Today’s tales of two cities

“Sheltering in place” …. These words will forever be tied to this moment in time.  Just like “out of an abundance of caution”, and “follow the science” – gentle ways of framing circumstances we would rather avoid, and we wish, somehow, we could erase. Roughly a year after those pandemic clouds gathered fully over San Francisco, skies are beginning, at last, to brighten a little bit here in what poet George Sterling first named the “cool, grey city of love. During this year our lives have been restrained, by choice and by force, to varying degrees – so, when I saw that the good folks at City Guides San Francisco were resuming walking tours through neighborhoods and time, I signed up for a Sunday morning excursion – “The Russian Hill Steps”.  And, yes … there were a LOT of steps, as you will see!

Long before the Gold Rush that transformed our city, well before statehood, Russia was seriously moving to colonize western North America. Nearly 300 years ago Russian Emperor Peter the Great directed an effort to explore the area, rich in promise for the critical fur trade; it was Russian Orthodox missionaries who first worked to evangelize the Alaska Territory.  Russia established Fort Ross was established near Bodega Bay in 1812.   During those years, a cemetery for Russian Sailors was established in the area of this tour, hence the name Russian Hill. But the Spanish military presence in the Presidio and the related mission predated the Russian presence in what was then called Yerba Buena, and well outlasted it. Eventually giving in to political upheaval and other factors, Russia pulled back its hoped-for claims in Northern America; wouldn’t that have been an alternate reality!

My own history here is much shorter, of course – a relative newbie, I did not have the opportunity to visit San Francisco until well after my youth, even though I group up in Inland Southern California.  But …. I had seen the world-famous steep curves in another world landmark – the happiest place on Earth, Disneyland!   Back in the 50’s, and then updated as the years passed, Tomorrowland featured “America the Beautiful” in AMAZING “Circle vision” – I remember clearly standing in line for a VERY long time to be crowded into a “standing room only” viewing room with screens surrounding the viewers, shot by multiple cameras, including what was, for that time, a “virtual” drive through the streets of San Francisco, as you can see…..

This is I believe the “Original” version from the 50’s, but just the “main screen” view; the “San Francisco” footage begins at about 13:45.
This is the “In the theater” experience, as I remember it from the 60’s/70’s. Now this is how I first saw “Lombard street”, beginning at about 16:40.

But I would not actually “see” San Francisco until the 80’s, after my college years; my first trip to San Francisco as an adult was … well, truly adult.  And embarrassingly brief.  Yes, tender audience, I was a hick from the sticks in the big city – where “gay” was not an insult, but an invitation – as I drove through for just a few hours after completing college.  It was the early 80’s, before internet, so I only knew of the notorious offerings here through rumors, the “Advocate” at my college library, and a surreptitiously obtained mail-order visitor publication called the “Damron Guide. Suffice it to say that visit was memorable and involved another kind of theater.  But as I have shared previously, my journey to self-acceptance was much longer than a drive up north, I could never have foreseen what time has unfolded in my life.

A panorama shot of the city and bay from our first stop

So the City Guide walking tours are an excellent way to explore all the nooks and crannies of my new home. I bravely set out, masked, that Sunday (the BEST day for free parking in much of the city!) and joined a handful of others on the tour; some residents, some visitors.  In fact, even our tour guide was relatively new to City Guides – he himself had only taken the tour shortly before COVID hit. Nevertheless, he was well versed in the names and dates and stories of the houses we passed, and their residents – the architects, poets, bohemians, the wealthy and the (in their time, at least) scandalous.  They had no idea their personal lives would endure and be shared for years thereafter.  Normally, I would take notes on the buildings and the history – I chose to forego that to take in the sights I share with you today, but you can find all that elsewhere, friends – In fact, here is one example.

In addition to the homes, vistas, and stories, there was one segment of the walk that I was eager to experience. Even though I was not an avid reader, I was well aware of a somewhat controversial in its time PBS program based on a series of books which started as a local newspaper column and become a world phenomenon – “Tales of the City”, by Armistead Maupin.  I actually never watched the program when it aired, but today’s walking tour included a stroll along this neighborhood’s Macondray Lane, which he designated as Barbary Lane in his semi fictional narratives.  Interestingly, several people on the tour had never heard of him, or the show – another piece of evidence that what is at one-point revolutionary in time becomes perhaps if not forgotten, less present in our culture.  

This stroll through Macondray Lane is the “reverse” direction of the one I enjoyed.

If we think of our lives as a stroll through time, there are moments when paths cross that would never be able to guess, or plan – just, enjoy. One Saturday, about a month after our wedding, my new husband and I were planning to drive up north to a special book signing.  That morning, as I left the famous “Daddy’s Barbershop” in the Castro, I spotted a couple walking a dog near my parked car, and I tentatively approached.  The older gentleman smiled as I sheepishly inquired – “By chance, are you the author whose signing I will be driving to this evening?”  And, it was – Mr. Armistead Maupin and his husband Christopher Turner, who lived nearby, and who graciously took this picture with me.  That evening, after a long drive out of town for a signing of his autobiography “Logical Family”,  Bob and I got to take another photo with him; not long after, like others, they moved from San Francisco, this “cool grey city of love”.  But I am reminded of his words –

“The worst of times in San Francisco was still better than the best of times anywhere else”.

Armistead Maupin

I cannot say how many hundred of stairs I walked on this tour; looking at the pictures of my stroll through these winding passages and eras, I began to consider – what do we remember of history? What do we preserve?  Who judges what is worth commemorating – or no longer deserving of respect?  This is in the news nearly every day now – whether it is about adding and removing memorials (by consensus, edict or force), eliminating publications, erasing music from performance – or lifting up heroes that, at one time, were considered far less worthy of recognition in their day.  As they say, history belongs to those who write it.  For me, the letters and diaries of my grandparents, parents and others are the only record that exists of their lives, and I feel a kind of burden to somehow carry their lives on rather than let them fade.  For many of us, photo albums in print form are a thing of the past – and when we are gone, most of our digital images will not be preserved, recognized, or remembered.   

But our history today, however personal, and the lives and history of our family and loved ones, is worth preserving, and sharing. Perhaps it might help to think of it as creating a walking tour through the neighborhood of our lives, reflecting on lessons learned that we can share, love we can treasure, and hope we can gift to others that await us around the next bend. Especially in this very passage of change, we are living our own, unique “tales of the city”.  Wherever your home finds you today, as with San Francisco, it will not be entirely the same after someone decides that the vaccine programs have succeeded, and someone else decides we know longer to hear daily reports on statistics.  There will be the city before – and the city after.  Two cities, in a way – connected forever by this passage we still travel through, hesitatingly, unsure at times which way to take.  Although Dickens was speaking literally in a different sense when he wrote “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1859, his words about that moment in time resonate for me now – 

As I write, after my husband, many family and some friends have received one or two shots of the COVID vaccine, mine lies ahead, time to be determined.  We are all in this moment awaiting, with somewhat held breath, for doors to open, friends to embrace, moments to be together after long parting.  Walking through Russian hill, once a cemetery for forgotten names, now steeped in history with more being created, and my own little memories – how remarkable it is to consider the winding road that brought me here, and lies ahead.  The phrases which I used to open this blog will someday be only in history books, but others will take their place; new challenges, new discoveries, new life.  Wherever your path leads you next, carry your dreams with you today, friends, and make the memories, and save them – every day, every moment, counts. I will hopefully see you around the next corner.

“It is times like these when we face such as enemy as AIDS, we need to draw on some of our past positive philosophies, like it is always darkest before the dawn.  In getting our courage together, we might feel a need to go back, and think of possibly better times.  And sometimes, it makes us wonder ….”  

An unexpected eclipse, a missing Key, and the fragility of heritage

Last week I shared about my solo sojourn through the heritage of “Cow Hollow” on what became a record-breaking hot summer Sunday.  In my continued resolve to both explore San Francisco’s less familiar corners and to get out into our gradually opening city again, I looked into the recently resumed walking tours offered again by SF city guides.  This wonderful program is slowly adding its newly revised offerings – outside only, 8 or less participants, masks and distancing – and I chose to begin with a tour of one of San Francisco’s Crown Jewels as it celebrates 150 years – quite unexpectedly on a day unlike any other within memory. 

An early map of Golden Gate Park, not so different from today’s tour

The “Mid Park Ramble” tour promised a look at hidden gems of Golden Gate park.  I had spent many hours and miles running – well, jogging – through the park in early 2018 after my move here, preparing for my first “half marathon” in several years to celebrate my own 60th birthday that spring.  But there were points on this tour I had not seen, and so I bought my advance ticket online and looked forward to sharing new vistas with you here.  The plans for the sesquicentennial had been announced months before, and like every other expectation for this year, were derailed by the COVID restrictions; portion of the park streets were closed to traffic, but this journey outside scheduled for 10 am began not with the warm sunshine of just a few days prior – but near darkness – almost like a day long eclipse. The cause was a combination of smoke, weather conditions and fog, combining to create a deep orange haze that extended throughout the day.   Oddly, the smell of smoke was not as noticeable as it had been a few days prior, with greater heat. 

Before I begin reporting about the outing itself, I would like to share with you from a recent guidebook purchase – although it was the purchase that was recent, not the book itself.  After all the insights I had gleaned in my prior excursion from the historic hikes book I shared from last week, I was inspired to look for older books that could give me an idea of the San Francisco that once was but is now, if still present, obscured.  One of the first to arrive from my online shopping spree was the 1914 “Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco” shown here – featuring a photo of the statue of Junipero Serra that until recently stood in the Park itself.  Let me share what this wonderful little book had to say about our exploration location more than 100 years ago – 

What a wonderful time capsule – I will be sharing more in times to come!

“Here one sees the healthy life and leisure of the community.  San Franciscans use their park.  The drives swarm with fine equipages, fast motors, and ruddy-face lovers of good horse-flesh bound for the speedway in wire-wheeled sulkies. Youth rides the bridle paths.  Groups of children are rolling and tumbling about the lawns, for there is not a “Keep -off-the Grass” sign in the whole thousand acres”. 

The streets we traverse today bear names not known then – John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Pelosi.  And some of the history and culture then celebrated and welcomed is no longer visible – the Park had been in the news prominently nationally just a few months prior, when a group of people took action to pull down statues and memorials that they found unacceptable based on their own values and similar actions happening around the country.  I had watched the video on the news like many of you, seeing sculptures of various historical figures torn down and destroyed, but I admit – I had not paid them much attention on prior visits.  

The effect of the smoke and still air, combined with the greenery of the Park, left the skies darker than twilight the evening before.  Having arrived early, I took some photos in the open area between the DeYoung Museum and the previously added “Observation wheel” that was to be a hallmark of the year long festivities.   A note on my photos, taken with my iPhone – many that were published online which you may have seen did not capture fully the eerie shades in the sky, due to the “auto correct” programming of most devices;  those of mine that are “darker” were taken in panoramic mode, which I believe captured the color more fully.  In that sense, I guess I got lucky! 

From left – observation wheel, Academy of Sciences, Music concourse

No matter where you stand in the Park, there are echoes of history surrounding you. This panoramic shot of the central park area stretches from the observation wheel past the illuminated California Academy of Sciences erected in 2008 to the Music concourse which was added in 1889.  As I looked towards the soon to reopen DeYoung Museum facing this area, I saw another statue that had previously escaped my notice – and I promise you, I didn’t even realize it was naked until I saw my photos at home, it was that dark!  But I wondered about its origin, seemingly out of place near the modern museum – learning later that it was an 1881 bronze of a roman centurion commemorating the “first shovelful of earth” turned in preparing for the California Midwinter International Exposition here in 1893.   The DeYoung itself celebrates 125 years in 2020 – having been established originally from the structure known as the “Memorial Museum” and greatly expanded in the years since. 

As noted, some of that history is now absent, possibly forever. The destruction of the statues of Francis Scott Key, whose lyrics form our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, was perhaps more noticeable since his monument still stands, but his figure is gone from its perch across from the DeYoung.  Through that now empty space the observation wheel sits motionless, awaiting the “go ahead” like so many other features of our city and nations, and the grounds seemed certainly more silent and deserted as well as more dim than usual during my pre tour stroll.  

When our group gathered outside the Japanese Tea Garden, we began our guided exploration, beginning with a walk along Stow Lake on our way to Strawberry Hill, which like most of the park had been created from the mostly barren sand dunes into lushly forested corners of nature.  We learned that the artificially created “Huntington Falls” were funded by a donation from Henry Huntington, the “Big Four” railroad czar whose home and library down in San Marino which I have loved visiting many times.  Note, all the “normal lighting” pictures here, gathered from the internet, are intended to give you a view that my own exploration failed to provide. 

At the top, the early visitors to the Park could take the carriage route, or the walking path, to what was called the “Observatory” – not in the sense we think today, but just a flat, open space where on a clear night they could view the stars.  I found this old postcard illustrating what you might have seen if you made the climb 120 years ago, before that 1906 earthquake destroyed the structure, never rebuilt, with little remaining.  Of course, even though it was dark at 1030 am, the smoke prevented any enjoyment of the stars themselves – but the owls hooting at us along the way might well have been confused as to why their normal cycle had been so rudely interrupted.  Thankfully, they did not attack in vengeance. But they might have been thinking about it ….. 

We continued past other notable features of the area, with groups of other hikers and children gradually appearing, but still in near dark skies – eventually arriving at a spot that even my husband who has lived in SF more than 40 years had not known of.  Referred to now as the “Prayerbook Cross”, it is nearly 60 feet tall and barely visible until you nearly reach the top of the trail where it stands on one of the highest points in the park itself.   A gift from the Church of England in 1894, resembling a traditional Celtic cross, it commemorates the first prayer service in 1579 following the arrival by Sir Francis Drake using the “Book of Common Prayer”.  Unlike the damaged or destroyed memorials below in the more well-travelled areas, I observed only a few curse words sprayed on rocks nearby this silent sentinel that looks over our changing city still. 

The moments and individuals commemorated in this city oasis cover a centuries long and world wide heritage. Today, our country faces divisions seemingly more deep and broad than those of any known in our lifetimes. They will not be resolved easily or quickly. I do not have the answers or solutions to offer, and I honestly question those who insist that their perspective is the only one worth considering, whatever position they take. I like to think we can build bridges between islands, but the daily turmoil erupting before us everywhere seems unending. I can only say that history has meaning – what meaning perhaps will always vary by the heritage of perspective of those sharing it or hearing it. It is up to us, individually, to work to preserve what we treasure, support the future we want to build for our children, and create traditions that they will cherish and which will give them strength and hope.

This stunning 1892 bird’s eye view of Golden Gate Park can be yours …

In a way I was glad I could experience the unique beauty of this amazing Park on such an unusual day – not to be repeated, hopefully, in our lifetimes.  Soon, a limited number of visitors will, bearing masks, move through the galleries of these museums, as more will picnic on the grounds, and hear music in the air – some of the guardians who stood over them are gone, but the life of the Park itself cannot be contained, only evolve.  Hopefully we shall, as well – and preserve all that which future generations shall remember, and perhaps treasure if not celebrate, under sunny, smoke free skies, again.  

Thanks for joining me – please subscribe to be notified of new posts!