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San Francisco Throwing Year-Long 50th Anniversary Celebration of Summer of Love – Be Prepared to Be Blasted into the Past

Wes Leslie, co founder of Wild San Francisco tours, is offering Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour: A Musical Trip of The 60’s for free during the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My, how time flies!

It’s the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, when, in 1967, nearly 100,000 young people converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, turning San Francisco into the epicenter of a cultural phenomenon known as the Summer of Love. It was a transformative time, when music, fashion, art and new ideas flourished and there was a feeling that everything was possible.

“The city of San Francisco was a magnet for musicians, artists and social rebels in the mid-to-late 1960s. They created a counterculture bound by leftist politics, tribal spirit, music and art. Long stamped a literary bohemia, attracting nonconformists like the Beat Generation writers of the Fifties, it was a natural progression for free-thinking San Francisco to give birth to a radical new movement eventually embraced by the rest of the world.”

The 50th Anniversary Celebration – with some 60 different events, special tours, concerts – is already  well underway in San Francisco and I’m guessing that tens of thousands of Baby Boomers will grab their tie-dye t-shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and put a flower in their hair and join in for a mind-blowing time-travel blast back into the past.

You feel you are in a time warp in Haight-Ashbury district, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’ve just returned from my own magical mystery tour – more precisely, Haight-Ashbury Walking Tour: A Musical Trip of The 60’s, a musical Summer of Love walking tour with Wes Leslie of Wild San Francisco Tours – when I was stunningly, and eerily transported back to my past.

Let me say at the outset that I can’t recall taking a historical tour where I personally lived the history.

Wes (he jokes that he is called “Wild Wes”) is perfect to lead this tour, using his guitar at opportune points – in front of the homes where the Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Country Joe (of the Fish) and others lived – to recreate the iconic music of that era. What is more, in keeping with the spirit of the Hippie Movement, the tour during this anniversary year is “free” (you pay a suggested donation at the end).

Though I lived through that era – memories came flooding back with Wes’ narration – there is so much more of the inside, behind-the-scenes, backstage stuff that I hadn’t known. It is kind of like sitting around a table with relatives and finding out inside scoop you hadn’t realized went on.

Wes’ anecdotes and folksy style make the tour as entertaining and fun as it is informative from a historical and cultural point of view.

Earthsong shop on Haight Street © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I come away with is a realization that the Summer of Love would not have happened without The Pill and how that spurred cultural changes – most significantly a willingness to challenge the entrenched White Patriarchy and Power Structure. I come away with is a new appreciation of how the Women’s Liberation movement actually fueled the Hippie movement, which, through its counter-cultural, anti-establishment, anti-institutionalism, then paved the way for civil rights, gay rights and peace movements – methods and organizations and themes which are eerily resurgent today.

During this Wild San Francisco walking tour through Haight-Ashbury (with music!), I learn about the rise – and fall– of the Hippie Movement that reached its pinnacle during that Summer of Love, when some 100,000 descended and overwhelmed San Francisco (consider that the city has a population today of 800,000), much to the horror of local Hippies who decried that famous song, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear flowers in your hair.”

The popularity of “If you’re going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” Scott McKenzie’s song, contributed to the undoing of the Hippie Movement in Haight-Ashbury after the 1967 Summer of Love © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The very “success” of the Summer of Love proved the undoing of the Hippie Movement, much to the delight of Mayor Shelley at the time, who went after the hippies with such vengeance that he told area hospitals not to help young runaway teens who OD’d, and told the police to stand down so that chaos would reign. It is a complete surprise to me to learn about how brief this movement was in Haight-Ashbury – like a brief, shining light.

The Hippie Movement, which emerged 1965-1967, was aimed at overturning the 1950s culture of uniformity, conformity and obeisance to The Man (whether that is the Capitalist or the Authority of the white patriarchy power elite). The “Hippies” (named because they were the next-gen Beatniks but not quite the Hipsters the Beatniks were, according to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who coined the names for both) renounced capitalism and embraced everything “free” (free food, free concerts, free health clinics, free love), which is why they were considered so dangerously radical (Communists!) and vilified by The Establishment. After all, America was still in the throes of the Cold War.

The social, political ideologues shaping the movement were The Diggers, Wes explains (a group I had never heard of before even though I lived through this era) and must have been news to the other people on our tour, who hailed from Wales, Australia, Hungary, Berlin and Los Angeles (that fellow had taken two other tours with Wes).

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district has the most magnificent surviving Victorian-era homes, like the one known locally as Hippie Temptation © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Haight-Ashbury district, where the Hippies were concentrated, today seems an odd locale for these counter-culture radicals, because this district is dominated by the most magnificently preserved (expensive!) Victorian-era homes, some dating from the 1890s, surviving the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire which destroyed 80 percent of the city. Wes explains that by the 1960s, the district was run-down and cheap to live in after white flight to the suburbs. Back then, you could rent an entire Victorian house for $175 a month and divide that among 10 people (amounting to $80 a month per person in today’s money, compared to the $3400/month rent for an apartment the district now commands). So naturally, it attracted artists, writers and musicians.

In the 1960s, half the American population was under 25 years old. These were the Baby Boomers and they were coming of age, disillusioned with income inequality, segregation, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“Maybe they hadn’t figured out the solutions but they wanted whatever was furthest from whatever set those things into motion,” Wes tells us as we face one of the most magnificent Victorians, known as “Hippie Temptation”, so they reclaimed the derelict urban cities, swore off capitalism, and embraced drugs that were emerging and love and a philosophy of individual discovery and expression.

They picked up where Jack Kerouac (“On the Road” was a handbook for the Beat Generation) and Alan Ginsberg (“Howl”) left off.

Wes Leslie across from pink house where Janis Joplin used to live in Haight-Ashbury © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The emergence of drugs (and the drug culture) was a significant element that led to the rise of the Hippie Movement– like LSD (which was legal), which led to the rise of “psychedelic” experimentation and provided the subtext for culture of “seeing the world in a new way” and a devotion to individual expression, rather than conformity. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” declared Timothy Leary.

The Diggers, Wes explains, took their name from a 17th century group of anarchists in England who would take over unplowed fields and would give away the harvest to end inequality.

San Francisco didn’t have farms, but it did have food waste, so the Diggers would go dumpster diving and brought the food to All Saints Parish Church (where we find ourselves standing) and would make a pot of Hippie Stew which they would bring to Panhandle Park (where our tour began, named for the shape, not for handouts), to distribute for free. (The church still gives away food weekly.).

One day, The Diggers gave away free food on the steps of City Hall, which enraged San Francisco’s mayor. “’We are not a charity,’ the Diggers declared,” Wes tells us. “’We are an anarchist organization doing what government should do’.” (a philosophy that is reemergent with the anti-Trump activism) It was the act of it, in contrast to the liberals at Berkeley, the intellectual kids, who were theorizing.

“The Diggers said, ‘Just do it, don’t theorize.’ The Diggers started putting ‘free’ in front of everything: free food, free concerts, free health care.”

San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury district has resurrected the psychedelic look and feel of its mid-1960s heyday © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wes traces the actual beginning of the Hippie Movement that led up to the Summer of Love to “The Death of Money” March the Diggers put on. The Diggers, he says, were the activist branch of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a political satire and theater group.

Hundreds came out wearing dark clothing and carrying a coffin filled with cash and coins – “50 years before the Occupy Wall Street movement and Bitcoin.”

They opened a free store, stocked with contributions from shopkeepers and what they could scavenge. Tie-dye? That gender-bending fashion innovation developed, Wes says, because the Diggers would get contributions of white shirts and would die them.

Interestingly, Wes points out, there was a revolution within the Diggers because the men were writing the manifestos but the women were actually doing the work.

Ultimately, he relates, “the structure of the Diggers – who eschewed “leadership” (they were anarchists) – falls apart.” But they will be forever remembered for coining the famous phrase: “Today marks the first day of the rest of your life.” And for providing the template for social innovations that followed.

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, still beloved in Haight-Ashbury, immortalized in a mural © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By now, we are standing in front of the most famous house in Haight-Ashbury: the “crash pad” for the Grateful Dead, the most beloved group in San Francisco, “hallowed ground for Haight-Ashbury.”

As Wes is talking, a 60ish man in long white beard, long flowing hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt and bright colored vest comes out of his bright colored house and into his red car, looking every bit the part.

Wes regales us with stories about Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, the Hells Angels, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin as we visit their houses and important landmarks.

The Hippie Movement had its “greatest moment” not in the Summer of Love, but in January 1967, with a Human “Be-In” in Golden Gate Park. It was supposed to attract a few hundred people. Instead, some 20,000 turned out. The Diggers provided free food; the Hells Angels provided child care, Wes says. (Photos of the event are on view at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which this season has a special “Summer of Love Experience” exhibit.)

Kids 12 to 14 years old were running away from home to join the Haight-Ashbury scene, and they were overdosing on the ubiquitous drugs.

“Wild Wes” of Wild San Francisco Tours relates the history of Haight-Asbury’s free clinic during his musical walking tour of the district © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dr. David Smith, who was then a 28-year old medical intern (he still lives here), decided to do something and opened a free medical clinic in June 1967, which despite Mayor Jack Shelley’s efforts to shut it down, actually still exists (as we discover that we are standing in front of it) and has served as the model for some 2,000 free clinics since.

As the Summer of Love event approached, the city was freaking out at what would likely be an invasion of some 50,000 (the museum says 100,000 came). Mayor Shelley shut down the clinic and the police, hoping people would be turned off from coming.

Instead, the locals who occupied those Victorian houses turned over their keys to The Diggers, so that the visitors would have some place to sleep, and left town themselves. The Diggers opened “The Switchboard” putting visitors in touch with apartments (sounds like a forerunner of Air BnB), with jobs, and provided a central place for parents to send messages to their runaway kids.

The “success” of the Summer of Love was actually the undoing of the movement, which unraveled after that, Wes explains.

The Grateful Dead left, the Hippies moved to North Bay where they created a farming commune, the Diggers disbanded.

“The Last Hurrah was the ‘Death of Hippies’ march” paralleling the “Death of Money” march which initiated the movement. The Diggers, again wearing dark clothing, carried another coffin, this time with a Hippie inside, covered with flowers and incense.

The Hippie Movement, they said, “was killed off by fame,” adding, “If you care about this, take what you learned and radicalize it.”

Indeed, they did: the Hippies willingness to take on the Establishment unleashed the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Gay Rights Movement and Peace Movement.

Amoeba Records, world’s largest independent record store, still has its psychedelic location at 1855 Haight Street © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

But Haight-Ashbury sunk further and further into decline, becoming an outright derelict and dangerous place, until the Dot.Com resurgence of San Francisco in the early 2000s, and tourism which has resurrected the colorfully decorated shops, including Earthsong, and Amoeba (which Wes says is the world’s largest independent record-album store).

Wild San Francisco’s other tours – such as “Radical SF”, a walking tour through the Mission and Castro districts – are focused on the people’s history and social movements (there is also a historical ghost tour for good measure).

Wild San Francisco’s co-founder Wes Leslie is a third-generation San Francisco Bay native (I admire his ring with the insignia of the Golden Gate Bridge and 3 diamonds, which he tells me was his grandfather’s, a transit driver for 3 decades). He makes “bedroom soul” music as Wes Leslie, the Bedroom Player (wesleslie.com) and fixes cocktails at Mrs. Jones on Market Street.

Contact Wild San Francisco Tours, 415-580-1849, http://wildsftours.com/, [email protected]

Special Tours Celebrate Summer of Love Anniversary 

2017, the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, is being marked with a year-long celebration of San Francisco’s counter culture with a 1960s throwback including some 60 exhibitions, performances, literary events, tribute concerts and recognition of significant moments in time.

While the Summer of Love remains a key moment in history, the free love movement can be experienced through a number of geography specific tours, neighborhoods and performances throughout the year.  In addition to Wild San Francisco’s offerings, other tours include:

A variety of San Francisco tour companies are offering special Summer of Love programs through Haight-Ashbury district in 2017© 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Flower Power Walking Tours: Walk in the footsteps of Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead on the Haight Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tours touching on the history of it all, from rock and roll to art, fashion and architecture. (www.haightashburytour.com/)

FOOT! Fun Walking Tours:  is presenting a special tour, Flashback: From the Summer of Love to the Winter of Discontent, from the highs of the summer of 1967 to the restlessness that followed. Follow in the footsteps of music legends like Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia with this walking tour in the iconic Haight Ashbury neighborhood.(www.foottours.com).

San Francisco City Guides Haight-Ashbury Tour: Explore streets, sidewalks, parks and vistas that tell the story of a Victorian era resort site subsequently developed by comfortable merchants, whose gingerbread homes still grace its streets. Offered most Sundays, see website for details.  Somewhat strenuous.    San Francisco City Guides offers free (donations welcome), volunteer-led tours of a variety of neighborhoods, landmarks and topics. To bring eight or more walkers to a regular tour, click here for information on private group tours. (www.sfcityguides.org, [email protected].

Detour’s Walking Tour: Walk through the epicenter of the Summer of Love with Detour’s Walking Tour of the Haight, narrated by one of the activists who was at its center, Peter Coyote. (www.detour.com/san-francisco/haight-ashbury).

Avital Food Tours, Haight Ashbury: Did you know that local food co-ops were born out of this era? Delve into one of the world’s best food scenes to hear the stories of restaurant owners, chefs and industry experts for a culinary experience in San Francisco.  Walking tours are available in iconic neighborhoods across the city including Haight Ashbury (http://avitaltours.com/san-francisco/).

San Francisco Love Tours: Ride a VW hippie bus with San Francisco Love Tours and experience modern day San Francisco infused with the spirit of the 60’s (http://sanfranciscolovetours.com/).

Magic Bus Experience: This two-hour+ adventure, “Time Machine to the 60’s,” is a “mind-bending” combination of professional theater, film, music and sightseeing that allows tour goers to travel back in time to the summer of 1967.  The Magic Bus is an actual bus colorfully painted and filled with a sound system, micro projectors and screens that periodically lower over the windows making the bus into a moving movie theater (http://magicbussf.com).

To help visitors plan their “trip,” the San Francisco Travel Association has launched a special website, www.summeroflove2017.com, which provides an ever-expanding guide to the whole groovy scene, including events and itinerary ideas. (San Francisco Travel. 415-391‑2000, www.sftravel.com)

Next: Special Events, Exhibitions Planned for San Francisco’s 50th Anniversary Summer of Love


© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures


Walking Tour Tells Story of San Francisco’s Improbable Rise as a Great City

We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car - even when the city wanted to replace them with street cars, the cable cars remained the best to tackle San Francisco's hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car – even when the city wanted to replace them with street cars, the cable cars remained the best to tackle San Francisco’s hills © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

San Francisco is an improbable  city. Its high, rolling hills rising straight up from the water should have discouraged settlement. Walking up, up , up and around these hills you see just how outrageous it was for anyone to contemplate building homes in such concentration here. Just driving is like a theme park roller coaster ride. And the cable car is better than any theme park ride.

Any practical real estate developer would have shunned such an uninhabitable place, more desert wasteland than anything else. But the city burst into being – a demonstration of what money, ingenuity, grit and determination can achieve.

It has proved an incubator of innovation and creativity – the cable car, the fortune cookie, denim jeans, television (attributed to Philo T. Farnsworth in 1927), the city even birthed Rube Goldberg – the same ingredients that foreshadowed Silicon Valley.

San Francisco is fascinating and perplexing, but where to start? For the visitor, this isn’t an easy place to uncover once you get passed the most obvious attractions of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and have a ride on the cable car.

I appreciate all of this after a most pleasant walking tour with Hudson Bell, the proprietor of Fern Hill Walking Tours.

I walk up to Huntington Park on Nob Hill from the Hotel Whitcomb (appropriately, a historic hotel that in fact served as City Hall after the earthquake, and a member of Historic Hotels of America), for my journey back through San Francisco’s history with Hudson Bell who has a new company, Fern Hill Walking Tours.

“Up” is the operative word because most of the mile is straight up San Francisco’s legendary hills.

San Francisco's hills make it an improbable place to build a city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s hills make it an improbable place to build a city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When we meet by the fountain in the park, which is surrounded by elderly people doing Tai Chi, Hudson lays out the itinerary for his “Classic San Francisco” tour. It ambitiously traverses Nob Hill, Chinatown, Russian Hill, Jackson Square, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, The Embarcadero, and the Financial District  – in other words, we will get to experience a large portion of this vibrant city. His route highlights San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods while telling the story of the city’s transformation from a tiny Mexican trading post to “the Emporium of the Pacific”.

During the four hours (with a lunch break), we cover five miles, and lest San Francisco’s hills seem a barrier to a walking tour, Bell strategically hops on San Francisco’s distinctive public transportation (he provides a transit pass), which is a treat in itself. I appreciated the tour as a newbie, rather intimidated by how to tackle San Francisco, but it also is most satisfying to seasoned San Francisco travelers and even locals. Indeed, by the end, I feel completely comfortable continuing my exploration of the city, even unraveling the mystery of its public transportation. In fact, I had no sense of time at all – the time really flew by.

Hudson Bell of Fern Hill Walking Tours, in front of the Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hudson Bell of Fern Hill Walking Tours, in front of the Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Great Depression-era murals inside San Francisco's Coit Tower on Telegragh Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Great Depression-era murals inside San Francisco’s Coit Tower on Telegragh Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell is a seasoned guide – working for others for three years – and brings a distinctive approach to his own company than most of the other scripted and pre-packaged tour companies. I love the way his storytelling unfolds as we come to a particular building or site, summoning the spirits of the people associated with places and events (Mark Twain, William Tecumsah Sherman) and the various movers and shakers of the city whose names now emblazon streets and towering structures, and especially, how he will distinguish between historic facts – Bell is the historian for the Nob Hill Association as well as working on a book about Fern Hill (the neighborhood’s original name) – popular legends, and myths that are more dubious.

Bell brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bell brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco was largely a manufactured city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco was largely a manufactured city © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell brings you to places you might not have thought to go – points out structures that you wouldn’t have appreciated, brings you to “streets” that are quite literally hidden, more walking paths than actual streets. The structures hold the stories of the people who built them, lived or worked in them, where events took place.

His commentary inspires more questions from me, and he is like a patient parent trying to quench my curiosity.

His itinerary is brilliantly laid out logistically, weaving together the different neighborhoods. He brings me to places I never would have thought to visit because of my limited time – like Coit Tower  (atop Telegraph Hill, it seemed too much trouble, but Bell cleverly hops a bus to the top, and then I saw what was inside! and the walk down brings you to small “streets” that are really walking paths).

Hudson pulls out a map from 1854 that shows Nob Hill (Fern Hill in those days where we are standing and points out that it was not only one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Francisco but was the westernmost part of the city after the Gold Rush of 1849 (the first house was built that year by Benjamin Brooks, from New York). That flat part we see today (Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District) – simply did not exist. The flat part is man-made from landfill, atop a virtual armada of sunken ships, abandoned when passengers and crew raced to the gold fields to seek their own fortunes, combined with rock and grit blasted from the hills, to such an extent, houses collapsed.

Originally, the Bay area was home to the Ohlone Indians, the first Europeans were Spaniards who settled the Presidio and Mission in the 1700s (my biggest regret of my all-too-short visit to San Francisco was not seeing the Old Mission). It was a base for military and for Catholic missionaries intent on converting the Indians. French and British traders came in the 1830s. Yerba Buena (as San Francisco was first known), was a trading post with 300 people.

It hastily became a US territory in 1847 after Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War. Coincidentally (or was more like insider trading, I wonder), gold was discovered in 1848.

In 1849, after the find had been validated, the population exploded, from 700 to 20,000 in just months.

By the 1870s, Nob Hill (nob means “dirt”) became the popular neighborhood for the wealthy.

All around the park are the buildings – monuments, really – to the early founders who built their mansions and the city with their own fortunes from mining, railroads, shipping and finance – quite literally the stuff of America’s emergence as a global industrial power.

Just across the street from Huntington Park where we are standing is the gargantuan mansion of James Flood, who made his fortune in the Nevada silver mines (it reminds you of  Vanderbilt’s Newport “cottage,” The Breakers) – in fact, this was his “cottage” rather than his main home. it was one of the last built before the earthquake (one of the few built of stone, rather than wood), and one of the few that survived the three days of fire that consumed the city after the earthquake. These days it is the Pacific Union Club.

San Francisco's opulent Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
San Francisco’s opulent Fairmont Hotel © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Across the street from James Flood’s mansion, is the Fairmont Hotel, built by Fair’s daughters, it was nearing completing when the earthquake hit. The structure survived, but the interior had to be completely redone and for this, they turned to the first woman architect and engineer, Julia Morgan, who was innovative in using reinforced concrete to withstand earthquake (she also designed Hearst Castle). The hotel opened in 1907.

Fairmont Hotels are luxurious but this makes New York’s Plaza, The Pierre and Waldorf=Astoria look like poor cousins in comparison. What is more, it is actually tasteful. The artwork and artistry, architectural features and interior design are simply breathtaking. But one of the reasons Hudson brings me here is to point out a wall of historical photos and plaques that tell the story of the city’s movers and shakers. (And in 1945, the hotel was the site for negotiations establishing the United Nations; President Harry Truman signed the United Nations Charter in the Garden room in 1945).

Among the hotel’s attractions was the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a historic tiki bar opened in 1945. It features a bandstand on a barge that floats in a former swimming pool, a dining area built from parts of an old sailing ship, and artificial thunderstorms (it is no longer open to the public but there is a photo of it).

We walk passed the “Cirque” room, a cocktail room reserved for special occasions, with stunning murals of circus performers on gold, and passed the hotel’s garden where they grow herbs for their restaurants.

He brings me to a hidden garden to look at the view and imagine the city 100 years ago. He points out the Presidential Suite where so many presidents, including Obama had stayed.

The Fairmont is just across the street from another San Francisco landmark: the Mark Hopkins Hotel, built on the site of the “crazy” opulent mansion (because his wife wanted to outdo the rest). The hotel was built on the site in 1923 and is famous for the Top of the Mark, opened in 1930, the highest place in San Francisco to get a drink (but not the first rooftop bar).

Across from the Mark Hopkins, Hudson points out four townhomes because they were built by Willis Polk, a key architect after the earthquake (he also redesigned the Flood Building).

Grace Church, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Grace Church, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Before we leave Nob Hill, he brings me into the Grace Church, on the other side of the park – a monumental building, but now on closer examination, they look familiar and  I see the golden doors match the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” on the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence, Italy. It’s not a coincidence – Hudson tells me that two copies were made in 1942 when it was feared the Nazis would destroy them.

Inside, the church -the third largest cathedral in the US – is decorated with magnificent murals and stained glass.

Walking around, he points out the stones outside the church which predate the earthquake and fire.

Chinatown: Home of the Fortune Cookie 

Our next stop is Chinatown – one of the few times we see literal gaggles of tourists. It is to Bell’s credit that he does not pass up Chinatown, probably one of the most touristic attractions in the city, because you would miss so much of the story, but he offers what I think is a more interesting take on this part of the city.

Chinatown is the original part of the city, is the oldest Chinatown in the US and second in population to New York City’s.

He points out the Tin How Temple, the oldest traditional Chinese temple in US, dating from 1850.

The last traditional fortune cookie factory, in San Francisco's Chinatown where the fortune cookie originated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The last traditional fortune cookie factory, in San Francisco’s Chinatown where the fortune cookie originated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This is an exceptionally popular area for tours – the tiny street is jammed with groups, all headed to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory, “the last place to see old-style preparation of fortune cookies,” he says, “they even have ‘adult’ fortune cookies.” The sweet smell fills the alley. All of us line up for our turn to enter the tiny, narrow shop for a quick peek to see how a woman takes the freshly baked thin cookies and fills with a fortune and folds it. You can only take a picture if you pay 50c or buy something (a bag of cookies is $1, a bottle of water is a $1 – well worth it)  only get a few minutes because of the line of people wanting to come in – pass around a sample of the cookie from the “rejects.”

Hudson tells me there are many fortune cookie “creation” myths – but the one he feels most credible is that they were created for the World’s Fair held in Golden Gate Park, by the Chinese who adapted a traditional Japanese cookie by putting a fortune inside.

We go through Jackson Square where the oldest building building in the city stands– “a freak survivor of earthquake/fire,” and to the section of the city that was so popular with writers. We go by the building which housed the “Golden Eva” newspaper where Mark Twain worked, undergoing renovation.

Nearby is the Bank Lucas Turner & Co., the city’s oldest commercial building, built in 1853 by William Tecumseh Sherman (who became the famous Civil War General).  It’s now the 472 Gallery. Hudson points out how brick buildings used to have iron windows which proved fatal in a fire, and how they have been retrofitted to survive an earthquake.

Old and new stand side by side in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Old and new stand side by side in San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We walk across Balance Street – a tiny little stump street that I would not have noticed at all, except that Bell points out that it was probably named for a ship that was sunk – very possibly under the street today – one of hundreds of sunken ships that provided landfill to expand the city.

We walk down Pacific Street – infamous for being the place where so many sailors were shanghaied to be crew for ships.

He takes me through Russian Hill – named for the Russian traders and the Russian American Company. At one time, the only thing here was a graveyard with headstones etched with Cyrillic letters. He points out some marvelous homes.

Here you appreciate how impossible this city would be to build homes – it must have taken a fortune to cut streets through rolling hills.

He explains that in 1847, when the area became a US territory, the “mayor” hired Jaspar O’Farrell to survey and create a street plan of what he expected to happen over time. The grid did not take into account San Francisco’s hills.  But after the 1849 Gold Rush, there was a literal rush to build, and it was funded by the newly minted millionaires.

He takes me on “streets” that are really cobblestone walking paths lined with gardens – to get a feel of what “old San Francisco” was like.

We come down to the edge of North Beach, where Hudson stops at a delightful Mediterranean restaurant, North Beach Gyros (415-655-9665, 701 Union Street, www.northbeachgyrosf.com) for lunch.

Telegraph Hill

Checking his app for the bus schedule (this is the trick of offering such a marvelous walking tour of San Francisco), we have but a few minutes wait before we hop the bus up to Telegraph Hill (others are huffing and puffing to get up there), to visit Coit Tower. This affords probably the most spectacular, 360-degree view of the city, but what is inside is what captures my attention: Depression-era WPA-sponsored artists created spectacular murals depicting the full spectrum of San Francisco’s everyday life in the 1930s.

Coit Tower, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Coit Tower, San Francisco © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Walking down Filbert Street from Coit Tower, San Francisco© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Walking down Filbert Street from Coit Tower, San Francisco© 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This is Telegraph Hill. It was from here that a signal man would see a ship with flag of country and had a pole with flags and signals so someone down in Merchant’s Exchange would know what ship was coming. Later, there was a telegraph to send the message.

When a mail ship came in, the entire town would turn out as if it were a holiday. But when container shipping became the norm, the shipping business moved to Oakland.

Today, San Francisco has revitalized its dock to accommodate massive cruise ships, and there are two in port today.

We walk down from Telegraph Hill on Filbert Street (steep, twisting staircase, no cars) – one of the most magical walks, with a public garden on the sides. He takes me down one “street” that is still a boardwalk.

He points out where the hill was literally blasted apart for the material for landfill.

“San Francisco is the worst place in Bay to found a city but was a great launching place to the gold fields,” Bell says. “None of vegetation we see today [like palm trees and lush flowering gardens] is native. As beautiful as it is, William Tecumseh Sherman said of Yberra Buena in 1847, the year after California became a US territory, that it was a hell hole. Parts of Nob Hill would fluctuate by 15 feet a day because of wind and sand.” (I ask where he got that from and he said by reading newspapers from the 1850s. I’m impressed.)

At the bottom of Filbert is Levi’s Plaza, named for Levi-Strauss company (which has its headquarters right there on the waterfront) – it was here that the company made famous for denim jeans began.

Here, we wait for a street car. San Francisco may be famous for its cable cars, but it is also the last city to run street cars. And, like everything else, it does it with flare – using colorful cars from the 1930s and 40s, painted to look like the city they came from (they even have the city’s name on them, like Milan, Italy and St. Louis).

San FranaciscoWe get off at the Ferry Building – the original gateway to the city (like Ellis Island and Grand Central rolled into one). Passengers came into Oakland and ferried to San Francisco before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges were built. “They were the first commuters. This was most passed through gateway in the world.” It was designed by Arthur Brown Jr. and is the largest structure built over water.

We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
We cap off the Fern Hill Walking Tour with a ride on the California cable car © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bell has another surprise for me: at Powell & Market Street, we get on the famous cable car, a perfect cap to this marvelous tour through San Francisco’s history (this, Bell says, is an added treat, subject to time considerations and how long the wait).

“Classic San Francisco” is offered Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday (10 a.m.-2 p.m.), geared for people 13 and up ($48/adult, $38/teen – well worth it).

Another program that Bell offers is “Parks to Pacific,” a five-hour tour  that celebrates San Francisco’s transformation from sand-duned wasteland to city of world-renowned parks and recreation. On this journey, you’ll be park hopping from downtown to the Pacific Ocean, plus experiencing many singular neighborhoods in-between. While the tour can be variable, the route generally includes Pacific Heights, The Golden Gate, The Presidio, Lincoln Park, Ocean Beach, Golden Gate Park, Lands End and the Sutro Bath Ruins.

Hudson Bell, Fern Hill Walking Tours, San Francisco, www.fernhilltours.com, [email protected], 415-305-7248.

Next: San Francisco History Day itinerary continues:

Fern Hill Walking Tour

Cable Car Museum

Cable Car Ride

Historic John’s Grill


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