Exploring San Francisco from the Tenderloin to the Golden Gate Bridge

In 2013, I emigrated my family to the USA. We landed in San Francisco, a city I have loved since I first visited it in 1976 when I was 5 years old. We were unable to find a way to live in SF because of the insane cost of housing, but have gone back many times and will continue to do so. 

In all the cities that I’ve travelled, there are some that stand out as extraordinary more than others. A few come to mind right away Istanbul, Rome, Paris, New York City, Barcelona, Seoul, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Honolulu, Fez, and of course, San Francisco.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco has a rich and interesting history, a vibrant culture, and for a city which is so young – an amazing amount of things to do and incredible things to eat. San Francisco is a melting pot of cultures and you can find restaurants ranging from classic 1930s diners to Punjab, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Lao, Indian, Pakistani, Ethiopian, French, Italian, Bulgarian, Basque, and there’s probably even a Martian restaurant somewhere in Fremont…in short, San Francisco offers more than just something for everyone – it offers many things to everyone.

San Francisco, California

My wife is still a new immigrant to the USA and while our four years together have taught her much about my culture and people, there was still something that she seemed to not understand – the dark underbelly of America – the poverty and homelessness. When you grow up on the other side of the planet watching rich people on television and hearing everyone dream of the promised land – it’s hard to understand that America is filled with homelessness, drug problems, the mentally ill, and prostitution. Aside from places like Detroit and Philadelphia, there may be no better place to witness this than San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

 

The Tenderloin has always been a rough place, in fact, the name comes from back in the days when police officers were given a bonus for patrolling the most dangerous part of the city – a bonus which allowed them to purchase better cuts of meat for dinner from the butcher – the tenderloin cuts. Today, the Tenderloin is still a place that it’s not advisable to wander through after dark – during the daylight hours hundreds, perhaps thousands of homeless and crazy people wander the streets, sleep on the sidewalks, and openly use drugs.

San Francisco, California

This was, of course, where I decided it would be a good idea for us to stay. Before you start cursing me under your breath, I should point out that I booked us into the COVA Hotel on Ellis Street, a four star boutique hotel that offers amazing service, comfort, and value right in the heart of the city. The hotel was superb with fantastic views of the city, a free breakfast service that included fresh fruit, waffles, and more and that the staff took great care of us while we were there. Our room was quiet, cool, comfortable, and, in fact, it was hard to recognize that twenty feet to either side of the hotel we would encounter homeless drug addicts and mentally ill street people. Most guests chose to use the hotel’s free shuttles which took them directly to Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Union Square and back. Not us though.

San Francisco, California

Our walks took us past the people of the streets – my poor wife was terrified, but I felt like it was important that she be exposed to this aspect of America. One tall black man with crazy eyes said “You look like a little nun!” – “I’m a Muslim!” she responded, clasping my arm. “Oh, well you look like a nun,” he told her. Thank you Crazy-Eyes. You can take a homeless tour of the Tenderloin on Vayable, run by a homeless man named Milton…we didn’t do that, but may in the future.

San Francisco, California

My friend Joshua points out that Palm Springs has no homeless people and offers no homeless services but San Francisco offers lots of services and so has lots of homeless. It’s a fair point. America should be ashamed of this problem. Herewith, I offer a solution.

 

The government should buy all the houses in Detroit that are selling on Ebay for $500 – maintain them, and offer them to the homeless. Offer free services, job training, food, and healthcare in Detroit and only in Detroit. Offer free transport to Detroit. Close down all the other services in all the other cities and start works programs that give people who want to stay in other cities jobs and cheap housing – no job, no housing – off to Detroit with you. We can’t make Detroit any worse and we can certainly make other cities better. My family once owned all of downtown Detroit in the 1800s. My fourth great grandfather was the Mayor of Detroit. Maybe if they move all the crazies there, I can be the Mayor of Detroit too…

But, back to San Francisco. Our walks took us out of the Tenderloin and into Little Saigon where Hanane had her first bowl of Pho. I had forgotten just how delightful Pho can be. Oh man, it is sooooo good. Little Saigon is San Francisco’s ‘newest’ neighborhood and borders the Tenderloin. From there, we walked to Union Square and marvelled at the corner where Levi Strauss, sold the first pair of Levi’s to miner forty-niners back during the Gold Rush. The first Levi’s 501 jeans were created in the 1890’s and people all over the world still wear them. That’s some classic fashion! Strauss used sailcloth from the abandoned ships in San Francisco harbor (because many ships made a one-way trip to the Gold Rush), dyed the cloth blue, and re-enforced the stress points with rivets. It was the merchants who sold to the miner’s who made the enduring fortunes.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco, California

Union Square itself got it’s name from the pro-Union rallyies that were held there during the American Civil War. The beautiful golden statue called “Victory” that commemorates President McKinley and lost sailors was modeled on a San Francisco Beauty named Alma de Bretteville. While she was wooed by many, she went where the money was piled highest and married a sugar baron named Adolph Spreckles who was 25 years her senior – the newspaper’s at the time mocked the union, calling Spreckles her ‘Sugar Daddy’ – which is where the term originates. The couple built the largest home in Pacific Heights which today is the home of author Danielle Steele. One of my personal heroes, Jack London, used to attend parties at the Spreckles mansion. She was one of the most influential art collectors in the USA and San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Fine Art’s Museum was one of her pet projects – she also brought a number of Rodin sculptures to the city which are still there. The Legion of Honor sits high on the headland’s above the Golden Gate Bridge…

And this is where I will stop for now. We’ve gone from the poorest to the richest and from the Tenderloin to the Golden Gate Bridge. More soon to come…

San Francisco, California

Ah, one last word about Alma Spreckles – she started a chain of thrift-shops to help the poor, they were eventually turned over to her favorite charitable organization – The Salvation Army – which is why the Salvation Army operates thrift stores all over the United States….including the one in the Tenderloin which also operates a shelter there…it’s astounding how everything is connected if you know where to look. Crazy-Eyes gets his meals and bed from the woman on the statue in Union Square…

Great thanks to SanFrancisco.Travel for providing so many great resources and fantastic information for our trip. More to come soon….

Vagobond in Big Bear Lake #saturdayslideshow

Big Bear Lake, Belleville Cabin

When I tell people that I grew up in the mountains above Los Angeles or a ski area near L.A. – they often look confused. I grew up in a small town called Big Bear Lake. 7000 feet above Los Angeles in Southern California. Big Bear is famous for skiing, Hollywood shoots, gold mining, and – not surprisingly – big bears.

On the left is the old Belleville Cabin in Holcomb Valley. Hard to believe this is all that is left of what was once the largest Southern California gold rush town. Belleville was nearly 25,000 people and had more than it’s fair share of prostitutes, miners, and desperados. The town was named for Belle, the first baby born in the community. It brought the nearby communities of Big Bear Lake, Big Bear City, and Fawnskin to life but then died.

The last time I visited was 2009. Big Bear (which is what the whole area is called by locals) was a lot smaller than I remembered it and was filled with quite a few odd people. If someone told you they had just spent a fun-filled weekend at a popular southern California resort called Yuhaviat, you probably wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Yuhaviat is a Serrano Indian word that means “Pine Place,” and it is the name Big Bear had for more than a thousand years.

Big Bear is no longer called Yuhaviat, because back in 1845, Benjamin Davis Wilson rode into Yuhaviat Valley with a posse of 20 men. They were chasing Indians who had been raiding their ranches in Riverside. As they entered the valley, they found it swarming with bears.

Wilson divided his men into two-man teams. Each team went out, roped a bear and brought it back to camp. They had eleven bear at the camp all at the same time. This prompted Wilson to come up with the name Big Bear Lake. However, it should be noted that Big Bear Lake is a man-made lake that didn’t exist in 1845. The lake Wilson named Big Bear was actually the natural lake at the east end of the valley, now known as Baldwin Lake.

Ben Wilson is not only remembered for giving Big Bear its name, but he went on to become an important figure in Southern California history. Among his accomplishments, he is remembered as the first mayor of Los Angeles. He was also a two term California state senator, and he built the first railroad between Los Angeles and San Diego. Wilson died on March 11, 1878, but before he died, he donated land and buildings for the construction of a college. This new college eventually became the University of Southern California.Wilson’s energy and leadership qualities were passed down through his children to his grandchildren. One of those grandchildren was the famous World War II General, George S. Patton.

Today, Big Bear is a tourism town. Sometimes it seems like the main industry is making ugly chainsaw carvings of bears, but actually the big draw are the ski resorts of Snow Summit and Bear Mountain along with weekend camping and mountain getaways by the people that we used to call ‘flatlanders’.

About 15 years (1860) after Bear Valley was discovered by Wilson , prospector Bill Holcomb discovered gold in nearby Holcomb Valley . After abandoning his prospecting and mining efforts in Northern California and Oregon where he spent 10 years searching for gold, Holcomb and his partner Jack Martin came to Bear Valley in the winter of 1859. Although the partners worked hard they made only a modest strike. Martin returned to Los Angeles to get his family.

Meanwhile, towards the end of April, while Holcomb was hunting bear, he crossed the meadow in the center of Bear Valley and climbed up the west side of Bertha Peak and saw what he described as “the most beautiful mountain valley I have ever seen”. A few days later, he returned to that valley with companions, and while tracking a grizzly he had wounded, along what is now Caribou Creek; he noticed glittering specks of gold in a quartz ledge.

News of his find spread fast and soon prospectors began staking and working their claims. The population of Holcomb Valley swelled to over 2,000; buildings and businesses sprung up, including a General Store, Saloon, Grocery Store, Blacksmith Shop and the famous Octagon House where the “glitter girls” danced and otherwise entertained men in small dimly lit cubicles. As more and more prospectors came to Bear Valley in the hunt for gold and silver ore, the Bear Valley Mining District was founded.

When I was a child, that history was still celebrated in a big way. Each year we had a two week festival called “Old Miners Days” during which there were pageants, dances, parties, a parade, and an annual event that I always looked forward to – donkey baseball and the annual burro race. There were large herds of burros and donkeys that lived wild in Big Bear in the 1970s and each year they would be rounded up and people would race them around the lake and play baseball with them – with runners having to ride wild asses around the bases.

As kids, we were allowed to run wild in the San Bernardino National Forest – we were real natives and would catch rattlesnakes and scorpions, explore abandoned gold mines, and hike off in any direction for as far as we wanted. Most of our parents were busy with the booze, drugs, and sex of the 1970s – so there was no one to bother us.

We all went to North Shore Elementary School in those days (which always gets a funny response when I tell people in Hawaii – they say “You mean Sunset Elementary School?” – then I explain my school wasn’t on Oahu’s North Shore but Big Bear Lake’s). Big Bear was a great place to be a kid and the 1970s were a great time to be a kid. Below are a few photos that have meaning to me – the old Juniper that generations of kids built tree forts in, my spaceship looking elementary school, a couple of my childhood homes, my first job at the Alpine Slide, and the little market I used to buy Lemonheads and play Defender and PacMan in. Also a couple of pictures of the lake – look for the tiny white building in the distance – it’s the world’s most important solar observatory – which might be where I got my love of space and my universal outlook on life.

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Originally published 07 June 2009

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