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  • Writer's pictureJTF

The Paris of the West: San Francisco

BART, BART, BART... I make my way through the airport looking for BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. I was welcomed to the bay area by a bed of clouds that blanketed the field and made for a refreshing low visibility landing. Once landed, the search for BART began, the facility is convenient and relatively updated.

A couple of things become apparent from the start: 1. Peet's coffee rules over San Francisco and 2. the population on the area is a mix of every stereotype associated with the city. From fantasies of revisiting the summer of love to techies running up and down glued to their screens and wearing their quintessential black vests. Tourists and residents alike are looking for a sense of adventure in the city by the bay. Residents, old residents at least, do not seem too amused by us, however. Residents who indeed lived through the summer of love or the city's iterations of San Francisco in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, all look with a somewhat puzzled yet welcoming resigned acceptance at what the city has become. BART!

At last, although airport signage is available, the terminal for the railroad system is actually attached to a garage and only accessible by tram between terminals. The station is outdoors, and while the forecast called for the 60s, the fog and the wind quickly make it apparent that 50s or less is more likely to be the weather for the platform.

It is not long before a short height and squared compartment train makes its appearance, and what it lacks in height or modernity, it makes up in length as it runs deep into the platform, reminding me of the cargo carts displayed in Star Wars movies without the galaxy or storm troopers in the background. The door opens, and 'we 'make our way into one of its compartments. The group consists of an old couple who is extremely pleased to have seats 'reserved for them,' as the seats were reserved for senior and/or disabled passengers. They are likely visiting the area as do millions of baby boomers who still have time and resources to do so. Also, in the cart techies wearing their black vests, a couple of teenagers playing music way too loud, and a small mix of the old residents is sprinkled throughout the cart.

I couldn't have made the mix more stereotypical if I cast them; one has to wonder if the others look at me with the same idea and what' role' have I've been assigned in their story. The door closes, and an announcement comes through the PA that the train will remain in the station for a few more minutes. While being away from the cold wind is welcomed, it becomes apparent that the city's transportation system is not on par with its high tech expectations and prices.

The train finally begins its journey; through tunnels and corridors, it would appear that it will be a subterraneous journey into the city. Yet, in an instant, light shows the most lucid and bluest sky with rolling hills and the foggy bay in the background. The area is sprinkled with developments that would make any city planner cringe, but that somehow melt into the natural landscape full of rolling hills.

The first stop is a few minutes from the start, as the doors open, our first recruits, the loud teenagers, make their way out or at least tried to. A flock of at least 12 Chinese in multiple generations and strollers charges the doors. It begins to board the train blocking the exit for the teenagers. From the background, a young female with too much makeup and the most prominent eyelashes she could find scolds the flock and tells them to let them through. The teenagers murmur that 'it's alright' and then look at the congregation and say 'nǐ hǎo,' a look of puzzled disgust comes over the flock. With a smile, the teenagers finally depart the cart. The entire family clumps in the side of the cart and everyone speaks perfect English, although older generations sometimes swap between. A few more stops and the layers of the population that now compile the city shuffle on and off, making the cart overflow in a standing room finale where the downtown stations lay.

I make my way to the door, and fortunately, no 'nǐ hǎo' is uttered for me. Up the broken escalator (and it is steep), I am welcomed with a sunny day, blue skies, a cold breeze, and a distinctively Victorian-style architecture. It is buzzing and very near Union square. Through the busy streets, it's quintessential San Francisco, with its steep hill streets, open-air tram carts, and all the building landmarks one imagined. They all sit pleasantly atop the hills. The shops and theaters announce that although within the financial district, this is the tourist hub of the city. The hotel beckons over the skyline, and its 1930s architecture has been restored to near-mint condition. Through the doors, a safe haven from the bustling noise and the area's homeless seem welcoming after a coast to coast flight.

San Francisco is unique, it is literally layers upon layers of history and development clump together into what it was at one time deemed the 'Paris of the west.' Today San Francisco is less Parisian and more classic California, an identity which has been forged over the second half of the XX century by events that will bestow the city with its heritage and historic landmarks; there are so many that it is hard to decide where to start.

The first stop by geographical selection is Chinatown, which finds its origin as a ghetto in a period the city wishes to forget at times. Next, Union Square beams with the glory of American consumerism expressed in its most prominent iteration Christmas. Although it is early November, the plaza is decorated in full Christmas regalia and its store lined streets leave no doubt that the season for shopping is now. An ice rink, and a Christmas tree complete the decor.

On the side of the square, at a very peculiar and understated counter, a 'millennial' awaits with partially orange hair, different shades of blue nails, and my reservation. A release form, a few instructions, and it is off to the concrete jungle in search of market street and embarcadero.

The city's urban development has favored alternative transportation, as have many global capitals. In a market where it is hard to get a closet, let alone a parking space, residents opt for the most absurd and diverse means of transportation. Displaying both American ingenuity and the oppressing weight of a housing crisis in the area. Bike lanes, fortunately, have sprung as part of the city's solution to their limited housing crisis.

Down the hill seems better than up, but I'm reminded that the return place is the same as the pick up while I make my way to the pier. The chill has now turned into a cold shriek, but the sun is shining, and the bay awaits. My original plan was to ride across the bay, through the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito, and the back. The original itinerary failed, however, not only by the weather but by overcrowding of tourists, particularly around Pier 39 and its now overgrown retail vicinity. They voraciously consume 'anything' that's available, making it hard to enjoy or get through the area altogether. Even the sea lions have vacated their residence as the pier receives a facelift and new facilities. As a tourist myself, I can see the irony with the situation. However, there is a distinct difference between responsible tourism etiquette and the mob scene behavior displayed in Pier 39.

Crowds begin to lighten towards fisherman's wharf and Fort Mason, revealing another part of history that the city holds among its collection of historical jewels. The sight of Alcatraz also shines among a light fog with its larger natural sibling Angel's island in the background. Ferries run up and down the bay along with cargo ships. The city's history of entrepreneurial leadership is everywhere from Wells Fargo to Ghirardelli to the current mavericks sprung from the tech revolution. The charm of the bay and the expansive grounds of Fort Mason make for a more pleasant and open view of what it truly is a natural wonder.

Most days, the Golden Gate Bridge should sparkle its red coat in the background. Still, fog appears to be descending on the bay, and the reason for its red rust color becomes more a matter to safety and practicality than a fashion choice. The variety of microclimates that the unique shape and natural landscape afford the area is indeed a puzzling wonder and one of the most distinctive features of the city.

Fort Mason has enjoyed several iterations since it was established by the Spanish empire as a military outpost. Later becoming the embarkation point during the Gold Rush, and finally the military entryway to Asia, Hawaii, and Alaska. During both WWI and WWII the fort served as the main departure point to entire generations of men who left its shores to redefine modern history. It's final architectural revival done Mission style was part of the military revolution and saw the last boom of the facility after the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, the fort ceased operations in 1963.

Further to the west, Marina blvd is a pedestrian and cycling haven where residents and tourists alike come for views of the bay. At the end of it, the outskirts of El Presidio and the Palace of Fine Arts welcome visitors to one of the largest green areas east of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Palace of Fine Arts was commissioned for the Panama-Pacific exhibition, an event envisioned to promote San Francisco after the fires of 1906 caused by a significant earthquake destroyed the city. The structure was designed to showcase the city's renaissance and tell the world it was once again open for business; it was a masterpiece of its time.

In similar fashion to the Eiffel Tower, and reflecting on the city's moniker. What was originally to be a temporary display, became one of the city's most notable and beautiful landmarks. Today it is the preferred choice for wedding couples to take pictures among its charming and romantic grounds. The wiping ladies with their backs to the viewers are perhaps the most striking staple of architecture. In the original temporary design, they were envisioned to have trees coming out of them to symbolize life springing from mother nature as their tears water them. The project was never finished on time for the exposition's temporary structure. Afte,r the city decided to build a permanent replica, and design choice was left untouched, creating a more artistic impact and a welcome break for the landscape department.

While the original plan had intended to continue by the shore of el presidio, a Spanish outpost, turned military base, and finally national park's landmark, then across the bridge to the town of Sausalito and then back by ferry. The fog and the inclement weather have made it impossible to complete the journey. Defeat must be acknowledged, and the historical memory of the legend of Hitler's flying over Paris after its surrender only to find the city blanketed in clouds in what romantics labeled as the city's attempt to hide its virtues from his eye. San Francisco's moniker rings valid once again, and I retreat not as a villain but a humbled spectator of both nature's bounty and history. Up is not better than down, and this becomes apparent as the trip back to Union Square proves to be an athletic challenge and another humbling experience. Victory is won by those who persevere, however. After some prayer worthy climbs, the bike is safely returned to the 'millennial' still sitting at his peculiar stand.

Back at the hotel, a newspaper clipping from 1929 announces the initial building development for a whopping 1.25 million to build a 16 story building. It is both baffling and ironic that in a market where 1.25 million does not buy more than 1 bedroom today. The remodel saw its first 300 rooms remodeled and expanded to a more manageable 150 plus property. After the climb, I am ready for a drink. At the bar, the bartender enlightens me on both the city's unpredictable weather and some of its most peculiar locales, sharing the city's unique and bohemian hospitality with her delivery. Without a proper pronoun offered, I'll have to use that which suits the way 'she' was presenting. Curly mohawk and black uniform, she is busy setting up the bar while I make my way through the menu. I settle for Anchor steam, which is originally from San Francisco and already familiar. I also choose a carb-loaded flatbread that the bartender promote to me as 'I don't eat those kinds of things, but people seem to like it.'

It is Sunday night and I would like to make my way to a 'venue' for a night out on the town but given weather, jet lag, and a now oppressing glucose crush, I appear to only make it to some shops for some necessary hand gloves and window browsing. I am determined to conquer the city tomorrow. With better knowledge of it, I set my plans for the following night.

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