Another Look at San Francisco

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

SFO Part Deux: This is a follow up to my previous blog about San Francisco. I wrote it through the eyes of an Event/Incentive Travel Planner. I’m sort of a “Wedding Planner” but on a much larger scale and the “weddings” last for days. This time I would like to give my view of the “City by the Bay,” or, as I think of it, the American “Ground Zero” for what is possible for the LGBT Community and what “Being Gay” in the United States of America can be. I see San Francisco as that “Over the Rainbow” place where young women and men from “Podunk, AK” who are scared of who they really are and really feel can actually “see it”. My heart truly breaks when I consider the actual number of sexually terrorized people in the world, not being able to be genuine to themselves and forced into living a lie. To me is is just as unbelievable as slavery, the holocaust, or how (if) our Congress really thinks.  While Philadelphia was the birthplace of a free nation, San Francisco is the city that gave birth to something very similar: freedom from sexual intolerance. One cannot survive without the other. It all works together, all part of the amazing tapestry that is called The United States of America.

That being said, I wanted to turn to my thoughts to why people flock to this city by the millions each year. They are certainly not all lured in by all the rainbow flags and Dorothy’s siren songs from the Bay (I believe I have heard them). In my “I Have a Dream” speech, I would speak of a world where everything and everyone respects each other, works together and appreciates each other’s contributions. In other words, I imagine a world where people simply love each other as they love themselves.  That to me is the true soul of San Francisco, a magnificent/magical city, still very much evolving, improving with age and surely getting more and more beautiful/handsome. The creative passion of the LGBT community has created a magical city for all to see and experience.

When I first visited Sydney, Australia, I immediately noted similarities between the two cities. San Francisco and Sydney are both creative, easy going, bold, sexy and very unique in every sense of the word. Both sitting on resplendent bays with massive hills, Sydney is San Francisco with a slightly different accent. BONUS! San Francisco is a hell of a lot closer to Philly and much less expensive to travel to.

In my last blog, I spoke of The Fairmont product and how much I like it. There certainly are other hotels with just as much panache all over the city, “Grande Dame” type hotels, “Chic Boutique” hotels and tons of very nice well appointed places to stay, available in almost every price range. I stayed with a buddy at either a Sheraton or Ramada Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf once and it was really un-fucking-forgettable! … Eh … I meant the hotel, of course.

FISHERMAN’S WHARF is my dream for our own Penn’s Landing. Basically, for those of you who don’t know, Fisherman’s Wharf is a city-created tourist area, right on the Bay that is just great (Hear that Philly?)! You want an outstanding seafood meal? Fisherman’s Wharf has the most elegant candle-lit selections alongside casual “fish-joints” and trendy cafes. It’s located at the base of the SAN FRANCISCO CABLE CAR LINE and it is really interesting to watch the cars reverse on an old circular wooden “turnaround” and head back up the hill. The Cable Cars are a “National Landmark” according to the U.S. National Park Service and there is a whole mythology and history about them. I think the conception of the SFO Cable Car system says a lot about the people and the wonderful and sensitive way they think. The inventor of the Cable Car was a Scottish Engineer who witnessed a wagon, pulled by four horses, slide backwards down a steep hill when one of those horses slipped on the fog-slick cobblestones. It was this “cruelty to animals” that inspired him to create an 1873 wonder. I feel the same way when I see the sweating Amish horses plowing of fields in Lancaster, but, I digress.   

Fisherman’s Wharf is where you shop for T-shirts, crappy/important souvenirs, and that sort of thing. I remember a shop, “South Paw,” with nothing but items for left handed folk. Here is where you can take the ferry from PIER 39 to ALCATRAZ ISLAND (great tour!) in the middle of the Bay or over to “artsy-fartsy” SAUSALITO. I once had a Gorgonzola pasta dish in a fantastic tavern with a view of the Bay I will never forget, totally worth the effort. Fisherman’s Wharf is also where GHIRARDELLI SQUARE is located. There is not really much to see there but the photo-op is priceless. Most Easterners pronounce “Gear-a-deli” incorrectly, by the way.

NORTH BEACH or “Little Italy” is worth a look. I spoke of “Beach Blanket Babylon” in my previous blog and in my opinion that is the highlight of this neighborhood. It was a part of the “Barberry Coast” or SFO’s “Red Light District” back in the days of the California Gold Rush. There are great Italian Restaurants and many colorful people.

CHINATOWN is the largest district of its kind outside of Asia and the oldest Chinatown in North America. A top SFO tourist attraction, it is easy to see why it inspired Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. I remember once having some welcome time off from my guests on a Sunday. Gaily strolling down GRANT AVENUE (check the song on the original Broadway soundtrack album), instead of eating at one of the more spectacular and elegant Asian restaurants which abound here, I chose the tiniest place occupied totally by Asians and had one of the greatest lunches ever! It was very reasonably priced and I had the sweetest servers. There’s a whole story involved here but, I must move on. Suffice to say that stories are everywhere in San Francisco, stories waiting to be written.

UNION SQUARE is down the steep streets from Nob Hill/Chinatown but not yet to Fisherman’s Wharf. There are some spectacular hotels here in addition to the best shopping, restaurants and most important businesses. I always think of this part of town as the “Big City” section.

One “tipsy” evening, I grabbed a cab at my hotel (the Westin St. Francis in Union Square). I had been “misbehaving”. The driver (Avery friendly/masculine woman) and I struck up an interesting and immediate connection. I assume she was sober while I was not. After some hilarious repartee, she raced me down world famous LOMBARD STREET. Years later, I could possibly still be breathless! I will never forget it. Unplanned, real and a fucking riot! Known as the “crookedest street in the world”, the steep cobbled slope and sharp curves of this one-way road pass by grand Victorian mansions. There is much Victorian architecture throughout the city and everyone has seen THE PAINTED LADIES, the six iconic, beautifully restored classic Victorian houses are in Pacific Heights. Set against the San Francisco skyline, they are truly one of the classic images of San Francisco and another great photo op. Well worth the effort.

COIT TOWER at the top of TELEGRAPH HILL offers amazing views of San Francisco and is yet another icon as well as a very original/interesting SFO legend.

There are two bridges that (in my mind) “frame” San Francisco. If you were standing atop NOB HILL and looking to your right, you would see the Bay Bridge which takes you to Oakland where Gertrude Stein (one of my favorite women of all time) grew up and said “There is no there, there!” In the center of the bay is the most infamous American prison of all time. To the far left are the graceful orange towers of THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, perhaps the most well known and best loved symbol of San Francisco. It really is a thrill to drive over (on your way up to Napa, perhaps?) and it takes about a half hour to walk and absorb the views. This romantic bridge is now 76 years old. THE GGB still hosts dozens of suicides yearly and one hits the water at 80 mph (ouch!) with little chance of survival. Suicide is not a good thing, but if one must “ring one’s own curtain down”, a final dive off the Golden Gate sure beats a shotgun in the basement. Very middle class!    

There is much more to speak of, but, THE CASTRO DISTRICT must be highlighted. THE CASTRO is actually in the “Eureka Valley Neighborhood” and is one of the first and currently the largest Gay neighborhoods in the United States. The Castro was transformed from a working class neighborhood during the 1960’s/70’s and there is no doubt it is the most prominent symbol of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender activism in the world. To be honest, San Francisco’s “Gay Village” has nothing on our own Philadelphia “Gayborhood” and it has been a while since I have even felt compelled to trek way down Market Street for a stop. San Francisco is now “open” as a result of The Castro. The international LGBT Community was “recognized” as a result of The Castro. The Castro simply is “American Gay History” and must been seen, walked and revered. To me it is Hallowed Ground. The name CASTRO was for the main thoroughfare of the same name. The movie theatre with the huge CASTRO sign has become as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge. The Castro’s “queer identity” is in itself a tourist attraction. Harvey Milk’s own “Castro Street Fair” every October continues to be huge and San Francisco Pride month gets larger crowds each year. The last Sunday in June sees Market Street “throbbing” with a “Queer Sea” of humans celebrating being a “different kind of normal”. On Saturday, the day before the big PRIDE parade, the Mission and Castro Districts are taken over by Lesbians from all walks of life as well as their children, pets and musical instruments. “THE SAN FRANCISCO DYKE MARCH AND RALLY” also continues to build in numbers and momentum. Times are still a’changin! BRAVO Ladies! THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL LESBIAN AND GAY FILM FESTIVAL is also in June, making this time of year all the more exciting in the Castro, attracting filmmakers from around the world for ten days of screenings, parties and discussion about “Queer Film.”

In a city so snobbish about its restaurants and food, The Castro has long lagged behind other neighborhoods in its culinary offerings. In recent years things have changed for the better though not the perfection of Center City. My thought? A neighborhood made up of many men and woman interested in maintaining a sexy, svelte, physique would not attract really great restaurants. This is not rocket science; it simply would not make much sense. Great restaurants are plentiful in the Castro, however, and gaining in quality.  Most bars in the Castro cater to Gay men under the age of forty. There are very few bars for Lesbians.  I am not a woman nor am I under 40 but I have never felt deprived. In a city like SFO “Gay watering holes” are really not that necessary. It’s probably only me but my “Gaydar” works just fine everywhere and some good eye contact and a smile is all I generally need. “Gay Bars” are for amateurs.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Harvey Milk’s headquarters still stands in The Castro as a memorial and museum for the Gay rights movement. The Castro would not exist without San Francisco and in the short time since both have become more comfortable with themselves, a “Gay Village/Ghetto” is no longer necessary. That is not to say that San Francisco is a “Gay Utopia” as there will always be “haters”. But being Gay is no longer on the very top of the list. Truth be told, I don’t think we are now any more despised than blacks, Jews, Congress or the Kardashians. San Francisco is one of the great American cities and for its size; it is able to make the world take notice which is an awesome feat when you think about it. Who does not think of San Francisco in terms of its sexuality? Singularly magnificent looking, fun, relaxed, fairly safe, with tons of original attractions and things to do, “Gay SFO” is a compliment to all of us. Like any great city, San Francisco has quirks and unattractive traits but the things that make it great far outweigh the few negative aspects. Tourists come in the millions from all over the world again and again. The amazing sea lions are still living near Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf indicating that magic is happening there. Movies are still filmed here and gorgeous photographs taken. People are free to live their life to the full with acceptance and little judgment. Whereas Philly is American History, San Francisco is American Future. For the world’s LGBT Community, it is fantasy, dreams and reality combining. It is the magical glittering city that showed the world what being “Another Kind of Normal” is. Not simply “normal” but really, really beautiful in so many ways. 

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