Archive for the ‘Local’ Category

Hiking Mount Davidson

May 7th, 2017

Mt. Davidson

 
San Francisco has “seven hills,” depending how you count. Before I’ve written about hiking up Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks, and Bernal Heights. Yesterday I finally got around to hiking around Mount Davidson, the tallest of all the hills.

Back when I lived in the Parkside neighborhood in the mid 2000′s, I remember occasionally seeing this giant concrete cross on a hillside and wondering what the deal was with that. Of course, most of the time it’s so foggy on the west side of the city that you can’t see it, so I rarely gave it much thought.

Then a while back I was re-watching Dirty Harry which features a sequence where Clint Eastwood’s character has to deliver a ransom. He winds up all over the city, including Forest Hill Station and finally makes his way to the cross on Mount Davidson. Although he’s forced to make a bunch of random stops in between, in real life Mount Davidson is only about a 30 minute walk from Forest Hill Station, or a ten minute bus ride on the 36. Something to keep that in mind if you’re not delivering a ransom payment to a crazy killer.

Anyway, back to the real world: yesterday I managed to take the elusive City Guides tour of Mount Davidson. Elusive because it’s only offered twice a year. And even then, only when the weather is good. If you’re interested in the tour but your schedule doesn’t line up, the tour guide also runs a website about Mount Davidson with information about the park.

Interestingly, not many people seem to know about Mount Davidson, despite the sweeping panoramic views. It’s a little harder to get to than Twin Peaks. The park attracts dog walkers and bird watchers — I spotted a pair of hawks and a bluebird without paying much attention.

 
Mt. Davidson

Mt. Davidson Mt. Davidson
 

So what’s up with that giant cross, anyway? It turns out a church group used to build temporary big wooden crosses up there every year for Easter. At some point they decided to build a permanent one. This caused a first amendment issue when the park became public, city owned land. As with ten commandment issues at courthouses, you either can’t have them, or you have to allow anyone else to put their religious statues nearby.

While it would have been funny to see a 100 foot tall statue of L. Ron Hubbard next to the cross, the city’s voters decided to sell off the land under the cross to a group of private citizens in order to avoid the issue. This is explained in signs all around that part of the park.

 
Mt. Davidson
Mt. Davidson
 

On a clear day, the views are amazing. The towers downtown look like tiny from so far away, but you have a view of Sutro Tower, Twin Peaks, and a partial view of Bernal Heights.

There are trails and stairways leading up and around the park. None are particularly well marked or maintained. Many don’t seem officially sanctioned. If you decide to go on your own, I’d recommend just wandering down whatever paths you like. The park isn’t big enough to get lost.

Finally, here’s a panorama from the east side of Mount Davidson’s peak. Click through for the full size version.

Mt. Davidson

Muni Murals outside Laguna Honda

May 7th, 2017

About a year ago, the wall facing Forest Hill station at Laguna Honda hospital got the mural treatment. Today I (finally) found myself over there and decided to check it out. Among other aspects, the mural features two fun depictions of Muni over the years that connect the past with the present.

First, here’s a Muni trolley exiting Twin Peaks tunnel at West Portal. This represents the original West Portal station, a glorified bus stop with a facade that looks similar to those of the old piers along the Embarcadero.

Muni Murals

 

The second Muni-themed part of the mural depicts a modern Muni Metro LRV heading to the nearby Forest Hill station. Once known as Laguna Honda Station, it’s the oldest San Francisco subway station that’s still in use today. Regular Muni Metro riders can identify the station’s platform level in the mural by the checkered pattern on the wall. Or you might recognize it from a certain Clint Eastwood movie.

Muni Murals

 
“But wait,” is the question I doubt anyone would ask, “Which Clint Eastwood movie that takes place in San Francisco could you possibly be referring to?” Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the next blog post to find out. Try not to let the suspense kill you!

The Cable Car Museum

April 3rd, 2017

Some museums require a complicated explanation about how to get there; not so with the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Both of the Powell Street lines stop outside of the museum, and the California Street line has a stop a few blocks away.

Despite living in San Francisco for almost a decade and a half, I’d never visited the Cable Car Museum, and decided on a whim today to pay a visit.

Most of SF’s tourist attractions fall into one of two buckets: a horrid tourist trap (Pier 39, Grant Avenue in Chinatown) or are actual gems that you shouldn’t miss (Telegraph Hill, Musee Mecanique, Cliff House.) The Cable Car Museum, I’m happy to report, falls into the latter category. That said there’s not much to the museum itself. The real show here is watching how the cable car system works.

I suspect an average tourist doesn’t give much thought as to how cable cars work — it’s just a weird old wooden train with a bell, right? Just like a big version of Mr. Rogers’ trolley? Anyone with that notion will be in for a shock if they visit the museum and watch the motors pulling the cables. More on that in a moment.

The Cable Car Museum is free to visit and is open most days. There are bathrooms open to the public, and of course a gift shop with books and trinkets. Much of the museum consists of panels explaining the history of the system, how it was invented, etc. Most of these factoids you could just as easily find on Wikipedia.

The most interesting of these exhibits explain in detail how the mechanisms that power the cable cars work, for example the grip and the truck pictured below.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

Another cool feature are the old cable cars. Did you know that at one time they had two cable cars hitched together? Or that ads on public transit apparently go way back further than you may have thought? These are the quirky little details you won’t find anywhere else.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

But like I said earlier, all of this is really secondary to what the museum is really about: seeing the mechanism that powers the cable cars up close. It’s like a factory tour in a way — the museum’s located inside the building that powers the entire cable car system in San Francisco.

Several enormous wheels spin a thick braided metal cable, one for each line. That cable is what the “grip” mechanism in each cable car latches to, which is what propels tourists between Powell and Market and Fisherman’s Wharf. Normally you can’t see those cables since they’re underneath the street, but here they’re in full view.

Apparently it’s some guy’s job to sit there watching the cables, checking for damage as they wiz by, and if there are any frayed bits they have to be repaired at night when the cable cars aren’t in service. While I’d assume this is the sort of job that could be easily automated, in the spirit of preserving a historical system maybe that would be cheating.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

In the basement of the building you can see the wheels that act as pulleys, tilting the cables into different directions for each line. Unfortunately it was too dark down there to get a usable photo.

A portion of the building is devoted to a machine shop. The cable cars are custom made, so if a part needs to be replaced it’s not like SFMTA can go on Amazon and order a new one. I spotted several fresh looking grip mechanisms sitting in one corner, ready to be installed as needed. Since it was a weekend there was unfortunately no activity in the machine shop. There might be more action to see if I’d visited on a weekday.

One last fact to mention here is the noise level. With the motors driving the giant wheels and the cables spinning around, this is not a quiet museum. Check out my very brief video below to look and listen to those motors in action.
 

Honey bears invade BART station

March 22nd, 2017

BART Honey Bears from fnnch
 

A series of fnnch’s honey bears have invaded the Powell BART/Muni Metro station as I discovered on the way home this evening. These are among the larger honey bear murals I’ve come across, though I think thees are the same size as the one that was once across the street from Dolores Park.

According to Broke-Ass Stuart, these murals are a little different from fnnch’s other work in that they were painted on panels that were then taped to the wall. It’s an interesting mural technique because it makes it simpler to put up (and remove, presumably) but also opens the door to this type of street art installation in a confined space where spray paint fumes wouldn’t be welcome.

Castro Valley’s Lake Cabot

March 5th, 2017

Recently at work we had a day trip — normally that wouldn’t be worthy of a blog post, but in this case we took a trip to place I’d not only never been to in the Bay Area, but honestly had never heard of: Lake Cabot in Castro Valley.

Lake Chabot is not a natural lake. According to the official website, it’s actually an emergency backup reservoir built in the 1870′s. It was turned into a park in the 60′s but still used as a reservoir today.

Lake Chabot
 

The park features a number of picnic sites with your standard wood tables and barbecue grills. At our picnic site the grills and tables were in fairly new condition. Beer and wine are officially allowed, though the park rangers didn’t bother us for bringing in hard liquor. Then again, we weren’t a particularly rowdy group — I bet they’d have used the liquor as an excuse to kick us out if we’d been troublemakers.

There are hiking and biking trails throughout the park. Apparently there’s a golf course nearby, but I didn’t get to see that. The most intriguing feature of the park is boating. They have a small pier with some kayaks, pedal boats, and a couple of motorboats for big parties. I believe you’re allowed to bring your own boat (the other BYOB?) The company that rents out the boats also has a small cafe in the park, you can take a look at their website here.

I rented a pedal boat with co-worker, and it was only $20 for an hour for the two of us, life jackets included. The photo above I took near the middle of the lake.

Now there’s one caveat here — you don’t want to get in that water. Aside from the fact that it’s kind of gross to have people swimming in a reservoir, the water is filled with toxic algae. I’m told it’s also toxic to dogs. Apparently it’s not toxic to fish though, as there were a few people out with fishing poles.

If you’re thinking of visiting Lake Chabot, I’d recommend it if the weather’s agreeable. It’s a somewhat off the beaten path destination suitable for picnics and various outdoor activities.

How to get there: it’s about a 10 minute drive from the San Leandro BART station. I wouldn’t suggest biking unless you consider yourself a hardcore cyclist, since there’s a hill and a winding road involved. If you drive your own car there’s a parking fee, so you may be better off with a taxi. That said the entrance to the place is not well marked. One co-worker told me his Lyft driver had a tough time finding it. The directions on Google Maps weren’t very clear either, so watch carefully for the sign.

Breakers to Bay

February 19th, 2017

Earlier this afternoon I decided to do something I’d never done before: walk all the way from Ocean Beach to the Embarcadero, across the entire length of San Francisco. It’s been so rainy recently I haven’t been able to reach my goal of 10,000 steps per day on a consistent basis, so I felt like I had some catching up to do.

To begin I took the N-Judah outbound to the last stop at 48th Avenue, and walked over to Ocean Beach. It was an incredibly windy day in general, but the wind was intense at the beach. So it should come as no surprise that people were windsurfing and flying kites, and that birds were everywhere. What I didn’t expect was the thick layer of sea foam blowing around. It’s kind of like when someone pulls a prank and fills a water fountain with soap, except it’s a natural phenomenon that forms at beaches. I think I managed to avoid inhaling any of it.

Ocean Beach Ocean Beach Ocean Beach Ocean Beach windsurfers

 
I also didn’t expect to find a mural honoring Lemmy from Motorhead, but they always had a strong following in San Francisco. Or at least that’s what I would assume based on the number of motorcycles that appeared whenever they had a show here.

Ocean Beach
 

After climbing back up the stairs from the beach I made my way through Golden Gate Park. It’s a long walk but I’ve done it many times before — I always try to take a different path every time to maximize the chances of getting lost and stumbling across something new so I sort of zig-zagged all over the place.

At the Music Concourse I noticed there’s a statue of Beethoven. Which, wait, why, exactly? He died before San Francisco was even on the map, really. Seems like an odd choice. As a city we’re better known for bands like… um… Third Eye Blind? Okay, maybe we’re better off with Beethoven. Forget I said anything.

Golden Gate Park Beethoven, Golden Gate Park
 

I’m going to spare you the details of walking down Haight Street, which was even more uncomfortably crowded than normal with tourists for the holiday weekend. It’s a classic case of a sidewalk that’s far too narrow for the number of people. The Lower Haight wasn’t so bad, and by the time I hit Market Street it was pretty easy going. Check out this rad skateboard mural I came across:

Skateboard mural, Market Street
 

Then I hit the Union Square area and… no thanks. I walked a block over to Mission to avoid the hellhole of consumerism on my way to the Bay. And, speaking of which, here’s one final photo: The Bay Bridge’s Bay Lights lighting up in the twilight of the evening. As with all photos in this post, click if you’d like to see a larger version.

Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge
 

Stray observations:

  • My fitness tracker says this was just shy of 20,000 steps. Your mileage may vary.
  • Google Maps predicted the total walk time would be about two and a half hours, which proved accurate.
  • Basic manners seem to be obsolete these days. A shocking number of people stepped right in front of me while I was walking in a straight line as though I were somehow invisible. What the hell?
  • Jeans and a thin wool shirt were adequate for the windy 50 F weather. No need to dress up in a thick jacket when you’re on a long walk.

Temporary public art: Night & day edition

February 14th, 2017

HYBYCOZO
 

If you’ve ever read this blog before, you’ve probably figured out that I spend a lot of spare time wandering the streets of San Francisco and taking photos of stuff. (Hey, it keeps my fitness tracker happy, okay?) On Sunday I happened to come across two strangely similar temporary public art installations, one in Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley, and the other in Civic Center just outside City Hall.

But before we get into that, let me get philosophical for a moment. When it comes to public art, I appreciate the recent trend in temporary installations. The idea of permanent public art seems both ridiculous and impossible. Ridiculous because what people appreciate about an art piece today may be loathed in a decade or three, especially in the harsh light of public space. Impossible because nothing is truly permanent; if vandalism doesn’t destroy the piece then natural disasters certainly will. Or the piece proves so far ahead of its time that it simply doesn’t work. Even if the civilization that created and loves the art still exists, good luck in a few billion years when the sun burns out… yup, I went there. Permanent my ass. Nothing truly lives forever, the “permanence” of a work of art really boils down to whether it has an end date marked on the exhibition calendar or not.

For these reasons, I’m a fan of temporary public art. If the work resonates with people they’ll find a way to keep it around longer — remember what happened to The Bay Lights? People responded so well that its temporary status got a reprieve almost immediately.
 

So back to Sunday. First, I found myself wandering through Hayes Valley and wound up at Patricia’s Green. This space has been the site of many temporary public art exhibitions, which are generally tied to Black Rock Arts Foundation and therefore have a special relationship with Burning Man. The current exhibit is from HYBCOZO with two three dimensional geometric shapes made of metal, carved with fractal-like shapes.

HYBYCOZO HYBYCOZO

Next, I found myself a few blocks away at City Hall where Hong Kong-based artist Freeman Lau had installed a series of oversized lanterns to mark Chinese New Year.

Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round

At first glance, these two pieces seem to have little in common, aside from the medium of temporary public sculpture. But looks can be deceiving. I poked my head up to the installation at Patricia’s Green. What’s this strange mechanism?

HYBYCOZO

Likewise, what’s up with those plastic anti-trip strips between the lanterns at City Hall?

Oh… there’s a connection here — light. Lanterns aren’t for the daylight, and neither are those geometric sculptures at Patricia’s Green. If ever there was a time of year for temporary public art that took advantage of light, it’s in the winter when light is scarce in the evenings. So I took another stroll at night to find out what these installations look like without the sun.

First, here’s HYBYCOZO‘s pieces at night:

HYBYCOZO HYBYCOZO

The colors of both shapes faded in and out and changed between colors in a dynamic fashion that’s difficult to capture. There were so many people wandering around taking photos that I couldn’t get a good video, but even that would hardly do it justice. Do yourself a favor and get over there when it’s dark out and see for yourself. That said, I bet this would be even more impressive if Patricia’s Green weren’t so well lit at night — I’m sure HYBYCOZO’s works are more delightful at places like Burning Man where city lights don’t impede the shadow patterns they cast on the ground.
 

Second, here’s the lanterns outside City Hall at night:

Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round

While the lanterns don’t have the dynamic nature of the metal shapes, they’re strikingly bright and colorful against the black and white facades of the main buildings surrounding Civic Center Plaza. Just like during the day, at night both professional photographers and couples taking selfies with the giant lanterns impeded my view, making it a challenge to get a clear shot. But from the perspective of the artist, this looks like a resounding success.

So here’s to temporary public art, and especially this strange new frontier of electrically illuminated public art designed for viewing at night. We’re clearly on to something here, and I’m happy to see that San Francisco is on the forefront.

Revisiting the Winchester Mystery House

January 30th, 2017

Winchester Mystery House

Photo from Flickr user *bri*, used under a Creative Commons license.
 

As a kid, I took the Winchester Mystery House tour with my aunt. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, maybe around twelve. It’s a memorable tour and I still recalled a lot of it when I went back recently with a friend.

The house itself defies description; doors with nothing behind them, skylights in floors, rooms that were never finished or never fixed after the 1906 earthquake, doors disguised as cabinets… imagine 160 rooms with these types of bizarre features and the list could go on for a while.

But the one thing the tour doesn’t do is explain conclusively why the house was built this way. Rather, it posits the theory that Sarah Winchester was into spiritualism, as was common at the time, and was told by a psychic that she’d be haunted by the spirits of those killed by her family’s Winchester rifles unless she built a house that was constantly under construction. To put it another way she was allegedly building rooms and hallways faster than the ghosts could chase her.

As though to provide evidence for this theory, the winding mile-long tour makes its way to the middle of the building where there’s a small room described as the seance room. It’s here, the tour guide explains, that Mrs. Winchester would hold seances to communicate with the dead.

I suspect most people walk away from the tour with the impression that Mrs. Winchester was simply crazy, which is understandable. I’d also suspect that this theory is completely wrong, and an intentional deception to sell tickets.

The recent essay collection Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey includes an essay about the mansion. It’s a fascinating book, if you’re into American ghost stories at all I’d highly recommend it. While the book isn’t about debunking ghost stories in general it makes a good case against the official Winchester Mystery House tour explanation. Two of Dickey’s arguments stand out in my mind. First, there’s really no evidence that corroborates any of the details about Sarah Winchester’s spiritualism or reasons for building the mansion the way she did. Second, after her death the house was purchased by a theme park operator.

However, I’d take this one step further — the tour itself contains a contradiction that’s pretty obvious when you stop and think about it. According to the tour, Mrs. Winchester was said to be very reclusive after her husband’s death. The only people she allowed on the premises of her mansion were her staff, construction workers, and occasionally her favorite niece.

So if that’s true, then who are the people holding these seances with her? Normally in American style seances, you would have a group of people in a circle, sometimes at a table, maybe holding hands, with a medium responsible for contacting the spirits. If Mrs. Winchester didn’t have people over, who was participating in these seances? Her construction workers?

For these reasons very little of the information in the tour should be taken at face value. Most of the information out there seems to either come from the tour itself, or secondhand through “ghost hunter” TV shows. Which is to say it’s not exactly credible.

There are also simpler explanations to the “crazy” design of the mansion itself. After the 1906 earthquake, the building was damaged and significantly downsized. The “stairways to nowhere” the house is known for may have gone somewhere originally, and perhaps if Mrs. Winchester had lived longer they would have gone somewhere again. Since she moved out of the house after the earthquake it’s not clear how closely she was paying attention to the construction work anyway.

The other consideration is Mrs. Winchester was suffering from arthritis in a time when pain medications weren’t very good. Her solution seemingly was to build fireplaces all over the house for warmth, and to build stairways with extremely shallow steps to minimize the amount she would have to move her knees. Changing the mansion to accommodate for additional chimneys and staircases that took up more space could have easily altered the house in ways that were unexpected and difficult to plan for, particularly considering she already had earthquake damage to correct.

Lastly, Victorian architecture was a fashion, not a necessity; many Victorian homes were renovated frequently to keep up with the styles that were in vogue in the time. Which is to say Mrs. Winchester’s constant renovation was the norm in those days, but she took it to the extreme. Some of the quirks could have resulted from a sort of botched “cosmetic surgery” to the building.

So while I’m glad those steep ticket prices they charge for the tour are going toward maintaining and preserving San Jose’s most infamously strange home, I wish they could do it in such a way that didn’t cast such a judgemental light on a woman who we truthfully know very little about. Notable people’s memories are often exploited, but in this strange case, it’s the lack thereof that provides ample room for exploitation.

Hôtel de ville de San Francisco

December 11th, 2016

SF City Hall in red white & blue
 

I stopped by City Hall today to find it’s still lit up in red white and blue in commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. It looked particularly dramatic set against the wild evening skies.

But then I got to thinking about it: those three colors are pretty common choices for flags. In this case, the stripes of color seem to evoke France’s flag specifically. This evocation is compounded by the fact that SF City Hall is specifically built in the Beaux Arts style of French neoclassical architecture.

So in the immortal words of Nicholas Cage, “Vive la fuckin’ France man!”

Hiking Bernal Heights Park

October 2nd, 2016

If you live in San Francisco you’re undoubtedly familiar with Bernal Heights Park, even if you don’t know it by name — it’s the big rocky hill at the south end of the Mission District. From a distance, it looks like a bonsai arrangement due to a few short trees growing at the top.

 
 

Somehow I’d never actually hiked to the top of it before, a strange lapse on my part especially because I’ve spent many afternoons in Precita Park, which is just below Bernal Heights. Not having anything else to do on Saturday and given the reasonable weather, I thought I’d go exploring.

There’s a variety of ways to get to Bernal Heights Park. I took one of the most obvious routes: starting on Folsom Street, I walked all the way to the southern end of the street. The sidewalk ends on the right side, but continues on the left. If you turn around at this point you’ll see a home with an interesting mural.

 
Bernal Heights
 

Not far up the road there’s a somewhat infamous rock that tends to get painted over by local pranksters. Not long ago it was painted to look like the poo emoji. More recently it was painted a bright cyan color, and someone added a troll-ish looking face.

 
Bernal Heights
 

Crossing the street here leads to an entrance to the park. There’s a gated paved road winding around the hill that’s presumably intended for utility workers, but for parkgoers it’s a place to walk, bike, or play fetch with your dog.

From this particular entrance you’ll spot a colorful memorial honoring the life of Alex Nieto, a young man who’s life was tragically ended by police brutality. Though his death was over two years ago, the memorial is still immaculately maintained.

 
Bernal Heights
 

Continue walking around as the road turns and you’ll eventually encounter a stone labyrinth. Right now it could use some love, but you can still see the rough outline of the maze.

 
Bernal Heights labyrinth
 

From there you can get a clear view of the top of the park, where there’s the trees and a mysterious wireless hub of some sort. I headed up to check out the wireless thing. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but the building at the bottom is covered in murals, and there’s one of those air raid sirens next to it that’s tested at noon every Tuesday.

THIS IS A TEST. THIS IS A TEST OF THE OUTDOOR WARNING SYSTEM. THIS IS ONLY A TEST.

 
Bernal Heights Tuesday at Noon siren on Bernal Strange device on Bernal Heights
 

Jutting out just below the top of the park is a flat-ish rocky area where some children were running around, dogs were being walked, and some dude was flying a kite.

 
Kite flying on Bernal
 

I walked out to the edge of this area and snapped a giant panoramic photo. Click the image for the full view and you can see the “bonsai” trees on the left. Moving right you can see Sutro Tower, the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, the office towers downtown, and the two spans of the Bay Bridge near the left.

 
Bernal Heights pano
 

As for getting back down, there’s really only one way to go. Why? One word: slides! If you head to the northwest side of the park, there’s an unmarked staircase heading down to Esmeralda Ave. Head down that staircase, walk one block in the same direction, and you’re at the slide park. Grab a piece of cardboard and let gravity do its thing.

After that, keep heading in the same direction and you’ll get to one of the city’s smallest parks, Coleridge Mini Park. This tiny “park” is really nothing to write home about, but there’s a nice view of Sutro Tower from there and a micro-sized playground for little kids.

 
Sutro Tower from Coleridge Mini Park
 

To get to Mission Street, keep heading down the hill and you’ll wind up near the intersection of Mission and Valencia.

Want to see all the photos I took on this excursion? Take a peek at this Flickr album.