Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Walking in San Francisco

Dateline: 11:18 am January 17, 2010 Filed under:

I had a couple extra hours after the ULI conference in San Francisco in November. So, as I like to do when I’m in that fair city, or when I’m in any great urban place, I took a walk too see the city and grab a bite to eat.

From my hotel, the charmingly faded Pickwick Hotel (I have found no better value in that town, and just a block from the convention center!), I headed around the corner to Market Street, followed the trolley line along crowded Powell Street and Union Square, up the hill past the crowds, and found a little sushi place for dinner.

Like so much of the city, my view out the window between fiddling with my chopsticks and sips of sake was of everything at an incline. The trolley, as it clattered by outside, began above my head on the left side of the restaurant, but descended to below the floor by the time it reached the right. City life: out of balance but fulfilling.

After dinner I boarded the trolley to charge up Nob Hill, back down a little, then up Russian Hill and down towards Fisherman’s Wharf. When the trolley stopped at the top of Lombard Street, we were greeted by a view of the waning moon rising above the Bay Bridge, a sight to melt the heart of even the most jaded tourist.

I got off the trolley at the end of the line and immediately headed straight back up the hill on foot. Every visit I’ve made to San Francisco I take a walk to explore. I like to walk alone, it makes it easier to wander. It may be the variety of architecture, it may be the topography and occasional view, but there is no end to the mystery around every corner there.

I turned east on Francisco Street, and peered through privacy fences at the homes behind, and imagined the view of the bay out their back windows. Francisco Street is one of those streets that appears to be a through street on a map, but in reality only pedestrians can get through on to a flight of steps, whereas cars must veer on to a side street to avoid falling off a 15-foot ledge.

I love encountering streets so steep the sidewalks become stairs. Where Lombard famously switches back for one block, the sidewalk is a block-long stairwell. I climbed it, pausing partway up to gaze across the street in to the home of some pretty people having a dinner party. What did they pay for that place? What do they earn (or inherit) in order to do so? And why are they talking and laughing and not standing at the window admiring the view of the city and bay, as I’d do every waking moment if I lived there? On my climb cars wandered down the hill: a taxi taking tourists on a quick side trip, a local driving out of town guests down the famous hill in his Audi, a dad trying to lull his infant to sleep in the back seat of the Volvo.

I made my way up Russian Hill and along Leavenworth Street, past laundromats and bistros. I paused occasionally to admire a gallery or even an apartment lobby. A couple ahead of me moved on from gazing in the windows of a gallery only to have the proprietor, who was sitting at a sidewalk table enjoying a drink with friends, introduce herself and hope they returned during gallery hours. She could have been selling anything, but it was a true Jane Jacobs moment: the sweet mix of urbanity at a wonderful small scale.

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