(Yes, I know that is not grammatically correct, I was well taught but a rebel at heart.)
This past weekend, San Francisco’s “Sunday Streets” program focused on Folsom street in the South of Market neighborhood. Sunday Streets is held occasionally throughout the year (after a COVID pause like most of life everywhere) which shuts down traffic and opens up the asphalt for exploration by foot and other wheeled vehicles like bikes, skateboards and baby strollers. Local merchants, arts groups, civic clubs and just about anything you might think of (and more) can be found, with unique flavors from the heritage and history of the various neighborhoods. San Francisco has many layers – some not always visible, some forgotten and some we would like to erase; this is a unique way to take to the time to meander through blocks you might otherwise never notice driving by, meet old friends and make new ones, and see a little bit of other niches of life that might otherwise escape your notice.
Folsom street was shut down from Main (near the bay) to 9th street – but it extends much farther than this 1.5 mile segment which was car free for about 5 hours. It parallels Market Street – which runs from the Ferry building all the way out to the Castro neighborhood, but unlike Market there are no cable car rails or street car cables. Folsom itself was named for Joseph Libbey Folsom (1817-1855), of New Hampshire, who served in the Army and came to Yerba Buena, as the area was then known, in March 1847. Like so many then and now, he started to invest in real estate, became a millionaire, and eventually bought acreage near Sacramento which in time was also named for him. He died at age 38 – it’s interesting to wonder how he would view the city 175 years after his arrival, and the street bearing his name.
I didn’t know that about the street when I set out from my gym Sunday morning, taking another parallel street, Brannan, and walking from 9th all the way to the Embarcadero, so I had already strolled 1.5 miles by the time I reached the bay. Why not look up the source of that name? Well, it was Samuel Brannan, (1819-1889), Mormon settler and founder of the first newspaper in SF, the “California Star”. Might he have known Folsom? Could they have imagined one day thousands of cars would run on asphalt streets bearing their names?
Along the way, I passed shiny new condo buildings, and older industrial buildings; a few tents on the sidewalk, but not nearly as many as in some parts of the city. Here, at the pace of my feet instead of traffic, at eye level and not behind a windshield, one can view that which somehow is invisible on any other day; colorful murals like the red, white and blue quotes from the Statue of Liberty, otherwise blocked by a chain link fence; the menu from a steakhouse featuring dishes I would never order at prices I will never, ever pay; the nearby tents along the way where what public officials refer to as our “unhoused” find temporary shelter. Few pass me along the way; I decide to say hello to some, and good morning – it’s a habit I think I will try to continue, but it seems a little anachronistic these days, sadly. I realize it is a way of acknowledging their worth, their personhood – and mine – and it only takes a little courage.
Reaching the Embarcadero – from the Spanish, “to embark”, a place of departure, usually from a waterfront – I see the bay ahead. It is a sunny morning, much different from the foggy gloom of our home just a handful of miles away. Here, on the corner, I see a restaurant I have heard of but never visited, another blur from the car as we pass – Delancey Street. Operated by a foundation that gives substance abusers, ex-convicts, and others who find help there for over 4 decades now, it is part of our city’s legacy of seeking ways to provide opportunity and hope; some work, some do not – but dreamers keep coming, and I would see more of them today.
Yet just footsteps away as I continue along the way back to Folsom, I see a tall fence, with zero visibility, and what I grew up calling “quonset huts” but probably have a lot more creative name now – it looks kind of like a prison, and not until I see a very plain sign reading “Navigation Center” do I realize this is one of those creative efforts. One of some notoriety these days, where addicts are invited to safely get access to services relating to homelessness, drug addiction, and more – like many, my life has been spared these challenges for the most part. Perhaps like you, I am sorry to admit I could be more compassionate; whatever goes on behind those high fences, and blocked walls, I would like to believe some lives find new hope when they come out on the street, but I cannot say. These are not just problems here, or now.
I spot something across the main boulevard that I have heard about – “Red’s Java House” – and decide this is the perfect time to explore this tiny piece of mid 20th century SF. Entering the small building filled with SF Giants memorabilia – the stadium is not far away, and fans have been coming here for some time – your eyes are drawn to the hundreds of black and white photos covering the walls and the simple diner furniture. I decide to order a “double dog” – which is basically two sausages on sourdough with some condiments and cheese, and sets me back $12 before tip – but satisfies my hunger completely. The back patio overlooks the bay, with a small bar; this is not a game day, it is not busy, but considering this small haven has been serving up tasty comfort food and beer for almost 70 years, it was the perfect refresher.
I continue on and stop to admire the view of the bay, the SF Fire department station with their seaworthy equipment, the Bay bridge passing overhead towards Treasure Island, and the giant bow and arrow seemingly shot from the sky above into the earth below, just where Folsom street is about to begin. This is “Cupid’s Span”, a sculpture from 2002 that relates to a legend with which I am completely unfamiliar, of Eros shooting his arrow into the earth to make it fertile.
I continue on and stop to admire the view of the bay, the SF Fire department station with their seaworthy equipment, the Bay bridge passing overhead towards Treasure Island, and the giant bow and arrow seemingly shot from the sky above into the earth below, just where Folsom street is about to begin. When I return home, I find this is “Cupid’s Span”, a sculpture from 2002 that relates to a legend with which I am completely unfamiliar, of Eros shooting his arrow into the earth to make it fertile.
Nearby, a marker explains that where we stand now there used to be creatures who no longer walk this earth – with a replica of a dinosaur head gazing out towards the bay. Two moments, one of history, one of myth – the base elements of much of what makes up this kaleidoscopic city with all its chaos and joys and desires. I nod towards the nearby Ferry Building from 1898 – I feel a kind of kinship with it, knowing our home was built that same year, and like many structures that no longer stand, are witnesses to time in a way I can never be.
Finally, I am at Folsom and Main, and barriers announcing the beginning of the next 1.5 miles of my journey – the “Sunday Streets” event. A Jazz combo with an awning next to a trailer welcomes locals to have a seat and groove – how many are locals, and how many tourists? I have no way to tell. As I stroll block after block, the music shifts – there are rock groups and vocalists, someone with an accordion. There are skateboard “slalom” courses, and “rock climbing” towers; indoor gold stations and other businesses I never would have guessed lined these streets. Nearby, the museum of modern art and other institutions mingle among the shiny new condo towers and the nearly deserted churches whose stained glass windows are covered with protective grating – but from the inside, the light still finds a way through. The stacks of buildings from different eras seem to push in on one another like children in a lunch line, scrambling for space – there was a time when few suites were empty, but that time is gone. I admire one of the older “residents” – the E.M. O’Donnell copper works building, just over 100 years old; it recently sold for $9M to a residential architecture firm. It is dwarfed by the Sales Force Tower looming over everything in its purvue. Even in this period of uncertainty, some of our heritage remains, preserved, witnesses.
SOMA is home to many cultural institutions and communities; there are many stories here. The SOMA Pilipinas Filipino heritage district shared a model of the current vision for a “gateway” to their history here; everything in this city passes through generations of cultures, each leaving an imprint, but not always remembered or celebrated by all. Emigrants from the Philippines have been woven into the fabric of our city for over 120 years; like those from China, Italy, and around the world, they have made San Francisco something unique, vibrant, bringing new energy and hope.
And of course there are politicians – and causes – represented by booths and speakers. I got a smile from the “Climate Anxiety” booth who asked if they could help me, and explained that their “Lucy” had fallen ill that day; too bad, as it was one of the first truly beautiful summer days so far in what many here call “Fogust”. I also stopped to chat with a representative of the LGBT hotline, whose rainbow phone caught my eye; they have been a resource for people seeking support and community across our country since they started in a broom closet of a gay bathhouse in NYC in the 70’s. Out of the closet, indeed. Nearing the end of the route, this is the area included in the Leather/LGBTQ cultural district – a haven for decades of shops, artists, bars, and refuge for another “tribe” of our city, one where many voices and many hearts seek new homes.
I’ve walked over 3 miles now, and nearly 4 hours, and through 150 years of time; I have seen many faces and heard different voices, but all smiling, all happy to be able to walk in the sun. Perhaps not all see what I see, or hear what I hear – but the city speaks to me, soft voices, even silent ones. Here, and in your city, there are places we see but we do not see – and faces, too. We drive through them – they are not our home, not our block, not our people. Or are they? I cannot say this stroll has changed me … nor have I changed much here, either. But as I make it back to my car with feet aching to be freed from their shoes at home, I realize I want to see what I have not, at ground level, without glass in between, free of the reminders of appointments – to discover, to unearth, to be awed and reminded that beauty remains, waiting to shine, if we only look. If we only listen.
Next time I explore our city by foot, I will have to remind myself, again, to say “good morning” to strangers, if that is the world I want to be a part of, again. Perhaps our paths will cross – do say hello. And join me in walking your own streets, you will find treasures there as well. Until next time …..