Posts Tagged ‘san francisco’

Doctor Who on Frank Chu’s 12 Galaxies

October 15th, 2018


 

Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who features a race, of sorts. Minor spoilers follow for the second episode of the new Jodie Whittaker-era Doctor Who.

Last week’s episode ended with the Doctor and her three companions in a cliffhanger (space hanger?) situation. This week they’re all rescued by the two remaining participants in “the last ever rally of the 12 Galaxies.”

If you’re a Bay Area local and the name “12 Galaxies” rings a bell, it’s for one of two reasons. You’re either thinking of a short-lived Mission District bar and music venue, or local eccentric Frank Chu (pictured above) who coined the phrase on his “protest” signs.

Coincidence? Probably. But it’s enough to make a person ask if Frank Chu knows anything more about Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey.

Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA

October 12th, 2018

SFMOMA & Magritte
 

The Rene Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA, “The Fifth Season,” wraps up at the end of October. If you haven’t seen it yet now is the time. This isn’t the largest exhibit with only around 70 works, but what’s there is impressive.

I finally went to see it last weekend and strongly recommend it, with some minor caveats.

Not familiar with Magritte? You’ve seen his work before but may not know his name. He’s the artist behind “Son of Man,” aka the guy with the bowler hat and the apple floating in front of his face (see above) as well as other paintings including “The Treachery of Images,” aka “C’est ne pas une pipe.”

Instead of focusing on his life as an artist overall the exhibit focuses on a few key later points in Magritte’s life. This approach has its strengths and weaknesses, in particular it focuses on Magritte’s most well known periods while leaving out how he got his start.

 
SFMOMA & Magritte SFMOMA & Magritte
 

Magritte’s works tend to look simple at first glance, but on closer examination contain surprising visual contradictions. His paintings have themes between them, but the themes aren’t always clear unless they’re pointed out. Thankfully the exhibit’s arrangements and audio guide do an excellent job of explaining this.

The audio guides for the Magritte exhibit are worth checking out, available as a mobile app (bring earbuds and your phone.) There’s about half an hour of audio content including interviews with an artist who lived in Magritte’s attic.

Ultimately I would have stayed much longer listening to more tales of Magritte’s life and works if they’d been available. For an artist who has so many well known paintings, he also went through periods of different styles, particularly during World War II, that are difficult to contextualize against his most familiar style.

The trivia I found most interesting was how Magritte titled his paintings, or more accurately how he didn’t. He tended to bring out his latest works to friends over dinner and wine and let them come up with appropriate titles.

The entrance to the exhibit features floor to ceiling curtains, echoing many of Magritte’s works. Some reviewers felt this to be a little too on the nose but I thought it was amusing. The exit was more startling. By standing in certain places one could insert themselves into digital versions of Magritte’s works. To me these felt like they belonged at the Exploratorium, or worse at some Instagram-friendly “museum.”

And of course you have to exit the exhibit through a gift shop, with special Magritte-focused merchandise.
 

You have until October 28th to check out the Magritte Exhibit at SFMOMA. Tickets cost as much as $35 and include access to the entire museum. I highly recommend the SFMOMA app both for this exhibit and SFMOMA in general.

Muni Metro updates its subway audio announcements

September 14th, 2018

Hear the new announcements for yourself in the above video I recorded at Church Station. Please forgive all the background noise, it’s a subway station after all.

 

Recently Muni Metro has been undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, from the new light rail trains to the colorful real time information signs to the upcoming Central Subway.

Another recent Muni Metro upgrade hasn’t made any headlines — the new automated voice announcements at the subway stations. Like the previous version of the announcements they begin with two piano notes representing inbound vs. outbound, but now the outbound voice is male. The inbound voice remains female.

Both voices sound significantly more natural and less choppy than what they replaced. The previous female voice spoke in a halting rhythm with uneven tonality, which gave the announcements a robotic quality. This video (not mine) has some good examples. That announcement voice replaced a different choppy female voice sometime in the mid 2000′s. Many of us jokingly referred to these voices as “Ms. Muni” back in the day, as in “hey grab your backpack, Ms. Muni says our train’s arriving.”

They’ve also added information about where the arriving train is headed. For whatever reason the previous announcements confusingly only included the destination for inbound trains, and only the route designation letter on outbound trains. Why make this change? To make a long story short, Sunnydale will presumably flip from the T-Third’s inbound destination to its outbound destination when the Central Subway opens. The new announcements ought to streamline this transition.

Additionally the new announcements dropped the practice of saying the route destination letter twice for a two car train. No more “two car, L. L. in five minutes.” The reason for these pecular announcements was largely historical, as Muniverse explains:

When both Muni Metro and the Market Street Subway openend, [sic] one and two-car trains were coupled into three and four-car trains as they entered the subway at West Portal and the Duboce & Church tunnel portal. It was a problematic workaround to deal with tunnel capacity problems before the Market Street Subway was completely computerized.

In other words Muni Metro’s audio announcements finally entered the 21st century. It’s about time.

Reflecting on fifteen years in San Francisco

August 16th, 2018

Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts as seen recently after dark
 

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of when I moved to San Francisco. I originally came here for college and wound up staying to build my career. Not that I had any other plans.

This isn’t about me though — I wanted to look back and consider everything that changed in the past fifteen years. Spoiler alert: a lot has changed. In some cases, not fast enough.

 
Everything became more expensive

Let’s start with the obvious. I can’t compare the price of avocado toast because nobody was making avocado toast in 2003, so we’ll have to look at other prices.

Fifteen years ago an adult Muni transfer was one dollar, and a monthly pass was $35. You could save on transfers if you were downtown by purchasing a bag of tokens, which cost slightly less than the cash price of a transfer. Muni still used paper transfers back then, if you were lucky a driver might hand you an all-day transfer instead of the normal 90 minute one.

Housing prices also skyrocketed of course. In college I lived out in the Parkside neighborhood and paid $585 a month for a room in a shared house. It’s hardly the most exciting neighborhood, even by Outer Sunset standards, but now you’d pay around $1,000 a month for a room out there. No wonder adults making six figures live with roommates long after college in San Francisco these days.

 
Museums

In Golden Gate Park the Conservatory of Flowers reopened after a long restoration, the new DeYoung opened its doors, followed by the Academy of Sciences. The latter two had to be rebuilt due to heavy damage in the 1989 earthquake (this will be a common theme here.)

Due to a large donation SFMOMA significantly expanded. The Exploratorium found a new location along the Embarcadero, and the outdoor plaza at its old location — the Palace of Fine Arts — underwent a lengthy restoration followed by landscaping work.

The quirky Musee Mecanique decided not to return to the Cliff House once restoration work wrapped up there, opting to stay at their Fisherman’s Wharf location instead.

 
Some big projects wrapped up…

The first phase of Muni Metro’s T-Third line opened down Third Street along the bay. Aside from everything else along that corridor, it would go on to serve the brand new UCSF Mission Bay campus.

The first skyscrapers in SOMA began popping up with Salesforce Tower recently taking the crown as the tallest in the city. Its neighboring Millennium Tower opened a few years earlier, promptly sinking and leaning over.

The replacements for Doyle Drive and the eastern section of the Bay Bridge were completed after decades of planning. The Bay Bridge was infamously damaged in the ’89 quake, and Doyle Drive wasn’t predicted to survive the next big earthquake.

Westfield took over the SF Centre mall, expanding it to the old flagship Emporium building next door. Despite a strong opening day this was a mixed success in retrospect, with retail stores dying out in favor of online shopping. At least it actually opened, unlike the nearby 6×6 mall which is still completely empty.

Just last weekend the new Salesforce/Transbay Transit Center finally opened (sort of) and we got a fancy new park out of it to boot. This complex replaced the old Transbay Terminal, which had been damaged by the ’89 quake too.

The last vestige of elevated freeway north of Market Street finally got the axe due to a combination of earthquake damage and long-running unpopularity, leading to a new Octavia Boulevard and the revitalization of the Hayes Valley neighborhood.

 
…and some didn’t

The old freeway over Octavia Boulevard was supposed to make room for low income housing. Construction still hasn’t even begun on it yet!

The Central Subway — phase two of the T-Third project — is still under construction. At least there’s visible progress. Same with the near-constant work on the Twin Peaks Tunnel; will this be the final time it’s closed off for months? Somehow I doubt it.

And then there’s the train tunnel to the new Salesforce Transit Center. Not an inch of dirt has moved yet, even if the alignment plans have been finalized.

Don’t even get me started on the plans to fix Geary Street’s awful transit. That’s been a third wheel of SF’s politics long before I moved here — or was even born if you want to go back that far.

The most shameful things that didn’t change were the somehow still undeveloped Hunter’s Point shipyard site as well as Treasure Island. Both have their own challenges of course, and the nuclear waste contamination doesn’t help. All the foot dragging there is just dragging rents up.

The city’s homeless situation improved a little in recent years with new tactics including Navigation Centers. Yet the success rate is at least two orders of magnitude below what’s needed — hundreds helped vs. tens of thousands in need of help — to declare any kind of success would be beyond premature. There’s still a long road ahead, we must do better here.

 
The cult of venture capital

Venture capitalists had begun funding tech companies in San Francisco back in the 90′s, but over the past fifteen years they became willing to fund anything and everything in SF — modern taxi companies, food delivery, questionable juicing products, even restaurants.

Food and transit aren’t generally high margin businesses, so it’s hard to see why investors would look at these industries and see a cash cow. Would VCs have invested in these businesses if they were headquartered in, say, Nebraska? It’s something to think about next time you’re using a money losing service backed by VCs like Uber.

 
Food, drinks, and dining

Where to start on this one? While the Bay Area has a long history of high end dining, the Ferry Building reopened as a food hall shortly before I moved here; a sign of what was to come.

The city became a lightning rod of trends from food to cocktails to coffee. “Fine dining” with its waiter service and starched tablecloths somehow made way for experimental fast casual, chaotic dining.

Fifteen years ago a good coffee establishment wasn’t easy to find. Making the trek to Blue Bottle or Ritual was a time commitment for many of us. Fortunately the “third wave” coffee trend made its way across the city after a while.

One thing that hasn’t changed are the tough, hard-working, and often heavily tattooed folks behind the counter rushing out top quality drinks and dishes at a breakneck pace. Please tip them well.

 
Fun and entertainment

The Outside Lands concert series started in Golden Gate Park, proving that San Franciscans love shivering in the cold while listening to music — and paying for it too, unlike the long-running free Hardly Strictly and Stern Grove Festival series.

Dolores Park went from an odd scruffy park to the victim of its own popularity. I still miss Dolores Park Movie Night. The recent refurbishment of the park didn’t change much in terms of the crowds, but at least the bathroom lines are shorter.

A number of long running music venues shut down, but others came to fill their place — some not publicly, and often not legally either. One of my first SF music venue memories was The Pound over at Hunter’s Point, a punk club that didn’t last long.

New forms of art and theater emerged seemingly out of nowhere. From Nonchalance we got some weird interactive stories, including (my personal favorite) The Jejune Institute. Local immersive theater show The Speakeasy became a mainstay, bucking the trend of temporary immersive shows. A bunch of pop-up selfie-friendly “museums” appeared like the Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream.

Sunday Streets became a thing ten years ago, but it still feels like it was yesterday. It became wildly popular in the Mission, with varying degrees of success in other neighborhoods. From kids learning to ride bikes to adults working off their brunches, there’s a little of something for everyone there.

For some reason the cultural phenomenon known as the “Burning Man rapture” seems to have subsided. Fifteen years ago when it was Burning Man the city emptied out. Now, it doesn’t seem like the lines are any shorter or BART is any less crowded.

 
Final thoughts on my “San Franciscoversary”

In fifteen years you can expect a lot of things to change in the ebb and flow.

What makes San Francisco a little different than many places is it’s succumbed to many natural disasters. Not everything built after the 1906 earthquake was strong enough to survive the 1989 earthquake. It’s also rather embarrassing how slow construction projects tend to move these days. When I moved here in 2003 it was already fourteen years after the ’89 earthquake. You’d think that would have been enough time to rebuild, retrofit, and replace everything — and you’d be wrong. Worse, structures damaged in 1989 are still being replaced today (I’m looking at you, Salesforce Transit Center.)

Yet this is still a city that remains artistic, innovative, and kinda quirky. For such a small city I’m often surprised to hear about something new to me that isn’t new to anyone else. Keep on surprising me, San Francisco.

Salesforce Transit Center, opening day

August 12th, 2018

Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

After years of construction it seemed like the new Transbay Salesforce Transit Terminal Center would never open; and yet today, it finally did… sort of. It’s clearly unfinished, and construction workers were still there today (a Saturday) working on the gondola. The underground train platforms weren’t open, and no physical work has been done to even build the tunnel to the station.

So perhaps it’s best to think of this as opening day, with a few major caveats. For now only a few local transit agencies serve Salesforce Transit Center via bus, with bus operations to and from the East Bay to start tomorrow. Permanent restaurant and retail space is also still also on the to do list.

But enough about the future for the moment; let’s start with what’s there now.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The building itself is hard to miss; it’s a wavy undulating mesh hovering over several streets, with trees popping out from above. Heading in just past Salesforce Tower is an enormous lobby, with monolithic signs everywhere pointing to different transit agencies. Filled with natural light, the lobby is bright, clean, and frankly looks like a transit station. Not all the displays showing departure times were hooked up yet.

I kind of expected just to walk in and check the place out, but little did I know many others had the same idea. Turns out I’m not the only one who likes to see new things. Despite getting there early I had to wait in a long line for the escalator. SFPD acted as crowd control, only letting groups up at a time.

It seems the crowds weren’t expected; the lines leading up to the escalators and elevators were ad-hoc, taking up so much space that a group of dancers gave up on dancing and began posing for photos instead.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

When I finally got on the escalator I looked straight up and saw a skylight… with shadows of people standing on it. Normally standing on a skylight is a bad idea, but this one is intended to act as a floor.

The main escalator skips the second floor, heading straight to the bus stops on the third floor. Here you’ll be able to take a bus to the East Bay and beyond. For opening day it was a sort of museum exhibit with presentations from local transit agencies.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

AC Transit showed off their new double decker bus. Various transit agencies had well-preserved antique buses on display. Someone had brought in an old car from Hupmobile, a semi-obscure defunct car manufacturer. I confess I thought it was a Ford Model T at first glance.

I was a little thirsty after waiting so long to get up to there. The vending machines were largely not operational yet. Fortunately SFMTA had a table with free Hetch Hetchy water and cups to match.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The real star of the show on the third level is the suspension bridge. This is a bus-only bridge over Howard Street that can be easily spotted from Second and Howard. They were letting people walk onto the base of the bridge to get a peek at it, but no further.

It’s too bad they didn’t incorporate a sidewalk with space for people to take photos, I could imagine this funny little bridge being a popular selfie spot for travelers.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The entire third level was open to let people walk around. Normally you won’t be able to get up close to the metal lattice “skin” of the building on the bus level, but for opening day there was no risk of getting run over by a Greyhound.

I’ve watched the lattice go up in sections for what felt like ages, so it was neat to finally get a peek outside from within.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

Obviously people hadn’t flocked here to see a bunch of buses. The real draw was to see Salesforce Park, the city’s first elevated park.

Despite crowd controls this was wall-to-wall people, gawking at the scenery. It’s a bit of a head trip — you look one way and there’s a green park with trees and grass, you look the other way and it’s office towers and skyscrapers. Unless you look over the ledge there’s not much visual indication that you’re above ground at all. This dissonance may grow with the trees and shrubs themselves.

Plaques throughout the park explain what you’re looking at — a fountain (it was off), seismic joints in the building, plants in the garden, etc. There’s a playground for kids, a couple of plazas, and a few grassy areas for lunches and picnics.

The park connects directly to both Salesforce Tower and 181 Fremont. The sky lobby for Salesforce Tower hasn’t been completed yet; I could see construction workers and unpainted drywall behind glass windows.

I’ve heard this park was inspired by New York City’s High Line Park, but I’ve yet to visit NYC so I’m not able to make any comparisons.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

For opening day there were a few vendors in one plaza, selling food, coffee, beer, and oddly enough cookie dough. Stands with free to borrow books and board games were available as well. There were a few tables to sit at, though not nearly enough to meet demand. When the novelty wears off I could see this park as a place for nearby workers to take a lunch break.

Bands and DJs played at two stages in the park. Due to all the buildings around it, some parts of the park were shady whereas others were sunny on an unusually warm San Francisco afternoon.

One big question that kept lingering in my mind was how this new station would outlast the one it replaced. Although the old Transbay Terminal was once touted as the “Grand Central Station of the West,” by the time I was around to see it the place was kind of a mess. The “terminal” aspect of it largely referred to the trains that once arrived at the station coming over the Bay Bridge. The building’s restaurant and bar had closed ages ago, and the waiting area was essentially used as a homeless shelter.

Until train tunnels are built — this time from the Peninsula side, and eventually perhaps a second Transbay Tube — it’s hard to see how the Salesforce Transit Center will be much more than a fancy elevated park. The bus level is nice and all, but you don’t need much space for a bus stop. It’s also worth pointing out that the new low-cost bus operators like Megabus and Flixbus haven’t announced plans to stop at the Transit Center.

Perhaps the most odd omission is the lack of connection between the Transit Center and Montgomery Station. It’s a very short walk, hopefully some signs will appear soon directing travelers between the two. Should be easy enough to fix.

If the new Transit Center has one thing going for it, it’s the neighborhood. Between when the original Transbay Terminal was built and today, the surrounding area has grown tremendously. Factories and shipping businesses were replaced by offices filled with knowledge workers. Moscone Center opened, expanded — and is being expanded again, right now. New hotels sprung up, new subways, a new baseball stadium… the list goes on. This version of the Transit Center seems more likely to succeed; at least if its underground train platforms ever see service, that is.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

Of course, all of this will have been for nothing if the Millennium Tower — currently sinking and leaning towards Salesforce Tower — comes crashing down.

Perhaps that should be addressed before the next earthquake, let alone before any new tunnels are built in the area.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

By the time I made my way back to the escalators to leave, the crowds had grown immensely — I was glad I’d arrived early. It also seemed unintuitive to me that so many folks wanted to check out the new Transit Center when the city was also hosting Outside Lands, the Filipino Parade, and a Giants game all on the same day.

With all of those activities going on, who knew the opening of a new Transit Center and park would attract such a large crowd? Not me, that’s for certain.

Sailing in the bay

July 30th, 2018

Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay
 

On Saturday I went sailing with some coworkers, or to put it more accurately a pair of coworkers sailed a ship while instructing the rest of us on what to do. For my part I barely know port from Starburst starbird starboard, but if you need someone who can pull on whichever rope you tell me to, I’m your guy.

We began sailing from a boat rented at Club Nautique in Alameda. After strapping on life jackets our captain (one of my coworkers) gave us the safety rundown, we stepped on the boat, and I started the engine so we could motor our way out into the bay.

Once we were headed straight into the wind we deployed the sails, killed the engine, and were under wind power.

There’s something strangely relaxing about sailing on the bay’s calm southern waters; perhaps too relaxing. We were all jolted awake when an enormous cargo ship snuck up behind us and honked.

Unlike on land, in the water right of way is apparently kind of complicated but the basics are simple enough: smaller vessels need to stay out of the way of bigger ones. We only got a single honk, which I’m told is a warning. Five honks would have been the signal to move immediately and/or expect a visit from the Coast Guard.

 
Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay
 

I’d never approached San Francisco from Alameda on a boat before. In some ways it’s a little disorienting. For example I kept thinking “what’s that big green thing?” before suddenly realizing I was looking at the stands of AT&T Park. Likewise Sutro Tower not only looked further south than I’d expected but seemed very surreal, poking up out of the foggy skyline like a pitchfork.

As we went under the Bay Bridge the second in command wondered what the deal was with the “bow and arrow.” I explained that it’s called Cupid’s Span and it evokes the romantic idea of Cupid and Tony Bennett’s song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Not exactly what the artists intended though it’s close enough.

 
Sailing in the bay
 

Maneuvering around some ferries we docked at pier 1 and 1/2. This is just north of the Ferry Building, right behind the restaurant La Mar. It’s one of the few public places boats can dock in San Francisco. We all brought our own food and snacks and ate at a nearby public table. Despite many restaurants in the area, we had no way of knowing if there’d be an open place to dock so we came prepared.

Protip: There are two single occupancy public restrooms at the pier. Just go inside the front door facing The Embarcadero; they’re both in the lobby.

 
Sailing in the bay
 

The return voyage was a calm one, with the wind in our favor. There were few other boats to contend with aside from other sailboats and the RocketBoat.

At a certain point I looked back at the city skyline and noticed it had begun to look almost like a mirage. The features on the buildings disappeared and it took on a gray shadowy appearance, back lit by a mountain of clouds. After docking the boat back at Club Nautique we all went our separate ways for the day.

Having lived in San Francisco for the past fifteen years I’ve never visited the city via sailboat — all this time I didn’t even know it was possible to step off a sailboat and walk right over to the Embarcadero waterfront. Who knew?

Mixt coming to the Mission is old news and here’s why

March 21st, 2018


 

Today Eater SF “revealed” that salad focused mini-chain Mixt (formerly Mixt Greens) is opening a new location in the Mission at the former location of La Rondalla at 901 Valencia. Surprised? Don’t be; this has been public for a couple months if you knew where to look.

For those who genuinely don’t know how to locate this information let me backtrack and explain.

La Rondalla was a Mission institution far longer than I’ve been alive, which Mission Local explains here in the article about their closure. In summary the family owned restaurant spanned three generations but ultimately failed for various reasons.

Fast forward to a couple months ago when construction began at the former restaurant. But what was going on? This isn’t always a simple question to answer by looking at public records but in this case it was trivial to find out.

First, building permits are typically required for any type of construction. San Francisco takes this a step further by putting some details online. So head on over to SF Planning’s San Francisco Property Information Map and enter the address, then click search. Once it locates the property, click the Building Permits tab at the top. Now scroll through the permit applications until you find something that looks related to the work going on.

Permit #201711093626 involves altering “FOOD/BEVERAGE HNDLNG” and is described as “TENANT IMPROVEMENT OF AN EXISTING GROUND FLOOR AND BASEMENT FLOOR RESTAURAND [sic] SPACE TO A NEW RESTAURANT.” It dates back to January of 2018.

Next click on the permit number to head to SFGov’s website, then click Show Authorized Agents, which takes you here. This step is where things get tricky. Not every permit will list a tenant, or “LESSEE” in the Roles column, but this one does. Sometimes there’s multiple permits for the same project and you have to find the right one.

The tenant won’t always have a name you can easily match to a business, like “Bob Smith” or whatever. But more often than not these days it will be a legally established corporation or LLC. And this time we’re in luck, because the applicant is MG RESTAURANTS INC. Gee, who could that be?

Let’s play dumb for a moment and assume we have no idea what this company is. At the time of this writing, a Google search for the company name comes up with many unhelpful results, but a few down the list is a link to their entry in Corporation Wiki. Among other data is this diagram:


 

While this may look like something a conspiracy theorist drew on a chalkboard, the gist is pretty clear — the only restaurant this could be is Mixt.

Now it’s worth pointing out that Mixt’s sister restaurant group Split Bread falls somewhere here under the same Good Food Guys umbrella, but it’s not part of MG Restaurants Inc. as far as I can tell. Besides, who’d open yet another sandwich spot in the Mission? And as Eater SF mentions, Mixt isn’t quite big enough yet to fall under the city’s formula retail restrictions. Split Bread is pretty far away from nudging up to that restriction so there’s no urgency.

I, for one, welcome our new salad overlords. But if you miss La Rondalla there’s always Puerto Alegre for deliciously greasy Mexican food with stiff margaritas.

Paris of the Pacific tour

February 26th, 2018


Photo of ships in San Francisco’s harbor circa 1850 from Wikipedia. Used under public domain.
 

Yesterday afternoon I took a San Francisco City Guides tour I’d never heard of before titled 1850′s San Francisco: Paris of the Pacific. This relatively new tour meets at the same place as the Gold Rush City tour, and compliments it in an unexpected way. Like all City Guides tours it’s 100% free and led by volunteer guides.

Whereas the Gold Rush City tour largely focuses on the crowd of Americans coming west in search of gold, the Paris of the Pacific tour highlights a parallel story. When a French spy in Monterey got wind of the discovery of gold in California he tipped off folks in his home country.

Why was there a French spy in Monterey? Turns out New Spain/Mexico’s weak grip on California was an open secret, and France had an interest in colonizing the territory. While French troops never invaded, French citizens invaded with the most American pastime of them all: business.

Thanks to the tenuous political situation in France at the time with Napoleon III as well as food shortages all over Europe, a number of wealthy French aristocrats and savvy business types chartered a ship and sailed to San Francisco. Unlike their peers from the US, the French immigrants to California weren’t interested in seeking out gold directly. Instead they operated businesses catering to gold seekers including bars, casinos, and brothels.

If you’d arrived via ship in San Francisco in the 1850′s you probably would have disembarked at or near the Commercial Street pier, which led directly to San Francisco’s French Quarter, meeting French-speaking people and their businesses in the area.

While little remains of the French Quarter, the direct French influence in San Francisco continues to this day. Isidore Boudin started his Boudin Bakery during the Gold Rush. The Notre Dame Des Victoires church near Chinatown began shortly after the Gold Rush as well.

But the influence of those early French settlers in San Francisco goes deeper. Importers bought in goods from France including clothing and alcohol, and the first restaurants in the area were operated by French chefs. To this day if you want to dine out lavishly in San Francisco there’s a good chance you’ll visit a French restaurant, if not a French-inspired one.

Department stores selling imported French goods lasted from the mid 19th century up until the mid to late 20th century in San Francisco. Some relics of these stores still exist if you know where to look. And where would those be? You’ll have to take the tour yourself to find out.

Murder at the Conservatory

October 29th, 2017

Conservatory of Flowers light show
 

Last night I had the pleasure of attending Murder at the Conservatory, a game that takes place monthly at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s a benefit for the conservatory and as such the tickets are a little pricey. You must be 21 or older and have a valid ID to enter.

This post does NOT include spoilers, but if you want to go in completely fresh stop reading here.
 

The story itself will be familiar to anyone who’s read Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, countless other murder mystery authors, or even played the game Clue for that matter. One of several characters has committed a murder, and a detective has to figure out who did it.

This event differs from other murder mysteries in a number of ways. While you’re free to dress up if you wish you’re only asked to work as a detective, not play as a character in the mystery. All characters in the story are played by actors, giving the production an immersive theater vibe. You’re free to interact with them and ask anything you want as part of your investigation.

As is typical for the genre, the setting for the story — at least the current story — is the conservatory itself in the Victorian era. This makes the 1870′s location a perfect fit. Amusingly, the characters were confused by the audience’s modern technology (mobile phones, etc.) One audience member asked a character about DNA evidence only to get a rather silly, confused reaction.

All clues are all held by or in the immediate vicinity of the characters, who stay in one place throughout the night and interact with audience members who stop by. I’d estimate the audience consists of up to about 80 people.

It’s a little weird at the moment because a nightly light show is projection-mapped onto the conservatory building for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Though nowhere near as ambitious as the City Hall 100th anniversary celebration it’s a quirky exhibit which can be noticed during the murder mystery. It’s all a mishmash of celebrating both Victorian and late 1960′s time periods in the same place (see photo above.) That said I didn’t find the light show particularly distracting.

The trick to solving the mystery is finding out what happened and when, what was the murder weapon, who knows what, and the relations between the characters. Fortunately you’re provided a notebook with the backstory and plenty of space for taking notes. A map is included which shows where to find each character.

A light dinner and beer or wine is included in the price of the ticket. The food was mostly vegetarian-friendly when I went, though your mileage may vary. Most of it was not vegan. Drinks can be consumed throughout most of the Conservatory with the exception of the butterfly exhibit. The first drink is free but additional drinks are expensive, though credit cards are accepted.

Before you ask… no, I didn’t correctly guess the guilty party. Like any good mystery there were multiple motives and misdirections. There’s no penalty for blaming the wrong character, but only those who figure out the right answer are entered into a drawing for prizes at the end.

Getting to the Conservatory of Flowers is relatively straightforward. Follow the Google Maps directions, and from there you’ll find clear signage directing you to the event. That said, I took the N-Judah and while it’s a more or less straightforward path from the UCSF stop through the park, getting back in full darkness and fog proved challenging. Turns out Golden Gate Park is tough to navigate in near darkness.

The current season of Murder at the Conservatory runs through January. In February they’ll be back for a new season with a new mystery to solve. Meanwhile, there are still tickets available at upcoming shows.

Tips:

  • Although the event is two hours long, the first half hour is just for reading the story and grabbing a drink and some food. If you’re running a little late you might not get a seat in the bar room but you won’t miss anything.
  • Pay attention to what the characters say; if they give you insight into another character, take note and be sure to ask the other character for more details.
  • For that matter, remember who is who! Many of the audience members seemed to get the characters mixed up. Perhaps they’d imbibed one drink too many.
  • Bring your own pencil or pen, the provided pencils are cheap crap.
  • Enjoy your surroundings! Going inside the conservatory after dark is a truly unique experience.

Breaking down San Francisco landmarks in the Watch Dogs 2 trailer

June 10th, 2016

This week Ubisoft launched a trailer for their upcoming game, Watch Dogs 2. While I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first entry in the series, a 3rd person action/hacking game, the sequel immediately interested me due to the setting: San Francisco and the Bay Area at large.

You can watch the trailer below or here. For those unfamiliar with the world of video games, this is a “cinematic” trailer, which means it’s CGI concept art intended to advertise the game — in other words, this isn’t gameplay footage, but rather what producers intend the game to look like when it’s finished.

How many local landmarks did you discover in the video? Here’s what I spotted — click any image for full size.

Golden Gate Bridge, Karl the Fog, and the Transamerica Pyramid:

The Ferry Building and the Embarcadero Center:

Alcatraz:

A cable car working its way up a hill:

Not technically a landmark, but a guy wearing Google Cardboard on Muni is good enough IMO:

Again, technically a homeless guy with a shopping card isn’t a “landmark” but it had might as well be:

Lombard Street, which someone’s taking a photo of on their phone for the sake of accuracy:

Sea Lions at Pier 39, complete with tourists utilizing a selfie stick:

3D printing a gun — okay so again this isn’t a landmark at all, but I imagine there’s more 3D printers than guns in San Francisco so I’ll let it slide:

Chinatown chase scene:

AT&T Park, or whichever phone company it’s named after right now:

“Nudle” is clearly a stand in for Google’s Mountain View campus:

The Bay Bridge serves as a backdrop for a chase scene:

Hangar One at Moffett Field in Mountain View:

Well there you have it. I’m sure there’s a few I missed, feel free to e-mail me an angry rant if that’s the case. Regardless I may have to buy the game when it comes out in November to see how it portrays the Bay Area.