I recently received an amazing book for a goodbye gift, a tomb I’d been drooling over at San Francisco bookstores for months. It is called Infinite City, a feat of a project done by Rebecca Solnit. Infinite City turns traditional cartography on its head, presenting 22 unique maps pairing landmarks of San Francisco in unusual ways and providing wonderful commentary on how they coincide in alleyways, parks, and districts in The City. Two of my favorites are called “Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces” and “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in Your Body” (superfund sites plotted next to famous restaurants…some overlap!). A genius book, a “joyous book,” as labeled by the SF Chronicle. A delight for the senses and the intellect, Solnit is a true urban explorer.
It is not surprising that I find this book so captivating, as Solnit is a woman after my own heart, displaying a passionate affinity for finding the hidden gems in a city that locals cherish and visitors may stumble upon while exploring off the beaten path. One of her last chapters of the book is entitled “Treasure Map: the Forty-Nine Jewels of San Francisco,” describing San Francisco as Robert Louis Stevenson’s bestseller (RLS actually lived in SF!) I was amazed to see that this chapter captured exactly what I have been trying to paint for my faithful readers through my city-related posts: the scene of a city bursting with wonders just waiting to be explored. Jewels, gems, hidden wonders, great spots. Lo and behold, many of my “sacred places” appeared on her map! Solnit was lucky enough to have a team of artists, cartographers, and researchers to help her with the entirety of Infinite City, surely an overwhelmingly large project. I have only had myself, my curiosity, MUNI, some free time, a pen, and a camera. But what a better way to end my year here than to present my newfound love, San Francisco, as a treasure chest, waiting to be explored. Hopefully some of these things will inspire you to visit San Francisco, or even to explore the treasures that your own city- even your neighborhood or street- holds! I am sure they are endless.
What I’ll miss most about living in San Francisco, however is not specific places, though I have identified many favorite spots for the sake of tangible, visit-able locations. What I will miss most are more intangible, indescribable, the sense of the city as a whole. The views- as I have photographed, thought about, written about, stumbled across, run along, and showed off to friends all year are so iconic to the city. They really show the sparkle, the wonder, that a city can hold by its many hills. Nothing is better than reaching the top of a hill to see a neighborhood, the ocean, the whole city laid out before you. I will also miss the closeness of such a compact community. Think 100,000 people in a 7 mile x 7 mile area. Over time, you’re bound to run into the same people. I would regularly recognize people on the bus, at tree tours, from my choir, a friend’s roommate at a show, etc. San Francisco is a small world in a big city. I will also miss the diversity that the West Coast’s most metropolitan and international city will inevitably boast. Though my new co-workers at my job in Portland come from many walks of life and many different cultures, nothing can beat being able to hear entirely Spanish being spoken on the 14 Mission bus into the city and entirely Chinese being spoken on the 30 Stockton in Chinatown. There are so many people to learn from and so many cultures packed into one city! I will miss the libraries. Though I was brought up in the Mulnomah County Library system where I’ll be returning, the SFPL system and the physical sites were delightful places to work and explore. Some of these include seven Carnegie branch libraries! Finally, I will miss the ease of transportation in such a dense area. Thank you, MUNI!
So, without further delay, here is my list of not-to-miss treasures, starting with sites where Rebecca Solnit and I overlap. Links are to my previous blog posts about the subject. In no particular order:
1. The Grace Cathedral Labyrinth: One of four labyrinths that Solnit mentions, two others being on Bernal Hill and 1100 California Street at Taylor (this is also at Grace Cathedral, but outside by the front steps, not inside the church). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the labyrinth utop Bernal Hill…I think it has been kicked away. Addendum: The Bernal Hill labyrinth does in fact exist! It has been reconstructed. See my post on it here.
2. The Sutro Baths ruins: Solnit says, “in a city where real estate interests have turned over nearly every vacant lot, ruins themselves are treasures.”
3. The mural on the outside of the Women’s Building on 18th Street in the Mission: an artistic testament to the sacred feminine.
4. The wild top of Bernal Hill: “with its views, its owls, its coyotes, and its air.” And the Esmeralda Corridor that leads to it!
5. The top of Twin Peaks: “this hilltop remains the habitat of the mission blue butterfly.” And, of course, its unbeatable views of the city, 4-5 other counties, and the Farallon Islands!
6. Heron’s Head Park: “home to lupines, poppies, solitude” and over 100 species of birds.
Now, this is where I deviate from Solnit’s list:
7. Dolores Park: a favorite place to go on a sunny day
8. Hayes Valley Farm: an urban farm that I volunteered with a few times. They have quite the inspiring story, having arose from the ashes of a demolished freeway ramp: http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/about/history.html
9. The 18th Street Overpass: A wonderfully urban park and overpass spans between Potrero and Vermont Street on 18th, allowing pedestrians to cross the 280 freeway. I walked on this overpass most days on my way to Downtown Highschool to volunteer in their classroom.
10. The Harry Stairs: One of my favorite, most tucked-away stairways of San Francisco’s infinite stair-lined hills.
11. and the Harry Stairs lead to Billy Goat Natural Area! I wrote about this spot a lot in a previous blog but it is true that the sense of weightlessness that it induces has caused me to come back to this site again and again.
12. Glen Park Canyon: Once, I went here three times in a weekend.
13. The Sanchez Hill: This is one of my favorite hills to run up, though it is one of the steepest I have ever been on. The view is the reward. I won’t ruin the surprise for you, so head to the corner of Sanchez and Hill Street and see what I mean.
14. Fort Mason: I spent many sunny afternoons walking around the grounds of Fort Mason, one of the northernmost attractions in the city. Most days, I either pushed a stroller or carried an infant in a front pack, as I was the nanny of Sawyer, a young resident of Fort Mason. One of my favorite parts was the hidden staircase, leading to Ghiradelli Square and the Maritime Museum.
This list is certainly not exhaustive of places I have explored and come to love…they are only meant to be representative of the wealth of urban beauty and countless unique spots in this 7 mile square city.
If you are curious about my “Sacred Places of San Francisco” series, please click on the “sacred places” tag to the right of this post. They should all show up there for your reading pleasure!
As you can see, San Francisco has truly taken my heart. And this love affair is by no means over. Though I have moved to Portland on a semi-permanent basis (at least for the near future), the 600-some miles between the two cities can be covered in a day-long car ride or a 2 hour plane ride. And the urban exploration skills that my loose schedule in SF allowed me will surely serve me well as I begin to explore Portland again with verve. San Francisco is truly a city of life. Magic. And wonder. As the Maproom Blog says in response to Infinite City, cities like San Francisco, “can be magical places: they don’t just have histories, but mythologies, too.” Myths that may be true, imagined, or loosely based on meaningful experiences. Myths allow us to learn from our experiences and take away great lessons from what we have learned- stories that are meant to be passed on and shared from one explorer to the next.