26 February, 2010

The Ruins of Wolf House

One of the many beautiful parks of Sonoma County is Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen. It was the home of the great writer Jack London until his death in 1916. His wife, Charmian, continued to live there until her death in 1955. London built his dream home, called Wolf House, on the property. It was a magnificent home that he hoped would stand for a thousand years. Unfortunately, a month before he was to move into the home, it mysteriously went up in flames. He died before he could rebuild. The remains of the home are hauntingly beautiful and he may have his dream, as I imagine the ruins will be there for at least a thousand years. The London's graves are also on the ranch, on a beautiful hilltop overlooking the Valley of the Moon.

20 February, 2010

Bad Art at the Wharf

I know it's about as surprising as sand at the beach or grease at McDonald's, but I was truly taken aback by this egregious violation of taste in a shop near Ghirardelli Square. These ubiquitous "galleries" are really just outlets for outrageously expensive frames, but whatever happened to pretty whales and softly-lit thatched cottages? With apologies to the artist, this looks like something you'd find at a rummage sale for $3.99 (and you'd bargain down to $2). I didn't see how much they were asking for this piece, but I think it's slightly more than you'd like to imagine.

18 February, 2010

San Francisco's Notre Dame

Here we have the Eglise Notre Dame de Victoires on Bush Street. The area is The City's "French Quarter", home to the Consulate of the French Republic and several fine French restaurants and cafes. The church has served the needs of the French community since 1856 when Pope Leo XIII signed a decree placing the church in the hands of the Marist Fathers in perpetuity. The present structure dates from 1915. It's a small but stunningly beautiful church and features some very strange, coin-operated, electric votive candles. The only other place I've encountered these strange things is in France, which makes sense.

10 February, 2010

20¢ Wash

I don't think you'll actually find this bargain once you step inside this launderette. The days of 20¢ washes and a 10¢ dry are somewhat behind us. I love it when old signs remain in place for decades. This one has a bit of product placement as well. The 1980s font on the main sign isn't aging so gracefully.
Today there are fewer and fewer places to wash your laundry as our city becomes home to people who wouldn't dream of doing their laundry in a public place. I can't pretend to enjoy the hours I spend in places like this, but they have a way of breaking up the harried pace of life.

06 February, 2010

Kitsch As Kitsch Can

Back in Chinatown once again. We're approaching Lunar New Year (The Year of the Tiger) on the 14th of February. I visit this place a couple of times a month and I always manage to find some new corner that fascinates. San Francisco's Chinatown is unique in the U.S. both in scale and architecture. Actually, there's nothing like it in China, let alone the rest of the world. A product of post 1906 Earthquake and Fire civic boosterism, the area abounds in some very stylized and "exotic" interpretations of "Chinese" architecture. This could be interpreted as inauthentic if it weren't so remarkably interesting in itself. Seeing as the area is still predominantly Chinese (unlike the "Italian" North Beach a few block away which is mostly populated by non-Italians ), one can perceive all of this as a legitimate expression of Chinese-American culture. Sure, the tourists gawk and saunter along Grant Avenue, but notice, the next time you're there, that many of those tourists are Asian. They're happily snapping photos of something rather extraordinary. 21st century Asia is developing so quickly that's it's wiping out huge portions of its 19th and early 20th century urban landscape. People from all over the world will increasingly seek out this human-scaled, early 20th century reminder of a vanishing world. Could the developers of 1907 Chinatown envision Chinese tourists of the year 2010 traveling thousands of miles to a place that's, ironically, more "Chinese" than the increasingly generic "global" cities they leave behind? I doubt it.
Here's one of my favorite corners. Commercial and Grant. From all angles it's got a great look. There's a photo in the window of the Eastern Bakery of President Clinton enjoying a bun. Lovely.

03 February, 2010

The Cables of Cable Car Fame

There's a bit of understandable confusion regarding the names of the many vehicles that make up The City's public transport system or MUNI. Calling a cable car a "trolley" is almost as bad (but not quite) as referring to this city as "Frisco" (or the new horror, "San Fran")*. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that most American cities have neither of these once popular forms of transport and people just aren't used to having to distinguish between two things they rarely see. It's pretty simple; trolleys (or streetcars) use a pole or pantograph to draw their power from overhead lines and cable cars are pulled along by a non-electrified underground cable. The Cable Car system is mechanically complex and cumbersome (hence the fact that San Francisco, the Cable Car's birthplace, is the only city where you'll find the things running). You can learn more about this fascinating network by visiting the Cable Car Barn at 1201 Mason at Washington. It's a remarkable monument to Victorian engineering and admission is free. I've left a little movie here that features the big wheels (or sheaves, pronounced "shivs") that pull the cables underneath the street of San Francisco.
*I'll pretty much leave this debate for other forums. My understanding, which was instilled in me as a child, was that The City was named in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi (an all-around good guy regardless of your religious faith or lack of it) and therefore should NEVER be referred to using a diminutive. We don't say Saint Lou or San Joe, or at least we shouldn't. I think "San Fran" is infinitely uglier than "Frisco" ever was.