Yes, I confess it: I am old enough to remember the Summer of Love when the 60s really got into their stride and 19-year-old idealists (as I then was) found a world of button down suits fixated with material wealth and the Cold War far less beguiling than an alternative mantra to “tune in, turn on and drop out” . Though this held less appeal on the grey, dreich streets of Edinburgh, beside the sun-speckled waters of the Golden Gate, it made far more sense.
Fir the unquestioned epicentre of this counterculture was San Francisco, already known as a wacky melting pot of cultures and ideas. The beat generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg had already colonised the City’s North Beach. But hippies favoured cheap rental of ornate Victorians in Haight/Ashbury, and bred Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplans, as well as a lively drug culture the media referred to as Hashbury or Psychedelphia. It was also close to Golden Gate Park, where the resulting influx camped out on Fremont Hill, which is still known as Hippie Hill and a focus for the annual 4/20 dope smoker gathering to this day its legalisation.
This month, I spent a long weekend in San Francisco again. April is a beautiful month to visit this, my favourite city. Cities around the world offer a cornucopia of Charms, but none stack up to San Francisco’s livability. Gorgeous vistas of waterscape bettering Edinburgh or Lisbon abound; imaginative architecture beats Boston or Berlin; culture is rich as Paris or Vienna; business dynamic rivals New York or Shanghai. For quality of life in a first-rank city on a human scale, it is only rivalled by Munich or Barcelona.
But what I love most is the sheer exuberance of the dense housing, the cultural melting pot (and hence cuisines) like no other, all enlivened by a civic and political awareness that would put any capital to shame.
For five days, I bounced around the city’s tight-knit 49 square miles from Lands End to North Beach; from the Presidio to SoMa. Despite intervening half a century, character and vibrancy have not skipped a beat. New are the dark-windowed coaches gliding techies from their City life to make more billions for Facebook and Google and Apple down in nearby Silicon Valley. The social resilience of the City still derives from its many lively local centres, as if it were a dense collection of villages, rather than sprawling suburbs. Whether Noe Valley, the Marina, Glen Park or the Mission, each has a ‘high street’ of shops with character (retail chain outlets are rare) and social centres like cafes. The mild climate, a dense streetcar/bus network and nightmare parking means the population interacts in droves. Proper dim sum from numerous carts is still available in Chinatown. You can still browse City Lights bookstore or run into Ferlinghetti in North Beach. Soma still buses with the myriad Studios, ateliers and galleries of a lively art scene. The Mission buzzes with myriad Central American restaurants but in the middle of it, on Valencia, is the best Italian deli in town with Ravioli made by angles.
So, ( as the Scott Mackenzie song goes) if you go to San Francisco, by all means do the standard tourist shuffle: visit Fisherman’s Wharf, take the ferry to Sausalito, drive down crooked Lombard Street and ride the cable cars. The once derelict waterfront is now a linear park with historic streetcars and fabulous views across the Bay to Marin, Alcatraz, the Oakland Hills, etc.
But, if you really want to know this beautiful city, take the N-Judah out to the Avenues and find the sprawling Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park, with its myriad plants from the seven Mediterranean regions of the world—and if you can’t find a memorable lunch among the restaurant lining the street car line, you’re not trying. Or take the J-Church and enjoy the spectacular view of downtown as it struggles up Balboa park and hop off at 24th to explore the heart of Noe Valley. If you really want to see how San Franciscans live, ride the J a little further—to 26th and enjoy Chloe’s restaurant; to 28th to get java’s up with the locals at Marths’s cafe; to 30th for a great breakfast at Toast.
Or hot the bus to the intersection of Haight with Ashbury and try to tune in, turn on and drop out, even though it may be Half a century too late. The nice thing is that none of the locals will bother you. Doing your own thing is an old San Francisco tradition—and yet another reason why I so love the place.
Will bother you