Category Archives: Bay area, Calif.

Urban hike: North Beach to Haight Ashbury

We started walking at about eleven, after buying some nectarines at the North Beach Farmer’s Market. It was a perfectly sunny day, and not too chilly. We climbed up Taylor Street to enjoy the views from Nob Hill (elev. 341 ft.) — we could see Alcatraz Island, the waterfront, and sailboats on the bay, but haze kept us from seeing across the bay. We passed Grace Cathedral where a man in a black cassock was showing off the Ghiberti doors to a knot of three or four people, down the hill, and over to Alamo Square. In the Alamo Square park, a young woman held out a camera asked us to take a picture of her and her two friends in front of the famous row of “Painted Ladies.” As we walked away, Carol said, “I didn’t even notice them until I turned to take the picture.” They were behind us as we were walking. “Neither did I,” I admitted.

There were swarms of people at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. We decided not to go in, so we went across the way to the DeYoung Museum. There were swarms of people there, too. Why pay all that money for admission fees (thirty dollars at the Academy of Science!) if you’re not going to be able to see anything because of all the people? We walked over to Haight Ashbury. I wanted to visit Forever After Books, but it was gone. I had never been to Haight Street before.

Except for the half a dozen stores selling drug paraphernalia, Haight Street would be just another upscale shopping district, thronged with upper middle class young people. A scruffy-looking white kid with a beard and a knapsack walked by us; from his knapsack hung a bright metal coffee cup and a red teflon-coated frying pan. He looked kind of dirty and a little bewildered. He had a cane, and he decided to hold it in front of himself, balancing it on his outstretched hand as he walked through the crowds. It tottered, he moved his hand to keep it balanced, and it almost hit the face of a girl with perfect hair and a fashionable tank-top. She gave him a look, part sneer, part scorn, part anger that he would intrude on her physical space. I didn’t blame her one bit. This poor neo-hippie kid was trying to go back to a mythical time when Flower Power ruled Haight Street, when guys could balance canes on their hand and girls would think it was cool. Today, being a hippie is just another consumer lifestyle choice that involves buying stuff at head shops.

On a quiet side street of Haight, a young woman was having a garage sale — really a sidewalk sale since her apartment didn’t have a garage. For months, Carol has been looking for a basic sewing machine that she can use to make some basic skirts — and there was a sewing machine, barely used, and still in its original box. For months, Carol has been looking for a duffle bag with wheels, so when she’s going to promote her books or work on composting toilets she has a big piece of luggage to carry what she needs — and there was the perfect duffle. She bought both for twenty-two dollars, put the sewing machine in the rolling duffle bag, and with the sewing machine rolling behind us we went over to Duboce Avenue to catch the trolley back to North Beach. It was the perfect ending to a ten-mile urban hike.

Three views of Chinatown

For dinner, I had boiled lettuce with oyster sauce. From where I sat, I could watch the cook make it: drop half a head of iceberg lettuce into a big vat of simmering sauce, leave it for a moment, fish it out with a big strainer, put it on a plate, put some oyster sauce on it. I also had a big bowl of fish congee (rice porridge), with toothpick-sized slivers of ginger and a few chopped chives thrown on top. It was perfect food for a New Englander, not too flavorful and even bland, but very comforting. We were the only roundeyes in the place, so they gave us forks, just in case.

After dinner, we heard music, and followed the sound to the Chinatown Night Market. There were two ensembles playing: I’m not sure, but maybe this was Cantonese guangdong music. The singers seemed to know the people who stood around in the chilly night air to listen. One of the singers, a woman of indeterminate middle age, had a voice that wasn’t particularly sweet, but she was musical and expressive. She sang one song that everyone else seemed to know; people were nodding their heads and singing along. In the ensemble behind her, a man playing a lute-like instrument brought his little boy along, and the boy tried to feed him a lollipop while he was playing. Someone wandered in and started talking to a man playing a two-stronged bowed instrument (an erhu?); the musician smiled, and shook him off so he could concentrate on his playing. The woman finished the song, and the man selling old coins at a nearby booth cheered and clapped his hands over his head for her.

We stopped to look at an installation done under the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Art in Storefronts project. Artist Cynthia Toms created an installation in a building that had served as a boarding house, nightclub, and restaurant. We looked at all the objects that were designed to evoke memories of Chinatown, but what really stood out for me was the the slide presentation off in one corner of the store window, housed in something that looked like an old television set: a 1970s photograph of a Chinatown streetscape, a snapshot of a birthday party, a vintage photograph of Chinatown showing some people freeing a woman who had been enslaved in a brothel, a picture of that very building as a restaurant, and so on. We watched for five or ten minutes, then Carol stood out in the middle of the street to take a photograph of the store front.

Summertime, and the livin’ is smoggy

It feels like summer has finally hit the Bay area. There’s apparently a high-pressure system sitting over the desert southwest pumping hot air up into our area. Temperatures got up into the mid-nineties today, with little or no wind.

Summer heat in the Bay area means smog and ground-level ozone. Driving down Route 101 to work today, the mountains on the other side of San Francisco Bay, usually clearly visible, were hard to see through the light blue haze. Smog and ground-level ozone mean that I feel lousy.

The short-term bad news is that tomorrow it’s supposed to hit one hundred degrees in Palo Alto. The short-term good news is that the forecast says cool air from Alaska will move into our area by the weekend. The long-term bad news is that University of California scientists are now predicting that climate change in our area is going to cause more hot days, which means more days of high ground-level ozone levels. The long-term good news is… um, what is the long-term good news?

Green tomatoes

We’ve been having a cold summer here in the Bay area, with night time temperatures frequently in the low fifties. Tomato plants do not like it to be that cool, and while our tomato plants set a lot of fruit, the little green tomatoes just hang on the vine and stay both little and green.

We had one tomato plant covered with little green tomatoes, growing in a big pot that sat in a sunny place in the yard. A few days ago I carried it up to our second-floor deck, huddled up against the house where I thought it might be a little bit warmer. Sure enough, after just a few days the plant looks happier, and most of the tomatoes are turning red; while the tomato plants down in the yard are still covered in green tomatoes.

September tends to be the warmest month in the Bay area. Perhaps this cool weather will finally end, and suddenly we’ll find ourselves inundated with more tomatoes than we can eat.

Pacific fog

This afternoon, while I was waiting to meet someone in Berkeley, I walked up the hills behind the Graduate Theological Union, up past the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, up further to where I got a view of the bay. Fog covered most of San Francisco, except for the tall buildings downtown, and a little bit of the waterfront; fog poured around the south side of San Bruno Mountain; fog filled the Golden Gate, so all you could see of the bridge was the very top of the north tower; fog rolled around the Marin headlands and streamed up inland towards the Delta. South of San Bruno down the Peninsula, the higher mountains held the fog back; I could see that San Mateo had no fog. And there was no fog in Berkeley; the city stretched out below me, and I could see little specks that were cars moving along University Ave., west towards the freeway. It was about three hours from sunset, and the way the sun lit of the fog from behind, and the way it shone on the silvery waters of the bay, was enough to make my heart ache from the beauty of it all.

Pacific fog

There are places in Silicon Valley where you can stand along the edge of San Francisco Bay and look back at the Coastal Range, and during the summer you can watch as the fog from the Pacific Ocean spills over the low points in the ridge line. On the other side of the Coastal Range, an ocean current hits the shore line, and deep cold water comes to the surface where it meets warmer air, and condenses into fog. The fog will build up until it’s five hundred or a thousand feet high, high enough to spill over the low points in the ridge. You can watch the fog working its way down through the distant woodlands some miles away and hundreds of feet higher than where you stand, down at sea level, in the warm bright sunshine of Silicon Valley.


Three of us were driving across the Dumbarton Bridge from the Peninsula to the East Bay. As we came up over the height of the bridge, my eyes were drawn to the golden-brown Hayward Hills.

“The hills are brown,” I said, and sighed. “Summer’s really here.” I don’t like

“They were still green just a few weeks ago,” said Marsha.

“Well, our last rain was in, what, late May?” I said.

“The rains ended unusually late this year,” said Marsha, who grew up in California.

Julian sat and listened to us. He has just moved here from western Massachusetts, where it remains green all summer long.


It rained three days this week. As Debra in the church office said, it always rains in late May and usually on Memorial Day weekend; maybe this year we got the rain out of the way before the long weekend. After three days of rain, you’d expect a nice crop of mosquitoes to hatch out. But not in the Bay area. The few mosquitoes that do come around whine listlessly around your ear, and when you swat at them, and miss, they apologize for bothering you and fly away. If you go hiking up into some of the undeveloped canyons and ridge tops around the Bay area, it’s a different story. As you dodge the poison oak branches that actively try to swat you in the face, fast little iron-gray mosquitoes fly at you while you’re distracted, and drill their red-hot proboscises into your arteries.

When those vicious iron-gray mosquitoes attack you, you believe the stories of the early residents of Palo Alto, who complained that the town was a vile place to live: every time it rained, the streets turned into a muddy mess, and the fleas and mosquitoes made life miserable. There are credible stories of children getting sucked down into the mud and lost forever. As for the mosquitoes, they were much bigger back then: two working together could pick up a small dog and carry it off, and four could drain enough blood out of a big man to leave him ghostly pale and unconscious. In San Mateo County, mosquitoes were among the first registered voters back in 1856 when the county split from San Francisco. The county had only 2,000 human residents; women and children weren’t allowed to vote, yet 1,600 votes were cast in the first election, many by mosquitoes. It is said that the only reason San Mateo County politics eventually got cleaned up was that the swamps got drained, and the mosquitoes mostly died off.

Another Maybeck Unitarian church building

The old Palo Alto Unitarian Church was designed by Unitarian architect Bernard Maybeck in 1906; he his firm also designed the old Unitarian church building in Berkeley (now owned, and treated somewhat disrespectfully, by the University of California), and he most famously designed the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley. The first set of drawings for the Palo Alto church building was destroyed in a fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Maybeck made another set of drawings, and the main church building was completed 1907; due to the rise in construction costs following the earthquake, the social hall was not completed until 1913.

“A prominent architect, Mr. B[ernard] R[alph] Maybeck… was hired. The new building was dedicated on March 24, 1907…. The design of the building was unusual. It used rough, less expensive forms of material, redwood board and battens, common redwood shakes, rough, heavy timbers which more than caqrried the weight of the roof and cement plaster like that use for outside work, forming a deep chancel arch as high as the roof. Continue reading