At the end of his week’s trip through California, Mark Bibby Jackson follows some of his favourite movies through the streets of San Francisco and finds amid all the amazing tourist attractions a divided city.
There are times in travelling when you realise you have stumbled upon the wrong part of town – Bogota during some riots in the late 90s being the stand out for me – but I had not expected it from downtown San Francisco.
Emerging at the corner of Market Street and Powell, a white man in a wheelchair asks for money as he is a veteran, shortly afterwards a black guy offers me some “powder”, in between I see various people sleeping rough on the street, predominantly black, the smell of hash is pervasive and a young white woman her face buried within her jacket is clearly taking something much stronger.
I had not expected today’s streets to resemble a dystopian scene from Mad Max.
Coming to San Francisco I had hoped to follow in the footsteps of some of the movies shot here – Bullitt, Vertigo, Birdman of Alcatraz, as well as the TV series The Streets of San Francisco that I watched avidly in my childhood. I had not expected today’s streets to resemble a dystopian scene from Mad Max. But I should have.
Homelessness is a serious issue in San Francisco and a major campaign point in the mid-term elections, where Proposition C has imposed a tax on some high tech firms to combat the homelessness issue. The Proposition means that companies with annual revenues greater than $50 million will pay an additional 0.5% in taxes, generating an estimated $300 million to combat homelessness.
The proposition, now passed, was proving contentious during my visit with one person I interviewed during fearing it would encourage more homeless to come to the city – notably the person was white, the vast majority of those I saw sleeping rough were black. Clearly, homelessness is a racial issue here, something not mentioned in the Guardian article by Vivian Ho linked to above.
Part of the root cause for the homeless issue on the streets of San Francisco is the spiralling property prices generated by the high tech boom in the city, as acknowledged in the Guardian article. It is also something that has fuelled the regeneration of areas such as the Tri-Valley neighbourhoods of Dublin, Livermore and Pleasanton. Robin, my guide to the Tri-Valley, had earlier explained how homelessness is a series issue in San Francisco – see, I was forewarned.
I had come to this part of town to see a one-man show at the Exit theatre entitled Talk Story Reprise by veteran storyteller Ed Wolf on his childhood in Florida and the AIDS epidemic that had struck San Francisco so badly in the 80s and 90s. The show still strikes deep resonance, especially with the streetscape outside.
San Francisco Alcatraz and Pier 39
I should have listened to my mother. She had spent ten days in the city a decade or so ago.
“Go to North Beach,” she had said, and this is precisely what I did the following day.
The San Remo Hotel is a timeless gem. Opened in 1906, shortly after the San Francisco Earthquake as the New California Hotel, this charming Italian style pensione has been offering no frills accommodation for budget travellers ever since, changing its name to San Remo in 1922. Filled with Victorian memorabilia, although the Queen herself died in 1901, it is conveniently close to Fisherman’s Wharf, and it is here that I head to on a Sunday afternoon, after a thankfully fleeting visit to one of the city’s most famous landmarks.
San Francisco Earthquake
The San Francisco Earthquake struck in the early hours of 18 April, 1906. It’s estimated the quake would have measured 7.9 on the Richter Scale, if it had been in force at the time – it wasn’t invented until 1935. The earthquake was followed by fires that blazed across the city for days.
Some 3,000 people died as a result, although the exact figure is unknown as many of the deaths were in Chinatown and went unreported. The official figure at the time was 375. Around 300,000 out of a population of 410,000 were made homeless as 80% of the city was destroyed either by the earthquake or the ensuing fire.
It still remains the highest death toll from a natural disaster in the history of the state of California.
The man on the loud speaker informs us we are entering the most notorious island on earth, although I think the former inmates of Devil’s Island might contest that claim. Judging by the swathe of tourists that disembark the half-hourly ferry from Pier 33 on Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz brooks no fear these days.
The island that stands in the middle of the Bay harbour was first used as a jail by the US army in 1859. Used as a maximum security prison for America’s most wanted from Al ‘Scarface’ Capone to ‘Doc’ Barker, Alvin ‘Creepy’ and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly – only those with nicknames were permitted entry – until it was closed by Robert ‘Bobby’ Kennedy in 1963, 1,545 men were sentenced here, with only three escaping, although these were presumed drowned in the harbour.
The highlight of the tour is undeniably the free audio guide. Without it, as a good friend informed me before my trip “it’s just another prison”, although I’m not sure from what experience he speaks. Listening to both guards and prisoners tell their tales brings the whole place to life. It also gives the lie to the Birdman of Alcatraz. Whatever Burt Lancaster might have made you believe, Robert Stroud was a “psychopath” who might have loved birds but hated people, and who carried out his studies of birds in Leavenworth from where he was transferred after killing a guard; he spent most of his time on Alcatraz in solitary confinement.
The ferry returns in time for lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf on Pier 39. This has a reputation for the excellence of its seafood that is richly deserved judging by the seafood cioppino – a kind of stew full of crab, mussels, prawn and squid – I devoured at the Crab House, washed down with some of the local San Francisco craft beer.
High tech employees roller skate past the homeless destined for their luxury condos
A Sense of Community
Later that afternoon I walking through the backstreets of North Beach and along Columbus Avenue towards Telegraph Hill. From the New Orleans jazz being played in Fior d’Italia, to the hospitality of the bar staff, and even the sea lions on Pier 39, I perceived a real sense of community so sadly lacking in the downtown area a few blocks away, where high tech employees roller skate past the homeless destined for their luxury condos.
My intent was to take in a show at the Cobb’s Comedy Club on Columbus Street, but instead I got waylaid in the eclectically named Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store overlooking the wonderful St Peter and Paul Church where Marilyn married di Maggio. Sadly lacking cigars, whether Bohemian or not, the ‘store’ has a great range of craft beers. I polished off a few with a pizza while escaping the World Series that is echoing around all the sports bars in town, and which the Red Sox are destined to win that night. Instead an old Hammer House Horror film was playing in silence above the bar, allowing me to bore all assembled with my limited knowledge of the genre, before getting a complimentary beer for the road.
It’s here that I also happen to chance upon Jeff, a local who is something to do in the tech industry who persuades me to go on a little adventure the following day.
Over the Golden Gate Bridge
Close your eyes and think of San Francisco and very possibly the image captured in your mind is that of the Golden Gate Bridge. This wonderful piece of engineering dominates the Presidio to the west of the city. The following day I drive over it.
Just like North Beach is a world apart from the adjoining Downtown area, then the Golden Gate National Recreation Park just across the bridge – turn immediately right after the viewing point and then hook back under the Freeway – is a different universe to San Francisco.
The drive through Marin Headlands to Fort Barry is amazing, with frequent stopping points to take in the fantastic views back towards the city over the Golden Gate Bridge. Surf crashes against the rocks below as I ascend the hills and then come rolling down onto Highway 1, a procession of cyclists there to keep me on the not-so-straight and narrow.
Giving a wide berth to a colony of seabirds lazing on the beach perhaps in readiness for their next attack
Eventually, after the most amazing curvaceous drive, I reach my destination – Stinson Beach. Thirty miles or so further north from here Hitchcock filmed The Birds, but it is another movie that terrorised my childhood of which I am reminded as I walk onto the vast expanse of white sand. A poster warns of Great White Shark attacks mentioning that one had occurred in just a few feet of water. This could easily be the town of Amity in which Jaws was set, although that was supposedly in New England.
Giving a wide berth to a colony of seabirds lazing on the beach perhaps in readiness for their next attack, I stroll along the beach taking a few hesitant steps into the refreshing waters. Surely a shark can’t attack in inches of water, although I have seen images of orcas attacking onto the beach.
Plating safe, I sit on the sands and let the sun soak into my face. After all it is late Autumn and I will shortly return to Old England.
Dodging a Bullitt on the Streets of San Francisco
Lasting 10 minutes and 53 seconds the car scene in Bullitt is widely claimed to be one of the greatest car chases in movie history. My Hertz hire Chevrolet may not be a Ford Mustang, and I am certainly no Steve McQueen but I am most definitely up for the chase. So, upon returning to Baghdad by the Bay, instead of hopping into a trolley bus or cable car, I drive up the steepest street I can find, before long ending at the top of Lombard Street with its many curves.
Stopping briefly to join the cacophony of instagrammers taking in this most famous of landmarks without any appreciation, I continue driving around town, up and down hills adrenaline flowing, and if not with quite the speed of Mr McQueen then at least with as much vigour. Eventually, I type Hotel Vertigo into my SatNav and head for the hotel on Sutter Street in which the Hitchcock classic Vertigo was partly filmed – if you had not yet realised, part of my quest was to take in as many San Francisco-shot movies as possible in my 72-hour stay.
Parking and re-parking my car outside the San Remo – there is a two-hour curfew on parking which necessitates an element of juggling to avoid paying the hefty parking fees in town – I make my final appointment. Next to San Remo, Fior d’Italia claims to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the States. I had ventured here for the jazz the previous afternoon as well as for a nightcap before retiring, but today I am to dine. Settling at the bar, I am accepted as a regular customer by the barman before ordering the excellent melanzane parmigiana and an even better chocolate mousse, washed down with some American pinot noir that proved perfectly acceptable for the occasion.
If you liked Mark’s film-inspired journey around the streets of San Francisco, read From Bullitt to Vertigo, San Francisco in the Movies.
As I eavesdrop upon the conversation of the group along the bar – it would have been impossible not to overhear them – discussing whether they should wait for one’s husband to return before they eat their meal, I realise that this is further element of the community spirit of this part of time; something I have evidence throughout my week’s stay in northern California.
Earlier I had popped in for a quick Guinness in the nearby La Roccas Corner Bar, and chatted with the part-Italian, part-Irish barman who has lived just around the corner from the San Remo for twenty years. Apparently in the 40s and 50, mobsters used to convene here, and Joe Di Maggio was a regular. The neighbourhood is tightly knit the barman explains, something I fear you could not say for the downtown area.
San Francisco is a most attractive city full of the most spectacular architecture, surely the most wonderful urban hills in the world, an iconic bridge, amazing seafood and welcoming locals – both human and aquatic – but it will also have a darker side that belies a city struggling to cope with its vast disparity in wealth and racial divide. As such I fear it reflects many cities in modern times America.
Need further reason to visit the Bay Area, read Six Reasons to Visit San Francisco.
San Francisco Photo Gallery
San Francisco Hotels
Unless you want to spend a night on the streets of San Francisco it’s a good idea to book a hotel room, which can be pricey. The San Remo is a great budget option, but for a wider choice, please go to our Hotel Booking Portal. Any reservation you make will not cost you any extra, but the small commission we receive helps fund this website.
San Francisco Time
San Francisco is on Pacific Standard time or GMT / UTC -8. There is daylight saving, although the timing varies slightly from the UK.
San Francisco Flights from the UK
Norwegian flies direct from London Gatwick to Oakland International Airport. Despite its no-thrills reputation, flights do include a meal and a drink with it, although you do have to pay extra to reserve a seat and for extra items such as a blanket and headphones.
Hiring a Car in San Francisco
You need a car to drive the streets of San Francisco. You can pick up a Hertz rental car at Oakland Airport, a courtesy mini-bus takes you to/from the terminal to the car rental place.
For more information on the streets of San Francisco and tourism