During the past year, I have described travels down a single street, and the changes one encounters along the way. We traveled from the bottom of Market Street to the top, and journeyed up Polk Street from one end to the other. I took that up again last week, getting out for a trek along Taylor and Jones Streets. It started amidst the insanity of Mid-Market , shimee-ed up and over Nob and Russian Hills, and then spat us out in a different kind of mayhem; Fisherman’s Wharf. Here’s the route:
Author’s Note: As some have followed these tours previously, I should caution that the first part of the trip, at least from Market to O’Farrell, should not be taken at night. Also, this walk, about 2.5 miles all told, traverses several hills, including a couple of pretty steep blocks. I’m just sayin’ .
Part 1- Stepping Tenderly
We begin our trip at the confluence of Taylor Street, Market, and 6th Streets, one of the more colorful intersections in our fair city, to say the least. There is much to take in here, a goodly portion of it legally questionable, at a minimum. One of the best places to take this all in is the newly opened ShowDogs on the corner; you can sit in the prow of the building with a fine Porter or Stout and contemplate the madness in front of you. 5 star street theater. Think of it as a bracer for the hike ahead. Taylor Street begins at Market, and in these parts is standard issue Tenderloin, chock-a-block with low-rent fleabag hotels next to some terrific new affordable housing; and community serving non-profits next to dive bars (also community serving). The sidewalks are usually full with locals walking, talking, and yes, sometime staggering and sleeping.
The neighborhood is a combination of old and new. In the second block alone, the legendary and still boarded up original Original Joe’s sits on one side of the street while across the street sits an apartment building that was the site of the first LGBT riot in San Francisco, at the old Compton’s Cafeteria, in its time a center for the transgendered community. And amidst these old buildings sits Curran House, a very fine affordable housing building by one of San Francisco’s best housing architects, David Baker.
Further up Taylor, anchoring an edge of the Tenderloin at Ellis Street, sits Glide Church. This marvelous institution is literally a beacon, serving up meals and hope daily to the neighborhood residents. Feeling bugged that your 401-K took a hit, or you have to work on Saturday? Go serve some meals there some Sunday morning and get back to me about those problems you’re having. The church also marks a transition in our walk , from the Tenderloin to the Theater District and beyond. At Geary, we take a right for a quick detour down one block to Mason. Here we sample a bit of the Theater District, a tiny slice of Manhattan. Worth a stop, the counter at David’s Delicatessen (more for the ambiance), and ponder the fruit and vegetables adorning the Geary Theater, home of ACT, across the street.
A left at Mason, and we go up one great urban block, one that includes the nostagically named “Native Sons” and “Spring Valley Water Company” buildings, and at the corner,The First Congregationalist Church. There is great power that comes from the white temple that sits amidst the surrounding gray highrises, another very Manhattanish motif. One could usually count on these temples to offer a moment of quiet repose from the workaday world, but it is now part of the Academy of Art Empire, a real estate conglomerate masquerading as an art school. It is no doubt now some sort of classroom. While I love the student presence in the neighborhood, I am stunned in this city where a deck addition can spawn a neighborhood revolt, they have gotten away with what amounts to a bit of unplanned urban campus building that routinely displaces the locals. (I mean how many art schools have a luxury car collection).
“Top Of The Mark , Jimmy !”
West on Post Street and we rejoin Taylor to head up Nob Hill. This is the heart of Clubland, covered in a previous post. As we head up Taylor , be on the look out for some of those clubbers, or Bohemians , the men are marked by dark blue feathers with a red breasted necktie. As we ascend, one is reminded that although the hills are often more places of transition, they still have their own identity , and this area, known as the “Tendernob”, borrows some form each of its namesakes. This is one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco, in part for its highly consistent 5-6 story apartment buildings, and its stock of really unique micro retail. To see this, amble down Sutter or Bush.
The ascent steepens dramatically at Pine, as if to heighten the reward of arriving at the almost top of Nob Hill and lovely Huntington Park. If one is truly depleted after that last block, may I suggest a trip into the old world wood-paneled wonderness of the Big Four Bar and Restaurant on the corner. Here, one can sit by the fire and sip a manhattan, listening to the dulcet stylings of the pianist. I will admit though that this detour could very well mark the end of your trip. But lets assume you don’t stay and we move on.
Of course, the park is dominated by Grace Cathedral, always worth a visit. After ascending from the Tenderloin, a visit to the labyrinth inside could be in order. However, we’ll focus on Huntington Park across the street. The park , as most are, is home to a variety of indigenous wildlife, including the speckled dowager, the blue-blazered dandy, the red-sweatered seven sister (seen here) ,and also, in summer only, the camera-toting shivered German Warbler. As a neighbor, I periodically bring the legendary Whiskey (the dog, not the drink) here to mix it up with some of the precious specimens from the park. As one sits here around the fountain, contemplate where you were not 20 minutes ago. Like these three:
In addition to the hotels, people live here, and there are some exquisite buildings, none better than this toothpick at Taylor and Sacramento. It contains one small apartment per floor, you get out of the elevator and voila, there you are. Nob Hill livin’.
On To Bohemia
Departing Huntington Park, the street morphs again, as the scale drops quickly to 2-4 story apartments with a quaint bit of retail. Its really a lovely stretch of Taylor, with some really handsome apartment buildings. My favorite buildings are the shingled apartment building with red doors at Pleasant (left side) ,the courtyarded Westgate Apartments at Washington(right side), the little French Bistro at Jackson, and across the street an apartment block that can be only described as Industrial-Spanish Revival. Oh how I have fantasized of living there.
As we continue north, the landscape becomes a bit woodsy, as we’re approaching Russian Hill. This was once a bohemian neighborhood, a place of writers and artists. As we ascend yet another hill to Vallejo, check out tiny Ina Coolbrith Park for a brief respite. From this point, one can admire the view to the bay, as well as the myriad of castles in the sky, both the highrise version soaring above, and the low-rise home that seems to have broken loose from somewhere in Los Angeles. We are headed up further unfortunately, to Jones Street, and up the steps of Vallejo across the street.
Ascending the hill one cuts through the heart of old Russian Hill, with several fine buildings designed by some of the leading architectural lights. These buildings illustrate the Bay Area Shingle style, its first great distinctively local style. The highlight for me is Willis Polk’s Polk-Williams House, a lovingly eccentric pile of shapes and details. This area is worth more exploration in of itself, many fine buildings, and a splendid overlook at the end of Vallejo, where you can be comforted that this is the end of the hills (almost). Carry on brave soldier.
From here its all downhill, in more ways than one. Jones Street descends past many more fine buildings, streets and lanes. But, we are tired, and carry on, through lower Russian Hill to Chestnut Street, where we ascend slightly for one last stop (sorry), to the San Francisco Art Institute, it as well, an institution that I think befits the bohemian traditions of the neighborhood. Unlike the Academy of Art, this school seems to be just about the Art, and it is an absolute glorious marriage of an old Meditteranean Revival campus complete with courtyard, tower, and Rivera murals, and a jarring 70’s brutalist addition. It all works, and is a fabulous setting for an art school. The view out the back is one of the best kept secrets in San Francisco.
Back To The Mayhem
Well dear ambler, we are nearly done. Having taken in the bay, some art, having meditated on our evolutionary journey sitting by the courtyard fountain, we know all good things must come to an end. As we descend first Chestnut, then north on Jones (and on the corner, Scottie’s 40ish home from Vertigo!!) we contemplate the cross-section we have cut. The franticness of Market, the hustle of the theater district, the repose of Nob and lushness of Russian Hills, and now as we waft the first bits of the bay, we
“What……..No, I don’t need a carriage ride.”
What? …….do I want my photo taken with a wax figure, No,no.”
“What? ….. how do you get to Berkeley……from here……..really?
Yes, we are here:
We make our way to Taylor Street, past the calamari, and end at Pier 45, where we are left staring at the entry to the Musee Mechanique.
This museum houses some great old arcade games. You can arm-wrestle a pirate, get laughed at by a toothless wench (wait, that happened at the beginning of this walk- and it was free!!), and get your fortune told by a grandmother. I popped in a nickel and was told that I was due to make a fine living working for the Hoover Administration. Well then. I walked down to the end of the pier, realizing I had never walked down here.
You know, one of the reasons I love to walk in the city is I always, no matter how often I traverse a given route, find something new. And today was no exception. Walking along the backside of the pier as the sun set, revealed the working side of the wharf up close, actual fishing vessels, a working dock, and much to my surprise, a chapel for the fisherman. I had no idea. I walked inside… and there was the pastor…. he had just been fishing. We chatted for a bit, he spoke of life on the wharf, I for some reason, couldn’t stop talking about dowagers from the Hoover administration.
Start in one place, and in every way hope to end in another. That’s a good walk, and good model.