San Francisco Part II

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More random thoughts/observations/opinions on SF:

I visited SF's Skid Row on steroids, the infamous Tenderloin, to eat brunch at Brenda's French Soul Food. Though I had visited the neighborhood before, this time the neighborhood seemed sketchier, and more on edge than normal. Passing through the neighborhood en route to my hotel, the “sights” I saw were straight up appalling. In its hyper- gritty nature, The Tenderloin, colloquially and affectionately known as "Da T-L" reminded me more of a festering slum in a 3rd world city, like Mogadishu, Beirut or Rio de Janeiro, than it did the surrounding neighborhoods. The trademark posh ubiquity associated with San Fran was nowhere to be found. It seemed as if, everywhere I looked abandonment, dereliction, decay, homelessness and of course, vagrancy, were the norm. The characters were the kind of people I’d expect from such a neighborhood, with some people being almost sub-human, and more like wonders or animals. As hinted in the above sentence, the people were…..interesting to say the very least. In addition to the standard drugged-out Vietnam Veteran, I came across pimps, hustlers, and cross dressers. The most disturbing of the demographics present were those who chose to defecate in broad daylight, unfazed by the pedestrians and bystanders. Many, many more were disillusioned, lost in various states of trance or more commonly, strung out. Continually, I asked myself, why the city of San Francisco would allow such a travesty to flourish and prosper, especially given its central location to Downtown and other, ritzier locales. That is a question that I’ll probably never know the answer to, probably because, as is the case with other bureaucratic entities (i.e. city governments), it makes too much sense. However, despite its many shortcomings, I found “Da T-L” to be a treasure trove of fine architecture, and if things change for the better, a place with virtually boundless potential.

Another place I especially was fond of was the Haight; replete with its Hippie vibe and associated head shops, lovely rows of colorful 3-story ornately-appointed Victorian homes, and rich historical grounding. Walking in the Haight was akin to entering a time machine with the destination being the San Francisco of 1960’s…almost. While many of the things that eventually defined the era have since departed the city, vestiges of them do remain. And despite being a shell of its former self and as a whole, a lot calmer, The Haight was a very lively entity. My main reason for being in the neighborhood was for breakfast at Pork’s, my 2nd visit was, in fact. As my return to the establishment would lead one to think, I was most highly satisfied with my breakfast at Pork’s. Both times, I ordered the pancakes; blueberry the first, and banana the second, with chicken sausage links and shredded potatoes. Once again, both times were quite heavenly, and of course, memorable. I mean, just the thought alone is tantalizing. While it’s hard to really draw comparisons of such a unique neighborhood to anywhere, the one place that did come to mind was Venice. The reasons are obvious; the trinity of artists, bohemians and hipsters; the far-out, unyielding, eccentric vibe and creativity that dominates (or once did); and to a lesser extent, distinct architecture (Victorians vs. Contemporary) and burgeoning street culture.

Also, I noticed that several of my interests conflicted and were the subject of much disagreement with my San Franciscan friends. For instance, pretty much the whole North and North East of the city, was a tourist badland in their minds. These places had been despised because of the yuppie and frat demographic prevalent in these parts, and I suppose, the sheer amount of tourists visiting those places. Despite this, I had a good time and enjoyed several places I those places, with Nob Hill & North Beach being favorites, with a notable mention to the Marina/Cow Holly nexus. Nob Hill and North Beach were almost too good to be true. Nob Hill was this awesome, wonderful picturesque neighborhood situated and beset by hills of the same name; and as one would expect, those hills afforded awesome views in just about every direction. Though a little bit less hilly, North Beach was another amazing urban entity. Traditionally known as the city’s Italian neighborhood, the nabe is dotted with trattorias and ristorantes on just about every block. At the center of the nabe was the Saint Peter and Paul’s church; the church was an impressive sight to see, and it’s ornate and grandeur nature illustrates the church’s once powerful influence. The Mission, with its gritty authenticity, and position as the hub of Latino culture in San Fran, too, was cool. And La Taqueria pretty much has the best burritos around…something I say as an emissary from the Mexican food capital of the ‘States.

>Another plus in San Fran’s favor the amount of people riding their bicycles in San Francisco. Not that it doesn’t take place here, but aside from organized bike groups and a few die-hard bike aficionados, it just doesn’t happen here. Bicycle-riding, coupled with human scaled and friendly-living (not in terms of rent!), the preponderance of mass transit, and relative ease to find most amenities/necessities, makes San Fran a whole lot livable of a city.

San Francisco Pt.I

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.

2009 Thai New Year Festival

Monday, April 6, 2009

Yesterday I attended the 2009 Songkran Festival, a festival of gargantuan proportions dedicated to the Thai New Year.

The festival's sheer size (which is the largest anywhere): taking up half a mile's worth of East Hollywood, is a testament, speaking volumes about the raw diversity of Los Angeles. Despite its relative success, the festival is still in its infancy, this being only its 6th year -and my first. Anyways, the event was packed to the gills, with what seemed to be a broad, never-ending expanse of people as far man is concerned. Present at the festival, was a huge cross-section of Thai overseas culture; a myriad of arts & crafts and food vendors, performers dancing and singing to traditional Thai tunes, a Muay Thai fight, a Singha beer garden and a beauty pageant. Oddities included the ubiquitous Thai ladyboys, death metal bands and bizarrely enough, a curry cook-off.

I got there sometime around 12:30, after taking what I call the Metro "Grand Prix" ; the (lethal) combination of the Green, Blue and Red Lines. Upon emerging from the Hollywood/Western Metro station, I was greeted by an almost dizzying monotony of people - one as far as the eye can see. People of all colors, hues, shapes, sizes, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds had descended on the venue. I thought to myself, pretty much the whole LA human gamut was represented. Walking around, I was welcomed by several enthusiastic, jubilant locals, many of who instructed me to take their photos. Later on, having visited and exhausted the extensive site offerings, I pretty much delved into my normal photography realm. The aforementioned was not to be done before feasting on delicious Thai goodness on a stick -- satay.

Without further adieu:

The "Other" Downtown Los Angeles

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Despite the far-reaching strides made to improve Downtown's image and character over the course of the past few years, a clear majority of Downtown wasn't as fortunate. While it would be foolish to deny the impact gentrification and the ensuing redevelopment had on the area, the said areas that benefited altogether comprised a small portion of Downtown itself. These areas, which are all over DTLA, but typically, east of Main St., weren’t lucky enough to have prospered in recent times.

Despite the gentrification wave running pretty much the duration of the credit and speculation-filled 2004-2008 real estate "boom" having forever altered the face of Downtown, the momentum wave had yet to hit the many periphery and outlying neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods and areas, in and around Downtown, such as Westlake, City West and other close-in urban areas largely faltered. The real losers, though, were those with no real merit or redeeming qualities. Such areas remained, for the most part, relatively untouched, largely desolate and barren.

The end result was hardly surprising. What we were left with, was more of the same. The near-ubiquitous widespread abandonment and ghost-town feeling; the destitution and blight; a population characterized by social outcasts and rejects such as the estranged, vagrants and the drug and alcohol-addled. And while the aforementioned demographics aren't the only walk of life one will encounter in Downtown, they are among the most enduring and visible.

Accompanying the said groups is a patchwork of working class Hispanics; with the majority being Mexicans of Indigenous backgrounds. Not far behind are the Central Americans, led by Salvadorians, but also present Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans. With low-income Hispanics being the largest demographic, it comes as no surprise that the majority of businesses located there, in one way or another, are tailored to appeal to that market. The cautious new-immigrant arrivals, hawking their wares; the smell of carne asada and pupusas wafting from arcades and sidewalks; the cluttered, dimly lit storefronts that are home to countless knockoff clothing outlets, shady free-abortion clinics, travel agents and “30 minute photo” shops only serve to exemplify that.

Seen in the photos below, is the Downtown of old. The parts that have escaped hands of gentrification, and instead conform to the above-mentioned descriptions. Perhaps these photos are indicative of, and illustrate the "stereotypical" Downtown; the one made out by many to be a mélange of sleaze, grit, dereliction, destitution and generally speaking, a forsaken utopia; bypassed, and left to rot in favor of auto-centricity and suburbia.........