Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Recently, I decided to embark on a several day vacation to California's other big city, San Francisco. On prior travels to the Baghdad by the Bay, I often found myself underwhelmed and maybe even a bit bored. This time, however, was anything but that.
After exploring the many nooks and crannies of the city, I concluded that San Francisco was particularly pleasing and charming in just about every realm; especially the aesthetic and culinary aspects, but also the human-scaled gist of the city proper. Other qualities worth mentioning include the unique built environment; itself a wonderful synthesis and grand experiment between the best of the West and East Coasts, and the wonderfully quintessential California vibe and attitude -- easy-going yet conscious is what springs to mind In light of that, I think I can easily say that my long standing urban lust has been satiated.
Aesthetically, it was a gold mine. Seemingly everywhere I went I was greeted by an array of lovely Victorian architecture, with decent amounts of contemporary and art deco/beaux arts work, too. Coming from a place that is a patchwork of suburbs versus a real city, it was absolutely wonderful to be somewhere that had real architectural significance. While good architecture in LA does exist, huge swaths of the city are uninspiring and devoid of character. Perhaps even more special was the seeming absence of abandoned, desolate streets; SF is blessed with a bevy of well-trafficked pedestrian retail, commercial and residential corridors. Without a doubt, one of my biggest gripes with Los Angeles has got to be the relative absence of anything remotely resembling LIFE on the streets. It is not only very unwelcoming, even non-inclusionary, but it also sets and facilitates an unsafe environment.
I was also especially fond of the city’s celebrated food scene. I mean, it was almost like a European city, or something. This was truly a city where its denizens lived to eat, instead of eat to live. A simple stroll in just about any part of the city would reveal restaurants for seemingly every palate and budget (including exotic fare like Nepalese, Basque and Afghan). Thanks to resources like Yelp and active members of San Fran's burgeoning foodie scene, every restaurant I dined at, was of a particular noteworthiness. A random sampling: Tomasso's Pizzeria, Pork's Store Breakfast, Brenda's French Soul Food, House of Nanking – all stellar. One of the best things about the food scene there was the seemingly endless amount of low-key, under the radar, neighborhood-oriented bistros/brasseries/bakeries/deli's/wine bars/etc. Such local establishments are fundamental, because not only do they foster and encourage neighborhood pride; they function as vital forces and hubs of those respective neighborhoods.
Speaking of neighborhoods, despite the sort of uniform upper middle-class lifestyle that gained much momentum during the recent real estate cycle, making many neighborhoods appear "boutiquey" and "cutesy"; real diversity indeed existed. Being an avid urban cityscape and portraiture photographer, it was natural to explore many different locales…And I was largely impressed. The immense breadth and variation of neighborhoods was just short of amazing. Countless neighborhoods were chock full of activity, character, and most importantly, personality. My personal favorites were the neighborhoods of Mission Dolores and the Lower Haight, with an honorable mention to the immediate area flanking Alamo Square. With its tree-studded rows of lovely Edwardian and Victorian homes,Mission Dolores was something totally foreign. Also present were otherworldly quantities of restaurants, too; heaps upon heaps of restaurants selling tantalizing organic fare. On top of that, the neighborhood’s namesake is derived from a vintage-1776 Spanish Mission of the same name. Lastly, it is anchored by one of the more attractive, idyllic parks I’ve seen: Dolores Park.
Elaborating on the neighborhoods, I easily became fond of the rigid street grid and human-scaled size of the city, something that facilitated seamless, easy travel. Perhaps the relatively ease in traversing the city can be attributed to not only the dense nature of it, but the abundance of mass transit options. Nearly every neighborhood I was in, there was what seemed to be an army of buses or trains ready to whisk me to my destination. As a result, even cross town treks or journeys from deep suburbia were rendered to the simplest of commutes; such things are unheard of here. While LA has many fantastic neighborhoods, there is a lack of true cohesion and integration, and thus many neighborhoods function as separate entities; almost like distinct city-states. As a result, many people never leave their respective neighborhoods, creating a rather vapid state of cluelessness, as well as a class of people who have never left their respective neighborhoods.
Speaking of people, I found the people to be generally welcoming and knowledgeable; the people, on average seemed to be much more intellectual and affluent than their average LA counterpart. It seemed as if I had finally arrived in a place where my interests and preferences were no longer foreign; and everywhere I went, I was showered with compliments. The locals were more than happy to assist me with my travels and show (or recommend) me their favorite eateries/neighborhoods/boutiques. This contrasts where in many LA neighborhoods; firstly, many of the locals don’t speak English, or alternatively, have no visible interest in their neighborhood, thus having a lack of any real knowledge on their respective neighborhood.
All in all, my stay in San Francisco was a good one, and a memorable one at that. I had a grand ole time exploring the “Baghdad by the Bay”; photographing, dining, exploring, interacting with new people (thanks Corey and Richel) were all pleasant delightful. San Francisco itself is an experience that I am anticipating repeating many more times.