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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.

What to do in the Bay Area this weekend

SF Giants FanFest
Roam the outfield like Hunter Pence or meet all-star new edition Andrew McCutchen at the Giants FanFest at AT&T Park. The all-day event features a Q&A, autograph session and kids zone. You can also tour the stadium press box and clubhouse, and maybe sprinkle a little magic pixie dust to erase all memory of last year’s disastrous season. Saturday, 2/10, 10am-3pm.

Chinese New Year Mini Parade
The actual Chinese New Year is not for another week (2/16), but you can get a jump on the festivities, and avoid the massive crowds, at this kick-off mini-procession for the Year of the Dog. Lion dancers, stilt walkers, drummers, walking puppets and local politicians are part of the procession that starts at St. Mary’s Square, rolls through Chinatown down Grant Ave, and ends up at the Flower Fair on Washington. Saturday, 2/10, 10:15am.

SF Beer Week Battle of the Bands
Beer, live music, food trucks, outdoors on a (partly) sunny day. Say no more. This kick-off event to SF Beer Week, and sponsored by Anchor Brewing, features a variety of beers from long-time SF brewery, including limited releases and latest creations. Meet the brewmeisters, choose from over 10 food trucks and rock out to local music at SoMa StrEat Food Park. Saturday, 2/10, noon-4pm.

Randall Museum Grand Reopening
High atop the hill in Corona Heights Park between the Castro and Haight, the often overlooked Randall Museum has gone through a major $9 million renovation and is finally ready for its grand reopening. The museum has always been about free hands-on nature and science for kids. And now you can explore the high-tech STEM lab, geology/seismology exhibit and live animal enclosures with natural habitats. The celebration also features live entertainment, and a model train exhibit. Sunday, 2/11, 10am-3pm.

Ski Bus to Tahoe
Great idea, Sports Basement! Everyone loves hitting the slopes in Tahoe, but no one likes the long boring drive. Enter the sports outfitter with a $75 roundtrip bus that picks you up at its store on Bryant St., or in Sunnyvale, and whisks you off on its luxury liner to Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows. Take a nap, wake up for included breakfast, snacks or drinks, and enjoy a solid 5 hours of skiing or snowboarding. Saturday or Sunday, 2/10-11, 6:30am-8pm.

San Francisco vs San Jose: Comparing the Bay Area’s largest cities

San Jose > San Francisco. At least according to the US News & World Report. Their recent list, ranking the best 100 cities to live in the country, put San Jose at number 3 and San Francisco at… 16. No one has ever considered San Francisco vs San Jose a great debate, and I doubt few of even the most dissatisfied SF residents dreams of life in the South Bay. And of course, these list-makers pick and choose from a wide range of criteria in their estimation of good livin’.

But still, all this list making made me cast a critical eye on how the two cities compare, and not simply dismiss SJ out of hand as a vast suburban wasteland like most SF residents do. And I ended up mostly shining a light on what SJ is all about (vis a vis SF), since the pros and cons of life in SF are fairly well documented.

First of all, I’m probably not writing this, and SJ wouldn’t be the 3rd largest city in the state, if not for one overzealous city manager (Dutch Hamann) who in the 1950s and ‘60s went on a dubious mission to expand San Jose into LA by the Bay. The city was a tenth the size, both in area and population, when Dutch set out to annex every town and hamlet within shouting distance of city hall, helping popularize a phrase along the way: urban sprawl. Besides straining public services, the unmitigated growth and lack of planning had an effect on a variety of city amenities still felt today. By comparison, SF has long been stingy when it comes to growth and development, the last 5-10 years aside.

That’s the backdrop. But for purposes of comparison, I looked at some of the criteria I believe are important for the typical urban dweller attracted to life in the Bay Area. Diversity is one of those things. Both cities are fairly diverse, but San Jose even more so, with Hispanics and Asians each making up roughly a third of the population, while whites are just over a quarter. In San Francisco, nearly half are white.

But that only tells part of the story. San Francisco has a rich tapestry of ethnic communities that date back well over 100 years, including Italian, Russian, Scandinavian, Spanish/Mexican, Irish, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino; though most of those groups are now diffused throughout the Bay Area. San Jose in its formative days mostly attracted farming and ranching types, whether Japanese, Spanish/Mexican, Portuguese, Italian. For latter-day diversity, the winner is San Jose, with sizeable Indian/Pakistani, Vietnamese and Ethiopian/Eritrean communities.

Why is this important? For one, food! One advantage I’ll give San Jose and the South Bay: they have far more and better neighborhood ethnic eateries. On the other end of the food scale, and other than Manresa and Adega, the restaurant and foodie scene in San Jose can’t hold a candle to the variety and innovation in SF. The City also easily wins in the coffee, beer and cocktail bar category. San Jose has some options, but they’re just too few and far between. Relatedly, the culture, arts and entertainment options in SF are much greater. There’s way much more to do and see, whether that’s museums, performances, events, etc.

And in general, SF is a much more interesting place to live, has a fascinating history, and is far more attractive both in the natural (hills, bay, parks) and built environment (beautiful Victorians, walkable neighborhoods). It’s one of the most charming and enchanting cities in the world. By contrast, SJ is mostly flat and nondescript, Long Beach without the beach. Its poor planning dating to the days of Dutch has led to areas in the city where housing abuts light industry, too few business and retail options, and an overabundance of that bane of suburban existence: strip malls. Plus, unless you live and work in downtown SJ, you pretty much need a car to get around.

So why would anyone choose SJ over SF? This gets to another demographic issue with SF. At times, it seems everyone living here is a single, white tech worker between 18 and 35, a post-college Logan’s Run bubble, a #fakecity. Kids? Old people? Working class? You have to search the outerlands to find any regular people of the kind that make up a typical community.

Which is obviously what San Jose is about. There might be more community spirit in SF, but there’s more community in SJ, where you probably know your neighbor’s first name. The reasons anyone would leave SF for SJ – house with a yard, non-mystifying school system, easier commute to Silicon Valley offices, affordability, safer, cleaner, parking – are why it might rate on a list of livability. People with families are more vested in their communities, connected through their kids’ schools, and motivated to make things better in their town (versus packing up and moving to Portland).

So if you find yourself exiled to San Jose, look on the bright side: parking! Plus, it’s less than an hour’s drive to San Francisco.

5 Things to do in the Bay Area this weekend

San Jose mural tour
Join the 13-mile guided tour through San Jose’s (flat) streets and get the low-down on some of the city’s most iconic historical murals. Pedal through downtown, Japantown, Mayfair, East Side and Gardner neighborhoods. Saturday, 3/4, 10am-2pm.

Soul Food Fest
Now in its 37th year, the Soul Food Fest & Block Party at Bayview Hunter’s Point features live music, vendor booths, and a mouth-watering array of down-home cooking of soulful delights. Enjoy ribs, fried chicken, red beans and rice, sweet potato pie and much, much more. Saturday, 3/4, 11am-6pm.

Festival Martishor
Moldova, that small eastern European country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, celebrates spring, love and friendship right here in San Francisco at Danilov Restaurant. Live music, dancing and of course lots of Moldovan fare is on tap. Saturday, 3/3, noon-6pm.

White Elephant Sale
One person’s trash is another’s treasure at the huge White Elephant Sale in Oakland. Search through 19 departments for quality used clothing, furniture, household goods, music, books and assorted items you’d find at your typical garage sale (x 100). Saturday and Sunday, 3/4-5, 10am-4pm, 33 Lancaster St., Oakland.

Onesie Pub Crawl
People of legal drinking age will be stumbling around Fisherman’s Wharf in onesie pj’s for the World’s Largest Onesie party, all in the name of fun (especially if it evokes (ostensibly) ironic hints of childhood). Hey, I don’t wanna grow up either. A potentially huge crowd, so come early. Saturday, 3/4, 6pm-1am.