All posts by J Anderson

writer, journalist, photographer, itinerant chronicler. Lover of culture and travel in general, and the Bay Area in particular.

In search of San Francisco’s “lost soul”

Has San Francisco lost its soul? Yes, at least according to several recent articles (from The New Yorker, New York Times and The Guardian). Whatever a city’s soul is, or if cities even have one, it’s a common refrain of late, especially from out-of-town writers. In SF, tech-money fueled gentrification is ushering in soulless fussy restaurants and pushing housing costs beyond the affordability of all but the top earners, while worsening a homeless problem that seems more desperate than ever. And yes, it’s all true, and definitely bad.

But these forces have been in motion since at least the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. And it’s happening in cities all across the country, especially New York where two of the writers hail from. Even second-tier cities like Boise, Idaho, are feeling the effects. There was a brief reprieve after the dot-com bust and Great Recession, but now it’s barreling along like an unstoppable freight train. The only thing worse than our insane rents is the cost of a home in the city, even a crappy one. You either have to be rich, or old enough to enjoy a rent-controlled apartment, or your family bought a place decades ago. Along with the local residents, a lot of restaurants and retail can’t keep up. Colorful icons like Sinbad’s have been disappearing, replaced by expensive foodie places that all seem to go in for the same minimalist interior design (lots of metal chairs and white walls), making them feel sterile and uninviting.

Should we blame those young (and not so young) techies like the articles do? Most are working stiffs at the mercy of the same economic forces as everyone else, though some have better salaries to weather the storms and indulge their foodie whims. And whoever they are, there’s a segment out there that only seem interested in eating out, craft beer and Instagrammable backdrops. The kind of IPA note-takers Anthony Bourdain railed against on his trips here, like pod people out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They lack imagination or adventurousness, or both. For instance (screed warning), when I lived in the Inner Richmond, I would see daily lines outside Burma Superstar on Clement St., which has long been on the hip ‘to-do’ list of restaurants. Excellent place, so perfectly deserving. But, half a block away, and owned by the same people, B Star serves virtually the same food at the same quality and never has a line. (Or Burmese restaurant Mandaly a block north on California St. is equally as good, and rarely overcrowded). So I don’t know. But c’mon people! Break from the herd, forget the ‘likes’.

Okay, I’m getting off track. Or maybe not. For whatever reason, whether it’s a change in younger tastes or the pushing out (or aging out) of long-time locals, people just aren’t frequenting places like Sinbad’s (RIP) or Mr. Bing’s unless it’s featured by Bourdain (RIP) on his show. Even the writers of these articles, and the people they interview, don’t seem to know about them, or they certainly don’t mention them. Are they all just hanging out in the Mission or Soma or Hayes Valley? and so only see the most obvious and egregious examples of gentrification in the city?

Because while they may be an endangered species, there are still lots of Mr. Bing-type places around, along with the people that make San Francisco the interesting, gritty, wild, fun, eccentric, colorful ‘Bagdad by the Bay’ it’s long been known as. You just have to leave the Mission to find them.

For starters, Chinatown is a treasure, and has changed little over the decades, even less than similar places in Hong Kong or Taipei. R & G Lounge is an experience, Sam Wo’s is going strong after relocating and still open til 3am, Hunan and dim sum joints abound, and Li Po’s and Buddha Bar are uniquely San Franciscan and the type of two-fisted drinking establishments Bourdain lauded.

Cross the street to North Beach and there’s City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café, which have barely changed since the days when Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac roamed the alley. Sure, Columbus Ave attracts lots of tourists, but there’s also a vibrant and colorful local community found at places like Café Trieste, The Saloon and Savoy Tivoli.

Even Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t the total tourist hell locals think of it as. Long-time stalwarts like The Buena Vista is there, along with the Grotto bar and restaurant, Sabella & La Torre and the Franciscan Crab Restaurant (the coolest building around!). Musee Mechanique, the Gold Dust Lounge, and some surprisingly underrated bars are also here.

In both the lower and upper Haight, where I used to live in the late ‘90s, there’s been changes, but I’m always surprised at how much is still the same whenever I visit. All my cherished haunts are still there, like the Citrus Club, Happy Donuts, the Booksmith, Amoeba Music and Aub Zam Zam.

And if you dare to cross Arguello, the Richmond and Sunset districts have seen changes (commercial rents pushing out some businesses) but the general character remains, along with some of the best dim sum and pho in the city, and real Russian bakeries and cheap Chinese produce. The people you see walking about are mostly locals, some who probably grew up here.

So my point, a lot of changes have been ongoing in San Francisco that our mostly of the sad soulless variety, but the city still has lots of its unique character to enjoy and celebrate. You just have to make the effort. And if you need some motivation, consider it an act of cultural preservation to have a mai tai at Li Po’s or margarita at Tommy’s, and help them pay the rent.

4th of July in the Bay Area: what to do

You won’t have to venture far to find Independence Day fun in San Francisco and the Bay Area, with all-day events in towns and cities north, east, and all up and down the Peninsula. Parades, parties, food and fireworks are all part of the patriotic celebration, with maybe a 5k or pancake breakfast thrown in for good measure. And guess what, it never rains in July in California, so you’ll never have to worry about dashed plans (though fog can be an issue along the coast). Here’s a list of some of the best options for your 4th of July festivities.

4th at the Wharf
City denizens need only head to Fisherman’s Wharf for its annual mix of colorful street performers and scheduled entertainment throughout the day. Board one of several ferry boats or huddle by the shoreline (or atop a nearby hill) for a spectacular fireworks display shot from barges in the bay. Or use your imagination as you peer through the fog. Afterward, stick around at an area bar while the traffic rush settles.

Bolinas v Stinson Beach Tug of War Battle
This event has been around since the days when the coastal Miwok Indians and Spanish colonials settled their differences with a friendly game of draw and quarter. Okay, that’s not true. But the fabled 9am event over the channel that separates the two towns kicks off 4th festivities that includes a parade in Bolinas and lots of lazing around the beach.

Sausalito’s 4th of July Parade & Fireworks
This is one of the best Independence Day celebrations around, starting with the parade and street fair along Bridgeway and Caledonia. But the best reason to come may be the double dip of fireworks – Sausalito’s own excellent display, and the one directly across the bay in San Francisco. Plus you can enjoy a picnic in the park, hang by the firepits at Bar Bocce, or take a ferry from/to the city.

San Jose Rose, White & Blue Parade
Why ‘Rose’? Because San Jose fancies itself the rose capital of California, and the parade route runs through the streets of the ‘rose garden’ district. The Alameda is blocked off for afternoon festivities, or you can venture to nearby Cupertino, Saratoga or Los Gatos for their celebrations.

El Cerrito WorldOne Festival
The East Bay town goes all out for its 4th festivities, which starts with a pre-party on the 3rd and includes a whole lineup of bands, circus performers and a magic show. There’s even a small carnival with rides, jumpy houses and games.

Marin County Fair and Fireworks
Why not take your 4th up a notch with a visit to the fairgrounds in San Rafael. Enjoy carnival rides (free with admission), a concert of ABBA music and fabulous fireworks at the end of the day. Plus lots of delicious food (fried and otherwise) along with craft beer and wine. Besides the farm animals on show, you might even find a baby pig or goat to pet.

What to do in the Bay Area this 4th of July week

Fireworks and Parades

It’s often said, by me, that the best fireworks are the one’s closest to your home. After all, who wants to drive half an hour to deal with parking and crazy traffic when you can relax in your lawn chair with a cold beer in hand. Ideally, your lawn is within sight of a local fireworks display. If not, you may need to mosey down to your local park for a decent view. Go early, and you may even get a parade and some. Here’s a list from KRON of parades and fireworks, while this rundown from Red Tricycle includes best viewing spots and tips.

Fillmore Jazz Festival

This is the largest jazz fest on the West Coast, and it’s free. Stroll the 12 blocked-off blocks along Fillmore between Jackson and Eddy to enjoy acts such as Lavay Smith & the Red Hot Skillet Lickers and Alphabet Soup. Eat and drink at one of the many food booths and beer gardens along the road, and check out the dozens of arts and crafts. Saturday and Sunday, 6/30-7/1, 10:30am-6pm.

Off the Grid 8th birthday

Imagine a time when food trucks didn’t exist (besides the roach coach’s parked at construction sites) and you had to schlep to an actual restaurant for your dinner. And then you see that the granddaddy food truck event of them all, Off the Grid, is a tender 8 years old. Celebrate its birthday at Fort Mason with dj’s, chill people and of course lots of food truck food and beer. Friday, 6/29, 5-10pm.

Japan Day Festival

As if the Fillmore wasn’t hopping enough this weekend, add the Japan Day celebration to the mix with stages of music, dance and arts. Naturally there will be Taiko, and origami, and excellent ramen and other Japanese delights in the adjacent malls. Sunday, 7/1, noon-4:30pm.

Big Rocky Games

Monte Rio along the Russian River in Sonoma is host to a weekend of its famed Big Rocky Games. It’s the ideal summertime event with inner tube races, rock skipping, a rubber ducky contest, water balloon toss, canoe and swim races and an ice cream eating contest. The town’s firehouse cooks up its Fireman’s BBQ, while Sunday’s highlight includes homemade floats with people performing skits as they float by. Saturday and Sunday, 6/30-7/1, noon-4pm.

Marin County Fair

This is what summer is all about. Concerts, carnival rides and farm animals, and all the deliciously terrible fried food you can dare to eat. Oh, and a fireworks show every night. Saturday-Wednesday, 6/30-7/4, all day.

A getaway to Santa Cruz

For someone who’s never been to California, the city of Santa Cruz is most likely what they imagine. Endless sunshine, miles of sandy coastline, surfers, hippies, old VW vans, legal weed, grungies and skateboard/street punks. More than any other Bay Area city or exurb, Santa Cruz embodies that classic California vibe – something like chilled-out surfer or stoned-out hippie – but mostly a contented attitude that comes when living within biking distance of the ocean is all that matters. It’s a beach town first, college town second, with blue-collar roots and hippie/yoga aspirations, the kind of place Cheech and Chong might retire to, or Jeff Spicoli would flunk out of if he ever got in.

Continue reading A getaway to Santa Cruz

A weekend in Pacific Grove

When Bay Area locals talk about getting away for a weekend in Monterey, they’re usually referring to the Monterey Peninsula and its sister cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel. Visitors to the area typically bounce between one highlight to the next (mostly in Monterey), and may not pay much attention to differences. But believe it or not, each of these bordering towns has a distinct character about them. Monterey is the big sister with the most activity and biggest attractions, while Carmel is the old-money sophisticate with rows of high-end shops, galleries and wine bars on its leafy main drag.

Continue reading A weekend in Pacific Grove

A weekend in Healdsburg (and a bit of foodie history)

If you’re looking to spend a weekend exploring Sonoma wine country, consider making Healdsburg your base of operations. It’s easy to get to (minus any traffic woes) just off Hwy 101 about 10 miles north of Santa Rosa, so just enough removed from the small city sprawl, car dealerships and office parks of that area. Yet it still has all the conveniences and amenities you might need, and enough small town charm to make it feel like a proper country getaway from the city.

The biggest reason of all: it’s located at the intersection of three wine regions – the Russian River AVA, Dry Creek AVA and Alexander Valley AVA.

Continue reading A weekend in Healdsburg (and a bit of foodie history)