San Francisco: from Barbary Lane to the Barbary Coast

San Francisco: from Barbary Lane to the Barbary Coast

So much has been written about San Francisco you could fill a library with all the books, essays, poems, witticisms, and quips that have ever been made about the city. While it seems every world author since at least 1849 – the year of the California gold rush – has felt compelled to say something about it, the city has produced more than a few authors of its own. And what better way to learn San Francisco than in its own words?

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“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Carried away on cable cars

Visitors might do well to stay at the Palace Hotel, the same venue a young Oscar Wilde chose during his lecturing tour of the city in 1882. The original hotel – alas! like so much much of the city itself – was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. But fear not, guests can still enjoy high tea, brunch, and other pleasures of the Gilded Age under the restored Tiffany glass ceiling of the hotel’s Garden Court.

From there, take a short four block walk up Montgomery Street to the intersection with California Street to catch the California Cable Car on its climb up Nob Hill and hum to yourself that old song about little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars. (You know the one.) Tickets are better purchased in advance, but a Clipper Card – good for all city transit services – is your best bet.

Stay on until Hyde Street, then transfer to the Hyde Street Line for a ride to the top of Russian Hill and a sweeping view down Lombard Street, the city’s famed ‘crookedest street.’ Walk down Lombard if you must, but just four blocks back the way you came is the charming, and significantly less tourist-heavy, Macondray Lane. This little gardened walkway is the inspiration for Armistead Maupin’s 28 Barbary Lane of ‘Tales of the City’ novels.

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On the beat-en path

From this narrow path it’s all downhill to Union Street, which drops you right outside Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store, where Union crosses Columbus Ave. Don’t let the name fool you, the store hasn’t sold cigars since the 1970s. Enjoy espresso and tiramisu (literally: ‘pick-me-up’) before heading down Columbus Avenue to City Lights, made famous by Beat poet and co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who first published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (which might as easily have been titled ‘Rant of the City’). City Lights sits at the corner of Columbus and Jack Kerouac alley, across from Vesuvio, where Kerouac himself was a frequent barfly, and opposite the Beat Museum. Keep going down Columbus towards the TransAmerica Pyramid and you’ll hit Cafe Zoetrope, director Francis Ford Coppola’s restaurant. Just above the restaurant is the headquarters of Zoetrope All Story magazine, but diners can request a copy from servers to enjoy with their meal.

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Now, it’s a bit of a detour, but walk up Jackson Street, hang a left on Ross Alley, past the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, make a left on Washington, and then a quick right to get to Waverly Place, a lovely little street of old tenement buildings and clinker brick now right in the heart of old Chinatown and the setting for much of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. If you’re in need of another little snack for the next leg of your amble, swing by Eastern Bakery on Grant Avenue for a sesame ball or a moon cake. Cash only, so be sure to pack a few bills.

Rejuvenated, keep going up Grant Ave, crossing back over Columbus Avenue. If you’re going to be in town for a while – and have a few hundred dollars to drop – you might stop in Al’s Attire for some bespoke couture. Should the desire for cartography strike you, Schein & Schein map store is almost directly across from Al’s. Take a look, perhaps a purchase, but don’t stop now. Keep going up Grant. And up. And up. To Coit Tower.

Photo: David Barajas

The brawlers and brothels may now be history, but the glamour persists

Mid-century murals, turn-of-the-century scandal

On clear days, the promontory offers sweeping views, a delightful little park, and WPA murals. Visitors do have to pay to ride the elevator to the top, but there’s no charge to see murals just inside. The visual tribute to labour was not painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera – as is sometimes claimed – but by students and faculty of the nearby Art Institute where Rivera had been a visiting faculty member. Rivera was in New York City at the time the Coit Tower murals were painted, getting into his own trouble with Nelson Rockefeller. References to the Rivera/Rockefeller dispute can be seen throughout. For purists, there are three Rivera murals located elsewhere in the city.

From these heights, the best way down is via the Greenwich Steps, a series of terraced gardens and – if you can believe it – a street in staircase form. The several block descent takes you through some of the loveliest backyards of the city and drops you off at the Embarcadero, or as it was once called, The Barbary Coast. The infamy of this erstwhile waterfront is well-documented in the book of the same name by Herbert Asbury, first published in 1933 and which remains a shockingly good read. This retelling of the city’s illicit origins from the 1849 Gold Rush to the opening decades of the 20th century – when the term ‘cutthroat’ was less metaphor, more literal – has one of the best beginnings of any tale of the city, even more vivid than Maupin’s:

“Owing almost entirely to the influx of gold-seekers and the horde of gamblers, thieves, harlots, politicians and other felonious parasites who battened upon them, there arose a unique criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent.”

The brawlers and brothels may now be history, but the glamour persists. Centuries after the rush, travellers with an eye for it can still find gold.

San Francisco Revellers

Photo: Wenni Zhou

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