In the shadow of the bridge

When nothing else is happening on a quiet weekend afternoon, I will often go for a walk through our neighborhood, South of Market (SOMA) and South Beach. Our neighborhood is in many ways more like New York than the rest of San Francisco, with its old industrial buildings, dilapidated piers on the waterfront, and new condo developments. But perhaps that adds to the sense of familiarity, and of “home”, amidst the concrete.

Our walk usually begins on Townsend Street, heading east towards the waterfront. This area is dominated by AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. But while crowds head towards the stadium in the summer, we often head in the opposite direction. There is a little park at the end of Townsend along the Embarcadero, where I often see older Eastern European folks. Across the park is the cul-de-sac that marks the end of Delancy Street, a name reminiscent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Here I often stop at a small cafe – it has a large garden that can be enjoyed on its own or for the glimpses of the bay it affords.

There are some books I only seem to read when I’m out at places like this, rather than at home. One such book is The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption. I will stop and read a chapter while enjoying a coffee and the views. Though sometimes I opt for one of our free weekly papers instead. I like the idea of being contrary, reading esoteric books while a major sporting event is going on nearby. But in a large, cosmopolitan city, there are always people doing their own thing. One is never really alone.

Beyond the cafe is the southern portion of the Embarcadero, which contains glimpses of a seedy and crumbling past while being revitalized with the stadium and frenzied development.

Heading south along the Embarcadero, one approaches the Bay Bridge. Commercial buildings, as well as residential complexes, have sprung up in its shadow. I enjoy seeing these buildings fit comfortably beneath the bridge:

Some of them have appear older, more reminiscent of the 1970s or even earlier, while huge new high rises are going up all around them.

I then often turn back inward from the waterfront on Bryant Street. This is generally a wide street that crosses SOMA and the Mission District, but here it is a narrow alley between the steep approaches to the Bay Bridge and a residential block.

Again, the feeling is more of a residential section of New York, perhaps Riverdale in the Bronx, or the Upper West Side. Of course, the fact that this block interests Delancy Street adds to this impression.

Longtime residents and admirers of San Francisco often look down upon this area, but I find it a comforting place to walk and explore. Certainly, there is familiarity coming from New York, which has always defined “city” for me. And perhaps the sense that I am finally living the city life that I should have done long ago – I am finally home.

The narrow streets and tall buildings abut the hill and the approach to the bridge, with a complex array of staircases and ramps. I often find an excuse to climb at least one, such as this that connects the lower alley section of Bryant Street to the main section that begins on top of the hill.

At the top, one is amazingly close to the freeway and byzantine ramps that feed onto the bridge:

Heading back down the hill towards the west, one can take a detour through South Park, which has nothing to do with the popular cartoon. Instead, it is a small park surrounded by two-story residences that feels more like a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Although it is not far from the this section of freeway we featured a few weeks ago, such things seem invisible and far away. But step outside this oasis, and one is back in the “concrete jungle” and the streets that lead home.


Weekend events in San Francisco (Music, Art and Cats)

Another busy weekend, especially with the number of things going on. We only have time for a partial review…

First, there a quick stop at downtown pub to see some friends/colleagues. Then a rush to BART to get across the bay to Berkeley and my old stomping ground, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT).

I was a few minutes late, but still had plenty of time to hear Joker Neils and Gino Robair performing a improvised duet. Robair has an amazing talent for getting electronic-like sounds out of acoustic percussion instruments, and did so again on this evening. Neils was primarily using custom synthesizers, both professional instruments as well as circuit-bent toys. We have discussed circuit bending previously here at CatSynth. He brought several well-crafted examples, including Suziki Omnichords with contact-resistance interfaces; and he also brought a tremendous enthusiasm to his performance and to his discussion of circuit bending in between sets.

Also presenting was Rob Hordijk, who designs custom synthesizers (or “works of art” as he described them). Among the technologies he employed in the “Blippobox” that he presented were chaotic oscillator pairs, where two oscillators feed back into one another to create non-linear modulation, and a filter that he called the “twin peaks” filter (presumably because it has two resonant peaks).

Amy X Newburg lent her vocal and electronic-music talents during the presentation and in the second half of the show – readers may remember her from a a recent music festival that we reviewed.

I had some interesting conversions with both Amy X Newburg and Joker Neils following the performances, which is always a nice coda to a concert.

It was another exceptionally warm weekend in San Francisco (I wouldn’t mind it becoming less exceptional), so more opportunities for walking events. First off I finally made the trip to the San Francisco SPCA to inquire about volunteer opportunities and see their much touted adoption center. The cat area featured large rooms, “kitty condos” as well as comfy areas to hide – it actually seemed on par with the “cat resorts” where I looked into boarding Luna. The SPCA is actually a short work away from CatSynth HQ (well, it’s at least short from my perspective).

Another short walk in the opposite direction from CatSynth HQ led to the Yerba Buena Gallery Walk. Open studios and gallery events are pretty regular occurrences, even within walking distance. Plus, there’s often free food and drink. I didn’t see too many things that truly interested me, except for some abstract paintings at 111 Minna that I had already seen during the first Thursday earlier this month. But that doesn’t mean the afternoon wasn’t without its attractions. Some of the galleries, such as Varnish, were in very interesting spaces, such as converted industrial buildings from the early 20th century. A view of Varnish is in the photo to the left. Additionally, some of the sights on a gallery tour aren’t the works of art, but the people viewing them – and this is even more true on a warm sunny day. Finally, I did have a delightful conversation with Jesse Allen at Chandler Fine Art – his very psychedelic/natural works aren’t what I am usually drawn to, but some of them did include abstract representations of cats and other animals and one “wild cat” in particular caught my attention.

More art on Sunday, this time photography. This Sunday was “Pinhole Photography Day” (who knew?) and the RayKo Photo center featured an exhibit, demonstrations, and most notably a ride on the Bus Obscura a school bus converted into a large camera obscura.

The bus obscura toured our South-of-Market neighborhood, providing a unique view via the pinhole-camera images. Small dots of blurry light would suddenly come into focus as a sidewalk or car or storefront.

Because the image were so localized, it wasn’t always clear exactly where the bus was, though every so often a familiar landmark would emerge. The ride was accompanied by live acoustic and electronic music, adding to the experience and making it different from the regular “tours” of our neighborhood.

Walking in San Francisco

This morning, I find myself in the Castro – or is it the Mission District, it is increasingly ambiguous where one ends and the other begins. Some thoughtful person took it upon himself to suggest that I would go blind using my laptop. He of course said this while puffing away on a cigarette. I ask you who is taking the bigger health risk here?

One activity that almost no one disputes as being healthy is walking. And San Francisco is a great walking city. For one, it is quite small, and the areas of the city one would actually want to visit are even smaller. So instead of presenting another highway article this weekend, we at CatSynth will share a little walking tour of our new hometown, weaving in other articles from the past month. The approximate path is indicated in the map below:

[click to enlarge]

Heading north from CatSynth HQ through the South of Market neighborhood, we quickly arrive at Yerba Buena Gardens, next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. It still amazes me how close this is to home now, just a short walk if one knows the short cuts underneath the highway. I continue to enjoy the gritty industrial nature of the area as typified in these photos from Gabriele Basilico.

After crossing the welcome greenery Yerba Buena Gardens, one is only a block from Market Street, San Francisco's main commercial thoroughfare through downtown and the Financial District The main activity on Market Street is attempting to cross it. Though it is also home to the Luggage Store, where I performed in February and will play again in May.

The side streets of the Financial District are strangely quiet on the weekend as one continues north, towards the Jackson Square neighborhood This is the oldest part of the city, with old three-story iron and brick buildings crowding narrow alleyways that typify nineteenth century urban areas. Some of the buildings here do in fact date back to the nineteenth century, having survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, right around the neighborhood park are a bunch of low-rise residences that look more like the 1970s than the 1870s, and a bit surreal given the surroundings. Nestled in the old (and not-so-old) buildings and alleyways are furniture and interior-design stores that are a bit on the expensive side, as well some restaurants and watering holes, art galleries, and the hair salon at which I had an appointment.

North and west of Jackson Square, one weaves in and out of Chinatown, which is hard to miss, on the way to North Beach. This is a typical place to end up for food and drink, and I was headed to a pub on Washington Square park that was recommended to me. They had an unusual selection of beers, including a chipotle ale. I cannot eat or drink and do nothing else, and having not brought my computer or a book on this trip, I did something I normally wouldn't do and got something to read from City Lights Bookstore: a small book of surrealist games from the 1920s. This might actually be useful, but in any case it seemed to go well with chipotle ale.

If one plans to do any walking in San Francisco, one has to be prepared for hills, either scaling them or taking extra-long routes around them. North Beach in particular is surrounded by hills, and from the Washington Square, one can head east on Union Street towards Telegraph Hill (which is featured in many a film, including the recent Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) and then down to the bay. Or one can head south along Powell Street to Nob Hill. As you climb Powell, you can watch tourists waiting at cable car stops.

This is not a short walking trip, a few hours in all (including stops). One can try to catch a bus or a streetcar, but my experience has been that one can walk several blocks in the time it takes to wait for a bus, so unless it is one that is frequent and reliable, might as well try and walk. Of course, if one is headed to one of the districts further away, the calculation changes. But we will save those for future articles.

This article is featured in the March 26 edition of the Carnival of Cities, hosted by Family Travel.