Driving over the Bay Bridge in the 1950s, before downtown was taken over by high-rises, my dad used to say that San Francisco was “The City of Light.” Hill after hill covered in bright buildings and roofs, created a visual quilt of colored squares on the ridge tops, a Cubist cityscape. He’d been an art major at Cal after the War in the 1940s and had been told by a professor that the real "City of Light" was San Francisco, not Paris for which the appellation is usually reserved. His professor called it that for the play of light across all those hilly neighborhoods that front the City when approaching from the east.
Of course that only applied to a sunny day and not in the usual foggy summers when the City is a thing of mystery and dark corners. This past Wednesday after a week of rain we had brilliant blue, storm-washed skies as we set out to walk the stair streets of Russian Hill. Except for a few tall apartments built before height limitations were passed in 1970, most of the homes and businesses look very much like the San Francisco of my childhood. It was a time when we always dressed in a suit and ladies wore hats to come to town.
We were following walk number 4 in the Wilderness Press guide book, Stairway Walks in San Francisco, by Adah Bakalinsky and Marian Gregoire. Our two earlier walks on Telegraph Hill had been so fascinating, we were back for more.
We came into the City by Bart, exiting at Powell St. near the cable car turnaround. On Wednesday mid-morning there was no one in line and we were very quickly aboard our cable car and climbing Nob Hill the easy way.
Each gripman has his own signature, staccato bell ring, and ours rapped it out at every street corner we came to. Hanging off the car like a dog with it’s head out the window, I realized that I may never get tired of this silly way of getting across town. Friends who have had to use them daily in the rain say it’s no fun, but what the heck, I love rain!
There were seven of us, all friends, all up for a hilly day of walking stairways and cobbles, and ready to see a bit of San Francisco we’d never seen before. We got off near Broadway and Mason Streets, joining our book’s tour in the middle. This was an easy spot to get to by Bart and cable car.
Of course we immediately found ourselves walking uphill, past the former Spanish National Church, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a beautiful twin spired edifice with a round tile mosaic of the Virgin on its facade.
From there Broadway only got steeper and we took a look down tiny Himmelman Street, barely an alley with a mini park and little unadorned Victorian cottages. In the early 1840s several Russian sailors, probably from Fort Ross, died and were buried under what are now the Vallejo Street stairs. The graves were removed or built over in the 1850s, but the Russian cemetery gave its name to the Hill. Getting to the top was initially so difficult that horses couldn’t make it and it became a place for people who wanted out of mainstream city life, and who could appreciate one of the best views in town. It was a neighborhood of cottages, approximately 40 of which still survive, due in large part to continued public activism and civic pride for over a hundred years.
Russian Hill was surprising from the start. Whizzing across in a car to get to some other part of the City, I’d never really seen what makes this such a special neighborhood. It is filled with little bits of beauty, like the finely trimmed hedges and vines covering the massive walls on Broadway. Many of the streets on this walk were bordered by old cement and stone walls, great abutments, holding the hills in place, topped by homes and gardens. The Broadway wall could have been ugly, but covered in green and topped with a smartly painted balustrade, it was anything but.
Cut into that wall was the Florence Stairway, but this was a climb with a difference. As you ascend it, the tops of the surrounding hills begin to protrude above the rooftops and it appears that the landscape is rising with you. Very cool and we probably wouldn’t have noticed it without our little guide book pointing it out.
At the top was Russian Hill Place, a tiny street lined with homes all of which deserved a moment to appreciate. Then it was downhill past the 1000 block of Green, which had been spared by the earthquake and fire of 1906, past the Folger family mansion and an octagonal Victorian home, all the rage for a time because people thought it promoted health and a good sex life.
The homes and stairways throughout Russian Hill were the creation of some of California’s most notable architects, Willis Polk, Julia Morgan, Bernard Maybeck and many others. Your neighbors might have included Bret Harte, George Sterling, Ina Coolbrith or the artist, writer and humorist, Gelett Burgess. Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived here for a time while visiting the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Her letters home about her experience in San Francisco have been turned into the book, West from Home.
By the time we got down to Polk Street it was lunch time. We happened into Lemongrass, the first Thai place we saw. Little did we know that it had been awarded “Best Thai Restaurant in the Bay Area” in 2010 by viewers of the show, Best of the Bay, or that Toi Sawatdee, the owner, was an award winning chef. The food was delicious, the portions huge, and the prices great. Their fruit salad of mango, pineapple, citrus and vegetables was marvelous and the plate of marinated, BBQ'd chicken so delicious and so big that three of us had to help finish it. A tough job but somebody had to do it.
After lunch we turned around and started back up Russian Hill, walking a little slower at first but the best was yet to come. Our first glimpse of Havens Street woke us all up. On Leavenworth, between Filbert and Union, is a stairway leading up between the buildings into a tropical paradise. This is Havens, marked above the street sign with a bas-relief of Buddha, whose hand is raised in the “mudra” of abhaya, a gesture of reassurance and blessing as well as protection. It is a welcoming gesture reminding us to stop and become aware of the moment, a perfect thought when climbing those stairs.
Leaving the busyness of Leavenworth behind us we entered a forest of tree ferns, bamboo and vine maple. It was dark and intensely green, punctuated at points with statues of the Buddha and other Asian sculpture you’d expect to find in a jungle. We couldn’t believe we were still in the heart of San Francisco! As the pathway led deeper still between the homes and apartments, we found windows through the foliage where we glimpsed the Bay and Alcatraz in the distance. At others, where more light filtered through, purple fuschias bloomed in the dead of winter.
Reentering the world of the City, we climbed Leavenworth to spectacular views, past Victorian homes and through slots between buildings or over descending entryways. Here we caught a glimpse of the Bay Bridge above the rooftops, there again, Alcatraz and Angel Island and always the clear, blue January sky.
Half a block up Jones Street we made a left through a trellised entry into Macondray Lane, the pedestrian street recast by Armistead Maupin as Barbary Lane in the series, Tales of the City. Not quite as peaceful as Havens, this walk and the homes and apartments along it, felt more homey. It’s beauty was welcoming in a regular, neighborly kind of way. The brick path led us past tree ferns and towering cypresses, little waterfalls and ivy twisting its way up trunks and retaining walls in every shade of green. It was another oasis in a sea of city, an amazing place to visit for an afternoon. At the far end the path got wilder as it was paved with old cobble stones. My friend Alex recognized them as ballast stones used in square riggers that made port in San Francisco over a hundred years ago.
The final part of our walk took us over the Vallejo Street stairs. Designed by Willis Polk, its elegance represents civic work from another era. Entered through an arched double stairway, balustrades led us past gorgeous homes and up to the best view of the day at the top of Vallejo Street. The walk down the other side was just as elegant, Polk having understood well the nature of beauty on San Francisco’s hills.
Crossing Taylor we came to Ina Coolbrith Park, named after the first Poet Laureate of California who had lived here. She had come to California in 1852 as a child. Later as a well known writer, she had known Brett Hart, Ambrose Bierce and Alfred Lord Tennyson as well as mentored Jack London and Isadora Duncan to name just a few.
Descending through the park toward our cable car line and an easy ride home, we turned onto one terraced pathway after another, each with a different view toward Downtown, the Bay Bridge or Telegraph Hill. The towers of Saints Peter and Paul church rose above North Beach, rose above the lovely, textured patchwork of buildings and roofs, a visual signature of San Francisco. Yeah Dad, “The City of Light.”