San Francisco: talking bout a permanent revolution - Halong Junk Cruises

San Francisco: talking bout a permanent revolution

Three different monitors were streaming Japanese cartoons as I stepped into San Francisco’s Hotel Tomo, the only J-Pop hotel I’ve run into in America. A vending machine was selling Gigo Blocks, above some “edamame beanbags”. I went up to my room and felt as if I were stepping into a comic-book: an entire wall was given over to a giant Japanese manga. The corridors in the hotel were the colour of Opal Fruits, and the desk blotter in my room kept glowing long after I’d turned the lights out.

“Re-energize yourself with positivity,” the hotel’s website had advised, and as I watched what looked like some Stanford undergraduates, doors flung open, enjoying a computer scientists’ version of a party in the hallway, I felt so much positivity being re-energized, it almost made me feel a little negative.

This being San Francisco, the kids’ parents were no doubt staying at another Japanese hotel, the Kabuki – all serene rock gardens and shiatsu music – a block and a half away (both are owned by the San Francisco hotel company with the impenitent name of Joie de Vivre). Between the two establishments gleam the discount noodle bars and kitschy origami shops of Japantown. There has been a Japanese community in San Francisco for almost 150 years now; and by 1850, thanks to the gold rush that climaxed the year before, the city already boasted a newspaper published entirely in Chinese.

The Sausalito neighbourhood.

The Sausalito neighbourhood. Photograph: ElOjoTorpe/Getty Images/Moment Open

When I stepped out of Tomo an hour later – like so many hotels in the Bay Area, it sits within a quiet, low-rising residential area, even though it’s an easy 10-minute drive from the skyscrapers downtown – it was to chance upon a secret path, zigzagging past bright houses giddy with flower beds. I followed it up and found myself in the Fillmore Corridor, a highly Franciscan confection of dog-grooming parlours and “artisanal and organic yoghurt” shops.

Everything seems cutting-edge in San Francisco, even though that’s a more or less changeless feature of the city; the place could be the spiritual home of Marx’s “permanent revolution”. Ever since my parents moved, almost 50 years ago, to Santa Barbara, on the road between San Francisco and Los Angeles, I’ve been watching Los Angeles grow more and more infernal, even as San Francisco continues turning out fresh, forward-looking versions of a good life that looks suspiciously like heaven.

The Beats extolled the paradise within in the 1950s; then the Summer of Love and a world in which everything seemed possible in the decade that followed. Hardly had those subsided than gay men in San Francisco’s Castro district were turning a subculture into a self-sufficient community in the 1970s, and farm-to-table restaurants were beginning to change the way we thought of food across the bay in Berkeley. Later, of course, it could only be San Francisco that would become the home of a whole new dimension of existence – cyberspace – when the information revolution gave us new ways to live in the last years of the last century.

In recent times, the upholders of one San Franciscan revolution – the artists and street people lured by its atmosphere of favouring the marginal and imaginative – are fighting it out with the keepers of the latest revolution, the fledgling millionaires of Google and Facebook. Having driven up already stratospheric rents across the city, these fortunates cruise past the homeless in air-conditioned company buses on their way to work in Silicon Valley, 45 minutes to the south. Twitter and Yelp have taken over offices in the long-dilapidated heart of the city, and many worry that the entire metropolis is being turned into a bedroom community for the engineers and venture capitalists who want to live in quaint Victorian houses overlooking the ocean, while commuting every day down to their futuristic “campuses” filled with trampolines.

San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco Bay. Photograph: Marvin M/Getty Images/Moment Open

Yet to have hardcore progressives combatting do-gooding young “Don’t Be Evil”-ites is a “fortunate problem”, as Californians might put it; the most searching look at the sometimes unnerving idealism of Google – the recent novel The Circle – came from another San Franciscan utopian, one who has fashioned his own idealistic communications empire, Dave Eggers. In any case, it was ever thus: after gold was discovered not far from what is now San Francisco, a settlement of 812 people turned, within two years, into a city of almost 25,000, best-known for its gambling joints and bordellos. Why should the second gold rush be any different?

It was in San Francisco that I first encountered the word “microclimate”, speaking for a city of such variegated moods that foghorns sound under radiant summer skies and the temperature can vary by as many as nine degrees from block to block. Quite often, as I watched thick summer fog remaking the high-rises and church towers every few minutes during my first morning in the Tomo, I didn’t know whether I was in grey, shivery Europe or cloudless California; then I drove away from the pea-souper enshrouding Japantown and, a few minutes later, was looking down on pretty houseboats in Sausalito’s sunlit harbour (and, the next day, lost in the blue-skied wilderness of Berkeley’s Tilden Park). When Mark Twain said the coldest winter he experienced was summer in San Francisco, he neglected to point out that you can enjoy summer in mid-December in Marin County, over the Golden Gate bridge, or across the Bay bridge to the east.

What this also means is that every neighbourhood in San Francisco seems to occupy its own universe. Strolling down one of the latest funky neo-Bohemias, on Valencia Street, near downtown, I saw urban murals that suggested, rather aptly, that the place was coming up and falling apart in the same breath. A chiropractor was offering free massages. A hip bar promised sushi “Like Mom Used to Make”. An independent bookshop – they are everywhere in San Francisco – advertised an hour of Zen meditation before it opened on Saturdays. Then I came upon a pirate shop, run by the Dave Eggers Empire, that doubled as a tutorial centre to teach writing to kids who might not otherwise receive much instruction.

The De Young Museum, San Francisco.

The De Young Museum. Photograph: Hans Kwiotek/REX

Even the institutions in San Francisco seem as mobile and committed to self-transformation as its tattooed taxi-drivers. It was a few years since I’d been to Golden Gate Park – the celebrated one time home of free Grateful Dead concerts that also houses a Shakespeare Garden – and when I returned on my recent trip, it was to find a four-storey rainforest and the deepest coral reef display in the world, inside the glassy Renzo Piano-designed box of the new California Academy of the Sciences. Across the spacious plaza outside is the stylish, 21st-century Herzog & de Meuron-crafted De Young Museum, whose ninth-floor observatory allows you to watch clouds veiling and unveiling the city all around. Next door, outside the hushed Japanese Tea Garden, kids on Segways were swooping up to a pop-up stand serving “Gourmet Indian Food”, while elsewhere in the park bison grazed in a paddock.

Head down to the water, between Piers 15 and 17, and you can visit the compulsively fascinating Exploratorium, created by Robert Oppenheimer’s brother Frank, bringing its optical illusions and “social behaviour” lab to a huge new home. Drive into the Presidio nearby, and you find what was long a military base given over to hiking trails and George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic offices, not far from the original site of Burning Man on sometimes “clothing-optional” Baker Beach. My rule of thumb in San Francisco is always to stay away from downtown, whose department stores and congested pavements could be found everywhere from Chicago to Liverpool, and to stick to the neighbourhoods all around, where you quickly lose all sense of whether you’re in the city or the countryside.

Yes, the self-styled “Baghdad-on-the-Bay” can be a little too pleased with itself at times, as the buses advertise “The University of the Best City Ever” and the licence-plates boast, “Better in Berkeley”. When I went one night to the grandmother of “sustainably sourced” restaurants, Chez Panisse, I arrived early in a little cluster of shops in Berkeley to find a “cupcakery,” a shop offering “couture invitations”, and the Holistic Hound natural pet-care centre singing of “Holistic Veterinary Examinations” for your dog, performed by an acupuncturist from Poland.

Yet it’s hard to argue with a city whose alternative newspaper advertises the “Best Indian Pizza” in town. Only a day before I arrived, the XO Erotic Ball and Expo had taken over the 12,000-seat auditorium known (only in San Francisco!) as the Cow Palace. A “Nude-In” had featured men demonstrating, so to speak, for the right to walk naked through the streets. One day later, there was public spanking – for charity – at the Folsom Street Fair, along with gay shrinks and leather fetishists.

Not for everyone, certainly, but San Francisco makes almost a religion of not conforming to expectations. And even as it spends much of its time looking in the mirror, there’s no denying that what it sees there is gorgeous and unique. We associate Los Angeles with the movies, but it was, in fact, San Francisco that was home to the first moving images ever caught on film (by Eadweard Muybridge, an English immigrant, in 1878), as well as the first all-electronic TV and our latest revolution in animated films (thanks to Steve Jobs’ Pixar).

Los Angeles gives us images, in short, but it’s San Francisco that keeps producing visions that have the capacity to change the world. If California is, as I believe, the secret home of the future tense, it’s the Bay Area that is California’s California.
Pico Iyer’s latest book is The Man Within My Head (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Bay watch: three of San Francisco’s emerging neighbourhoods

Cole Valley

Vibe Small town in the big city, the area is home to college grads, pram-pushing parents and the occasional straggler taking a break from Haight Street for a quieter, locals-only neighbourhood that tourists often overlook.

Hidden gem Cole Street, with its pastel-coloured bay-fronted buildings, has a slew of new openings, including cool retro toy shop Tantrum, InoVino wine bar and California-style Mexican diner Padrecito. And don’t forget Say Cheese, a closet-sized cheese shop and deli, standing since 1976. The friendly staff know their fromage and wine, and always endure the midday made-to-order sandwich rush with a smile.

Must-see Keep walking up and up and up (admiring the mix of Victorian and modern homes along Shrader Street) until you reach Belgrave Street, then hang a left towards the rugged steps that lead to Tank Hill for views that stretch from the Golden Gate bridge to the East Bay and beyond.

Outer Sunset

Vibe Here you’ll mingle with fog-loving surfers, families who scored the last of San Francisco’s affordable homes, and hipsters day tripping in from the sunny, always-packed Mission District for some peace, quiet and brunch by the Pacific.

Hidden gem The General Store is a quirky-cool boutique selling handmade jewellery, gorgeous letterpress calendars and photography books. It has a sunny little garden that’s perfect for chatting over a takeaway coffee from Trouble, next door.

Must see The aptly named Outerlands restaurant on the corner of Judah Street and 45th Avenue recently doubled in size, which means the queues for “eggs-in-jail” and kale quiche just got shorter. You’re still welcome to wait on the sidewalk bench, with a bottle of red, under a borrowed wool blanket.

Dogpatch

Vibe Streets of abandoned warehouses have been turned into a buzzing neighbourhood for Silicon Valley tech commuters and local makers – it’s the new home of the Museum of Craft And Design – with a rising accompanying food scene, of course.

Hidden gem It’s hard to miss the sunny yellow building on the corner of 22nd and Minnesota Streets that houses a wine shop, a boutique and Piccino restaurant, but don’t forget it also has a cute little coffee bar – and delicious housemade granola.

Must see Next door to the museum, Magnolia Brewery’s new 10,000-square-foot beer-making, beer-drinking, and meat-barbecuing new digs, Smokestack, boasts 20 beers on tap and 30-day-aged prime rib steaks.

Neighbourhoods text by Rachel Levin

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