideal place to build a city! Never, no matter how fabulous a natural harbour lay upon its shore.
And yet, there the city is, in all its audacious and rugged glory ...
When I say we walked, I mean we hiked. No few of those streets have grades of more than 25 percent! Some are well over 30. If you haven't walked such roads, that means steep! Driving, you can't see beyond your car's hood when you crest a hill, or start to nose down one.
And then there's fucking Lombard Street.
If you didn't really look at the photo above, stop reading and look again. Really look at it. Those are cars making their way down among the bushes and flowers (except for the grey Volvo, midway down on the left. That's just parked. Presumably in front of its owner's house). And it's every bit as steep as it looks. So take a minute to have another look.
Done? Okay, onwards ...
When I first saw that stretch of so-called road above, I scoffed. Truth is, when Raven insisted we walk it, I did so reluctantly, complaining that we were just walking into the ultimate tourist trap, like every other gawking yokel in that never-ending crowd around us.
And maybe we were.
But if this stretch, which a convenient historical plaque says is "known as the 'Crookedest Street' in the world" (strangely, hedging its bet), is a tourist trap, then at least it is a tourist trap in which people live (and park!).
And, as Raven managed finally to show me, despite my loutish refusals to see the beauty right before me, lest some local take me for a rube (and kudos to her for putting down my snobbish pre-conceptions), if it is a tourist trap, so what?
It is still gorgeous, it is still real, the view is awesome and it takes a lot of work to walk to the top of it.
With all with its deliberate switchbacks and its ostentatious flower-beds, Lombard Street might be extreme, it might even be the joke I first thought it was but, if so, it is a humane joke, because it only demonstrates by exaggeration the extreme landscape on which this city was built.
Despite the roller-coaster terrain, San Francisco is laid out on a pretty standard urban grid. (More precisely, it is built upon several discrete grid systems, cut through with a few, seemingly random, diagonal roads to make things even more confusing.) Cross-streets are everywhere, even on the steepest hills.
Lombard Street notwithstanding, most of those streets — whether North/South or East West — mostly ignore the hills and just carry on. When you're driving and you can't see what's beyond the hood of your car, you go slow, that's all.
A planned city — a rational city — would have shaved the hilltops flat and filled the valleys with the rubble.
But San Francisco's houses and apartments, its shops and restaurants, they all rise and fall like the jagged risers of an escalator, up and down, up and down. (As Raven pointed out, this is a hard city for the disabled or the elderly.)
Or, a rational city would have reserved the hilltops for the rich, and maybe a park or two; for being admired, instead of to be lived upon and with. San Francisco chose instead to (not so) simply, build its streets and buildings up (and down) those steep slopes.
And in that acceptance of place lies the foundation of San Francisco's beauty, an seemingly Zen-like willingness to take the world as it is, to work within its limits, rather than the hubris that insists on altering the bones of the earth to suit our own short-term interests.
San Francisco is bat-shit crazy, but that is what makes it such a jewel, such a human environment, no matter that it is built of concrete and stone, of brick and of steel. After all, we are a building animal.
What a joy to witness — and to encounter, for whoever short a time — such a living example of the power of the human imagination when its focus is on living, not domination.
When I wasn't laughing during all that walking, I was sometimes fighting back tears. Love has a way of doing that to a man, too. And I fell hard for the city by the bay.
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