The massive Chinese migration to California began almost as soon as the news of easy gold in the mountain streams made it to East Asia. And despite rampant prejudice and increasingly desperate attempts on the part of “good” Americans to rid their pristine country of these immigrants, the Chinese not only stayed but persevered and eventually prospered. Many never made it to the gold fields, preferring instead to remain in bustling San Francisco to open shops and begin the business of commerce in their new home. They carved out a thriving community at the border of Portsmouth Square, then center of the young city, which became known as Chinatown.
In this historic neighborhood, beautiful Asian architecture mixes with more mundane blocky city buildings to create a unique skyline.Along with much of San Francisco, the neighborhood was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Despite xenophobic attempts to relocate Chinatown as far away from downtown San Francisco as possible, the Chinese prevailed and the neighborhood was rebuilt where it originally stood. Today visitors see the post-1906 visitor-friendly Chinatown that was built after the quake, particularly if they enter through the Chinatown Gate (Grant Ave. and Bush St.), at the edge of Union Square. In this historic neighborhood, beautiful Asian architecture mixes with more mundane blocky city buildings to create a unique skyline. Small alleyways wend between the touristy commercial corridors, creating an intimate atmosphere.
Farther up Grant, North Beach is an odd amalgam of old-school residential neighborhood and total tourist district. Although most of the old families have gone, North Beach has long served as the Italian district of San Francisco, a fact still reflected in the restaurants in the neighborhood. North Beach truly made its mark in the 1950s when it was, for a brief time, home to many writers in the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsburg. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen famously coined the term “Beatnik” while at a Beat gathering on Grant Avenue six months after the launch of Sputnik.
One of the most famous independent bookshops in a city known for its literary bent is City Lights (261 Columbus Ave., 415/362-8193, 10am-midnight daily). It opened in 1953 as an all-paperback bookstore with a decidedly Beat aesthetic, focused on selling modern literary fiction and progressive political tomes. As the Beats flocked to San Francisco and to City Lights, the shop put on another hat—that of publisher. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was published by the erstwhile independent, which never looked back. Today they continue to sell and publish the best of cutting-edge fiction and nonfiction. The store is still in its original location on the point of Columbus Avenue, though it’s expanded somewhat since the ’50s. Expect to find your favorite genre paperbacks along with the latest intriguing new works. The nonfiction selections can really make you take a step back and think about your world in a new way, which is just what founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti wanted.
Built in 1933 as a monument to her beloved firefighters, Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd., 415/249-0995, 10am-6pm daily May-Oct., 10am-5pm daily Nov.-Apr., adults $7, ages 12-17 $5, under age 12 $2, call for tour times) has beautified the city just as benefactor Lillie Hitchcock Coit intended. Inside the art deco tower, the walls are covered in the recently restored frescos painted in 1934 depicting city and California life during the Great Depression. For a fee (adults $7, youths $5, children $2, children 4 and under free), you can ride the elevator to the top, where on a clear day, you can see the whole city and bay. Part of what makes Coit Tower special is the walk up to it. Rather than contributing to the acute congestion in the area, consider taking public transit to the area and walking up Telegraph Hill Boulevard through Pioneer Park to the tower and descend down either the Filbert or Greenwich steps toward the Embarcadero. It’s long and steep, but there’s no other way to see the lovely little cottages and gardens of the beautiful and quaint Telegraph Hill.
You’ve no doubt seen it in movies, on TV, and on postcards: Lombard Street, otherwise known as “the crookedest street in the world.” Much of Lombard Street is a drab commercial artery connecting the Golden Gate Bridge with Van Ness Avenue, but the section that visitors flock to spans only one block, from Hyde Street at the top to Leavenworth Street at the bottom. However, the line of cars waiting their turn to drive bumper-to-bumper can be just as legendary as its 27 percent grade. Bypass the car and take the hill by foot. The unobstructed vistas of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, and the city are reason enough to add this hike to your itinerary, as are the brick steps, manicured hydrangeas, and tony residences that line the roadway.
Welcome to the tourist mecca of San Francisco! While warehouses, stacks of crab pots, and a fleet of fishing vessels let you know this is still a working wharf, it is also the spot where visitors to San Francisco come and snap photos. Fisherman’s Wharf (Beach St. from Powell St. to Van Ness Ave., backs onto Bay St.), reachable by Muni F line and the Hyde-Powell cable car, sprawls along the waterfront and inland several blocks, creating a large tourist neighborhood.
The Wharf, as it’s called by locals, who avoid the area at all costs, features all crowds, all the time. Be prepared to push through a sea of humanity to see sights, buy souvenirs, and eat seafood. Still, many of the sights of Fisherman’s Wharf are important (and fun) pieces of San Francisco’s heritage, like the Fisherman’s and Seaman’s Memorial Chapel (Pier 45, 415/674-7503), and the Musée Mécanique (Pier 45, 415/346-2000, 10am-7pm Mon.-Fri., 10am-8pm Sat.-Sun., free), an arcade dating back over a century.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Northern California.