The Golden Gate is a sheltered bay, such as many sailors prized across the millennia of oceanic exploration. Inland harbors like the bay allow sailors to protect their ships from the whimsical winds and tides of unpredictable oceans.
Before becoming a part of the United States, California was inhabited by Native Americans who migrated from Asia via the Aleutian Islands. In the 1700’s, two different colonial migrant populations began expanding into the region, Spanish from the south and western-migrating American homesteaders from the east. The Spanish/Mexican missions spread up from Baja California all the way to the northern-most tip of the peninsula that we now call San Francisco. Most of the cities of California therefore have Spanish names given by those early missions. Saint Francis was the Catholic patron saint of animals and nature.
Over years since the statehood of California, migrants the world over have come to the region of the bay to make their homes. In addition to the west-ward migrating Americans came many Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican migrants lured by the promise of jobs in the booming port town. Main lures of perceived opportunity were the early seafarer shipping trade industry, construction projects including the railroads that extended across US and the gold-rush speculator craze of 1849. (From which the San Francisco 49ers take their name.)
100 years later, San Francisco served as the hub of the silicon-wafer manufacturing boom fueling the dawn of the computer age. Thereafter, equities traders, formerly focused in New York and Chicago, had to have investment arms to fund and profit from newly formed ventures that sprung up in the Silicon Valley of micro-processors.
Beyond the promise of professional opportunity, California also lured many artists, writers and entertainers who sought to branch out to forge new communities outside the cultural hub of the east coast, New York City. During the post-war period of the 1950’s and 1960’s writers and musicians helped to stoke the fires of a cultural reactionary movement against the US-led intervention in the civil war of Vietnam.
I moved to San Francisco in 1998 to start a new career as the web publishing industry was taking off. It was a great place to engage in the start-up industry which was fueled by the new industry fueled be the proliferation of personal computers, which had become affordable to most American consumers at the time.
My father was born in San Francisco and had worked in the Santa Teresa division of IBM in the southern end of the San Francisco Bay, which is about 1 hour’s drive from the city. So I had visited San Francisco previously with him.
San Francisco has a fascinating micro-climate caused by the motion of air currents over its wing-shaped contours. As Bernoulli demonstrated centuries ago, the motion of air over a contoured surface causes pressure differentials. That’s what makes airplane wings provide lift. And in San Francisco’s case, also causes moisture in the winds to condense as form fog. At times when much of California has temperatures in the range of 80-90 degrees. San Francisco is usually 15-20 degrees cooler. So it’s residents are often bundled in jackets and sweaters. Compared to the sunny California of most people’s impressions of the state, San Francisco can seem down-right moody in most seasons as it’s residents scurry indoors for warmth.
Twin Peaks is the highest point in the city. This is where I perched on the eastern-facing side during many of my years residing in town. The main street of the city, called Market Street is the boulevard that you see leading down the center partition of the downtown area. To the south is the boomtown area called South of Market which was the region of the city that played center stage in the boom and bust and subsequent re-boom of the tech sector in San Francisco. It is now home to Mozilla, Google, Twitter, Pinterest, Amazon and Salesforce offices. North of Market street is the financial district, Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill and Russian Hill neighborhoods.
Much of the city was decimated in the 1906 earthquake. However the tower at the end of Market street, called the Ferry Building because it was the docking area for cross-bay boat traffic, stands to this day.
The moisture that pours in through the mouth of the Golden Gate pools in the valleys to the north, referred to as Napa Valley. The humidity is perfect for growing grapes. During the alcohol “prohibition” era in US law, the Catholic Church was given a grandfathering exception to permit the manufacture of red wine for use in communion ceremonies. This allowed California vineyards to stay in business when other forms of alcohol manufacture ceased across the United States. So when prohibition ended, Napa was well positioned to grow rapidly broadly. Now it is a booming tourist industry which is spilling over the hills all the way up to the mountains of Sonoma county.
California was given to the United States by Mexico via treaty after direct conflict between the two countries in the mid 1800s. Thereafter, the demand for labor in the railroad expansion led to huge demand for workers who newly migrated to the fledgling state. Many immigrants during that era came from Canton, China. This led to a booming Chinatown district in the heart of the city neighboring the mostly Russian district, aptly called Russian Hill, and the majority-Italian district, North Beach.
Coit Tower stands today on the hill overlooking the ports of Fisherman’s Wharf on Telegraph Hill. This tower was constructed in the shape of a fire-hose nozzle to thank firemen for their service to protect the city. (During the great earthquake, much of the city was consumed in a massive firestorm.)
My first home when I moved here was an old cow grazing area on the northern tip of the peninsula that was converted to a world expo convention center at the turn of the century. Much of that was demolished except for the monumental construction built for the expo in Greek style called the Palace if Fine Arts. A procession to the palace has the muses all turning their backs to the world without art. At the palace the muses and all other nature of gods and animals jubilate in the abundance around a pavilion where performances have been staged over the years.
Nearby, the massive Presidio that covers much of the area leading up to the Golden Gate Bridge, was formerly a military academy. Before the bridge was built, Fort Point stood as a menacing military garrison, with canons, protecting the opening of the city harbor. Now, you’d barely notice, as the bridge towers above it such that you can only see the fort from the former air strip, Chrissy Field, which has been converted to a nature preserve and promenade leading from San Francisco’s Marina.
After the great earthquake, the concrete from the exposition halls was used to build a Marina wave break sheltering civilian craft in the small port. Here you can find a wave organ preserving some of the old carved marble of the expo architecture along with underwater pipes that gurgle and splash as the tides and waves shift.
San Francisco has formed dozens of small Main Street districts around the city which seem like semi-autonomous communities, each with their own flavor. Each neighborhood can be characterized by locals for you listing the types of shops, restaurants and historical significance.
When my father first took me to San Francisco, he explained a bit about its peculiar draw for creative collaboration. He told me the town folk closed off a traffic tunnel for an event where participants would sing as a single note as a group for a day to see if the group would stay on pitch. And there were a group of artists who would have ritualized celebrations on its beaches that became so populous that they had to be moved to neighboring deserts to manage capacity issues.
One of the landmark sights of the city is the bridge that spans the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. Though smaller than the Bay Bridge, it has an iconic suspension style cable structure whereby the weight of the total bridge is hung from two towers.
Just over the Golden Gate Bridge is a vast nature reserve at the base of a small mountain called Mount Tamalpais. The cliffs that fall off at the shore are called, the Marin Headlands. Its winding roads are so picturesque that they are often used in car commercials. The hiking in this area and down near the beaches is a huge lure for weekend explorers.
During the Second World War, the US military built tunnels and overlooks from these headlands to protect San Francisco from invasion by sea. Now the National Park Service preserves these tunnels, which make great acoustic spaces for musicians to take advantage of.
The peninsula side of San Francisco is a long beach that culminates in a rocky outcropping called Cliff House. This used to adjoin a massive indoor swimming pool, called Sutro Baths, with high dives which was perched on the coast, allowing residents to bathe in a slightly warmer setting than the frigid waters of the Pacific at normal temperature. It was destroyed in a fire. So all that’s left of it now is the lower basin that used to house the deep end of the pool. But it’s a scenic place to come to watch sunsets or perhaps sea lions which frequent the coastline. (This is also one of the set appearances for the film Harold and Maude.) There is a working “Camera Obscura” made with reflective mirrors pointing into a dark room where you can see a replicated view of the ocean outside. An interesting stop if you’ve never seen one before.
Several small islands in the bay make for scenic stops by the ferrys from Fisherman’s Wharf. The famous prison Alcatraz, is now a museum offering tours and occasional theater performances. The massive uninhabited Angel Island was the west coast’s version of Ellis Island (New York) where immigrants coming by sea would disembark their ships prior to being issued paperwork for US residency. And Yerba Buena island is the mid-point for the massive San Francisco Bay Bridge which connects the peninsula to Oakland.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate park is a massive natural reserve on the west side of the city roughly the same scale of New York’s Central Park. It houses notable arts and science museums as well as a Japanese garden, flower conservatory and massive botanical garden where I’ve spent many seasons studying flora samples from around the world.
It is now over twenty years since I relocated to San Francisco. Coming here has resulted in an amazing stretching of my own professional and artistic ambitions. It’s very easy to see why this city has become a lure for inventors, pioneers and cultural renegades.
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