Keep gloom at bay: SF still has its soul

Originally published by John King, The San Francisco Chronicle

Focus too much on City Hall rhetoric and the politicized blogs, and you’d think today’s San Francisco has no soul. That it’s an arid terrain dominated by — choose your poison — techies sporting backpacks or homeless guys in tents.


Except that when you navigate the real-life city, things aren’t so simple. It’s a malleable and teeming landscape, where ever-changing populations put our buildings and spaces to their own desired use. Some sights are familiar; others come and go. The thing they all share is the ground beneath our feet.

I was reminded of this yet again on Saturday, when a dinner outing in the city’s northeast corner looped through three, four, five different worlds.

Our destination was Fisherman’s Wharf, Scoma’s to be exact, a favorite of my parents’ back when their only son equated seafood with anchovy pizza (and was left at home).

Located deep in the tourist zone where no true local goes ... except that the place was packed — and not just with out-of-towners. Some diners greeted waiters by name. Others were like us, I suspect, stopping by once or twice a year for old times’ sake. And in this case, ending up at a window table where the view included workaday Pier 4: not the front that holds the nostalgic charms of Musée Mécanique, but the long harbor edge where seafood distributors’ trucks sit idle when the morning’s work is done.

To get there we took BART, hopped out at Embarcadero Station and passed through a battle of the (marching) bands, one from Cal Poly and the other from UC Davis. They were here for the Chinese New Year’s parade, and to kill time they faced off across the teardrop-shaped plaza, in front of the Ferry Building, swapping amped-up numbers to applause. Usually the space is empty except for skateboarders. At this moment it was an impromptu kick, filled with people happy to be caught in the middle of a boisterous showdown.

The Embarcadero has become a tourist zone as well, at least on weekends when the 25-foot-wide Herb Caen Way fills with pedestrians, bicyclists, joggers, roller bladers and pedicabs.

But the “tourists” of 2016, in a city where the median price of a home tops $1 million, aren’t just the caricatured couple from the flyover states. Many look to be families from across the region, all races and classes, on a day trip to the city that includes this curved path between broad bay and steep hills. Whatever kitsch lies at the end of the journey, this is the real thing.

So is City Lights Bookstore, another only-in-San Francisco destination (albeit of a much different sort). Heading there down Columbus Avenue, we passed the exuberant redo of the Joe DiMaggio Playground, completed last fall and filled throughout the day by children and their parents who still call this city home.

The bookstore just south of Broadway feels like it has on so many evenings since the doors first opened in 1953, a sanctuary for the mind. Not jammed but not empty, inhabited by browsers moving though the poetry attic or ever-eclectic basement in search of who knows what — the books I buy there tend to be ones that I didn’t know existed until I held them in my hand.

The famed, venerable City Lights bookstore in North Beach is a still-vibrant relic of the long-ago Beat culture that once shocked the squares. The famed, venerable City Lights bookstore in North Beach is a still-vibrant relic of the long-ago Beat culture that once shocked the squares.
The distinct aspect this night at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s creation was the festive fusillade outside, the sputtering crackle and deep rumbles of fireworks from Chinatown and the parade.

Inevitably, we found ourselves in the good-natured bowl of onlookers enclosing the triangular intersection of Columbus and Kearny where the parade officially ended. But not really. The space functioned like an asphalt thrust stage, viewers on three sides cheering as our Cal Poly pals reappeared, or sword-wielding samurai bounding up Kearny to make a grand theatrical charge at the crowd. Then came the pivot down Columbus, where the parade participants atomized into the city grid.

The marching band turned left in darkness on Washington, perhaps to waiting buses. Samurais posed with friends amid the travertine columns of the colonnade at the base of 655 Montgomery. Other marchers lingered beneath the Transamerica Pyramid across the way, swapping stories and stretching the communal experience for another few minutes.


Towers like these were demonized in the 1970s and ’80s by critics who reviled them as community-destroying tombstones, symbols of whatever evils were in the news that week. Yet Chinatown and North Beach survived, protected by farsighted plans that directed high-rise development south of Market Street. Which brings us to a night like this. They’ve become part of the architectural landscape, a silent backdrop to people enjoying the sense that they’re part of something larger than themselves.

The cynic would say that the Chinese New Year’s Parade is a one-time yearly thing. True. So are the Pride Parade, and Fleet Week, and that particular street fair you catch even while dismissing the rest. Cities where people want to be are cities where there’s a different something every day, where you can plunge into the crowd or reminisce in isolation, depending on your mood.

None of this is to dismiss the very real strains on today’s San Francisco, congestion and crime and the disruptive impacts of prosperity. But to dwell only on the problems, as if nothing of shared value remains, is as simplistic as to wish that urban life could be like a 1950s postcard of a settled, placid scene.


Place is a weekly column by John King, The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: jking@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @johnkingsfchron