31 January 2011

San Burrito

Greetings all from a gray Atlanta, where it is slightly cold but without a trace of the snow and ice nightmare ("Snowpocalypse '011") that had the city in its grips last week. A cat snoozes to my right, a dog snoozes to my left, and I'm eating Cheez-Its (mmm, TBHQ) to recover from a miserable hangover...ahh, I must be home.

The occasion of my visit is a trip to San Francisco I made in order to attend a conference and present our work. The conference was fine, but it was my first time in SF and I was really excited to look around, and fortunately I scheduled myself a couple of days to do so.

I was prepared for rotten weather, as I've heard it can be in the winter, but found a city enjoying sunny 21C/70F temperatures, nothing like the winter at all. I didn't anticipate wanting to be outside much during this trip, but SF was just begging to be explored.

I got in to the city in the early afternoon and checked into my hotel (after walking about 10 blocks in the wrong direction). Trans-global traveler as I now am, I've become accustomed to losing all sense of time and having to quickly adjust to avoid jetlag. The strategy is easy, just a one-step process:

1) stay awake.

This isn't easy when you're presented with a clean, empty bed, but once you think about that city waiting out there, it's a no-brainer. Get out and hit the streets! And so, a man on a mission, I headed for the Mission.

First thing I did when I got there was, patriotic American as I am, to enjoy our national dish:

Holy moly, look at that chow. That burrito was so damn good I might print the picture out and eat it. This was placed before me for the whopping price of US$6 (=AU$6!), world's finest macromicrobrew beer included! The place was Taqueria Pancho Villa on 16th St between Mission and Valencia, named as a joke, I was to learn: the owner is named Francisco Villa, just like the Mexican revolutionary. Unlike his namesake, though, Francisco doesn't earn the nickname "Pancho", which roughly translates as "Fatty". But the place was bedecked with images of El Comandante, including this unbelievable "bronze" bust:

Imagine having that in your house. Your north Mexican landowner dinner guests would shit their pants and run in fright back to their latifundias.

The Mission is also home to some famous graffiti walls:

Lovely stuff, especially when you're full on Mexican food, giddy about being in a Spanish-speaking country again, delirious from 20 hours of flying, and many dollars poorer after visiting MissionWorkshop (coming soon to Australia, they told me).

After browsing the rest of the things on offer in the Mission---826 Valencia, bookstores and coffee shops---I wound my way back to the Tenderloin, where I was staying, and managed to keep myself awake until a respectable 10PM.

The conference nominally started the next day---Saturday---but when I went down to the Convention Center (the Moscone Center, named after the SF Mayor that was killed with Harvey Milk) I realised that there wasn't much going on, so I picked up my conference materials and walked toward the Bay. Along Market St, I came across these excellent examples of public art outside an office building:

These fantastic, Tim Burton-esque pieces, called "Moonrise", are by Ugo Rondinone. Much more dramatic and competent photos of these pieces can be seen here.

My stroll took me out to the Ferry Terminal, a perfect spot to enjoy what was turning into a glorious morning. Looking east from the Terminal, the Bay Bridge was a delight to behold:

and, behind me, lay the Financial District, looking prim and proper:

A bunch of stereotypes with legs, the natives joined me en masse at the Ferry Terminal that morning for a farmer's market. There they were, wearing their fleece vests, sampling artisan cheeses and gasping at the sight of organic parsnips. I was truly in the thick of westcoastness. And yes, I made it out alive, sallying forth along the Embarcadero toward Fisherman's Wharf, where flocks of tourists are greeted by an overgrown, grown-over crab-friend---

---and then get to feast their eyes (and abuse their noses) on these guys:

These chunky customers have taken over Pier 39 and while away the days howling, barking, and sleeping in a real pile when they're not shoving each other off the platform. I missed videotaping that but here are some placid moments:

In the distance lay The Rock, القطرس*:

*Note: wanna get stuck into a mind-bending Wikipedia wormhole? Try doing the etymology on "Alcatraz" and "albatross".

That self-same day, I managed to climb the hills to Lombard St, "The Steepest Street in America", then down again, then up again to the San Francisco Art Institute, where in 1931 Diego Rivera left a hell of a calling card:

This painting-within-a-painting features Diego and his artist friends, and several anonymous workers, painting and sculpting images of a giant worker/engineer, depicting him as the person on whom society depends. In those heady days of epic struggle, Rivera and his sympathisers had invested their hopes for a better world in the international working class and left this as a clear message: even our monuments should be seen as the outcome of a collaborative process of production.

The Art Institute (built around an old convent) features another spectacular attraction, the vista from its roof:

There, in the centre of the photo, you see Telegraph Hill, topped by the famous fire-nozzle of Coit Tower. It was my next destination:

Wasn't that quick? Actually, I stopped on the way to grab some famous focaccia from Liguria in North Beach and scarfed it when I reached the top of the hill.

The tower was commissioned at the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit (talk about your tongue-twister names) and built in 1933 to honour the city's firefighters. The New Deal Public Works of Art Project also commissioned fresco murals in the lobby of the tower from San Francisco artists. Deemed "communistic" at the time, the murals depict the daily life of toilers across the state, from fruit-pickers to slaughterhouse workers to city-dwellers, and address contemporary issues such as the stock market crash and increasing social polarisation. Two of the murals were actually considered too provocative to show to the public and so were destroyed before the Tower could be opened. Most of the murals are clearly in the style of Rivera, though some tend more toward romantic visions of the American countryside (and are therefore pretty boring). In one scene, people read newspapers in a library; the headlines spell financial crisis, industrial struggle, and dark news from Europe. In response, a man reaches for a tome:

And that was one of the murals that was saved from destruction! Overall the murals are amazing and worth the climb to the Tower. They really give you a sense of the city's radical history long before the 60s. The Tower itself was closed, unfortunately, so I couldn't go up. My camera also died at this point so I couldn't take more mural photos, but more can be found with a little Googling.

I wound my way back town the hill and through North Beach, stopping at City Lights bookstore for a stickybeak and Vesuvio for a pint. Walking out of the bar and turning the next corner, the scenery changed abruptly:

That's right, San Francisco has a Little Sydney!

Actually, they call it "Chinatown". All kidding aside, this might be the prototype Chinatown (with the exception of China itself, of course) and still claims to be the biggest one in the West. I'm not sure how these things are judged, because Sydney claims to have, I believe, the second biggest Chinatown in the West, but the Chinatown in New York seems bigger than the SF one to me in terms of area and population, so that would put Sydney at #3 at best. I also doubt that Sydney is even that high. Regardless, this one presented streets as bustling as any I'd seen in the city and the familiar sights and smells of Chinatowns everywhere.

I definitely took the opportunity to grab some steamed veg dumplings as a little pre-dinner snack and simply strode around, a gleeful smirk on my face, my feet aching from two massive days of rambling. My belly a veritable culinary UN, I sauntered off to my hotel, delighted to have a week of San Francisco's cosmopolitan offerings yet to come.

1 comment:

  1. Hey krg,

    Thanks for the mini-tour of San Fran.

    On the Chinatown thing: I reckon Sydney might claim to have the biggest Chinatown in the antipodes. And I think Melbourne claims to have the oldest Chinatown in the antipodes. But, I could probably make a legitimate claim to have both the oldest and biggest of something or other in the antipodes. I also thought that Vancouver claimed to have the largest Chinatown outside of China. But, I don't really know what that means either because China does not need Chinatown ... Vancouver's claim is therefore almost as meaningless as Sydney's. Perhaps the measure should be the quality of the dumplings rather than the size of the district.

    Jen :)