My first trip to California was to Los Angeles over twelve years ago. Sadly, it ended with me terrified in the front seat of a speeding car being driven by a one-eyed bipolar drug addict trying to see if his car could fly on Malibu drive. I survived, but it took me a good twelve years to work up the nerve to fly across America again.
This weekend I flew into San Francisco for the first time after an over 7-hour flight from New York, which is a shock only because I always forget that the U.S. spans an entire continent. I had been told to pack thermals and jackets because of the temperamental weather of the Bay Area, but the city was unseasonably warm as I landed. Almost immediately the light of California bathes you and everything else in a clear, warm glow. And as you rive down the highway with the Golden Gate bridge emerging from behind a foggy mountain, it’s not hard to see why people wax on about the city.
Ocean views gave way to streetscapes, and eventually I spotted the familiar looking steep streets, lined like in the pictures with clusters of pastel-coloured houses that make up the most enduring image of San Francisco architecture. My hotel was in an area called Union Square, a central if touristy neighbourhood surrounded by shops you’ll find all over the country. Except that they, like everything else in San Fran, are 50% more expensive than anywhere else.
You sense that the city lives in people’s imaginations more than in reality, stuck as it is in a particular time period
You realize fairly quickly that to walk in the city can often turn into a Level Five hike, but it was worth it as I spent my first evening exploring the an area called the Castro, which is famed as the centre of much American-based LGBTQ history and culture. It’s littered with cute cafes, independent bookstores, and ice cream shops, all decorated with the ubiquitous rainbow flag. It was smaller than I had imagined – no more than few streets across – but crammed with history and glitter. The hiking prepared me for my excursion the next day to what I was most looking forward to in SF: the Redwood Forests.
Located about 45 minutes outside of the city, the redwoods are vast, ancient trees that are among the oldest and largest living things on Earth, many upwards of 300 feet and over 2,500 years old. The trees – I’m tempted to call them beings – have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. At one point redwood forests covered most of what is now Northern California, but centuries of logging and exploitation mean that the giants now exist only in particular protected areas. One of these areas is the Muir woods, where I went for a long hike with some friends on yet another hot day. Pictures do not do justice to how truly gargantuan these trees are. Their trunks extend twenty, sometimes thirty feet across, and the forest floor is littered with fallen trunks that form makeshift bridges and pathways themselves. Walking at the foot of these giants means you can’t often see their tops, which is just as well because they look almost too big, and inspire the same sense of the sublime that I feel when standing at the edge of a tall cliff.
The rest of my time was spent seeing museums (SF MoMA and de Young are the better ones) and exploring dim sum in the oldest Chinatown in America. In addition to the landscape of the city, you realize quickly that different neighborhoods have entirely different micro climates. It’s bizarre! One second it’s warm and summery, while the next an arctic wind howls at you to wear layers, followed a second later by some fog and then sun again. By the end I just gave up and wore pajamas everywhere.
Everyone there who I spoke to complained about how the city was too expensive now, and also had a potent homelessness problem – both of which you can see plainly the minute you land. You also sense that the city lives in people’s imaginations more than in reality, stuck as it is in a particular time period not rooted in the current. You can still see the last vestiges of 1960s flower children, or the LGBT culture of the late 1970s and ‘80s. But for the most part the specter of Big Tech looms everywhere (the HQ for Google, Facebook, Whatsapp are all not far outside the city), driving up the prices of everything from homes to coffee to apartments to even public transport.
The result is that the city felt fundamentally broken in some way, propped up through internet cash rather than cultural relevance. It has already become nearly unrecognizable from what I’ve read made SF famous in its heyday.
Still, it’s a beautiful picturesque city, despite the expensive real estate above crack addicts.
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