Posts Tagged ‘san francisco’

Namu Gaji’s colorful new paint job

June 12th, 2019

Namu Gaji's new paint job
 

A few months ago a building at the corner of Dolores and 18th Street started a somewhat belated seismic retrofit, which meant the temporary closure of its two ground floor tenants: hip Korean restaurant Namu Gaji and the ever popular Bi-Rite Creamery.

Bi-Rite Creamery never closed entirely, instead operating out of a food truck parked right outside until they recently reopened their indoor ice cream parlor. Fans of Namu Gaji are still waiting for it to reopen, or have been heading over to its sister restaurant Namu Stonepot on Divisadero.

Today I wandered by to find the Namu Gaji space is preparing to reopen with a colorful new paint job. According to their Instagram page it’s the work of Namu Gaji’s own @danseung and @maliciouslee, along with local muralist @rys78.

Visually it’s the biggest change to that corner since Dolores Park’s renovation. Namu Gaji itself largely retained the dark gray-ish exterior it inherited from that one woman’s boutique it replaced many years ago.

When it reopens Namu Gaji will rejoin the 18th Street “gourmet ghetto” including Delfina and its sister pizzeria, Tartine Bakery, Bi-Rite (both the grocery/deli and creamery), and Dolores Park Cafe — and soon a new offshoot of Al’s Place.

Vaillancourt Fountain

June 9th, 2019

Vaillancourt Fountain
Vaillancourt Fountain Vaillancourt Fountain
 

Of all the controversial elements of San Francisco, Vaillancourt Fountain easily evokes the strongest love-it-or-hate-it response of any water feature. Sitting in the corner of Embarcadero Plaza (formerly Justin Herman Plaza) it looks like a large knot of rectangular pipes spewing water in various directions — when it’s on, that is.

Over the past couple decades the fountain hasn’t always been running, but was turned back on three years ago and has mostly been running since then.

Many critics today point out that the fountain fit the area better when it was in the shadow of the similarly Brutalist architecture of the Embarcadero Freeway. They have a point. Aside from the visual style, the fountain’s pump moves water at a blistering pace, creating a loud soundscape of splashing water that could easily down out the sound of the freeway that once stood behind it.

 
Vaillancourt Fountain
 

Unusually for a fountain there’s a walkway through it on a number of concrete slabs. This seems to be a major attraction for kids, but be warned it’s always slippery and you’ll likely get wet walking through it. Also note there’s no handrails so be careful down there.

It’s certainly worth taking a chance on the walkway if you’re up for it, the view from there is completely unique.

 
Vaillancourt Fountain
 

At some point in recent years the back of the fountain was fenced off. This is unfortunate; two staircases behind the fountain lead to overlook points facing toward the Embarcadero Center (and away from the former Embarcadero Freeway) which was a nice spot to take photos if nothing else. Perhaps there’s a safety concern, but then again these stairs and overlooks always seemed safer to me than walking through the fountain down below.

For some reason the fountain is operated by the city’s Recreation & Parks Department despite being located on private property — it’s part of the Embarcadero Center office/retail complex. This arrangement gives the fountain some protection against critics who want to see it demolished.

I will say this: critics of the fountain only seem to crop up when it’s not running. There’s a lesson here about public art. If it’s going to be successful in the long run it needs a maintenance budget. Pretty much everyone appreciates the idea of public art, but when it’s sitting there broken it’s not going to win over any new fans.

What was “The Latitude”? Part Three: In Bright Axiom

June 8th, 2019

I’ve been meaning to conclude my first two blog posts about Nonchalance’s The Latitude (part one, part two) with a final wrap up since 2016, and yet somehow I never quite knew what I wanted to say. Tonight, I finally have an excuse to get all my thoughts written down once and for all — because there’s now a film about The Latitude.

Earlier tonight I went to the first public screening of In Bright Axiom, a documentary(ish) film chronicling the rise and fall of The Latitude. The film is directed by Spencer McCall, who was also the director of The Institute — a similar “documentary” about Nonchalance’s previous project, The Jejune Institute.

Watch the trailer for In Bright Axiom here:

 

In Bright Axiom – Trailer from Spencer McCall on Vimeo.

 

The Film

I went to the theater not quite knowing if it would be ex-members, or just people interested in watching documentaries since it was presented as part of SF DocFest. It turned out to be a mix of both, a suspicion confirmed right away when I saw a guy sitting a few seats down from me wearing a Jejune Institute t-shirt.

Before the film started, a DocFest presenter came to the stage and introduced The Professor (Geordie Aitken) who came up to the front and warmed up the crowd with some jokes. He’s remarkably good at working crowds.

Unlike The Institute, McCall went with a more straightforward documentary style for In Bright Axiom. Even though it takes an artistic license here and there for the most part it presents (as far as I know) events as they really happened. The major exception is a pretty obvious one, which finally gives the story of The Latitude a proper ending.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers away as it’s a wonderful film, but here’s a few key insights:

  • The Latitude initially held retreat(s?) in Mendocino out in the woods with a series of rituals, artists, and characters.
  • Nonchalance head honcho Jeff Hull confirms a number of aspects that were widely rumored — he’s independently wealthy and (if you do some basic multiplication) was spending about a million dollars a year to run The Latitude.
  • Much of the screen time goes into why The Latitude fell apart. The relationship between the creators and the participants deteriorated pretty rapidly, particularly when members were asked to pay to support it.

The question on my mind is who should see the film. Certainly anyone who took the time to read about it — whether on my blog or anywhere else — should give it a watch. The videos of The Latitude’s incredibly well designed spaces do them much more justice than static photos and descriptions ever could.

I also think creative types who are interested in immersive design should give it a watch. It’s a cautionary tale about how this type of art can become a victim of its own success when the boundaries are ill-defined. The irony of this failure when The Latitude’s internal story was all about breaking down boundaries was not lost on anyone, at least in retrospect.

The film ends with a mysterious logo appearing on the screen. What does it mean? Well, The Institute ended with the logo for The Latitude… wink, wink.

 
In Bright Axiom premier
 

After the film there was a Q&A session with three of the people behind it, seen in the photo above. On stage from left to right there’s Geordie Aitken who played Professor Walter Kinley, director Spencer McCall, and Jeff Hull.

I had a few questions, though I never got to ask them because others beat me to the punch. I did sort of want to make an in-joke and ask Geordie if he was going to force us all to make tea, but I worried that would be too obscure. (For the record, Geordie played the poorly received Antoine Logan of the Jejune Institute in its final seminar, and he wanted us to make tea.)

One question aimed at Geordie was how he became involved in Nonchalance in the first place. He said he read about The Jejune Institute on a blog, and became so fascinated he talked Jeff into letting him take part.

Looking back, I remember after The Jejune Institute ended a bunch of us went up to Jeff, sort of ganged up on him really, and asked questions about what was next. He sheepishly mentioned he was working on an “automated house” of sorts, and that it “came to him in a dream.” In retrospect it’s obvious the “automated house” was The Latitude’s Book One, and his dream ultimately became a waking nightmare.

Though I don’t remember the question, in the Q&A it was brought up that The Jejune Institute’s designer Sara Thacher is now an Imagineer at Disney, and was most recently involved in creating the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land at both Disneyland and Disney World.
 

The Latitude’s Online Presence

Getting in to some other aspects of The Latitude I haven’t covered yet in previous posts, let’s talk about the user-facing interactions. Despite the somewhat anti-technology bent to the whole endeavor, the primary way to interact with The Latitude was online.

The website was kind of like a social network with a unique focus on sharing blog posts and earning badges for completing tasks. Here’s a screenshot of my profile page during the final stages of the site before it was taken down.

My username was “The Mister,” a reference to both the name “MrEricSir” and a humble riff on Doctor Who character “The Master.” The URL to my profile page was https://thelatitude.com/HEXA-AZURE-4280, with HEXA-AZURE-4280 being the “index code” on the back of my invitation card.

Emails from The Latitude always had a unique design as though they were a confidential telegram sent on special paper. Here are couple examples:

 


 

Praxes

The Latitude’s website had a calendar with many events throughout the week known as “Praxes” (plural of Praxis) which ranged from the introductory Greenhorn Praxis, members gathering for brunch, watching Saturday morning cartoons, etc.

My favorite of the praxes I attended was a workshop to build your own terrarium. Cosmic Amanda, best known as the creator of local online radio station BFF.fm, hosted the workshop. I’m proud to say one of the terrariums I built is still intact.

There never seemed to be much direct connection between The Latitude and most praxis events; it was more of a loosely connected social club where members could meet one another. Some were held in private spaces, others in public.
 

Closing Thoughts

If it’s not obvious enjoyed The Latitude and was sad to see it go. For my part I only joined months before the end so I was largely unaware of the internal drama that came before my time.

That said, the entire project seemed insanely ambitious. Nonchalance was renting numerous spaces in one of the most expensive cities in the world, telling a complex story, all while trying to keep a veil between themselves and the members of the (fake?) secret society they created.

The tipping point seemed to be asking for money. On one hand the membership fee wasn’t a lot for most people, on the other some members were obviously contributing a great deal of time and energy already. Perhaps there should have been a sliding scale aspect to the membership fees.

It’s also worth remembering this all took place in a part of the world where the economy is weirdly distorted: people spend $1,000 a month to live with roommates, yet eat food or take Uber rides that are heavily subsidized by venture capital — often without realizing it. Point is in the Bay Area we’ve all been conditioned to have very unrealistic ideas about cost.

On the flip side The Latitude “competed” in a way with a similar immersive experience run entirely by volunteers: Elsewhere Philatelic Society (EPS.) It wasn’t uncommon to see members of The Latitude with EPS patches sewn onto their jackets. Ironically, EPS was initially a fan-made offshoot of The Jejune Institute. With significantly lower overhead, EPS outlasted both The Jejune Institute and The Latitude, and is still around today. I think there’s a lesson here about creating these types of immersive art projects that can have a similar impact on the audience while spending far, far less money.

As what’s next for Nonchalance, they are once again working on a new project — what is it? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Until next time, in bright axiom; compeers and dark horses alike.

South Beach security droid

June 5th, 2019


 

Recently housing/retail complex The Beacon, located by the 4th and King Caltrain terminal and the Giant’s ballpark, added a roaming security droid on the sidewalk surrounding the building. These are increasingly common in shopping malls, but on public sidewalks? Is that even allowed?

The first time I saw this particular droid was outside the Taco Bell Cantina at the corner of Third and Townsend. My mind immediately jumped to Star Wars, I couldn’t help but to hear the Cantina Band song in my head as it lumbered around, immediately reminding me of R2-D2.

I went so far as to ask around to see if anyone I knew owned a C-3PO costume so I could go hang around the droid in character as his companion. Unfortunately even the geekiest Star Wars fans I know don’t have one; a shame because that would have been a great Halloween costume pairing.

When I presented all of this to my boss, he insisted that no — this wasn’t R2-D2, it was a Dalek from Doctor Who.

That’s a much scarier proposition. R2-D2 is a harmless little droid whereas the Daleks are hell-bent on exterminating “inferior” races. All things considered I wouldn’t want a Dalek hanging out near my office.

Finally today the argument was settled as far as I’m concerned. While talking a walk by the Beacon with my boss, we both filmed the droid as it made its rounds. As you can see in the above video a random guy came up to it and said “R2-D2, I love you!”

I’m still not sure how I feel about private droids patrolling public space, but if you want to see R2-D2 in person it’s significantly cheaper than heading to Disneyland’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

“Save Harvey Milk Plaza” written in dust

June 3rd, 2019

Save Harvey Milk Plaza
 

Yesterday while walking through Church Station I noticed the renovations there were winding down, and behind the semi-demolished storage area someone had written SaveHarveyMilkPlaza.org in the dust on the orange railing.

This is a reaction to proposed changes at Castro Station, the next station outbound from Church. The plaza on the south side of the station was dedicated to Harvey Milk back in 1985, and hasn’t changed much since. Muni intends to make some changes to the plaza to address ADA compliance issues, which somehow ballooned into a complete overhaul of the plaza. Two years after deciding to make big changes, the architectural firm they’ve hired still hasn’t settled on a final design.

The people behind the the aforementioned “save the plaza” website would prefer making minimal changes to the plaza, although even they have some ideas to improve it, like installing murals, AIDS memorials, and other historical links to the area. The groups who want to replace vs. restore Harvey Milk Plaza may have more common ground than they think; both want a nice subway entrance at Castro and Market, and both agree that some changes are necessary.

For my part I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about whether the plaza should be renovated vs. replaced, mainly because I don’t really like the idea of transit plazas in the first place. Just look at the 16th and Mission BART plaza or the Powell Station sunken plaza by the cable car turnaround — nobody would argue those are excellent uses of public space.

Fortunately Harvey Milk Plaza is significantly smaller and doesn’t suffer from the same problems, but it’s not perfect either. For my part I’d advocate for making the following changes.

First, the above ground portion of the plaza isn’t well integrated into the bus stop along Market Street. In part this is due to the geography of the area, but the bus stop is on a narrow part of the sidewalk and is located a ways back from the main plaza entrance. One way or another this should be addressed.

Second, the plaza’s maintenance is an embarrassment. The sunken garden part of the plaza was fenced off and abandoned long ago, the exposed concrete is dirty and covered in streaks of rust, etc. A new plaza alone isn’t going to address this issue — or could make matters worse if it’s designed without a maintenance plan and a budget to accompany it.

There is a certain irony of course in advocating against certain changes by scrawling in a thick layer of dust to reveal a 1970′s orange paint job. Then again, if they’d simply written “WASH ME” I might not have taken the time to write this blog post.

The Wave Organ

May 29th, 2019


The Wave Organ, photo by Frank Schulenburg via Wikipedia
 

On Memorial Day I found myself in the Marina in the evening with a little spare time. I figured I’d try visiting The Exploratorium’s Wave Organ. Though I’ve been before it was seemingly never working. As it turns out, I simply hadn’t followed the directions — as the official website explains, The Wave Organ only works at high tide. Fortunately this time the tide was coming in. Sure enough, it was working!

The Wave Organ is built out of reclaimed concrete and stone at the end of the Marina Harbor jetty, with metal pipes sticking up that produce sound as the waves splash past the lower end. Here’s a short clip I recorded from one of the pipes:

 

 

I don’t know what I had in mind, certainly the echo-y sloshing sound of the waves coming through big pipes is nothing like your typical church or old fashioned movie theater organ. It’s more of a natural, meditative soundscape. It’s not super loud, but if you put your ear up to the pipes it sounds much louder than the passing waves down below.

During my visit the place was crawling with people… most of who were taking selfies instead of listening to the organ. To be fair it is a decent spot to get a photo of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

I didn’t get any decent photos of my own before I had to take off; the photo at the top of this post is from The Wave Organ’s Wikipedia page.

Musée Mécanique

May 20th, 2019

Musée Mécanique
 

Musée Mécanique is a family run museum of coin operated amusements, many of which are antiques. It’s free to enter but you’ll have to bring or purchase quarters to try the machines. These include everything from arcade games to moving dioramas — I’ll get to what you can expect to find in the museum in a moment.

The first time I visited Musée Mécanique it was a somewhat forgotten back road attraction in the dusty, leaky basement of the Cliff House. There were tarps everywhere to protect the machines, which gave it the feeling of a collection in a dilapidated warehouse rather than a proper museum. Still, the place had character and made sense as much of the collection came from the defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park once located down the street.

When the Cliff House was closed for renovations in 2003, Musée Mécanique relocated to a larger and more tourist friendly location at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s not terribly difficult to find; it’s roughly between the Fisherman’s Grotto and the historic ships at Pier 45.

Now, onto the machines themselves. Having visited Musée Mécanique a number of times over the years, I think they’re best described by category.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Arcade Games seem like the most obvious category of machines, and I found more than I previously remembered seeing during my visit yesterday.

They have everything from mechanical games like pinball or one where you guide a little bulldozer around, to games you might find at Chuck E. Cheese like a ball toss and air hockey, all the way to video arcade games including everything from a Pong knockoff to two player 90′s racing game Cruisin’ USA.

 
Musée Mécanique
 

Creepy Machines are just what they sound like, and typically feature mechanically animated puppets laughing. The best known of these is the life-size Laffing Sal near the entrance, which lurches back and forth and she laughs.

Sal is only one of several of these throughout the place, but it’s by far the largest and best maintained.

 
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Fortune Tellers typically feature the upper body of an old female mannequin who moves around a little, waves her hand over some tarot cards or a crystal ball, and then a fortune appears in a slot below.

It might seem racist and even sexist that the fortune teller figures always appear to be older female gypsies, but as we’ll soon see that’s just touching the tip of the iceberg here in terms of stereotypes.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Love Machines claim to rate how attractive you are, how good of a kisser you are, etc. They’re all conceptually similar to the fortune tellers, but instead of just spitting out a random fortune there’s often some element of input involved, like squeezing a lever or putting your hand on a metal plate.

 
Musée Mécanique
 

Music Machines play, well, music. From the player piano above to a Swiss mechanical music box, it becomes a cacophony of sound when they’re all going at once.

The most impressive of the bunch is a Wurlitzer “band box” near the entrance. It’s behind glass, probably for safety reasons. When fed enough quarters it springs into action, playing a variety of instruments in time with one another as a band would. It can play a handful of tunes, all of which fit the theme of an old carnival or amusement park.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Stereoscopic Photo Machines flip through a series of 3D photos in a special viewer. Many feature local themes like the 1906 earthquake and fire. Several claim to offer risque images though in practice the photos are very much G rated.

 
Musée Mécanique
 

Feats of Strength test your strength. These range from machines where you have to pull two levers together, hit something, or in the photo above, arm wrestle a machine.

The arm wrestling machine is noteworthy because it features a large warning that the machine could break your arm. If you’re not careful at least you’ll have an entertaining story to tell your friends when they ask why you’re wearing a cast.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Dioramas typically show a scene of daily life in motion, or a little stage show with dancers. There’s often an element of music involved. These range significantly in size from a small cabinet to about the dimensions of a ping pong table.

These are often the least reliable category of machines, which includes their two subcategories below — prepare to lose a quarter or two.

 
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Morbid Dioramas are the same thing but with a focus on the macabre. I’m not entirely sure why there’s so many of these, but then again if you want to watch something morbid or violent you have plenty more options these days.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Last but certainly not least, we have the category of Offensive Dioramas. It seems these amusements didn’t stand the test of time at all, raising many questions about what should be considered appropriate entertainment.

In the photos above we have a diorama of an opium den, complete with stereotypical Chinese people depicted as opioid addicts who do little than squirm back and forth. Susie the Can-can dancer seems to be a stereotypical depiction of an African woman with enormous lips, but for some reason is dressed like a Polynesian dancer. What this has to do with Can-can dancing I’m not really sure. And then there’s Dan, the alcoholic puppet you can watch take a drink, because once again addiction is something we’re apparently meant to laugh about.

I’m sure none of these were created with the intention to offend, but they’re regrettable enough in retrospect it’s easy to see why they’re in a museum instead of at, say, a Six Flags.

 
My recommendation: I think anyone who wants to see antique amusements, old arcade games, etc. should consider stopping by. It’s easily the most unique attraction in the entire Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood.

Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze

May 19th, 2019

Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze
Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze
 

If there’s one common trait among tourists, it’s a complete lack of spacial awareness. Everywhere I’ve been from Barcelona’s historic Gothic Quarter to Millennium Park in Chicago and any place in between, I’ve always had to dodge tourists who stop and jump out excitedly pointing out some mundane detail to their equally clueless companions, like “Look, they have Pizza Hut here too!”

So when I visited Pier 39, San Francisco’s infamously tacky tourist trap, I was there for one reason only: to find my way through Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. What better way to feel at home among a bunch of easily confused tourists than to enter a carnival-style mirror maze?

The first puzzle is finding the maze itself. Pier 39 is laid out like a generic 1970′s outdoor shopping center, but the Mirror Maze is on the upper level and difficult to spot from below. I went to consult a map, only to spot the maze across from me. To say I wasn’t off to a good start would be an understatement.

The maze entrance is in a short hallway. I stowed my soaking wet umbrella into my backpack and walked in. The woman at the desk didn’t seem to notice me at first, so I said hi. She replied only with “hi” and I actually had to ask about buying a ticket. I handed her a five dollar bill (they also take cards) and she told me to take a pair of plastic gloves from a box. At no point during this interaction did she look at me.

I put the gloves on and went to the maze entrance. It’s dimly lit with color-changing lights inside, and looks nearly the same in every direction. Forging ahead I spotted a family on one side of me, only to realize they were on the other! Soon I found myself seeing my reflections on more and more sides; a dead end. At this point the gloves became helpful, allowing me to touch the mirrored walls without smudging them with fingerprints.

The maze itself isn’t particularly long though I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to the layout. It’s obviously sort of ring-shaped, but aside from that I have no idea. It’s intensely disorienting in there — which of course is the entire point. By the time I stumbled across the exit I’d only been in there ten minutes or so.

As I exited and disposed of the gloves I couldn’t help but to think I’d have a much better impression of Pier 39 if they had more carnival attractions. They already have gift shops and junk food stands, why not throw in say a love boat ride and a ferris wheel?
 

My recommendation: I have a simple mnemonic to remember how to avoid tourist traps in major cities: “Hard Rock Cafe? Go the other way.” Pier 39 itself was the inspiration for this simple rule. Still, if you have the focus to visit Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze without getting distracted by tacky restaurants, insufferable gift shops, and crowds of blissfully unaware tourists, it’s a fun but short little adventure. I’d consider trying it again if I were in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Last of the Howard Street folding streetlights removed

May 18th, 2019

Folding streetlight removed Folding streetlight removed
 

For many years the section of Howard Street just outside Moscone Center featured some unusual French folding streetlights. During the day they stood straight up, and at night folded over the street as their lights turned on.

I’m not clear on the details, but somehow Willie Brown got these fancy lights for free; I assume they must have fallen off the back of a truck.

During the recent renovation of Moscone Center all but one of these streetlights were removed, leaving a single folding streetlight at the corner of 3rd and Howard — until last week when this last one was removed.

While walking past the corner I took the above photos showing the hole in the ground where the streetlight once stood, and later the sidewalk patched up to cover the hole. An unremarkable end to one of the more unique street design elements from San Francisco’s recent past.

Finding the Faery Door in Golden Gate Park

May 13th, 2019

Faery Door
 

Do you believe in faeries? Also spelled “fairies,” these small human-like woodland creatures appear in numerous fantasy stories. Are they related to elves or hobbits? I’ve never been certain about the lineage. Perhaps I’ll inquire if I ever meet one.

This morning I woke up with the idea that I should visit more of the local oddities here in San Francisco. After my recent trip across America I’d explored some of the stranger off-kilter attractions across the country; why not continue the trip in a way by finding one of many such attractions here at home?

I decided to track down the Faery Door, a tiny but magnificent little door installed at the end of a log somewhere in Golden Gate Park. The location is a secret; all I’ll say is it’s outside the Japanese Tea Garden in a public area of the park. It took me a while to find it, I walked right past it at first. It’s well hidden in plain sight along an off the beaten path trail.

It was clear others had stopped by recently to leave fresh flowers both outside and inside the Faery Door. Perhaps this door is less secret than I had assumed; or were the fresh flowers the works of the faeries themselves?

The Faery Door has several sister doors throughout the Bay Area and an official website. For those seeking more answers an official book regarding these magical little doors is available from the website.