San Francisco – October 2015 – Part 3

Haight Street
Haight Street

Click here to read the part 2 of my blog on my trip

Much like most cities, Sundays in San Francisco are just like a slightly toned version of every other day, though its obvious most of the big office buildings and the area around them is far quieter.

I started my Sunday with the intention of catching a bus on Stockton Street and making my way to Haight Street out by Golden Gate Park. Stockton is one of two parallel main streets that run through Chinatown – while it’s neighbour Grant Avenue is the more tourist focused of the pair, with novelty and gift shops, restaurants and the like Stockton feels like the real Chinatown.

Anyway, I reached the bus stop just in time to see the bus I was after pull away, so, while there would be another bus along in a matter of minutes, I thought this was a fine opportunity to walk the 15 minutes or so down to Market Street instead. Walking down this section of Stockton is like entering a different city – while the buildings are clearly those of San Francisco, in the middle of a Sunday morning I seemed to be one of very few non-Chinese people on the street and the grocers, supermarkets and any other kind of shop you care to mention were bustling.

Stockton Street, Chinatown
The view north from the Stockton Tunnel (taken on my last trip)

All along the street from its junction with Columbus to the tunnel that leads into Union Square there is the unique smell I can only assume come from the various shops selling fresh produce or traditional Chinese medicine that I’ve only encountered in Chinatown.

Along with this I don’t think I heard a single phrase of English as I made my way along the street where more elderly people sat on makeshift seats outside stores and young children weaved around the legs of those making their way along the pavements.

All of this combines to give Chinatown the real feeling of being a different place entirely, though with this being the largest in the US and one of the oldest, that probably shouldn’t be surprising.

After passing through the short tunnel at the lower end of Stockton I was suddenly thrust back into a centre of American hyper-commericialism in the form of Union Square. Centre of San Francisco’s higher-end shopping district, the square features all the big chains you’d expect from Macy’s department store (spread across three buildings) to Apple, Disney and the like, along with a few rather fancy looking hotels.

Shop window on Haight Street
Shop window on Haight Street

During my visit the easterly side of the square was something of a building site due to the combination of some fairly serious looking road works and the construction of a new flagship Apple Store. Despite this the small ‘park’ area in the centre was still fairly nice and busy with people resting mid-shopping trip or eating breakfast at one of the outdoor cafes – though I couldn’t see much of the appeal so I continued on down to Market Street where, this time, I managed to catch the bus heading west.

As always in San Francisco there were a few ‘characters’ (to use a typical British euphemism) on the bus but, none-the-less, it was a pleasant ride seeing a bit more of the Tenderloin and then out into ‘The Haight’ where I hopped off by Buena Vista park and made my way into the area famed as the centre of the 1960s ‘hippy’ counterculture movement.

Since I first visited the city in 2006 it seems some of the bigger chains that had taken up residence on the street have receded from The Haight giving back a bit more of the bohemian feeling its reputation suggests it had in days gone by. Either way most of the shops are small stand alone business covering everything from obscure books, custom t-shirts, retro toys and games to a plethora of vintage clothes stores.

Amoeba Records on Haight
Amoeba Records on Haight

While I found the vintage clothes stores somewhat overwhelming (I’m bad enough at clothes shopping at the best of times) I did find some unique items in one shop that dealt in t-shirts and vintage (to me) toys including a hand-held SNES console and a classic giant Transformer – if only I had more room in my suitcase!

One of the highlights of a visit to Haight Street for any music fan is Amoeba Records. Situated at the western end of the street it is probably the second biggest dedicated music store I’ve ever been to (its LA cousin being first) with rack upon rack of CDs, vinyl and even still a fair few cassette tapes covering all genres and ranging from brand new to classic vintage to ‘very used but a bit of a bargain’ type fare.

I spent a fair chunk of time browsing the aisles and working out just what few items I should leave with, an exceptionally hard choice, but just browsing in a place like this is something of an experience and a highlight of my trip.

Zelda street art on Haight
Zelda street art

Making my way back up the other side of Haight I popped into a few more stores, including a nice independent book store where I discovered I’d missed a Travis Barker signing event by 24 hours, before again reaching Buena Vista Park and spotting a cool NES cartridge piece of street art complete with Triforce motif.

At Buena Vista park I found a bus stop with a full route map on the side with the intent of catching a bus down to Castro and Market, but, upon having a look at the map I realised it would probably be a fairly easy walk, even in the rather hot lunchtime sun.

Heading up the southernmost, fairly steep, section of Divisadero Street at the Eastern side of Ashbury Heights it dawned on me I may have been able to take a more scenic route a few blocks further up the hill, but, while the road may have not been much to write home about, it did afford yet more views across the city, this time looking up the length of Market Street with the bay in the distance beyond the fairly impressive sprawl of San Francisco city.

At its summit the road takes a bend and becomes Castro Street and begins its downward incline, again this is a fairly unremarkable stretch of road but I always enjoy seeing new places just in case something leaps out.

Castro and Market
Castro and Market

A block away from the bottom of the hill Market Street cuts across Castro at one of the cities most famous intersections where a huge rainbow flag flies over the junction marking the official entrance to San Francisco’s famed ‘gay district’.

Having really earned its reputation in the 1970s the area now feels remarkably sedate and, aside from the flags and the suggestive names of a few of the establishments along the two blocks ‘south of Market’ it is just like any other part of the city – albeit, at the risk of sounding stereotypical, a rather well-kept bit.

Ok, that’s not strictly true, most parts of the city don’t have a couple of ‘construction workers’ (think The Village People but a bit less disco) sat atop a junction box at an intersection with rainbow stripped crosswalks, jokily cat-calling passersby.

Compared to London’s Soho the vibe around the place was far more relaxed and friendly and the same seemed to be true for the whole Eureka Valley area that lies in the shadow of, the today fog shrouded, Twin Peaks.

Rainbow crosswalk at Castro and 18th
Rainbow crosswalk at Castro and 18th

While in ‘The Castro’ I took a look at the GLBT Historical Society Museum on 18th Street that, while small, offers some interesting insights into the historical relationship between the city and the GLBT(etc) community.

I got the feeling that with more time there could have been a lot more information to glean but the museum’s layout made and arrangement made it feel like a lot was crammed in and it was hard to work out the focus. That said for an independently run and funded museum it was very interesting.

Amongst other things the junction of Castro and Market Streets is one of the main hubs of the public transport network so I took the chance to hop on one of the vintage street cars, I guess we’d call them trams, that trundle from Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf, via the Ferry Building, and back. Despite the trappings of modern public transport the trip up Market Street in these vintage vehicles is something of a novelty as they also retain markings and remnants of their time in service in cities all over the world and they are still used by locals to get around as much as by tourists looking for the novelty factor.

Stairs to the City Lights poetry room
Stairs to the City Lights poetry room

On my way back to the apartment, back in North Beach, I took the chance to pop into City Lights Bookstore and, as I have been every time I’ve visited, was amazed by the place.

Though only comparatively small the shop packs more into three floors than almost any bookstore I’ve seen, while also being home to the publications of the ongoing Beat Movement and maintaining the spirit it had when it opened in the early 1950s.

I started upstairs in the poetry room, up a flight of stairs lined with memorabilia from the Beat Generation it is like stepping back in time as the photos on the wall are arranged in such a way as if they were only just taken and put up, while the room features tables and chairs that may have been their since the store opened allowing people the chance to sit and read at their leisure before or after purchasing.

The middle floor is the more mainstream of the three and is organised like a more conventional bookshop (though some of the books on offer you would never find in a Waterstones or Barnes & Noble) while the basement is packed with reference books and writing on all conceivable subjects divided in a particularly unique City Lights fashion.

Book categories at City Lights
Book categories at City Lights

I couldn’t leave without picking up a few books myself so came away with a book on Neal Cassady, Bukowski’s Ham On Rye and volume one of the City Lights’ trademark Pocket Poets series, Pictures of the Gone World, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Meeting up again with a friend we headed to a small sushi bar on Grant we discovered on my last visit, Mikaku, where once again we had some amazing sushi (despite missing ‘happy hour’ this time) followed by a walk through the Grant Avenue side of Chinatown.

As I said previously this side of the area is far more novelty and tourist oriented and it was fairly amazing how many of the shops sold various swords and knives from the decorative kind to genuinely scary looking weapons – I have to admit though, part of me still wants a Game of Thrones great-sword or Hyrulian Master Sword to hang on the wall.

Heading back to the apartment we rounded off the day by watching a film my friend highly recommended, Silver Linings Playbook, that was available thanks to the Apple TV and Netflix provided in the AirBnB which made for a very enjoyable, relaxing evening after a day on my feet exploring the city.

Read the next part of my San Francisco travel blog here

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