San Francisco, Paris of the West, part 4
Posted by G.A. Matiasz on October 23, 2013
Consider this an extension to part 3 of this series.
Before I get to the subject matter proper, let me note something right off the bat about my comparisons between San Francisco and Paris. San Francisco is exactly 231.89 square miles and approximately 825,863 in population as of 2012. Paris is 40.7 square miles, with approximately 2,234,000 people as of 2013. The density of Paris is 54,899/square mile, as compared to 17,620/square mile for San Francisco. Both urban experiences are very different from one to another. Ambling about San Francisco neighborhoods with one, two, at most three story houses which, if Victorian and no matter how quaint, are rarely older than the beginning of the 20th century or mid-19th century earliest, is quite different from strolling comparable Parisian neighborhoods of consistently four, five or six story tall apartment blocks, ranging from the 1600s to the 1800s in age. It’s often said that both San Francisco and Paris are walking cities. Yet the sense to walking each is quite distinct.
Now, The Castro. There’s no precise geographic definition of “The Castro” as such, given that the concentration of gay people around Castro Street from 19th Street to Market is the focus of a much larger gay community that extends up to Eureka Street, over to at 22nd Street, and down Market Street past Dolores to straddle Church Street. Some contend that the community goes past Guerrero Street into parts of the Mission, over to Noe Valley and Corona Heights, up to Twin Peaks, and across to the Haight-Ashbury, with incursions into the Duboce Triangle and Dolores Heights. With the rather nebulous geography to this designation, I’ll roughly spiral out from its iconic center, The Castro Theatre at 429 Castro Street. The Theatre has been in the neighborhood for over a century, with a Spanish Colonial Baroque façade and massive neon sign, and a luxurious and ornate single screen interior with subtly convex and concave art deco walls and ceiling, plus the dark, capacious balcony. The “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ rises from the orchestra pit and is played before films and events, as well as nightly just for fun. The Castro Theatre is host to various special events; singalongs, film festivals (most notably, Frameline and the Jewish Film Festival), actor and author speaking engagements and the like. In contrast to Paris, San Francisco is gradually losing its cinema culture. The Castro Theatre is helping to hold the line against this loss.
Cliff’s Variety Store is right down the street, and has been there for 75 years. This is more than a hardware store. If you can’t find it at Cliff’s, good chance it doesn’t exist. In the Boy Scouts, Tenderfoots were sent out to other campfires to find “left-handed smoke turners,” as a prank. Good chance Cliff’s has those, too. There is nothing like Cliff’s, not even in Paris. This matrix along Castro Street from Market Street to 19th Street, and from Diamond Street to Noe Street, contains at least a dozen full-on bars, making these eight plus blocks one of the most intense party scenes in San Francisco. Which makes the existence of the Hartford Street Zen Center (57 Hartford St) all that more remarkable. Sister center to the San Francisco Zen Center, imagine attending the Friday night Hartford Street Zen Meditation & Recovery Meeting, based on Buddhist and AA principles, in the heart of the Castro, among throngs of alcohol-crazed revelers. A truly extraordinary experience. I mean, drinking is everywhere in Paris. People drink mostly wine and mostly with meals, and less often other types of alcohol at bars. Zen centers and AA groups can also be found in Paris, of course. But there is a frenzy to American alcohol use, and abuse, that is hard to find anywhere in French culture.
Food is a big part of French culture, and its large on Castro Street as well. I’ll briefly mention my favorite places, the ones I frequent often. Frapez Spa (4092 18th St) is a fruit and vegetable smoothie bar that I hit three times a week, right after gym, for a healthy and filling 20 oz drink. The Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro St) has been in the neighborhood for 35+ years, offering fresh oysters, fish, crabs, shrimp, etc. The New England clam chowder and the chappino are particularly good. Buffalo Whole Food & Grain Co (598 Castro St) is a great little organic foods grocery with fresh vegetables inside, fresh fruit outside, and also a wall of supplements. Finally, there’s Spike’s Coffee and Teas (4117 19th St) where I regularly get my green tea. I can set up my laptop and work away (no wifi!) or read the NYT or just people watch. Plus, I have a card where I can pay in advance.
What’s great about living in a neighborhood in San Francisco or Paris is that you’re in a village where you can meet most of your needs within easy walking distance. Case in point, Pioneer Renewer (4501 18th St), an old school shoe repair shop where I’ve had a half dozen of my shoes stretched to fit. The place is great, from the goofy decorations to the gruff old cobbler who takes care of my shoes. Then there’s Books & Bookshelves (99 Sanchez St) where you can find unfinished wood furniture and shelves of poetry books, perhaps the widest collection of poetry up to and including City Lights in North Beach!
A couple additions to my “village” are the Immune Enhancement Project (3450 16th St) and Ike’s Place (3489 16th St). The former offers therapeutic massage and acupuncture (both of which I’ve extensively used) and the latter has a monster menu of over 50 sandwiches (many of which I’ve sampled), plus 4 additional locations. The therapies at IEP are common fare in Europe, whereas Ike’s cuisine is quite unique, as attested to by the lines around the block at lunch.
Church Street is another main commercial drag in the Castro area. Aardvark Books (227 Church St) reminds me of the San Francisco Book Company in the 6th Arrondissement, a store crammed floor to ceiling with used books from cheap paperbacks to collectors editions. There’s also graphic novels, comics, magazines and new books. Like a lot of used bookstores in SF, this place is hanging on by a thread.
We’re back on the food tip now, with references to Paris. Chow (215 Church St) is a decent enough local restaurant, unremarkable by San Francisco standards, let alone Parisian. It’s part of a San Francisco micro-chain. Thorough Bread and Pastry (248 Church St) rivals a good Paris patisserie/boulangerie, with its selection of sweet and savory baked goods, artisan breads and sandwiches. This place has tables but somewhat limited hours. Further up the street, there’s the completely unique Chile Pies (314 Church St), a sweet and savory pie shop that offers sit down and take out meals based on, what else, pie. There’s ice cream as well. It’s an offshoot of Green Chile Kitchen, so look for the big neon “PIE” sign. Further along still, there’s Samovar Tea Lounge (498 Sanchez Street). Lots of folks on the Eurasian continent love their tea, and as a consequence, make a ceremony out of drinking tea. The Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, British, and lastly, the French, are all keen for tea and ritual tea drinking. I found Parisian thé shops and cafes, while certainly more interesting than their British counterparts, just as limited, with a preference for perfumed teas. Samovar is no great shakes regarding the food it serves, which is small portioned and expensive. What is marvelous here are the teas. A half dozen each of green teas, white teas, black teas, oolongs, pu-ehr teas on a changing menu. Excellent.
Our final destination is Mission Dolores Park. Unlike the managed and controlled French and British gardens/parks, in which man’s mastery over nature is evident, American gardens and parks are studies in “nature,” with a pretense to “wildness.” Grass is omnipresent, and meant to be walked on, sat on, picnicked on, etc. There are official tennis courts, a basketball court, a soccer area, and an extensive modern playground for the kiddies. There’s also an old clubhouse with restrooms. The unofficial areas of the park include gay beach (for sun bathing), hipster hill (millions of dead hipsters, please!), dog hill (watch out for dog shit), etc. The park’s microclimate is usually sunny and warm, perfect for the regular SF Mime Troupe performances by day, the Symphony performances, and the big screen Opera rebroadcasts in the evening. This is a magnificent resource for not just the neighborhood, but the entire city of San Francisco.