To celebrate my birthday this year, B. and I went kayaking around San Francisco. In the city where we’ve lived for decades, it’s something neither of us knew was even possible. We started at the kayak rental in China Basin, braving shipping lanes, pushing directly through bigger boats’ wakes, and paddled north under the Bay Bridge, toward the Ferry Building and Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture, Cupid’s Span. Falling under the rhythmic spell of the oars entering and leaving the water, swift sea breeze in our faces and water lapping against the kayak, I spotted sea lions, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and terns. Then we turned south, toward the ballpark, and headed under the Third (aka Lefty O’Doul) and Fourth Street bridges, up Mission Creek (unfortunately, a very polluted waterway, which slows to a trickle, flowing underground via the old SF Armory, now an adult-film center with its own fascinating tours). I’d wanted to see the houseboats. Just across the channel from homogenous, sterile contemporary buildings, only about twenty of these vestiges of the City’s unique character remain.
Looking at historical maps of San Francisco, one can see the borders where the old waterfront once ended, and where the newer landfill began. Also viewable, as if through a periscope, is the historic hub of manufacturing and industry, where machine shops, train tracks – once the center of the city – and the docks where workers unionized all up and down the West Coast. Moving back through time, the layers peel back, revealing many heretofore unknown aspects to this city. Rebecca Solnit – a wonderful local writer who’s combined history, politics, art, and culture into her own individual niche – whom I knew growing up in Marin County, along with her brother, activist/organizer David – wrote a book called Infinite City. This atlas’s maps bring the city’s past alive, tracing and juxtaposing these different aspects so one can feel the undercurrents of the past flow into the present. What does it take to really get to know a place? Even after we’ve lived here for many years, San Francisco continues to delight and surprise. Maybe it’s not possible to ever fully know it. And, thanks to constant new discovery, maybe that’s a good thing.