Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Franciscoby Gary Kamiya
Cool, Gray City of Love brings together an exuberant combination of personal insight, deeply researched history, in-depth reporting, and lyrical prose to create an unparalleled portrait of San Francisco. Each of its 49 chapters explores a specific site or intersection in the city, from the mighty Golden Gate Bridge to the raunchy Tenderloin to the soaring/i>… See more details below
Cool, Gray City of Love brings together an exuberant combination of personal insight, deeply researched history, in-depth reporting, and lyrical prose to create an unparalleled portrait of San Francisco. Each of its 49 chapters explores a specific site or intersection in the city, from the mighty Golden Gate Bridge to the raunchy Tenderloin to the soaring sea cliffs at Land's End.
This unique approach captures the exhilarating experience of walking through San Francisco's sublime terrain, while at the same time tying that experience to a history as rollicking and unpredictable as the city herself. From her absurd beginnings as the most distant and moth-eaten outpost of the world's most extensive empire, to her instantaneous fame during the Gold Rush, from her apocalyptic destruction by earthquake and fire to her perennial embrace of rebels, dreamers, hedonists and misfits of all stripes, the City by the Bay has always followed a trajectory as wildly independent as the untrammeled natural forces that created her.
This ambitious, eclectic, and beautifully written book draws on everything from on-the-ground reporting to obscure academic papers to the author's 40-year life in San Francisco to create a rich and insightful portrait of a magical corner of the world. Complete with hand-drawn maps ofthe 49locations, this handsome package will sit comfortably on the short shelf of enduring books about places, alongside E. B. White's Here is New York, Jose Saramago's Journey to Portugal, or Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City.
- Bloomsbury USA
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COOL GRAY CITY OF LOVE
49 VIEWS OF SAN FRANCISCO
By GARY KAMIYA
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2013 Gary Kamiya
All rights reserved.
THE OUTER LIMITS
The Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge
For almost 50 years, an amusement park called Playland at the Beach stood just off the Great Highway. I used to go there as a kid. It was a gaudy, decrepit place, filled with clanking roller coasters, shrieking children, unnerving carnies, and every conceivable variety of fried food. Playland was vulgar, vaguely sad, and magnificent—a greasy Garden of Earthly Delights marking the place where America ran out of land. When the sun went down and night swept in off the Pacific, Playland became a foolish illuminated wonderland, its innumerable lightbulbs creating a magic circle within which hormone-addled teenagers could whirl rapidly through space and tired smiling dads could buy their daughters teddy bears.
Beyond that illuminated circle, the darkness waited. If you were to leave Playland and cross the Great Highway, by the time you walked halfway across the wide sands of Ocean Beach, the night would have taken over, and the sound of the surf would drown out the shrieks from the rickety Alpine Racer. If you waded into the ocean and began to swim, the lights of Playland would flicker behind you like birthday candles for a long time, until the dark miles blew them out. When you cleared the cliffs at Lands End, the red lights atop the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, a last faint link with the human world, would come into view. Then they, too, would disappear, and you would be alone in the cold, slapping Pacific. For more than two thousand miles between here and Hawaii, there would be nowhere you could stand up—with one vicious exception. For if you kept swimming, after many hours you would hear the unexpected sound of waves crashing on rocks. And suddenly a grim citadel, a mountain in the middle of the ocean, would loom up before you.
Twenty-eight miles from the end of the continent, you would have come upon the most forbidding piece of real estate to be found within the borders of any major city in the world: the Farallon Islands.
The face-off between Playland at the Beach and the Farallones is the ultimate San Francisco dissonance. For if Playland represents humanity's invincible drive to conquer nature by deep-frying it and serving it on a stick, the Farallones are the exact opposite—they are absolutely resistant to domestication. This city specializes in such collisions.
From the safety of the continent, the Farallones look dreamlike and mysterious, guardians of a distant West as mythical as Tolkien's Grey Havens. But for the mariners who have come to grief on them, the only myth they conjure up is that of the Clashing Rocks, those ferociously mobile islands that specialized in destroying passing Greek ships.
The Farallones have sent many ships to the bottom of the sea. The most potentially catastrophic incident took place one fog-shrouded morning in 1944, when a Liberty ship bearing 1,300 Navy men returning from the Pacific theater inadvertently entered the creepily named "silent zone," a dead auditory area where the sound of the island's foghorn was blocked by a massive granite peak. The ship smashed into a reef and quickly foundered. Men who had survived Guadalcanal and Midway bobbed in the turbulent seas, in danger of drowning just a few hours outside the Golden Gate. When the SOS came in, a motley fleet of vessels raced at top speed out of San Francisco harbor. It was the city's biggest nautical rescue mission since the 1906 fire, when a flotilla of ships picked up thousands of people as flames raged toward them on the northern waterfront. All the sailors were saved.
But not every Farallon shipwreck has had such a happy ending. The seas around the islands are treacherous. On April 14, 2012, five experienced crewmen on a racing yacht were killed when a huge wave swamped their boat, hurling them into the water and smashing their boat on the rocks.
The ominousness of the Farallones may have inspired a myth even older than that of the Clashing Rocks. The central coast Indians who inhabited this part of California for thousands of years believed that when people died, their spirit would travel across the sea to a place called the Island of the Dead. Some of them thought that this was a happy place. But others had a less sanguine vision. The self-taught ethnographer Stephen Powers wrote of a Pomo tribe, "They say it is an island in the bitter, salt sea, an island naked, barren, and desolate, covered only with brine-splattered stones, and with glistening salt, which crunches under the tread, and swept with cursed winds and blinding acrid sea-spray. On this abhorred island bad Indians are condemned to live forever, spending an eternity in breaking stones one upon the other, with no food but broken stones and no drink but choking brine."
Whether this nightmarish myth was inspired by the Farallones is unknown. The tule boats used by the central coast Indians weren't capable of sailing that far in the open ocean, so the vision couldn't have been based on firsthand experience. Perhaps the myth originated in ancient stories told by the Bay Area's first inhabitants, who lived here when it was possible to walk to the Farallones. If the Pomos did use the islands as a model for their hell, a later divine followed in their footsteps: A U.S. Navy chaplain said, "God has done less for it and with it than any other place."
But the Farallones are only barren and desolate from a human perspective. For the myriad other living things that swarm all over and around them, they're like Times Square on New Year's Eve.
First, there are the birds. There are enough birds on the Farallones to give Alfred Hitchcock nightmares. The islands are the largest seabird breeding colony in the contiguous United States. More than 300,000 birds of 13 species are found there, including the tufted puffin, the Cassin's auklet, the ashy storm-petrel, and the pelagic cormorant.
Then there are the mammals. The islands are a haul-out and breeding site for five species of seals and sea lions, including the jaw-droppingly huge northern elephant seal, whose males can weigh 5,500 pounds. Humpback, gray, and blue whales, the largest animals on the planet, feed in these krill-rich waters during the so-called upwelling season, when the California Current forces nutrient-rich cold water from the ocean floor to the surface. The upwelling makes the waters just outside the Golden Gate among the most productive marine habitats in the world.
The Farallones' most lethal visitors arrive in the fall: 30 to 100 great white sharks, killing machines that can weigh 5,000 pounds and that wreak havoc on the seals and sea lions (and, when the sharks venture near Stinson Beach or Tomales Bay, an occasional swimmer or surfer. There are more shark attacks along the central California coast than anywhere in the world). But these monsters are mere minnows compared with the killer whales, which can weigh up to 20,000 pounds, that drop in from time to time. In 1997, a killer whale killed a great white shark off the Farallones, the Super Bowl of species conflict on planet Earth.
The islands are a Federal Wilderness and National Wildlife Refuge, which means visitors are forbidden. The only inhabited island is Southeast Farallon Island, where, since 1968, a few intrepid scientists and naturalists from the Point Reyes Bird Observatory have been monitoring and studying the wildlife.
However, their remarkable wildlife is not the only noteworthy thing about the Farallones. In a region marked by extraordinary geology, they may be the most bizarre anomaly of all. For they are just passing through.
Eighty to 110 million years ago, during the Mesozoic era—the age of dinosaurs—the granite rocks that compose the islands were formed when two of the planet's seven major tectonic plates, the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, collided with each other. This collision took place 300 miles south of where the islands are now, in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada range. They and the other rocks that make up what's known as the Salinian Complex, including Point Reyes and Montara Mountain, were separated from the rest of the Sierra, which sits on the North American Plate, by the motion of the San Andreas Fault, then taken for a ride on the neighboring Pacific Plate, which is inexorably moving north at the dizzying rate of 1.6 inches a year. It took perhaps 20 million years for the Farallones to travel to their current location. In another 10 million years they will have migrated to somewhere off the coast of Oregon, giving the denizens of that sensitive state another excuse to whine about being overrun by vulgar arrivistes from California.
So, rather than the Clashing Rocks, it would be more apt to compare the Farallones with the subject of another Greek myth, the Wandering Rocks. Rootless cosmopolitans that have installed themselves temporarily on the horizon, they are the perfect outer limit—a moving one—for this city of runaways.
Actually, until recently, the Farallones were not islands at all. During the last glacial period, which ended 12,500 years ago, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and the Farallones were a ridge of peaks just east of the continental shelf. The first San Franciscans, who arrived some 13,000 years ago, could have walked out there.
After the waters rose, Spanish explorers used the Farallones as landmarks. Boston traders hunted seals on the islands in the early 19th century, followed by a colony of Russians. But it was the Gold Rush that gave the Farallones their strange, short moment in the sun. Some of the men who poured into San Francisco realized that the profits to be made from mining for gold were puny in comparison with those that could be made by "mining the miners." Any scarce commodity, including food, could be sold for obscene profits. In San Francisco, eggs were rare and pricey. In 1849, there were an estimated 300,000 common murres nesting on the Farallones. The murre lays eggs almost twice as big as a chicken egg, and equally tasty. Some shrewd entrepreneurs quickly realized that there was gold in them thar guano-befouled cliffs.
In 1851, six men landed on the Farallones, declared themselves owners by right of possession, formed a stock company, and began gathering eggs and selling them in San Francisco. Their success inspired others who paid no attention to their claims of ownership. The enmity between rival eggers grew to staggering proportions, culminating in the heartbreaking "Egg War" of 1863, during which two men were shot dead. Eventually the U.S. government, which ran the light house on the main island, banned egging altogether.
The Farallones have been inhabited off and on ever since the Gold Rush. In 1897, they even briefly had their own public school, whose first and only principal, the wonderfully named Miss Daisy Doud, brought a flock of homing pigeons with her so that she could communicate with the mainland. The school lasted only two years but the islands still belong to San Francisco.
I had wanted to visit the Farallones ever since I set eyes on them, and I finally took a boat tour out there one May morning with my sister. Our boat headed up the spectacular Marin coast to near Bolinas, then turned southwest for the 20-mile haul to the islands.
As the land disappeared behind us, I realized that in almost half a century of living in the Bay Area, I had never been this far outside the Golden Gate. A flock of surf scoters appeared next to the boat, blasting from the top of one wave to the next, at once ungainly and graceful, like self-propelled rocks barreling through the waves. I had never seen these birds before.
The Pacific was a whole different animal from the bay. There was nothing human-size about it. It was green and moving and dangerous, and it was going to stay like that all the way to Japan.
The sea was choppy, and I began to feel a little woozy. The boat barreled on through mile after mile of churning water. Finally the captain announced that we were approaching the Farallones.
They rose up out of the ocean like a hallucination in shit-covered granite. Even though I knew they were there, there was still something shocking, almost obscene, about that first sight. They were not like the islands in the Aegean, which feel like stepping-stones strewn by friendly gods. These were more like mines. Early visitors called the Farallones "the Devil's Teeth," and the name is a calumny on Satan's dentist. The hills were massive: Tower Hill on Southeast Farallon Island is 348 feet high, only 28 feet lower than Nob Hill. The island looked like a rubble-strewn quarry in the middle of the ocean: jagged cliffs running down to a brown, dirty, talus-strewn tableland, with a few old buildings scattered around. I don't know what I thought the Farallones would look like, but it wasn't like the spine of Baja California.
But the next moment the brown talus was forgotten. As we approached Fisherman's Bay on the island's northeast side, three gray whales suddenly appeared a few hundred yards ahead of us, blowing white plumes in the air. The naturalist on the boat told us they had been hanging around for a while, which was unusual: Most of the whales in the vicinity were transients. We had only a few brief glimpses of parts of their long, sinuous bodies slicing through the water, but to see one of these great beings in its home was a benediction, as if it had extended its fluke in fellowship.
After the whales moved off, I looked up at Tower Hill. It took me a moment to realize that the black dots covering that massive brown monolith were common murres. It was more birds than I had ever seen in one place. When we sailed downwind of the island, the smell of the guano was intense.
Excerpted from COOL GRAY CITY OF LOVE by GARY KAMIYA. Copyright © 2013 Gary Kamiya. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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wonderful book about the City everyone loves- San Francisco. This is no ordinary travel book. It is a literary tour de force with an in depth exploration of both familiar and obscure places by a long time resident who cares deeply about his entire City.
If you enjoy San Francisco and enjoy history you will enjoy this book. It talks about some of the parts of San Francisco you know and some you might not. I like the respect shown to first people living in San Francisco for years before it was "found". It strips back the pavement in some sections and takes you back to the streams that used to run thought the "city" and who where and why people lived in different locations. The sections are short and makes it a nice easy read for the end of a busy day.