On a sunny morning in Union Square, tourists are posing for selfies in front of a heart-shaped sculpture, in homage to singer Tony Bennett’s 1962 mega-hit about leaving his heart in “my city by the bay.” Surprisingly, Bennett himself painted this example – one of many dotting the city. Who knew he painted? Still, there’s so much to discover in this city of hills, bridges and spectacular views that Bennett’s artistic talent may be the least of it.
Just getting to our hotel from the airport was an adventure. “You live up there?” asked our disbelieving cabbie. The young couple in our shared taxi-van affirmed that yes, they did. We peered out: the incline was about 75 degrees. Plunging the vehicle into reverse, the driver performed a sort of running jump that landed us quite near their door. Eventually we would see the world’s most crooked street (Lombard) and the much-photographed Victorian “painted ladies” of Alamo Square, but nothing topped this introduction to the vertical city.
At Union Square, we join the queue for a Green Line Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus to far-flung Golden Gate Park and all points in between. Braving top-deck breezes with fellow travellers from Holland, England and assorted American states, we’re entertained for the next 90 minutes by our amiable driver’s spiel, punctuated with tapes of city-connected hit songs, like the crowd-pleasing, Dock of the Bay.
Driving through the Tenderloin District, we learn that these streets, once famous for speakeasies, crime and “houses of negotiated affection,” only attracted policemen to keep things under control when the cops were bribed with gifts from local butchers – expensive “tenderloin” cuts of meat – in return for their presence.
We pass Glide Memorial Church, since the 1960s, a generous provider of dinner meals to thousands of needy citizens. Actor Will Smith, playing a homeless man, lined up with the rest in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. We remember that Canada’s own Rabbi Abraham Fineberg worked with Glide in his later years – after he’d sung along with John Lennon in Montreal, recording Give Peace a Chance.
Next stop – for a photo-op – is the city’s gorgeously domed City Hall, built for the 1915 Pacific Exposition. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot here in 1954, later posing for wedding photos in his North Beach neighbourhood, renowned for Italian restaurants, espresso cafés and City Lights Bookstore, home of the Beat Poets.
San Francisco often seems familiar: we recognize the house where the movie Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed, drive by more lovely “painted ladies,” as well as a music auditorium named for rock impresario Bill Graham. Soon, the urban landscape gives way to trees and parks, until we stop for a break at Land’s End, to stretch our wings, so to speak.
Our spirits are lifted by the immensity of the scene before us: the Pacific Ocean’s rolling blue-and-white surf, the vast skies and unseen but powerful rip tides (“They’ll take you to Japan”) and the great white sharks circling beneath the waves.
On board once more, we head north to our final destination: Golden Gate Park. An astonishing 412 hectares, the park was created under the supervision of Scotsman John McLaren, Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead having quit the project, fearing failure. McLaren’s 53 years of devotion made Golden Gate into one of the most popular parks in the United States.
Here we discover America’s oldest Japanese tea garden, a flower conservatory, an aquarium, lakes, polo fields, a windmill – even a bison paddock. Golden Gate also boasts two museums, the De Young (Fine Arts) and the California Academy of Science, the world’s “greenest museum.” Some among us disembark to explore further; the bus will return in two hours.
Seeing the park, even by bus, is a revelation. In the words of our driver/guide: “You will leave even more beautiful than when you came in – trust me, I come here on my days off and work on my self-esteem issues.”
We laugh, but Golden Gate Park, together with Land’s End, epitomizes all things Californian: surfers, hikers, cyclists, art, science – and a world of natural wonders.
The drive back takes us through now-touristy Haight-Ashbury. Noting the white-pillared mansion where Bill Graham housed The Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix’s former digs, we regard these testaments to the Summer of Love somewhat coolly – the fact is, our top-tier bus seats have grown chilly.
“New Jersey’s leaving the building!” sings out a departing group from the Garden State, and soon, so are we.
Back downtown, we pass cable cars and long queues of tourists as we head toward the grand sweep of San Francisco Bay and the other Golden Gate, the bridge. On the way, another surprise: at 736 Mission St., we find The Contemporary Jewish Museum, its spiky modern wing instantly recognizable as the work of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum “crystal” architect Daniel Liebeskind.
Featuring a grand atrium, an education centre, a terrific café and a shop, the museum is not a permanent-collection kind of place. Featuring travelling exhibits, it shimmers with light and life, from its 32 diamond-like windows to its exterior blue steel shell with luminous panels that change colour, according to time of day, season or perspective.
Inspired by the site – it’s attached to the red-brick Pacific Gas & Electric Power Substation, where energy was first restored to the earthquake-devastated city in 1906 – Liebeskind designed a building that sparkles with energy. Its sole long-term exhibit, Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman (until October 2016) focuses on the life and legacy of financier, philanthropist and banjo player Warren Hellman, a uniquely Jewish, uniquely San Francisco figure.
Described by a city newspaper as “a Republican who supported labour unions, an investment banker whose greatest joy was playing songs of the working class in a bluegrass band,” in 2001, Hellman founded the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a free event held in Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadows (now Hellman Hollow). The festival draws 700,000 fans to his beloved park each October.
This quirky musical exhibit features a small stage, videos of Hellman playing with fellow musicians (check the museum website, www.theCJM.org, for performances), scrapbooks, Hellman’s Star of David rhinestone jacket and his banjo, among other ephemera. We leave this airy museum feeling that we’ve known, even briefly, a man who embodied the spirit of his city, a man with a heart.