In San Francisco
Dateline June 2014 It was a perfectly lovely adventure. We stayed in Haight-Ashbury in the Metro, a quiet old neighborhood hotel. We prospected the city by bus, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and foot. We were looking for gardeners’ gold, and once we learned the lie of the city (on the obligatory bus tour) and had lunch somewhere on Fisherman’s Wharf (the obligatory tourist stop), we beelined to the most extravagant garden and playground in town: Golden Gate Park.
On the map it’s long and skinny, three miles by only a half-mile wide. We could walk this easily, couldn’t we? We left our hotel early, in high spirits and high sunshine. Self-discipline kept us on the mark and off the big toe of Buena Vista Park on Haight Street, though the steep climb through new (to us) plants under blue skies would have given us commanding views of Golden Gate Park. Sensibly, we substituted a hearty breakfast at The Pork Store Café—it got big pluses from people in the hotel lobby.
The park looked bigger in real life than on the map. Traffic buzzes by and paths meander through rolling woods and greens. In sunlight the glass-and-filigree Conservatory of Flowers razzle-dazzled. We could have been on a set of Downton Abbey. We lingered, parsing the outdoor plantings, loathe to move on.
Hard to believe that most of this park was once “outside land,” windswept, treeless sand dunes. Frederick Law Olmstead said there was no future here and turned down the invitation to create a sister park even larger than his crown jewel, Central Park. Well, the cows helped made this 1000-acre park happen.
By the time we arrived at the Botanical Garden and the Japanese Tea Garden, less than a mile in, the sun was whited out by a high mist slipping in from the Pacific. Compared to the biting soup we experienced on Twin Peaks the previous day, this was a benign teaser. Besides, we’d hit the mother lode with these two gardens, so we tarried, and tarried. You can find our impressions in Great Gardens (see Sidebar).
The park really does owe its existence to cows (horses, too). And to a brilliant engineer named William Hammond Hall, a self-taught landscape architect who surveyed the park in 1871, then became its first Superintendent. In just five years he designed the park, conquered shifting sands with lupine and grasses, planted thousands of trees, and stamped it with his vision as a place where people can walk on a Sunday afternoon and lose themselves in a world of greenery.
Now, to give credit to the livestock. Horses pulling wagons on roads and cows grazing in meadows produced tons of manure, just the ticket to wake up sandy soil. Check the map and you’ll find a district called Cow Hollow northeast of the Park, formerly a lagoon and meadows where cows grazed and dairy farms thrived. Today, the boutique-y, bustly neighborhood we found as we walked along Union Street gives no hint of its bucolic past.
Well, W H Hall was his own man, brilliant, but irascible. In five years he was gone and Scottish master gardener John McLaren, continued Hall’s work. A much loved and respected leader, he guided the park for 53 years until 1940. His mantra: No Keep Off The Grass signs. Like Hall, he felt statues, or “stookies,” did not belong in a park for people. “Aye, then we’ll plant it ott,” he would say before hiding a statue behind greenery. A statue of John McLaren stands unscreened in the park today. Pity there is no statue to Hall.
Did we finish our walk in the park? You’ve probably guessed the answer to that. Time was short and new horizons waited around a corner. We hailed a bus going west toward the Pacific, then walked north through the Richmond District to Geary Boulevard where we found the Holy Virgin Cathedral, also called Joy of All Who Sorrow.
This Russian Orthodox Church with its five gold onion domes and mosaics of holy men above the front doors brought back memories of our time in St. Petersburg. Inside, wherever we looked, holy relics, mosaics, and fine religious paintings in the Russian tradition decorated the sanctuary. Gold leaf glowed in soft light streaming from the dome, and stained glass windows cast filtered pools.
At the other end of the religious spectrum lies Mision San Francisco de Asis, popularly known as Mission Dolores after Mater Dolores, Our Lady of Sorrows. It is simple and small, dwarfed by the gleaming white basilica next door. The mission is the historic and geographic epicenter of San Francisco. More or less centrally located, she’s the oldest building in the city, rising in the late 18th century as our nation was birthing, and surviving the 1906 earthquake.
We came to see the small cemetery and its quiet, old, amorphous, garden. Many years ago, the cemetery was the resting place of some 5,000 natives and early immigrants. But a growing town needed space, so skeletons were exhumed, carted elsewhere to accommodate the living.
Old wooden markers splintered with time, so ancient graves beneath us are unseen, unidentified. Layer upon layer of dead. Today, an Ohlone hut reminds us of the original residents and a lovely statue pays tribute to a founding Father, Junipero Serra, but neither says a word about the price paid by natives caught in the snares of colonialism.
Typically, the gravestones are 19th century. We read names and dates, and we realize we are reading history. Casey, Flynn, Murphy and McCarthy lie near Sanchez, Francesca, Navarro and Valencia. Smith, Baker, White and Weinberg share space, too. These are final faces of a Mexican territory resting along side immigrants escaping famine and following the trail of the gold rush, adults and children alike cut down early by disease.
We took time to pay our respects in a different sort of garden, this one at the USF Mount Zion Medical Center. The Healing Garden there features an entire wall of botanical tiles, 500 in all, that tell stories of hope, love, despair, yearning, courage, strength, faith, and celebration of life. Ann Chamberlain, beloved San Francisco artist, gathered these poignant reflections from women being treated for cancer and commemorated them with botanical artwork. Ann died of breast cancer in the spring of 2008 at age 56.
If Ann Chamberlain’s work expresses her belief that nature and art can change lives, then Maestrapeace, the four-story mural on the Women’s Building on 18th Street celebrates the healing power of women. It’s a vibrant tribute to sisterhood and the strength of women, seamlessly linking myth and culture by endless twists and turns of ribbon patterned with—yes—flowers, bold and stylized.
Like The Healing Garden, Maestrapeace was community-supported. Only after thousands of surveys were combed for suggestions did painting begin. The seven artists and their assistants were serenaded, cooked for, and given flowers. In 1994, when the mural was unveiled, the Center celebrated the final payments on its mortgage.
San Francisco, we decided, is a city of murals. We found them in alleyways, avenues, parking lots and a BART station in the Mission district. They transform nondescript buildings and rancid alleys into eye-popping personal statements. They’re bold, psychedelic, apocalyptic, whimsical, macabre, fanciful, mellow, futuristic, angry, humorous, pastoral, primitive, sophisticated, thoughtful, in-your-face. They tackle GMOs, sexuality, war, pacifism, big business, bigotry, injustice, farming, immigration, murder and mayhem. Their manner and their message aim to puncture comfortable horizons.
Which brings us to the City Lights Bookstore where a new age of writers was puncturing comfortable horizons in the fifties and sixties. Here is where Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, (and the landmark free-speech trial– successful– that followed) jolted literary and cultural taboos. Today this bookstore that’s named for a Charlie Chaplin movie is a city landmark in North Beach. a neighborhood that has an Old World feel to it. Times are tamer, but the Dickensian ambiance invited us to slow down and poke around.
Puncturing horizons must be in the bones of the city. Two decades earlier, the WPA hired talented art students to paint murals on the walls of Coit Tower, a four-star stop on today’s tourist agenda. Detailed and clever, the murals picture life in the thirties: farm hands, meat packers, factory assembly lines, crowds on city streets, the rich and the poor. Doggone, if these kids didn’t turn the assignment into sly and not-so- sly social commentary. The murals that cover the walls are as grand as the views from the tower.
And then there was the Summer of Love in 1967, preceded by all those hippies camping in faded Haight-Ashbury who, among other pursuits, began to jazz up the facades of gloomy old Victorians, for fun and to—well—prick establishment horizons. And soon after, Painted Ladies became au courant.
We have gone afield from our garden mania, but how could we not? If you are wondering whether we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, we did. In fog. (Multi-tasking.) Then we cruised under it on a bright afternoon to look back at this city on a bay and watch birds and kites whipping in and out of the sun.
In fairness, we had to give equal time to the Bay Bridge. As we walked along the Embarcadero after dusk toward the Ferry Building, we watched the world’s largest LED light sculpture, Bay Lights on the Bridge, twinkle against a porcelain sky.
Mesmerized by man-made stars, we temporarily forgot that under our feet lay the eastern origins of the city, once a cove called Yerba Buena by the Spanish, its marshes, along with sailing ships abandoned during the gold rush, filled with spoils to create a town.
We climbed Alamo Square for a look at the fabled post-card Painted Ladies, decided they needed facelifts and moved on to discover some beauties on a guided walking tour and on our own. We lunched on fresh fish at that historic, bustling restaurant of Gold Rush vintage in the Financial District, Tadich Grill, and we had some great meals in local, unheralded eateries. And we confess to sampling scrumptious confections in a North Beach coffee shop of Old World vintage. Hey, we needed the energy for all the walking we were doing. Right?
We missed Alcatraz. Instead, we bus-toured to Muir Woods and saw a lumberjack’s dream and an environmentalist’s prize. Somehow, people chatter and paved walks did not conjure visions of John Muir. Maybe if we’d caught shafts of sunlight. . .
We scrambled onto a cablecar and marveled at the mechanism, had to visit the museum that told us all about it, but we didn’t hang onto the running boards. And we climbed Nob Hill, though we didn’t intend to, and we wondered why some people would actually jog up this hill. We stopped at Top of the Mark, but we felt too hot and rumpled to go up for the view. (After freezing at a bus stop the previous night, we over-dressed for daytime; I guess you can count that as a bonified tourist experience.)
Oh, did I mention that we rode buses and chatted up people along the way?( Except for those who spoke in tongues. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to need answers.)
As I said, it was a perfectly lovely adventure. Some day we are hoping to go back and retrieve our hearts.