Day Two around San Francisco | Neighborhoods

Written by and Photography by Charla in Travel

This is the third post in the series “Three Days around San Francisco”.

On my many walks around San Francisco when I lived there in the 1990s, I would often stare with envy not at the gorgeous apartments, their luscious interiors, epic views and smart, sharply dressed inhabitants. No, I would stare with envy at the bougainvilleas. They are a beautiful, wild, haughty, untameable plant native from South America and happily growing in Mediterranean climates everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, except my backyard. Whether in any of my many Bay Area apartments or my house in Long Beach years after leaving, I could never get them to grow. Those bright, papery leaves – in red, pink, purple, orange – remained a fantasy for me even though I love seeing them when I just walk past by someone else’s house.

San Francisco is a town that demands attention to detail. Pick your subject of interest, and every corner has something to offer. Architecture? The City’s traditional bay-window apartment buildings of all sizes mix with seemingly every other architectural style on earth. Interested in walkable communities? You’re in the right place. Art and music? From museums to public murals, you won’t need to go far. Food? Enough said.

Commuting to work? Even that routine chore has its pleasure, even if on your commute to work you spend more time staring down into your phone, unaware of the sights, sounds, smells, and the Too Much Beauty In One Place – the same Too Much Beauty that you saw yesterday and the day before.

Maybe our oldest, noblest and most desirable cities are the ones with the most detail and the most to see. Many years ago, a friend studying in Barcelona gave me advice on how to walk around there. “When you walk around, always look up, never down,” she said. “Look at the tops of the buildings that the show the year they were built. You’ll miss out if you just look at the sidewalk.”

In fairness, your daily commute to work staring at your phone makes perfect sense. After all, you will need to hustle whether you are well paid in the rising tech world or you’re trying to make just enough money as a writer, artist, waiter, teacher, or barista to pay rent and stay in the City maybe just one more year.

Whether it is because San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water, or because other cities did not build in the same fashion, or because the march of gentrification doesn’t stop, or because people just like the summer fog, there is nowhere to live. Last April, Forbes called San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose the three worst cities for renters. San Francisco’s vacancy rate was a feeble 3.6%, while rent sucked up an unsustainable 40% of your household income.

Care to buy a house instead? The median home price is $1.6 million, which is a 76% increase since 2011. Real estate blogs like Curbed amuse themselves with articles like “What $4,500 a month rents you in San Francisco”.

And meanwhile, the City is recovering from an ugly, painful, and violent backlash from those who cannot afford to rent or buy; those who cannot afford to stay; those who cannot ride the private lush buses to their jobs at Google, Apple, and Facebook; those who live in substandard rent controlled buildings which are substandard precisely because they are rent controlled. Such was my SF apartment, and I was grateful to have it.

The divide, as with so many things, is political. One side wants to stop building more houses in the logic that more houses will push the existing residents out: gentrification. The other side says that building more is the only way – not just in San Francisco but wherever the demand is. People want to be in San Francisco because of that very detail, energy, richness, culture, and good food. Can’t we create places of beauty everywhere and not just San Francisco?


Mostly, residents seem to take every chance to enjoy every minute of the City. We walked through Alamo Square Park and saw the iconic Painted Ladies – the Victorian homes perched on a slope so that people in the park could see downtown behind them. Dozens of people just stood and watched, as if it were a movie.

Dozens more were lying motionless on the grass, having just finished the San Francisco Marathon that day. And I was tapping my phone against my hand, trying in vain to get the water out of it after I dunked it into a cup of water in our car’s drink holder.

“Omigod David your phone it’s in the water omigod get it out!” cried Charla as I was circling Alamo Square in search of parking.

“What? Wait! What?” I was flustered, unsuccessful at multitasking my parking efforts, weaving through traffic, and trying to save my phone.

Apparently Charla had put a cup of water in the drink holder before we left. Really? Who does that? My phone marinated in the water for more than ten minutes, and I could not save it for the rest of the trip.

Without a phone, I wavered between rushes of anxiety and a certain stillness. I had no choice but to look around me, look up. With the hot July sun easily burning the fog away, the bougainvilleas fluttered their majestic leaves as we drove past them.

Next: Down the world’s curviest street, careening into the future.